Sunday, February 21, 2016

Brute Force and All That

This business with the FBI wanting Apple to create a tool to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernadino terrorists has been fascinating to follow, not least because it appears that the method the FBI has settled on is brute force — in this case, systematically trying every PIN combination — but brute force is here limited by the iPhone which allows only 10 mistaken attempts and then erases the data on the phone (or bricks it altogether — I've heard competing accounts), so the Bureau wants Cupertino to give them a way to shut down this 10-strikes-and-you're-out security feature. (Apple is refusing, for all kinds of really good, sensible, reasons which others explain elsewhere with more detail and authority.)

Now, brute force is something that should be familiar to composers. For all of our plans and schemes and charts and systems, at some point there inevitably seem to be decisions to make that have to rely on brute force, rigorously trying out each solution on a list (whether formal or informal, in the head or on paper or screen) of possible solutions until one that works is found  (the sketches of Beethoven or Ives sometimes suggest such a procedure.)  If you're lucky, you stumble on a workable solution fast, but more often brute force gets refined as trial-and-error, optimally with successive error suggesting ways to sieve through the list to get more likely answers, but it can nevertheless be a damnably long process, and not a few composers find themselves bricking the work sometime along the way. (If you're really lucky, you get both the right answer and some insight into why it is the right answer along the way, an example of a piece revealing its own rules, or even "theory" in the course of composition.)

Last night, I went to a pretty good performance of The Makropulos Act (alternatively: Affair, Case, Matter, Secret, or Thing.)  Now, Janáček worked rather methodically with his vocal rhythms and contours based on spoken Czech musically heightened and he had a personal set of harmonic principles (not quite a system: categories and principles, somewhat along the lines of Hindemith.) But these together tend to function more as a spur to local invention than in any calculated continuity over greater distances (with two exceptions in Makropulos, in almost-arias given to the comic Count Hauk-Šendorf in the Second and E.M. herself in the Third Act) and his writing is ever being driven forward by a kind of brute force, a sustained intensity of imagination, or, as Morton Feldman, at times also a brute-forciste, put it: concentration.

Brute force works by trying out all of the possible combinations or possibilities, typically in some logical order, which certainly helps to keep track of things when the list is long.  And although I've been talking about going through lists while composing, in order to select an optimum item from the list for a finished score, this line of musing also invites some thought about the subject of exhausting such lists within works of music.  [Simple example: much 12-tone music (not all, but much) features a succession of exhaustions of the 12-pitch class collection, some music extends this exhaustion to other aspects or parameters of the music.]  Personally, I go back and forth on the issue.  I use lists of all possible combinations all the time in my music, I love Gray codes (and Beckett Gray Codes in particular) and have recently been working with all the possible relationships in abstract time (that is, ignoring the precise durations) two or three or more sounds might have to one another. But if, for example, a strict process has been initiated, while I understand the aesthetic of letting the process continue to completion,  to be perfectly honest, I'm not always on board with having to personally accompany it all the way to the end (to be honest, some health scares affected my attitude here, giving me some degree of seriousness to the question of how I spend my time that I didn't really have before.) Let me point to two very different recent articles on the topic: Dean Rosenthal, here, on "Approaching Completeness" and a recent dissertation, by Zachary Bernstein (Reconsidering Organicism in Milton Babbitt's Music and Thought (sorry I don't have a more precise reference at hand)) which, among other interesting things, digs into the lists that don't get exhausted in the subject composer's music.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Landmarks (52)

Lloyd Rodgers: Trio (1975).   A piano trio in one movement (audio recording available here) from a remarkable left coast composer who has stayed put on the left coast, neither seeking nor receiving much attention east of the Sierras. On the surface, this is a piece of tonal music with familiar features, 17-some minutes long, taking a grand neapolitan harmonic arch from A minor to a chaccone in Bb natural minor with a finale in a shimmering — yes, arpeggios and tremolos — A major bridged by the initial material, now in in Gb Major, and a Db Major Adagio.  But nothing here is really as it seems, or, more precisely, nothing here happens quite when it should be expected happen but reliably, in hindsight (hindhearing?) exactly when it ought to have happened, as this is music about finding strangeness and beauty in the smallest temporal details.  I've known this piece from a recording for years but only recently saw the score. It looked nothing like what I ever imagined. Through the use of spatial notation within metered measures — some of which looks like nothing other than a Schenker graph —, successions of measures of measured but unequal lengths, and, in the Adagio, non-metric recitative-like passages,  Rodgers has assembled a set of tools which, in effect, revisit the radical potential of rubato and do so in a compelling and pragmatic way.  (Special attention should be given to the solo piano introduction, in spatial-within-measures notation, which begins as if in the middle of things on a first inversion triad (sometime I should post a complaint about how composers have forgotten how powerful inversions can be!  Rodgers never forgot!) and then allows successive harmonies to smear into one another, typically with grace note figurations. The feeling is less of extemporaneity than of a memory slowly coming into focus.)  I have no idea how this ravishing music was actually made, how much method or how much improvisation, no madness, no sensibility, is in here, or what the proportion or balance between the two might be, but I'll claim it as a landmark of the west coast radical music, quite in company with the later works of Robert Erickson or of Rodgers's comrade Douglas Leedy, or his colleagues in the legendary Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra, but also some of the Cold Blue composers.  (I'll take a wild guess that Roy Harris's 1936 Piano Quintet is also in the DNA of Rodgers's Trio; Rodgers knew Harris well.)  The minimal impulse, likely the best known aspect of the radical music, was to eliminate distractions (this was also the earliest definition of minimal visual art) in order to hear more of a sound or sounds in a music; here, Rodgers does exactly the same thing, using the non-distraction of a familiar tonal environment to force attention to musical time.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Hold your breath

Schoenberg, in his Fundamentals of Musical Composition, the small book in which he gets most clearly down to practical issues of form and his own stylistic tradition, identifies the phrase as the "smallest structural unit"  (he calls it "a kind of musical molecule", thus implicitly putting the single tone or note (i.e. the things we count when we count to 12 tones (as one supposedly does when practicing a famous method of composition associated widely with Schoenberg's name)) at a kind of atomic level.)  More interesting, to me, is his defining the structural meaning of the phrase as "a unit approximating to what one could sing in a single breath."  This is very concrete and naturalistic as a definition and immediately gives the phrase, as a unit consuming some amount of time, both a certain range of duration and an implicit shape.  Range: a breath can be short or long, regular or irregular, you can lose your breath, temporarily or altogether. An asthmatic (like Schoenberg himself) might well find his or her music marked by sudden stoppages and shortnesses of breath (see episodes of Schoenberg's String Trio or the rapid patter in parts of Pierrot Lunaire.)  But at the same time, once you begin with breath as part of your premise, there is always the dialectical potential of breathlessness, non-stopping. Stravinsky damned the organ for never breathing, but traditionally, it's been the perpetual motion of the violin that has been associated with the diabolical. And shape:  the phrase has to begin (obviously) and sometimes does so with signals, like pick-ups, and though it be the "smallest structural unit", it usually has an ending too, like a bit of punctuation (typically ,-ish, but also ?-ish, !-sh, or .-ish (I happen to like ;-ish or :-ish, such that the next phrase complements or explains/disambiguates the first) which could be rhythmic, either strong or weak, or pitch, often a falling off, Schoenberg noting the use of smaller intervals and fewer notes (or, as we'd say, a decline in density of activity (i.e. we're out-of-breath.)   All of this, so far, could be useful in any kind of music with tones, but Schoenberg identifies some features that are distinctive to his own tonal-harmonic tradition, specifically that the phrase typically outlines a single harmony or a simple succession of harmonies (it is worth noting that Schoenberg, already in this "smallest structural unit" for a traditional tonal music finds himself using a linear expansion of a vertical sonority (or vice versa), a central premise of his own (much of it, post-common-practice-tonal) music) and that this outline is typically drawn from a small handful of techniques: arpeggiation, adding upbeats, altering rhythmic values, adding passing tones, appoggiaturas and cambiati, adding repetitions of tones, and ornamenting. So far so good. (You may exhale.)

Monday, February 01, 2016

Symphonic Impromptu

An awkward repeat is like a bad second date. A discussion among social media friends recently dove into the repeat of the exposition in the first movement of Brahms's Fourth.  Most performances* are said to skip the repeat and we appeared to go along with the consensus that, as written, the effect was clumsy, even deadening (try it for yourself with a piano transcription) and this omission was less of a sin than the sin of committing a repeated exposition.  Now, the awkward effect here, of jumping without tonal preparation from the Eb Major of the end of the exposition back into the c minor of its beginning, is and was awkward only within the context of the piece's own idiom.  Jumps like it — indeed even tonally more exotic jumps — happened readily in other repertoire (for the stage, in particular) and just a generation or so later would become rather ordinary in much concert music (remember my assertion earlier here than concert music was not, traditionally, the platform for innovation that theatre music was), and the tonal relationship here, of relative Major to minor is not a distant one, but here, within the setting of a work of such classical qualities, associations, and aspirations, it was a jump not taken. Brahms, who managed both smooth and sudden changes of all sorts in his music, but also knew how to balance his propriety with his adventures, certainly knew better, but still he wrote that repeat marking. Did he write it wanting it taken, nevertheless and damn the clutziness? Did he want it taken as an option? Or was that marking just a bit of vistigial notational business, a functionless tail wagging the dog's historical consciousness in this landmark-in-the-making?  (Not being a musicologist by trade or inclination, I can safely admit that I am foggy about an historical issue in notation and performance practice: at some point, the routine of taking repeat signs to mean actually — albeit perhaps with ornament or embellishment — repeating the material between ||:s and :||s, the ||:s and :||s actually became formal markers nodding to the tradition of repeating a structural unit before going on (or, in some cases, ending or even going back even further) and this point was certainly preceded by a long period of treating repeats as options (indeed the optional repeat was an essential tool in making music for dance, particularly social dances in which momentary decisions by hosts, musicians, dance masters or the dancers dancers themselves might requiring going forward, going back, or stopping on a dime (insert the locally and historically appropriate coinage) but at some juncture it simply became okay with everyone to write a repeat sign you didn't really mean to be taken as such and you could be rest assured that everyone would ignore said marking with all the bliss that conscientious ignorance gives us.  Nothing to see here, move along.  But then again: twenty or twenty-five years later, who'd jump at that jump anyway?  Brahms's little bit of unprepared tonal motion went from too awkward to use the repeat to not awkward enough to use it.  And that's a decent example of how tonal motion works (or doesn't) both within a piece of music and without it.

* I have to fess up that this "most performances" business is based on the word I've heard on the street and a quick search through several sources online, It is a traditional factoid or even dictum that I learned in school, but have never actually seen it back up by anything resembling actually statistics.  I'll go along with the notion that it's been true for commericial recordings.  But it could very well be that a majority of performances are taking the damn repeat and the larger musical community hasn't actually registered it, treating these double-dippings into the exposition as private eccentricities in local performances. But, for the moment, let's accept the (apparent) consensus and move on. Preferably from the exposition straight into the development.