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Aesthetics

FORM & AMBIVALENCE: STUDIES

Written by: Alex Ferris

The most obvious drawback of working in the way I currently do is the limitation of form. The pieces I make are single elements. I think of them as fragments, studies rather than compositions.

I have so far shied away from combining these elements into compositions (more exactly collages). There are several reasons for this. The simplest is that I don’t have the equipment or knowledge to cut and paste parts together on a computer. Another is that I’m more involved in studying the sounds of the instruments individually and collectively at this point than I am in disposing them, I’m more interested in making new studies and investigating possibilities of sound than grouping them together into large architectural pieces. In addition to this I hesitate to embrace a method that further undermines the sense of liveness –for me, music has a tendency to become sterile when the subject of it becomes more the working out of abstract concepts than the simple playing of instruments.

In my mind groups of pieces combine to form wholes of a sort. Rumor is a single piece to me, as are Bathtub Music, three pieces for single objects, and 4/04, not because they were preconcieved to be single, whole works, but because they represent different aspects of a single continuous thought-process. This is not what I would call an actual composition as it lacks the rigor that word implies to me.

In order to make a true composition out of single elements, the elements would have to be determined (at least to some degree, i.e. tempo and/or pitch) in advance with a sense of their final place and purpose.

So what I have been making is more like a pile of rocks than a stone wall

At some point I expect to become more interested in composition. I would probably be interested in it now if I had the means to achieve it.

The main impetus of form is to represent a passage from one place to another, like a literary essay, or a movie. But one of the attractive aspects of music is that it doesn’t need to do this in order to exist. Western music has been obsessed with this idea of ‘development’ for centuries. Taking this as a given has made a necessity of eventfulness which reached its apogee in the age of serialism when density and rigor overpowered all other considerations.

But . . .

Complex ideas can be expressed simply. (This is one definition of wisdom.)

The error of serialism as enduring music (who, other than students, are ever going to want to listen to Milton Babbit?) was the failure to understand this.

The concept of integration was a necessary step, but the serialist approach did not integrate instinct and the human desire to remove itself from linear time along with everything else. Limiting art to the mechanically definable created a technocracy too elitist to understand that music is ultimately about how listeners (this includes the players and even the ‘composer’) respond to it, how they inhabit it.

The essential difference between composed music and improvised music is its lack of necessary continuity. Working from a score releases music from having to cohere in a moment-to-moment sense (not that this is what scored music always does), allowing it to shift suddenly from one context to another (i.e., the constantly changing bar values of early Stravinski and Bartok which eventually led to 1950s Boulez). This ‘eventfulness’ was typical of the zeitgeist of ‘progress’ and ‘futurism’ and has evolved into the attention deficit video style seen on TV and even in some movies.

The ‘newness’ of this idea seems to have run its course. Now we find ourselves compelled to ask if the idea is as useful as it seemed to be. Does it stimulate us to a broader level of consciousness or does it merely batter us into nervous exhaustion (the resulting symptom of exhilaration, as opposed to its cause)?

As usual, Messiaen is an interesting exception to this sense of rapidity. He employed the same serial tools to create contemplative stasis. His music was composed to envelop rather than stimulate, to provoke meditation rather than activity. His (non-retrogradable) rhythms are intended to make time stop rather than to propel time forward and his concept of harmony-as-timbre is used to float tonality away from definition and into pure sound.

The error of minimalism was to think that simplicity needed simplistic expression. The search for ‘purity’ is as essentially fascistic as the search for eventfulness. Both concepts embrace resolution and singleness (seen from almost opposite points of view) as desirable ends. There seems to have been a confusion between what is basic (essential) and what is simple, as there was a similar confusion on the part of the serialists between what was eventful and what was meaningful.

Complex ideas can be expressed simply.

The use of major triads in much mininmalist music seems to me to defeat the advantage gained by its formal simplicity. The idea of simplifying form and rhythm would seem to allow for the exploration of more complex tonalities and other musical relationships (like Morton Feldman’s music). A lot of minimalist (philip glass above all) music seems more reactionary than anything else.

What is the point?

Is the intent of music (or art generally) to promote comfort? Or discomfort?

Ideally, neither. The life experience of any animal is composed of both and the richness of the experience lies in our responses, i.e., the restlessness that drives us to explore outside of our comfort and the adaptability that allows us to become comfortable with what is initially disturbing to us. Systematic approaches that address one or the other exclusively are valuable in the short run, but ultimately useless in the long one. Activity impels us to meditate as meditation impels us to act. These are facets of a multi-dimensional world rather than opposite sides of a two-dimensional one. Our language (evolved from our prevailing monotheism) has evolved to support simplistic dichotomous (literally "cut in two pieces") arguments rather than multichotomous ones, which makes it verbally cumbersome to express three-and-more-dimensional concepts. The language and rhetoric of post-structuralism (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze/Guatarri, Lacan, etc.) exposes this limitation in one way while the language and rhetoric of american politics exposes it in another. Both are ultimately more confusing than revelatory. It is fairly obvious (even in a discipline as basic as physics) that we need to develop in the direction of the more-complex-less-resolved, that we need to expand our vocabulary/rhetoric to make the apparently-complex more easily expressible (i.e., express apparent vagueness with more specificity). Because a concept sounds complex doesn’t mean it’s difficult to understand. For instance, if we start with the simple dualities of right-left, up-down, and back-forward and combine them (as we do with any physical motion we undertake) we end up with a multiplicity of dimensions (right-up-back, left-up-forward, etc.). To these combinations we can add clockwise-counterclockwise, then-now, attractive-repulsive, discrete-continuous, etc. It’s a bit like eskimos having words for thirty-odd kinds of snow or shades of whiteness.

So, the question I find myself asking myself is ‘what does form really do?’ Does the stimulus it provides provoke greater understanding of the music or does it disguise the limitations of the elements? I don’t believe this is ultimately answerable, or that the point of the question is to come up with an answer for it. What is salient to me is the way form effects the depth of our hearing, our natural understanding of the sounds we are being presented. If its role is analogous to a conjuring trick used to distract us from the fact that we are being exposed to the same ideas as if they were different (which to my ears is the case of both the "classical" and minimalist styles), then it isn’t something I have much interest in. If it provokes a deeper way of hearing the sounds we are actually hearing, then to me it is beneficial. As it stands I haven’t yet reached an intuitive understanding that would lead me beyond the method I am currently using, but I feel I should make clear that this reflects the limitations of my own thought process rather than a condemnation of form itself. Were it eighty tears ago, I might feel compelled to jump up on a table in a Paris café, announce that "Form is Tyranny!" , and publish a manifesto in the next issue of Transition, but that kind of (purely defensive) thinking (entertaining and productive as it surely was then) seems silly in these times.

The point I wish to make is that, even though complex forms are absent in the music I’m making, it isn’t because I condemn them or because I haven’t considered them. They are absent because I am considering the nature of complex form as a whole in the same way that diatonic tonal structures are generally absent in my music because I have spent so much of my musical life thinking about and dealing with them..

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