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The function of art is the enrichment of life. To that end, I believe the most important function of music is meaningful communication. Musical composition is the transmission of experience in its broadest sense, into auditory patterns. The content of music, however, is neither emotion nor experience, but the aesthetic equivalent of both, achieved through this transmutation. A composer is, therefore, an individual who thinks creatively in terms of sonic symbols.

A musical composition as a work of art is a revelation of a reality beyond direct experience, a revelation made possible through the insight and intuition of its creator. The composer is simply the medium through which the idea is given embodiment in palpable form. Once he realizes that there is a certain inevitability in the nature and direction of his work, the composer is content to leave the matter of evaluation to the future and simply do what he must.

The promise of today is that we have at our disposal new means and materials which, fused and integrated into an idiom uniquely part of our time, make it possible to explore newly revealed areas of being.

 

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The polarities of music range from recreation to revelation.

 

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Originality is not so much newness as genuineness.

 

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Beware of labels. Do not identify or confuse labels with value judgements.

 

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Neither description nor evaluation is the basis of analysis, but rather a grasp of relationships.

 

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"New" works, by their very being, establish new standards; consequently, the specifics of right-wrong, better-worse are in constant flux. That is also why the identification and codification of procedures are necessarily retrospective. What is unchanging is that each style does "discover" and establish its own immanent standards.

Musical criteria are not appraisements inherited from some preceding style. Criteria emerge as the works of significant composers help create the very taste by which they are to be appreciated. Works which continue to have relevance and meaning for future generations—this is the touchstone of artistic survival—will be selected by that educated opinion which, in the long run, tends towards a consensus. The judgment of history is the collective expression of value.

 

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In the technique of composition, attention to detail is one of the factors which distinguishes the master from the dilettante.

 

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Forms evolve out of a feeling for organization which is innate and grows out of the human instinct to make or construct. This instinct is eventually conditioned to express proportions of a rhythmic or temporal kind. James Huneker's definition of music as an "intuitive mathematics" reveals a consciousness of the proportional relationships implicit in the art of music.

 

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Understanding adds appreciation to enjoyment and insight to pleasure.

 

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While anecdotal and historical references may have an interest in themselves and also in "explaining" specific compositions, art works generally transcend their sources.

 

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So-called music theory is explicit procedure crystallized into a system. During periods of transition, the formulation of new procedures is not guided by past precedents, but is arrived at intuitively. The triads of Dunstable, the chromaticism of Gesualdo and Mazzochi, the impressionism of Debussy and the pre-twelve tone atonality of Schoenberg are examples of procedures which pre-cognized a yet to be formalized theory.

 

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We cannot reach the essence of a composition through rational comprehension alone, since what we do grasp through rational comprehension is not its essence.

 

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We may speak of the semantics of music, but not in the verbal cognitive sense of a language of music. One of the basic differences between words and tone is that, while a word signifies something outside itself, a tone or combination of tones does not signify but is itself in itself. A word can be translated from one language to another and retain its exact meaning. A musical figure cannot be so translated at all.

Music is not a language in a verbal sense because it has no exact vocabulary; its communication begins where discursive linguistics end. Its content is neither emotion nor experience, but the aesthetic equivalent of each. Verbal language particularizes while music expresses refinements of being which are beyond any verbal equivalent. This gives rise to the paradox that music is not too indefinite to be put into words but rather too definite.

Let us assume that the Webster Unabridged Dictionary includes about 500,000 words, each of which is precisely defined. From the standpoint of variations of pitch alone—excluding variations of timbre, rhythm, articulation or register—the twelve semitones within an octave may be permutated into 479,001,600 different patterns. It is obvious that, assuming for the moment that could be expressed in words, our 500,000 word vocabulary could hardly begin to match the meaning of our more than 479 million pitch-patterns.

Aside from the onomatopoetical limitations—bird-songs, bell-sounds, etc.—programmatic possibilities exist in music because feelings, moods or emotions evoked by combinations or successions of sounds may be related to the feelings, moods or emotions evoked by a particular extra-musical associations. This explains Liszt's statement that one purpose of a program is "to guard the listener against a wrong poetical interpretation."

 

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The gift of embodying the ideal in palpable form is given to few, but the capacity to comprehend and appreciate this embodiment is universal in man.

 

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The historical development of western music until recent times is implicit in the overtone series.

 

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There is no surety for immortality, but of all activities in the arts the most ephemeral, the least enduring is that of performance. We may be captivated by the moment, but how vain it is to attempt to recover that moment. An aesthetic event can only be directly experienced; its exact impress can never be totally recalled. This being so, how can one transmit to another the essence of a great performance and how much less can one generation convey to another what, in a literal sense, it has "lived through." So the names of performers, however famous, become more and more faded letters on the pages of history until, with time, they become almost completely obliterated.

 

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In most respects twentieth-century music is the mirror image of the preceding three centuries: dissonance-consonance; multi-tonality-uni-tonality; electronic music-acoustic music; unlimited percussion-limited percussion; non-semitonal pitches-equal-tempered pitches; non-traditional sound sources-traditional vocal and acoustic sound sources; traditional notation-non-traditional notation; an often free continuum of motion, density, tension, and color-methodically structural forms; non-traditional media-traditional media.

These new techniques shape the idiom found in characteristic works of this century and are the tangible musical sources of that transvaluation of values which distinguish this period.

 

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Today's challenge to permanence: furniture, kinetic art, marriageand musichave become modular.

 

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How is personal experience converted into artistic expression? Might the process be somewhat analogous to the conversion of sunlight into chlorophyll?

Perhaps the best answer is found in Sir John Davies' poem, "Nosce Teipson" (Know Thyself) (1599). While he writes of the soul, as Coleridge points out in his "Biographia Literaria," "his words may be applied even more appropriately to poetic imagination."

". . . she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimination strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.
From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear them light on her celestial wings.
Thus does she, when from individual states
She does abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in diverse names and fates,
Steal access through our senses to our minds."

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Last modified on Wednesday, 13/11/2013

Leon Stein

Leon Stein (1910-2002) was an American composer. Stein attended DePaul University (M.M. 1935, Ph.D. 1949). He studied with Leo Sowerby, Eric DeLamarter, Frederick Stock, and Hans Lange. He taught at DePaul from 1931 to 1978, and served as Dean of the School of Music between 1966 and 1976. He directed a number of Chicago ensembles, including the City Symphony of Chicago. His manuscripts are held in the Richardson Library at DePaul.

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