Off the Shelf

The other day as I was driving I found myself meditating on an image that I first heard in graduate school in reference to music composition: taking something “off the shelf.” This was a most heinous sin. To take something off the shelf meant to resort to a cliché, something that was easy, ready-to-hand, done before and known. This is the sort of thing that we might do reflexively, unthinkingly, automatically, without perhaps realizing it. The aim was to maximize one’s consciousness of precisely what one was creating. I imagine this can apply to any other art form. Something “off the shelf” is not yours; it’s ready-made and lacks your stamp of originality. Originality, of course — its unquestioned superiority, its being the greatest desideratum — is the unstated assumption behind this thinking. That idea itself, one could argue, comes right off the shelf. The Romantic shelf.

The bugbear in this scenario is the unconscious. Or perhaps it is the subconscious? My high modernist post-Second-Viennese-School teachers strove to be in control of their “material.” You can only be in control of what you know (or think you’re in control of what you think you know). Your being unaware of something in the music you write was a Bad Thing. The more aware the better. So you must be aware — beware! — of those little unconscious gestures that creep into our thinking inevitably, which compromise our authenticity. It is not authentic for one to use something “off the shelf.”

I would prefer the idea of authenticity to that of originality. The more I think about it, the greater a sham it seems to me, the sacralized idea of originality. There are extremely few things that are truly “original” — that form an origin. I cannot think of any development in music that did not arise from the mixture of previous ideas. Everything we call “original” was actually a brilliant synthesis of two or more already existing ideas. Pope Gregory, Machaut, Josquin, Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi, Debussy, Stravinsky, Reich — you name ’em — I will show you what the “stroke of genius” (now that I can believe in!) put together that had not been put together before. And com-posing means putting-together.

I belabor this point because to some extent, what these great composers were doing was “taking off the shelf” ideas that pre-existed. That is all the mind ever seems to do: combine and recombine earlier thoughts. The new amalgam then becomes itself something on the shelf for future composers and artists to avail themselves of, and if they are really brilliant, they will hit on a new combination that stirs their contemporaries’ imaginations — that strikes a chord, dare I say.

A trap in all this is the idea of progress in art, what Taruskin calls historicism — I am two chapters from finishing his History of Western Music! Can’t wait to see how it all turned out! — the idea that new developments in art must be “bigger and better” that what came before. This is another “off the shelf” axiom, and the most conspicuous way to achieve this has been maximalization: longer, louder, more chromatic, more colorful, more unified, more, more, more. Even minimalism is an offshoot of this maximalist idea. Certainly this trend has led to some fantastic developments, but it is false to think they are better. It seems to be more of an Oedipal dynamic, frankly.

This image of the shelf is one that has haunted me — a “buttstix” (see a previous post) — and I have had to process it, digest it, and make my own. I don’t reject entirely the idea insofar as it refers to authenticity, but authenticity is earned, won, wrested, by other means. That thing of the shelf  — that shelf-consciousness — is a red herring, just one part of a bigger picture.

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On Memory

Here are a couple of quotes that I found paired — again, where was that…?! — on the nature of memory, which turns out to be a theme that keeps coming up in my work. The concern came to the foreground when I was working on Reinaldo Arenas’s memoir, which is by its nature an exercise in memory:

“Although with regard to the past, when this is reported correctly, what is brought out from memory is not the events themselves (these are already past) but words conceived from the images of those events, which, in passing through the senses, have left as it were their footprints stamped upon the mind. My boyhood, for instance, which no longer exists, exists in time past, which no longer exists. But when I recollect the image of my boyhood and tell others about it, I am looking at this image in time present, because it still exists in time present.” — St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 398

“Memory is the same as imagination.” — Giambattista Vico, New Science, 1725

The Augustine I had to read a couple of times to “straighten out,” and the Vico so deliciously says the same thing in 6 (English) words.

I’ve always loved the Greek myth in which Zeus made love to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, who then gave birth to nine daughters, known as the Muses. So: the Muses, who inspire the arts, are descended from the Big God Himself and Memory. The arts are how we remember who we are as a people, a species. It used to be originally that these poems and music got handed down and preserved through the memory of the bards, so their great status lay in their precious knowledge of the epics and songs; I could imagine a prayer being addressed to the apporpriate Muse to help the bard in remembering correctly — as in the invocation at the start of any epic poem. Memory was soon to be superseded by writing and notation, but the act was still one of preserving memory. Much of culture still gets passed on in oral tradition, within a family or group, but the vast store of culture is preserved somewhere other than the memory of a few individuals — in books, scores, libraries, film, digitally. The acts of reading, watching, listening, attending a performance, are all ways of participating in one’s own (or another’s) culture, and store of wisdom. If the aim of a life is to attain wisdom, the arts contain the sum of what mankind has learned, and it is only up to the individual, or society, to avail himself of it, and make of it what he will. But if we forget — woe to the unconnected, the one without memory, without identity.

On the other hand, to falsify memory is a great crime against oneself, and the culture. It is as if the pool of the collective memory is tainted, even poisoned. Or: it might be a way cultures change and even regenerate. Perhaps one can build on top of past structures only so long before they topple and new ones need to be begun.

The Glass Hammer CD cover


The loss of memory we consider to be a terrible thing. Who can we be without our memories? Can we be anyone?

For the subtitle of my song cycle based on Andrew Hudgins’ poetic memoir The Glass Hammer, (which itself is merely subtitled “A southern childhood”) I chose a phrase from one of the poems: scenes from childhood “Kept against forgetting.” (The image of the hourglass for the CD cover was an interesting choice: it suggests in the passage of time the constant struggle to remember, to keep memory alive, against time, against death itself.)

Think about all the artworks that have been created around the theme of memory itself — a revealing exercise!

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The webpage “Buttstix” is one of the funniest, most brilliant commentaries and candid admissions I have ever come across, and it is worth a close study. The post is a graphic by composer David Rakowski, exorcizing, as it were, the demons that were introduced into his soul while in grad school. Every single one of these hit home with me: They all were intimately familiar. It seemed like revisiting the most unpleasant people from your past life and realizing how happy you were not to have thought of them for so long…. It also amazed me to learn that these “tropes,” or dogmas, were so common and wide-spread that they could be readily codified and recognized by many other composers across the country, and overseas too, as witnessed by the many reactions David’s post has gotten. I was fed these Toxic Cookies at Columbia, but apparently you could have picked up these same tired ideas in any number of other institutions of (soi-disant) higher learning. And the vulgarity of David’s neologism is totally appropriate. It was all SO anal, as in anal-compulsive. Compulsive and compulsory. And frankly, full of shit, not to mince words.

Is this an example of how an idea becomes its opposite over time? Almost all of these “commandments” arose from a Romantic urge to question authority, subvert and go against the grain, and indeed to break rules. But over time they became codified and ossified and became new rules, themselves needing to be broken. But in my time in the Academy there was, let me tell you, no sense whatsoever that these were ever to be questioned, IF, that is, you were intending to be a serious — or “serious” — composer. Truth be told, almost 100% of these Buttstix have a Germanic lineage, highly moralistic and imperative. There is MUCH to be said on that front, and Taruskin has written brilliantly on the subject in his beyond-magisterial opus The Oxford History of Western Music. So for now, before I get too serious myself, let me just say, I occasionally do a little joyful dance of death when I recall the relief I felt when finally I crammed the last of these Zombieideen into their casket and heaved the heavy lug into the sea, as Schumann’s undeceived poet does at the end of Dichterliebe. Now, there was a German Romantic.

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On theater

Here’s a quote I had on my home page for a while. I found it years ago and kept it, because it inspires me and makes me think of why opera is, for me, the ultimate form of theater. The quote is from an interview with historian turned playwright Charles L. Mee:

“The decline of theater as an essential art form coincides with the triumph of naturalism and the well-made play — which is boring people crazy out of their minds. The great hope of the theater is that it return to the immense energies that were in Greek theater and Shakespeare, theater that includes not just text and interpersonal relationships but also spectacle, music, dance, physical performance, color, noise, fabulous events happening.”

Now, I love Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and all those good guys; they certainly  knew about giving the audience full value, but their descendants create basically talky plays, which can be good, but they offer but a sliver of what theater can offer. Theater can encompass so many more elements, as Mr. Mee lists. Opera has always encompassed music (duh!) but also as a matter of routine, dance, spectacle, color, noise and fabulous events.

I know I’m not an objective observer, but I’ve never really understood why opera per se should scare people off trying it. I do understand the language barrier — which is why I’ve never been dogmatic about opera having to be sung in its original language: whenever I’ve seen opera sung in English (given a decent translation, of course) the immediacy surpasses any surtitles hands down. And short of the biggest theaters, the language really can be understood, and yes, English is a fine language to sing in — just look at the songs of Cole Porter or the Gerswhins, say. Opera is essentially fabulous theater — or, it should be — in which music and the singing are the medium (which is the message) and great emotions are experienced both tragic and comic. I suspect another thing that puts off some from the opera is in fact the “bigness” — the bigness of the voices, the hall, the plots, the emotions — and not a few people are afraid of these things, their fear often being expressed, tellingly, in scoffing and put-downs. They should be afraid! They might just be overwhelmed! And that, of course, can be scary.

There is also opera on a smaller scale — chamber opera — but in this genre the bigness of emotions and voices remains. No form of theater has ever been or should be “safe.” Even at the birth of opera in the European courts of the 17th century, where they were meant to communicate the power, wealth and majesty of the ruler, the bigness and “in your face” aspect of the spectacle and the mythical stories enacted at once said: we are safe here, but also, don’t mess with us, the celestial and sublunary gods. So it still is: at the Met, say, I feel safe and marvel in awe at the fact that the we are so fortunate to witness such an amazing phenomenon at all, but also I feel the peril in the high-wire acts of the singers, the stake in success or failure, the dare to really take in the emotions that are being expressed and enacted — in all this and more I feel the danger — the danger of vying with our own gods — and I come out of the theater uplifted, having contemplated and felt deeply the magnificence that humanity can be.

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My earlier blog

Back in 2010 I started a blog as a kind of composer’s diary recording my experience upon embarking on the world premiere of my opera Before Night Falls in Fort Worth, Texas. I called it “Music by Jorge Martin” and you can visit it here. It spanned the time period December 2009 through May 2010 and I wrote 18 posts, including, as a “narrative thread,” the genesis of the opera from reading the book, through the adaptation, composing, and workshopping to its full stage production. If you’re interested in reading the blog, just remember you have to start at the bottom of the page and read “up” in time; the first entry was December 19. At the moment I have no “narrative thread” to offer, except that I’m cooking up a new opera, and as always, many planets have to line up and gods to smile before it comes alive on the stage. When I’m more in the thick of it I will write about it. In the meantime, I will occasionally muse on a quote that I come across or that I’ve kept. Here’s one that speaks for itself, hanging by my piano:

“If a man waits until no one can find fault with what he does, he will do nothing.” — Archbishop Cranmer

(WHO was Archbishop Cranmer? If you’re interested in learning about this figure from the time of Henry VIII, here’s the wikipedia entry.)

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Here we go again!

Welcome to my brand new website. I think this is at least the fourth avatar of And frankly I hope I never have to go through this again — that is, building a new website. So I hope you like this one. Let me know how you like it; I’m open to suggestions. I’m still working on it: some old links have to be updated, some photos and sound filesvdug up, that sort of thing. And I promise my next post will be more “substantial.” Meanwhile, if this is your first visit, welcome, and if you’re a return visitor, welcome back!

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