Monday, July 21, 2008

Temporary Notes (3)

Noisy time. Apparently full of events but without a discernable, regular pulse or division into time segments. The handful of words we throw about to describe such a state better describe our cognitive deficits: Irregular. Disordered. Fuzzy. Chaotic. Random. Messy. Complicated. James Tenney usefully suggested the term "ergodic" to describe musical forms in which any given sample will display statistically stable distributions of events and materials.* One consequence of an ergodic form is that no moment in such a piece will evidence or explain its place in the continuity or chronology of the whole. **

In the previous items in this series of brief notes on rhythm, I wrestled with the description of time with regular articulation and a "zero time", emptied or removed from articulated events. I imagine that musical rhythm exists in a space between those two, but I'd like to refine it a bit further and suggest that noisy time plays a role as well and that these three extreme forms of articulating time act as attractors on one another (excuse me if I bandy about terms like this without much precision -- a composer has the luxury a theorist does not have to be vague and imprecise, if not entirely irresponsible, as long as it's musically productive), mixing and deforming the regularities of striated and zero time while introducing meaningful filters or articulations into noisy time. While there may be some boundary examples of regular, zero, and noisy time (Young's X (any integer) for Henry Flynt and Cage's 4'33" and Rozart Mix, respectively, come close to such a boundary), it is more than likely true that most real, existing, or yet-to-exist music is going to be made at some distance from those extremes.

A desirable signal-to-noise ratio in musical rhythm is probably one in which the noise component is small but not zero (division by zero being, in any case, undefined). Too little noise would render a piece monotonous, not cognitively engaging enough, but, to quote Robert Ashley: "short ideas repeated... massage the brain", there is also a zone in which a certain amount of regularity is pleasurable and (presumably, but YMMV) musically useful. On the other hand, too much noise would be cognitively overstimulating, impossible for the listener to take everything in, and while I don't think it necessary or desirable or even possible to take everything in, there is probably a limit past which listeners will shut off entirely rather than engage in part. The difficulty for a composer is in creating a musical state that is close enough to either of these limits to be both novel and stimulating.

(Bart Kosko's book Noise is very useful in explaining both the difficulties and benefits of noise in general).
* More formally, one might say that a musical composition constructed in a given probability space is said to be ergodic if the only measurable sets invariant under the composition (i.e. the parameters compositionally operative in the composition) have measure 0 or 1. (When the measure in all parameters = zero, then we're talking zero time again, which also happens if you set the amplitude of a steady pulse to zero, which goes a some distance toward showing how these things fit together).
**As I've repeated, too often, here and elsewhere, one of the qualities of total serialism was this tendency towards ergodic forms. This was a problematic aspect of serialism as a body of techniques for creating concert music, because concert works are so clearly framed in time by the fact that a work begins, has a middle, and eventually ends, that material which is undifferentiated with regard to that frame will be received as undifferentiated. Had serialism gone, however, in the direction of the continous sound installation, this would have not been a problem but rather an asset.

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