Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Filling the Big Empty

New music, all-too-often at the bottom of the musical resource food chain, doesn't often get made with much choice about the environment (room, hall, studio, gallery, theatre, church, club, pub, arena, field, etc.) in which it gets presented. And — all-too-often, again — this can have serious effects on the music itself. If a main attraction of the music is a certain level of detail or subtlety, for example, all that attraction can be effectively wiped out in a room with too much ambient noise or with too much resonance. On the other hand, a music with a considerable amount of blank space — "silence" — may not work out in concert halls otherwise considered to have fantastic acoustical properties for music making, but conventional music-making with the conventional continuity of concertante composition. Earlier on, I made a lot of music that was more rests than notes, but concerts and recordings were too frequently frustrated by the space in which they were made. Paradoxically perhaps, I discovered that out-of-doors spaces — with a prevailing constant and predictable ambient sound level were much more forgiving for music with Sierpinski-like ratios of silence to sound, in that expectations of noises external to the music event proper can lead to a useful amount of unhearing, while the contrary expectation, in a church or concert hall or morgue etc. can lead, in the event of a sudden crackle in a fresnel lamp or a settling bit of architecture or furniture or some embarrassing body noise can distract, with some finality, from the continuity of the work. (As Heinz-Klaus Metzger put it: "Webern was the last composer before the advent of air conditioning.) For all my apostacy in other matters minima musicalia, the one part of the original minimal faith I've always tried to keep is the stricture that minimalism is the elimination of distractions. For this reason, among others, I made something of a serious turn in my own music away from big empty spaces in the direction of filling-up the available time. I hear this mostly a pragmatic way of dealing with the real potential of unanticipated sounds in real concert spaces to distract, and am generally more lenient with pieces intended for performance outside or in unconventional spaces. I have considerable reservations about accepting this move as a general, let alone permanent, aesthetic principle, but since there is actually quite a large body of silence-dominated music around these days (much of Wandelweiser repertoire, for example) my retreat shouldn't be much of a loss.

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