Saturday, December 27, 2008

From Honey to Ashes

History is a narrative of successive events. We like to have a handle on this succession by identifying connections among events; we label these connections change. Political change comes in revolutions, slow, fast, sometimes repetitive or even retrograde. Religious change comes in two modes, the apocalyptic (the sudden revelation favored, for example, by the three middle eastern monotheistic religions, usually associated with personal and social rather than material changes: i.e. Paul's sudden conversion on the road to Damascus) and the metamorphic (the mode of immediate and physical change preferred by polytheists: Daphne turns into a laurel). (cf N.O. Brown: Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis.) And musical change? Well, does music change...?

We talk often, too often perhaps, about modulation and transformation. This bit of music is said to become this other bit of music. But each of these bits of music are transients, embedded in contexts that disappear with each vanishing, dissapating, wavefront. No, we don't transform or modulate sounds, we create and manipulate resemblances among sounds; the operations of musical transformation take place at a perceptual level at least one step removed from the sound itself, this change is evidence of composition.

Serial music, in its various appearances, was essentially a music about the unity of the variant forms of a single structure (row, set, series, formula etc.) and the great compositional problem of serial music was that, given this unity, there was no necessary reason for one form to precede or follow another in time, the succesion of events was disconnected from a convincing narrative of change. To the contrary, in the radical music — which was in part a response to unresolved problems of serialism — listeners could no longer could take (apparent) repetition lightly, as an absence of change. The apparent reiteration of a given sound, and its close relation, the indefinite extension of a sound into time, when placed or framed at the center of a composed context, maximized the potential for attending to the smallest and most immediate of differences rather than superficial or abstract resemblances among sounds, differences which were connected directly to the realtime sequence of events. Thus the minimalist impulse of the radical music was, in part, a means of restoring an historical dimension to a musical work

(This is the second of a series of three small items, the first of which is The Raw and the Cooked).

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