Wednesday, March 31, 2010

P is for Presence

P was first going to be for Passacaglia, because I like writing them and they have a profound and useful relationship to other self-contextualizing musical processes (canons and loops or delay lines, for example), but as a description of my own work, it could as well have been Ground (but not, AFAIC, Ciaconne, which is another story altogether)  which would not have made it an honest stakeholder for P in this alphabet.  I then thought that P might stand for Pattern.  This sent me on a research trip, through Thompson's On Growth and Form and Alexander's A Pattern Language and through numerous but not-tawdry-enough-to-keep-this-poor-soul-engaged mathematical accounts of Pattern.   I soon realized that I know next-to-naught about Pattern.  Pattern is a very important topic and I should learn more but someone else had better handle it, perhaps in an alphabet of their own.  And then again, P could have been for Process.  Back in the days in which the label "minimal/ist/ism" had not yet so firmly been attached by the interests that be, process music (as in Steve Reich's Music as a Gradual Process, an essay and an idea that still captures ears and imaginations)  was, along with systems music and pattern music, one of the terms of art for the reduced means and media side of the radical music.  The notion of a musical process, suggests something mechanical — one of my own works-in-progress has the title Six Simple Machines — and something that is done, in a planned, ordered, timed, and measured way, to material.  Also, we usefully distinguish between closed- and open-ended processes. But no,  with patience and systemic clarity presently out of compositional fashion, this is not the moment for an alphabet with P for Process.  So, instead, this is P for Presence: too often, says I, composers get sucked up into the attractive pull of conventional musical movement and continuity while forgetting the equally powerful potential of musical sounds to establish striking, if not unique, presences in real acoustical spaces as well as the equally real — if more elusive — spaces associated with individual memory and experience of sounds.  The act of specifying this sound, at this point in time, on this instrument or voice, in this particular space can be daunting, as if one were blindly throwing a dart in a vector space of too many dimensions and unimaginable depth.  (I suspect that Luigi Nono's electroacoustic works, for example, were progressively weighed down by near-despair at the over-abundance of possible statisfactory realizations, creating a de facto indeterminacy that would have been anathematic to a dialectical materialist like Nono.)  The challenge of timing and spacing tones or arranging voices or instruments just so, and paying attention to the resonances of sympathetic bodies or room acoustics while balancing these concerns with the interests of continuity comes damn close to a decent job description for a composer.  Presence is also about ensuring that musical work is available; it is played, heard, and perhaps an object of contemplation; it might be recorded or broadcast; it is a part of and a response to a location and individuals or a community within that location; it is of a moment, it may mark a historical moment, it may anticipate moments to come. Finally, presence is not a property of the work itself, but of my/your/his/his/our/their relationship to the work, a sometimes violent break with absence, with quiet.



Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting tool called RandomWebern:

It's based on a very simple loop.

If you run something like this millions of times, maybe you'll get
a toccata-like sound sequence worthy of a score.

Otherwise "symmetry is a signature of death" as someone once said. A little harsh, but maybe true, in some sense.

There is a lot of repetition in, say, Mozart. Parts of the score can probably be "printed" by a relatively simple loop.

But we are interested in the whole, right?

After all, if I come to the conclusion that, in a Mozart score, Sector1 of the score can be generated using Loop1 and Sector2 using Loop2, what do I get? Something, but not much.

There are parts of form, that are more mechanical in construction, but the more important question to me is: what does the basic building block (say, theme in Bach's c minor passacaglia) mean? What do I feel?

There is an interesting concept called algorithmic complexity. It measures the amount of patterns in a data set.

But it may not capture the essence of a good composition. The loop for the c-minor passacaglia's bass line is 'repeat 20 times'. So it's simple in that regard.

But how do you assess the high-quality, meaningful variations?

Conceivably, you can construct a the "variator" and try to program style. If you run it millions of times, maybe you can get a variation worthy of a score.

That's why humans have intuition, and good composers can somehow "cut through" this one-by-one algorithm.

Well, because, as you pointed out, a computer does not have feelings, and there is no feedback loop, as it were, telling the composing actor whether a given variation set will make you laugh or cry.

BUT I think alrogrithms should work relatively well in New Age type of music. It can have a large random component, but if your building block is already a pleasing sequence (not a single note), you can manipulate those larger building blocks in ways that would resonate with respective listeners.


sfmike said...

I'm loving your alphabet, though I can't see the word "Presence" without thinking of a private joke between a few friends.

We were at a farewell party in San Francisco some years ago, and the hostess was a recently divorced dance therapist who looked a bit like Gloria Steinem. There were flyers at the front door of her luxurious multi-level apartment for weekend seminars targeted at middle-aged women called "Healing Through Presence."

When I mentioned this to my friend Joshua, he misunderstood the seminar name to mean that participants would spend the weekend shopping at department stores, "healing through buying presents for each other." Since that moment, "healing through presents" has become a favorite absurd phrase.