ABSTRACT THEORY WITH THE HUMAN ABSTRACT’S A.J. MINETTE: CREATIVE LIMITATION, PART II
Much of this article will be spent discussing how composers of the past have created profound works of art while working within the artificial demands of creative limitations. Stravinsky once said, “The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.”
First, let’s take a look at a literal physical limitation found in Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.” The piece was composed at the request of concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein. During World War I, Wittgenstein was shot in the arm, which led to an amputation after an infection. He was determined to continue his career as a pianist after his service in the military. Ravel’s approach to writing was affected by this restriction to write for one-hand piano, but if you listen to the music it is characteristically Ravel.
The ability to maintain a musical identity while also exploring new musical approaches is something that many great composers share.
Béla Bartók was able to experiment with new techniques, limitations, and sonorities in a series of miniature piano pieces he called The Mikrokosmos. While the Mikrokosmos was used as a series of graded studies for the developing pianist, several of the compositions seem to have self-imposed limitations whether it be pitch, meter, rhythm, etc. If you look at the first piece from the 6th volume of the Mikrokosmos (No. 140) you will notice the changing meter. The first page of music is changing meter every measure. The unpredictable nature of the music seems spontaneous, yet refined.
In the second movement of his Op. 14 suite (begins at 1:45 in the below video embed), Bartók explores the sonority of an augmented triad. The first 32 measures of music are all augmented chords. The way in which he organizes these chords is what makes it interesting and refined. There is a balance and symmetry to the contour of the music which helps contrast the dissonant and acerbic quality of the chord. The rhythmic patterns also help to create stability in the absence of tonality. Sometimes composers will limit themselves to using a single theme throughout an entire piece in what is known as “Theme and Variations” form.
Theme and Variation is a form in which a single theme is presented in numerous alterations. Sometimes the key or mode of the piece is changed. Other variations may include counterpoint. Some may simply change the harmonic progression. Each variation is an opportunity for the composer to stretch themselves creatively. Beethoven’s famous 33 variations on a waltz by Diabelli is a composition that explores the possibilities of a trite and simple melody. It is often mentioned in the same breath as Bach’s Goldberg variations, which is a set of 30 variations totaling almost 40 minutes of music. This form certainly illustrates the idea that a limitation has the capacity to generate creativity.
As I have mentioned before, this is not the only way to compose, but approaching composition with goals, limitations, parameters, or obstacles will help a musician to grow. As the great American poet Robert Frost wrote, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”