Quotes on Music & Composition

I take advantage of the thread on https://llllllll.co/t/definition-of-music/Definition of music? and start this one so we can collect quotes on music and composition. The quotes can have any reference to composition, music or an aspect of it (form, rythm etc) however analytic or poetic. It may come from composers, writers, painters, poets, anyone…

I start with the famous quote from Edgard Varese. I have also attached the paper for anyone interested reading it…


First of all I should like you to consider what I believe is the best definition of music, because it is all-inclusive: “the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sound”, as proposed by Hoene Wronsky. If you think about it you will realize that, unlike most dictionary definitions which make use of such subjective terms as beauty, feelings, etc., it covers all music, Eastern or Western, past or present, including the music of our new electronic medium. Although this new music is being gradually accepted, there are still people who, while admitting that it is “interesting,” say, “but is it music?” It is a question I am only too familiar with. Until quite recently I used to hear it so often in regard to my own works, that, as far back as the twenties, I decided to call my music “organized sound” and myself, not a musician, but “a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities.” Indeed, to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise. But after all what is music but organized noises? And a composer, like all artists, is an organizer of disparate elements. Subjectively, noise is any sound one doesn’t like.

Edgard Varese, The Liberation of Sound, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1966)

Varese_Liberation_of_Sound.pdf (2.9 MB)


Good topic. Here’s a John Cage Goldie…

What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life–not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings


aprocryphal Morton Feldman quote related to me by someone who had attended a lecture or something:

“structure? it’s not a bridge, no one needs to walk on it!”


Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.


@fjna Iannis Xenakis somehow danced about architecture :wink:

I found that problems in architecture were the same as in music… Instead of starting from a detail, like a theme, and building up the whole thing with rules, you have the whole in mind and think about the details and the elements and, of course, the details… I thought that the best way to attack the problem was from both ends, detail and general.

Matossian, Iannis Xenakis (1985)

to work like architects on the sonic material in order to construct complex sounds and evolutions of these entities means that we must use macroscopic methods of analysis and construction. Microsounds and elementary grains have no importance on the scale which we have chosen. Only groups of grains and the characteristics of these groups have any meaning.

Xenakis, Formalized Music (1992)

With the aid of electronic computers the composer becomes a sort of pilot: he presses the buttons, introduces coordinates, and supervises the controls of a cosmic vessel sailing in the space of sound, across sonic constellations and galaxies that he could formerly glimpse only as a distant dream

Xenakis, Formalized Music (1992)


“I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.” - Igor Stravinsky


I’ve always liked this, but I’ve heard or seen it (and paraphrases of it) attributed to a variety of people. I first heard it said by Laurie Anderson in an interview transcript decades ago, but she claimed to be quoting Steve Martin(!). Google searches have attributed it to them and to others as well. Maybe it’s one of those things that’s just become part of the fabric of musical culture…

(I’ll also note that, although the statement is presumably intended to draw attention to the inherent limits of talking [or writing] about music, it doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful to do so – or, as @vals winkingly suggests, to dance about architecture.)


"I think we must more and more admit that all isn’t determined and that it would be more satisfying for the mind, less essentialist, not to create a hierarchy before the begining but to discover this hierarchy as one goes along… a ‘work’ perpetualy ‘in progress’ "

" Abolish the frontier between the unfinished and the finished "

-Pierre Boulez

traduction libre


@ubu where does these quotes come from?

boulez, influenced by Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘Livre’, arrived at the idea of “open form” or “work in progress” in the middle 50s while working in his Third Piano Sonata. In this spirit, a number of compositions remained unfinished, where subjected to various revisions, or have multiple versions, like Pli selon pli, Le Soleil des eaux and Le Visage nuptial


“Suddenly, toward the end of his life, Kierkegaard began to worry what his answer might be if he were asked in heaven: ‘Did you make things clear?’ He realized that in order to make things clear, he must make it known that of all those serving the Church of Denmark, not one had any feeling for God. And ourselves? What if we were faced with the same question? Being that music is our life, in that it has given us a life - did we make things clear? That is, do we love Music, and not the systems the rituals, the symbols - the worldly, greedy gymnastics we substitute for it? That is, do we give everything - a total commitment to our own uniqueness?”

-Morton Feldman


The first one is from a letter to Stockhausen.
I read it in this book: http://books.openedition.org/contrechamps/1834

The second is from this: http://www.gallimard.fr/Catalogue/GALLIMARD/Livres-d-Art/Pierre-Boulez.-OEuvre-fragment

Joyce also appear often in his writings. In fact in the first passage : "… a ‘work’ perpetualy ‘in progress’ (this dear Joyce) "

Another one: “the composer is a predator”

…how can we now make such a game between predicatbility and unpredictability without an established musical language? My personal answer is that I am always strying to first establish the rules of the game rather clearly in order later on to be able to distort it or to change directions. I do not want to put the listener behind a wall of information through which he is incapable of finding his way. There must be some path, some thread, like Ariadne in the labirynth

Gerard Grisey - inteview with D.Bundler (1996)

structure, whatever its complexity, must stop at the perceptibility of the message

Gerard Grisey - tempus ex machina (1987)


A painter - Frantisek Ondrusek - tells me: ‘I fail to understand much of what is painted now!’

What of ‘understanding’! One gate will always remain open in art: the gate of emotion. On the whirlwind of emotion, the development of music runs boldly forward.

Whether it scratches or caresses, it will always stick to you. You often turn away from some kind of development. You are weighed down by it, but you bear it, and bear it out you must.

Even when the course of events tears you apart, thirsty for your blood, it will suck your lifeblood in order to grow. It is without mercy. You cannot run away from it.

-Leos Janacek


“…for a hundred years, the intended meaning of any piece of music has been lost in translation, its technological mediation filtering out everything but the emotional contagion.” -Matthew Guerrieri, On Empathy


I’ve had this up on the wall in my studio for years:

I just work as hard as I can, think about the most interesting things as I can, spend no time or energy on self-promotion or ‘career,’ and try to move forward, take musical risks, follow my interests, and on the side, to support others to do the same. I’m happy when the music is performed, but happier when it’s understood, happiest when I’m working on something new.

  • Larry Polansky

“Anyone can make the simple complicated, creativity is making the complicated simple”
Charles Mingus

“I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge”
Igor Stravinsky

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes - ah, that is where the art resides!”
Artur Schnabel

“Imagination grows by exercise and contrary to common belief is more powerful in the mature than in the young”
W.Somerset Maugham

“There is a state of mind that means being open to anything and trying to be extremely vulnerable to things. I try to know nothing, to be simple, curious and open. And I try not to be clever. That’s the state of mind. And you can’t always get into that. If you are feeling frazzled or preoccupied you won’t make it. So I don’t try. If I know I’m feeling like that I’ll scrub the floor instead”
Laurie Anderson


”a freshness, a certain quality, which can only be obtained by improvisation, something you cannot possibly get from writing. It is something to do with the ‘edge’. Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the leap”

Steve Lacy in Derek Bailey - Improvisation -Its Nature and Practice in Music (1993)

”I’m saying that there is a set of rules. It’s no good Derek (Bailey) saying he doesn’t have any rules. Well, he can say that but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. The very fact that I can recognise his playing from one occasion to another indicates to me that there is a set of rules. If it’s coherent there must be rules. There are rules; it’s a different set of rules.”

Eddie Prevost -Interview with Richard Scott (1987)

”I would like to define improvisation as denoting the spontaneous element in musical performance, which either takes place within some kind of implicit or explicit framework or (as in ”free improvisation”) creates and transforms that framework as it proceeds. I would define composition as any kind of musical creative process or the results thereof. Therefore, within this scheme improvisation is a method of composition, no more and no less.”

Richard Barrett -From experimentation to Construction (2014)


Julius Eastman - The Composer as Weakling (1979)


An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres. Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to `brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

Brian Eno, Music for Airports liner notes (1978)


Morton Feldman: “The greatest truth usually lies behind the greatest resistance.”