Thursday, March 15, 2012

From a Diary: I:xx

If dissonance and noise, or more precisely, the emancipation of dissonance and noise formed the contested ground of music in the first half of the 20th century, continuity was the central issue of the second half and we're still wrestling with it.


After the very brief moment of radical serial technique (part of that line that goes from Webern and Messiaen to the early numbered works of Goeyvaerts, Boulez of the first book of Structures etc. through the first (gorgeous failures that they were) attempts at synthesis with superimposed sine waves) in which discrete events were the focus, several competing approaches emerged for "connecting the dots."

The place of John Cage in this chronology is important (and it's also important to insist that Cage's music was, in part, parcel of the serial program with his charts equivalent in many ways to 12-tone arrays, including, in some cases, insistence on full 12-tone aggregates (although said aggregates may not have survived from the chart to the final surface of the composition (but then again even Milton Babbitt had his "weighted aggregates"...))) and it was Cage's unique insistence on the importance of silence to the problem of continuity. Cage came to silence in his compositional practice via musical structure, with his formal schemes, from the early square root pieces (the measure length structure of which is announced on many scores in a fashion precisely analogous to the announcement of tonality in a classical tonal score) to the later works in which clock time replaces metric proportions, a movement towards ametricality akin to that towards atonality. These schemes were usually pre-compositional, the blank, or silent form into which sounded events were placed or left empty. The musical potential of that emptiness became an increasingly attractive field for the composer, evidenced most vividly in the progression towards greater durations of silence over the three movements of the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra and, of course, 4'33" which was actually composed out of formal methods associated with Music of Changes.

In addition to Cage, as a young composer, it was the music and ideas about continuity of Christian Wolff and La Monte Young. Christian's article On Form in die reihe, radically opened up continuity through plain assertion (most plainly with the idea that a piece could be constrained simply by length of available time on a concert program), much as Stravinsky —in his Satie/Debussy tradition — asserted a tonality. And La Monte, with his idea of "getting inside a sound", was almost Christian's opposite, closing continuity to the acoustically intimate, by allowing (framing the articulation of the music) the ear to attend to ever more detail within a sustained sound event. There are, of course, many innovations by others in both these lines — the acoustical graffiti and resultant patterns emerging from early Reich and Glass, Johnston and Tenney's proportionate explorations, Lucier's beats and Music on a Long Thin Wire, etc. all represent extensions and refinements of the "inside a sound" line, for example, while the game-like strategies of a John Zorn, for example, extend the Wolff model.

With my own music, I readily plead inconsistency, but bouncing materially between the poles of the radically continuous and discontinuous seems to still be productive and musically rich, while at the same time, having a certain degree of agnosticism towards continuity, I find myself frequently using metric- or clock time-based formal systems, like those of Cage and Lou Harrison.

Monday, March 12, 2012

From a Diary: I:ixx

As it happens, this evening a friend pointed out one of these irresistible online clips of the Sun Ra Arkestra; many things can and have been written about the Arkestra, but their survival into the 21st century as a functioning live performance big band — and a big band with such a heterodox style and world-view — is one of the most endearing bits of evidence of music's potential to act as a counterforce to prevailing musical style and economics alike. Baumol's cost disease: salaries in jobs that have had no increase in productivity rise in response to the rises in salaries of jobs that have had increases in productivity. We need ever less labor to produce ever more goods and provide many services, but a string quartet still requires four bodies to produce the same quantity of music which a string quartet produced with four bodies two hundred years ago. And the orchestra? The large "romantic" orchestra is one of the — if not the only — examples of mass skilled manual labor with continuous survival since the late 19th century. Now, it does seem to be the case that sound recording did for a time indeed increase productivity by increasing the potential audience — in terms of both numbers and geographical range — for a musical performance, but this effect was, as far as I can tell, a delaying one, as recordings appear, with their digitalization, to have largely come and gone as a commercial medium. For most musicians today, a recording is (a) historical documentation, (b) a token of a certain status, (c) a gift-able object, and/or (d) a calling card and advertisement for live performances. So, after our strange and wonderful recorded interlude, most musicians are back to square one, busking and gigging, with our antiquated and ever-more costly mode of production, making music live for an immediate audience. And these increasing costs are making music an increasingly vulnerable profession. But at a certain point, I think we have to figure out a way to challenge the utility of viewing all forms of production in the forced terms of a common system of value. Yes, there is utility in being able to compare the value, the price, of apples and oranges, but what is the utility of comparing string quartets and SUVs or the Arkestra and FCOJ? Yes, live music making requires ever-costlier skilled labor, but a century or so of sound recording has shown that the experience of live music (real musicians, real audiences, in real spaces) is irreplaceable; its value is without a meaningful equivalent in other goods and services. I'd like to think that music, as a human activity, is so valuable on its own terms, so essential to our identity as humans, that the incidental costs of labor and rent are understood to be really beside the point.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

In the Zone

A (Javanese) gamelan rehearsal this afternoon, the first after a break of several months, with a group of Indonesian nurses and orderlies with whom I've now played for more than twenty years here in Frankfurt. Today, I played bonang panerus, the higher pitched of a pair of double-rowed small kettle gongs. I like playing bonang panerus because I can play repertoire that is unfamiliar (or forgotten) without notation, just by following the audible cues of other instruments, mainly the larger and lower bonang barung, with which part my instrument interlocks, and also because panerus plays continuously in the loud repertoire, among the instruments with the busiest or — more precisely — most dense, parts. One of the characteristic textures of the bonang is imbal, with the two bonang playing a repeated pattern, usually a scalar melody of four tones within the individual piece's pathet (a tonality within the pentatonic pelog or slendro tone system*), the tones distributed between the two instruments in alternation. Bonang barung plays in an even subdivision of the beat, coinciding with the tones of the trunk melody while bonang panerus plays the off beats in the pattern. BARUNG - panerus - Barung - panerus - BARUNG etc.. When I first started gamelan (in '79), playing continuously on the off beat was tricky for me; at first, I counted the combined pattern continuously in my head (one-Two-three-FOUR) , then later thought of my individual rhythm as out-of-phase by a quarter of the main pulse (something like a sixteenth rest followed by continuous eighths), but soon, after becoming more familiar with the sound of imbal and getting the mechanics of the mallet technique under control, I stopped intellectualizing it and it seemed to have internalized itself. I wouldn't call my internalization anything like having "a feel" for it, because I was in a particular musical zone in which thinking or feeling about my own individual actions was completely beside the point, and the better, the more accurate and sensitive to the entire ensemble I became, the less I thought or felt about my individual part and the more I was able to listen to the other parts in the ensemble. If you've ever heard a good gamelan group play live, you may have noticed a certain serene and distant look among the more accomplished musicians. That could well be a sign that they have reached that zone where mastery is no longer about technique but rather means being able to hear more.


* My description here is both idiosyncratic and skipping a lot of detail (most writers translate pathet as mode, but I've come to understand them more in terms of distinct — in terms of both interval profile and treatment — keys or tonalities within unequally-spaced tuning systems) , but I'd like to leave one observation with you: with the cascading interlocking patterns of imbal, occasionally cadenced with more florid melodic patterns, the bonang (or other instruments playing their own versions of imbal) are able to use four tones of a pentatonic scale to give a background harmonic color to a stretch or passage of music, against which the core melody of the piece is given depth, and is consonated or dissonated. The contrapuntal and harmonic resources of a pentatonic system are, logically, rather less than those of a seven- or more-toned system, but a technique like imbal shows that these resources are far from negligible musicially; even more than the bonang, the virtuoso, two-mallet technique of the gender barung, a keyed and resonated metallophone, shows the largest vocabulary of polyphonic techniques within the gamelan.