The art of intuition

The 20th century saw the birth of new compositional techniques, but it was not until the second half of that century that a generation of composers collectively embarked on a mission to create music based entirely on abstract logic. The situation is different today, but some composers still hold steadfast to the ideals of that bygone era.

I don’t think a composer needs to rationally justify every single note on his/her score to prove the quality of the music. Having this as a goal might eventually lead to tailoring our compositions for music analysts. What is even worse, some compose with the analysis already in mind. It can lead to some recognition from our peers, but in the end those of us who rely too heavily on mental constructs run the risk of becoming predictable.

Make no mistake; I do not advocate a purely intuitive style of composition. I have been studying music since I was a child, including two years privately, two more at the National Conservatory of Lima, seven years at the Sibelius Academy and four years at UC Berkeley. But it is precisely because I have lived within the walls of academia for so long that I value the power of intuition even more.

The word intuition has already accrued several definitions by psychologists and philosophers so I won’t go on a quest to find yet another one. What is important to me is that musical intuition has been responsible for breaking ground in our field. When we, composers, face uncharted territory we can’t rely on pre-designed structures, if we do this we won’t get too far.

Both, serialist composers and composers using chance procedures were trying to dissociate themselves from the artistic outcome, probably with the aim of eliminating the composer’s personality from the finished piece. But no matter how hard they tried; they couldn’t achieve it. This, of course, doesn’t take the historical significance and artistic value away from any of their compositions, but in truth their works were the result of sound combinations that they already had in mind before facing the empty staff. Whether deliberately or not, they manipulated their systems in order to produce music as close as possible to their aesthetic ideals, a sort of mechanical, dehumanized art. In other words, serialism (and chance procedures) provided a system by which music of a certain aesthetic inclination could be created. Chance procedures, as used most notably by John Cage, also had the objective of separating the creator from the created object. The problem there is that so many arbitrary decisions are left to the composer that in reality it is not possible to have control over all parameters. When making those decisions we are generally governed by personal taste. That is, we create the music we want to listen to.

Attempts at bringing serialism to its maximum possible extreme by Milton Babbit led to interesting music from an analytical point of view, but not always engaging to listen to. This statement is of course based on my personal taste, but I say this because, for example, for Babbit to have all parameters under control he had to limit himself to the use of 16th notes as the basic building blocks. He needed to simplify his rhythmic structures so that he could have control over all durations contained within a given piece. He came from a mathematical background so I understand his desire to do this, but by imposing those limitations upon himself, he also narrowed his musical vocabulary considerably. In this sense, I agree with author Jackson J. Spielvogel when he says: “Serialist composition diminishes the role of intuition and emotion in favor of intellect and mathematical precision”. Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization, Volume II: Since 1500, Seventh edition.

Xenakis, on the other hand, makes a more interesting use of mathematics. He used stochastic processes belonging to the field of probability, but he had a more textural approach. Before applying the math, he had already musically conceived the sound masses and processes found in his music. Mathematics was just the tool he used to carry out his ideas.

While a student in Helsinki, I volunteered for a psychological research that compared the perception of basic musical processes between musicians and non-musicians. After introducing myself to the researcher in charge she attached a number of electrodes to my scalp. I was told the test had two parts. First, I would listen to a series of sounds on a pair of headphones while watching a silent film. I was asked to concentrate as much as I could on the film, therefore ignoring the sounds entirely. During the second part I was asked to turn off the TV and pay close attention to the sounds coming through my headphones. My task was to press a button whenever I detected a change of pattern. What was striking to me was how simple the sound track was. Actually, there were no more than two or three different tones and two or three different rhythmic patterns. When I finished the test I asked the researcher why didn’t she use real music in her experiment and she replied by saying that in real music there were so many patterns and variations that it was nearly impossible for anyone to have control over all those elements and to draw any conclusions from such data.

Our brains are so complex and rich and our brain cells are interconnected in such unpredictable ways that if we aim at having conscious control over every single element present in our compositions (thus making it easier to understand and explain every minuscule detail in a rational way), we would need to simplify our music to a point where it might just become too simple, predictable and uninteresting. According to Carl Jung, intuition is perception via the unconscious, it “is a way of comprehending perceptions in terms of possibilities, past experience, future goals, and unconscious processes…Because it often includes unconscious material, intuitive thinking appears to proceed by leaps and bounds”. Personality and Personal Growth (6th ed.)
Frager, R., & Fadiman, J. (2005). New York: Pearson
Prentice Hall.

Intuition is our only weapon when exploring uncharted territory; we have to rely in our past experiences a make a connection with the present in order to write the music of the future. Trying to rationally and consciously understand every single note we write will ultimately impoverish our musical language. This can be an interesting task for an analyst, but it could be crippling for a composer. A solid academic training is of course required but we must take care not to completely inhibit that raw, animal aspect of ourselves which puts us in connection with our own humanity.

Ultimately music should be analyzed a posteriori; trying to lay out our system a priori seems to go against the way history has evolved and this is why, in my opinion, twelve tone technique did not have its hundred years of reign as Schoenberg wanted, because although he saw it as an inevitable consequence of previous historical events, it was more of a laboratory product where the system came first and the music followed.

In this sense I share Jules Henri Poincaré’s vision that although methods of logic are certain and reliable, logic alone does not teach us how to build a proof. According to him it is intuition that helps mathematicians find the way of assembling basic inferences into a useful proof. “It is by logic we prove, it is by intuition that we invent” Poincaré said, “Logic, therefore, remains barren unless fertilized by intuition.”

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About Jimmy López Bellido

My name is Jimmy López Bellido and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 38 years ago and I have lived in several places including Miami, Helsinki, Paris, and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at www.jimmylopez.com Welcome!
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4 Responses to The art of intuition

  1. Sami Järvinen says:

    Great article! Lucidly written and makes a point I wholly agree with.

    Several corollaries come to mind; e.g. if the pure serialist insists on an all-pervasive logic and structure, then this begs the question “what is the point in music anyway?” The composer shouldn’t completely separate himself from the intuitive, audible or emotional elements of music – otherwise, wouldn’t the piece actually be better experienced as a seminar paper rather than something you play and listen to?

    I guess it’s a question of balance between structure and exception. Without any structure at all you end up unable to signify anything (except a kind of primal raw energy as is sometimes the case with certain “free jazz” extremists). But at the other end of the spectrum, if you take structuralism to the extreme, it’s the same result minus the primal energy.

    The structure needs unexpected cracks in it to be humanly interesting, wouldn’t we say? And it’s intuition (or something of the sort) that tells us where and how these exceptions are needed. They can’t be logically deduced from an axiom.

  2. Adrian says:

    Very interesting! Thank you.

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