Monday, November 09, 2009

Minding Manners

A younger* colleague ponders the use of, and frustrations with, foreign plumbling here.  While the much-travelled Mr Muhly is certainly more enlightened about these things than the title figure in Gahan Wilson's cartoon "The Paranoid Abroad" — who finds himself confronted with alien bathing and hygene devices — I fear that the composer may have had some misconceptions about the mechanics and usage of certain water-bearing instruments and, in particular, seems to have been fed that line of baloney about the bidet which Europeans — in good fun, mind you — feed to all American naifs and to which I once myself succumbed, which would have the bidet serve as a machine for all manner of exotic and intimate ablutions. Rest assured, if you have heard such a story, your legs are being pulled en ensemble, for I have discovered, after twenty years of thorough-going fieldwork, interviews, and scholarly research, that Europeans do no such thing with their bidets.  They are used for washing socks. Let me repeat:  The bidet is used by Europeans travelers for the purpose of washing socks.  Yes, they are used for washing socks, and — and as my comrade in ex-patritude, Mr Harry Mathews, points out in his distinguished essay-cum-recipe, Country Cooking in Central France — may also be used in an emergency as a casserole, substituting for that customarily used in preparing the classic Farce Double

But what I really wanted to talk about this morning are ornaments, or, better yet, agréments, a term which (although perhaps a false etymology) conveys both the sense of agreeability  and of general agreement or consent within a community.  This is important because ornaments, or, better yet, agréments, are really a part of the social contract, alongside turning right on red, balancing peas on the back of a fork, not flying planes into building, and getting your swine flu shot. The agreement here goes to a social construction in the aesthetic sphere, distinguishing surface from structure,  figure from ground, and the desirable from the merely necessary.     

But times change and there is a constant stream, if you will, of innovations in indoor plumbing (indeed in even what plumbing is allowed indoors) as well as and in parallel to, musical style, and these innovations often play productive havoc with the conventions of the past, de facto amending the old contracts.   The very best example of this, methinks, is the use of the grace note in Webern and late Stravinsky.  These tiny notes are not — as classical tonal ornaments often are — inessential or superfluous, passing or even neighborly, as they go down deep into the bone, nay the marrow, of the music's tonal conception, having equal status at the level of the row or set with the very "principal" tones to which they are attached as graces.   They are not tonally ornamental in that classical sense, but they are also not simply tones like any others which happen to be played quickly.  Indeed, what is remarkable about them is not their rapid entry and exit from a sequence of longer tones but their attachment to other tones.  The tendency for grace notes to attach is not just a notational convenience but an acoustical feature of the style, and once one gets a feel for the crispy sound of altered octaves (sevenths and ninths)  and the occasional sweet third thrown in for relief, it is even possible to improvise in a style which would suggest that one was to this particular manner born.  In doing so, these inseparable pairs of graced and principle notes pry open a space between successive and simultaneous dyads, physically impossible, but nevertheless an illusion space of great utility and charm, utility because they, effectively, strike off a few chromatic neighbors from the on-going lists of complete chromatic aggregates, thus leaving a collection more neatly balanced between tonal and not-tonal, as well as opening — in the fashion of a barber pole — an illusion about precise registers, as two registers are almost simultaneously in play, and charming, because of the rhythmic snap and the canny effects of short-term memory which leaves the impression that these almost-octaves were, in fact, real harmonic sonorities.  Smart.  


* How long can a composer continue to be called "young" or "younger"?  I recently encountered a review of a work by "the young composer Toshio Hosokawa", who is 54.  If this is the case,  I plan to use my remaining 6 years of adolescence well and wildly and then slide immediately into senescence, skipping adulthood altogether.  

No comments: