Sunday, October 05, 2008


Robert Ashley put it this way: short ideas repeated massage the brain. A notion taken, no doubt, from the advertising idea of the subliminal message. The question is: do we really want to do that? When anything is repeated often enough it can disappear into the landscape; a musical idea can be repeated so that one no longer listens to it with any degree of attention; news of the world, even when most important or dramatic, likewise disappears when it becomes routine. You know the story: subliminal, sublime, and ignorance is bliss. I am just old enough to remember body counts from Vietnam on the evening news; the US population was deeply divided between those for whom this was a daily outrage and those who had become numb to the passing statistics (numb enough, that is, to twice elect Richard Nixon President). Paul Bailey's requiem for a high homicide enclave, uses repeated patterns (taken from Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary), orchestrated with the most familiar (and thus, most anonymous) of instrumental resources (e.g fuzz guitar) to accompany video footage derived from LA homicide reports. By foregrounding repetition as a musical element, Bailey's music does not to lull into passive-consumptive listening but rather allows the listener to focus on the slightest of changes, revealing that apparent repetitions are not precise duplicates, and the video, by identifying single victims from among an anonymous statistical mass, allows information that has passed out of consciousness through its daily and leveling repetition to be recovered and, perhaps, once again become meaningful. A massaged brain may well be stimulated rather than numbed.


Much postwar serious music has been concerned with a null point. Cage's rhythmic structures began from a division of the whole duration into parts prior to the distribution of sound or silence among those parts (in one version of the composition of 4'33", Cage described the piece as resulting from the same method used in Music of Changes, but with the questions as to content each answered similarly, with silence). In Cage's music, there is an implied nullification of sound by silence, in that one is replaceable by the other, as opposed to the classical ancillary function of silence to articulate musical sounds. Much serial music was marked by the perpetual succession of aggregates, in whichever parameter, pitch (class and register), metrical position, dynamic, instrumentation, thus never progressing but always resetting back to zero before beginning again. A major interest of the European avant-garde was the composition of music that stood in some negative relationship to tradition, negating tonality, metre, continuity, genre, style, or composerly authority, another net sum of null. And the most radical music was and is concerned with the limits of music making, limits of audibility, density, repetition, meaningful continuity. The object here is not an equation summing to null, but the direct approach to null itself.

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