Symbolism and Compositional Process
A composition nowadays cannot be solely defined by its performance and reception. Over the last century, as music has become more abstract, the compositional process itself, the way in which it is performed, and the motive behind the piece are just as important.
Many of the seemingly absurd compositions that make up post-Wagnerism are made in reaction to the movement before their own creation. Serialism, spawning from atonality, was made in an attempt to give structure to atonality. As a consequence it had a rigid musical framework. Minimalism and experimentalism were reactions to this movement, and many experimental compositions can almost be considered indeterminate free-form "jokes", left to the performer’s whims and the audiences’ interpretations. One particular performance by La Monte Younge for David Tudor instructed that,
the pianist bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the paino to eat and drink....the piece being over when the piano has either eaten or elected not to. (Ford p. 175, 2002)
Yet the piece is not considered so much a joke as more humour as a means of what music had become, some “highly specialised task” (Ford p. 175, 2002). This type of compositional thinking led to chance compositions, masterpieces in their own right, but very difficult to listen to for the majority.
This is where the compositional process and meaning become an integral factor, knowing that a composer was trying to represent nature or that they were musically mapping star displacement, or that the hay represents knowledge and the piano humanity’s growth from that knowledge.
It would be stretching things to describe La Monte Young’s pieces as music.... I suppose the technical term for these events was what people in the 1960’s were pleased to call ‘happenings’. (Ford p. 175, 2002)
This leads to one of the greatest problems with symbolic music, or the idea behind a compositional process, the way in which it detaches itself from the audience. The idea is lost through the medium. The difficulty that comes with listening to performances such as these, make it quite evident why this style of music is more symbolic than an audibly pleasing piece of music.
While these styles of music died, through them symbolism lived on and nestled its way into today’s music. The use of lyrics is prominent in modern music, the lyrics can often be a simpler way of conveying the meaning behind a song than through music itself. Yet music finds itself still unable to transcend the idea of being solely entertainment. Purpose and symbolism are the means of it doing this. Through symbolism music has conveyed political messages and shown music for its various purposes and in its different forms not prominent in 20th Century Western culture.
John Cage’s piece 4’33”, is possibly the epitome of all symbolic music. A piece of pure unintentional, indeterminate non-silence, and its reception has been of an ambiguous nature. The piece was made for the purpose of showing its audience the beauty of the music of the universe that is always occurring about us. The piece may represent a number of things, tranquillity, a stand against the “dictates of the ego” (Cage, 1958). Any which way, it isn’t something anyone would pay to hear if it weren’t for the symbolism that underlies the piece.
From this and the lyrically-oriented music of today we can see how symbolism has played a big part in the progression of 20th century music.
Cox, C & Warner, D. 2004, Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, New York, Continuum.
Ford, A. 2002, ‘Back to Basics’, Illegal Harmonies, ABC Books, Sydney, pp. 172 – 194.
Lerdahl, F. 1992, Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems, Columbia University, New York City.
Rothenberg, D & Ulvaeus, M. 2001, The Book of Music and Nature, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT.