Commentary Magazine

Music and the Statistical Age

Interviewer: And how do you view the statistical life generally, Mr. Stravinsky?

Igor Stravinsky: With misgivings, of course, but I have failed to arrive at anything so solid as a “view,” being at best dimly, though not for that reason unprejudicially, aware of certain effects of the quantifications of society that have already taken place. But the quantifying of the entire mental world that is now in store and that supposes a new type of mind, or way of thinking, is a development I am powerless to imagine. Still, the incapacity for it has not prevented the question from invading my old-fashioned speculative mind a good deal of late.

Interviewer: Why particularly “of late”?

Stravinsky: It is difficult to say for certain. There are small encroachments of statistical philosophy all the time, but we notice them, concern ourselves with them, only when conscious that a whole new area has fallen. It was like that with automation. I had read about it inattentively during the last few years, then a month ago some first-hand experience jolted me like a judo throw. This occurred, surprisingly, in a ratty and down-at-heel Midwest hotel: I telephoned to order the petit déjeuner before going to bed and was answered by a recorded Mother Superior-type voice: “This is your breakfast robot: after you hear the dial tone please give your name, room number, breakfast order, the time you wish it served. . . . BEEEP.” A silence followed, just long enough—it was sealed by another, terminal “BEEEP”—to encompass a statistically averaged recitation of the requested facts from a properly organized customer. But I failed to remember the sequence of the questions, did not know my room number, neglected to say how to prepare the eggs, forgot to specify the time of service. Moreover, that final “BEEEP” so exasperated me that when I did get organized, I promptly recorded an order for two hundred pieces of burned toast to be sent to the three-hundredth floor at four A.M.; which is “feedback” with a vengeance.

Interviewer: But do you not believe that improved automation techniques controlled by the ever more sophisticated tools of statistical analysis can bring about a more efficient channeling of resources?

Stravinsky: I can say that recent errors in my bank statements have done little to promote confidence on at least this individual level. Nevertheless, in the great synthetic civilization of the totally automated future, we might reasonably expect a more equal distribution of certain kinds of wealth, and a consequent relief of so-called underprivileged peoples; and improvements in everyone's animal living habits, as the new science of ergonomics seems to promise (see the survey just published at Cornell on the mutual misfitting of the human anatomy and most bathroom appliances) ; and new techniques of conservation (not merely bloodbanks everywhere, but banks of frozen superior sperm as well, though to me this sounds depressingly like the whaling industry, in spite of the one-sided amusement that the banking process may afford the eugenically selected depositors). Nor are some of the new kinds of mentaliz-ing efficiency difficult to imagine, the propensities of the McLuhan-type literature of our own period being clear enough in such current bestsellers as The Cybernetics of Sexual Positions in Relation To Socio-Economic Status, and A Concordance Of Views From The Perspex Penis.

But I wonder about the other side, about the disadvantages, and about that new mind. Are we not equally justified in forecasting a mass con-formism to statistics? After all, we know that more people than Francesca and Paolo have been seduced by books. We know, too, from an alarming nationwide demonstration, that trend-analyses of vote tabulations in the Eastern United States are probably able to influence the vote in the Western time zones. Now, I am certainly not justified in inferring from these examples that conformisms to statistical findings are inevitable and irreversible; but I do infer it, nevertheless, because of my stealthy skepticism of most individual judgment and, correspondingly, my almost infinite faith in the powers of statistical persuasion, wish-imagining, suggestibility, mass attraction. I foresee the statistical philosophy becoming more and more circular, in fact, untidy figures being polished and rounded out; and, of course, trends being pushed to their conclusions; after all, to “make the crooked straight” has been one of the most ruthlessly compulsive propositions in the history of our ethical geometries. When people are being informed by their statisticians that they might be developing cancer at a certain age—unless they have already died from the effects of strontium 90 at an earlier age—will they not, the poor lemmings, do their best to oblige?

And conformism is only one problem. What, for another, will become of the faculty of observation when exact prediction is a rule of life? Won't the observing mechanisms occupy a much smaller place in that new mind (on the analogy from physics according to which prediction by mathematical theory can precede observation, as in Yukawa's discovery of one of the meson-type particles)? This is mere prattle on my part, of course, for I know nothing about such matters myself, and still think sequentially, as the Mc-Luhanites describe certain until recently respectable mental operations.

Interviewer: Will you say something of the effects of quantification in music, Mr. Stravinsky?

Stravinsky: It will come to the same thing: on the one hand, greater efficiency in such important but peripheral matters as the computation of all sound elements, the discovery of a precise and economical notation, the formulation of a statistical theory of music equipped with a tangible terminology; and, on the other, a dangerous control at the heart of the matter, for McLuhan, if I understand him, is right. The new media are not merely new conveyors, but they are themselves conveyed: their forms and measurements will be stamped in the structure of that new mind. But here I am crystal-gazing again, arid I have no gift for it. Unlike those shades in the Tenth Canto who see the past and the future but not the present, I see only the present. And besides, what I wished to suggest was that, for the moment at least, a backward look might be more instructive. Statistical philosophy in music seems to have been discovered some sixty years ago by Ives.

Interviewer: Have you heard Ives's Fourth Symphony yet, Mr. Stravinsky, and if so, have you any comments to register concerning it?

Stravinsky: I have found it to be rather less of a “gas” than opinion led me to expect. Ives was not primarily a symphonist; the Three Places in New England are more of an entity than any one of the symphonies (besides which they contain much better music than the third and more consistently good music than the fourth). But the last movement of the fourth is an astonishing achievement. The in clusiveness which” is at the root of Ives's genius (“all things in their variety,” as he quoted Emerson) reaches saturation point in these seemingly free-for-all pages; “seemingly” because while this or that tune may suddenly burst out for no other apparent reason than joie de vivre, it is inextricable in the skein of the composition. But I will say no more. I know too little of this fascinating composer who was exploring the 1960's during the heyday of Strauss and Debussy. Poly-tonality; atonality; tone clusters; tone rows; multiple orchestras; a rhythmic vocabulary which maintains a lead on the avant-garde even now; micro-intervals; perspectivistic effects; chance; statistical composition; permutation; add-a-part, practical-joke, and improvisatory music: these were Ives's discoveries a half-century ago as he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before the rest of us even found a seat at the same table. But to me personally these innovatory achievements are of less moment (artistic inventions not being patented, in any case) than my discovery in him, only very recently, of a new awareness of America.

Interviewer: What was this discovery, Mr. Stravinsky? And since you have now lived almost as long here as in Russia, and longer here than in Western Europe, would you tell us some of your feelings about us? Do you have a sense of identification with America, and what in America do you like most and dislike most?

Stravinsky: Identification, yes, but I cannot describe it or even be certain where and how it obtains. I can feel no identity with the present military version of the manifest destiny, and therefore no sympathy with the victims of peace-scares (i.e., stock-market investors), but as I do not wish to provoke a visit from the C.I.A., I had better heed the advice of the Devil in my opera when he says, “Let us not speak of that.” I do not identify very deeply with American music either, though I feel close to individual American musicians and to musical life in America. It seems to me that the greatest American art never tries to promote itself on the fact that it is homespun, yet Ives was ignored or written off as Americana precisely by the colonials of “neo-classicism” and the “12-tone system,” and he seems to have survived only by crawling out of that interesting New England woodwork.

But having said this much, I am at a loss to describe that personal discovery in Ives. My answer merely points in a general direction. Ives's music has told me more about what I think of as a peculiarly American feeling of isolation than the American outdoor novelists, Whitman or Walden, Miss Dickinson or Tuckerman (who felt “the dark wind strain”). The qualities of it, like the dominant qualities of Ives, are alien to me, but they are an identifying link all the same, as I realize in Europe where differences of culture bring certain previously indistinguishable feelings into relief. In Europe, I often feel, against my heritage, that I belong to the American side; and I even confess to brief onsets of topographical nostalgia (more for Park Avenue and the reflections of clouds on tall glass buildings, I admit, than for those Midwestern parallelogram cities designed to be passed straight through), though I was never, in this regard, an exceptionally “sticky” man. But to return to Ives, it seems to me time to consider the composer's share in his century along with the environmental factors of New England.

As for a compilation of likes and dislikes, that would constitute no more than a string of disembodied prejudices. I could say, for instance, that a salutation last year by the Mayor of Muncie (Indiana) touched me more than that of an eminent European Minister of Culture, because the degree of musical ignorance being equal in both, it seemed less excusable in the latter. Or, tipping the argument the other way, I could protest the American demolition mania, that neurotic need, now in peak phase, to repudiate the past. Some of the destruction—the impending demise of the Metropolitan Opera House, whose cornerstone postdated my own birth—strikes an old man as a personal offense. I had no very fond feelings for the Met, I confess, but now that it is empty I feel as if there had been a big death in New York, that a junior colleague of a kind has disappeared.

Interviewer: And the new Metropolitan, Mr. Stravinsky, do you have any feelings about that? What do you foresee for it?

Stravinsky: Difficulties. It has lost most of its aura, a good deal of its alibi and practically all of its identity. But what are the reasons for centralizing a city's art commodities?—excuse the expression, but supermarkets for the arts, art shopping centers, is what they seem to be. Does no one fear that, lumped together, the characters of the individual institutions will tend to blur? Is environmental diversity a discredited idea?

Interviewer: Do you feel the same way about the Kennedy Arts Center, Mr. Stravinsky?

Stravinsky: I have no feelings about it yet, but the latter two-thirds of the title hardly fall pit-a-pat on my ear. I foresee huge buildings—the more marginal the contents of the art the larger and more stolid the containers—tumbled about like blocks in low-scoring Stanford-Binet tests. The largest of them I picture as the “Research Laboratory for the Readjustment of Acoustics in New Concert Halls”; and the second largest, the “Hall of Fame for Heroes of Public Relations”—impresarios, orchestra conductors, patronesses, and others who have won or purchased a brief moment in the annals of publicity, here paid off with monuments in appropriately “soft sculpture” (doomed to instant dissolution if the air conditioning should fail). It is disagreeable to say, but the Art Centers emphasize performance and exhibition at the expense of making and creating. That, however, and for a wonder, is the last sour note, toned down as it is, that I intend to blow today and, though I cannot guarantee not to backslide, I hope that it will be my farewell appearance this season as a “heavy.” For a minority group of only one I am much too vocal.

Interviewer: To return to the question of the new media, Mr. Stravinsky, won't they offer new resources as well?

Stravinsky: So one would expect, logically. But I am not convinced that greater resources are what is needed. It seems to me that the possibilities are already rich enough, or too rich. A good artist will not be stopped by a want of resources, which are in the man himself, in any case, and which time makes new every day. The so-called crisis of means is interior.

Interviewer: Lévi-Strauss remarked recently that “if electronic musicians sought to understand what music is instead of trying to produce it, we would make tremendous progress toward solving the problem which music sets the science of man.”

Stravinsky: The “electronic musicians” I know are quite unconcerned about the nature of music, and they would never dare to turn to the philosophy and science of what they are doing, instead of just doing it, definitions of art being not only of no use to artists, but possibly some encumbrance. I expect in my own case that when the computer has quantified my musical characteristics for me, I will try to avoid them; and though I think I can survive the exposure, I certainly do not welcome it. Lévi-Strauss's inquiries should be supported to the full, nevertheless. He is the first major philosopher to have understood that the true position of music is at the center of human culture.

Interviewer: Do you agree with Messiaen that “Nature” (he writes it in upper-case)—its sounds, colors, forms, rhythms—is the composer's supreme resource?

Stravinsky: Only if you allow the word the scope of the small “n”: the large one signifies no more than a countryside or landscape, personal, perhaps, but not new in kind. In fact, Messiaen's oiseaux exotiques differ only in genus, not in musical intention, from Beethoven's homely cuckoo. I do not deny the legitimacy of Messiaen's imitations, of course, or the fertility, to him, of “Natural” resources. What I do say is that no matter how faithful, these imitations are necessarily expressed in, cannot escape being contained by, the harmony, rhythm, instrumental color, and (especially in Messiaen's case) volume of the contemporary musical language.

Interviewer: Do you think of “art” and “nature” as two realities, Mr. Stravinsky, and is there any act of transformation of the one in the other?

Stravinsky: There are any number of realities, dualisms, pluralisms; concepts of this sort can be set up merely by installing the convincing word-furniture in the available empty idea-flat. For me, music is reality, as I have said before, and like Baudelaire, but unlike Messiaen, “J'aime mieux une boîte à musique qu'un rossignol.”1 As for transformation, I do not admit the idea because I am unable to understand what the cognates would be. Obviously the phenomenal world is refractible in music, or represented in it. The point is simply that I don't understand the mirroring (or the transforming) chemistry. (Try Lévi-Strauss.) It must also be obvious that the composer in me has been partly formed by interactions of choice with the phenomenal world; and obvious that the entel-echy of these choices has made me different from other composers. But my picture of the phenomenal world, as a citizen if not as an artist, does not differ essentially from that of other scientific illiterates; or let us say that the differences are comprehensive and that the resemblances conform in enough gritty facts (as they say) to permit the establishment of a statistical society—to return to our starting point.

Interviewer: What do you think of the so-called Age War, Mr. Stravinsky?

Stravinsky: I admire the longhaired ephebes, though I'm much too square myself to belong to their Big Daddy elect. But are the causes of the Age War so very new? Haven't old people always tended to see too absolutely and too moralistically, and haven't they always narrowed every issue to their own ever shortening sight? And haven't they—we—always been puzzled by the enthusiasms of the young for things that we have outgrown; and no less puzzled by their lack of sympathy for things that we continue to feel enthusiastic about but that the times have outgrown? Whatever the answers, I wonder if any aged person has voiced the feelings of the old more honestly than Tolstoy. I have lately come across a remark of his in Anatol Koni's memoirs (Vospominaniya O Pisatiliach, Leningrad, 1965) that, I confess, speaks for me as well: “Old people dislike the fact that young people talk so much and seem to know so much without having had their experience.”

Interviewer: Generally, as well as in your own case, Mr. Stravinsky, is it more difficult to compose music now than ever before?

Stravinsky: It is certainly more difficult now, and it always was. As for myself, I can say that ideas seem to come as fluently as ever, and that my new opus may have required less composing time than comparable lengths of music a decade ago. But length is no measurement, nor is the circumstance that the new opus promises to be the most easily digestible of all my recent music; it was not easier to compose, I can assure you, and the difficulties in manipulating two series were sometimes extremely inconvenient. At the same time, as the form is that of a retablo of small panels, rather than a large-scale fresco, I did not have to carry the burden of a large plan about with me but could work in small doses and tap my “inspiration”—which is portable, whatever else it may be—only when it seemed full. But I am able to appraise music, while I compose it, only on a technical level: I am an expert but not an evaluator of my functioning mind.

Interviewer: Have other composers written music of value at your age, Mr. Stravinsky?

Stravinsky: Schütz's Requiem surpasses mine by four years, and Richard Strauss was a year older when he wrote his last songs. But your wording implies that my music has value, and grateful as I am for the confidence, I cannot participate in judgments of that sort (which does not mean that I am willing to entrust them to a Winthrop Sargent or a Professor Auld Lang Syne); my self-auscultations, as I have just said, are reliable, if at all, only as expertise. I warn you, though, that men of my age are vain of their hoard of years, and thirstier for the meeds of praise than they will admit. They like to see themselves as the very end of culture, too, and to dramatize themselves as the “last defenders” of true art. Their tone, furthermore, often seems to suggest that their own passing will bring on a winter of Pleistocene duration. I have nurtured some such stage conception, I confess, and with a large Lear-like part for myself, “the last composer who does it all alone, without an orchestrator and even without a computer.” But a beware to anyone else who sees me that way, or implies that, like Lear, I may already have gone “crackers.” There may be a song or two yet to come before the one which will be called my “swan.”


1 “I prefer a music-box to a nightingale”—Ed.

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