Composer Steven Stucky



Heart and Brain in Music

by Steven Stucky

Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella program, February 1994

Our Green Umbrella series opened a month ago with an all-Carter concert — tough, thorny music, notably long on intellectual rigor and sonic complexity, notably short on sentiment. We continue tonight with a program of music very different from Carter's: nostalgic lyricism in my Ammons songs, hints of a Debussyan sound-world in Bernard Rands's quintet, boundless exuberance and unbridled passion in Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony.

Inevitably, the contrast between the two programs raises that old modern-music bugaboo: the supposed clash between the cerebral and the expressive. Emotion vs. calculation, feeling vs. intellect, heart vs. brain.

It is a false dichotomy. The irony is that a month ago, just after I had finished Upbeat Live with Carter and moments before the concert was to begin, a long-time audience member approached me in the lobby to say, “You know, Elliott Carter used the word feeling just now! I can't remember another composer ever mentioning feelings.” And, while Bernard Rands's music and mine sound softer-edged than Carter's, in fact behind the scenes he and I are two of the most careful, calculating craftsmen I know — to say nothing of Ligeti or Kurtág. We know, as Carter knows, that technical finesse and intellectual control are indispensable tools for communicating feeling.

Nobody understood this fact better than Schoenberg himself. In his 1946 essay “Heart and Brain in Music,” he wrote, “It is not the heart alone which creates all that is beautiful, emotional, pathetic, affectionate, and charming; nor is it the brain alone which is able to produce the well constructed, the soundly organized, the logical, and the complicated. First, everything of supreme value in art must show heart as well as brain. Second, the real creative genius has no difficulty in controlling his feelings mentally; nor must the brain produce only the dry and unappealing while concentrating on correctness and logic.”

It's not an either-or proposition, then. Music needs both: emotion and calculation, intellect and sentiment, heart and brain.

Perhaps my favorite hymn to rationality in music is an American poem dedicated to a certain composer and entitled “Number Man.” The poet writes:

He balanced sixes and sevens
and set them wrangling and fighting
over raw bones.
He woke up twos and fours
out of baby sleep
and touched them back to sleep.
He managed eights and nines,
gave them prophet beards,
marched them into mists and mountains.
He added all the numbers he knew,
multiplied them by new-found numbers
and called it a prayer of Numbers.
For each of a million cipher silences
he dug up a mate number for a candle light in the dark.

The poet? Carl Sandburg. His number-crunching composer? Johann Sebastian Bach.

© Steven Stucky

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