Sunday, October 04, 2015

Q is for Quantum

I've opined here before that one of the reasons music works is that we, listeners, have a weak sense of what is the same and what is different in music.  This weakness creates significant room for all kinds of tonal ambiguity and illusion, allusion and variation to take place.  (An example: the sense that a piece of tonal music starts and ends in the same place, but — and reliably often so — a simultaneous sense that the ending is marked by some significant difference from the beginning. Think about it: it really does happen all the time!)

Here's another reason why music works: we have a degree of uncertainty about what the smallest bit of significant musical information is.  This uncertainty creates some useful room for variation in what might be called the level of attention paid to music.

To some extent, we go about our lives as practical musicians operating as if this is a settled matter: notes, those round blotches with stems attached, are the atoms or quanta of music.

I recall a transcription exercise, when studying ethnomusicology, in which everyone in the seminar was given the task of transcribing the same English folk song.  My own transcription was picayune, I tried to capture small pitch and rhythmic movements, whether due to design or error, with odd time signatures and several tempo changes, lots of 32nds and some tuplets, some bits of vibrato, even a sustained microtone or two.  I used those impressive-looking IPA characters for the text. It looked like something by Berio, ca. 1964. In stark contrast, one of my colleagues, who happened to be from West Africa, on the other hand, wrote it out in 4/4, straight quarters and halves, rounded up or down to a C major scale.  And the remaining class members made versions that were everywhere in-between.  Which transcription was correct? Which was incorrect?  Any or all, depending upon what you're attending to in the music, or for what you intend to use the transcription.  I imagine that my transcription could be used to recreate that particular performance — it would be something virtuoso to accomplish, but still possible —, but in some real sense, my colleague's more minimal transcription might be a more faithful — and certainly a more practical for performers — edition of the song.  Maybe the varied results in this exercise just illustrate that transcription is, necessarily, an analytical project, and there are many legitimate ways to analyze the same stretch of music.

In a large piece of writing many years ago, I worked with the idea that composers in the 20th century tended to focus on music as either single indivisible notes, as larger series or strings of events, or as activity taking place within the space occupied by the note. Of course, in practice, the best musicians attend to music at all three of these levels simultaneously, sometimes emphasizing one more than others, but we do tend to think of a musical performance as something that is ideally secure at all of these levels.  And better yet, there is considerable room for compellingly musical work which tugs at the boundaries of these levels.  I remember, for example, some field recordings of music that were, at first listen, rather reduced in material variety. A quarter-and-halves transcription would have sufficed, the tonal resources were not even pentatonic. But the music was compelling, and repeated closer listening revealed that there was in fact a whole world of rhythmic sophistication in the music that I had missed altogether. It was to be found in what I had probably casually dismissed as vibrato.  In fact, the vibrato was extremely regular and controlled as to speed, depth, and shape and I had almost missed it altogether.  Similarly, in his works which use the beating of closely-tuned intervals, Alvin Lucier often creates an environment in which conventional parameters — pitch, rhythm and tempo, timbre — become less distinct, the boundaries between them often fluid.  The tempi in Lucier's quartet, Navigations for Strings, for example, become paradoxical as it is unclear whether the prevailing tempo is that of the tones articulated by the players or the beating rates between those tones, and these rates follow independent, but generally opposed or contradictory, trajectories. I have been listening to this string quartet for 20-some years, and I'm still amazed at how my sense of the piece bounces between hearing it as basically a fast or a slow piece.  What a rich field of possibilities!

1 comment:

Joe Shelby said...

"I'm still amazed at how my sense of the piece bounces between hearing it as basically a fast or a slow piece."

Part of me would see this as an example of how sound, and music specifically, can be as full of 'illusion' as visual sensation/perception, that is, the "optical illusion". Hearing something as tonal yet atonal (Stravinsky's Agon), or the mixed-metre of Rite of Spring's Arrival of the Sage, or your example of fast yet slow, or even a Steve Reich piece at its transition point between common time and 3/4, strikes me as being aesthetically equivalent to the old-woman/young-girl optical illusion we're generally familiar with, or with some of Escher's visual illusions around figure and ground as pointed out by Hofstadter.

What makes music unique is that unlike the visual illusions where the mind MUST distinguish between one or the other, even as it can quickly toggle between the two, in the aural space of music, it is possible to learn to perceive both options at once.