Sunday, December 02, 2007

Passagework

Most of the matter in the universe is dark, and most of the matter in music is passagework. Passagework is designed not to attract its own attention but rather to fill in the spaces between points of greater attention. Some composers (Bach and Mozart of course; Rossini is my particular favorite) are so damned good at passagework -- and tucked in among the interior voices at that -- that attention is often deflected away from the music we're supposed to be paying attention to. The body of theory associated with the name of Heinrich Schenker is largely about explaining how passagework comes into being in one body of tonal music, and how, if we can listen closely enough, it can be made to go away again, vanish, even. Like stage magic, passagework may often be as much virtuoso legerdemain as it is proper music-making. The devices of passagework are often better characterized by quantity than quality, they value density and velocity, and indeed, as much as passagework represents musical detail, the actual details are often less important than the general profile or contour they outline. Passagework has the capacity to extend material indefinitely and while in much traditional music this always risks inflating the values of those materials, an achievement of minimal music was the erasure of a distinction between the passagework and the music the passages were meant to connect, sn economy of musical materials that was at once new and very ancient. New in that it invited attending to the entire music texture in a different way, with the surface of notes played simply one element in a larger complex of interference and resultant patterns, combination tones, and other acoustical epiphenomena, and old in that the music recalled that other impulse in the primitive origins of music, the impulse that came not from communicative needs, as heighted, emotive, speech but from an aesthetic need, to fill passing time, whether at work or when idle, in an interesting way.

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