Friday, August 31, 2012

Rules: morals, games, music

A thoughtful post (here) by physicist Sean Carroll on the rules of morality and games.  His argument that rules of these sorts are not based on the laws of the universe nor handed from some deity but are nevertheless not arbitrary, invented and refined over time by real, fallible human beings is usefully applicable to music as well, with musical repertoires and styles hewing closely to the received rules but receiving a shock of  invention from time-to-time with extensions and refinements of the rule.

Now music does play against a certain immutable physical and physiological background — sensory consonance and dissonance, for example, with fairly clear correlates in physical and neurological domains — but the evidence presented by the diversity of existing musical repertoires suggests that there are plenty of alternative strategies for optimizing local musical rules to take into consideration these aspects to a greater or lesser (including no) degree. And yet, for all this diversity, there is a remarkable consistency to our ability to order an acoustical performance into broader or narrower categories of the musical and, within those categories, remark on the degree to which they follow or avoid the known rules.

Personally, what interests me most in music — "interests" here meaning "provokes my ear and aural imagination" — are those repertoires, forms, styles, pieces, parts of pieces, and moments of music in which it is thrillingly unclear whether the music is breaking the rules or discovering a new configuration or reading of those rules.  It is thrilling in the way a Rene Thom-style catastrophe or biphurcation is thrilling, a sudden and major shift due to a small change in circumstances. It is thrilling in the same way that a Wittgensteinian language game can be when suddenly, after an extended conversation, it becomes clear to both speakers that they weren't talking about the same thing at all.

From a Diary: I:xxix

An unplanned pause (caesura/gap/absence/rest/fermata/tacet...) due to an out-of-service right hand (a small operation on the index finger is scheduled, annoying and inconvenient but not serious). Ironically appropriate to the moment, I suppose, as I had planned, drafted, edited, tossed out, redrafted, and retossed a long item about John Cage's music today, as a way of filling in this curious gap between the 20th anniversary of his death and the 100th of his birth. I tried to write about my unsettling over Cage performance and reception today, the sense that there are very many very fine and spirited performances of the works and that it is very good for music in general that Cage's music has become an institutional concern and is now played at Juilliard or the Proms, representing an opening for music rather than closure and, in the best circumstances, changing the institution more than the institution changes the music, but with the reservation that many Cage performances are (and always have been) less about the music itself than about the institution or persons presenting the music. But trying to write that item coincided with the discovery that my right hand didn't want to play along, forcing me to type this with my left hand, which was both an invitation to write less rather than more and a reminder of how profoundly right-handed I am. And that was a (useful, like a kick in the pants) reminder that my musical work is not always a balancing act between ear and mind, but a triangulation between ear, mind, and the habits and capacities of my hands. A leap of an octave, for example, is imagined simultaneously as an auditory experience, a mental structure, and a physical exertion, and all three experiences reinforce one another, making each more rather than less vibrant. Lou Harrison, a very physical person (crashing down after executing three perfect pirouettes, Mr Harrison shouted "Why don't they make ballet for fat men anymore?"), criticized Cage, his lifelong friend, as being incapable of moving to music (and thus one source for the Cage/Cunningham separation of dance from music.)  But I think Harrison got Cage wrong here, because Cage, in recognition and affirmation rather than denial of the physicality of sound, found that it was not necessary to identify the physicality of music with that of dance through closely tied, even mimetic movement rather that independence (from dance or decor or film etc.) created space useful for a deeper and more engaged experience, and one which was framed (by a shared time structure, for example), not mediated by parallel activities. The line from this to both La Monte Young's idea of getting inside a sound or the social/political music-making of Christian Wolff is direct and the famous tacet piece (4'33") an example of such (in this case, time-structured) framing at a minimum.  And stop.

Friday, August 10, 2012

How it looks, how it sounds

The popular musician Beck has just released his new album. Not as a cd, nor as downloadable files. As sheet music. (To be published in cooperation with McSweeney's.)  Yep, interpretable sheet music. Notated music is the new vanguard.


Composer Richard Winslow's law:  if you want to repeat some music precisely, you ought to transmit it orally, while if you want to guarantee that the music will change over time, you should write it down.


The recent news of a shakeup at the owner of notation program Sibelius and a possible buy-out of the company which produces Finale has caused some anxiety over the future of both programs.  (If one of the companies goes under, for example, how will owners of the software be able to register their programs when moving to new computers?)  It has also caused some useful meditation over the nature of musical notation in general and engraving in particular.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of music notated by hand or engraved?  What do we really want in a notation program?  Should a program try to accommodate as many different repertoires as possible, or should it be specialized?  Should a program try to do both notation and sequencing well, or should its emphasis be on notational graphics alone?  Have the open source alternatives matured enough to bring the era of commercial engraving programs to a close?

I'm something of a broken record on this, but my opinion remains that having a diversity of notation options is a very good thing for music (and don't let any music professor tell you otherwise!), being able to notate by hand is a useful and often beautiful skill (in my experience, the best computer-based engravers have excellent manuscript skills), the free and open source alternatives (Lilly Pond and MuseScore in particularly) have improved very much, and we still need a good graphics-only program to supplement programs in which playback and a fairly rigid notational structure trump graphic freedom.  (Let me also add that learning to notate music well, whether by hand or with machine assistance, is something that is best done through a combination of self-instruction and feedback from real musicians and benefits tremendously from a musician's own experience playing from notation. It does not require a semester-long college course.) 


Some people are seriously picayune about notation, I'm only somewhat so. But there are a few basics I find important: avoid collisions of items on the page; try to have few and, when then, good page turns in a movement; be critical of the default formatting settings in your software; try for a layout that uses space optimally (neither crowded nor too widely scattered); and try to make your scores look as if the music in them is important to you, give them a distinctive look, your own house style.  Have a distinctive layout or print on exquisite paper, bind your scores with silver thread, add illustrations, or create/choose fonts that fit your musical aesthetic.  The potential effect of a font on your scores reception or performance is, granted, a subtle one, but real and meaningful musical differences are usually subtle, and an additional visual charge can only help emphasize these differences.   Errol Morris (the best blogger of 'em all) recently wrote:  we may be at the mercy of fonts in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize. An effect — subtle, almost indiscernible, but irrefutably there. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


Linguist Mark Liberman of Language Log has a great post about the anatomy of vocalizing, here., including a link to John Fink's video "Glottal Opera."   This is vivid stuff; I don't think I'll ever look at a singer in the same way again.