Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Intimidated by the Past

I used to compose music, back in the day. There was a time when I was a brash young musician who thought that he could just let music flow forth from within his mind and out onto the paper, that that was good enough to be called music. The styles I gravitated towards were, predictably, styles which I admired. I wanted to write with the endless melodies of Rachmaninoff, the delicate construction of Chopin, and the epic breadth of Beethoven. Instead, my limited compositional activities culminated (in some people's opinions) in a theme and variations for piano. The theme was, I'm not kidding, the title music for the Disney show Gargoyles. It was a catchy theme and I was in a whimsical mood. The end result was a bit virtuosic and fun, but not exactly good music.

Since then, I haven't composed much. The more I study the works of the masters before me, the more I realize that my writing in their styles is practically pointless. Even if they haven't said everything that could be said, whatever they did say is infinitely more elegant, profound, and beautiful than anything I could possibly even think of considering to perhaps maybe have the thought of uttering. One of these days I'll fully realize that I'm insignificant as far as Western Art Music history is concerned and that I should just write for myself because I like to do it. That day has yet to come.

Incidentally, this same problem has plagued many famous composers in the past. It's much more applicable in their case because they were very talented composers and they still measured themselves against their predecessors. This kind of historical awareness wasn't always there and was only really active in the last 300 years or so. The most famous example is Brahms and Beethoven. Beethoven wrote his incomparable 9 symphonies and afterwards, many composers were convinced that he had completely exhuasted the possiblities of the symphony. This is not an exaggeration.

Each one of Beethoven's symphonies (though mainly from the 3rd onwards) is like a musical universe unto itself. Though they are often cited as exemplars of the symphonic genre, they are anything but typical. Imagine inventing a new language for every new article you write and imagine that this new language must transcend all previous languages. It's a difficult task at best and a nearly impossible one in reality.

Many of Beethoven's succesors were intimidated, and rightly so, by The Nine that Beethoven had left behind. What else could be said after Beethoven's 9th, which not only uses a new musical language but literally creates music out of silence? Brahms was well aware of Beethoven's 830 pound shadow and avoided writing a symphony for a very long time. From conception to completiong, his first symphony took almost 20 years to complete. 20 years! But as Brahms and other composer have proven, the symphonic genre has obviously not been exahusted.

Perhaps people have not always thought this way but at least for now, for my perspective, the past is very much in the present and thus has great power over the future as well. Even so, it need not totally control the present, of course. Maybe it's just me but I'm waiting for the day when I will be able to calmly acknowledge all that has come before me instead of having to contend with it every day.

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