- The Whistling Blackbird: Essays and Talks on New Music by Robert Morris
Milton Babbitt maintained that composers made the best theorists. One might demur from this position (not to mention its reverse!), but certainly what composers have to say about music, theirs and others’, can provide unique insights into the experience of listening. This is particularly the case when a composer, by dint of circumstance, finds him- or herself assuming what can be a second career of writing about music, in addition to simply writing it. Babbitt himself, of course, comes to mind, but the tradition is a long one, stretching back through the likes of Robert Simpson and Donald Francis Tovey to Robert Schumann. Some of these composer/writers were more concerned with music criticism, but some, like Arnold Schoenberg or Heinrich Schenker (and, again, Babbitt), promulgated theories of music that have a life of their own, separate from and sometimes even better known than their compositions.
Robert Morris is another such figure, a composer with a long and active career writing music who has through his writings about music established himself as a major figure in the field of music theory. His new volume, The Whistling Blackbird, is a collection of essays, some new, some previously published, that both reveals how his renown came about and illustrates vividly why he deserves such recognition as a theorist. One hopes that it will prompt further serious interest in him as a composer.
Written in a direct and unaffected style, the book is made up of three large sections: “Essays on Composers,” “Talks on My Music,” and “Essays on Criticism and Aesthetics.” These are framed by a preface and acknowledgments, as well as a collection of appendices that offer a quick reference guide to certain serial music terms and pitch-class set theory. The whole is rounded out with copious endnotes, a comprehensive bibliography, and an index.
In addition to the preface there is a kind of second, longer preface entitled “Overture: Some Issues Facing the Contemporary American Composer” that sets the tone and establishes a number of the themes that are traced through the subsequent chapters. Morris opens with a simple question: “What does it mean to say, ‘I am an American Composer’?” (xv) and uses this to lay out some of the complexities one faces in making music in America today. Among a number of issues, including a nuanced comparison of music(s) to language(s), is an observation that is central to the whole volume and to who Morris is as an artist:
John Cage once asked what composition, performance, and listening have to do with each other. In asking this question, he implied that the three activities could be totally independent of each other. My view is the opposite, that they are actually all aspects of one activity, interpretation—that is, making sense and sensibility out of music.(xviii) [End Page 362]
This connects deeply with Morris’s engagement with Buddhist and other non-Western forms of thought, ideas that permeate his work.
The body of the book is the three collections of chapters, each dealing with a different set of issues. The first is a set of four essays on the composers John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Richard Swift, and Stefan Wolpe. Each essay in its own way is illuminating about the composer in question as well as Morris himself. He is always disarmingly frank about his own presence in engaging the music in question, and the essays often track his own development as a musician through his encounters with the other composers’ music. This is particularly vivid in the Babbitt essay, which succinctly recapitulates Babbitt’s elaborations of Schoenbergian and Webernian ideas through the lens of Morris’s own growing understanding of this music over time. The essay on Richard Swift’s orchestral song, “Roses Only,” is revealing both of this work’s richness and Morris’s capacity for close and loving attention.
Morris’s essay on John Cage, “Cage Contemplating/Contemplating Cage...