Thursday, October 23, 2008

Over-optimisation and the unforeheard event

First blogging economist Dani Rodrik and then composer/writer Charles Shere recommended Nassim Nicolas Taleb's book The Black Swan. Such recommendations are worth taking seriously, and the book, which is about the impact of highly improbable and unforeseeable events, is definitely of interest to composers. Now Shere has pointed to a conversation on the recent economic developments between Taleb and mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot here.

The cluster of ideas at work here — complexity/simplicity, predictability/unpredictability, determinancy/indeterminacy, the generalized and the precise (or system and state) — are very important to music. Composition is, to a large extent, about control (John Cage defined a composer as "someone who tells other people what to do", La Monte Young was "wildly" interested in demonstrating control), but more precisely about controlled situations that lead to the unforeseen, surprises, epiphanies, moments of sublime discomfort as well as release. Unlike an economic scenario, in which such events can have catastropic effects on the real lives and well-being of people and thus a large degree of stability and predictability is ordinarily desired, in music however, as well as in other aesthetic fields*, it's the reliable appearance of the extraordinary that we're after. (Taleb does, however, suggest a number of strategies for the highly profitable adaptation to unforseen events in the economic sphere as well.) There are a number of compositional strategies for achieving this: classical tonality used development as a way of getting so far away from the tonic that its eventual return was made surprising, non-tonal music used extreme contrasts in topic or texture to achieve similar effects, minimal music used the careful framing of highly controlled phenomena to allow the listener access to unforheard detail, complexity-oriented composers overlay a sufficient number of processes so that the net effect is unpredictable (and sometimes unperformable, or at least introducing notational competence — both writing and reading — into the mix), and, of course, Cage introduced a number of techniques, including chance elements in composition, indeterminant elements in performance, and the use of physically contigent but only coarsely controllable events.**

Composition is a balancing act. The greater part of music (the dark matter or passagework) is the routine, the continous, the predictable, the necessary background against which the rare event, the extraordinary, becomes extraordinary. Getting the relationship between these two elements right makes all the difference between just pushing sounds around and making that elevated experience we identify as musical.

* Of other aesthetic fields, is it even necessary to mention Walter De Maria's Lightning Field, the most important work of visual art of our time?
** It has been my personal experience that the framing strategies of the minimal composers and the chance- and contingency-derived strategies associated with Cage have been more reliable than those of the complexity school, in which the relationship between audition and process is too often miscalculated if not ignored, leading necessarily to an impressionistic or gestalt-oriented form of listening, in which case the compositional effort must be regrded as highly inefficient. If our interest is in a music which can only be apprehended impressionistically or as a series of gestalts, then there are any number of more efficient techniques for arriving at such musics.


Paul H. Muller said...

Minimalism is "the careful framing of highly controlled phenomena to allow the listener access to unforheard detail.."

Great definition - nails it exactly.

As for the extraordinary bursting forth from the dark matter of passagework, you don't want to be the trumpet player who misses an entrance...

Charles Shere said...

I hope you sometime treat the subject of your second footnote at greater length and with a bit more clarity. I'm not sure why efficiency is a significant aspect of musical composition (as opposed to, say, rehearsal, or performance, or criticism). It's often observed that the determined complexity of 1950s Boulez sounds to many ears indistinguishable from the indeterminate "randomness" of 1950s Cage. Both approaches seem equally valid to me; who am I to fault Boulez for "inefficiency"?
I think the complex "intellectual" music of the total serialists was a significant part of midcentury music; and I think those who attend to the difficulties and the complexities of their time emerge better able to deal with the consequences of those and other complexities.