Saturday, December 06, 2008

Temporary Notes (14)

Rubato is something of an obsession here. I love the idea of stolen time (and the implicit questions of whence? and where?), and I love the idea of extending rubato into non-temporal dimensions, and of those, pitch, in particular.

Nowadays, in the absence of dance or lyrical traditions through which a metrical rubato — they don't call them movements for nothing — was understood within a community sharing a repertoire, we are forced to either accept whatever comes our way or to be more specific in our notation about these matters. There is something to be said for just accepting the sensibilities of good musicians, indeed, to the realization of a composition as a more collaborative and variable enterprise, with rubato, portamento, vibrato, and other figurations restored as terms in an ornamental realm. On the other hand, there is a tradition of, in effect, written-out rubato, which might be usefully associated with the name Skryabin, continuing to us, in one lineage, through the Skryabinistes, including the microtonalist Wyschnegradsky and the total chromaticist Obukhov, leading to Messiaen and Boulez (Boulez's microtonal youth is one of the facets of his biography kept rather quiet), and, in another lineage, through Morton Feldman, via his piano teacher Mme. Press.

Written-out rubato may seem a bit finicky at times, but the clarity can be useful, and need not always lead to new-complexity-school obscurities. For example, there is a fairly well-known symphonic work notated in 9/8. However, the music is actually in four, with a hesitant fourth beat: quarter, quarter, quarter, quarter, EIGHTH REST. Feldman, who often composed on manuscript paper with the barlines pre-drawn in regular intervals, would sometimes map a single simple melodic figure onto successive measures, changing only the time signature and note values, creating, in effect, tempo changes at each measure. Four quarters in 4/4 could become four dotted eighths in 3/4, four quarters-plus-sixteenths in 5/4, four dotted-quarters in 6/4 or four double-dotted quarters in 7/4. (One might aso usefully consider Feldman's non-aligned ensembles in the Durations series, and in later works with non-alligned metres, to be an extension of the rubato idea into the design of ensemble polyphony. (Yes, Virginia, even from someone who would once scribble "POLYPHONY SUCKS").

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