Staying Engaged

Aesthetic identity—I like that. I’m like that. ...Aesthetic meanings go beyond social signals to personal affirmations of our sense of self.—Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style

Enlightened Beguilement—Wendy Steiner, The Scandal of Pleasure

Randall Shinn and his future wife Carol after a performance in 1968

I began composing and arranging music for fun around age fifteen, and for a decade and a half I enjoyed exploring a wide range of stylistic materials—from blues and jazz to Renaissance madrigals, and from classical tonality to modernist atonality.

This early period of stylistic exploration ended when I realized that some of my recent works failed to engage me deeply when I heard them performed. Each time this happened, I found my relative lack of visceral response disappointing, even disturbing. Something basic needed to change.

Looking Inward

I eventually realized that to do work I found deeply meaningful, I needed to work with materials I found intrinsically engaging. (Ellen Dissanayake calls such elements “protoaesthetic” in her book Homo Aestheticus.*) I soon discovered that simply paying close attention to my bodily responses proved a quick way to gauge my visceral level of interest in various aesthetic materials. Some materials triggered more engaged responses than others. Through some unconscious process, I responded to some materials more positively, faster, and more deeply.

Greater awareness of my varied responses to different materials eventually pushed me to approach the initial phases of composition in a far more intuitive way—a process I discuss in Rebellious Muses.

Shaping a Loosely-Defined Aesthetic Viewpoint

By paying attention to my bodily responses, I learned, for example, that I can be captivated by beautiful melodies, by expressive timbres, by intriguing sensations of physical motion, and by flexible forms of modal/tonal organization. I can also be fascinated by aesthetic traits such as strikingness, vivid expression, and a sense of mercurial temperament.

I turned these deep-seated aesthetic interests into pragmatic rules of thumb: “Compose beautiful melodies,” “Favor dance-like rhythms,” “Work with flexible modal/tonal frameworks,” and so on. A single, loosely-defined rule of thumb might call to mind dozens of personally meaningful examples. Multiple rules of thumb like these, in combination, coalesced to shape a flexible, loosely-defined aesthetic viewpoint.

Consider the rule of thumb: “Compose beautiful melodies.” I have aspired to compose engaging melodies in every style I’ve ever worked in. After hearing one of my early atonal works, a European composer complained that some of its melodies were “too beautiful.” (He wanted new music to push audience members apart.) He advised me to stop composing melodies whose beauty made them “too easy to enjoy.” I pretended to take his advice as seriously as he meant it, but in my mind I was already turning it around, as illustrated below.

A Few Personal Rules of Engagement

Advice to Myself: Let loose barrages of beautiful melodies and danceable rhythms. Push forward. Deploy your favorite stylistic devices at will. Let your unruly Muses slip across stylistic borders and steal ideas that excite them. Shape an aesthetic worldview around your deepest aesthetic values. Produce work boldly. Relish playing with materials you find deeply engaging.