Saturday, July 4, 2009


Here is a blog I wrote a few months ago but never published. Who writes drafts of their blogs? Well I do. I don't know who the heck is ever going to read this. But anyway here's what I was thinking back in February:

Last October I took part in a festival at Tufts University (my alma mater) honoring composer T. J. Anderson. Anderson was on the faculty for many years and retired just before I studied there. I performed Anderson’s trio Ivesiana with fellow alum Jason Coleman on cello and my composition teacher from Tufts, John McDonald on piano. The parts are independent so we each had a lot of freedom- it was a piece I could really sink my teeth into. The whole weekend was inspiring. There was a seminar on African American composers during which my main teacher from Berkeley, Olly Wilson, spoke as well as many others. I especially liked what Wilson had to say about his experiences as a composer. Someone asked about racism and Wilson said he and all the other African-American composers (including Anderson) working in the 50’s and 60’s had a “fire in their eyes.” They had to prove that they were just as valid as white composers in an environment considerably more racist than today’s. The act of composing music had an added meaning for them at that time. And of course it wasn’t only in composing but in everything that they did. And, as Trevor Weston (one of my fellow Berkeley graduate students) mentioned, this is something that continues to be an issue.

Wilson mentioned something that resonated with me. He said that the reason he writes music is to express his life experiences through sound. He uses music to communicate something about his life. I have been thinking a lot about how I can write more personal music; music that is true to me. Not every composer considers music so personally. Every composer’s music reflects something about the composer’s personality; but not every composer views music as a form of personal communication. For some composers music is more about ideas, or the structuring of sound.

I am always asking myself: “Why do I write music?” What is the point? What am I trying to accomplish by creating music? I believe my goals are the same as Wilson’s- to communicate something about my life. I have heard that the average person needs to say a certain number of words every day. If they don’t, they can feel blocked up and they may have trouble sleeping at night. I would like to say much more than I say, in an average day. I am fairly quiet most of the time. So I think that music is a way for me to get out what I can’t seem to get out in normal every day conversation. But I have realized that creating music is not the same as speaking and, no matter how much music I have made in a particular day, if I haven’t gotten words out I may still feel unsatisfied.

But creating music does fulfill a need, even if it is independent of the need to speak a certain number of words in a day.

I have written a lot of music that is not really me. I’ve written a tango, quite a few pop string arrangements and I’m working on a musical. I like all of that music but I don’t think it reflects who I really am. Many composers have their public and private musical styles. At some point, all composers have to write for someone else, whether it is a school assignment, a film score or a commission. The trick is to fulfill the obligation while at the same time being true to your self. How do you really know if you are writing what you truly want or writing what someone else wants? Maybe a sign of a mature composer is that he or she is really writing only for him or herself. I used to think you have to consider your audience but maybe I’ll only feel like a real composer when I forget completely about who I am writing for (musicians or audience) and follow only my own musical path. But I hate the idea of alienating an audience. If my goal is to communicate something about my life I want the thing that I am communicating to be clear.

But instrumental music is always abstract. It is difficult to communicate specific ideas through sound. It is of course easy to communicate feelings. It sounds to trite to say that I want to write music about my feelings. Music expresses_________? You can write music about music. you can write music about world events, you can write music about politics, you can write music about ideas, music can be a cultural expression. Music is always a cultural expression- but whose culture? Is it your culture? it a culture that you have appropriated? Is it really you? Is your music really you or are you acting? Are you just playing the role of the composer? What do YOU want? I ask myself that all the time- what is it that I want to write? What kinds of sounds do I want to make?

I got a little write-up in one the Seattle papers that said “Tom Swafford, avant-violinist.” And that’s the majority of what I did in Seattle- play avant violin. But is it who I am? I play a bit of fiddle, a bit of this, a bit of that- but I haven’t delved in to anything deeply enough to call myself a bluegrass fiddler. I can play in the style and sound fairly authentic- although to discerning ears it still will sound like a classical violinist playing fiddle. I have to work to avoid sounding like a classical violinist.
I remember when ΓΈ24c (the improvisation group that I played in when I went to Berkeley) performed at Mills College one of the Mills students described our music as “EGO MUSIC.” That was collective improv- but we did all have our own voices and we showed off- it was extroverted at times. There were solos.

I write EGO music.

Boulez says: “Too great a knowledge of things inspires respect in us and prohibits spontaneous usage” So do I have enough knowledge of these styles of music to appropriate them? Or maybe I have too much respect now and my usage of them will not be spontaneous…

While busking- angry lady says “play something else!” I say “what?” “stop playing these silly little songs and play something else!” I was playing Ashokan Farewell. Before that I think I was playing some bluegrassy type of thing.

What she doesn’t understand is that real composers appreciate the simple- in folk music, in popular music- they don’t look down on other forms of music as inferior. What causes this distorted, delusional thinking in people? This disgusting, repulsive flaw in logic that would cause such a ridiculous, absurd reaction to a piece of music? That someone would actually be offended by a piece of music. That any piece of music could actual anger someone is beyond me. But even more so is this idea of taking offense- who is this woman to be offended by “silly little songs”? It’s a form of prejudice- admittedly not as serious as racism but still in the same category. One example maybe the association of something that sounds like fiddle music with hillbillies- backward country bumpkins who are inferior to other people…. something like that….

At Tufts freshman year in discussions with my friend Ulysses I realized that there is no such thing as good, bad, better or best- no such thing. we’re all the same. No one is superior or inferior. But then I went back to Ayn Rand- my dad wrote “trash but provocative” on a collection of her writings… she says there are indeed good and bad quality people. So are there objective criteria for good and bad music? That’s the big question, isn’t it… I say no, it’s all subjective.

LIVING it--- I call playing with Meisce (the folk/punk band I played with in Seattle) and even these other rock bands and all this other music—that’s living it, being in it, being part of it, being an active participant in the culture, in the fabric, even playing on the subway, much better than sitting in a room studying – maybe it comes into the music

I wouldn’t write a piece and say it’s based on Gangsta rap – or some other music that isn’t part of me

that concept I like a lot- taking the essence, one gesture, one element of one gesture, one nuance- what is it about this music that identifies it as this particular genre? what is meaningful? what are people connecting to most- a certain bend of the note makes it country music- something like that- I think about that all the time

also I like DECAY- slowly, naturally, organically, something changes, disappears- but the patterns that this makes, pieces missing, changing, being changed
I like the subway posters that people have defaced too
and I’ve always liked ruins, and what’s called urban decay too
and mold,

part of this natural process- does this make it authentic?

also intuition- letting it out, letting it be what it is

like my friend artist Guido van der Werve’s talk today- the chess players who just look at the pieces, and intuit what to do- based on the visual experience, and based on their feeling- something beyond thought-

and also I liked what Guido said about being direct- simple- simple ideas. without making them complicated and therefore art can become obscure

his ideas, like walking in front of the ice breaker, or his film “the day I didn’t turn with the world” where he stood at the north pole for 24 hours and turned exactly opposite to the way the earth was turning on it’s axis. very powerful- someone could write a lot about the power of this gesture- this act. but it’s the act itself (and it’s documentation) that guido is concerned with.

My friend studied Kurtag as a musicologist. She asked him for permission to write about his music and he said “do whatever you want. I won’t read it. I despise academics.” and so she quit musicology and became a singer instead.

authentic – how can you be authentic- what is real? what is really you?

any time any situation when are you acting and when are you being your true self? or do you have a lot of selves? we all wear a lot of masks- different personas we take on.

but what about music- when is music real?

Some composers are criticized for writing “film music.” What is film music? What makes music film music? These critics are not talking literally about music written for films- they are referring to a style.

Is it impersonal? Written for some other purpose besides expression?

Other composers are praised for pushing the envelope of what music can be-

guess what? I am not interested in that either.

at the same time I am- but it is not what is most important.

I want to distill this authentic music. this bluegrass. this old time. this country. even Manu Chau’s Cladestino (a song I like a lot that I learned at a jam session)

it goes back to a personal expression. emotional. real. authentic.

I am expressing both my own experience and the experience of others in my culture- but what is MY culture? I’m not a member of any culture particularly, especially being a white male. Which is why I want to go to my family reunion in Tennessee. I was disappointed to see that a Swafford was on the committee to discredit Obama’s presidency b/c he submitted a photocopy of his birth certificate- making it doubtful he was even born in the USA and therefore ineligible to become president. But he is president now.

who am i? what group am I part of? what music is really mine? what music do I have a right to appropriate? how can I make authentic music? how can I reflect the multiple musical experiences I have and continue to have in my music? Will it come naturally if I just let it? Is it something that I really need to think about?

and can I write about these things without seeming like an egotistical asshole?

every composer believes they have the potential to write the greatest music ever- they might not have written it yet- but at least the potential. so do I- what I’m trying to do is write music that I like. That I really really like- better than anything I’ve ever heard- because it’s a distillation of all the elements of all the music I’ve ever heard- combined- taking all the elements of all the music I like. But reducing it- not taking a particular motive, or rhythm, or timbre- but reducing it further to the nuance. to the very specific, microscopic thing that makes it what it is. and that thing- that thing is what moves me as a listener.

I’m writing for me. I want to write music that, even if I didn’t’ write it, I would think- gosh I love that. It’s my tastes.

I don’t want to write or play music that I wouldn’t want to listen to.

It is an unattainable goal. Just like Guido’s movie about unattainable goals, like playing every possible chess game. or counting every star, or tuning a piano perfectly (these are the three sections of a movie) and somehow tuning a piano is supposed to relate to building a house on a fault line – darn I should have thought of asking that at the talk- then I would have seemed really smart.