Discourses in Music: Volume 6 Number 1 (Summer 2006)

Insights and Outlooks: Watch what you wish for, it just might come true

By David Ogborn

According to an urban legend, the average Canadian composer spends half of their productive time on applications for grants and supplications to performing ensembles – and this during a period in which the world has entered a new, highly unstable political configuration. To the extent that this statistic is accurate, there is a danger that composers will be so busy filling out forms that they will be unable to respond to an outside world that is changing explosively, crying out for artistic interpretation, testimony, and reflection.

To be sure, no one can compose all of the time. It is probably even true that few can compose for more than half of the average day left after the all-important correspondance with the authorities. But it does make a difference what consumes the remainder of the day. Is it devoted to reading, travel, research — to extending and deepening the roots of one's art, of one's relationship to the real world? Or is it spent on jockeying for position, on maneuvering for bureaucratic small change?

Within the milieu of emerging composers, the acute form taken by the latter choice is the idea that one is a “real” composer only when one has accumulated a certain critical mass of awards, commissions, appointments, and performances. Only then, according to such a perspective, will one be provided with the means to create significant art. Only from a high enough rung on the career ladder will one be allowed to have an impact. The sage advice at the head of this column applies here with full force. One may well find both that the top rung is all too easy to reach, and that it in no way facilitates the creation of art.

The great artists of the past have been those who have risen to the never-ending task of harvesting, of reproducing, of interpreting the historical experiences — including those of an abstract or apparently supra-historical nature — through which mankind passes. Schoenberg's position on the “ladder” was precarious at best. Nonetheless, in the arc of his career, he succeeded in reflecting both the ferment of the last days of the Hapsburg empire and the later tragedy of the Holocaust. That he aimed at this type of achievement is indicated by the following “early aphorism”:

Art is the cry of those who experience the fate of humanity within themselves. Who instead of coming to terms with it, clash with it. Who don't passively serve the mechanism of “dark powers”, but instead throw themselves into the wheel as it runs, so as to grasp its construction. Who don't avert their eyes, to protect themselves from emotions, but rather open them wide so as to start what must be started. Who, however, often close their eyes, so as to perceive what is not mediated by the senses, so as to reveal the inside, which only apparently reaches the outside. And inside, within them, is the movement of the world; to the outside, only the echo penetrates: the work of art.1
The artistic representation of reality is thus no mere passive mirroring, but rather a development of cognitive forms and materials that remain active in future situations, within and beyond the realm of art. And such “wishes”, or at least such wishes as succeed in grasping something of the world's construction, will also most certainly come true.

David Ogborn is a Toronto-based composer and electronic sound artist, currently completing a doctoral degree in composition at the University of Toronto. He is a founding member of the net-label and is currently the chair of the Discourses in Music in editorial board.


1. “Kunst ist der Notschrei jener, die an sich das Schicksal der Menschheit erleben. Die nicht mit ihm sich abfinden, sondern sich mit ihm auseinandersetzen. Die nicht stumpf den Motor “dunkle Mächte” bedienen, sondern sich ins laufende Rad stürzen, um die Konstruktion zu begreifen. Die nicht die Augen abwenden, um sich vor Emotionen zu behüten, sondern sie aufreißen, um anzugehen, was angegangen werden muß. Die aber oft die Augen schließen, um wahrzunehmen, was die Sinne nicht vermitteln, um innen zu schauen, was nur scheinbar außen vorgeht. Und innen, in ihnen, ist die Bewegung der Welt; nach außen dringt nur der Widerhall: das Kunstwerk.” Arnold Schoenberg in Die Musik 9 (1909/10). Reprinted in Schöpferische Konfessionen. ed. Willi Reich. Zürich: Peter Schifferli Verlags AG Die Arche, 1964. p. 12. Translation mine.