Sunday, June 29, 2008

Landmarks (34)

Gordon Mumma: Pontpoint (1966-1980), electroacoustic music. Premiered as music for a dance by Jan McCauley for her company, Cirque.

Mumma's own analog cybersonic circuitry is here used to modify sounds from two acoustic sources, a bandoneon (the free reed instrument best known for its use in the Argentine Tango ensemble) and a bowed psaltery. These two sound sources, each generally characterized by simple and stable wave forms, are modulated to produce sound events with spectra that are often far from simple and are subject to change in a variety of parameters over time. Moreover, Mumma modulates the position of sounds within physical space, a device which becomes critical to the formal development in Pontpoint.

Minimalism in music is too often limited to an association with musics using a reduced set of tonal possibilities. The minimalist impulse in music did not, however, originate in a nostalgia for tonality, but rather in interest in the intensification of the listeners' engagement with the material state of sounds and the compositional problem of translating that intensified experience into musical forms. To recover that impulse, I believe that it's very useful to return to the definition of minimalism as the elimination of distractions.

In Pontpoint, Mumma isolates individual sounds between silences, a framing device that better allows the listener to focus attention on the activity within a single sound by eliminating the distraction of the continuity between neighboring events . And although the global pace of activity, from one island of sound to the next, is leisurely, the pace of activity within single sounds is made both more intense -- invoking the same sort of tempo paradox that Monteverdi uses in the stile concitato -- and distinctive.

With the combination of three techniques: use of electronics to further individualize acoustic events, the isolation of events in time between silences, and the assignment of each event to distinct positions in physical space, Mumma shapes each sound into an individual island within an archipelago. Pontpoint thus achieves a remarkable balance between the larger form, which suggests nothing so much as a narrative or a journey, and its local punctuation by events or attractions of heightened contrast and detail.

1 comment:

Ben.H said...

You've strengthened my resolve to get a new turntable soon, so I can hear my LP of Pontpoint again. Your description of Mumma's piece using silence as a frame for single but complex sounds also applies to David Tudor's Microphone, one of my favourite compositions.