Monday, October 16, 2006


Years ago, in an analysis seminar with Gordon Mumma, we came up with the notion of an identicle, the smallest bit of information with which a single piece, the catalog of a single composer, a genre, or a repertoire might be identified. For example, a long series of triads in the upper voices with the bass one scale tone off might be an identicle for the music of William Schumann. An abundance of sonorities composed of a perfect fourth or fifth with an added augmented fourth or diminished fifth can frequently be a giveaway for music by Boulez. The identicle could be found in orchestration: A constant doubling of the first violins by the flute is an identicle for the orchestral music of Robert Schumann.* The examples are not limited to classical music: even those with a casual aquaintance with Central Javanese music can soon sort out Solonese from Yogyakartan style by paying attention to the peking, a high pitched metallophone, which in Yogyanese style anticipates the ensemble melody.

Identicles are, in and of themselves, usually fairly trivial, and perhaps most immediately useful for getting results on "name-that-tune"- or "drop-the-needle"-style listening exams. But the process of locating identicles can inform questions about the unity of a work or body of work. This process strikes me as intimately related to that used in discovering algorithms to construct a work or repertoire of works. David Cope's idea of a signature -- which he locates in the source repertoire from which he derives new works in the "same style" -- is perhaps a more tightly defined (in terms of parameters) and higher-level instance of an identicle.

While this is low-level, if not casual, stuff for analysis, I have found that watching out for identicles is useful for a composer. A composer has to find a balance in his or her work between asserting a recognizeably personal style and, at the same time, not getting stuck in a rut and too closely identified with particular stylistic features. Am I repeating myself? Is the music too much of the same? Or has it become too scattered, too disparate? Or even: is the music creeping into the identicle field associated with one of my contemporaries?** These are the sort of questions in which analysis that doesn't go too deeply into particulars is probably advantageous.

* Schumann's flute writing was long a textbook example of how not to orchestrate; recent attempts to recover the performance practice style of Schumann's time suggest that this is far from the case. In the conjectured historical style, the strings do not play through the entire duration of their notes, or at least not with a constant intensity, allowing the flute tone to emerge from the composite tone in a synthetic timbre with considerable character.
** It is interested to note how carefully circumscribed the identicle fields are about the individual composers associated together in groups or schools or circles. The individual compositional identities of members of the Second Viennese School, Les Six, the New York School, the principle minimalists, or among the post-Ferneyhough complexists were very tightly defined. This is, perhaps, one of the lasting weaknesses of the camp followers of the mid-century American symphonic style, of the flute piece in stilo Gazzelloni, or of Princeton-style serial bebop.

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