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Dancing in the Dark

[first given as a paper at the Internationale Ferienkurse fuer Neue Musik, Darmstadt 1986 and published in New Observations, New York, May 1989]

Talking about music as a composer has something of Beuys’s “Zeig Deine Wunde” (“Show Your Wound”) about it most of us cannot resist the invitation, despite the dubious value of such an exercise.

There is a public and private aspect to composition. In writing about composition one attempts to make musical concerns clear and public. But I think the really interesting aspect of composition is that part which cannot be talked about directly or easily.

For my students I often describe composition as an attempt to redefine reality (in music). If this is so, then real composition begins when you do not actually understand why you are doing something, because you are attempting to reach beyond your own vocabulary.

Musical content can be understood but not described, at least not in terms of an ‘obsolete reality’ (to coin a phrase).

By way of illustration (derived from one of Suzanne Langer’s):

1). Let us represent musical MATERIAL as a set of triangles of diminishing size:


We can talk about this what choices we made etc. (we can add ‘concepts’ to this – say, the triangles represent the Holy Trinity or, more fashionably, the signs of the zodiac…).

2). METHOD how we put the material together. I will choose to place one triangle inside another.


In Europe this is the most popular point of discussion, particularly among the serialists. (Again we could apply a concept here). But if we choose our methods and materials well, we get something else: a clearly defined



The triangles tend to disappear, and we are presented with an image of curving, intersecting planes. It is clear that the image is inseparable from the materials and the method. No amount of discussion of materials and method will give us a clue to understand the image, except from the point of view of reconstructing it.

Technique is “the right method at the right time”, but what guides us in making the choice of appropriate method cannot be adequately explained except in terms of the resultant image. In other words, unless one is a conceptualist, a discussion of technique is meaningless without a discussion of imagery.

It is that indescribable relationship between the method and the image that interests me. It is in this dark area that composition lies.

As a student of Stockhausen I used to believe that if I knew exactly why I was doing something I was composing well. Now I realize that this amounts to confining oneself to manipulating cliche. The rational application of method can at best set up a compositional problem, and with luck solving it will lead one into an area of genuine composition.

This may seem self-evident, especially to someone involved in the visual arts, but if it is self-evident, why is there so much talk in music of technique AS THOUGH IT WERE TRANSFERABLE? Why is there so little awareness of MUSICAL IMAGE?

Is it because the so-called traditionalists have reduced a discussion of musical imagery to emotive description (“cheerful, gloomy, mysterious, light, dark” this is still common in British criticism)? Or does it stem from the tacit assumption of many composers (from conservative to radical) that if you MAP a set of values from an extra-musical model (be they numerical proportions…topographical aspect of a landscape…symbols of states of mind…”laws” of nature…) onto an aspect of the music, you have explained it, or worse still, found a rationale for a composition?

As the twenty-first century approaches we seem to be reaching for our earplugs and crutches. Nobody seemed more aware of this than Morton Feldman the self-confessed Billy Graham of Darmstadt. Show your wound but allow yourself to be healed. Feldman made it clear that what mattered was NOT A METHOD OF COMPOSITION, BUT AN ATTITUDE TOWARDS MUSIC. I understand this as involving a feeling (love) for material (“know thy instrument”), an awareness that everything depends on the context (no universal rules for all situations), and a sensitivity to image.

If there are to be no fixed laws of composition, no formal concepts, then musical discussion (even of technique) needs be via imagery metaphor.

There is a popular song of the thirties called Dancing in the Dark. It struck me that this gives a neat description of what I regard as an ideal approach to composition. It’s very specific.

If you dance in the dark, you know exactly WHAT you are doing. WHERE you are and where you are going is less clear. Obviously, some skill is required (in the thirties one danced with a partner and hopefully there were other dancers on the floor). There is a difference between dancing in the dark and stumbling in the dark. WHY you are dancing is an existential question. I can’t think of any good justification for it one dances for the joy of it and for establishing a relationship with an unseen partner. Only when you make a mistake or when someone turns on the lights does it become a social question. Turning on the lights makes what you are doing public. It also makes you aware of what others are doing. Obviously this has its value, but it carries with it the temptation to compete with others from the point of view of style, at the expense of sensation. You no longer do something for how it feels, but for how it looks.

The struggle to grasp the reality of what you are doing in the dark is easily deflected into competitive display in the bright light of the marketplace. So now I am really beginning to show my wounds. Which brings me to African music.

There is an important existential quality to African music, which few people have picked up on. John Blacking, the ethnomusicologist, in his study of the music of the Venda made an interesting discovery in connection with their perception. Of course, like so much so-called minimalist music, most African music involves the repetition of certain cyclic patterns, be they chord progressions or melodic phrases. When asking performers to isolate the pattern they were repeating, he found he could not make himself understood. Further investigation revealed that the performers did not perceive repetition in the music. The music is perceived as a continuous flow, rather like a river or a waterfall. How perplexed you would be if someone asked you what PART of a waterfall was repeated.

None of the African performers I recorded or spoke to appeared to have anxiety about change in their music. That their music is repetitive appeared to be one of the most obvious features. If we accept this, that this is a misconception on our part, how many other unconscious and false assumptions do we have to admit?

A similar body of misconceptions may surround the visual arts. Zulu culture, for example, is dominated by round forms round huts, round baskets, kraals, even a landscape of exceptionally round hills. Research among Zulu children has indicated that those growing up in this traditional environment appear to have a different perception of rectangles that those who are familiar with Western architecture. There is some difficulty in drawing parallel lines, and the subdivision of two-dimensional space, as in wall decoration, is often irregular and (for us) asymmetrical. How does one reconcile this with the symmetrical perfection of their basketry? The answer lies in the methods of production — the basket is built up in a spiral an ADDITIVE process that demands a feeling for rhythm and organic growth. The symmetrical subdivision of space demands a Euclidean, geometrical concept of space a SUBDIVISIVE process. If we admire a cloth or painted wall for its subtle asymmetry, or for its unusual sense of proportion, we may be imposing a set of artistic values on the work which are quite irrelevant to the artist. Perception PER SE may be culturally determined.

African music seems to be perceived in what Ernst Cassirer defines as ‘mythological time’ i.e., time which is not subdivisible, time which is inseparable from event. Unlike Westerners, who automatically begin measuring the proportions of a piece of music, and who have a certain expectation of change (which naturally can be met or thwarted), many African listeners seem to regard music in the same light as natural events. Like birdsong it can be neither too long or too short, like the clouds, neither well nor badly proportioned. Variation and inventiveness are admired, but not in terms of temporal necessity.

The interesting thing about simple repetition is that while it goes on it is difficult to understand. It appears to teeter between being very meaningful and meaningless rather like the emperor’s clothes. As long as nothing changes, the music remains strong. La Monte Young’s perfect fifth is well nigh flawless is has a weak beginning and a weak ending. Steve Reich tries to sneak sideways, changing one note at a time John McGuire introduces a loud perfect cadence (make a grand enough gesture and nobody will notice what’s happening) Phil Glass does something similar with a burst of energy.

The only Western music in which I find no anxiety about changes is the late works of Morton Feldman. The music proceeds with such effortlessness and unpredictability that it unfolds as a powerful image of a natural event. In common with African music, nothing is forced, nothing is demonstrated, everything is affirmed.

But for these exceptions we seem in the late twentieth century to be further away from an existential music that composers of the eighteenth century. Composition today seems to cling more desperately to forms, models and systems than ever before. We have moved from a Hegelian dialectic to a neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic worldview. Easily digestible forms and repeated formulas make the work easier to market.

It’s time we turned out the light.