Keep going, going on. Call that going? Call that on?

This summer, I was reminded by one of my students of the importance of ‘compositional stamina’, a concept I use to convey the difficulty in distinguishing between real time and musical time. Real time, the time we perceive on a clock or stopwatch, simply passes by, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. It’s reliable, it’s consistent, and unless you’re speaking of astrophysical phenomena or relativistic physics, it’s the same for everyone.

Musical time is the malleable and flexible path created during a musical performance. Musical time can speed up or slow down, and rarely does it have any actual bearing on real time.  Composers manipulate our perception of real time through variations of tempo, density, and thematic transformations (repetition, fragmentation, modulation). And more often than not, musical time runs a bit faster than real time. That is, 10 minutes of musical time may feel like it only took 7 or 8 minutes.

Young composers often ignore the realities of musical time, resulting in pieces that sound like they are not long enough, or that the musical ideas have not been fully fleshed out. And when you ask them “how long is the piece?” their own perceptions of length are way off. Here is where “compositional stamina” comes in.

When a student comes in with a piece where the musical ideas just don’t seem like they’ve been fully explored, I ask them to think about the stamina of their idea. Could the passage go a bit longer? Can you sustain this idea just a bit more? Push the idea forward with more transformations. When you think you’ve done enough, do some more. And some more. And then, just a bit more.

Keep going, going on. Call that going? Call that on? [reference 1] [reference 2]

It’s always easier to edit a piece down, and we should spend a lot of time making sure that our work’s musical time matches the real-time perceptions of our audiences. After all, it’s this manipulation of musical versus real time that is ultimately at the heart of the musical experience.

C. P. Snow is wrong! (or was he?)

When I took my doctoral exams, back in the day, one of my exams was on musical aesthetics. I had studied up on all the latest writings by MeyerCage, Copland, Stravinsky, and was totally taken aback when I sat down to start the exam.  One question. One question only. And this was it:

“In his essay, The Two Cultures, C. P. Snow argues that there are two academic cultures, Science and the Arts, that do not, will not, and cannot communicate or coexist with one another.  How do you respond to this thesis as someone in the field of computer music?”

Charles Percy Snow (from Wikipedia)

What??? I had never heard of C. P. Snow, never heard of his essay, nor its central and influential premise. How the heck do I answer this? On the other hand, I had certainly experienced the point-of-view Snow (I thought) was expressing, mostly in the form of puzzled looks, contorted faces and extreme grimaces when people learned of my field of study (this was 1985, before the Mac Plus).

My retort? “C. P. Snow was wrong!” Without hesitation, I argued that Snow’s fundamental premise was wrong and without merit. That, in fact, at their very highest levels, the arts & sciences actually mimic each other in terms of process and inspiration.  For example, the arts are perceived by the uninitiated to be purely driven by divine inspiration.  A painter, a photographer, a composer sits down and waits for a muse to direct their every movement, decision and action. At the same time, the sciences are perceived by the uninitiated as completely logical, built upon prior work and devoid of any kind of inspiration (divine or otherwise).

But in truth, these stereotypes are wrong. When understanding the great works of art or music, we always find deep connections to prior work. Often, masterpieces are based on prior work, incorporate prior work, or give an oppositional approach to contrast prior work. In Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Rite of Spring, he transforms Russian folk music in ways that shattered cultural limitations of 19th century rhythm, meter and harmony. In Pulcinella, he “stole” music of (or attributed to) Pergolesi and rewrote it in a modernist language that was simultaneously old and new.

Albert Einstein, by F. Schmutzer

At the same time, Einstein was redefining our understanding of the physical world; not only with logical derivations of earlier math/physics, but by asking questions no one thought to ask, by posing “mind experiments” involving objects travelling at or near the speed of light. While the solutions to these problems may have been thoroughly logical and mathematically inevitable, it took a spark of pure inspiration to ask the questions that lead to the development of Relativity.

It turns out that the C. P. Snow question, out of the blue as it was, has been a part of my career since I began to consider its implications 26 years ago. Not long after I wrote that C. P. Snow was wrong, I discovered that Snow was actually commenting on the state of academia, being quite critical of its “two cultures” approach. It was the two cultures that were wrong, not C. P. Snow.

And now, there is a concerted effort to bring the arts into science and technology education.  StemToSteam.org is the home page of an effort to insert A for the arts in to the broader effort by the NSF and others to improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education at the K-12 level (and beyond). This is a critical effort for education as a whole, one in which we have been engaged for sometime now with our AVATAR Initiative in Digital Media at LSU.

It’s good to know that finally there is a national movement to refute the “two cultures” mentality in academia and research. It’s about time.