Friday, October 25, 2013


Let me call attention to this video  of the late South Indian vocalist K.V. Narayanaswamy.  I believe that I've praised KVN (as he was known) in these parts before, as quite possibly the finest musician I've ever heard live (at the very least, on a short list with Carlos Kleiber.*)  If you're not familiar with Karnatic music, just pay attention to the small details, the gamakas or ornaments in the melodic line, which are functional within each Raga, so that the movement between particular tones in the mode is associated with particular gamakas, which can involve oscillations between tones. slides to and from tones, and subtle intonation. KVN executes these beautifully, but even more, he projects these with elegant hand gestures (start around 17:30 for some of the most expressive movements), which are too individual and intuitive to be considered systematic or formal in any way, but yet so consistent and clear within his own performances to be thought of as merely casual.  The music, indeed all South Indian music, has a strong extemporized component, but the relationship of voice to hand here is not impromptu, but integral to a powerfully worked-out and complex rhetorical art that is also and immediately expressive.

* As long as we're talking elegant gestures, if you don't know the black and white pit footage of Kleiber conducting Tristan in  Bayreuth in the early '70s, you definitely ought to.  Kleiber uses his whole body in a way that ought to be extravagant, but he's performing to an audience who cannot see him, and in many viewings, I've increasingly become convinced that not a single gesture or movement is wasted.  Ecstatic, yes, extravagant, no.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Melodies in the Marketplace that is Tonality

A small thought experiment. Read this lay-person friendly article about the complementary work of two of the recent Sveriges Riksbank Economics prize winners, Fama and Shiller, and then summarize it in your head, substituting for "market", "tonality", and for "securities prices", "melody."  The fit isn't precise (do we identify final tones in the tonic as dividends?), but I think you'll get a useful charge out of the exercise, particularly with regard to the questions of anticipation — which would predict some recurrent directionality — and random fluctuation — which would go along with melodic variety.

I don't want to push this any further than is warranted, but I have the suspicion that had economists been thinking in terms of tonality rather than markets in goods, services or securities, then they wouldn't have doddled about too long with Efficient Markets Theory. Efficiency may play a role in other aspects of music making, but a good, distinctive tune rarely works efficiently; indeed, for all the conservative tendencies that appear frequently in melodies (i.e. what goes up must come down, skips return by steps in the opposite direction, etc), the best tend to enjoy their eccentricities and extravagances.  Modeling this with a mixture of goal-oriented directionality, representing the habits and, when present, constraints of a tonal system and random fluctuation, representing composerly flights of imagination, is a reasonable point of departure.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Williams Mix, re-mixed

When John Cage composed Williams Mix for eight tracks (yielding potentially 16 simultaneous layers) of magnetic tape in 1952, he wrote a score detailing graphically the precise orders and shapes of the thousands of segments of tapes that were to be spliced together from libraries of material categorized as  city, country, electronic, manually produced, wind, and "small" sounds.  Cage and his colleagues in the Project for Magnetic Tape took most of a year to assemble the complete piece.  Although the score existed in published form the composer did not anticipate further realizations.  However, with the benefit of digital technology, it has been realized via detailed reading and analysis by Tom Erbe, in multiple (and, potentially, indefinitely many) versions, which you can hear here.*

Although there is obviously considerable variation possible in the material content of Williams Mix, I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that there is definitely a shared and distinctive sound quality common to Cage's electronic and tape music. It is direct in character, sharp edged, with something of the flavor of documentary film.  It is edited, mediated, and shaped, but not made directional, effective, or smoothed out.  The continuity from moment to moment is jumpy but not urgent, and over longer stretches of time, much more coherent than one would expect. And these qualities persist whether the sound sources are conventionally musical (as in Imaginary Landscape Nr. 5), predominantly speech (as in Rozart Mix), or representing an environmental diversity as here in Williams Mix

* There is also a cleaned-up version of Cage's original realization of Williams Mix by Larry Austin, to which Austin has appended his own variations, each using more restricted sets of sound categories, generated by his own program Williams [re]Mix[er].