Confronting the Ears Head On August 15, 1974

In most contemporary music, composers seem more interested in the ideas behind the sounds than in the sounds themselves. Even when they go out of their way to create some weird noise by bowing on a cymbal or thumping on the belly of a cello, they are often not interested in the sounds themselves, but rather in ideas which lie behind the sounds. The bowing on the cymbal or the thumping on the cello is a means for conveying some contrast or expressing some motivic element. It is not an arbitrary means, or an insensitive means, of course. But not an end in itself either.

I was particularly reminded of this attitude one afternoon at Community Church when I went to a lecture-demonstration presented by the composer Charles Wuorinen. In his comments the composer went so far as to call the sounds themselves a ‘necessary evil.’ He explained that he liked the sounds all right, but that their essential purpose was not just to be sounds but to represent relationships. From here he went on to describe how the length of the sections of one of his pieces reflected the structure of his 12-tone row, and how the sounds of the piece were all intended to represent relationships of one sort or another.

This disregard for the value of sound itself is not present in some other cultures. According to Chou Wen-chung, for example, traditional Chinese music proceeds on the assumption that ‘each single tone is a musical entity in itself, that musical meaning lies intrinsically in the tones themselves, and that one must investigate sound to know tones and investigate tones to know music.’ Chou’s article on ‘Asian Music and Western Composition’ in the recently published ‘Dictionary of Contemporary Music’ goes on to describe the many ways of articulating and inflecting a single tone in playing the Chinese ch’in, the Japanese shakuhachi, and the Korean piri. In these traditions a single tone can be significant in itself, while in the West the assumption has usually been that a tone becomes meaningful only in context with other tones.

‘A musical motif, or even a phrase, means nothing in itself,’ proclaims Roger Sessions in ‘The Musical Experience.’ ‘The single musical impulse is too short, and too isolated; it is a gesture in the void which has not acquired substance. Only through association can it really become effective.’ But quite a bit of contemporary music has been moving away from the attitudes expressed by Wuorinen and Sessions and toward a phenomenological approach. Like the Chinese, many composers have become interested in the phenomenon of sound itself, and have proceeded on the assumption that sounds can be effective, and even meaningful, all by themselves.

Edgard Varese, who often talked about ‘pure sound,’ is probably the best example of this. If he wrote a phrase for the flute, or a shrill chord, it was not for the purpose of developing some melodic idea, or making variations on a 12-tone row, or drawing a contrast with some other elements, or emphasizing C-sharp, or preparing some transition. It was basically just because he found a value in the flute phrase or the shrill chord. He intentionally avoided fancy relationships and structural rigmarole because he wanted his listeners to experience such sounds for their own sake, without any decoding.

Quite a few composers in the succeeding generation have also taken phenomenological points of view, sometimes under the influence of Varese himself. Morton Feldman, Lucia Dlugoszewski and Chou Wen-chung all strike me as good examples. Individually they are as different from each other as they are from Varese, but that is because they are interested in different types of sounds. All three are more concerned with sounds themselves than with any intellectualized relationships between the sounds.

There may be parallel developments in other arts. Linda Nochlin, for example, mentions ‘pictorial phenomenologists’ in a discussion of recent realist painters (Arts Magazine, February 1974). ‘They tend to affirm the art-work as a literal fact which, while it may leave its referent in the actual world, nevertheless achieves its true effectiveness in direct visual experience, not evocation.’ I have no idea how significant this distinction may be among painters, but I am convinced that it is an important contrast among composers. Never a black and white contrast, of course. After all, even in a Wuorinen piece acoustical realities have some impact in their own right. And no one would ever say that Varese’s music was totally void of ideas and relationships. But it is an important contrast nonetheless, and as time goes on, it may well become the major aesthetic controversy among musicians. This seems particularly plausible now, because younger composers have been carrying the phenomenological approach further and further every season.

Yoshi Wada is one example. His music is generally produced on four ‘pipe horns,’ which are enormous pipes with mouthpieces on them. In terms of ideas, there is very little in his music, either rhythmically, melodically, harmonically, or formally. Yet the sounds themselves are very special—special enough to keep audiences listening closely for quite a while.

There are quite a few new forms of electronic music in which composers deal with tiny variations in pitch, or tiny differences which depend on which way you turn your head when you listen. Here too the ears are directly confronted. Never mind about all those music appreciation courses. This kind of music has little to do with what we know. It has to do with what we perceive. The emphasis is entirely on sound phenomena themselves.