Anticipating the future

Last week I had a few thoughts on the retrospective view when it comes to judging artistic merit, but what about the reciprocal forward view? Does the forward thinker welcome every innovation? No, some are thought to have more potential than others. There has to be some means of discernment there as well, but what exactly is the focus of that discernment? It is a difficult question and warrants a few thoughts. Today many composers appear to be writing for the future, and that is a departure. It is clear that examples of composers from the past whose time has come only much later serve as inspiration for people whose ideas are less popular now. What is not so clear is whether such ideas are principally delusional or indeed whether they serve to inhibit genuine creativity.

Beethoven himself claims to have written for the future, although it must be noted that his fame was well-established by that time. Schubert's reputation blossomed after his death, but he died young, and he already had a reputation as a songwriter. The entire notion is Romantic. It is difficult to find examples of composers whose music was not performed, but subsequently became famous much later. Perhaps Charles Ives, who was not really "discovered" until after he had abandoned music. Others? Probably a few. We also have the likes of Hildegard & Gesualdo who became famous on a broader scale long after their deaths. Did they plan it? Ives apparently did, but he also despaired, which is almost unavoidable under the circumstances. Today we have composers writing with an eye to posterity, or more concretely critics evaluating music with a knowing wink toward the future. We often read that so-and-so will be important in the next century, or words to that effect. Given the history of it, whether so-and-so is important now seems vastly more significant as an indicator.

While one can readily discount the sports fan's refrain of "wait 'til next year!", forward thinking cannot be entirely abandoned. Some ideas are very much a part of our culture-of-the-moment, but become stale even six months after their appearance. Television comedies like to make jokes out of them then, and they vanish shortly thereafter. Classical music is already different from that, because of tradition. That tradition provides continuity, and continuity stretches in both directions, so that even if a classical work fades, it fades less precipitously. What we've also seen in this century are self-consciously "experimental" works, presented as such and then retained. This can be viewed partly as a reaction to the dominance of scientific modes of thought, something which one can see filtering into various other endeavors. These experimental efforts have taken on a finished quality, and in some cases are hailed without any verifiable (I should say falsifiable, I think) outcome. This paradigm for composition has also faded in the past several years, partly due to the rise of early music. Of course, the fact that something is called experimental does not mean it cannot be good, although it does suggest that to me. Perhaps the point at which it succeeds aesthetically is the point of consummation for the experiment, yet the artwork is still called experimental because that is the ethos out of which it arose. In that sense, there is nothing unusually forward-looking about it, except as a reaction to other things previously done.

Creation as prediction

If experiment in music does not give rise to better results in the future, and I think it can no more do so than any other approach to composition, in what sense is it experimental? One possible answer is that the composer does not know whether he will appreciate the piece himself, a view potentially confirmed by the proximity of aleatoric techniques to this general approach. Does creating something mean the author likes it? I think this notion has some element of truth, at least if we allow some extra misdirection with a phrase such as "finds it meaningful." For instance, when it comes to this column, while I always have some misgivings, it represents something I want to say. There is also a feeling of necessity articulated about creating, and that would be the height of individual meaning. Especially given the latter, it is difficult to say that a composer conceives of music because he thinks his audience wants to hear it, i.e. that he predicts its success. Although I imagine sometimes one does know, that seems less a form of prescience than a thorough knowledge of one's subject matter.

Another problem with the "best works will survive" chestnut is that many random factors can affect a piece's initial reception, and with that its long-term reception, especially today with such a vast array of music-making available to us. Some combination of circumstances can serve to inject meaning into a particular performance, meaning which might never have been envisioned until that moment. A general example of this sort is music used in films, but all sorts of conditions, from politics to the weather, can affect the rightness of a piece of music for a specific time & place. Those events can serve to charge a work with meaning, and cause it to take on a life beyond what the composer may have conceived. Paradoxically, that is what it takes to affect the future... to have things spin out of one's control. Doing so with seemingly calculated certainty, like Monteverdi or Beethoven, is the sort of surreal happening which is unlikely to occur in any particular person's lifetime. Of course, when that opportunity presents itself, I expect it can be sensed. Sometimes I do believe in fate.

By calling a piece "experimental", perhaps a composer seeks to insulate his emotional attachment. Given the harshness around us, baring oneself without protection is daunting indeed. Likewise, the future offers hope for someone whose work is unappreciated. Early composers directed some of their best work at God, who is eternal by nature, making for an interesting way around the conflicting priorities of future-oriented thinking as well as sublimating criticism from one's human colleagues. The only conclusion I can draw from this discussion is that the various forces serve primarily to intensify the present, to charge it with deeper layers of meaning. Indeed, by placing it within a broader perspective, whether looking forward or backward, tradition sets the individual moment in such sharp relief that it can seem almost crystalline and immobile. For me, that is the great paradox of time.

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Todd M. McComb