Dec. 11, 2019

When We Have Art, Part II

(con't from Part I)
Let's say you've entered a fugue-writing competition sponsored by a bona fide Music Foundation, paid your entrance fee in advance as required by the rules, and only then are granted the privilege of being emailed the two themes allowed in the competition; your instructions are to select one of these themes and write an organ fugue using this theme as your subject.
And let's say the rules also specify that any sort of treatment of the theme is permissible save for NO changes may be made in either theme and that any attempt to do so will be subject to severe penalty or disqualification.
You're up to the challenge, but there's just one problem: what you've been sent aren't fugue subjects.
Everything that happens in a piece of music is inherent in its theme (or themes); like a seed, a good theme contains an invisible instruction on what to become, and all the composer does is select and construct a form or corporeal body which brings out all the theme has to offer and in the process conveys a language of warmth and meaning to an audience.
Once glance at both of these curtailed and tonally ambiguous "themes" shows that, as is, they're useless for fugue-writing because in their current incoherent state they're devoid of those characteristics which lend themselves to fugal procedure.
You notice that both of them are nothing more than a very small handful of slow moving notes all of equal value IN NO KEY, consecutive notes floating all over the map in range with large awkward leaps exceeding normal voice ranges, no melodic tune, and no rhythm.
It's abundantly clear that if any musical offering were to come from this non-material, "Fugue" is the last thing it could be entitled.
We can surmise with a fairly high level of certainty what the greatest fugue-writer in history would have to say about such a state of affairs; as a composer he believed that anything was possible and would never hear of something being not feasible, but in this case he would be vigorously protesting; he would be insisting that he be granted the freedom to take this starting material and mold it to where it would open wide the gate to his own invention.
But, as for this competition's stipulation, if he, the greatest rule-breaker of them all, ever found out that any of his own scholars were granting this sort of bondage legitimacy by conforming in a flabby way to such a restriction, he would be tearing his wig from his head and throwing it at them.
This is the kind of non-diatonic stuff (if we want to dignify it with a term at all) that even Hindemith could not embrace as is without expanding it to some extent, varying some note values, and establishing within it some sense of a tonal center [See blog, What About Music Theory, Part II].
For crying out loud, somebody has to start with compatible materials to demonstrate their ability with the use of tools -- no one in their right mind would test a carpenter's ability with a hammer and nails by requiring that Jello be nailed to a wall; one is at an utter loss to explain any difference whatsoever between that kind of scenario and the screenplay of a fugue-writing competition of the kind just described.
One is left to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that the purposes behind the latter have more to do with reinventing the wheel than measuring a contestant's mastery of fugue-writing -- more to do with a fishing expedition to see what can be built musically without relationship, i.e. what might emerge when tonal harmony and the common practice habits of countless Western composers from whom over a long period of time the general rules of voice leading have been distilled are abandoned as if they never existed [See blog, Thinking Outside The Box] -- more to do with rejecting the premise that what is beautiful or interesting in music is based on relationship.
Strongly ambiguous tonality in a "theme" as we have here is NOT a good idea for a fugue subject because it limits the possibilities for counterpoint; what the fugue-writer needs to do is find a path between too much ambiguity and too little, but being unsure it the fugue starts in any key or mode at all is definitely "too much."
Planners of fugue competitions like this must certainly know that anyone focused on composing fugues is writing for a medium whose core repertoire spans hundreds of years and is automatically entering into a dialogue with the past and having enduring works for models.
It's therefore natural for anyone composing organ fugues these days to give some thought to what it might take for new writing to become something that speaks to a broad variety of musicians and music lovers over a span of cultures, places, and even epochs. something that might have a life beyond its original premiere and even possibly labored over, loved, interrogated, or admired by future generations ... NOT a heterogenous jumble having no sense of melody, rhythmic pulse, tonal center, or structural framework, a mass of mostly unrelated things mingled together which may follow exactly the rules of a contest but in terms of euphony is already in oblivion and will stay there.
When the contemplated plan of action is to produce a lasting work of Art from the free-wheeling region outside the box, it should be understood that there's nothing far outside the box but a vacuum; there are no rules there, no reality there, nothing to interact with, nothing to work against.
Lasting creative works which carry the Art forward are generated more by thinking along the edges of the box, making bold moves to be sure but all the while maintaining some residue of connection with all that came before them; this is because along the edges of the box is where the means of production are available -- this is where things get done; it's also where the audience is and therefore where a new work can make an impact.
No matter what might come from competitions like this, whatever emerges would still meet the definition of Art -- not especially lasting Art, but Art nonetheless.
And yes, under these circumstances, it's not unreasonable to say that It's shallow and ignoble to expect composers to waste their time chasing what their lying eyes can clearly see as a dead leaf when they're being told the entire time that it's a butterfly ... but, knowing that there are already enough complainers to go around, it's better to just drop the hammer and nails and move away from it, leaving the Jello in the bowl and shaking our heads in wonderment as to what on earth the planners could have been thinking.
Now, it's possible that some new organists who are reading these lines may be saying to themselves, "There's no point in even imagining that anything this glaring, this provocative, could ever involve me or any of my musician friends, even if we were writing new music and entering composition contests all the time ... it's irrelevant, a meaningless hypothetical that no one has encountered or ever will, I mean, surely nothing like this could ever happen in real life ... to ANYBODY ..."
Oh yes it can.
New organists would do well not to rent space in their minds to incompatibilities like this but to learn from them, let the rest of the artistic world do as it pleases, and just follow one's own creative inclinations by working along the edges of the box.
So, what can we say then ... if we're handed nothing but a banana and told to do something artistic with it to add to the existing stockpile of Organ Art ... a Mission Impossible assignment from the get-go that demands thinking far, very far outside the box ...
One solution would be to use some masking tape to tape it to the main manual of our console.
Mission accomplished.
Granted, this kind of artwork is perishable, it will have no enduring life, human hands will take it down a month or less from now and dispose of it, it will be in our way until then, and whether or not it's beautiful or interesting at the moment will not be for us, but for others, to decide.
We may feel it doesn't reflect our best work, but it's certain to strike some as being a GREAT work of Art.