Who cares if you analyze? (part 2)

Written: May 17, 2003

(continued from May 14, 2003)

Secondly, I find the idea that, to prove h/hself, a composer needs to write a piece worthy of detailed and copious analysis mildly disgusting. The implication is that only pieces that can be analyzed in such a manner are worthy. The unfortunate conclusion which I think some composers have reached, consciously or unconsciously, is that complicated systems and arcane compositional devices are what make a piece of music good. You may have gathered that I disagree.

Maybe this is a consequence of the fact that very few (maybe even none, I’m not sure) graduate degrees were available before the middle of the 20th century. Once such programs were established, perhaps they needed a strong and obvious analytical/scientific component to be perceived and recognized as a truly academic discipline.

This is not to say that detailed analyses are a recent phenomenon – music analysis has been an important tool of both composers and theorists throughout the history of Western music. But perhaps what I perceive as the recent exaltation thereof can be linked to the rise of musical composition as an academic discipline that can and should be studied in a scientific way.

I recall being present at a talk given by Osvaldo Golijov, who has received some positive publicity for his Passion According to St. Mark. (For what it’s worth, I’ve greatly enjoyed what music of his I’ve heard.) We had just listened to a kickass piece of his (Last Round), and while he was talking about it, he said something that struck me. It was along the lines of, “In this section, things begin to speed up – but don’t worry, it wasn’t solely intuitive, I had a system.” As if I would consider the piece less good if I thought that he had just come up with it out of nowhere, that he hadn’t used some sort of system.

I simply don’t see the point of presenting an analysis of my own music. Such analyses say to me, “My piece may sound bad, but these complex equations mean it’s good.” As if the composer lacks confidence in h/h work and tries to intimidate others into thinking it’s worthwhile by providing an exhaustive, dense, and barely understandable explanation of how it was done. (I’m thinking now of some of the worst program notes I’ve seen.) As if the fact that an analysis exists makes a piece more worth listening to.

(Incidentally, I could talk for a while about program notes. Having edited programs for the Independent Music Project at Williams, and for Dinosaur Annex, not to mention having to write them myself, I have a lot to spout off on. Anyway…)

The way I see it, my purpose is to try to write something engaging, interesting, and possibly even beautiful, not to tell you how it was done. (If my music is relevant enough, theorists will take it upon themselves to figure it out.) I think it was Robert Smithson, creator of Spiral Jetty, who said, “Establish enigmas, not explanations.”