A refuge of absolute technique

Glenn Gould’s introductory remarks before playing the last movement of Hindemith’s third piano sonata, in The Anatomy of Fugue, broadcast by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on March 4, 1963:

In more recent times one often notices that the most prolific fugue writers are the composers who have the greatest difficulty in being direct and lucid in a freer compositional style. One thinks of composers like Max Reger or the extraordinary Russian Nikolai Myaskovsky. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the artistic climate of the early years of this century was more hospitable to the concept of the stargazing composer who received lightning bolts of inspiration than to the image of the hardworking academic burning the midnight oil over his fugues and canons. And in such times those composers who for one reason or another find the philosophical liberties of free form frightening or embarrassing tend to use the fugue as a refuge of absolute technique: one can prove one’s mastery of the material more readily in a fugue than one can prove it in a less self-conscious form. There’s less room for arguments to whether or not one has been successful. One need only suggest certain fundamental propositions of aesthetic right and wrong, and one’s colleagues will have to agree that a particular fugal inspiration has been a happy one, or a successful one, or maybe a slightly too risky one. And so in generations in which fewer marks are given for ingenuity, for contrapuntal dexterity, than for vivid imagination, for dramatic flair, the invention of fugue has often attracted composers temperamentally unsuited to larger forms—composers perhaps of a particularly logical mind, who find it difficult to believe unquestioningly in their own subconscious impulses.

In our century, composers have continued writing fugues, particularly those whose style shows a neoclassic influence. But almost every idiom has seen its share of fugues. The Canadian composer Harry Summers has composed fugues in a style which uses the controversial twelve-tone technique. The brilliant American Lukas Foss has taught some of his colleagues to improvise on some fugues out of chart patterns which he draws on paper. And various jazz groups have attempted to improvise fugues, too. But most of these, because of one basic omission, have negated the main source of discipline inherent in the fugue. The harmonic criteria of most of the contemporary musical language shies away from tonality, and they’ve been unable to develop their linear designs into a system which would produce real demands of chord tension and relaxation. And because of this, fugal technique in their work is little more than a respectful bow to the past, really—it’s, it’s not a living tradition.

Paul Hindemith is one of the few composers of our own time who can undeniably be called a fuguist to the manner born. Hindemith has developed a very special language of his own, a language which is contemporary in the best sense of the word but which in its attempt to provide harmonic logic uses what you might call a substitute tonality. It neatly sidesteps the basic confrontations of tonic and dominant chords of conventional tonality, but it has nonetheless a very strong sense of relative tension. And so since he uses a language in which this structure of fugue can be helped along by the exchange of subject and answer at clearly related harmonic levels, Hindemith already has the edge on fugue writers in the tonal idiom. Besides which, he’s quite at home in an idiom which employs a minimum of what you could call textural irregularities: he’s quite able to continue a structure in three or four or five real voices over a period of some minutes’ duration. In fact for most of his career he’s been writing in a style which rather makes us think of an early Renaissance contrapuntal jamboree. The fugue I’m going to play now by Hindemith is actually the concluding movement of a piano sonata, and it doesn’t pretend to the highly romantic connection of Beethoven’s finale, where the concept of fugue is welded into the structure of the sonata, but it happily provides an assurance that the magic of fugue, however rare it may be nowadays, isn’t yet forgotten.

The dream of an inaccessible eloquence

from Julie K. Ellison’s Emerson’s Romantic Style (1984):

Our exploration of the motives of Emerson’s development starts with his youthful journals, roughly from 1820 to 1824. These documents exhibit a severe case of literary over influence. Emerson would later say, quite accurately, “I have served my apprenticeship of bows & blushes, of fears & references, of excessive admiration” (JMN.IV.278). Awed by the glory of classical and English literature, he expressed his own literary ambitions mimetically. “What we ardently love we learn to imitate,” he writes in the well-known “robe of eloquence” passage (JMN.II.239; April 18, 1824). At the same time, he treats his imitations as proof of his inability to match his models. The intensity of his fantasies of identification with great authors of the past is directly proportionate to his contempt for himself as their critic. His gloomy meditations on history and historical awareness express the Romantic sense that self-consciousness is a belated, sentimental condition. His judgments about history, religion, and literature are manifestations of his first vocational crisis, precipitated by the conflict between the dream of an inaccessible eloquence and the habit of criticism. In his late teens and early twenties, he is plagued with uneasiness that leads eventually to the discovery of self-delighting powers.

You can get some way towards the secret

Coleridge’s “Metrical Feet: Lessons for a Boy” (1834), written for his sons:

Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot! yet ill able
Ever to come up with Dactyl’s trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long;—
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.
One syllable long, with one short at each side,
Amphibrachys hastes with a stately stride;—
First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer
Strikes his thundering hoofs like a proud high-bred racer.

A taxonomy of metrical feet from George Sainsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912):

From Sainsbury’s preface, a little too tortured by classical learning, in the manner of Shaw:

As I approach, contemplating it still from whatever distance, the end of these studies of metre and rhythm which I may never reach, that sense of the unending endless quest,” which I suppose all but very self-satisfied and self-sufficient persons feel, impresses itself more and more upon me. An, I suppose, youthful reviewer of some different but kindred work of mine not very long ago, reproached me with ignorance or neglect of the fact that he and his generation had quite given up positive deliverances in criticism. They regarded it (I think he said) as hopeless and wrong and to “pin” something or other “to the rainbow beauty of what was really a miracle of incrustation.” The proceeding appeared to me to be difficult, if not impossible, and the phrase to be really a miracle of galimatias. But, as a fact, I hope that almost all who have read me will acquit me of the impudence or the folly of thinking that I could say even an interim last word on the secrets of rhythmical charm, whether in the slightly more tangible form of verse, or the far more intangible one of prose. Here, as everywhere, and almost more than anywhere, beauty incipit in mysterio as well as exit in mysterium. Here, and almost more also, it is as when you see a face and say to it with Browning—

Lie back; could thought of mine improve you?

and decide that, if improvement is possible, the interpretation of the actual charm is equally so. You can get some way towards the secret. The spring of the wing of the nostril; the plunge into the clear pool of the eyes, with its impenetrable background of agate or lapis lazuli, of chrysoprase or avanturine; the sweep of the cheek-edge from ear to chin; the straight descent, or curved and recurved wave, of the profile; the azure net-work of the closed eyelids; “the fringed curtains” at their juncture; the infinite intricacies of the mouth and hair,—ask yourself about any one of these, and you cannot tell why it is beautiful, why the combination of the whole makes a beautiful face. But you can, to some extent, fix for yourself the character of those parts and the composition of that whole, and, so far at least, you are ahead of the mere gaper who stares and “likes grossly.”

So it is with literature. You can never get at the final entelechy which differentiates Shelley and Shakespeare from the average versifier, Cluvienus and myself from Pater or from Browne. But you can attend to the feature-composition of the beautiful face, to the quality of the beautiful features, in each of these masters, and so you can dignify and intensify your appreciation of them. That this is best to be done in prose, as in verse, by the application of the foot-system—that is to say, by studying the combinations of the two great sound-qualities which, for my part, I call, as my fathers called them from the beginning, “long” and “short,” but which you may call anything you like, so long as you observe the difference and respect the grouping—I may almost say I know; having observed the utter practical failure of all other systems in verse, and the absence even of any attempt to apply any other to prose.

With this I may leave the present essay to its chances; only repeating my acquaintance with two quotations which I made thirty-six years ago when touching, for the first time, the subject of Prose Style generally. One was Nicholas Breton’s warning “not to talk too much of it, having so little of it,” and the other, Diderot’s epigram on Beccaria’s ouvrage sur le style où il n’y a point de style. These are, of course, “palpable hits” enough. But you may criticise without being able to create, and you may love beauty, and to the possible extent understand it, without being beautiful.

from Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (1965):

Because the concept of the foot is an abstraction, we will never encounter a pure example of any of the standard feet. “For that matter,” as Hugh Kenner says, “you will never encounter a round face, though the term is helpful; and if the idea of a circle had never been defined for you, you might not be clearly aware of how a round face differs from a long one, even though the existence of some sort of difference is evident to the eye. The term ‘iambic foot’ has the same sort of status as the term ’round face.'” Although we will probably never meet a really pure spondee or pyrrhic, in which the two syllables are of exactly the same weight, there would seem to be no need for such over scrupulous formulations as the terms “pseudo-spondee” or “false spondee,” which suggest that our work as scansionists and critics ought to be more objective and accurate than of course it ever can be. The goal of what we are doing is enjoyment: an excessive refinement of terms and categories may impress others but it will probably not help us very much to appreciate English poetic rhythms.

Sainsbury’s remark on “the combinations of the two great sound-qualities” reminds me of Quine, “Universal Library,” in Quiddities (1987):

There is a melancholy fantasy, propounded a century and more ago by the psychologist Theodor Fechner and taken up by Kurt Lassiwitz, Theodor Wolff, Jorge Luis Borges, George Gamow, and Willy Ley, of a complete library. The library is strictly complete, boasting as it does all possible books within certain rather reasonable limits. It admits no books in alien alphabets, nor any beyond the reasonable length say of the one you are now reading, but within those restrictions it boasts all possible books. There are books in all languages, transliterated where necessary. There are coherent books and incoherent, predominantly the latter. The principle of accession is simple, if uneconomical: every combinatorially possible sequence of letters, punctuation, and spaces, up to the prescribed book length, uniformly bound in half calf.

Other writers have sufficiently belabored the numbing combinatorial statistics. At 2,000 characters to the page we get 500,000 to the 250-page volume, so with say eighty capitals and smalls and other marks to choose from we arrive at the 500,000th power of eighty as the number of books in the library. I gather that there is not room in the present phase of our expanding universe, on present estimates, for more than a negligible fraction of the collection. Numbers are cheap.

It is interesting, still, that the collection is finite. The entire and ultimate truth about everything is printed in full in that library, after all, insofar as it can be put in words at all. The limited size of each volume is no restriction, for there is always another volume that takes up the tale—any tale, true or false—where any other volume leaves off. In seeking the truth we have no way of knowing which volume to pick up nor which to follow it with, but it is all right there.

We could narrow down the choice by weeding out the gibberish, which makes up the bulk of the library. We could insist on English, and we could program a computer with English syntax and lexicon to do the scanning and discarding. The residue would be an infinitesimal fraction of the original, but still hyperastronomic.

There is an easier and cheaper way of cutting down. Some of us first learned from Samuel Finley Breese Morse what others of more mathematical bent knew before this time: that a font of two characters, dot and dash, can do all the work of our font of eighty. Morse actually used three characters, namely dot, dash and space; but two will suffice. We could use two dots for the space and then admit no initial or consecutive dots in encoding any of the other old characters.
If we retain the old format and page count for our volumes, this move reduces the size of the library’s collection to the 500,000th power of two. It is still a big number. Written out it would fill a hundred pages in standard digits, or two volumes in dots and dashes. The volumes are skimpier in thought content than before, taken one by one, because our new Morse is more than six times as long-winded as our old eighty-character font of type; but there is no loss in content over all, since for each cliff-hanging volume there is still every conceivable sequel on some shelf or other.

This last reflection—that a diminution in the coverage of each single volume does not affect the cosmic completeness of the collection—points the way to the ultimate economy: a cutback in the size of the volumes. Instead of admitting 500,000 occurrences of characters to each volume, we might settle for say seventeen. We have no longer to do with volumes, but with two-inch strips of text, and no call for half-calf bindings. In our two-character code the number of strips is 2^17, or 131,072. The totality of truth is now reduced to a manageable compass. Getting a substantial account of anything will require extensive concatenation of out two-inch strips, and re-use of strips here and there. But we have everything to work with.

The ultimate absurdity is now staring us in the face: a universal library of two volumes, one containing a single dot and the other a dash. Persistent repetition and alternation of the two is sufficient, we well know, for spelling out any and every truth. The miracle of the finite but universal library is a mere inflation of the miracle of binary notation: everything worth saying, and everything else as well, can be said with two characters. It is a letdown befitting the Wizard of Oz, but it has been a boon to computers.

So long as it is not myself

from Gertrude Stein’s lecture “What Are Master-Pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?”, delivered at Oxford and Cambridge in 1936; available in What Are Masterpieces(1940):

What are master-pieces and why after all are there so few of them. You may say after all there are a good many of them but in any kind of proportion with everything that anybody who does anything is doing there are really very few of them. All this summer I meditated and wrote about this subject and it finally came to be a discussion of the relation of human nature and the human mind and identity. The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognising that he knows, that is what destroys creation. That is what makes school. Picasso once remarked I do not care who it is that has or does influence me as long as it is not myself.


All this sounds awfully complicated but it is not complicated at all, it is just what happens. Any of you when you write you try to remember what you are about to write and you will see immediately how lifeless the writing becomes that is why expository writing is so dull because it is all remembered, that is why illustration is so dull because you remember what somebody looked like and you make your illustration look like it. The minute your memory functions while you are doing anything it may be very popular but actually it is dull. And that is what a master- piece is not, it may be unwelcome but it is never dull.

And so then why are there so few of them. There are so few of them because mostly people live in identity and memory that is when they think. They know they are they because their little dog knows them, and so they are not an entity but an identity. And being so memory is necessary to make them exist and so they cannot create master-pieces. It has been said of geniuses that they are eternally young. I once said what is the use of being a boy if you are going to grow up to be a man, the boy and the man have nothing to do with each other, except in respect to memory and identity, and if they have anything to do with each other in respect to memory and identity then they will never produce a master-piece. Do you do you understand well it really does not make much difference because after all master- pieces are what they are and the reason why is that there are very few of them. The reason why is any of you try it just not to be you are you because your little dog knows you. The second you are you because your little dog knows you you cannot make a masterpiece and that is all of that.

It is not extremely difficult not to have identity but it is extremely difficult the knowing not having identity. One might say it is impossible but that it is not impossible is proved by the existence of master-pieces which are just that. They are knowing that there is no identity and producing while identity is not.

That is what a master-piece is.

And so we do know what a master-piece is and we also know why there are so few of them. Everything is against them. Everything that makes life go on makes identity and everything that makes identity is of necessity a necessity. And the pleasures of life as well as the necessities help the necessity of identity. The pleasures that are soothing all have to do with identity and the pleasures that are exciting all have to do with identity and moreover there is all the pride and vanity which play about master-pieces as well as about every one and these too all have to do with identity, and so naturally it is natural that there is more identity that one knows about than anything else one knows about and the worst of all is that the only thing that any one thinks about is identity and thinking is something that does so nearly need to be memory and if it is then of course it has nothing to do with a master-piece.

But what can a master-piece be about mostly it is about identity and all it does and in being so it must not have any. I was just thinking about anything and in thinking about anything I saw something. In seeing that thing shall we see it without it turning into identity, the moment is not a moment and the sight is not the thing seen and yet it is. Moments are not important because of course master-pieces have no more time than they have identity although time like identity is what they concern themselves about of course that is what they do concern themselves about.

Once when one has said what one says it is not true or too true. That is what is the trouble with time. That is what makes what women say truer than what men say. That is undoubtedly what is the trouble with time and always in its relation to master-pieces. I once said that nothing could bother me more than the way a thing goes dead once it has been said. And if it does it it is because of there being this trouble about time.

Time is very important in connection with master-pieces, of course it makes identity time does make identity and identity does stop the creation of master- pieces. But time does something by itself to interfere with the creation of masterpieces as well as being part of what makes identity. If you do not keep remembering yourself you have no identity and if you have no time you do not keep remembering yourself and as you remember yourself you do not create anybody can and does know that.

Think about how you create if you do create you do not remember yourself as you do create. And yet time and identity is what you tell about as you create only while you create they do not exist. That is really what it is.

The rewards of creative activity

the second paragraph of Allan Forte’s Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice (1962):

We hold the conviction that the primary aim of serious music study is to illuminate the subject, not to surround it with trivia and bury it beneath detail. At the same time one must realize that a technical approach to music, like a technical approach to any subject, involves specific tasks which are often detailed. These include the learning of a new terminology, the memorizing of certain facts, and the intelligent working out of exercises in order to achieve basic skills. Without these one cannot hope to approach the general concepts essential to the art, nor can one a ain that level of minimal ability which will enable him to enjoy the rewards of creative activity.