Composing and the Sense of Self


John Rahn


[Abstract: The sense of self is both an obstacle to art and necessary for its creation. Games determine many actions impersonally. Music is a game that can become a friend. A composition must “lift off” into an independent existence like that of another person. Monumentality and immortality in art depend on this paradox: I continue to exist in something other than I.]



We may deplore, in theory, a sense of self, treat it as the seat of nausea, a trail of slime on the ground of our existential career, a turd, or dress it in double-knits, or deny the possibility of its existence or the possibility of the existence of any “subject” which would be its necessary precondition, or OM it out of itself to reach a clear plateau. Nevertheless we act, and each act is both the basis of the construction of our self by others (from “outside”) and adds its increment of memory and passion to the sense we have of our self.  Just as our actions contribute to the sense of self, the sense of self contributes to our choices, our actions.




Whole regimes of actions are simply subordinate to rules of the game being played. One who decides to be a really good squash player must follow that discipline, eat right, exercise in certain ways, practice the moves, and on the court, follow the logic of squash tactics. There may be some inflection of the actual play by the player's self, the physical peculiarities (tall, short, fast, slow, young, old, etc) and mental dispositions (daredevil, cautious), but most of the play is selfless. No matter who is playing, certain sequences of moves and strategic thinking are right, if you have the ability to carry them out. Even the deceptions are mostly impersonal: as you prepare to hit the ball, your opponent knows which shot is the most likely because it is the best choice for you, and knows also that you may choose a different shot if you sense that it may take your opponent by surprise or off balance.


By “game” I mean any definable domain of actions with its own internal logic. Making money is such a game. One who has decided to make money must, like the squash player, fall under the discipline of that game. It does not matter how much the player wants to make money, except to keep the player in the game and well disciplined. Certain moves and strategies will work and others will not, irrespective of personal desires and sense of self. The classic “con games” exploit undisciplined and ignorant desire for money. The trick is to play a game your opponent does not know; the mark has the same desire for money you do, but is unaware of the game being played.  In both making money and squash, one player wins what the other loses. They have entirely unambiguous goals which involve maximizing one's share of a finite resource.


No doubt many people would like to make money, or even to be a good squash player, but not all of them choose to play the game, or to devote themselves to playing it well. They may have physical or mental limitations which would prevent their being competitive in a given game. The goal of the game or the scene of the game may conflict with another game which they play passionately, as when a Christian monastic renounces the world. Some people try to play a number of games simultaneously: the successful businesswoman who is a good squash player and also a good mother and wife. The choice of which games to play depends basically on one's sense of self. Circumstances play a part both in forming the sense of self and in determining the games one plays. The scion of a very rich family will grow up accustomed to financial dealings, will learn the game as part of learning to be a person, and will also have access to the information and capital to play that game. This does not determine that he will play that game, but it smooths the road to it.

A person chooses to play a game not only because of the desirability of the result of the game -- many games have only a formal result, like chess -- but according to the pleasure the person finds during the actual playing of the game, a pleasure in the real-time working-out of the rules of the game and in the circumstances attendant on playing the game. Sailboat racing and sport car racing have very different sorts of venues for otherwise similar games. If you like the water and sailing, race sailboats; if you like autos and great speed and noise, race cars, and so on. There are also secondary effects: the star football player will make a lot of money and break bones, the chess champion will be revered in the world of chess.


Music, Games, and Friendship


So why would anyone choose to play the art game, the art-music-composing game? There is initially the pleasure of making music, any kind of music. This is an especially pleasurable game. There is a sensual pleasure in it as well as an abstract pleasure in the rules of the game. Like any intensely played game, it takes you out of yourself. In the case of music, this Dionysiac evacuation has the peculiar appeal of simultaneously unbinding and constructing the sense of self. Music is not a zero-sum game, but depends on cooperation among players, so that when one player wins all players win; such positive cooperation can be very appealing in itself. Music is a pleasurable activity producing pleasure in other people. It is not appropriative, like sex. If I enjoy playing music with you, I am undisturbed by the prospect of your playing music with many other people. When I play (perform) a piece of music, it becomes mine only in that I construct it in the performance, but it remains freely available for construction by others. When I have composed a piece of music, it is both mine and not mine, with cultural and subcultural and individual variations in the kind and degree of possession.


Unlike a painting, a composition is not a possessible physical object. It is not collectible and cannot be hoarded. Though a melomaniac or discophile may possess and hoard a great library of recordings of music, the possession is in principle not exclusive so as to deny possession of the music by others. When I sing a tune it is mine but also yours. You can simply listen to it and you can sing it whenever you want. To create a piece of music is (usually) to make a nonphysical mold, a pattern that can be replicated in material, sensual form. It is a prototype of the “intellectual property” for which legal mechanisms such as copyright are still being re-invented. For a physical object, possession is presumptive ownership and is exclusive; but a pattern only becomes intellectual property by its potential for possession by others, and ownership is determined by origination rather than by  possession. In spite of the music industry and the emerging legalities of the information age, making music is essentially an amiable and a generous act. 


Consider friendship. Two friends enjoy one another's company and conversation. A friendship is deliberately constructed as well as spontaneous. There are limits to the relationship; transgressing these usually harms or destroys the friendship. Each friend is reticent in certain ways and refrains from certain behaviors, such as presumption or domineering. Friends are careful of each other. Friendship is not a good game, in that there is no firm set of rules for it. The logic connecting actions within a friendship is tenuous and adaptive. The relationship is always personal. Friendship is like music in its amiable, generous, pleasurable, constructive, and cooperative nature, but it is nothing but cooperation. Friendship is an intricate cat's-cradle of connections between two selves. Each friend plays his self against the other, tests the pushes and pulls of the relationship against his sense of self, refines his sense of self through the relationship.


Music, on the other hand, is definitely a game. The pleasure in the real-time working-out of its rules is the major pleasure of music. The sensuous effects do exist: sound is like touch, it is a kind of touch. Some complexes of sounds are caressing. However, the sensuous effect of the material sound does not in itself constitute the music. Sound becomes music when it is perceived as arranged. Sound is a material framework on which to hang patterns, organization, evolving structures, abstract relationships. Sound which is heard as music is a jungle-gym for the mind's faculty of abstract organization. The marriage of a kind of broadcast touch with abstract function is at the heart of music's peculiarity and appeal.


There is a third component in the experience of music which is like friendship. This is what makes music important, more than a mere pleasure. The intimacy of the structures built in an experience of music entwines the music with the self. The temporality of this intimate experience is an analog to one's life in general. One lives one's life in the music. The sensuous structures evolve as they do in life, carrying one's self along with them. Since the person experiencing the music collaborates in constructing the music (on the basis of the material sounds provided by replication of the pattern provided by the music's originator), a dialog ensues which negotiates the construction of one's sense of self, of alternate selves, freeing the imagination of self, pulling us out of our ruts, opening up a space and a depth and a future for our selves. The originating pattern serves as our friend.  If that friend is wise and good, the relationship can be ennobling. It helps us to make friends with ourselves.


Three Levels of Game


Who would not choose to be a composer, if that means creating pleasurable sensuous abstract structures lived out in time as our friend, our mentor? The game of composing music is one of the grand games. It is a meta-meta-game in that each piece of music is itself a game whose rules are asserted if not invented by the composer. To choose to be a composer is to play the composing game. The next level of creative act is choosing or constructing a given set of rules, a syntax, a style, a genre. At the third level, the composition or game-instance is composed (like a particular game of chess as opposed to the Game of Chess).


The distinction between the game and the game-instance is a logical rather than a causal or temporal distinction. Often the rules of the game are to some degree constructed and refined interactively during the process of composition, as the composer gets further along in working on it and as the piece gets more complete. The construction of the rules of the game and the composition of this instance of the game are in such cases interdependent. The individual composition calls for and receives the rules under which it constructs itself; or (to put it another way) the particulars of the composition arrange themselves “naturally” into patterns, following the composer's humanly inevitable tendency to repeat and vary. But just as earlier moments in a piece of music, earlier in piece-time, motivate later ones regardless of the temporal order of their creation, the rules of the game remain general and abstract in principle even when they come into existence as part of a process of composition of a particular piece of music, and though they may never find another avatar, another instance, they could.


The act of composing is not just arranging abstract patterns, like a kaleidoscope. The abstract activity is essential but not sufficient. The composer must give some thought, direct some intuition, toward the person in the music, the basis of the “friend” that the listener will construct. The composition of the friend is not explicit, not “Now I am going to compose a friend in the music.” In any case, the “friend” in the music is just a metaphor for what actually takes place, for the musical side of the dialogic reconstruction of the self of the listener through interaction with the music. The person in the music is in the structures of the music, for the substance of the music is nothing but its structures. The friend in the music is a quality in the structures that facilitates the potential of the music for interaction with the listener's self.


Composing is then really like giving birth, or raising a child, or teaching. To compose is to help create another, to make up a set of rules and a sensuous living-out of them which will enable another person to complete the image of the friend which, in turn, acts as a trellis for the other person to grow on. Composing is also virtuosity and display and craftsmanship, so that the games and persons so constructed will be attractive, useful, and fun, brilliant, challenging, wonderful.


Inflection and Assertion


There are entire genres of inflection, like jazz, which depend on parody of an existing musical game (syntax, style, genre). Most popular music is, at its best, inflectional, a more or less creative inflection of existing games. The inflections become the primary carriers of meaning, while the rules of the game, because they are constant, become almost inaudible, as in the harmony of rock music or the rhythm of bossa nova -- so constant that they can be programmed into electronic keyboard instruments as presets. They carry no information, no significant variability.

This is not to say that all inflectional music is information-free. Jazz, for instance, is musically rich and essentially fluid in its materials, which are the classic materials of harmony, tunes, counterpoint, rhythm. Good jazz cannot be preset. Yet it inflects these classical materials, parodying the tune. Jazz is subversive and understandably countercultural. Its attempts to transcend its dependence on inflection and parody, to find an identity constructed out of its own traditions in the non-inflectional aspects of classic jazz, have however led it towards the classical art music tradition, while classic jazz itself lives on as a museum subculture. Popular music such as that of Madonna or Peter Gabriel is also inflectional, but even though much of it is preset-able, it can be significant and even innovative in its inflections. Good popular music is paradigmatically postmodern: sampling, collage, comment, and an inflectional variation, all of which probably relate to the kind of marginal individuation useful to marketing and commerce.


Modern art music is not inflectional. The rules of the game are themselves up for grabs: it is a music which transcends the game by composing the rules of its game, its syntax, its genre, its very aesthetic stance and cultural position. This very radicality prevents its being a music of inflection. It must be a music of assertion, of invention and innovation, of discovery. To compose is not to assert oneself, but to assert another: the game (rules of the game), the instance of the game, and the friend one finds in the playing-out of the game-instance. The listener to art music must figure out the rules of the game by following the play of the game, which is a challenge and a stimulus to alertness, and the friend one meets in this music can be a stranger, a foreigner, an  exotic, a relationship which expands one's sense of self. Part of the appeal of art music is thus related to the appeal of world music and ethnopop: discovery of a new world. Eventually, if not sooner, the ethnopop ferment will come to its chemical equilibrium as the music cultures of the world swirl and mix universally, the explosion of hybrid vigor peters out, and every remaining individual musical tradition will face the problem addressed by contemporary art music and jazz: How can a music find newness and vitality within itself to avoid stagnation?


Schoenberg and Cage


The twentieth-century is (was) a century of innovation devoted to addressing this problem in almost as many ways as there have been significant composers. Two figures stand out as representative: Schoenberg for syntactical innovation, and Cage for cultural innovation. Both founded traditions whose elements pervade the contemporary musical scene.


Without Schoenberg's by-its-bootstraps re-invention and universal expansion of harmonic materials, music had nowhere to go: the walls of tonality loomed high on every side. After Schoenberg, the theory of harmony has become truly universal, and every harmonic world is a choice. John Cage, though he studied music with Schoenberg, followed the tradition of Dada and took it to full flower. The musical and personal eccentricity of a Satie became with Cage an attempt at living a life and producing a music both of which were exemplary of his somewhat uneasy blend of Zen buddhism, Taoism, anarchism and social justice, and Dada. Cage endowed musical composition with an explicit ethical dimension and invented a new cultural and social role for it. Following “in his steps” [1] are the performance artists, free improvisors, and alternative culture musicians for whom making music and living life are ethical statements, each constructed in harmony with the other. “Compose Yourself (A Manual for the Young)” [2] is J. K. Randall's title: The alternative culture of free improvisation, music free from the proscenium, from the audience/composer duality, from the authority of the composer, from the monumentality of the composition, and perhaps from the ego if not the self. 


Neither of these composers neglected the other side. Schoenberg also felt the need to invent a new musical society for musical performances, and Cage also expanded music's universe by opening it to non-intention, chance, the sonorous found object, the environment, sound which before Cage few bothered to perceive as musical. Schoenberg's aesthetic remained one of expression in a dark, Freudian world of universal cultural angst, a post-Romantic aesthetic in that it assumes that the artist can find the universal in himself and by expressing it, bring it to light for everyone. It is absolutely non-egotistical but is expressly a self-involved aesthetic, disciplined by an idealism and a tortured Atlas-like effort to bear the world for others. Schoenberg lives in the world of the masterwork, the compelling universal artifact that is stamped with the identity of its author. Schoenberg would be a rather heavy father were it not for his unremitting search for a radicality that subverts the authority that rules the search. Cage worked hard at constructing his compositions, building structures with an assiduity and attention to detail that defies the popular conception of his work. In a sense, Cage left nothing to chance. His stated program was to free composition from intention, but he could never realize this. It was always his music, his intention, his 4'33” of piano silence, his frame, his directing authority behind every anarchistic statement. When you catch a butterfly and let it go free, that is your choice, you had that power. With Schoenberg, it is the family (the abstract, Freudian family) that provides the interpersonal relations behind the music; with Cage, it is the lover: choice not chance, cherishing by freeing.


The Composer's Self


The composer is of course also a listener and a performer (if only projectively, in imagination), and in these capacities enjoys the same relationship to music that other people do. What about the composer as composer? There is no doubt that the composer's sense of self is bound up with the music the composer creates (I am using “composer” here as a category for music creation that includes improvisation and any other mode of creation). The relation of the music to the sense of self  varies enormously in degree and kind in different musical cultures.


Behold: Mozart, Babbitt, or Glass working industriously, writing a musical score that narrowly defines the sonic outcome within a traditional scene of staged musical performance before a defined and passive musical audience. In this case, a masterwork is possible. The reception of the music is conditioned to expect that the music be infused with the musical person of its composer. Phillip Glass's musical style is like a trademark, assuring a certain quality (it tastes like Coke) and authenticating the experience by the stamp of the master. We read program notes about Beethoven, his cranky deafness and passion, about Wagner's domestic arrangements and political maneuverings, about Janacek's advanced age or Mozart's tender age at the time of the composition, and so on. Such personal information about the composer would be relevant to the reception of the music of that composer only in a tradition that strives to understand the music as an extension of a person, of its single originating creator. The intimate personal relations that listeners have to the music induces a cult of the personality of the composer. The mighty music of Beethoven is heard as mighty Beethoven himself. The feeling of personal connection, the “friend in the music,” becomes the person of the composer-as-manifested-in-the-music.


This is not without its effect on the composers themselves, perhaps especially after the contemporary cult of composer-personality was well developed (by the mid 1800s): Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner.  Stravinsky's aristocratic recoil from romanticism and expression only founded a more enigmatic but still intensely intriguing cult of his personality. Finally with Cage (and Warhol) we begin to play with the cult of the personality, accepting its inevitability in this tradition, while the Randall/Boretz culture and its many cousins attempt to construct alternate traditions with music but no composer, no audience.





At its extreme, the cult of the composer's personality motivates people to play the composing game as a way of extending (or maintaining) the domain of their ego, as a “power trip” to dominate and impress with your personality the malleable hordes, to colonize them with your self, to frank them, or to seduce them, as an avoidance of interpersonal negotiation by a socially sanctioned but at bottom infantile universal assertion of self. The composer as prick. The music composed from such motivations may actually be compelling -- this is the point of this powerful motivation.


Composition as manipulation, which ultimately tries to enslave other people, or to deny the existence of other people, to kill them. The fantasy of a musical composition that consists of machine-gunning the audience is almost as old as the machine gun itself, and was common during periods such as Dada and the 1960s: egotism disguised as nihilism, the quasi-erotic power of death as the ultimate manipulation. Another fantasy: the audience wired into their chairs, virtual reality controlling their every sensation and thought, controlling their selves, substituting the composer's artifact for the very self of each member of the audience. The total art-work. Possession.


Some flavor of the extension of self, its expansion and monumentality, is built into the overall tradition of Western art from its inception and accounts for much of the character of this art. “Exegi monumentum aere perennius,” wrote Quintus Horatius Flaccus in the epilog to his three books of Odes: “I have completed a monument that will last longer than bronzes.”  [3] Even in 24 B.C., the sentiment was already conventional: art endures and is a monument to its creator.  If you go to the classical section of the Louvre you will see a forest of Roman busts: marble selves upthrust like magma, congealed extrusions of ego, simulacra of the person through the face, superfacial immortality through representation in art. The sculptors may be anonymous here but it was the aristocratic patrons who paid them, who bought out the artist's share of the immortality of art, an art which was just as enduring as marble or bronze then, but now is on the Internet. Horace claimed his share directly as poet: “Non omnis moriar” (Not all of me shall die).





Not only can an idea, an art-work, last longer than a material edifice, but an art-work embodies the self of the artist in a way that a mere public work (Ozymandias, the charitable Foundation named meticulously and conspicuously after the persons donating the funds) cannot. Even children are a more remote kind of immortality, since they are they and not you. The desire to perpetuate one's self -- especially as one's age advances -- is based of course on the fear of death, but also and more objectively, on the feeling that each individual person, particularly oneself, is a valuable and unique accomplishment in living, the result of daily struggle that admirably transcends that struggle, something it would be a shame to lose by death. This is by no means a universal presumption, but it underlies Western culture.


One of the fascinating contradictions in Cage's work is the construction of a monumental opus whose premises include the abolition of intention in art and the disciplined whittling-down of the sense of self. One cannot simultaneously be a Zen monk and a “great artist,” logically, but actually it seems that one can try. “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” [4] “When going from nothing towards something, we have all the European history of music and art we remember and there we can see that this is well done but the other is not. So-and-so contributed this and that and criteria. But now we are going from something towards nothing, and there is no way of saying success or failure since all things have equally their Buddha nature.” [5] Without being an artist, one still can do art. The act of making the art proceeds from an enlightened, self-less nature. You erase the paper, leaving it blank. The blank paper is then the ground of your action. Your art may be figured, but you are not there, you are blank. The art is a monument to non-self, and there is no “I” to invest in the art so that it (the “I”) shall not all die. Art, like Mallarme’s lace, “abolishes itself,” as under its influence the distinction between art and life disappears, leaving life in an artistic condition. Art and the self both become increasingly irrelevant categories as the Zen discipline proceeds and the universe becomes transparent. This, too, is a kind of immortality.



The Tertium Quid and Lift-off


I have just been talking about the composer investing the composer's self in the music, to the extreme of the composer as prick, the phallic insertion of one's self into others to dominate and control them and to intensify and aggrandize the composer's sense of self. Yet earlier I said that to compose is not to assert one's self, but to assert another. When a composer's self is invested in an art-work, it is necessarily fictionalized. The rules of the game provide constraints which can never entirely conform to the life outside the game, the self of the composer. Even for a composer who tries simply to put himself into the music, to “express” himself (a rather disgusting expression, squeezing to produce an outflow), hoping perhaps for a monument or for immortality, the character of the music can never be the character of the person. This is the saving grace of art. Most people -- people  who do not suffer from certain psychological afflictions-- do not enjoy being invaded and taken over by another person, manipulated and dominated by the immediate and inescapable presence of another. They may enjoy a simulacrum of this sensation in play. The rules of the game provide a playing field that distances both the artist and the audience from one another, and the characters who meet on the playing field are both fictional, a fictional composer and a fictional listener, both made up within the game.


However, the person of the composer is not the only side of the “tertium quid,” the third ingredient of musical art, the aesthetic mediator between the composer and the listener which earlier was called the “friend in the music.”  A composer while composing must pay attention to the sensuous effects, to the rules of the game, to the temporal dynamics and drama of the playing-out of this instance of the game, and also to this tertium quid. It is not necessarily the character of the composer, but it is necessarily an overall quality or character of the whole piece of music, the aesthetic or feel of the music. A composer can follow the rules (whatever they are), composing note after note, but the result will be only an exercise unless an aesthetic sense of the whole emerges. It is this sense of the whole that guides the composer during composition. The emerging sense of the whole, as it were the self of the piece of music, interacts with the self of the composer during the composition of the piece but one is not identifiable with the other. The sense of the whole piece of music is built not only of relations within the music and between the music and the composer, but includes also that piece of music's place in the world, its context both artistically and socially. Identity is both coherence and frame, the one reinforcing the other.


When a piece of music takes on a life of its own, when its aesthetic identity emerges as a force in its own definition and persists, we have lift-off. The piece of music becomes weightless, buoyant; one no longer has to hold it up, since it upholds itself. It gains an autonomy and an independence from the conditions under which it is formed, from the context and rules of the game, and from the person of the composer. It is born as an aesthetic entity.



How to Achieve Lift-Off


 Since lift-off is the establishment of an independently existing entity, the first requirement for the composer is receptivity, an openness and perceptive sensitivity so that the composer may understand the tentative beginnings of the infant entity, its potential character. It does not matter when these beginnings stir, or with what degree of intention by the composer. The composer may even be the caricature of “Mozart,” a grinning, drooling, intentionless idiot scrawling note after note on the music paper (or “while seated one day at the organ”[6]), but unless this idiot can perceive what is taking shape and contribute (however witlessly) to its ongoing formation, assist at its birth, nothing will form and there will be no lift-off. At the other extreme, a composer may spend much creative time in a “pre-compositional” phase which is really compositional, prior to writing down notes or making sounds but concerned with making the rules of the game, the syntax of the piece-to-be, so that the aesthetic idea of the piece which is also taking shape at this time will be possible in its musical flesh.


Such receptivity is not possible if the composer is blinded by a preoccupation with the technical machinery of the composing, or by an engorged and hyperpresent sense of self. This is not to say that egomaniacs cannot be good composers; the counterexamples are all too numerous. The sense of total control afforded by the composing process would predispose composition to invasion by egomaniacs even in the absence of monumentality and immortality. Composition is the egomaniac's chance to open to otherness without losing control to another person. The megalomaniac egomaniac composer creates a world out of himself, complete with others, but the others are the compositions that are his own creation, even though lifted-off into independent existence. Moreover, the composer can edit a composition, revising its emerging nature to fit the needs of the composer. This is something one usually cannot do with other people.  The totalizing, overwhelming, engorged sense of self of the egomaniac composer feeds on the dependency of its compositions and on its extended power over other people (the cult of personality, monumentality). Yet even such a fat sense of self must remain open to the otherness of the emerging composition and ultimately has to encourage its independence, because the existence of the art work is not an extension of the existence of the artist, in spite of monumentality; if it were, there could be no monumentality. Monumentality depends on this paradox, that I continue to exist in something other than I.



The Person and the Piece


Not all egomaniacs are composers, and not all composers are egomaniacs. People with weak egos may be drawn to composition for the same reasons that appeal to the egomaniac: control, lack of resistance, opportunity to build a self outside of self, and of course the glory of it all. Even people with quite normal personalities, those whose parameters are within the normal range, manage to compose. Composers may be nice or nasty, social or asocial, selfish or idealistic, religious or non-religious, moral or amoral. Not all of these differences find their representations in the music produced. The distancing effect provided by the playing field and the game, and the subsequent lift-off of the artifact into an independently existing entity, provide a filtering on the raw human personality of the composer. As the composer finds himself filtered and refracted by composing, nice and nasty etc. do not translate very well into the change of context. Someone who is mean and nasty in her everyday dealings with people may compose a piece of music which is light, airy, warm, delicate, and pleasing, and someone who is gentle and thoughtful of other people's feelings in real life may, in a piece of music, compose out a kind of wrenching aggression appropriate to a Viking berserker. This does not mean that the nice composer turns nasty or the mean composer becomes gentle. The integration that rules the personality remains unchanged, or very little changed, by the act of composing a piece of music that “expresses” qualities oppositional to those of the integration.


Composing is not a therapy that changes the composer. However, composing does allow the composer to play with himself, to develop aspects of his personality that remain on the sidelines in real life, inactive because they do not contribute much to the integrated agenda. At a given time during process of the composition of a piece of music engaged in lifting-off, some latent complex of qualities may be exactly right for it. The complex of qualities settles into the emergent piece of music and turns itself on, marrying into the other qualities of the music and, given a responsibility it never gets a chance at in the composer's life, actively works at the life of the piece of music. The very existence of the piece of music depends on it. In the music, the relations within the complex of qualities reach a stage of development never before seen in the personality of the composer. The quality of the matured relational complex of qualities as a whole then both forms the essence of the piece of music, the basis for its lift-off, and is subsequently available to the composer and to others through the music.


So although composing is not therapy in the sense that the act of “expressing” aspects of the composer's personality not normally expressed in life somehow purges them or rationalizes them, the resulting piece of music may be healing or at least helpful for both the composer and anyone else who experiences it, in that the matured relational complex in the music is available as a model even for those people who have not developed such a complex in real life. It may help to short-circuit the process of discovering what kind of thing one needs in one's life now, where one needs to go.



During and After Composition: Intimacy


A composer has very different relations with a piece of music while composing it than she does when it is complete. Once the music has lifted off and is an independent entity in the world, a composer may even feel shy around it. The intimacy of the act of composition, when the composer and the composition are glued together surface to surface, lingers on as an embarrassment. The completed composition is both more and less than it was during the process of its creation. The composer remembers the former intimacy during the concert, and it feels as if the other members of the audience are sharing this intimacy, also glued to the composer's intimate surfaces, too close for comfort. The composer knows this is not true, but the feeling remains. The music is actually now not part of the composer, not even attached to the composer. The audience is experiencing a third thing which is neither the composer nor the member of the audience, but is the piece of music. Each member of the audience is constructing an experience of this music which is unique. The music-for-Daryl is not the music-for-Bambi. The music which the composer experiences as a member of the audience is very different from the music the composer experienced during the process of composition, and it may be similar to but is is non-identical to any music that anyone else experiences. However, the mode of this experience is intimate, for everyone. Each member of the audience appropriates the music. As a listener, I experience the music as my own, and while I am experiencing it, it is me.


Because the experience is intimate and intense, the listeners may defend themselves against an upsetting piece of music with the intemperate vigor of righteous indignation. One's sense of self, one's dignity, has been assailed somehow, snuck up on and attacked, seduced, overwhelmed; or there would have been some danger of this, but vigilance and hostility fought it off. The music was unworthy. One may be glad to yield to a seducer so long as one's sense of self is flattered or enhanced, and so long as the seducer is not unworthy of one's love. To give love to or to receive it from something one cannot respect belittles one's self and shames it. The more the music demands of the listener, the more respectable that music must be. A music that is openly trivial and glories in this (or appears to) may be experienced as a mere toy, a bauble, a bright ephemeral plaything of no importance. Who can be indignant at such music? It offers no threat to one's sense of self beyond its mere unassuming existence. Only a curmudgeon would be upset at its very triviality. By presenting an appearance of no pretensions, it insulates itself against hostile reactions while preserving its attractiveness as a toy. Yet it is enjoyed, picked up and bought. Its personal but generic value mimics the exchange value of the currency it is exchanged for.


A composer risks such indignation all the more when the music aspires to worthiness: it is this aspiration that renders it vulnerable to indignation. Indignation reaches the composer unfiltered by the normal terms of polite discourse or humane conversation. It is expressed without tact because the audience is not in touch with the composer. The audience knows the composer (presumably) only as mediated by the composition. For a listener, the composer is a “media” person rather than a real person. Unlike most media persons, however, the composer is exposed through the medium of composition in his (her) most intimate folds. The situation is extreme: violent reactions to heightened intimacy. The composer may be badly hurt unless she (he) develops a “belle indifference.” True, the composer-in-the-piece is not the person who is the composer, and the person-in-the-piece has detached from the person-in-the-world, but the embarrassing remembrance remains. And after all, the composer made this piece of music. One does not spit out the soup.

The completed composition is also part of the composer's sense of self, in the same way that any accomplishment lies under the integration that oversees future actions. The integration may be partial at any moment: for these immediate purposes, I do not take into account  x, y, and z. My graduate degrees are mostly irrelevant to my choosing to learn to windsurf. Am I the person that composed that music now? I may have to exclude some former composition in order to compose a particular newer composition, though the excluded music lurks underneath this repudiation. Having composed his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven was changed as a person not only for his future music but in his daily life, to some extent. The judgments and reactions of others play a part (I'd like you to meet Beethoven, you've heard his Fifth Symphony?), but even in their absence Beethoven knows that he is the person who composed the Fifth Symphony, that the process of composing it changed him, and that the fact of its existence as an independent entity is a reference point for his sense of self.






A sense of self is a dilemma. On the one hand, it is inevitable. Every act and perception contributes to memory. The memories of past actions and perceptions are part of the context of each new act or perception, so that the memory of a new action includes this context. Thus an act is remembered as part of an ongoing developing context which is unified spatio-temporally in the world line of the person. Old contexts are folded into new ones. Memory is not a simple recording process, so that new contexts partially determine old ones, redetermine them in the light of the present. It is impossible not to be aware of this process. This awareness is the sense of self.


On the other hand, too much attention to this sense of self is otiose and vitiates action. During action itself, as opposed to moments of contemplation, any attention to the sense of self is too much. An action needs transparency. Self is an opaque body interposing itself between the moment and the act. Self is too much present. It is the only thing that can be present in the location of origination of action, but any presence there is too much. Action is attention elsewhere.


This is the self I left behind me, the posterior face of self, the self as fumet or turd, a reified life, Hamlet's self. Composing is nothing but action. A monumental self will kill this action. But there is also an anterior face of self. At the moment of action, I must choose in the context of what is going on at that time. The present context includes the past. The self, as memory of complexly folded contexts of past life, is present as part of the environment of action. It is not in the place of the origin of action, where it would get in the way of action. Without its presence as part of the conditions under which choice takes place, our acts would not be properly human. The self tempers reactions to “outside stimuli” so that we do not merely ping-pong our way through life. Its presence in our life helps us to bind time into each act so that more complex acts are possible, acts that are wholes. Because of our selves, we can build our contexts like works of art, and we can build a work of art like a life.[7]





“Composing and the Sense of Self.” Codexxi vol.1, no. 1 (Barcelona), 1998. Also published in Open Space issue 1, Spring 1999: 42-53.


1. Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps (1896). This all-time world-wide best-selling novel (second only to the Bible), never copyrighted and translated into at least twenty-one languages, brought the Christian ethic to everyday life and action for millions of people and formed movements such as the social activist tradition in Methodism. Before you do anything, ask “What would Jesus do?”


2.  J. K. Randall, “Compose Yourself (A Manual for the Young).” Meta-Variations: Studies in the Foundations of Musical Thought/Compose Yourself (A Manual for the Young), by Benjamin Boretz and J. K. Randall, Open Space (r.d. 2, Box 45e, Red Hook, New York 12571, USA), 1995. Randall and Boretz have been working out and thinking out alternative musical cultures since the 1970s, and have influenced many musicians and composers in their milieu (geographically, Princeton University and Bard College in the United States).


3. Horace, Carminum Liber III, XXX, in Horace, Odes and Epodes, ed. Paul Shorey. New York:  Benj. H. Sanborn & Co,  1919. Mr. Shorey's notes list the following “similar utterances of ancient poets”: Sappho, fragment 32; Propertius 4.1.55; Ovid Amores 1.15.41; Met. 15. 871 sqq.; Phaedr. Epil. bk. 4; Martial, 7.84.7.


4. John Cage, Lecture on Nothing, Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1939), p. 109.


5. John Cage, Lecture on Something, Silence p. 143.


6. From a famous Victorian poem by Adelaide Anne Proctor.


While seated one day at the Organ,

I was weary and ill at ease,

And my fingers wandered idly

Over the noisy Keys.


I do not know what I was playing,

Or what I was dreaming then;

But I struck one chord of music,

Like the sound of a great Amen.


It flooded the crimson twilight

Like the close of an Angel's Psalm,

And it lay on my fevered spirit

With a touch of infinite calm.


It quieted pain and sorrow,

Like love overcoming strife;

It seemed the harmonious echo

From our discordant life.


It linked all perplexed meanings

Into one perfect peace,

And trembled away in silence

As if it were loth to cease.


I have sought but I seek it vainly,

That one lost chord divine,

Which came from the soul of the Organ,

And entered into mine.


It may be that Death's bright angel

Will speak in that chord again, --

It may be that only in Heaven

I shall hear that grand Amen.



7. With essential differences; for one thing, a work of art is a finished whole, which a life cannot ever be. The temporality of life and art is explored in my “Repetition,” Contemporary Music Review 7(1993): 49-58.