Why I Am Not a Painter (but Compose Like One)

Why I Am Not a Painter (but Compose Like One)

All of my work, whether improvised or composed, is about relationships. I’m interested not only in the relationships internal to the work — the way its parts complement, contrast, integrate or separate relative to each other — but to the relationship between the work and the setting in which it is realized. Both kinds of relationships are created by or brought to attention through what I think of as plastic values.

“Plastic values” is a concept taken from the analysis of visual art. Plastic values, briefly, are the formal qualities such as mass, line, shape, and so forth, in terms of which a painting or sculpture is organized. My thinking about musical relationships in terms of plastic values grows out of the parallel I see between the composition of abstract painting and the composition of sounds. It’s long seemed to me that the arrangement of colors and forms on the plane of a canvas is analogous to the placement of sounds in relation to other sounds in the flow of time. How could the organizational patterns — the plastic values — governing the former not be applicable, mutatis mutandis, to the latter?

The fact that we commonly speak of a sound’s timbre as its “color” would by itself seem to suggest that a parallel exists between the elements of an abstract painting and the elements of a sound composition. Take, for example, something as seemingly simple as a pitch. If, following Robert Erickson’s formulation, we think of it instead as a sound made up of pitch + timbre, it will suggest organizational possibilities beyond its relationships to other pitches. We may want to organize it in terms of its timbral similarity or contrast to other timbres, which would mean thinking of it as a point along a qualitative continuum rather than as a point in a melodic progression.

Organizing the internal aspects of a musical or sound art composition in terms of these elements provides an alternative to organizing a work on the basis of more traditional means such as melodies, functional harmony, and so forth. When I hear an improvisation I’m participating in as the dynamic interplay of plastic values it helps me to frame my own choices within that improvisation. I may choose sounds or gestures on the basis of their similarity to or contrast with surrounding sounds, or their role in thickening or thinning the density of the overall texture of the performance, or will abstain from playing altogether in order to balance the improvisation’s sound-filled positive spaces with a negative space. The improvisation, from this point of view, is a kind of composition in real time — that is, an ongoing evolution of the relationships among formal elements.

For this reason I’ve found it illuminating to take inspiration not only from looking at abstract painting but from reading the writings of its more articulate theorists, Hans Hofmann in particular. Hofmann’s explication of painting in terms of internal tensions (the well-known “push-pull”) and gestalts, and his acknowledgement of the importance of the compositional role played by negative space, have been deeply influential on my own conception of how a sound composition can be structured. As have the bichrome paintings of Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell. Their handling of masses of black and white spaces points the way to achieving a pleasing balance of sound and silence — of positive and negative spaces — within the composition.

This latter point is important. Significant passages of negative space in a composition or performance draw attention to the audio space outside of the work—to, for example, the ambient sounds surrounding it. And yet an awareness of the work’s relationship to the space outside of it serves to frame and set it off as an entity in itself with its own ordered properties and elements. Having once opened outward, awareness returns to focus ultimately — and perhaps paradoxically — back on the interplay of the plastic values making up the work’s internal relationships.

Featured image : Franz Kline Painting Number 2, 1954, The Museum of Modern Art

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