Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Minimal material, maximum information

In music, there is often no simple reduction to the quantitative and there are certainly no easy definitions of either the complex or the simple. When the radical music turned towards the use of minimal materials, the goal and result of that turn was often anything other than simple. By clarifying one or more aspects of the material environment of music, circumstances could be achieved for for a more in-depth perception of the musical experience.

Christian Wolff's astonishing Trio I (dated January, 1951, the composer was not yet 17!). At first glance, just four pitches: g, a', ab'', c'', but at first listen, much more: a', ab'' & c''' plus rests on the flute, any of the pitches, plus rests , on trumpet, the three lower pitches, plus rests, played ordinario or as harmonics on 'cello, plus combinations of the above, plus dynamic variations. Consider also the instability in the surface identity of the music: is this predominantly harmonic or melodic? Or is that even a meaningful distinction here? (This piece is prescient in other ways as well. The -- presumably Webern-inspired -- symmetries of its construction anticipate later works by Morton Feldman).

As a composer, this little piece demonstrates the clear advantage of a restricted gamut over music which consumes the total chromatic, dynamic range, instrumental ensemble etc.. Details are here framed, made audible, and cherished, while more indiscriminate consumption is ultimately about making details subsidiary to the ensemble.

Tones or aggregates of tones isolated or sustained beyond more familiar musical conditions allow for an altered perception. Here, from the second movement of Douglas Leedy's Trio (1960) for flute, horn and piano, a work which shares features with contemporary pieces by Young, Riley, Jennings, Oliveros, Rush and others:
The sustained wind tones are heard individually and together -- perhaps initially as an octave expanded minor sixth, but eventually as something both more distinct and more anonymous. And how is that lower register minor third in the piano heard? In that register, its identity as an interval takes time to resolve from an initially noisy appearance, and the composer has given us enough time to experience that resolution.

And sometimes the apparently complex is much less so. Or is it? This, from the first movement of Leedy's Trio:
What appear to be complex flurries of notes turn out to be unisons colored by their instrumentation, with something close to a tune frequently emerging from nothing more or less than a major second gently rocking back and forth.

2 comments:

ComposerBastard said...

As a composer, this little piece demonstrates the clear advantage of a restricted gamut over music which consumes the total chromatic, dynamic range, instrumental ensemble etc.. Details are here framed, made audible, and cherished, while more indiscriminate consumption is ultimately about making details subsidiary to the ensemble.

Why is this necessarily a "clear advantage"? I would think maximal saturation would be just as clear an advantage since it hammers in any materials into your head like a high pressured air tool. I think its more a matter of personal expression, choice in what you want to say, and taste

Anonymous said...

Restriction is just restriction. Not more, not less.