Friday, November 25, 2005

Last Details

It's long been considered a compositional virtue for every single bit of information in a composition to formally relate to every other bit in one way or another. Sometimes this quality is called "organicism" or "cohesion"; this quality is often described in economical terms, with "economy" or "efficiency" being considered especially valuable qualities in a composition. A typical tactic taken by composition teachers with their students is compelling the student to make the case for the inclusion of any given aspect or detail, the assumption being that every part should be explainable in terms of its relationship to the whole. While this might have value in a large number of pieces, I think that it can't possibly be true for all pieces, and indeed, in many pieces, it may be highly undesireable.

The best mysteries, from Oedipus Tyrranus to Hamlet or from The Crying of Lot 49 to Lost, present an ensemble of details, creating the illusion of a real (or, at least, plausible) world. That ensemble contains elements that are directly relevant to the mystery's plot and other elements that are ultimately never more than noise. A large part of the mystery writer's craft is playfully bouncing the relevant and the irrelevant back and forth between the foreground and background of the story. We all have our tricks for sorting out whether a detail is relevant or not; we pay attention to redundancy, amplitude, connectedness. But sometimes a detail may be oft-repeated, loudly, and full of associations, but turn out, ultimately, to be unimportant. And that's okay, because we know going into the game that such misdirection is the main attraction of the genre. In other words: not every flap of a butterfly's wings in the Sahara will lead to a Hurricane in the Carribean.

I suspect that more music is composed of a playful mixture of relevant and irrelevant detail and noise than has been fashioned into a tightly organized whole whose parts all manifestly belong together. I cannot make any automatic value judgements about this, as good music can be made either way, but I do find it useful to ponder the idea that this element might be used more dynamically by composers, with works of music varying over time with regard to the level of cohesiveness, sometimes being very explicit about what is going on, and sometimes deliberately misdirecting the listeners about what, ultimately, is important and what is not.

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