How Composers Learn, Part 3

They learn by developing taste, and critical judgement. By taste I mean being honest with themselves over what appeals to them and what doesn’t, be it gold or trash (hey, I like “Californication“), and by critical judgement I mean the ability to discern the purpose of a particular work and evaluate its success in fulfilling that purpose. This way, a composer can appreciate the quality of a work that does not appeal to him – in my case, that’s pretty much the entire body of work of Strauss – or personally enjoy something that he recognizes doesn’t have the greatest quality.

These are really essential skills, because they develop the ability of all the senses, especially the ear and the mind. When making a work or listening to a work, a composer has to determine who it sounds. And like the Duke said, if it sounds good, it is good – well made in some way, and well made music is successful music. This all came to my mind when we were at Le Poisson Rouge the other night, catching an excellent program in the Wordless Music series, featuring Arvo Part played by the Wordless Music Orchestra and Tim Hecker presenting his own work, along with short works by Andrew Norman – his energetic Gran Turismo – and Jeff Myers – a schematic and cinematic Metamorphosis, which was inconsistently successful.

Part and Hecker are two musicians who I always enjoy listening to, in the literal sense that their music sounds so good to me. This is a tribute to their own ears, their own taste and critical judgement. Taste and critical judgement are the very lifeblood of their work. They are both musicians who I think are most accurately described as Minimalists. Part is often grouped with Glass and Reich, but if we are to understand the real meaning of that style, we can’t truly call Glass and Reich Minimalists. Their methods are to use repetition as the means of development, and their works are frequently grand in scope, especially those of Glass, who has an inherent grandeur and expansiveness in even his shortest works. Glass and Reich construct substantial edifices out of discrete units, but there is nothing Minimal about their work.

Part and Hecker are Minimal because they use the least possible material, and keep it that way. Part’s great masterpieces, Fratres, Passio and Tabula Rasa, the work that was given a powerful and moving performance by the orchestra (Yuki Numata and Nadia Sirota were the excellent soloists, all led with a real understanding of the work by Ryan McAdams), present the minimum amount of music, then presents it again, without change, and again, and again. I do not know Part’s composing methods, but his work gives the impression of being structured in a completely intuitive way, the artist listening to his own work and trusting his ear to say when a thing has been said. One feature of what Part says is that it is austerely beautiful to the ear, satisfying and enticing without tiring, but anything that goes on too long fails, and Part manages, in his best work, to give the sensation that it lasts exactly as long as it ideally should. This is truly impressive in Passio, which is essentially an hour-plus of the same musical material repeated, without even a key change, and completely involving for every second. Tabula Rasa is featured on the great recording that introduced the composer to a worldwide audience, and is a masterpiece of the expression of mystery. The music seems to proceed slowly past the listener, like a disconsolate parade, until it is finally passed slowly to the lower strings, where it simply disappears, as if over the horizon.

The pairing of Hecker with Part was exceptional. Hecker’s electronic medium is entirely different, but like Part he pares his work down to the essentials. The great advantage that the electronic medium has is that all the traditional structural means of music – form, meter, pitch, key, rhythm – can be abandoned in terms of pure sound and timbre. His work is made up of great slabs of sound drifting with, towards, against, through and away from each other, and what makes it so successful – and it is frequently absolutely great – is the quality of his sound. He fills up the spectrum with complex timbres that balance pitch, timbre, texture and noise that are ominous and comforting at the same time. R. Murray Schafer has pointed out that music is touch at a distance, and while Hecker was working the playback mix, I found myself putting my hand up against the ear, to better feel it pushing and vibrating against me. Touching me. It is his ear that allows him to create such wonderful sound, and his ear which, without any seeming structure to his work, allows him to judge when to modify or change a particular sound. From his ear to yours, it’s a sensational experience.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.