Music Composition as an Artistic Process

[This post is #8 in the Western Classical Music Series]

Every block of stone has a statue in it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it – Michelanglo

The beauty of an artwork is not just because of what the artist has included in the work, but also because of what the artist has excluded from it. I find this to be true of most forms of creative art, whether it is music or photography, painting or literature, sculpture or architecture.

In a sculpture, it is easy to visualize this aspect of the artistic process – a statue is initially a block of stone from which the sculptor removes parts, and the result is the work of art – the statue. We are easily able to visualize the artist’s work in removing the unnecessary parts of the stone. In painting, one can visualize the colors not used. And so on. In music, however, it is difficult to appreciate this aspect, because we are almost never aware of what the composer has excluded. As casual listeners of music, we only respond to what we listen to, what the composer has included, we do not wear the hat of a composer and think about what the composer has excluded.

This aspect of music appreciation is certainly not a prerequisite to appreciating WCM, but it does help us to appreciate Form. We have discussed Form in WCM before, and it is worthwhile reiterating its key lesson:

Form is a series of strategies designed to find a suc­cess­ful mean between the opposite extremes of unre­lieved rep­e­ti­tion and unrelieved alteration.

The key is to find the balance between the two. Which aspects of the imagined work has the composer excluded because they were too repetitive? Which aspects of the imagined work has the composer excluded because they were straying too far away from the theme? Is the music leading you subconsciously on a predetermined roadmap in which the composer ultimately wants to take you through a journey to his chosen destination? When you love a piece of music, this is exactly what the composer achieves – take you through a wonderful journey to a destination.

There are very, very few instances where this can be studied and experienced in the field of music. If you have experienced a musician’s composition process, it is an insightful experience. With WCM, the only way we can engage in the composition process is to go back centuries in time and study the notes of the composer. This is, fortunately, what musical scholars have done. However, their archived scribblings of musical notations and their exploration mostly remains exclusive to the elitist scholarly domain, leaving us casual listeners with no way to appreciate or understand them.

This is quite similar to science. There are many fascinating areas of science that remain beyond the reach of the mainstream, because their appreciation requires specialized knowledge. There is a gulf between the higher echelons of art and science and the mainstream populace. There are very few people who attempt to bridge that gulf. I have the most profound respect for them, because they attempt to enlighten us.

Carl Sagan epitomized this role in Science. Leonard Bernstein epitomizes it in Music. Leonard Bernstein is to Music what Carl Sagan was to Science.

They were themselves a scientist and a musician, but in looking back at their role in history, their bridging the gulf may be deemed more important than their professional careers.

With no further eulogizing, let us now learn from Leonard Bernstein teaching us about the composition process that went behind Beethoven’s highly regarded and most loved 5th Symphony:

Watch and listen. I need not say anything further. This is a unique experience for us to learn to appreciate WCM and we should forever be grateful to Lenny.

P.S. The Mandelbrot set is a unique exception to the rule of Form, where unrelieved repetition ultimately results in what some may say is Art.

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  • Good post, Mahendra, and I admire your diligence and commitment in continuing the WCM series at your blog.

    Bernstein also delivered a series of lectures on music in 1973 at Harvard, in which he takes Mozart’s Symphony no 40 in G minor as an example to explain many concepts. Here’s the YouTube playlist for those of your readers who may be interested –

    • Thank you! Lenny’s Harvard lectures are on a different plane altogether. They are very profound, insightful, and explore not only the roots but the evolution of classical music through the ages.
      In attempting to introduce Lenny into this series of WCM posts, I thought this was a good welcome point. If I grow this series into a suitable structure, maybe the Harvard lectures would find a spot. Lenny’s Harvard lectures delve into the realm of music+ philosophy, and I wonder if it would deter newcomers to this genre from the basic goal of these posts: that WCM is easily appreciable.

      • Agreed. Ergo “… for those of your readers who may be interested” (there are always some who want to dig deeper).

        • Ah, yes 🙂 If I do have such readers, not only will I dig deeper, I shall exult in joyful satisfaction! 🙂 Let’s see how it goes…