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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   May 24, 2008   next

There was no commentary yesterday. That's because what I was going to write was tripped up by reason. My friend and composer colleague Noah Creshevsky often rejects repetition and motivic development. To re-interpret his ideas from my point of view: Because we live in an era of recordings where repetition is its natural state, so to speak, the purpose of classical repetition of exposition and development and recapitulation -- whether or not it may have offered a crucial compositional balance (or even dance emulation) for its own time -- is obviated. The composer no longer has to tell us "Here is the material. Got it? Here it comes again. Got it yet?" because we can do that at the push of a [|<<] or a slide of the wheel. We can also do mashups, actually making classical development -- dare I say this? -- boring.

Recording

I have long held that recording affected the composition of nonpop more than any other development of the last century. To reiterate:

  1. Investment. Before recording, a concert was a one-time event to hear performers and the music they played. Upon the invention and dissemination of recordings, this concert experience not only moved into the average person's home but also became a financial and psychological investment. That investment process can be simplified to:
    • I heard that I would like it.
    • I paid for it, so I have faith that I will like it.
    • I paid for it, so I must get to like it.
    • I do like it now.
    • I will buy another similar to it because I like it.
    And with radio, the mix is simplified further:
    • I heard it and I like it.
    • I paid for it to hear it again when I want to.
    • I like it more now.
    • I will buy another similar to it because I like it.
    This is not much different from other products, of course, with one exception: Artists move forward with their ideas significantly faster than any given psychological investment cycle can run through and terminate.
  2. Technical Limits. The technical limitations of recordings affected content. Three-minute recordings could not contain 10-minute compositions. Popular music -- music that had many repetitive verses in the 19th century -- could shrink without loss of content. It was convenient and economical. The development-oriented nonpop realm could not shrink (and 10 records to hold the Beethoven Missa Solemnis were not convenient), allowing the pop realm to grow quickly (along with pseudo-sophistication as the folk music recordings of the pre-electrical era rapidly fell away). By the 1950s, the 78 became the 45 and the 'album' of 78s became the single-disc 'album' of the LP. The 'album' mentality was embedded by the arrival of the CD, and the short song of limited events remained -- despite even the potentially enormous length possible on a portable music player.
  3. Repetition. Individual pieces could be embedded wholesale in the mind, a kind of commoditization. There is no greater evidence for the long-term effects of this repetition than programs like American Idol, where contestants mimic even the subtle inflections of recorded artists in excruciating detail. It requires a short, imprintable, surface-evident, 'meme-able' song to do this.
  4. Hooks. Similar to repetition and similar to the leitmotif, hooks arrived as a kind of musico-ontological reductionism. In other words, music is reducible to a song (Mahler's massive Ninth Symphony is just a "song" in iPod-land), a song is reducible within itself (Mack the Knife, a single repeated set of phrases), and reduced song is further reducible to its hook ("...stayin' alive, stayin' alive..."). Got hook?
  5. Mass Determination. Elitism rules in nonpop today, and did before, despite the popularity of (say) a Mozart comic opera. Mass marketing and purchasing and sales charts are integral to recordings. Present-day commentators can go all populist, but popularity and commerce do not (and cannot) measure the integrity and imagination of art. They can only hector from the periphery that capitalism is the human end-game, so live with it, and there ain't no more angels in patronage clothing. Well, my friends, that Liszt made women swoon is not the same as Justin Timberlake doing it. The argument is for the ages, but I come down on the side of artists being leaders in their realm, and nonpop composers representing the Research & Development arm of music. Take it or leave it, but the mass marketing of nonpop is, with rare exceptions (and usually extramusical ones) impossible, desperate though the present generation of composers is to be one with the people.

There was no way that nonpop could have responded to the oncoming forces of mass production. Recordings created a different model of listening and participation from live music with its exploration and experiment -- and in nonpop I also include a wide swath of jazz where composition in real time did not fit into the three-minute repetition/hook mode.

The consequences for nonpop (new readers of my blog will want to take this link) have been dramatic: the falling away of public interest in contemporary concert music and with it the perceived significance of it, the loss from nonpop of two complete generations of music teachers in the public system, and the integration of pop (and other recorded, e.g., world music) concepts and techniques into nonpop itself. The most evident has been a kind of simplistic minimalism that undergirds a substantial quantity (a term I do not use advisedly) of new composition. Minimalist techniques, much like the Alberti bass, can be employed easily if not cheaply, with concentration (if there is any) on the figure above the ground. It fills time without agony.

(Aside: My giant Mantra Canon was written and orchestrated for chorus, descant soprano, orchestra, six percussionists and two pianos in seventeen days in 1986. Although it is a fine and even great piece, the application of minimalist/pulsing/repetition devices stitched it together very effectively. I am not saying that minimalism itself is cheap or easy; if you believe that, please read the New York Review of Books article "The Truth Force at the Met".)

No, I haven't gotten to the point yet, have I?

EA Differences

Composer Kevin Austin has often said that any music (or composition, or sound art, or...) emanating from a loudspeaker is electroacoustic. This is a semantic convenience. It removes the responsibility of considering the medium's unique qualities for expressive action (while keeping the door open for expressive inter-action, a topic for another day).

Since my first experiments in electroacoustic (EA) music in 1969, I rarely approached my EA pieces as I had my acoustic pieces, but never articulated why they did not develop similarly. First were the obvious qualities of motion in space, artificial instruments, transformed sounds, and electronic modifications -- the very qualities that brought EA forward in the late 1940s. The digital era brought along with it precise replicability and composition driven by formulas or algorithms. (And I apologize for summing up a half-century of musical history in one paragraph.)

What was similar, however -- and soundly rejected by Austin and other EA practitioners -- was their expectation of human performance. Though EA practice introduced techniques and tools, it did not fundamentally disturb the modern relationship between composer and listener -- that is, composer ➔ loudspeaker ➔ listener -- that had already been created over fifty-plus years. (As the interactive aspect of EA is still at the karaoke stage and the palette of choices offered by the composer is Disneyesque at best, it's wise to leave interactivity out for now.)

Inevitably (not least because of the human characteristic of EA), writing for EA crossed over into my own acoustic composition -- at least those pieces without traditional shapes or communicative approaches -- making my creations obscure, internalized, layered, and for a lay public often inscrutable. At the same time I developed an intolerance of Schubert and Dvorak with their bloody endless recurring material. (I was literally red-faced last month during a performance of the loathsome Schubert String Quintet D.956, which I couldn't leave because I was the recording engineer. An hour. All the miserable repeats.)

Here is the crunch. There are two sides of this in the reality of acoustic music. One is the audience and performers, both of whom grasp the music better with hooks -- not the thematic hooks mentioned earlier, but rather hooks into music's operation, like a computer's API (application programming interface ... think Legos). In the pre-recording days, hooks were created through exploiting everyday songs and forms coupled with simple restatement and clever development; in our times, a piece is only going to be played once anyway so, in a way, we might as well still be in pre-recording days. It has to make its case quickly and economically and still be ready to stand the test of time.

Messy, Isn't It?

I have almost intuitively created more subtle hooks and made much of my restatement vertical -- recontextualizing the material, if you will, rather than developing it (you can hear that in I lift my heavy heart, a WAAM piece sung by Beth Griffith where a four-pitch motif recurs in different contexts and gives the music internal integrity yet is almost inaudible if you don't notice immediately that it is present and recurring.

Let me go back to Creshevsky, who recontextualizes the samples he uses to build his music, samples which to me have a different function from acoustic instruments -- each sample is itself a leitmotif. There is the repetition, but because of the acculturation of listening, we don't hear it that way after the first minute or so (that first minute is adapting to those sounds as motivic material). If you don't know Creshevsky's compositions, be sure to buy To Know and Not to Know or at least listen to the excerpts.

The other sides of repetition and development are the why and how of moving sound through time. What is the coherence? For text whose meaning is important to the composer it becomes much easier because the syntactic formatting has already been done -- at its basest level, the sound either agrees with or disputes the words. And on from there. Abstract music is more complicated. The listener is going to draw references from musical culture, so what is that listener to make of a certain arrangement of sounds in time? Is that arrangement not clarified by the re-presentation in a different context within the piece? If the piece attempts to create its own context, how is the context reinforced or even exposed? There's no context without context. Does repetition create context? (Answer at the end of this commentary.)

The composer (at least the one who does not destroy the work immediately upon completion) is never writing material that lives in isolation, so one is in a constant state of acceptance and rejection and the spectrum in between, and in a constant state of creating context.

As a reasonably astute listener, when I hear Palestrina inside Creshevsky, it influences my hearing; when another hears punk rock inside Creshevsky, the same thing happens. In both cases, a set of expectations is set up which says "I the composer do not need to give you more here because you know this already." It exploits the existing realm of repetition and development, the too-much-music that is everywhere. Because I cannot abide Schubert does not mean that Schubert is not an influence on my own likely listeners and so I will use that culture-stream every time some Schubert-like moment comes along. The composer cannot anticipate but a fraction of those expectations, yet there's no ignoring them, is there?

That is the crisis of choice during composing, the stuff we did not learn properly from Cage. Otherwise the music crashes into endless ambiguity (and I suppose we have grown past the dadaist thinking).

Now I have just turned the corner in a house of mirrors again.

Back to Creshevsky's aversion to motivic development and repetition: It seems that lack of development and repetition can only exist in a recording-centric society to function. But talking to Noah, I realize my na´ve conclusions.

He writes:

I certainly understand and agree with all of your observations about repetitions and motives as they relate to once-heard and more-than-once heard music. It is more that -- the number of projected hearings -- than it is the medium (electronic vs. acoustic). When I compose concert music (Once, Psalmus, etc.) I factor those differences into the composition.

I composed Try. It was my first (and best) 60 x 60 composition. I found myself saying this to everyone: "I have a 60-second piece that I would like to you to hear, but I would like to play it for you twice."

That got my attention, and I came to understand the rationale behind it. On subsequent occasions, I composed 60-second pieces that made room for at least one thematic recapitulation of material within the piece, thus playing the music twice without having to replay the track.

A general principle I both taught and use is to make music that is alluring enough to induce listeners to want to hear it again. We've all sat through pieces that we would not care to hear again. Since my aim is always dissemination through electronic media (even when the piece is commissioned for a live setting), I count on the clarification that can only be acquired through repeated hearings. Even someone with, say, Stravinsky's ear cannot bring to a single informed listening the experience that is had by an average listener who has heard the same piece more than once. There is no overcoming the power of repeated hearings, although the issue can be successfully addressed by creating repetitions within works that must be understood and valued the first time round. There would be no Broadway without this understanding.

How to test these ideas? Here is the answer to the context question above: This afternoon while cutting the lawn, I developed the notion of creating a repeat-free version of a Mozart symphony -- cutting every repeat, every sequence, every thematic re-do in development. That would leave only the statement of themes and the fleshy material in between, and a coda for balance. Then it occurred to me that the ideal candidate would be the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which is almost entirely made up of the same motif in repetition.

Perhaps another time I will make that edit -- or perhaps an enterprising reader of these commentaries will find it a challenge to do.

* * *

Kitchen floor
Sitting on blocks for 15 months has been a piece of Brazilian granite for an island in the kitchen. We had wanted to have that granite for a long time, and the price was finally in reach. And, at last, the cutting has begun on the floor itself. Imagine cherry in that square with a pine island above and a green granite top. We can!

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