Most of the music I love is short and fleeting, as if a flower, dying as soon as it blooms; yet, despite its brevity it is not cut short. It is everything condensed and distilled into a single moment, as if a dream. Music should be like a life: it should be born, grow, and wither away. If one is lucky, life is long and fruitful; yet, one cannot expect such luck always... often life burns like a candle at both ends.
There is a tragedy in my method of composing. We are always living on borrowed time—we stole our life from that of another—and my music has not long to live: it is syllabic, purely tied to the word, and it dies with the word.
At a technical level, I wanted to continue to blend the cantor into everything. The result is a set of voices in the 5vv arrangement of the late renaissance madrigal, but with the cantor acting as the additional voice, akin to a Quinto. So the cantor is as obbligato as the other four voices, but instead follows their own unique notation. They intone every word at the standard rate it sounds. The voices grow out of this utterance, combining two rates of speed: phonetic declamation and artistic prolongation. Each word occurs, expands, then ends. Then the next word begins. That's it. My language has become consistent to a degree that I expect anyone to have seen anything else I have done to understand what I mean by this.
Concerning the brevity of the work, there is a certain frame of mind one should approach it with.
In the world, "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" is metaphorical: it represents a possibility, something distant from the lives we live, promised but not quite fulfilled; yet, in the monastery it is literal: it represents what every moment in life should be, and it places upon our shoulders the responsibility to make it so.
When one lives with such an idea, each day, each hour, each moment of one's life becomes meaningful, because it serves the ends of heaven on earth. Life is so short, and, on the surface, meaningless here. There are no goals, no possibilities, rather only moments in which to live. We have been given the tools to make those moments matter, and we have been given the opportunity to make a choice about how, and whether or not, we make use of these tools.
I think of what my first teacher told me when I look at working on small, succinct pieces. The greatest danger is to sketch and work with fragments, as if patching them together, assuming that such a thing makes a musical idea. Same too is there a danger in sketching a series of fragmentary steps in life and then attempting to fill in the empty space somehow, as if that creates a meaningful life in the process. Often the points we think connect the sections we first sketched never quite lead where we expected them to, and perhaps they never quite were to be connected in the first place. Sketch according to points, and you might find that the result is proper and correct, but seems to miss some greater essence.
Musical forms, like our values, are distillations of philosophical and cultural ideas. To simply copy ideas without being in the place or state where they actually possess meaningful value only leads to hollow, by rote actions. Often we tend to view methods previously used successfully as a key to something meaningful, and we use these steps as sketches to piece together a path, as if they might provide the same result this time.
However, meaning is not determined by these things, but rather by beliefs and ideals in action. One who does not believe in, and live in a state of, European enlightenment as it was in the 18th century cannot truly write common practice music, only a copy, because the decision is always aesthetic, a surface. In the 20th century reflection of classicism, the use of forms is both an acknowledgement of the past and a scaffolding to support musical form following certain issues emerging from the fallout of late romanticism, of the erosion of the common practice tonal system. Perhaps it might be tongue in cheek, a polystylistic reflection of one's relationship to the past via one's musical life and experiences, as in Schnittke, or in the highlighting of certain minimalist tendencies found in the harmonic writing, as in Nyman; however, it is never that music as it was, but always through how we come to understand it, and if our understand of it cannot truly be the same as that of its time, then it is difficult to truly comes to terms with what it actually is.
I come to this musing because in the last year I believe I also made such a mistake, at the very least at a technical level.
Writing and compiling Point and Line allowed for me to reorient myself, to return back to my core beliefs, and identify that, in attempting to meet with other musical practices for the sake of validation, I only damaged my own personal practice in the process.
My teachers might have been romantic, modernist, traditional, experimental, etc. But that does not mean I am any of these things. They chose their own paths based upon their own beliefs, I simply was there to learn from their journey as to better seek that which I wish to do, based on that which I believe—as I wrote, that world I said "yes" to.
As to whether or not it exists... I still believe it does, but only because the belief in it leads to the actions that uphold it. If I did not believe, then I could not act, and if the action is impossible, then it is not because what I believe is impossible, but that the method in which I acted was inconsistent with the belief itself.
The monastic is a result of an interpretation—a belief—that is given form via action—a way of living. If monasticism is impossible for one, then it is not a deficiency or failing on the part of the belief or the character of the individual, but is rather that their actions—and the greater methods in which they approach life—are intrinsically inconsistent with the interpretation: one is called to a vocation not by supernatural cause, according to faith alone, but by temperament and desire. Vocations do not occur according to blind faith, it is more that those with certain temperaments and conditions tend towards situations in which faith leads. Beliefs are informed by culture and environment indeed, but they are also informed by temperament. Pascal always possessed a retiring personality: being "too secular for the sacred, and too sacred for the secular" is not a failure of character, it is simply who he was by virtue of the beliefs he held and the actions he chose according to those beliefs. It is not a question of a distaste for one and an inability to commit to another, but rather he was inherently split between these worlds, and did his best to act accordingly, knowing he could not fully deny one and embrace the other. All of Pascal's work deals with his proximity to the world of his age, the contemporary Catholic orthodoxy, and the difficulties his own personal beliefs arrived at when placed against these two poles. These are not decisions one makes at will, but rather consistent trends in how one engages with the world, and thus our place within the world can often be difficult to surmise when we feel out of step.
Yet, as Pascal determined when he wrote his apologia, being inconsistent with oneself is more damning than being inconsistent with the world; for, if one cannot be honest with oneself, then one cannot be honest at all.
If I step back and attempt to analyze my failure, it is not due to misunderstanding or neglect by others, but more a conflict between what I desire and what I felt I had to steer myself toward.
If I deny myself my own beliefs, then I bend to the tastes of another in the process, and I am no longer consistent with my own artistic vision. And if I write music accordingly, if I scrub away certain traits, is it really then said to be mine? Certainly there would be other things: the way one handles line, specific intervallic preferences, predilection for certain moods or expressions; yet, lying by omission is still, categorically, lying.
To this truth, I answer; for, according to my beliefs and my ideals, to embrace this peculiar type of musical miniature is proper, and perhaps necessary. To take upon form as if it is a transient moment, a flower coming into bloom and then passing away. This is an intrinsic part of my interests not merely aesthetically, but in the living of life, and my experience of the world.
It is not style, per se… style implies a conscious formulation of tools and ideas; indeed, Messiaen very consciously uses all of the tools of his personal style, and they were developed with a very explicit intentionality as to be stylistic traits of his musical language; after all, the purpose of such were as tools that expressed his beliefs in meanings beyond expression, as symbols and manifestations of theology and the world itself.
Instead of this rigorous notion of style, it is more akin to naturalistic prose writing, where the writer is not interested in grammatical style and instead writes as if speaking, using punctuation as a sort of transcription of how one speaks. If one throws the style guide at such writing, perhaps all of it is incorrect; however, style is surface. Good examples of writing are useful for teaching, but after the time of learning the technique has ended, the writer is free to write knowing they possess the prerequisite craft to express their thoughts coherently. The material should always be of greater interest than the method.
Analogous to me is Brakhage's late work: a few minutes of color painstakingly painted on celluloid. Luminous, lush, fantastic, engaging, and, above all, momentary. When you close your eyes and rub them, the things you see flash; they occur so quickly that you know they were there, but you cannot necessarily recall what they really were. Does this devalue these events? Certainly, even for a moment, an impact was made. Our brains only process these events as a whole, and the individual events, though seen, are lost within the greater fog, only to be a rough shape in our memories.
This is not a technical outlook Brakhage had, it was purely experiential and aesthetical. He had to develop techniques to express these things, but the excellence of the technique was not the purpose of the exercise, but a means to express these beliefs he held. My techniques and forms were developed for various technical and compositional reasons, but the final work is not those techniques. The final work is my life itself, my experience of the world I live in. I possess little else, how could I deny myself this one indulgence?
One knows when it is time to live, and one comes to know when it is time to die. These are exterior to any system or ideology that determines how we live our lives. Things come into being and bear fruit and wither away whether or not there are societal or personal expectations. We are given a chance in this time we live to bear fruit, and others are given a chance in this time they live to enjoy that fruit.
In music one knows when it is possible to spin the tune, and they must learn to identify when it is time to finish it and let it pass into rest. To write short, fleeting music is to come to see that there are times where one cannot extend life any further, that there are times where a piece ends when it must end, even if it only lasts 40 seconds. There are times where people are born to only live 20 years. The brevity of such a life simply makes the search for meaning all the more important.
"Forever" is antithetical to life itself; eternity is the incomprehensible silence after it ends.
Sean Patrick Ignatius Tartaglia
Copyright © Sean Tartaglia 2022