Monday, December 06, 2010

Sonic obsessions, revisted (6)

Drones and harmonic sweeps. At one point in time, I think I was prepared to have all my music made of nothing more than long sustained sounds, as long as breaths would hold, maybe even as long as the electricity stayed on. Sustaining sounds created an opportunity to — as my teacher La Monte Young put it — get inside them, to hear how they develop over time, to attend to individual components, partials, of these sounds. (This interest was naturally connected to my work in just intonation.) This was indulgent — and I was particularly indulgent of harmonic spectra & finding ways to sweep through them — but that was California around 1980, a rather indulgent time. The fashion was clearly for harmonic singing, for tamburas and didgeridoos and Tibetan long trumpets and alphorns, composers from Erickson to Stockhausen to Tenney made beautiful drone- and harmonic-series based pieces and, of course, a cottage industry of new age-y offshoots developed.

That time, for me at least, has long passed, and with it much of the particular acoustic Zeitgeist. While someone like Young can still find wonderful music within these particular resources, either my own compositional patience or taste has changed or I've simply worn out my imagination with this particular range of materials. In a recent ensemble piece, a rising harmonic sequence of tones reads more as coy and ironic than profound. (The coming or going of a style or trend or a fashion is a mysterious thing. The ability to predict and act on the onset or demise of such a style, trend, or fashion can be the road to fame or fortune, if you're after that; misreading the trends, on the other hand, can lead to obscurity and penury, whether you're after that or not.) Nevertheless, the work with drones and sustain harmonic spectra continues to have emit background radiation against which I work. Knowing how musical sounds will interact with a sustained tone or how vertical arrangements of tones line up in relationship to a harmonic (or subharmonic, or equidistant) spectra, is enormously useful and, indeed, a given for my own internal understanding of harmony and orchestration. My little catalog of musical sounds classifies tones first as to spectra, both as to density (sine-tonish, selective, full) and arrangement (harmonic, less harmonic, inharmonic). I find that making distictions within a mixed ensemble along these lines is highly useful. But these things are ultimately less systematic and more individual in character and I expect that other composers think quite differently about this.

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