Friday, June 11, 2010

Z is for Zero

One impulse for the radical music is the notion — some would say conceit — of a music built from scratch, from first principles and their consequences rather than built within the default settings of an existing tradition or practice. The turns to minimal means or algorithmic composition or free improvisation or even the use of chance or the dense overlay of so many processes that the end result is unpredictable were or are, often, chosen precisely to follow this impulse. My own conceit is that my pieces are games very much akin to the language games in late Wittgenstein, experiments in the consequences of finite sets of materials and rules for their deployment with the potential (the Oulipo has it right with their idea of a potential literature) to emulate or even achieve the condition of music, but very much also the potential to fail to achieve that condition. The problem here, of course, is that there is an inherent conflict between the clarity of this experimental approach and the obscurity and elusiveness associated with defining the musical. Of course, one could just pull a Potter Stewart and be satisfied that one "knows music when you hear it" — after all, I spend most of my waking hours with music and music traditions I love and know with some intimacy — but isn't that just avoiding the responsibility associated with a commitment to an experimental approach to composition, which is to keep exploring and redefining through composition the extents and limits of the musical, as played and heard? Yeah, my conceit is that the piece begins from nothing, that it is only constructed (a la intuitionist mathematics), but as each sound or structure or process or pattern begins to shape that nothing into something, all of my prior experience of the musical inevitably enters in, sometimes setting rules, sometimes imposing an inexorable logic, sometimes calling on training or habit. There is a wonderful, tense, unpredictable interplay here between forces — choice, consequence, chance — that is the very source of the joy I find and recognize only in the practice of composition.


Mbop Promotions said...

That's where the thrill of the ride is - the unknown!

Lutins said...

the total serialists of course also thought they were starting from a tabula rasa

Daniel Wolf said...


Yes and no. A real part of the impulse in European serialism was to connect back to progressive or modernist traditions that had been broken by the war — to Schoenberg and Webern (as well as modern styles in other arts, Architectural modernism for example with its taboos on ornament), on the one hand, and to certain degrees, via Messiaen to the Skyabinistes and via Varese to a pre-fascist Futurism. One phrase I have heard often from veterans of European high serialism is that a central concern was to "restore dignity" to a music, and a slick modernism was seen as providing that quality. In any case, the most striking thing, in retrospect about European total serialism, was its short lifespan and tiny repertoire (really, we're only talking a couple of pieces by Goeyvaerts, the first, withdrawn, version of Punkte and the first book of Structures!) as all of the major players were soon writing music that used features of tradition to make more conventionally "musical" surfaces and continuities.

The roots of American serialism, in contrast, are less clear with both an approach based on historical continuity, via Schoenberg and Berg more than Webern, and a more abstract approach, whether that of Babbitt, with his connections to logical positivism or the anti-expressionist program of Music of Changes-era Cage.

I once asked Brian Ferneyhough about the differences between American and European serialism and he immediately said that European serialism was all about "mysticism", which I took to indicate a broad affirmation of traditional thinking about music, which makes sense if we take mysticism broadly, to include both Stockhausen's Cologne Catholicism and devotion to Hesse, Boulez's surrealism, and Nono's Marxism as mystical while ignoring any possible mysticism in either the post-Schenkerian Babbitt or the Zen plus Satie-ist Cage.