Some things that are true: Reflections on being an artist at the end of the 20th century

Society of Composers Incorporated Region VIII Conference, University of Montana at Missoula. Keynote address by David Maslanka – November 20, 1998

As soon as one speaks about “truth” there will be objections. Since we live in time and with change, it can be argued that all values and conditions are relative, and that “true” is what works best in any set of circumstances. So, in talking about truth I acknowledge the reality we live in, but I also must acknowledge the absolute values upon which our world of relative values rests.

We live in relativity, and yet music touches a timeless resonance in us, and we are drawn into perceptions that go absolutely beyond this life and this time. I think the central fascination with the feeling nature of sound and with the truth of feeling is what drew us all to music in the first place, and what continues to draw and fascinate us all our lives. I can’t defend the truth of artistic perception in any empirical way. After all the arguments about the relative or absolute nature of things, about the nature of feeling, the validity of personal feeling, the nature of human nature, there is that thing in each of us – quite beyond the quirks of personality – that perceives rightness. And when that “click of rightness” happens, we are satisfied at a soul level. I want to talk about that experience and how it has guided me in three areas: the evolution of a musical language, the process of composing, and the interaction with performers.

First I need to say more about personal experience and a sense of its being true. After a lifetime of being myself I have come to the conclusion that the only tool I have for the perception of the “click of rightness” is myself! On the conscious level that self is patently limited: the senses have limits, the talents have limits, the intelligence has limits. It is possible nonetheless for the conscious mind to reach “inward” and find a universe of powerful images and feelings, and conversely to have things thrust on it from an unknown source – which means that there is the possibility for revelation. This is our commonest sense of having an idea or of being creative: something opens in the mind Does the revelation represent truth? My answer is a qualified yes. It is the only way we have of touching a sense of the universal at a feeling level. Finding a powerful image or a powerful musical expression moves us. It feels true. On a personal level the presumption of truth brings with it the danger of self-inflation, and on a larger scale intolerance, group insanity, and even murderous megalomania. This then raises the question of how personal revelation is tested, and found in whatever degree to be true.

In his book, The Gift of the Jews, Thomas Cahill suggests that through the Jews some four to six thousand years ago comes the first awareness of a personal revelation and the possibility of a personal contact with God. Can you imagine what it took for Abraham to listen to the inner voice of “God” which told him to kill his son, and then to act on it? Or Noah or Job or Jonah or Jesus? The individual who receives revelation is often looked upon as crazy by the society around him.

How then is revelation tested? It is brought into society where it resonates for generations in the souls of countless millions of people. What is “true” forms a hard core of non-personal knowledge to which all individuals can and must relate. That these revelations are sometimes ambiguous or paradoxical, or are spoken in mythic terms only makes them that much richer and more powerful. On the personal level of the creative artist it is necessary to receive and to be literally pushed around by an unspeakable inner power. It feels true when the power is experienced; it feels true when the music touches performers and is played powerfully, and when audiences are powerfully moved. The test is the test of time: is your contact with your inner sources repeatable; are audiences consistently moved; do performers click into the power underneath the printed notes? Over time one enters into the partnership of the conscious mind with the unconscious, and learns to trust that that partnership will produce a true result. And finally, if the work enters a larger sphere of societal awareness, it is played and thought about and argued over for years until what is true rises to the surface, and what is less important, or not important at all, sinks and is forgotten.

Now let me apply this idea of revelation to musical language. One of the most profound revelations that human consciousness has received is symbolic language in all its forms. One central issue p possible the primary issue for all composers –is at the start of life becoming aware of the musical language of the culture that surrounds you, which by early imprinting becomes your native tongue. This language, and the infinitely subtle nuances of meaning and feeling that it embodies, are burned into your receptive language centers, and as with spoken language, you intimately and deeply know what that language means when you hear it. Well, what does music mean? It means everything and nothing. It conjures entire worlds of feeling and association but cannot be pinned down to specific verbal definition.

How is meaning conveyed? It is conveyed through mutually agreed upon grammatical constructions. For me to convey meaning to you in this speech we have all agreed to the very specific and restricted constructions of English grammar. Meaning is conveyed in music through exactly the same terms. The nature of those meanings can be argued about and elaborated forever. This is the joy of music, that the simplest of constructions can open seemingly endless worlds of feeling and meaning.

The psychologist Rollo May has written a wonderfully clear and direct book about the creative process called The Courage to Create. In it there is a chapter entitled “Creativity and Encounter.” Encounter, in his definition, means the meeting of the artist with the objective world apart from him or herself. I’ll speak later about the encounter with the self. Artwork is not solely the product of a subjective ego. It is not simple commanded into being by the conscious will of the artist. It is rather the result of the meeting of the artist with the rich complexity of the objective world, and the inner world below consciousness.

Take the matter of musical language as one aspect of that complex objective world. The great tradition of musical language exists apart from the individual. I remember awakening gradually to this tradition, first as a young clarinet player, and then as a young theory student and beginning composer. I remember at age 18 the sudden realization how little I knew of this vast language, and what a complicated business composing really was. For more than 40 years I have been actively exploring that language, and understand that I will never encompass it all.

This presentation is not about style or what might constitute an “appropriate” musical language. I think our history has demonstrated that that the boundaries of language are continually expanding. On the other hand I intend to talk about my own experience, which of necessity has to do with limitations. I write essentially tonal music which falls within the limits of pitch organization in 12 half steps, common rhythmic constructions, and traditional instrument and voice qualities. I will suggest too that old language issues continue to assert themselves in our time – specifically the system of half steps, melody, counterpoint, tonality, beat, meter, and traditional sound sources and ensembles. This is not to say that new language elements won’t be invented. Some few composers are given to inventing new systems; by far the great majority of composers – myself included – exist within the framework of received language. My main reference point in western musical language is the work of J.S. Bach, and specifically the four-part chorales.

The elements of musical language exist apart from us as individuals. They have the quality of having been revealed over many thousands of years. They represent a kind of empirical truth: a half step is by agreement a half step for all of us, as is a major chord, or a steady pulse at a certain rate per minute. Each composer comes to the body of this language as it is used historically and as it is used in his own time. J.S. Bach wrote his music within the matrix of the musical language of his time. He encountered the language and then invented himself in the face of it. We all do the same thing.

Rollo May speaks of “Being” and “Nonbeing.” “Being” is the subjective artist; “Nonbeing” is all aspects of the universe apart from the artist. He quotes a Chinese poet who says “We poets struggle with Nonbeing to force it to yield Being. We knock upon the silence for an answering music.”

Rollo May quotes W.H. Auden who says “The poet marries the language, and out of this union the poem is born.” May goes on: “How active this makes language in the creation of the poem [for “poem” read “piece of music”]. It is not that language is merely a tool of communication, or that we only use language to express our ideas; it is just as true that language uses us. Language [read as well “musical language”] is the symbolic repository of the meaningful experience of ourselves and our fellow human beings down through history, and as such it reaches out and grasps us in the creation of a poem [or a piece of music]. This repository is our common heritage of meaning, the thing to which we are all connected.”

This idea of the language using you is a profound one. It implies that the language wishes to speak, that there is a partnership between your conscious mind and the unspoken forces of the universe. My tonal musical language uses me. No matter what I do it won’t be denied. In allowing myself to open to language, I open to the great common pool of human musical experience, and the language uses me. Out of tradition is invented the personal voice.

In my own experience it has not been necessary to deny or fracture the roots of our musical language. It has been necessary for me to try to absorb the totality of the language and let it speak through me. Language is evolved not by radical leaps, but by the patient, rich, mostly anonymous use of the language over great periods of time.

Kathleen Norris in her book Cloister Walk, which is about her spending a year participating in the liturgical life of cloistered monks, speaks very cogently about the power of ancient language. In the following passage she is discussing the experience of reading the Psalms out loud: “[Speaking the Psalms] frees people from the tyranny of individual experience. To say or sing the Psalms aloud within a community is to recover religion as oral tradition, restoring words to our mouths that have been relegated to the page, words that have been effectively silenced. The liturgy the Benedictines have been experimenting with for 1500+ years has taught me the value of tradition; I came to see that the Psalms were holy in part because they were so well-used…The holiness of the Psalms came to seem like that of a stone that has been held in the palm by countless ancestors, illustrating the difference between what has been called the ‘merely personal’, or individual, and the ‘truly personal’, which is individual experience reflected back into the community.” That’s a terrific statement!

There is great power in the continual return to the same time-honored words, or musical procedures, as in the case of the Bach Chorales. They are never “used up” because they are the musical root points of what it is to be human. I also think of instrument qualities as revelations that have come into place over centuries of time. The sound of an instrument is the essence of a way of feeling. It is an impossibly rich distillation of experience and meaning, becoming a magical touchstone that lends its life to the personal expression of any composer.

I have tried, and continue to try, to absorb our musical language. The result in my music has been the evolution to sometimes radically simple elements. This is in response to the huge proliferation of musical procedures in the 20th century. My personal thought here, which you are free to accept or reject, is that the enormous and powerful diversity generated in the 20th century has prompted an equally powerful need in some creative people to grasp and pull together this great tangle of force lines into a unified and human mode of expression. This means finding central issues and digesting them slowly until they make soul sense, rather than skittering over the surface of a thousand different styles. For me this means a daily patient retracing of the Bach Chorales, and also the writing of my own four-part chorales in that highly restricted style. The result of my contemplating these highly restricted, yet timeless, sets of tonal relationships is a tremendous sense of groundedness and liberation in my own work. The need for this kind of contemplation is related to our need for a secure sense of physical place. The neighborhoods of our childhood are the fundamental paths that we tread all our lives. We create limited and secure paths for ourselves throughout our lives – home to work, home to market, the layout of the neighborhood, the city, the familiar walks we take, the absolute familiarity of our work spaces and the tools we use. The sense of security thus engendered, the sense of trust, allows for the opening of creative flow. When you are nervous or mistrustful you don’t create well.

The great and wonderful work done in electronics and computers and so-called “experimental” music – a work which has radically stretched our perceptions and awareness – has shown us as well the human need for limits. When possibilities are limitless, the mind boggles and shuts down. When possibilities are narrowly restricted, great creative force comes pouring through. I need only mention the Art of the Fugue or the Goldberg Variations. These limits are marked by a return in this time to the great musical disciplines: melody, counterpoint, harmony and harmonic motion, and traditional sound sources. For the word “discipline” I want to substitute the word “restraint.” Let me talk a bit further about the nature or restraints: our existence on earth is a lesson book in restrictions for the channeling of power. Our human bodies are marvelous compact tools limited to a specific form. Through this narrowly restricted form has come the explosion of human culture. Each musical instrument represents a very narrow set of specifications. By saying what it is, we also emphatically say what it is not. We love an oboe not because it can “do everything” (that wonderful selling point for computers), but because its possibilities are severely restricted. Out of those particular restraints comes a unique and beautiful sound. And in that absolute restriction of color values – in that oboe sound – the entire universe opens up and is created anew. A new and powerful music is formed out of the composer’s encounter with the restrictions of the medium, and the restrictions of the traditional language elements.

So what is it to be “new”? In the politics of art, people have been trying to enforce modernism of one type or another for a long time. I remember the serialists of the 50’s and 60’s saying idiotic things like “no music written before 1950 is worth listening to.” Or the introduction to a book on 12-tone composition making the smug assertion that the main stream of serious composition was now irrefutably in serial music. Or the notion of one of my friends that it is the composer’s duty to uphold modernism! None of this has anything to do with true expression. Is there a true expression? Of course. And it has as many manifestations as there are true composers. There are no words or philosophy attached to true music. True music comes from the realm of Being and not from conforming to standards of modernism.

Let me see if I can get at some of the ideas of Being.

Some years ago my way of composing underwent a revolution. Previously I had made up music any way I could. Inspiration was fascinating when it happened; it seemed that music would come from someplace else, and might be utterly different than what I thought I wanted to write. But inspiration was seemingly accidental, and I was under the impression that my conscious mind “made up” music.

In 1980 I wrote a piece called A Child’s Garden of Dreams for wind ensemble. It had five movements based on the dreams of a child who was close to the end of her life. The dream material came from the book Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung. My composing process changed with this piece. There were 12 dreams discussed in the book. I typed these out and put them on the piano in front of me. I then stared at them until one caught and held my attention. I then set out to try to imagine the literal content of the dream as vividly as possible. Not only did living images come, but also an eerie sense of their living power. In other writing Jung describes this process as “active imagining.” I had just prior to this learned self-hypnosis, and became aware that the images I saw in hypnosis were qualitatively similar to the images of “active imagining.” This led to a persistent exploration of my “inner landscape” in a process that I called meditation. I found that I could “descend” into my unconscious dream area while still awake. This exploration brought to life a dream space to which I could consistently return. In it were animal, human, and spirit forms, as well as a representation of a natural landscape that I now know to be a manifestation of the instinct level, as well as a direct connection to the powers of the earth and beyond. I found that I could “travel” in this space and that the animal and human figures acted, in so many words, as guides. I found that I could contact the life force of other people and feel what was moving them. In short I had gained access to the deep unconscious and could interact with it. From this I became aware that the conscious mind was not in supreme control, but in partnership with a number of forces. The conscious mind was not the source of music but the receiver, the organizer, the “clother in sound” of the impulses coming through the unconscious. The forces experienced in these meditation journeys had the quality of being “numinous”, that is, having a heightened spiritual quality, and gave the feeling of being “right” or “true.” I was always, and remain to this day, shy about claiming anything absolute for these perceptions, but always took what was given with an open mind. Jung also claimed objectivity as a scientist. He would make no claim for truth, but said, in speaking of the activities of the deep unconscious “that way leads to God.”

Over time it became evident that a real force was coming through my music, and that it had to do directly with this encounter with my deeper self. And so, “active imagining” became the starting point for my compositional practice. I would imagine deeply the people who asked me to write music, and a music would come that seemingly fit a deep need of those people. When I wrote for myself I became aware that my own soul needs were being addressed by the music that was made. I became aware that as I “knocked on silence” – in the words of the Chinese poet quoted earlier – an answering perception or music would come, and that the perception or music had about it a particular power.

As far as I can determine no one knows exactly what consciousness is and why we have it. But it appears that consciousness, and the expansion of consciousness through greater and greater self-awareness is the main point of human existence. It is the tool we have for distilling essential timeless qualities from the mass of experience in time. From all my experiences along these lines has come the idea of being fully alive to the moment, of being fully engaged by the power of whatever has engaged your attention. This the radically simple idea of being at play.

This brings me to the final idea of encounter – the encounter of the music and the composer with the larger world. The test of music and idea and feeling is in performance: can you convey the power of the original revelation from your mind to other minds. This is truly the hard part. For the young composer, and even the older composer: how do you get people to pay proper attention to what you have produced? There are no easy answers. The keys are persistence, and a fundamental belief in the power and rightness of what you have composed. You all know how difficult this is! Assuming that you have crossed a few hurdles and gotten into rehearsal, the question is still one of “Being” – of powerfully engaged attention, and of play. My work in rehearsals is extremely engaging to me. I have come to understand that my primary work after composing is to teach the voice of the new piece to the performers. Now matter how detailed and readable your score is, the fact remains that for the most part your voice is unknown, and the voice of the new piece is absolutely unknown. It’s like buying a book of poems and reading silently to yourself. You can’t know how the poet actually sounded the words. I had precisely this experience with my long-time poet friend Richard Beale. In preparing to set some of his poems I asked him to send me a tape of his reading. His inflection and intonation of those common words on the page were absolutely other than my voice. The poems suddenly opened in a different way.

It is the composer’s job to bring performers directly to the experience of qualities in the music. It is the performer’s job to be well enough trained that the intuition is free to open and embrace the soul nature of the music, and to bring forward his or her own soul response.

I have discovered that there are three phases in my work with performers. The first is to receive what they have prepared. This first meeting is usually marked by nervousness on both sides. We set to work bringing the piece into place, but essentially this time is for them to deliver the entire preparation to me. The second phase is for me to absorb what I have received. This is done on my own. Most often I do this while taking long walks. This time often feels like illness; it feels like “getting sick” with the music. My whole system is struggling to match what I have heard with what the music really is. The third phase is moving the energy of the performers. I use active imagining to feel out performer energy and to move it into proper alignment; I “see” the performance taking place.

In working with performers I become the mentor. They use me as a touchstone for their own sense of rightness and security. They need to be reassured until the voice of the piece opens in them. It is so interesting to me to write a precise notation and then have a performer ask “Is that how you wanted this?”, and I say “Yes” and they say “Oh! OK!” This is a necessary part of touching the source again and again until the voice is securely internalized.

In this presentation I have hoped to convey some idea of creativity as personal encounter on three levels, and to offer some insight into my own experience with these encounters.

I want to finish by reading you a poem by my friend Richard Beale. Over the years I have set 20 of his poems to music. Though this is not one of them, it seems a fitting commentary on the perception of truth through a deep inward opening.


something like a shadow
is winding through my soul
it is beauty on her nightly walk
she glides behind the sills
of unwashed windows
and charms me with her talk

where came beauty
if not from brother death?
she has been sleeping in his arms
she how she drops the dark-footed fox
beneath the tread of spinning wheels
and lays him on the berm

carefully hone the sharps and edges
of your night, my dear one
and double the indifference of your art
shine the lights of a thousand cars
over the slender burnt sienna body
and make its eyes two thousand stars

By |2016-12-09T23:08:46+00:0020 November 1998|A Child's Garden of Dreams, Chamber Music, Philosophy|