Finding the Tune

By Mark WallaceNovember 10, 2018

Finding the Tune
IN THREE LINES at the upper right corner of the first page of my copy of the study score of Anton Webern’s Concerto, Opus 24, the words Mark Wallace / July 12, 1983 / San Francisco are written in the kind of rough blue ballpoint pen that has gone seriously out of fashion in the ensuing 35 years. When I made that inscription, at 16 — done with high school a year early and soon off to college — I did not yet understand the Webern Concerto as a masterpiece of both artistic expression and musical design. Nor did I understand it as the piece of music that would determine the course of my life, though that, for a time, is exactly what it did.

My musical education had started early, if informally. I was reading music at the piano by age four or five, taught by my father, who was then in transition from beatnik to hippie and whose own considerable musical talents included a funky touch on the electric bass. I used to think I had inherited not just my father’s musicality, but some spirit of music that also resided in the instruments he played. When my mother was pregnant with me (her first), it occurred to my parents that they wouldn’t be able to afford the hospital bills they’d soon be facing. So my father made the difficult decision to sell his last motorcycle, a handsome early 1960s Norton 500 Single. In my memory of this story, my father had sold his last stand-up bass in order to raise enough cash to buy the motorcycle. But when I check with my father, I find I have embellished the story: I am not, in fact, descended from a stand-up bass. Did my dad really sell his last bike to pay for my birth? According to my father, “Definitely.”

I wasn’t a gifted piano player, but I could manage simple classical pieces by the time I was a teen — up to Mozart sonatas, with luck and concentration — though I had never had lessons. I had begun writing music by then as well, short pieces that hoped to mimic things I had glimpsed in the music I was playing, even if I couldn’t yet express what those things were: the architectural order of Bach; Mozart’s alchemy of the ebullient and the sublime.

I knew so little of music’s building blocks that I scarcely had any idea how those effects had been achieved. Most of what we think of as Western “classical” music is based on the diatonic scale, which uses only seven of the 12 tones available on an instrument like the piano. Some of these tones are thought of as “leading” to other tones — in particular to the “tonic,” the note that names the key (the C in the key of C Major, for instance). Thus certain chords “lead” to other chords, and altering a given set of chords can make them lead to yet a different set of chords. To heighten the pull in various directions, dissonant tones can be added to a chord, creating tensions which, in classical music, must then be resolved. By creating, delaying, and resolving these tensions to various degrees — and by leveraging traditions from the centuries of music we commonly think of as euphonious, as pleasing to the ear — composers of Western classical music can generate everything from delicately balanced cloud cathedrals to the darkest, most plodding of dirges, and almost any other kind of musical effect one can imagine.

I was not able to create such structures then. Composing, at that point, was little more than fanciful for me, just another way to explore, something to do at the piano. Until I heard the Webern.

The particular July 12 noted in my score was a Tuesday. I remember sitting in my friend Scott’s small apartment the previous weekend, an audible river of traffic flowing east over the crest of Oak Street’s hill outside. Inside, I imagined the specter of unseen roommates lurking beyond the door, as if they might catch us at something illicit or transgressive. I hadn’t known Scott long nor had I had more than a handful of conversations with him before that day. He was older, 21 or 22. I had, uncharacteristically, introduced myself to him after seeing him play an acoustic gig at a coffee shop in the suburb where I lived, backing a local singer-songwriter on stand-up bass. Something in his playing that day drowned out my self-consciousness. I had my own common passions: The Beatles, Bach, David Bowie, Elvis Costello. But Scott was the first person I’d met who was as avid and passionate a fan of classical music as he was of “popular” songs. He was tall and handsome and animated and slightly weird, he was extremely talented and enormously knowledgeable, and he spoke to me not as an older person to a younger one, not as master to student, but just as one fan to another, as the thing every slightly precocious kid seems to crave: a peer.

Some things about that day are vivid, while others are lost. I don’t remember whether his roommates were home that day. I don’t recall the Webern album cover. Mostly I remember the objects that enabled our experience: the record player, the printed music. I remember that Scott and I huddled beside each other on the edge of his bed as he placed the stylus on the record and we heard the scratchy hiss of the lead-in groove. And as the woodwinds lit up to open the piece, our eyes followed the notes that cascaded over the pages of Scott’s copy of the score.

For a concerto, Webern’s is sparing. Only nine instruments are called for, and there is never a moment at which they all play at once. At first, the music sounded tentative to me. The piece introduced itself with briefly sounded gestures, two or three notes at a time, not enough to be called a phrase. The opening notes of the woodwinds and trumpet were echoed, altered, in the piano. The woodwinds were joined by the pluck of pizzicato strings to sound a similar idea. Then everyone stepped aside for two bars in which the piano nearly let the music die away. As the instruments reached deeper, almost straining toward their lower registers, I realized that everything till then had happened high up the scale. The rich tones of the violin and viola opened up now, and as the colors continued to shift I made another realization: that melody as I knew it wasn’t part of what was going on here. The concerto seemed composed entirely of these brief, atomic gestures. As I watched them spill across the pages of the score, the effect was thrilling.

No one walked in on us that day, nor would they have discovered anything untoward if they had. All we were doing was listening to music — though the experience felt somehow intimate, like I’d discovered some wonderful, powerful secret, some half-obscured body of knowledge or unspoken lore. Like I’d been introduced to some experience as heightened and risky as sex (an experience I had yet to be introduced to).

It is one of the virtues of musical notation and modern engraving techniques that a thin paper booklet, almost weightless, can be made to contain all the mass and movement and color of an orchestra. The Webern score is slim. The piece’s 70 measures fill only 16 pages, each covered with markings that led deep into a territory I found more and more intriguing as the music played on. I read the German names of instruments arrayed down the left side of the pages, and followed the five-line staffs corresponding to each one as they unfurled to the right. A short phrase in one instrument seemed to call forth something similar in another, as if the voices were in conversation with each other. As Scott turned the pages I sat in silence, noting the changing forces, the dynamics, the ligatures, the markings and directions I didn’t yet understand. It was as if the piano music that was all I’d known till then had suddenly exploded into three dimensions. Somehow, without explanation and without knowing those German words that later became so familiar (Posaune, Bratsche, lebhaft, langsam), I understood what I was seeing on the page.

Music, I discovered, made sense to me.

And this music made a kind of sense that had never been made to me before. I was instantly alert to it, attuned to its evolving three-note motif even as I realized it had none of the structure I had intuited from classical music, none of the same kind of balance and symmetry. This music had a different kind of structure: a framework I could hear, but one I didn’t yet understand. As unfamiliar as its style was, I was aware that it had a style, an internal consistency that told me the music was complete in itself, that it was whole. It was a different kind of wholeness than that of Bach or Mozart. The music was not in any key, and that was intriguing. There was no single tone here with that kind of gravitational pull. Instead, the music built on a foundation it seemed to devise itself, rather than one common to other pieces. It established its own terms with the notes and figures and structures that announced the piece, and then reshaped those arguments in subtle ways with each passing bar. There was much elusive quicksilver here, and little that one would call tuneful. Though I had heard nothing like it before, it was somehow not surprising. Its foundations felt solid and secure.


Perhaps I was drawn to Webern’s structure because my early life had had so little. The music was a kind of homecoming, after years of instability and constant uprootings. My family left New York City in the early ’70s, spurred by my father’s attraction to the emerging lifestyles and back-to-the-land ethos of the time. Upstate we skipped from home to home, and the occasional commune, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Like Webern’s figures, we never stopped moving, pulling up stakes every year or two, sometimes less. Not because we were on the lam or in the military or being transferred from place to place for someone’s job, but only because we were never at rest. We’d moved 10 times by the time I became a teenager, leaving schools behind in the middle of the year, leaving friends. There seemed little direction to our path.

My father worked on farms or at odd jobs: roasting coffee, delivering carpets. With a friend he made extra money dismantling abandoned farm buildings, selling the weathered lumber to interior decorators in New York. I have a memory of him, shirtless and wiry, as he straddles the spine of a once-solid barn now gone trapezoidal, its walls, dirty and red, covered in creeper vines. He rides the building as it leaps and collapses at once, taming it not by might but through devotion, as though letting it know he would stay with it no matter how hard it bucked or charged. With the money, he bought sheets of glass and glass-cutting tools and taught himself to make windows to put in our house, nearly all of which were broken when we moved in.

Our rural life was not without its charms. My parents were loving and we were, for the most part, happy, if poor. I remember crunching the tart stalks of rhubarb that grew in the cool shadow of our house and catching fireflies on the lawn in the warm evenings. I remember Ancramdale and the general store stuck in time there, with its gapped and ancient floorboards, brass fixtures glowing dully against the massive, dark walnut-and-glass display cabinets behind the counter, the paper rolls of candy dots, and penny jars filled with root-beer barrels and jawbreakers. The many-colored candy sticks my younger brother and I always craved. For a year when I was 10 we lived up the road from that store in a 16-room house on many acres of land belonging to the novelist Hilary Masters, son of the poet Edgar Lee Masters, whose Spoon River Anthology chronicled life in a small town not nearly so small as ours. Masters was on a sabbatical or visiting professorship somewhere, and my father was hired as caretaker of the estate for a year.

One task in the Masters house, in the winter of the year we spent there, was to shut up what we called “the library.” In memory’s floor plan, the library consists of a cozy sitting room with a tall stone fireplace, a bedroom we weren’t allowed to enter, and, joining them, a tall and narrow corridor lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves. I remember none of these books’ titles, only the sense of wonder they inspired in me. I had long before read (and loved) Laura Ingalls Wilder and books like Charlotte’s Web and Harriet the Spy. I was an avid reader of my parents’ cast-off paperbacks, having plowed through their copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, every volume of science fiction I could get my hands on, and, though it gave me nightmares, Jaws. But the books in the Masters library seemed somehow of greater moment, as though weightier matters were being discussed between their covers. I hardly dared imagine the day I might enter those discussions, let alone perform the magic of conjuring one myself.

That house was our idyll, but most were not like that. Mostly we lived in small country houses that listed nearly as much as the barns my father tore down. At one point (was I seven? eight?), there was a split in which my parents lived apart for a month or more — a split that bewildered me for many years in part because they were otherwise relatively happy together, or at least constant. One image from that period sticks with me: I am looking for my father in the house — a particularly shabby one — and find him in one of the upstairs bedrooms. I peer through the door as light streams in the window opposite to fill the bare and empty room. There is only a mattress on the floor, or that’s all my memory has focused on, for it turns out my father is not alone in the room: on the mattress is a woman, naked or nearly so, who is not my mother. In my memory, the door swings slowly shut and I slink away. My memory has gotten the house wrong, or the time, my father says, but such a scene is entirely plausible: my parents had conducted a years-long experiment in open marriage. The split I remember was brought on when my father, who had instigated our hippie period, decided he wanted a more traditional relationship again.

If we moved upstate to get close to the land, for my father I think it worked. In the country, he discovered a natural grace and connectedness that was in sharp contrast to his earlier life in New York. He’d been a runaway in his teens — his stories tell of drugs, guns, prostitutes, desperation — and while we were hardly settled during my childhood, the life he created for himself (and, by extension, for us) was at least slightly more structured than the years in which he was very much on the road. To me, life felt out of balance, but to him I imagine things felt peaceful by comparison.

If there was a plan to our life in that time, though, a method, it was not one comprehensible to the limited scope of a child’s mind. Stability answers something in us, when we are young. The world should not be nuanced, since we are only just getting our heads around ideas of black and white, forward and back, right and wrong. It was impossible for me to grapple with notions of impermanence when notions of permanence were still only just forming in my mind. I didn’t consciously crave stability in the years in which we knocked around upstate New York; instead, I developed a keen sensitivity to the unstable, a deep and abiding confidence that, at any moment, everything about the scene around me was liable to be upended, that at any moment things could radically change.

So when even our instability changed — when we became stable — it was as jarring as any move that had come before. My father went back to school, for a graduate degree in computer science. We moved to a suburb of Albany so that he could attend the state university there. And then — also bewildering, and especially jarring to me, at 13 — we pulled up stakes once again and moved to California. It was January 1980, the middle of eighth grade, and my father had gotten a job in San Francisco as a computer programmer; he’d gone straight. We settled in a house in the suburbs, where my parents would stay for many years, and I finished middle school in a daze, helped along by the beer and marijuana I began to pilfer from my dad’s supply. I did well in high school — the experimental school I went to let me graduate at the end of my junior year — but by then I had discovered a taste for LSD and cocaine. I swore I wouldn’t repeat what I saw as the mistakes of my father, but in fact I was already humming the same tuneless song I’d been raised on, though it hadn’t yet swelled to drown out the other musics in my life.


Melody has not been entirely discarded in the Webern Concerto, but there is no real tune to be heard there. Instead, there are small figures that arise and recede, that connect into almost-melodies, or combine to make longer unfoldments. As we listened, Scott traced the course of the performance, pointing out the measures as they passed. That the music seemed to trip across the page exactly as it tripped from the speakers should have come as no surprise, I suppose, but it’s likely I had never seen an orchestral score before. We listened to the concerto’s three movements — not even seven minutes from beginning to end — without speaking. The voices danced around each other, never quite colliding, never quite disentangling themselves. They seemed to pass ideas from one to another, and soon I realized there was but one idea at the center of those sounds, one idea with just as much gravitational pull as the ideas at the center of a piece like a Mozart sonata. The center of the Webern piece was harder to describe; I could sense its presence but I couldn’t feel its shape. The three-note figures that are the building blocks of the piece looked like birds or spiders; they skittered across the page and seemed to leave it almost as soon as they’d appeared. But the score brought them quite literally within reach; with the score in hand, I knew I could find them again, that I too could step into the world from which they’d come. It was not just the music on the page that took on three dimensions as I sat and watched the score, it was music itself. If I could reach such a place, I thought, great things might be possible. To do that, I would need my own copy of the flimsy, weighty artifact that was the Webern score.

Scott gave me an address, and as soon as I could manage — on that summer Tuesday marked in my score — I took the bus into the city, to a block of 10th Street south of Market that seemed too boring and industrial to house such treasures. There I found a place called Byron Hoyt, an enormous retail warehouse of sheet music, orchestral parts, and study scores, all tidily filed in wooden bins, partitioned by stiff dividers of gray-green cardboard, and overseen by a gruff but helpful staff of mostly men and just a few women, all of them older than I could then imagine I would ever become. I would haunt the aisles of this place, and its several subsequent incarnations, for the next decade.

I no longer recall whether I wandered the floor on that first visit or went straight to the study scores. But I know that in the “W” bin, behind the “Webern” divider, I found it: Philharmonia No. 434, published by Universal Edition. I ran my fingers over its textured gray cardstock cover and the glossy frontispiece that gives a facsimile of the first page of Webern’s manuscript, flipped past the introductory remarks in English and German and French (including a musical diagram I did not yet understand), and gazed at the opening motif: a descending interval in the oboe just a bit wider than an octave — B-natural falling 13 semitones to B-flat — followed by an ascending major third. In that figure, tumbling so slightly forward, is the germ of the entire piece, a startling economy of material that manages to inform every moment of the composition. I stared at the notes and marveled, half expecting the bird-like forms to take flight before I could turn the page.

The cashiers, in turn, kept one eye on me, or I imagined they did, as if I might suddenly fly off as well. You couldn’t blame them: no one else in the place was outfitted as I was, in heavy black boots and cheap leather jacket, a spiky short haircut and holes in my jeans. I had discovered punk rock that year, in time for the tail end of its Bay Area heyday, and I was dressed, as often as not, in some variation of the uniform I had on that day.

Punk might have been a fashion choice by then, but it was also still a social statement. For me and many of my friends, punk’s chaotic urgency helped us buck what we saw as the conformist society that surrounded us. Wearing the badge of punk’s circled A we could kick against the pricks of Reagan’s America, those stifling monochrome suits and pantsuits that tried to draw lines around our experiences and behaviors and desires. Punk tore down popular music so that we could tear down — or try to — what we were being told about how we should live our lives. This is every generation's song, of course, but my generation had punk’s own rejection of “tune” to accompany it.

The Webern Concerto, when it was composed, was part of a similarly violent break with the past. Instead of the scales and leading tones and chord structures that classical composers had leveraged for more than 250 years, Webern used a technique developed by his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, that tosses all those relationships out the window. Like most music theory, Schoenberg’s "12-tone technique" is relatively simple, though it can be used to produce music of great variety and complexity. And it produces music that does not hew to hundreds of years of prior practice, but rather rethinks ideas of musical beauty from the ground up. Schoenberg’s music and that of the “Second Viennese School” (a group that included Webern and Alban Berg, another of Schoenberg’s students) relies on its own internal consistency to create a central gravitational pull. It turns its back on commonly accepted ideas of tension and resolution in favor of “atonal” music that can be jarring to those raised on the Western harmonies of the 19th century and before. For Schoenberg and his students, “dissonant” intervals like the minor second (an E and an F played together, for example), could be just as stable and pleasing as the major third that can more or less define a diatonic key (the C and E of C Major, say). Their music was met with outrage when it first appeared (one New York Times critic labeled Schoenberg a “musical anarchist” as early as 1913), but came to be considered a deep and legitimate musical language of its own. For those able to listen to it on its own terms, it can be as engaging as a Bach prelude, as thrilling as a Beethoven symphony, as poignant as a Chopin nocturne.

The Webern Concerto was all these things to me, when I first heard it. And, because it was so different from anything I’d heard before, it transported me immediately into a wildly more brilliant musical realm. (Enlightenment is often just that: things dawn on us and the world becomes brighter.) I could hear the control in it, the intriguing systematization. But I could also hear Webern’s expressive choices, the things that made this more than just a clever exercise in musical geometry: the six-note chord at the end of the first movement that is as dense a harmony as we’ve heard till that point in the piece; the slow and steady lilt of the second movement; the music pushing ahead sometimes and slowing almost to a stop at others; the contrast between the strings pizzicato and bowed. All this struck a chord that had first been sounded in me long ago. It married the kind of rigor I’d found in classical music with the kind of riot I appreciated in punk rock — an alchemy I hadn’t even considered before. In the Webern concerto, I heard chaos transformed — not denied, not assuaged, but raised up, integrated into something bigger than itself. The seeming anarchy of atonality made sense to me in a way that classical music did not.

This was a different kind of music, and it seemed to come from a place I had never really known before, a place I had not even known existed. It was a place without anchor, a location adrift, but one that seemed so familiar. There was something strong and settled to the music, but also something quick, as if it were built of ideas that were in motion and at rest at the same time — just as I was — the sound of perpetual motion mixed with the sound of home. Could I too find some way to bring these ideas together? Could I bring them together in my music, in a way that would let them stand peacefully side by side? Could I bring them together in my life? If writing music had been a diversion up to that point, now I began to sense a distant goal. So much was hidden in the place this music came from, if only I could reach it.

The score cost me probably seven or eight dollars, saved from an allowance or earned mowing lawns and raking leaves for one of our suburban neighbors; I was punk rock, but I was still 16, still living at home. I would soon go off to college — not far, just to Berkeley, across the bay — and there I would start to more actively question, and more actively reject, the paths and patterns I felt were being thrust at me by the parents and bosses and educators of the world. But back then I was still just a high school kid trying to find stable ground. The Webern score, light in the hand as it was, felt deeply substantial, my purchase of it like some kind of rite of passage. I wrote my name and the date and the city into it, as I had seen written in Scott’s copy of the score, and with this brilliant music playing in my head I stepped from the dim, cavernous store out onto 10th Street, a street far enough from the summer fog of San Francisco to be bright.


LARB Contributor

Mark Wallace lives and writes in San Francisco, where he is a member of the SF Writers' Grotto. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Salon, GQ, and many others. He is a music-school dropout, and co-author of The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Newspaper that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse (MIT Press). When not composing, he can be found on Twitter at @markwallace.


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