Wednesday, March 26, 2014

M is for Material

In the early 90s, the composer and physicist Hauke Harder and I started a new music publishing project. I spontaneously came up with the name Material Press and Hauke just as spontaneously agreed to it, without any discussion. We both understood something about the name and its applicability to the kind of repertoire we were interested in as well the the plain fact that we would be in the business of providing material — sheet music, audio recordings, mostly — required for performing the music we'd have in the catalog.

Hauke, as an experimental physicist, had and has a rather concrete understanding of the word material.  And that's reflected in his own great affinity for the music of Alvin Lucier, which would become an important part of the Material Press catalog. Lucier is fond of the poet William Carlos Williams' programmatic slogan: "no ideas but in things."  I suppose that that's as close to our philosophy as you can get, although, the experience of much of the music that has challenged and changed (and continues to challenge and change) the way we hear music and the world around that music is often damn close to the world of ideas ("mountains are mountains again... only the feet are a little bit off the ground" as Cage famously quotes Suzuki.)   Hauke has really worked and thought his own way through this, and I believe that the composer Jo Kondo pointed Hauke towards the Shōbōgenzō of Dōgen, founder of the Soto School of Japanese Zen Buddhism, which famously observed that "painted cakes are real, too", which Hauke used for the title of a very beautiful, long piece for trombone, viola & piano using minimal means to bring out a maximum of detail.

Bhishma Xenotechnites (Douglas Leedy) recently pointed out to me that William's slogan has its origin in Thomas Aquinas's Peripatetic axiom ( "Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu".)  It's embarrassing that I had not known this before.  It does lend to the catholic qualities in Lucier's music a specific Thomian dimension, and although contemporary physics and mathematics work with phenomena (things, very basic things, among them), ideas, qualities, etc. which have come to be understood although they are not associated with any immediate sensory basis, and however idea-provoking music can be, music appears to me to continue to live its liveliest in a physical and sensational realm. In William's or Lucier's (or Harder's) case,  no ideas but in things, is a matter of attention and emphasis, a recognition of the modest physical dimensions of work that may often actually be much larger on the inside than on the outside, rather than a deep ontological point.

While I admire the clarity that a physical approach can bring, and try to follow the popular literature, especially when it comes to music-related topics, I only have a modest knowledge of physics. I use some math in my music — Gray Codes for example — but I use it very practically, for its clarity and efficiency in optimizing certain concrete musical situations.  A Beckett Gray Code, for example, helped me write a woodwind quintet in which I used every possible combination of the five instruments, thus maximizing variety and that changes in scoring patterns were maximally smooth, while assuring, at the same time that no player would run out of breath (or, in the case of the oboist, end up with a mouth and lungs full of CO2) by allowing them timely entrances and exits. In any case, I can't really understand the bit of maths I do understand and use in terms of Platonian ideals; an intuitionist or constructive basis seems more to point, at least in the terms of the reality of music as something that works itself out through its projection into real time. So material, here, is construed in very practical terms.

I suppose that there is also an ideological theme here, too, with this materialism. Trees and fireplace pokers and f sharp minor or three-quarter time: I recognize them as both ideas and concrete instances, each with its own potential for use. But, as far as I'm concerned, this materialism is dialectical  largely in the Groucho Marxist sense of the term, for example, in not wanting to be in a club that would have me as a member, or even just a form of automatic contrarianism: Have Windmill? Will Tilt, or When the world zigs, it's high time to zag or: Don't Trend on Me.  Cue Professor Wagstaff:

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