Aural Fact or Fiction: Or, Composing at the Seashore (1965)
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Aural Fact or Fiction: Or, Composing at the Seashore The crisis which has overtaken the contemporary composer involves, at its deepest level, his relation to his art and the very process of composing-the making of the artwork. He is suffering from the triumph of abstractionism. He is like a bird who first wants to examine the size of the sky or a fish who first wants to examine the extent of the water-and then try to fly or to swim. But the bird and the fish will never find their own ways in the sky or water because they have dissociated themselves-the fish from the water which makes his life, the bird from the sky which makes his. The fish and the bird have unlearned spontaneity, grace, naturalness. They have become selfconscious . The triumph of abstractionism has led us to the cliff edge of dehumanization and depersonalization, nihilism and negativism. The more we have penetrated into the abstract-a process which has involved stripping away the surface and depleting or emptying out content-the more we have given ourselves up to an overriding faith in materials and procedures, in the factual levels of artistic production. What were formerly means have become ends, vitiating the fiction-creating power of the imagination. The impulse toward abstraction begins with the desire to rid ourselves of human encumbrances, to burn out excrescences, to unload superfluities. But as abstraction proceeds it devitalizes, constricts, and in the end defeats itself by producing a sawdust world whose longitude and latitude are narrowness and dullness, whose atmosphere is thin, dry, and cold. Art is reduced from its power to create mental fictions, works of imagination, to the mere production of trivial presentations of raw data-sounds, colors, lines, words. The triumph of abstractionism has produced a unique form of paralysis. By analysis and analytic dissection we arrive at mechanics and inorganic structure . The Cartesian addiction, the rationalist's narcotic, to divide the world into body and spirit, machine and mind destroys the view of the totality of the living organism. What William Blake called the Spectre, man's reason, produces that frame of mind which tends to frustrate and paralyze the creative impulse. It kills or casts a pall on the artist's energy which is passion and his imagination which is intuition. I am reminded of Blake's couplet: If the Sun and Moon should doubt, They'd immediately go out. 188 THE AESTHETICS OF SURVNAL When the center of creative activity is displaced from the region of the psyche to the region of the reason, fiction is reduced to fact, myth to reporting, and imagination is destroyed or crippled. All that remains, all that "art" is made of, is collections of facts, perceptual data. Abstractionism paralyzes "speech," i.e., the power to say, the capacity to utter and express--and when carried to its ultimate it ends in forms of inarticulateness. Music, of all the arts, has the power of directly communicated eloquence. But as abstractionism has taken greater and greater hold, musical eloquence has proportionately atrophied and died. And where it has not been reduced to being utterly inarticulate, it remains at the level of cold precision where nothing flows, moves, or lives. The musical discourse has become inhibited, blocked, frozen in its tracks, immobilized. A composer does not need to have anything to say of an expressive nature in order to manipulate, order, and structure precise aural patterns and designs. The relationships he establishes in such a case are purely formal and syntactical. He is a kind of grammarian who interests himself only in the structure of his language, not its meaning. In this, however, he can keep his distance, remain personally detached, while he deals with aural facts in much the same way that an engineer deals with physical facts. On the other hand, a composer who does have something to say needs a vocabulary and needs to know how to use it. But his interest is not merely in the structure of his language; it is in its capacity to point beyond itself, its power to create meaning -musical meaning. The aural facts with which his language provides him are, by themselves, not sufficient to create the aural fiction which only his imagination can. Perhaps this is what Charles Ives is getting at when he bursts out in the epilogue of his Essays before a Sonata: "My God! What do sounds have to do with music!" Sounds, aural facts...


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