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What is the difference between competent music and great music? For me, it is what I call inspired improbabilities––those musical events that simultaneously surprise and delight us. They always come at just the right moment when the piece needs that special something to keep the listener fully engaged and continuously amazed. I suspect they come from that inner voice that resides within all creative people that says, “Do this now.” The rational mind responds, “Are you kidding? That’s crazy stuff!” The great artists have always listened to that inner voice because it is processing and juggling data in ways the rational mind cannot begin to fathom. Our inner voice is nurtured by all that it ingests while we listen and practice. It seems to have a genius all its own, and tends to exert discretion and playfulness in equal measure.

I have always enjoyed the interaction between the composer and the composition I am writing at the moment. The farther I get into the compositional process the more the piece seems to take on a life of its own. There are special moments when the piece informs me of what it needs to do next. I always attend to this command even though it seems to go against everything I was taught or thought to be correct practice.  I have to respect the needs of the piece when it wants to go in directions I had not originally planned for the musical journey. I trust that the listener will experience heightened neural activity when they hear these special moments because the act of adding them to the creative mix gives me a tingle.

Every composer learns his craft from studying with other composers and gleaning important lessons from countless hours of listening and study of scores. What he does with that craft will be profoundly affected by his ability to go beyond what he has been given. By thinking outside the box he creates a new box where he may reside for a period of time before moving on. If properly constructed, those boxes will contain the inspired improbabilities that will elevate the piece from safe and comfortable to daring and exhilarating--from craft to art. There is a difference between a piece that travels well along the ground and one that takes off and flies. The magic that creates the fliers cannot be fully comprehended, reduced to formula, or repackaged for future use.

There are no algorithms for taste. Taste is the innate ability to discern the difference between good, adequate, and unacceptable. If properly employed it prompts us to never settle for less than the best. It seems that the impeccable taste of the great masters was always operating at the maximum while many famous composers I can think of had good days and bad.  The joy of listening to great music derives from an indefinable awareness that what we hear is the product of a supreme talent creating something new at the highest level of output. The magic of the experience results from the genius of a compositional practice that is exquisite and an editing process to match. There is a truth in the beauty of the thing that cannot be denied nor defined. At the end of a great performance of a great piece there is an intellectual and emotional exhalation that says, “Yes, that is how it must be!”

Whenever I hear a piece of music I always feel like I am being told a story in sound. As a theorist I have never been able to discover why certain pieces seem to be telling an important story while others seem to be well-constructed musical palaver. It may have something to do with the power of an idea, but I am never quite certain how to quantify that musical power or express it in words. I think, like most people, I can sense when I am in the presence of greatness. Hearing the first phrase of a great composition is like the opening scene of a great drama, or the first page of a great book, because it is immediately intriguing and gives the audience a strong sense of the artistic trajectory that will propel the action to the last scene or page. We then follow the travails with rapt attention and seem to disappear into the story along with the characters. When properly done, we should lose all sense of time, and maybe even place. When the curtain finally falls we are aware that we have been on an extraordinary journey. The course of events took us where we needed to go and cadenced successfully at just the right time and place. If the experience was truly great, all we can say is, “Wow!”

Epilogue: Several years ago I went to a concert that was so boring I kept checking my watch during the first half. During the second half I kept checking my calendar.