Thursday, September 20, 2012

The musical utility of schizophrenia

I was recently roped into playing trombone for small local music-making and, out of practice, grabbed the nearest sheet music which happened to be Telemann's set of 12 Fantasies for transverse flute without bass accompaniment. Not really trombone music, but they're great fun all the same, just add the right clefs and key signatures to get a working transposition, and you're ready to go.  While I was at it, I found that couple of them made even better recorder pieces, and I've enjoyed playing them with tenor, voice flute, and altos in f and g, each with optimal transpositions of their own. One of the interesting features about the set is that it includes movements which are polyphonic, including fugues and a passacaglia.  Now, putting multiple voices (in this case, two) together in a composition for a monophonic instrument requires a minor amount of technical legerdemain, involving some omissions in one or another voice, careful use of registers, and some arpeggiation of vertical sonorities.  In playing such a piece, I find it very useful to sort out, roughly, the separate voices and sometimes this reveals interesting ambiguities — for example, is a set of running eighths alternating between registers arpeggiation of an implied series of quarters or is it syncopation?  (The illustration at right, click to enlarge, is Telemann's single line score above two lines with my provisional division of the voices in the Fugue in the 5th Fantasie, with details — elided notes, for example — just beginning to emerge in my analysis.) Issues like this are hard to resolve, and personally, I like to err on the side of preserving an ambiguity rather than settling matters altogether, so playing, for me, involves creating a dynamic balance between the segregation and integration of the two voices.


With a piece like the Telemann, or any other example of Baroque or classical counterpoint which takes advantage of perceptual streaming, this balance between independence and distinctiveness of voices is of course constrained by the tonal system, and distinctions are maximized only to create tonally proposal dissonances (which always resolve) and complementary figuration. At the same time, the tonal system offers a reservoir of ways to fill-in the pitch space — i.e. scales and chords — (and, in so doing, filling in the rhythmic space as well) that make analog polyphony in non-tonal environments necessarily a different beast. To my ears, a significant development in this practice occurs only with Ives (and with Brant, as a successor to Ives) in the use of  simultaneous but highly contrasting streams, not note-against-note counterpoint, but style against style.  I think Cage caught some of this, if accidentally, with Music of Changes, in that his source materials were already highly distinctive in character but the instrumental parts to the Concert for Piano and Orchestra,  Atlas Eclipticalis and his Music for Piano series fail to become contrapuntally interesting, in part, by leaving individual notes on the page of an individual part entirely unconnected whether in a referential or a spontaneous melodic or harmonic context.  Cage really resolves this, as far as I'm concerned, with his 30 Pieces for String Quartet, in which his precomposition of five different "types of music" which can appear in a part, alone or in combination, creates a reservoir of  material with distinctive but non-hierarchical characters that can fill in pitch space and musical time with a capacity similar to the (hierarchical) materials of a tonal system yet without appeal to historical or novel styles as with Ives (or Brant.)  

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