Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Surface to Air
One of the qualities I most value in the radical music tradition is its loss of certainty (even ambiguity) about a surface and depth distinction. While Milton Babbitt could ramble on with great certainty about his "sonic surfaces", meaning nothing other than the notes on the page, what, precisely, is the surface in The Well-Tuned Piano or Drumming or Navigations for Strings? Is it the notes on the page or those physically struck on the instruments, or is it the the sounds produced directly by those actions, or is it the cloud of combination and resultant tones and interference patterns and acoustical beating? In many cases, this uncertainty or ambiguity goes even further, with distinctions between musical, psychoacoustical, and physical parameters constantly in play. When slow motion playing creates rapid interference beating via subtle pitch or rhythmic differences, where exactly does one locate tempo? In Central Javanese Karawitan or in some of the Studies of Nancarrow, there is fluid motion in a field of relationships between pitch, timbre, rhythm, and tempo. The radical music, by simple virtue of its turn to the most radical (root, or base) elements of music and of sound, often fundamentally shakes our understanding of those elements.