Wednesday, October 07, 2015

R is for Resolute

Thomas Pynchon's three novel-length detective stories (The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice,  and Bleeding Edge) each describe investigations by intrepid if improbable investigators that tend to turn in unexpected ways, encountering strange people in strange situations, all the while gathering inconclusive evidence of increasingly obscure reliability or even relevance. The world becomes less clear through the steady accumulation of detail. We do, in fact, know more, we are perhaps even wiser (perhaps mostly wiser about our own persons), but we have not necessarily solved the mystery. Indeed, the exact nature of that mystery is postponed (N.O. Brown: "The dynamic of capitalism is postponement of enjoyment to the constantly postponed future.")

I think that this is a quality shared with all the best "tales of ratiocination" (as Poe had it): from Oedipus, Hamlet, and the death of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter onward. The process of discovering, in each of these, is so much more vital and compelling than any actual discovery of a definitive or settled fact or detail.  Things continually resolve without necessarily ever getting any more clear.

Often, I think, music is compelling precisely because it is resolute, moving forward (La Monte Young: "draw a straight line and follow it"), without necessarily coming to a definitive resolution (perhaps better: "draw a meandering line and find yourself by getting yourself lost.")  We spend a lot of time in counterpoint and harmony classes learning about resolution, which is offered implicitly as a kind of restitution of tonal order or, — less morally loaded — as a return to comfort zones (sensory consonance being relatively comfortable) and always in the direction, as the term of art has it, of "dissonance resolving to consonance."  But this avoids the truth here, that without the relief of dissonance, consonance is not audible as anything in particular; they're just directions in continua, not absolutes.  (Tonal prolongation is, indeed, a form of postponement of enjoyment to some postponed future.)  It's all about moving along continua, oscillating between investigating the unknown and bopping back into the comfortable. Going places but not necessarily ever getting there.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Q is for Quantum

I've opined here before that one of the reasons music works is that we, listeners, have a weak sense of what is the same and what is different in music.  This weakness creates significant room for all kinds of tonal ambiguity and illusion, allusion and variation to take place.  (An example: the sense that a piece of tonal music starts and ends in the same place, but — and reliably often so — a simultaneous sense that the ending is marked by some significant difference from the beginning. Think about it: it really does happen all the time!)

Here's another reason why music works: we have a degree of uncertainty about what the smallest bit of significant musical information is.  This uncertainty creates some useful room for variation in what might be called the level of attention paid to music.

To some extent, we go about our lives as practical musicians operating as if this is a settled matter: notes, those round blotches with stems attached, are the atoms or quanta of music.

I recall a transcription exercise, when studying ethnomusicology, in which everyone in the seminar was given the task of transcribing the same English folk song.  My own transcription was picayune, I tried to capture small pitch and rhythmic movements, whether due to design or error, with odd time signatures and several tempo changes, lots of 32nds and some tuplets, some bits of vibrato, even a sustained microtone or two.  I used those impressive-looking IPA characters for the text. It looked like something by Berio, ca. 1964. In stark contrast, one of my colleagues, who happened to be from West Africa, on the other hand, wrote it out in 4/4, straight quarters and halves, rounded up or down to a C major scale.  And the remaining class members made versions that were everywhere in-between.  Which transcription was correct? Which was incorrect?  Any or all, depending upon what you're attending to in the music, or for what you intend to use the transcription.  I imagine that my transcription could be used to recreate that particular performance — it would be something virtuoso to accomplish, but still possible —, but in some real sense, my colleague's more minimal transcription might be a more faithful — and certainly a more practical for performers — edition of the song.  Maybe the varied results in this exercise just illustrate that transcription is, necessarily, an analytical project, and there are many legitimate ways to analyze the same stretch of music.

In a large piece of writing many years ago, I worked with the idea that composers in the 20th century tended to focus on music as either single indivisible notes, as larger series or strings of events, or as activity taking place within the space occupied by the note. Of course, in practice, the best musicians attend to music at all three of these levels simultaneously, sometimes emphasizing one more than others, but we do tend to think of a musical performance as something that is ideally secure at all of these levels.  And better yet, there is considerable room for compellingly musical work which tugs at the boundaries of these levels.  I remember, for example, some field recordings of music that were, at first listen, rather reduced in material variety. A quarter-and-halves transcription would have sufficed, the tonal resources were not even pentatonic. But the music was compelling, and repeated closer listening revealed that there was in fact a whole world of rhythmic sophistication in the music that I had missed altogether. It was to be found in what I had probably casually dismissed as vibrato.  In fact, the vibrato was extremely regular and controlled as to speed, depth, and shape and I had almost missed it altogether.  Similarly, in his works which use the beating of closely-tuned intervals, Alvin Lucier often creates an environment in which conventional parameters — pitch, rhythm and tempo, timbre — become less distinct, the boundaries between them often fluid.  The tempi in Lucier's quartet, Navigations for Strings, for example, become paradoxical as it is unclear whether the prevailing tempo is that of the tones articulated by the players or the beating rates between those tones, and these rates follow independent, but generally opposed or contradictory, trajectories. I have been listening to this string quartet for 20-some years, and I'm still amazed at how my sense of the piece bounces between hearing it as basically a fast or a slow piece.  What a rich field of possibilities!