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.

2 comments:

Ben.H said...

I keep trying to like Babbitt, but then he says something about the music being all about the dots and I lose interest again.

I would go with the last case of what surface might be, which I think is what Morton Feldman was getting at when he talked about being the only guy who writes music with a surface.

Also, I wonder if Ezra Pound ever heard gamelan music, which he could incorporate into his "Great Bass" theory.

ComposerBastard said...

im not sure about my own musical boxing vocabulary anymore. I am listening to music on a larger scale these days - meaning I am more aware of the role cognitive schema has in all of it, and the brain's function in understanding what is going on. Thats where I am hedging my theoretical bets - cognitive science and visual arts.

p.s. i like babbitt's songs. he wrote some niceones