Thursday, February 23, 2006

Someone else's music

Back in pre-Gulf War One times, I would trapse for miles through Jerusalem to André Hajdu's house for my composition lesson. It was practically an all-day affair. I'd arrive around noon, then we would sit in a very cold room, drinking tea and reviewing orchestrations I had completed during the past week: Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, Debussy, Scriabin, Brahms, Stravinsky, Bartók. Hajdu emphasized that individual composers' scores had a look as well as a sound: "and when you begin to recognize the look, then you are really getting somewhere." After correcting my orchestrations, he would analyze a work, removing from his shelf a dog-eared copy of La Mer that Messiaen had marked up, or a heavily-penciled score of the Rite. Later on, the conversation would switch to the subject of my music.

On one particularly memorable day, Hajdu leafed through a new score over which I had labored intensively. He muttered impatiently, "yes, some very nice sounds, but it's not you." Eyes closed, fist clenched tightly on his brow as if tugging at a thought lodged in his brain, he continued: "You are writing someone else's music, and they are annoyed. Go sit in a dark room until all sounds and ideas have left you. Then, when you finally begin to hear your own music, write that down. Develop it; but keep it simple and direct," he admonished. "Solo instrument."

The dour assessment of my piece wasn't exactly what I had hoped to hear, but I knew in my gut that Hajdu was correct, so I resolved to follow his advice. The following day I walked to the library at Har Atzofim and sought out the darkest possible room. The microfilm lab was empty, and I decided to make it my private composition studio for the time being. I shut the door and sat in the dark. Nothing came to mind. Or rather, too many things came to mind, but none of them felt "pure". I left after a half hour, somewhat dejected, and returned to the bare bunk-bedded dorm room I had been renting for 50 shekels a month.

The following morning I returned to the darkened microfilm room and remained for an hour, then another hour. Nothing new. I spent several days trekking to the library, waiting in vain. One day, at long last, I managed to achieve a kind of thought vacuum. No material entered or left my brain; it was a mental zone akin to meditation. After a seemingly interminable period during which the 'nothing' manifested itself, a sound wandered into my head. It was not what I had expected. It was a beat. I attempted to push it away, but it remained stuck in my consciousness. So I began trying to divine where the rhythm wanted to go, in which direction it tended to grow. It was in this moment that I began discovering my 'voice' as a composer.

Bartók certainly believed that composition couldn't be taught. But Hajdu - a Hungarian of the following generation - communicated to me a vital creative lesson: the necessity of listening in silence. Our perpetually distracted society doesn't place a whole lot of value on listening. We are asked to absorb information at a breathtaking pace, with scant time to subject it to processing and critical analysis. The highly networked information age may be wonderful for gathering materials, but it cannot help us to synthesize them and produce something substantive. To do this, we need time alone with only our thoughts, and maybe not even those.

Morton Feldman sums it up eloquently. Here's a poignant excerpt from an interview with Walter Zimmermann. The whole text can be found here.

FELDMAN: Who said it recently? I think it was Paul Valéry, that when something is beautiful, it is tragic. And I think the implication for me as I see it is that something that is beautiful is made in isolation. And tragedy in a sense is a kind of psychic flavor of this loneliness. And I don't think it's a reaction of some of the young people against art. And I don't think it makes any difference really what kind of art they make, or whom they follow. I think the reaction is against being lonely. And I think that the whole social change among young artists and their concerns for being together has a lot to do with this. They can't bear this loneliness.

ZIMMERMANN: I can very much imagine that you're lonely, because that's the basic aura of your music.

FELDMAN: I mean it just in a sense of divorcing oneself from just the kind of cameraderie and group spirit in the sense that the young people seem to share together ... Just the idea of just going into a room and having to work six or seven hours because he has to do what he has to do. That's the price we have to pay. And I don't feel they want to pay that price. And it has nothing to do with art. They're always on the phone. They're either here or they're there.

ZIMMERMANN: There's certainly righteousness in what you're saying.

FELDMAN: But God bless them, and good luck to them ... and all I could wish them in life is to be lonely.