A New Muse

A Composer's Travel Journal (2)

- A New Muse -

Two of the pieces I wrote in 2001 share the word "muse" in their titles: "Szymborska's Muse" and "Akhmatova's Muse”.  "Szymborska's Muse" was written for two traditional instruments - taegeum and piri - and is related to the poem "Nothing Twice" by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. The poem begins: "Nothing can ever happen twice. In consequence, the sorry fact is that we arrive here improvised and leave without the chance to practice." In the piece, each time certain musical materials are repeated, they are played differently. Many of the details are left for the performers to decide while playing the piece, so that "nothing can ever happen twice". The two musicians are to continue to listen to each other for changes of dynamics and tempo throughout the piece, yet a change by one player need not necessarily be answered by the other. Each player wears a band of Peruvian seed pods on a wrist so that the player's movement will create sounds.

My recent music reflects my interest in the interactions between musicians: listening to each other, reacting or not reacting to each other, making their contribution to the music by deciding how to play it, just as the composer, who has written something on paper, contributes.

Some composers write extremely difficult music, turning the player into their servant. This is a servant who never feels satisfied that they've played the composer's music well. I think it's possible to write a piece of music that gives the performer enough room to play well and to play really differently each time. There's no need to feel unhappy if the music doesn't match the way it sounded the last time it was played. When I practice writing Chinese characters (I'm just beginning to study Chinese) the same character looks somewhat different each time I write it. I also have to remember that a good instrumentalist is spending a lifetime learning to play the instrument and I must learn, as a composer, from this person.

Some composers write many details into their music. Some write in too many details, pinning the performer down and limiting their contribution. Some of this overly detailed music is so complicated to play that the musicians must wear headphones that play a recording of a steady beat that they must follow (this is called a "click-track"). Then, their biggest job is to ignore what they hear coming from the instruments of the other players, so that they can follow their own click-track and play their own part. Sometimes, the conductor of a group must wear the click-track headphones so that he/she can go on conducting a steady beat even when the music sounding around him/her is confusing. I once saw a situation at a concert where the computer sending the click-track to the conductor's headphones malfunctioned. The conductor and all of the musicians had to wait, frozen in position, ready to begin the piece, not knowing when the computer would suddenly work again and send the signal to begin to the conductor!

This situation where the players must follow a conductor's beat to play the piece is not good. Because they follow the conductor, taking orders from this "leader", who tells them when and how to play, the musicians' need to listen to each other is not so great anymore. And this conductor is also taking orders - from the computer and click-track, or from the composer. So the details are basically decided by one person - the composer. Musicians have become only parts in a machine.

The reality, though, is that we're not machine parts. And if you think about it further, the musical instrument isn't a machine or a part of a machine. So I've tried to invite the musicians playing my music to listen to each other and agree upon the details of dynamics and tempo, which I haven't determined for them. In "Szymborska's Muse", I've invited the players to listen to each other and, in effect, also listen to their own muse. So while they listen to each other, they no longer must agree among themselves about things like dynamics and tempo.

"Akhmatova's Muse" is for both Western and Korean instruments: flute/alto flute, taegeum, oboe, piri, and 25 string kayageum. The piece was written after I read Anna Akhmatova's poem "The Muse”. The musicians coordinate with each other in a flexible manner, deciding the lengths of notes and dynamics by listening to the other players instead of busily counting beats and measures. In the first rehearsal, one of the players pleaded to me, saying, "Please tell us what to do!"

When I wrote this piece I wasn’t thinking in terms of Western or Eastern instruments. It was just like writing another string quartet or woodwind quintet; each instrument was treated as it is. I didn't try to blend the sound of piri with that of oboe, or try to balance the sound of the kayageum with the group of wind instruments. No player is forced to change the character of the instrument, to make it louder or softer, brighter or duller, in order for all of the sounds to mix. No instrument is exotic compared to the other instruments. They are all different and very similar, just like the world's people. The world isn't a melting pot.

The Muse

by Anna Akhmatova

When at night I await her coming,
It seems that life hangs by a strand.
What are honors, what is youth, what is freedom,
Compared to that dear guest with rustic pipe in hand.
And she enters. Drawing aside her shawl
She gazed attentively at me.
I said to her: Was it you who dictated to Dante
The page of The Inferno? She replied: It was I.

These two pieces were just performed for the first time last week in San Francisco (4. 19. 2002) by the members of Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea and Citywinds.
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