Quotes on Music & Composition


Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word (1923):


Certain resonances are not utterly displeasing to the terrified eardrum.

Some paroxysms are dinning of tambourine, others suggest piano room or organ loft

For the most dissonant night charms us, even after death. This, after all, may be happiness: tuba notes awash on the great flood, ruptures of xylophone, violins, limpets, grace-notes, the musical instrument called serpent, viola de gambas, aeolian harps, clavicles, pinball machines, electric drills, que sais-je encore!

The performance has rapidly reached your ear; silent and tear-stained, in the post-mortem shock, you stand listening, awash

With memories of hair in particular, part of the welling that is you,

The gurgling of harp, cymbal, glockenspiel, triangle, temple block, English horn and metronome! And still no presentiment, no feeling of pain before or after.

The passage sustains, does not give. And you have come far indeed.

from The Skaters by John Ashbery


“Playing and studying Bach convinces us that we are all numskulls.”

–Robert Schumann


Xenakis: […] I think that the computer brought something which is basically different from what the instrumental, traditional music had. That is, the way to go to the tiniest unit of information, that is, to the bit that is making the sound. But the sound, what is it? It is not just one event, it might be the whole music, a Beethoven symphony; for me, it’s “the sound.” The tiniest sound is already a complicated, complex – could be – complex thing that necessitates all sorts of operations to produce it. And the computer gives us this possibility which did not exist before.

Therefore, composing music has many layers. One more with computers, which is the fundamental, ground level, let’s say. And then sounds, more or less complicated, and the chaining of the sounds, how you line them up and how you transform them, then polyphony, kind of, orchestration, the architecture of the piece. So from the tiny bit to, not an hour – it’s too long – let’s say, thirty minutes of music: it’s a whole bridge of thought that you need to know to produce music today. Difficult, of course. You don’t agree?


Mâche: Well, in fact, what I was saying yesterday was rather different. I pointed out the danger of being an instrument-maker for a composer because he spends much time, and you know that you have been spending much time on this work lately. You succeed because you are also a mathematician, which I am not. I suggested that musicians who are not really fit for that work should be very careful before starting it because not only could they waste their time but also they could lose their real purpose, just like Stravinsky. He was playing piano and was fascinated by his own fingers, so he stopped playing. If you are fascinated by the computer, you may stop composing.

Xenakis: Of course, you must not be fascinated by the computer. It’s a tool. You must be fascinated perhaps with what you have in mind. If you don’t have anything in mind, you cannot be fascinated.

The entire discussion: http://www.rogerreynolds.com/xenakis.html

And here’s a related quote (probably paraphrased) stuck in my mind since ~2008, from a conversation with a friend (who is a DSP wizard) when I was starting early work on my homebrew system and planning to give up Max/MSP:

DSP isn’t interesting

But yeah, this essentially describes the last 5 years of my musical life:

If you are fascinated by the computer, you may stop composing.


Any idea of believing in God I have is as much to do with the presence and effect of melody as it is to do with other human beings. Which sounds awful: you’re supposed to believe in God becuase you care about people. But I sometimes think melody is a more instant, and less wearing apprehension of the divine, than people. Other people, you’re blind to the God in them because of their faults.

Paddy McAloon in conversation with Simon Reynolds, 1990.