|Don Quixote und Sancho Pansa|
by Honoré Daumier, 1868
One of the few times I’ve written a piece with no particular occasion in mind, and my only assay in writing a chamber piece thus far.
It’s called a sonata and I like the term, with its prescribed formal characteristics and heritage, but I’m also aware that the established features are quite arbitrary. I think of the piece and the form itself as an essay - or perhaps more like a musical diary- an intimate, personal musical vehicle with some emphasis on abstract content (form, harmony, melody, development, recapitulation) supplied by tradition.
But I’m recalling that I have not always looked with delight on the prospect of hearing a sonata on a recital program. There can be a prosaic, perfunctory quality to the writing in some (at least, it so seemed to me in years past - I have heard few sonatas recently) and there is no sense of adventure or engagement of the listener in the music. The term “sonata” denotes a piece to be played (rather than sung) and I wonder if composers have tended to think of it primarily as music for the pleasure of the player, rather than that of any listener. The music becomes about the performers.
I have decided to allow myself to be very spontaneous in the composition and structuring of the piece. Specifically, I have it in mind to shape the piece to suit a listener with a short attention span (or ADD), change the subject a lot, go off on tangents, circle back, cross-reference, multi-task, channel-surf and any other analogies one can think of for basically indulging in a musical fantasy with, I hope, enough traditional structure to lend some bone matter to the piece.
The component about cognition is an important one - I wonder to what extent any composer has ever thought of what the listeners will be experiencing and how different individuals in an audience might process things in an individual way. Most of the time, in talking about the actual composition process, composers tend to talk about a given piece in terms of what it demanded, formally or harmonically or what have you. (Lerdahl and Jackendorff, in “A Generative Theory of Tonal Music”, do look at composition and analysis from the perspective of neurocognition. Haven’t read it yet, no.)
Well, to try to account for how individuals will process a given piece is a futile exercise, as even a small group of people will have wildly differing perceptive capabilities, so, in the end, the composer satisfies his own sense of form and style in a work. I’m doing this, too, but I find that I always have some imaginary listener in mind and occasionally, that listener might be me, with an attention problem and an eagerness to be lured and led and charmed and engaged and even arrested, in episodes that change out and recur with some frequency.