The Criticising Composer

Šarūnas Nakas


When a composer is writing a piece, the last thing he or she is likely to think about is that the composing process will turn him or her into a critic. He or she projects his or her views, attitudes, presentiments, desires and dreams into the piece composed, as if it were some picture of a newly emerging reality, which he or she soon comes to see as a real thing. An illusion of creating some kind of matter significantly minimizes the chances of impartial judgment. Any attempt to distance oneself from that process is comparable to a light-minded person’s wish to look down while walking the highwire stretched between the two skyscrapers.

The whole process of composing is permeated by ideological premises that guide the composer’s mind both consciously and unconsciously, or, to be more precise – by a fairly complex and fragmentary conglomerate of various ideologies, the origin and evolution of which is a mysterious issue that the composer has often difficulty to fully fathom and understand. And this is precisely the way in which the composer may start acting as a self-scrutinising critic.


By choosing certain expressive means and methods the composer naturally rejects an incalculable array of others, thus declaring the superiority of those few to all others. The hierarchies thus formed depend clearly on the values that the composer considers most important. For this reason each new composition vividly reveals the composer’s views over and over again.

Making curtsies to the old-fashioned and the new, or to the market-induced correct moderation, is in a way like making a political choice between a more conservative and a more progressive wing, even if it has nothing to do with the composer’s preferences in real political election where the results may depend not on the values but on simple human liking for one of the candidates.


It is perhaps not one central leitmotif that determines the integrity of one’s thoughts and actions, but rather a concomitant unfolding of disparate and multidirectional strategies that govern the composer’s mind, just like that of any human being. Like some intricate counterpoint of system and chaos, logic and absurd, a certain constellation of ideas and sensitivities keeps haunting almost at every turn.

Composers, just like writers, sociologists, engineers, physicists or sportsmen, must have several identities, or sort of sub-identities; some of them are more exposed and others more concealed, developed knowingly or unknowingly, invented or inherited in one or another way, often contradictory, unveiling in their own time and in the most unexpected places. At times the composer watches them collide as he would watch some strange undirected performance, the repercussions of which might be sought for in his or her works, but he or she never has time to comprehend the entirety of this complicated inner universe.


The composer reinterprets his or her compositional identity, to which he or she constantly adds new elements, as a continuously created self-portrait. From a certain perspective it appears that this is the only thing he or she does: the composer spends all of his or her time constructing, criticising and reviewing that imaginary character, which only he or she can represent, and therefore attempts to convince the public that this character exists not only in his or her imagination, but in reality too. By making use of the physical substance – that is, the sound – the composer not only creates an illusion (as does the writer), but also enters the world of real shapes, where his or her demiurgic powers can appear unquestionable.

For all that, today these things are regarded with much less enthusiasm than before and even evoke cynicism: we know very well how and why the composer is doing this, and thus we yield to suasion of his or her music only when we are willing to.


Then there is this funny demagogic phrase about the seemingly communicative music. We might ask the copywriters of this linguistic construct: in what way the music does communicate anything to people – can it discuss, suggest, indicate anything, or give a hand when leaving? Or write a letter? Or is it the listener who does all that, accepting the reality of this communication in the same manner as he or she thinks up the most incredible subjects for program music?

Perhaps one should speak not of a mystic aura (possibly snatched up from the popular New Age vocabulary), which surrounds the communicative music, but of an almost ineffable mood of that hour or just one moment, which evokes individual fantasies in the minds of its listeners. For some these illusions resemble communication, talking and being together; for others they suggest an idea about the composer’s ability to stir up peculiar ‘hormonal storms’ that elicit very different responses in the listeners.


It is not a rare occurrence that the listener demands certain obedience from the music to his or her views and tastes. When this proves right, they evaluate the music as persuasive, original and even communicative. But the music is not a kind of communication, as sad as it may seem to somebody. It still remains an artificially constructed reality, conceived as something natural, intelligible or even universal, because it is a matter of common practice and tradition.

Of course, this view has obvious limitations: sometimes people have no idea about how many kinds of music created in different times and places are not readily accessible to their minds and senses. To prove that one does not need to look for evidence in the extravagant contemporary avant-garde. It is enough to listen to the Indian ragas, the Vietnamese Tuong theatre or the Chinese Peking opera: it is a many times verified and proven fact that our aural perception differs greatly from what is actually encoded and expressed in this music and what is a matter of course – just because it is conventional – for the listeners native to those countries.

Consequently, the composers find themselves in quite an awkward situation when they decide to compose differently from what is accepted within the society. For the ‘frozen’ and commercially-influenced tastes novelties always seem as merely pointless ramblings and defiant indiscretion, which cannot be pardoned.

The composer is forced into this continuing dispute, because he or she has no other way.


Jokingly, we may say that both participants of this ongoing drama – that is, the composer and the listener – have accumulated a great deal of previous ‘traumatic’ experiences: the composer is distressed (or even offended) by the listener’s inertness and indifference; while the listener is annoyed (or even disappointed) by the composer’s contrived surprises.

Of course, views do not always collide so violently; yet it is in the more brutal collision that the true scope of these problems is revealed. It is a received opinion that the traumatic childhood experience determines all subsequent development of a personality, and that the only cure for that is to relive the same situation and to ‘rewrite’ the same scenario all over. Thus the composer keeps returning to this purgatory, where he or she tries to purify his or her vocabulary, grammar and rhetoric in order to get rid of this unfortunate ‘childhood’ inheritance.


The composer is well aware of the existence of some clearly defined limits, beyond which his or her activity becomes risky, intolerable and even unattractive. These limits can be compared to some kind of law – a strictly defined set of norms, rules and limits of tolerance, closely related to the traditional canon – which can be transgressed only to be punished on earth and in the heavens. But the thirst for knowledge is often stronger than the fear of punishment and there are no obvious reasons to resist such temptation.

On the other hand, a desire for wrongdoing is that precise way to discover something that might not have been strictly forbidden by the law, but due to the lack of knowledge or courage it was left undiscovered. Usually, one steps into a dim lit territory where it is difficult to distinguish even between black and white.

In the times long past this was condemned almost as strictly as coming in contact with the devil; but in the times of democracy this must be qualified as one of the human rights.

There is a strange tension between the tolerable and intolerable forms of expression, but who can prohibit private experiments?


Thus, perhaps unwillingly, the composer becomes a critic of tradition and inertia. Strangely enough, this path is often chosen (perhaps without much thinking) even by those who do not have the aspirations to innovate either the language or the expression.

It is just that every newly written musical text (composed by using notes, remarks, schemes, by recording, montaging, or generating sounds) automatically claims a certain segment of musical reality, thus inevitably passing through many of the problems related to such ‘colonisation’: it is not only the radical innovators who would fancy a piece of the new territory. In some cases these problems are solved by obeying to the above-mentioned law, whereas in other cases – by combining ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ elements (a work composed entirely of ‘illegal’ elements – that is, not approbated by the society – is impossible even in theory, for it would be considered neither music, nor a musical work).


Surely, there is a certain presence of teacher’s influence felt behind the backs of the composers who choose to follow the law. But is there any rule regulating that only those who reject the law are true autodidacts? They might be compared to the fighters or warriors, governed by the overwhelming fury to prove their missionary truths and bring them to the lands where it has not been done yet. But hasn’t this tactic got its own teachers and age-old traditions?

It might be so that it is this type of persistent criticism on the part of the composer – an unremitting desire to innovate and change everything – that moves the evolution of the European professional music forward and sometimes even impels composing itself to approach highly rational scientific methods. And then this struggle comes to resemble not so much a real bloodshedding battle, but a virtual strategy game on a computer, where even the most fervid emotions are determined by a pre-programmed algorithm.


A composer of a more traditional orientation may not think that he or she is also some kind of critic. The very convention of his or her expression as well as standard methods of composing naturally solve many of the problems he or she encounters. Conventional questions are given conventional answers.

But a more ambitious composer, who wishes to invent something new and even fancies that this invention would become a part of the tradition some day, must realise very clearly that he or she is a rational critic who takes serious risks. He or she must be able to quite particularly define and identify the segment of the musical reality he or she is criticising and to propose an efficient way to renovate or expand it.

As sad as it might seem, such a composer would otherwise become a destructive character who criticises nondescript matters, thus resembling populist street politicians.


It is possible to speak about the psychological coercion, or, to be more precise, about no less than two kinds of it that exist in the contemporary world of composers. The first kind of coercion forces them to chase for novelties and is very much in tune with the question frequently posed by a consumer society “Have you already got the new…?” even if this question is worded more subtly than in the TV commercials. This kind of coercion first of all affects the avant-garde wing where everyone strains to be ‘forever new’ until complete exhaustion.

The second kind of coercion, which became more powerful with the advent of postmodernism, forces to adhere overtly to the conservative views, to rely on the catalogues of traditional means and respond more sensibly to the tastes of wider audiences. These stereotypes, however, retain traditional values of the classical epoch only partly or allegedly: they are adopted only in cases and in the quantities it is demanded by contemporary world and as much as they respond to the same “Have you already got the new…?”

It is obvious that the heritage of any field is revived to the extent it is capable of becoming fresh and new.


The composer very rarely undertakes to write verbal texts or manifestos, in which he or she explains his or her views and criticises something in the sense discussed here. There is a tradition, which commands that this work should be conceded to the music critics, who employ a specific explication apparatus, and which entrenches their intervention as purportedly necessary.

Professional critics, however, usually overlook the fact that the object they criticise is a piece of criticism by itself, at least of that specific kind of criticism that we discuss here. That’s why composers are very surprised when they come to read the weirdest critical insights about their works, because these insights are based on various projections, which reflect some virtual work fantasised by the critic and existing only in his or her words rather than those messages that the composer had in mind when he or she was developing the concept and music for his or her work. Relevant descriptions of the composer’s intentions and works become much of a rarity these days and they are gradually replaced by casual texts on the freely chosen themes.

This may seem strange, but the composers express their protests not so often anymore: for quite a long time the services offered by music critics have been perceived as an important and indispensable part of public relations rather than traditional criticism involving actual analysis of an actual work.

It is under these circumstances that the criticism practised by composers, which they implement in their compositions and embed into their structures and conceptions, becomes a very latent and almost intangible thing. Many have no clue it exists; others do not care to look for it. Nevertheless it can be said that this phenomenon of musical creation is one of the most puzzling.


Very few people today still believe that someone in the future will be concerned with the works that had been ‘deposited in the drawers’ for some unknown reasons. Consequently, the composers’ criticism discussed here will probably never be decoded and understood more profoundly unless it reaches contemporary listeners and knowledgeable commentators. Life will perhaps offer new forms of creativity, which will ruthlessly oust their predecessors.

The work of contemporary composers is sometimes reminiscent of writing letters to the future, which may never come.

© Šarūnas Nakas, 2004
© Translated by Veronika Janatjeva

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