Monday, September 16, 2013

Reductive, a process not a style

Robert Irwin: "I went through a reductive process, which was misidentified as being minimalism. Minimalism had become destilled into a style that had about it a kind of finality in regards to the work not having content and essentially existing on its own. I started out with all the same presumptions as everyone else, all the same baggage. But I found there were just too many things in my paintings, things that did not contribute enough to justify their being there. So I made the simplest assumptions: everything in a painting either works for you, or by its mere presence it works against you. So I started editing my work, taking out what was really not crucial or critical to it."   (in Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries, p. 49.)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Atonal oder tonal?

I recently followed a thread online somewhere about one of those monstrously dense total chromatic pieces associated with the New Complexers* and the question came up of whether or not segments or fragments found here or there which could be articulated and heard as resolving onto conventional tonal templates — triads, seventh chords, alterations of these, sequences or progressions of these, etc. — could then, and if so, ought to be heard as 'tonal' although the prevailing atmosphere of the piece was — for better or worse (and yes, some participants in thread wished to jetison the term altogether with some argument (and a reasonable one, though I disagree) about its impossibility) — 'atonal.'  

I happen to think that it's possible to have a stretch of music that is atonal in the sense of its not being parseable as belonging to a particular key-centered tonality.  To get there would require an even distribution of the possible pitches such that samples of any reasonably large size would tend to have the same net content.  James Tenney's ergodic concept is spot on, here, and the classical Princetonian 12-tone technique could come very close, but there is an inevitable rub and that's the fact that (a) our auditory nervous system doesn't take in every collection of pitches thrown at them with indifference as to the qualities of the relationships between tones and (b) most of experiences with music are with music that privileges particular tonal relationships and/or gives otherwise constrains their use.  The phenomenon of sensory consonance is a real physiological one (evolutionarily piggybacked with some likelihood on speech perception), and configurations of pitches which fall into sensorially consonant relationships will be distinguished from those which don't.  The strictures among the early adaptors of Schoenbergian 12-tone technique included an avoidance of octaves and major/minor triads, possibly from the insight (inhearing?) that these would assert themselves acoustically from other configurations, defeating the atonal ideal. 

There is a story about John Cage, then an editor of New Music Edition, meeting Milton Babbitt with great enthusiasm to talk about how Babbitt had "broken the rules" and used major and minor triads in his Three Compositions for Piano (1947) which Cage had then recommended for publication.  Cage's enthusiasm for a neutral approach to the natural affects of musical intervals can be understood in the context of his own early works in which had used a 25-tone collection, thus rejecting the principle of octave equivalency found in the more orthodox 12-tone techniques of the time.  Babbitt reported being amused at Cage's enthusiasm, for it appeared to be emphasizing an aspect of his musich which he had heard as incidental, as his work with 12-tone technique was as much an auditional practice as a compositional one, and that auditional practice was predicated on treating intervallic and chordal arrangements as distinct but with equal structural compentency. (This would lighten up considerably in Babbitt's later music, as a more playful approach to the nature and nurture of pitch relations appears allowing at times even the prominent foregrounding of local materials that evoked tonal music.)  I don't think that we have come very much further from this standoff between Cage and Babbitt, the first with a form of music-acoustical realism, the second a species of idealism or platonism, but I do expect that there's still considerable charge to be found and heard in the very distance between these positions.

* I believe that the work in question was by Michael Finnissy, but I won't bet the house on it and the following notes don't ride on it.

Stone's Style

I heard a beautiful set by Carl Stone Tuesday evening.  Stone provided an essential element in my musical education (and, presumably that of other musically precocious youths in SoCal) during his stint as music director at KPFK, the Pacifica radio station in L.A..  Among the programs most important to me, he was responsible for the first American broadcast of the music of Jo Kondo, the then mint-new recording of Einstein on the Beach, as well as works by Cage, Reich, and Lou Harrison.  I remember literally climbing a tree in order to get KPFK's signal up in the mountains at Idyllwild (where I was a summer music camp counselor) so I could hear the live broadcasts from New Music America in San Francisco.  Later, I got to know Carl a bit while he was himself co-director (with Joan LaBarbara) of New Music America in Los Angeles, a truly remarkable festival.

(KPFK had a remarkable series of music directors with Stone and his two predecessors, David Cloud and William Malloch; Malloch, in particular, was a virtuoso in explaining the art of musical interpretation, with his documentaries, in particular on Mahler, Nikisch, and Stravinsky, still essential listening.  Tragically, "serious" music programming has essentially been eliminated from the KPFK offerings.)

But, above and beyond his radio work and other organizational engagements and entanglements, it's been Carl's work as a composer that has kept my attention, and done so, now for more than three decades, vicariously following his moves from LA to San Francisco, and, for the last decade or so, to Japan. Though I've followed his music via recordings, I hadn't heard Stone play live since the '80s and I was struck first this last evening by the continuity with his earlier work.  Sure, the technology has changed — in the mid-80s, it required some big analog boxes, now it's mostly done with just a laptop — but the basic procedures he uses are very much a constant: sample, delay, loop with accumulated changes, modulate one source by another.  He's just gotten better at them: more focused, more resourceful, more tonally clear, altogether more virtuosic.  In particular, Stone's sound design has acquired a unique depth.  His was always a clean sound, but it has become much sharper, tactictly using silence as a rhythmically articulative element (and thus avoiding the trap of unbroken continuity heard in too much live electronic music), and his use of stereo placement is disciplined and uncanny, also using space as a powerfully articulative element in his prevailing contrapuntal textures.

Stone's music is based on samples of existing music and, here too, the continuity is great. His sources were and are always superb, whether using art music or music coming from popular as well as unashamedly kitschig repertoire.  From twenty-some years ago, I remember his samples of baroque music and Motown classics; now the library still includes a Bach chorale but features a lot more Asian music, vocal in particular, both courtly and profane in origins.

Sampling was once exotic, but is now obiquitous; Stone uses some formal strategies to keep his material exotic and avoid falling into studio cliches.  One formal plan, used by Stone with source popular songs in particular, is to parallel the development of the song by developing (through looping and accumulated modifications) samples taken at real-time intervals from the song.  He then uses the metric unit of the sample as a little frame or even a theatre in which interesting things happen before skipping on to the next.  The tonal activity over the course of these frames aquires a step-time quality much more rapid but functionally very much akin to that found in Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians.  Another strategy involves the reconciliation of, well, not opposites, but very much differences, here in a piece allowing a sensual Vietnamese female vocal to modulate (via something like a vocoder, I presume), thus taking on the tonality of, some well-known stretch of Bach, the whole punctuated with unpredictable but oh-so-right pauses. The effect, both tragic and erotic, was completely unexpected.   Finally, Stone's sense of his library of sources as a potential economy for a piece is marked most strongly by his restraint.  In the most substantial work of the set, he had one clearly predominating sound source in the foreground, but there were just tiny hints of material he had held back, for example, a couple of tabla strokes that came and went with little development, the kind of world-building detail that give a piece increased depth and complexity.

If Stone had come from a certain musical-intellectual milleux, I am certain that his choices and mixtures of sources could and would have come framed and packaged in the terms of certain fashionable critical and cultural discourse.  But I don't have the impression that he is working that way at all.   Also although his working methods come from an experimental tradition (his teachers included Subotnick and Tenney), and that, by performing in real time, he does make discoveries, I don't believe that his work is really experimental in the sense that eliciting unforeseen outcomes is a primary goal.  I think — and I may well be wrong about this, so please correct me — that his approach is instead very much that of a musical classicist, using a body of tools and techniques which he has mastered in order make more of the music he values and has thus created his own repertoire.  I hear something of the practice of the 18th century's so-called Galant Style or in the catalog of extraordinary music produced by the aforementioned Jo Kondo in his approach — a stock of techniques and materials has been pre-established, much of it used communally, but the continuity among them, in the form of musical pieces is very much the work of an individual musical intution, yes, a style.