Monday, March 22, 2010

N is for Nature

I've been stuck in the middle of this alphabet for some days, trying to write something useful about music and nature.  Without much success, as it turns out, for the terms "nature" or "natural" seem mostly more distracting than useful.

Now, the time was when a Beethoven or an Ives could treat "nature" as a musical topic.  And whether in Beethoven's pastoral bird-song imitations or in Ives' transcendental contemplations of rocks and whatnot, we don't really buy such a distancing to the natural anymore or, likewise, a division of nature from culture and artifice.   Such a distinction hinges on a segregation of human activities from the rest of natural history that is unsustainable.  Yes, there is still a charge to be found from looking to natural phenomena for new musical resources and models, but there is no more illusion that our "acts of new music" are executed in a nature-free preserve.

In musical theory and aesthetics, the distinction of "the natural" from musical artifice has been a constant if complex background presence, for example in Rameau's fundamental bass or Schenker's "chord of nature".   In the twentieth century, we had the striking contrast between Schoenberg's offense at the notion of natural (i.e. non-tempered, just) intonation, writing in a 1934 letter to Joseph Yasser that to play in a natural  intonation was tantamount to "acting natural" in public, which Schoenberg rejected with a Apollonian self-denial and sublimation worthy of his rival Stravinsky, on the one hand, and Schoenberg's student, John Cage, on the other, who employed chance operations as a means of not imitating works of nature in its effects — animal song or stormy weather — but "imitating nature in its method of operation."   I can't help but recognize each of these models as having substantial deficits as science but also having, once, substantial appeal as impulses for making new music.

Since my teens, back in the lower Pleistocene, I have used just intonation in my music and the harmonic series (and, in many cases, a subharmonic series as well) has provided an important model for the spacing of tones, voice-leading, orchestration and, to some extent, rhythm.  In some circles, particularly among the new complexity folks, the use of just intonation or the harmonic series gets read as affirming a naively naturalist position, while others understand the whole-number world of just intonation as nothing but mystifying numerology.  While either of these views may well be held by other musicians, I don't believe that either characterizes my approach which might be described as "pragmatic" or "realist",  if you need to have a label.  This is because I've come 'round to thinking of the harmonic series and just intonation as, respectively, a point of reference and one possible — and acoustically vivid — solution to an optimization problem for pitch, timbre, and textural relationships in musical ensembles.  I hope that I am under no illusions about the aspirational quality of just intonation, as tuning is a transient activity, limited by our musical technologies, perceptual apparatus, and duration of the sample; a simple frequency ratio between tones is a target, and all of the space on either side of the target is also of potential musical utility.   Tones arranged in harmonic series-spaced configurations are useful, but so are subharmonic (or, if you like, chords in which all tones share a common overtone) or non-harmonic arrangements.  But in the end, it's simply a matter of taste: Working with voices and instruments with simple harmonic spectra, the reduced interference beating as one approaches — or these increased beating as one abandons — such targeted intervals is a concrete and sensually powerful quality and too useful musically for me to leave alone.

I am particularly influenced here by Javanese shadow theatre, in which the entire transition space of a shadow, from its sharply delineated image when the puppet is held against the screen to the blurred and increasingly amorphous shadow figure formed as the puppet moves away from the screen, is in play.  Anyone who has played central Javanese or Sundanese gamelan will recognize a similar transition in the irama system, in which changes in the density of musical events occur in counter-motion to changes in tempi, with moments of repose as tempo and density lock in ensemble clarity.   As a composer, I want to be have access to an entire universe of imagery, from total clarity to its apparent opposite,  in every parameter of music.    

1 comment:

Office of the Cultural Liaisons said...

Good of you to stick up for the subharmonic series. It has been given a bad wrap these days as not being 'natural'. Funny thing is humans have been using it way longer than the harmonic series. Like 10,000 years even. Not only on these flutes with equally spaced holes but maybe later as strings lengths. Chords based on them have a certain depth you don't find with its harmonic mirror. And on that let us be spared from any more pieces on just the harmonic series, and if one insist, can't we do it on something besides C? Someone should play all those together at this point.