Monday, September 29, 2008

Temporary Notes (7)

The encounter with Javanese Music includes the confrontation with a complete rhythmic and formal system shared by music, poetry, and movement (dance, puppetry, or martial arts). (Another excitement is the irama system, in which tempo and rhythmic density are combined in a profound and sophisticated way: stuff for another item.) Karawitan, gamelan music, like early western music, has become an essential alternative or "other" music in my life, a beautiful and useful mirror, echo, and alternative to the music proper to my own time and place; performing this music has been a joy that cheerfully falls into the category of amateur.

A Javanese performing artist learns to internalize instrumental forms, which are marked by patterns of various sized gongs and drumming, to which vocal melodies, using poetry in verse forms with strict syllable counts and fixed vowel sounds at the end of each line*, are strictly placed and to which, likewise, dance steps (by puppets, human dancers, and martial artists), moves and gestures are oriented. In this environment, when one is aware of the underlying structures and their markers, it is possible to create ever-new combinations of music, text, and movement, often in extemporaneous real time performances. (I think that in Java the importance and energy put into creative activity we would characterize as arrangement of existing materials rather than the composition of new music, texts, or movement is one factor in the relatively low rate in which new compositions are added to the active repertoire and is also a contributing factor to the relative anonymity of individual composers).

For contemporary western musicians, any similar systematic relationships between the forms of our instrumental music, song, verse, and movement are rather deeply buried in our archaic past. (Dr. W's short version of western music history: sever song from dance, then song from metric verse, and then music from both.) From the perspective of an English speaker like myself, knowing something about our stress-based traditional verse forms is of little help in getting an intellectual or practical handle on these traditions for the combination of text with music, as the connection between forms and metres based on stress and those of music (which are based on duration as well as stress) is largely one of analogy and, acoustically speaking, a weak analogy.

I did have the fortune of taking Greek and some Latin in college, so, at the same time I was becoming acquainted with Javanese music, I came into contact with historical western traditions which did not have (or rather, did not yet have) the modern separation of music from words and movement, and had duration-based poetic metres, combinations of 1,2, or 2 syllable feet, each syllable either long or short, which were common to (Classical Greek, having pitch accents, adds yet another dimension to the performance of poetry, and the relationship between pitch accent and melody is a topic of very interesting conjecture).

My musical training, on the other hand largely passed over issues of rhythm, and when rhythm was treated, it was in a rudimentary way with little attention to connections with words or movement. To be sure, the well-known Cooper and Meyer book is very useful for classical repertoire, and discussions of harmonic rhythm — a topic considered unfashionable during my Schenker-flavored schooldays — can be useful in establishing a relationship between materials and the pace of their presentation and consumption. Also, Schoenberg's Fundamental of Musical Composition has a very useful discussion of the development of musical forms according to analogy with language, as assemblies of motives, phrases, periods, and sentences. (An even large deficit in my training had to do with music for dance; as it happens, I ended up having more experience with renaissance music/dance connections than with those between classical ballet and music; which is certainly a deficit with regard to a lot of music I'd really like to better understand).

But these are all descriptions of existing practice for historical repertoires, and it would surely seem, at first though, to be more useful to a contemporary composer to depart, in questions of text or movement, from the assumption that there is no necessary connection to music rather than from a full-blown formal-aesthetic system. However, I suspect that there is considerable potential for the invention of new music (and texts and movement) based upon the recovery and manipulation of, not the specific materials, but the structures of such systems.

* For example, in the form Gambuh, the syllable counts and final vowels for each line of a verse are: 7 — u. 10 — u. 12 — i. 8 — u. 8 — o.

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