Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fat Crayons and Musical Pidgins

I remember once, in an ethnomusicology seminar, comparing transcriptions of a solo vocal performance by an Appalachian woman. My transcription looked something like Circles-era Berio: lots of notes with very small values, microtones duly noted, considerable rhythmic nuance, a lot of detail that came from listening to the recording again and again, and making great use of an ajustable-speed cassette player. A colleague from West Africa, a master musician in his own repertoire, produced a transcript that couldn't have been more different. His transcription was in quarters and halves, restricted to five white notes, with probably 1 glyph on the page for every 15 of mine. At first some of the seminar members were a bit uncomfortable with the West African's transcription and excused it with apologies for it not being "his" music. Of course, if we were really doing ethnomusicology, that was an odd response. With further reflection, although my score had more information, we came round to a consensus that my colleague's certainly had more novel information, and might even have had more valuable musical information. Forests and trees, you know?

The first time I attended the Holiday Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, I woke myself up one night with a bit of anxiety. This was the heyday of the Complexers at Darmstadt and these folks were turning out scores so full of notes -- and oh-so-tiny notes -- that I suddenly had a vision of all the course- goers being sent for an exam in the gym (the ever present odor of Darmstadt's institutional kitchen especially vivid). We all got our musical blue books, Brian Ferneyhough stood before us with a clock and a gavel, and signaled for all of us to start composing. I then noticed that all of my colleagues were writing away with their micro-nibbed Rapidographs, but I had been handed a box of fat, kindergarten-sized Crayolas , as if to label me most efficiently as "American, Mimimalist, not one of us". This notation anxiety hung over me for the rest of the Course, but I was somehow relieved to learn that most of the complexity tribe actually wrote fairly big notes and then reduced their scores with a photocopier. Lesson: a lot of complexity is only a matter of appearance.

I remember that the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently ran a Feuilleton article which called Firefly the "best science fiction series of all time", a judgement I share. (No, I haven't seen Serenity yet; it won't even open here until November). One thing I really liked about Firefly was the pidginization of Mandarin amid the generally gentille frontier English. (Firefly is basically a western, but it's set 500 years in space-faring future with a handful of deep, dark secrets to keep a bit a paranoia in the air; it's something like a negative image of The Wild Wild West). The Mandarin is used in the two places where pidgins usually develop: for swearing and for trading. I've noticed lately that the development of a European Pidgin English is well in swing. The first sign is abundant: the prefered epiteths of young Europeans are increasingly English even when adequate local lexicons exist, and commercial advertising is the same. When I have interacted with non-native English speakers speaking English, I have noticed that I am often at a disadvantage in that I expect their English to have the same associations and nuances as my own, and communication often fails at critical points. On the other hand, I have never seen such expectations get in the way of two non-native speakers communicating. On the other hand, the non-Native usage has a lively inventiveness of its own, and strikes me as increasingly rich in nuances that cross linguistic boundaries which are beyond my own experience.

Maybe my relationship to contemporary European art music is a bit like that of a pidgin speaker to the language which is being pidginized. I don't "get" all of the complexity that the tradition carries with it, but I bring my own complexity to it. I may draw my scores with big fat crayons instead of fine-point draughting tools, but my big fat crayons come in 64 different colors.

(encore post from 10/02/05)

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