Monday, December 31, 2012

Composing Under Constraints & Musical Escapology

In one way or another, I've always composed under some set of constraints. I do so because the musical results have reliably both surprised and satisfied me, and have taken me through both comfort zones and previously unimagined places.  Many of these are tricks of the trade, widely shared in the community of composers; others may be uniquely mine.  Some are open and obvious, others are under the surface, some secrets, some puzzles, some cast away and irretrievably lost.  Working with a pre-compositional gamut of tones (sometimes a tuning) or noises is pretty common, as are using drones, ground basses (I'm very fond of ostinato basses but not so fond of repeated harmonic sequences), and hockets.  I like to take both random, constrained, and freely composed walks on pitch lattices, a practice related to an early, deep study of musical intonation.  I've used Hauer's harmonic band technique, through which any sequence of tones can be wrestled into a sequence of harmonies with smooth voice leading and often surprising local suggestions of globally a-functional tonalities. Formally, I like to use Gray Codes, Beckett Gray codes specifically, for example to control scoring patterns; this is an area where I'm probably a genuine pioneer.  I like borrowing forms from poetry, both in terms of metres and rhyme schemes (I would like to do more of the same with dance forms, perhaps especially because they're so out of favor.) I also like to use Square Root forms, following John Cage's model, but sometimes broken square root forms, in which some chunk of the pattern is missing, whether lost or intentional erased, as suggested by Lou Harrison. Harrison's phrase systems (described in his Music Primer, a beautiful small book rich in potent ideas (I received a copy as a 16th birthday present from the composer Douglas Leedy*))  are extremely useful, as are his interval and rhythm controls, the former of which anticipate Elliott Carter's methods. I like to cycle a rhythm within and through a sequence of measures and I also like increasing and decreasing series of icti over such sequences, and sometime I combine the two. I like logical sequences of numbers (here's my contribution to mathematics.)  I am also very fond of using perfect shuffles — yes, just like card shuffles — to order and reorder sequences of musical material; they are usefully rich in both familiarity and variety. And that's just from the top of my bag of tricks...

The question of whether a player or listener can or should dis- or recover these constraints and methods is unresolved, and usefully so, I think.  Not least because music works best when it works at several levels of entrance or retention: at the surface, for those just passing by, and deeper, ever deeper, for those with the time, skills, patience, imagination to go deep.  There is some music, like much of that of early Steve Reich or almost all of Tom Johnson's remarkable catalog, in which the methods are either immediately present or easy to puzzle out, but this does not make either the music or the method any less mysterious or profound for the accessibility. In such cases, knowing the local system simply makes the occasion more engaging, and ultimately removes distractions from attending intimately to either or both the underlying ideas and their physical expression in sequences of acoustic events. The flip of the coin comes with work like that of Milton Babbitt, in which aural recovery of the underlying array and the immediate rules for its projection into a score is really not on the agenda. The array itself insures a maximally even (or, by Jim Tenney's terms, ergodic**) distribution of event classes such that, statistically seen, any given sample of the surface should be more or less like any other, so that the extemporaneous process of composing out form the array is one of largely creating atypical events that defeat that evenness, emphasizing, for example, near similarities at the surface created by accident-like conjunctures found deep in the array. I would characterize this more as composing against the array rather than with it, and playing or listening to such pieces is definitely less about recovering the structure than enjoying the emergence of such playful anomalies.

I happen to find constraints like these advantageous; other composers disagree, and sometimes with something approaching anger.  Some advance the argument that composing with constraints is unnecessarily accepting unnecessary constraints on the musical results.  I would counter simply that this is mistakenly assuming that the imposition of constraints leads to a severely limited range of musical results.  In fact, in the huge vector space of possible musics, a reduction to a manageably smaller but still very large number (as with the 10^14 possible combinations that lead to my recent clarinet pieces***) is more than useful and with the huge variety of parameters, values, and contexts that can come into play for any given constraint, we are inevitably dealing in realms of finite, but still ridiculously large fields of possibilities. In any case, most anyone who claims to be composing without constraints is most likely doing exactly that — using a modality or tonality or a metre is a constraint, row tables and other pre-compositional means and tactics are constraints.  Hell, using five line-staved manuscript paper or just using a particular set of instruments and sticking with them is a constraint: be honest, how many times have you been listening to a string quartet when suddenly a Wagner tuba, a drum machine, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir enter in?

ALL THAT SAID, the ultimate utility of recognizing a constraint is that a situation or scenario is created with authentic opportunites, among them tensions or conflicts, built into it.  And once you begin working with such a situation or scenario, the possibility or option to resolve the tensions or conflicts, and take or refuse opportunites becomes a lively presence in the work, whether tantalizingly left unaccomplished or relievedly resolved, by escaping, whether gently or through brute force, whatever limits one imagined the constraints to have set. And the question of whether this escape act is, ultimately, compositional or in the hands/mouths and ears of performers is also — and usefully so — open.

And of course, this:  My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit.  — Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music

* About those phrase systems: I recall Brian Ferneyhough, at the chalkboard in Darmstadt, appearing to dazzle his audience with a series of transformations to a series of measures. He was practicing notihing more or less than a species of Lou's system.
** It one of those paradoxes that John Cage seemed to have understood remarkably well: maximum variety leads to maximum maximum leveling.
*** That piece is indebted to a collections of poems coming out of the Oulipo, that famous cabal of writers exploring techniques for potential literature.(1) I'm a long-time admirer of the group, and not only the technical output, but the actual literary output of several of its members, first Harry Mathews, then Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, most recently Jacques Roubaud whose novel Mathematics: is a wonderful thing, very close to my own sympathies, full of amplifications and interpolations and built of a linear expression of a branching structure (parentheses, dots) which is so flexible that it seems obviously the ideal one for an intellectual autobiography. 
(1) I concur with Charles Shere about Daniel Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels: Im Praise of Potential Literature; it should sit on everyone's little Intros-to-Oulipo shelf next to Mathews and Brotchie's The Oulipo Compendium and Motte's Oulipo: a Primer of Potential Literature).  As long as I'm at it, this year has been good for accounts of experimental literature in general, and I've enjoyed Charles Bernstein's Attack of the Difficult Poems, and really admire David Antin's  Radical Coherency.

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