In Paris 1 – Devenir compositeur ?

Permit me to indulge a little ‘travel log’ navel-gazing. I try to restrict this blog to thoughts that I, at least at the time, believe to be worthwhile (or are attempting to be so, or are perhaps on their way to being so) for everyone in the abstract. Yet I think it’s not so terrible if it also serves as a kind of ‘accountable diary’ as my wonderful partner Hanne would call it. Accountable to whom? Little others, big Others? I don’t think it matters, really, since it is a question simply of development, which can really take place (in Others and around others; in fact in no other place!). This will function, undeniably, as a vehicle for my development. Nonetheless, I would be pleased if it also provided something to think about for anyone else who reads it. For the ‘folks back home’ who might live vicariously through it: you have to come do this yourself…

So, this may well be (if it proves useful) the forum in which I réfléchir on my discussions with composer François Nicolas while I’m Paris, along with thoughts that arrive by other means.

First of all, and on a very personal note, François was wearing jeans… and sneakers. I take that as the final word on the debate around my fashion-sense. The sneakers were no less than Nikes (I prefer Asics, to be honest, but you say tomayto, right?).

Neither François or I really knew why I had decided to create this project. ‘The project’ as an entity was pretty ill-defined. For me it merely meant, “learn some things from François Nicolas.” That, and my very very bad French (and his only slightly better English) made the first hour or so of our meeting a bit difficult, as François tried to keep his patience with my incapacity to explain what it was exactly that I wanted from him (he is a very patient man, which he must have learned from having five teenage children).

It was only when we began discussing my being as individual (or as François would call it, a dividual, a divided being) that things began to open up a little. After attempting to look at my latest little piece for flute and piano, François asked me if I played an instrument. I responded that I used to play jazz guitar, but I don’t play much now. This began a whole discussion about my background, which I think surprised François a little. Its lack of formal training in music, its lack of formal training in philosophy, its newness to politics – all this is telling about my current situation, as is my encounter with Badiou that precipitated my desire to know music and politics both more intimately in their materiality, rather than as sheer objects for philosophy (a contentious point, but here’s not the place…).

François didn’t decide to become a composer until the age of roughly 33. But when he did, he did it seriously. Before then he had been principally occupied with politics. He played a lot of piano and organ, and certainly had a better understanding of classical music than I do, but he hadn’t really pursued it vigorously. Once the decision was made to ‘become a composer’ [devenir compositeur], he devoted five years to studying the history of music from the 10th century onwards. He studied the history, the scores, recordings, the techniques. He did this very systematically, and not, as I have done, by way of desiring an object, consuming it as much as possible for that moment, and moving on to another, in a rather haphazard trajectory. He analysed works and practiced counterpoint and harmony, and worked independently with a music theory teacher to discuss his exercises.

After explaining all of this to me he said, “and you must do it like that if you want to become a composer. Of course, this is just my opinion, and Xenakis for instance would say the exact opposite, but since you’ve come to me, I well tell you that.” He was adamant that you can’t really understand music without knowing its history as deeply as possible, and as is François’ doctrine, its history is primarily a history of scores, and not a sociological history (although this exists too and is not unimportant).

He repeatedly said to me: “Now, I don’t know if that is what you will end up doing. You are young.”

All of this might come across as banal in this forum. But for me this was a very fascinating and stimulating discussion. It raised several questions for me.

First of all, I have been increasingly concerned in François’ writings of his over-privileging of abstraction and his submitting musical material to abstract philosophical structures derived from Badiou. This may be true, but it occurred to me that there is a distinct possibility that, because of my emphasis on abstract thought and philosophy, I am looking out principally for this in his writings. When I find it, I am disappointed, because I want to know more about the concretely musical…

Secondly it raises the question of tradition. François clearly thinks that, despite the 20th Century, the tradition of ‘Western Art Music’ is still meaningful today. Not just meaningful, indispensable. I have always maintained a problematic relationship with tradition, seeing as I’ve never really had it (hence I have, in the past, really gone in for Xenakis…). But I’ve always found the gesture in Australia of trying to really systematically learn the Western Art Music tradition very problematic, usually misguided and pretentious, and ultimately conservative. Is there another way of thinking about this undertaking that avoids this posturing, this conservatism? The question, obviously, for me, is whether I should undertake such a study. Curiously, I have been having that thought to myself over only the last few months. Just as I’m increasingly interested in political history – and not just political theory or philosophy – I am increasingly interested in musical history, and increasingly convinced of its necessity and irreducibility.

Then raises the question of my own dilettantism. I regularly try to convince myself that I’m an autodidact, but it’s not true. I am primarily a dilettante or amateur. This is the case also in philosophy and in politics. Now, this is not to denigrate myself. I have a healthy ego and am aware of my capacities, but the story of François’ self-education did put in stark relief my own work in that regard – very committed, very serious, and dealing with very difficult matters (from Badiou to Marx to Grisey or Brahms), but lacking the capacity to take on sustained project of formation. Now this is no doubt by necessity (growing up in the ‘burbs of Oz, starting out with rock guitar and Nietzsche, etc) and I’m not at all ashamed of it. It is true that I’ve tried to give myself a proper education in the past (you know pretentiously trying to study counterpoint… in cafés), but I haven’t been able to pull it off, since I wasn’t ready. There lingers the question whether such a formation is in fact necessary, or relevant for me (who comes from Australia). But the question is: do I remain a dilettante and continue my peripeteia of desire, with the hope that it will produce interesting results (which it no doubt would), or do I try to force myself to become an autodidact proper?

That would, of course, take a lot of time. But it’s time that I have, provided that I don’t get too involved in politics. François suggested that I might well become a political activist who writes music on the side, for the pleasure… Certainly an intimate linking of the too was out of the question for François, as is his theoretical belief. “If you are going to become a composer, you must do it for the music – not for the politics or philosophy.” Trotsky would agree, which makes me feel slightly more at ease.

The underlying point in all of this was that I am not yet a composer – I have hardly even started becoming a composer. Now, one could – and many in Australia would – immediately object to such a statement: “Haven’t you composed music? Haven’t you composed some decent music? Don’t you spend a lot of time making and thinking about music? What more could mean being a composer? This whole ‘I’m not yet a composer’ thing is so Old World, so pretentious, so much a prostration before a mythical and historically dated figure. Get over yourself/it. Anyway, why should you listen to what this François wanker says?” A decent objection, but I think it misses the point. The fact is, whatever you want to call it, I either take seriously the materials of music (and thus take seriously their history), or I take them less seriously. The former carries the risk that I become enslaved to tradition and a conservative composer (perhaps François runs this risk also?), the latter carries the risk that I become just another dilettante Australian impressionist composer, as Matthew Lorenzon calls them.

It’s not necessarily to be decided now… I have time. Nonetheless, the idea of really knuckling down to study all of music history (Western, I should say, for the time being at least) is enticing. And I take it as theoretically sound that one would privilege such labour, since, from my quasi-Trotskyist-Badiousian conception, the history of music is its condensation into forms and thus its (always incomplete, to be sure) autonomisation from the social. Music history is precisely that which makes music music, in a very materialist way. To found one’s musical practice on anything else would be to commit a grave idealist error.

All theory aside, I found the entire discussion, predicated as it was on the assumption that I am not yet a composer and have not even really begun to become one, very liberating. With my recent considerable development in composing and in understanding music, I have been inclined to begin thinking of myself as a composer – albeit a young one. Also, the industry pressures you into thinking such a thing: you have to market yourself as such – you are a ‘young professional’ (a petit bourgeois). But this has helped me to realise that my efforts, my peripeteia, have only perhaps led me to the starting point of becoming a composer… François regularly used the word formation. Obviously what he saw before him was a very unformed individual. Fair enough. At the end of our meeting, François suggested that this ‘mentorship’ should perhaps be more about thinking than about studying. More about getting a sense of how I want to form myself, rather than (re)beginning the formation.

An extended musical adolescence? The lot of the Australian musician, composers in particular? A blessing in disguise? A double-edged sword?

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One thought on “In Paris 1 – Devenir compositeur ?

  1. Pingback: Sketching « usage and continuation

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