I found something I liked yesterday in an interview with Robert Wilson:
He eschews “the lie” of naturalism on stage and sees artificiality as “more honest”. Hence he was a perfect fit with Lady Gaga, herself a master of avant-garde showmanship.
It nudges me to write about something I’ve been intending to ever since the minimalism conference in Helsinki. Composer Matthew Whittall interviewed me onstage prior to the concert of my music. I forget what he had asked, and this bit I rescued from a Finnish Radio broadcast didn’t include the question, but here is about two minutes’ worth of what I found myself saying. (If you don’t want to listen, I summarize what I said below, so you won’t miss anything. I usually feel the same way.)
Now, keep in mind that when I said postminimalism, I meant the term not in whatever vague way people might use it in, but according to the precise definition I’ve developed in my books and scholarly articles, as having to do with the diatonic, steady-pulse music of William Duckworth, Paul A. Epstein, Janice Giteck, Daniel Lentz, Elodie Lauten, Dan Becker, Belinda Reynolds, Mary Ellen Childs, Mary Jane Leach, Wes York, Joseph Koykkar, and others. From now on I’m replacing it with the made-up term “grid-pulse postminimalism,” because postminimalism has come to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, and I can’t report on my scholarly research if I can’t refer specifically to that easily characterized repertoire. My new term is intentionally ungainly because I don’t want other people adopting it and distorting it beyond recognition. Miss that point, and you won’t have as clear an idea what I’m saying.
Matthew had started out asking me about quarter-tones, and I think we were bouncing off of the idea of just intonation being more natural than quarter-tones. Like Robert Wilson, I reflexively balk at the idea of anything we do in music being natural (non-artificial), and so I plunged into my own “naturalism is a lie” shtick. Twentieth century music lurched, in my view, from one simulacrum of nature to another. Twelve-tone music was “natural” because it removed cultural associations from the relationships of the twelve pitches and created the basis for an allegedly organic form, the urpflanze. Then John Cage came along and declared chance more natural. Then Steve Reich made tape loops and phase-shifting look like the real natural phenomena. Then the spectralists analyzed natural wave forms and orchestrated them, so they were the ones really doing nature. Another attempted paradigm shift I left out in Helsinki was John Zorn’s, which was not exactly about nature: he claimed that music would have to be very fast and splintered from now on because kids were being raised on such fast video games that their minds no longer worked the same way.
Each case was an implied mandate, with a necessary paradigm shift in tow. One-upmanship reigned: “You based your music on what you thought was nature, but you didn’t dig deep enough, and my new paradigm goes to the heart of what music naturally is!” And the composition world flocks to these prophets. The underlying assumption is that you can’t simply write what you want to write, or what you find delightful – or you can, but no one need pay attention to you – you have to find the underlying logic, the new mandate on which history pivots. The whole mentality is buttressed by the sick classical-music neurosis that classical music is not a communal activity but a series of Great Men, and we’re always looking for the next savior who will take us deeper, some new Moses we can follow.
Although it’s something of a detour, I can hardly steer this argument around the rather obvious fact that the most acclaimed composer of my own generation, of course, is John Luther Adams, whose music is so closely bound to concepts of nature that it can hardly be discussed without bringing in Alaska, ocean waves, glaciers, northern lights, and so on. [UPDATE: I want to add that this seems like a detour because it’s not that John found a supposedly “natural” way to compose, but that he is depicting, or inspired by, nature, which is a very different thing.] I love John and his music dearly; I don’t think I’ll offend him by saying I don’t consider him a significantly better composer than the late Elodie Lauten, whose music is also very dear to me. They both exude an aura of musical spirituality, though Elodie’s music is far more melodic, subjective, personal, memorable in detail. That two composers so equivalent in talent, hard work, and achievement as John and Elodie, though, could come to such vastly different levels of public recognition strongly suggests how much the new-music world privileges that impression of new nature-related paradigms.
Of course, it’s all fiction. My students never find anything natural-sounding about Webern. Cage’s chance works, some of which I consider wonderful, do not really replicate anyone’s experience of a walk in the woods. What I notice most in spectral music is moments of Debussy, when the harmonic series chords (dominant ninths) come in. John’s use of the C-major scale to symbolize snow is clever and heart-warming, but the music wouldn’t have sounded different transposed up a half-step. They’re different ways to draw sound into metaphors for nature, for some objective process in the world, and they’re as good a starting point as any other musical device. But they aren’t inherently any better. Like any other point of musical inspiration, they can only be judged by the results.
One thing I liked about grid-pulse postminimalism in the 1980s is that it jumped off that train and quit trying to out-natural everyone else. It embraced its artificiality. There were no Great Men in the movement, no justifying teleology, no paradigmatic models (like Drumming, Structures, Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant), nothing relevant but what you could hear. Patterns like phase-shifting had been doggedly naturalistic in minimalism; the grid-pulse postminimalists appropriated them as decorative structures to be playfully arranged and discontinued where one wanted. There was no pretense of some objective force that had been harnessed, and to which we must all bow.
And I think that’s why grid-pulse postminimalism, despite the large number of composers involved in it for a couple of decades, despite the beauty and audience-friendliness of the music, never gained a true foothold in the new-music world. It forfeited any claim to objectivity. No one was threatened by it. As I wrote in my book American Music in the Twentieth Century (1996) – Chapter 12 of which, titled “Postminimalism,” was entirely devoted to this important movement – “If Copland, Harris, Barber, and their ilk represented a first wave of American diatonic consonance, postminimalism is the second.” And yet today when I mention postminimalism in this blog, most people take the impression that I mean an entirely different body of music. After a quarter-century of being an expert on grid-pulse postminimalism, and writing about it frequently on this blog since 2003, it seems that even most of the people who read me have no idea what I’m referring to. One of the most fertile and artistically successful movements in Downtown music has vanished down the memory hole (except that Paul Epstein has a new recording on Irritable Hedgehog, which is a nice development).
Many of my readers will have a suave rationale for why I’ve scoped this out all wrong. Some may well write in to say it’s because grid-pulse postminimalism wasn’t any good, but you won’t know about that because those comments will disappear. I’ve thought about this, and written about it from time to time, for almost thirty years. Yet I wouldn’t have brought it up again except for a recent experience I had.
In July and August I wrote a piece for three retuned Disklaviers called Orbital Resonance. Uncharacteristic for me, it’s an entirely abstract piece, with no melodies, no real reference to conventional harmonies, no hooks for the non-musician to hold onto. It sounds granitic and objective, like a piece that just happened. Plus, I had gotten the idea for the rhythmic cycles from the mathematics of planetary orbits, so I had some extramusical source in nature for why I was writing the way I was. As I was writing it, I kept thinking, “Hey, this is the kind of piece that composers will really like, a lot better than they usually like my music.” And sure enough, when I posted it, I got several times as many compliments from composers as I usually get. Composers who had never commented on my music before seemed awed.
I immediately followed Orbital Resonance with another piece for the same medium, Futility Row. Personally, I think Futility Row is a slightly better piece: more subtle overall harmonic structure, better pacing, better development of ideas across the length of the piece. But it wasn’t abstract. There are melodies, and a rhythmic ostinato, and a kind of slightly humorous Western Noir atmosphere. It’s a playful piece, purposely artificial, with no pretense of basis in nature. And I knew composers weren’t going to go for this one. I only got three compliments from composers (and those from people whose taste I particularly trust), though other people have liked it.
Now, I find it entirely significant that I can tell, while composing, that composers will like the piece I’m writing, and when they’re not going to like it, and that it has nothing to do with the quality of the piece. If I were really careerist, I would sit down and write another dozen abstract pieces, pieces that sound more like they just happened than were composed, like Orbital Resonance. It’s a temptation. But I don’t think non-composers automatically prefer those abstract, organic, naturally-occurring-sounding pieces, and I take the long view: I’m trying to reach a widespread audience, not just fellow professionals. This is what I mean when I say, “I don’t write my music for other composers”; what other composers mean when they say it, I have no idea, but everyone says it. Unfortunately, composers run the new-music world, and it’s composers one has to impress to get heard.
What composers value in new music differs from what most people would enjoy in it. They’re looking for a new paradigm, a new Moses, and they don’t want something that’s (as I was told at the ISCM conference in Vienna) “too much written for the audience.” They seem to want something mystifying in its aura of objectivity. As a result they exalt composers like Schoenberg above someone like Poulenc, whose music I’d prefer any day; paradigm-setters such as Stockhausen and Boulez enter history, while those who write more beautiful music, like Maderna and Pousseur, fall by the wayside. In recent years the Times has made the extraordinary gesture of running thinkpieces by composers, and after each one, 90 percent of the comments are people talking about how lousy contemporary classical music is. I hear why they think so; I agree with them most of the time. I think the composing community keeps that rift alive by privileging attributes that are not necessarily virtues. They want to hear the illusion that someone has captured nature in sound. I, like Robert Wilson, am satisfied with the honesty of the artificial.
Dave Seidel says
Yes: art is artifice after all. When I first started getting into pure intervals (i.e., intervals defined as integer ratios), I first thought of these sounds as somehow being more “real” than tempered intervals. But I eventually shifted to the perspective that they represent an idealized abstraction significant more for their relationship to the semi-subjective vagaries of human neurophysiological perception than as signifiers of some sort of Platonic/Pythagorean ur-reality (though that’s still an interesting concept, and one I can’t let go of completely). This is part of what led me to a continuing interest in binaural beating, where the notes you think you hear are never objectively rendered — an artifice of pitch.
Doug Skinner says
My own problem with “naturalism” is that everything that we do is, inescapably, part of nature anyway. All human civilization is part of nature, because it’s on this planet, and all human music is as much a part of it as birdsong. The only music that would be “unnatural” would be something that was physically impossible.
And Happy New Year! Here’s to a delicious 2016.
KG replies: John Luther Adams wrote to tell me the same thing. That means Appalachian Spring is as natural a piece as Gruppen or Music of Changes, and I agree (most people, I suspect, would consider it more so). So give me another terminology to suggest why the algorithmic or objective takes on such a numinous power.
Graham Clark says
“So give me another terminology…” Pseudo-natural?
Susan Scheid says
Now I’m really rushing in where angels would sensibly fear to tread, but, thinking aloud, to my mind, the natural world requires no human intervention to exist, whereas art (including music) is a “made” thing, requiring human intervention to exist. Yes, humans are part of the natural world, but what they make is not.
KG replies: The quote JLA gave me was, when someone asked Jackson Pollock why he didn’t paint from nature, he replied, “I AM nature!” It is incontestable, though, that there were many 20th-c. cases of composers deliberately trying to escape the accretions of European musical culture and do something more “natural” or primitive, something not suggested by, or building on, previous music. If I could spare the time I could come up with abundant quotations. Whether that attempt leads one into philosophical self-contradiction is beyond my payscale and beside my point. I’m talking about what people did in response to what they perceived. If they were deluding themselves (which in a way I’m implying they were) because what they perceived was metaphysically impossible, that doesn’t change the picture. Someone else might prefer a different vocabulary than I’ve used, but that wouldn’t change the facts either.
Susan Scheid says
“many 20th-c. cases of composers deliberately trying to escape the accretions of European musical culture and do something more “natural” or primitive, something not suggested by, or building on, previous music.” Yes, I now see better the context. I suppose, for me, Schoenberg’s trajectory, as one example, is so “unnatural” to my ears that it never would have occurred to me to think he or anyone might perceive his effort as anything but artifice, though yes, certainly, one which was intended to break completely with what had come before. (This also strikes me as quite analogous to the trajectory of poetry in about the same period. A poem by William Carlos Williams exemplifies this in its title alone: “The Rose is Obsolete.”)
KG replies: Actually, early 12-tone music had this whole ideology about the urpflanze, the primeval plant, based on some German knowledge about who every part of the plant was derived from the same material, which 12-tone technique was supposed to be an analogy for. Goethe was involved, somehow. Every bit of the music was derived from the same DNA, so to speak, which made it more natural than tonal chord progressions. It does seem counterintuitive.
Susan Scheid says
I hadn’t thought about the effort of the composers you name as one to recover what music “naturally” is, and, speaking as someone who is not conversant and who therefore should probably learn to keep her mouth shut, such a project strikes me as a fool’s errand. To me, the wonder of music, as with poetry and art, lies precisely in its artifice.
This may be a total aside, but the issue of finding what music “naturally” is reminds me of a recent conversation I’ve been part of while listening to selected works inspired by art, particularly Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis der Maler. It quickly became apparent that Hindemith was by no means trying to mimic Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece in music, but rather was inspired by and responding in music to a complex web of ideas about the relationship between the artist and society. In the course of the discussion, Curt wrote: “I came to realize only since GCAS how much I love the stubborn abstractness of most music—how it so often insists on its non-referential (but emotion-inducing) “purity” even while it engages the visual or dramatic imagination. But this month I’m led to say I love the INEFFICIENCY of translating from one medium to another, or to put it another way, whatever inspires the composer is good by me, and it’s not always important for me to follow him/her to the source.” Here’s a link to the discussion, if of interest: https://plus.google.com/u/0/115705044638392910259/posts/YK3x4e4iSjv
Another thing I’ve been thinking about, perhaps more pertinent to your post, is how little crossover there is between listener “year-end” picks and those chosen by critics. Now, I recognize that the two lists below are different—in the first instance, Ross’s is restricted to 2014-15 releases. At the same time, any of those releases could have been included in the Q2 list (and indeed two of them were). What I came to realize, in sampling Ross’s list, is that by and large he probably wasn’t choosing “best” for the year, but rather attempting to do a bit of trend-spotting (see his second paragraph here: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/notable-performances-recordings-2015), perhaps analogous to your comment about composers “looking for a new paradigm.”
There are, of course, strong differences of view among people I respect on this issue, but, for myself, I don’t prize innovation above all. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun, as Emerson so beautifully discussed in Quotation and Originality.
Instead, I hope for works that evince a composer’s authentic voice—not “making it new,” but rather “making it his/her own”—and to which I, as a listener, am able, with my own listening attributes and deficiencies, to connect.
Q2 2015 Countdown Top 10
10. Meredith Monk – Songs of Ascension (2011)
9. Georg Friedrich Haas – In Vain (2000)
8. Thomas Ades – Asyla (1999)
7. John Adams – Dharma at Big Sur (2006)
6. Donnacha Dennehy – Gra agus Bas (2011)
5. David Lang – little match girl passion (2008)
4. Anna Thorvaldsdottir – In the Light of Air (2014)
3. Andrew Norman – Play (2013)
2. John Luther Adams – Become Ocean (2014)
1. Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Voices (2012)
Alex Ross 2015 Notables List
1. Anna Thorvaldsdottir, “In the Light of Air”
2. Scott Worthington, “Prism”
3. Andrew Norman, “Play,” “Try”
4. Ted Hearne, “The Source”
5. Mario Diaz de León, “The Soul Is the Arena”
6. “Solitude”: Works of Rebecca Saunders, Mauro Lanza, James Dillon, Liza Lim, Thierry Blondeau
7. Helena Tulve, “Arboles Lloran por Lluvia,” “Extinction des Choses Vues,” etc
8. John Luther Adams, “The Wind in High Places,” “Canticles of the Sky,” “Dream of the Canyon Wren”
9. Michael Pisaro, “A Mist Is a Collection of Points”
10. Paula Matthusen, “Pieces for People”
Doug Skinner says
Well, some linguists use the term “deity mode of speech” for language that supposes objectivity (as opposed to something like e-prime, which compels subjectivity by eliminating the verb “to be”). “Deity music” might seem like an appealing term who people who like the objective approach, and an appropriately derisive one to people who don’t. But I’ll bet you can come up with something better.
Mather Pfeiffenberer says
What about the claim by many (e.g., Leonard Bernstein, “The Unanswered Question”) that tonality is the most “natural” type of music? Also metaphysically impossible?
KG replies: Hell if I know.
Michael Robinson says
“To transmit the spirit there must be form. When the form, the mind, and the hand are in total accord, each forgetting the other’s separate existence, then the spirit will reside in your work.” – Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang (1555-1636) writing about brush painting
Graham Clark says
If postminimalism (or grid-pulse postminimalism; can we call is GPPM?) is analogous to social realism (or whatever we should call Copland, Harris, Barber, etc.), then maybe GPPM should have had a Great Man – or a Great Woman, of course. Social realism certainly did. The fact that I don’t have to specify his name now and wouldn’t have had to then proves it. And he’s the only reason why non-specialists still remember that movement (okay, he and one hit by Barber).
Or maybe GPPM did have one Great Person, or a few Great People, but nobody wants to single them out (Duckworth?).
KG replies: The only parallel I’d draw between socialist realism (or neoromanticism) and GPPM is consonance. Philosophically and emotively, they’re miles apart. I’m on the verge of posting my main scholarly article on GPPM, and I have a whole section on how I think the movement relates to everything else philosophically.
And speculatively, as you imply, it seems to me that if you have to ask who the Great Man is, there isn’t one. There are people like Stockhausen and Zorn and Glass who just get famous, sometimes famous mainly for being famous, and no one quite knows why – except that they fit their slot in the meta-narrative so well. But that’s off the top of my head.
Graham Clark says
I greatly look forward to reading that article!
“…if you have to ask who the Great Man is, there isn’t one.” Good point. And you bring to mind another interesting phenomenon: The Great Man in his own time who later falls off the radar. Meyerbeer is one example. I have a feeling that Stockhausen and Glass could end up being two more (and Zorn, except it’s not clear to me that he ever quite acquired Great Man status in the first place).
Maybe. Sounds like you’re dead on target to me, though. This “history demands [fill in the blank]” stuff all comes out of Hegel by way of a perversion of Darwin, so we can date that fad for historical teleology + the alleged arrow of progress to the Victorian era (when progress turned into a secular religion courtesy of guys like Isambard Kingdom Brunel)…specifically to the period between 1839 and 1859.
1837, because that’s when Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus’ Historische Entwicklung der spekulativen Philosophie von Kant bis Hegel first appeared in print, and that book nailed down Hegel’s dialectic in its modern form: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. And 1859 because that’s when Darwin’s Origin of Species first appeared, allowing people who didn’t read it closely to slap an arrow of progress onto history by way of bad analogies involving substituting cultural memes for genes.
Isn’t it peculiar that we’re still limping along in the early 21st century regurgitating warmed-over nostrums from the mid-19th century? And isn’t it bizarre that the so-called ultramodern avant garde of so-called “modern” music basically just vomited back cruder and less refined versions of Hegelian historical teleology garnished with some pseudoscientific word-salad like “formant octaves” and “aleatorism” and “tone rows”?
Arguably what Norman Cazden calls “nature theories of music” date back to the counter-Enlightenment first espoused by Giambattista Vico and Joseph de Maistre that followed Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in the 1790s. Contra Richard Taruskin, the French Revolution represented a much bigger shock to Western sensibilities and philosophical traditions than the detonation of the two A-bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In the 1790s you got rationalism and the rights of Man applied for the first time, and the result was a nihilistic bloodbath that degenerated into crazy self-cannibalizing ideologies and fanatical totalitarian attempts at thought control. The Terror of July 1794 looks in retrospect like nothing so much as dress rehearsal for Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and Hitler’s Final Solution. This was not what philosophes and aesthetes expected from a practical application of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality (1755) and The Social Contract (1762) and Thomas Paine’s The Rights Of Man (1792).
The effort to repair the rupture post-1794 caused by carrying Enlightenment rationalism to its logical conclusion (and getting a Great Terror instead of a utopia) led to a move away from Enlightenment rationalism and the paradigm of Newton’s Celestial Clockwork as the model for the arts led to a quest for Nature (with a capital N) as the paradigm for the arts.
The problem, of course, as you and many others have noted, is that the arts are artificial. Nobody takes a walk in the countryside and comes across oboes sprouting from oboe trees, or newly-planted violins ripening in the fields. No one walks through a field and hears Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony spontaneously sounded by the rustling of the tree leaves, or walks past a waterfall and hears Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationem emitted by the falling water. The sounds we hear when we venture into a natural environment are mostly various forms of filtered broadband white noise (rockslides, waterfalls, rushing streams, rustling leaves, wind in the willows) and animal cries, which boil down to mostly narrowband tuned noise (lion roars, coyote yips, the scream of a cougar, etc.).
So efforts to substitute Nature with a capital N for the Newtonian clockwork model of the Enlightenment as an artistic paradigm ran into trouble straight off. In order to convincingly portray any musical scheme as “Natural,” lots of rhetorical three card monte had to get played to bamboozle people into believing that music arises from nature, rather than from human culture. This required oodles of pseudoscience, a task Rameau was eager to take on. The Basse Fondementale scheme purported to explain why Western music was allegedly based on the 4:5:6 major chord, but required readers to forget that Greek music did not use triads and was not based on triads and had no interest in triads, that Roman and Gregorian chant that percolated into Roman music-making from the Eastern part of the Roman empire in Byzantium after 450 A.D. was not based on triads and did not use triads, and that gothic composers from around 1100 A.D. to 1500 A.D. preferred dyads made of fourths and fifths and octaves to major or minor thirds, which were regarded as strong dissonances to be avoided. So in order to buy into Rameau’s belief system, you had to deliberately consign circa 2000 years of Western music to the memory hole. You had to pretend that Western music only started around 1500 A.D., instead of around 500 B.C.
Rameau’s scheme also blew apart when you applied it to the minor triad, since the 10:12:15 triad is obviously just an 8:10:12:15 just major seventh tetrad with the root note missing. Which leads Rameau (and us) to conclude that the real root of the minor chord A-C-E is F. Of course no musician hears it that way, but Rameau never let real musicianship get in the way of his pseudoscience. Little contretemps like this get swept under the rug in the typical current music theory course and lots of handwaving involving buzzwords like “pure perfect natural tones” and “the harmonic series” get offgassed to create plenty of smoke and mirrors to bamboozle gullible students.
This tension twixt actual verifiable peer-reviewed science and the numerology that got passed of as scientistic in the hands of the post-Rameau music theorists kept trying to heal the breach caused by the French Revolution, but never succeeded. The rupture twixt nature and rationalism only got wider as the 19th century rolled around, and then the 20th century’s Great War hit. Contra Taruskin, the French Revolution + W W I produced much greater dislocations in the Euro-America musical psyche than the Holocaust and nuclear bombings of WW II. Atonal serialism was independently invented by Josef Matthias Hauer as well as the Viennese Kook (author of Harmonielehre), so it was clearly something in the air.
And while a perusal of the scribblings of guys like the Darmstadt Kook (author of “How Time Passes…”) and the Princeton Kook (inventor of the time-point system) and the Parisian Kook (founder of IRCAM, the Institute for Really Crappy Automated Music) sound today like the crayola-scrawled manifestos of ultracrepidarian mythomanes, it’s important to realize that much of Rameau’s and Burney’s pronouncements boil down to the same kind of neo-Platonic number mysticism twaddle. For a great debunking of this kind of “nature” theory of music, see Norman Cazden’s “Hindemith and Nature,” The Music Review, 1954, volume XV.
Much more significant than debunking this kind of fake scientism in music is understanding why so many Western composers have felt compelled to engage in it. Movements like Wagnerian chromatic harmony or atonal serialism or aleatoric composition seem weird unless you place ’em in historical context. The tremendous cultural shock of the French Terror of 1794 and of WW I and then WW II smashed widely-held Western assumptions about human nature, the end results of Enlightenment rationality applied to human affairs, the alleged ramp of Progress which the Victorians thought Western culture ascended, and the purported unimportance of irrational anti-modern impulses originally championed by philosophers like Giambattista Vico.
Oddly enough, science itself played a big role in discrediting Enlightenment rationalism and the Victorian myth of progress. If humans are a tiny little blob of frontal lobe perched on a giant mountain of lizard brain, shocks like the Grand Terror or Stalin’s purges become a lot more understandable. If music gets determined as much by culture as by acoustical physics, then wacky schemes like atonal serialism become at least comprehensible (though still not credible). In the 1910s and 1920s when behaviorism ruled psychology, you can see how musicians could make the argument that with enough Pavlovian conditioning, audiences should learn to enjoy atonal serial or aleatoric chance music just as much as they enjoyed Palestrina or Handel.
Before long, behaviorism fell apart as a credible explanation for human psychology. And the progress of science unfortunately blew apart the claims of the various serial and aleatoric composers. Papers like ”
Tone and Voice: A Derivation of the Rules of Voice-leading from Perceptual Principles,” David Huron, Music Perception, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2001) pp. 1-64, show that polyphonic musical instruments using sustained near-harmonic-series tones tend to converge on the Western rules of voice-leading. These rules of voice-leading trace back to the basic properties of the human cognitive-perceptual system. Other non-Western cultures don’t use Western rules of voice-leading either because they don’t use polyphonic near-harmonic-series sustained timbres (China and India didn’t build pipe organs), or because other cultures use inharmonic timbres (Balinese gamelans, the stamping tubes of the Are-Are people of the Colomon Islands, the xylophones of the Kwaiker Indians of Guatmala all produce percussive inharmonic tones).
As Leonard B. Meyer pointed out in “A Universe of Universals,” The Journal of Musicology,
Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), pp. 3-25, all forms of music produced everywhere on the planet nonetheless adhere to a large number of cognitive-perceptual constraints. Because humans have a very limited short-term memory, all comprehensible large musical structures get built up from accretions of much smaller musical structures repeated many times (music exists that doesn’t do it, viz., the various Darmstadt and Princeton and IRCAM excretions of the 1950s, but it fails to sound structured to listeners. The typical listener hears it as “random stuff happening,” it sounds like herky-jerky chaotic spatters of pitches interspersed with raucous blasts of loud clusters, and there is no discernible rhythmic pulse or perceptible audible organization. Random stuff seems to happen, then the music just ends), the gestalt principles of perception explain most melodic procedures like melodic sequences etc., the limit of about two seconds for the perceptual present explains the length of most musical phrases worldwide, and the extremely poor human granularity of time perception as opposed to pitch perception (our best pitch perception around 1000 Hz is about 0.02% accurate, while our best time perception at an ioi of about 5 events per second still can’t reliably distinguish twixt the termporal pattern 1 1 2 and the temporal pattern 0.4 0.4 0.6) explains why rhythmic schemes are generally much less complex than pitch schemes in Western music. Add in Miller’s limit of 7 pitches plus or minus 2, and you wind up with a general set of rules of thumb that tend to explain the constraints on most musical practice for the last 2500 years worldwide. Viz., music in Bali may not use the same pitches as music in Germany, but both German and Balinese music tends to constrain itself to 7 or fewer modal pitches. Thai music may not sound superfiicially similar to Chinese music, but both Thai and Chinese music build up larger musical structures from smaller gestures repeated many times, and the length of the smaller gestures is generally constrained to the length of the perceptual present, 2 seconds or less. Japanese gagaku music does not sound like Bach, but both types of music tend to use the same limited range of rhythms and the same limited number of modal pitches along with an underlying rhythmic pulse that provides a grid for measuring larger units of time. And so on.
But this is an entirely different use and meaning of “nature” than the neo-Platonic number mysticism proffered at Darmstadt or Princeton in the 1950s. Nature in the early 21st century means “constraints on systems if you want to retain apparent perceptual organization.” And there may be good reasons for not retaining apparent perceptual organization. Berg’s Lulu really works because it depicts a process of personal and social disintegration, with the heroine winding up getting slaughtered by Jack the Ripper. In that case, using bizarre “unnatural” methods of musical organization like atonal serialism does the job beautifully, because it creates a perceptual impression of incoherent unpleasant clangor and arhythmic chaos that mirrors what’s going on onstage.
Large-scale perceptual organization can also be created by composers who nonetheless throw away stuff like an underlying rhythmic pulse and a pitch scale. That’s why composers like Phill Niblock and Iannis Xenakis and the early Penderecki and Ligeti produced such successful musical works — as long as you use gestalt principles of perception and some of the more basic rules of thumb of creating musical structure like building up large musical structures from smaller ones often repeated, you can get away with ditching components of Western music like a musical scale or hierarchical rhythmic structure. Niblocks’ hilarious motto “No rhythm, no harmony, no bullshit” really does explain why a composer can jettison much of Western music’s alleged basic musical requirements (like triadic chord progressions or binary rhythmic hierarchy of whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes) and still produce powerful vividly memorable music with strongly perceptual organization.
The historical pendulum swings twixt anti-rational and rational musical organization have been going on for a long time. Perotinus and Longinus structured their music according to prolation series that don’t have much to do with nature — but the music sounds great. The composers of the Ars Subtilis period of the late 14th century played amazing rhythmic games with sound not heard until Charles Ives worked his way back up to that level of rhythmic complexity in Western music in the 1880s — but it sound fabulous. Computer composers represent another counterpart of the grid-pulse postminimalists, with a cornucopia of wholly artificial methods of musical organization. The best of those computer composers, like the best of the grid-pulse postminimalists, produced tremendously successful music because they either consciously (Jean-Claude Risset, John Chowning, James Dashow, Paul Lansky) or intuitively (Gavin Bryars, William Duckworth, Pauline Oliveros, Julia Wolfe, Janice Giteck, Elodie Lauten) kept their music within the cognitive-perceptual constraint boundaries dictated by the human brain and the human nervous system.
So when you say “Now, I find it entirely significant that I can tell, while composing, that composers will like the piece I’m writing, and when they’re not going to like it, and that it has nothing to do with the quality of the piece,” I think you’re really talking about academic composers. There are plenty of other serious contemporary composers out there — we just don’t get much publicity. Lots of composers I pal around with love pieces like your Futility Row or Bud Ran Back Out. They’re just not the people you’re talking about in your essay when you say “composers.”
Likewise, when you mention “What composers value in new music differs from what most people would enjoy in it. They’re looking for a new paradigm, a new Moses, and they don’t want something that’s (as I was told at the ISCM conference in Vienna) `too much written for the audience.,'” you’re talking about an extremely definition ofthe word “composer.” Bill Wesley is a composer, and he thinks your audience-friendly stuff is dynamite. Warren Burt is a composer, and he thinks your pieces with perceptible melodies and functional harmonies are the bees’ knees.
So maybe if you replace the term “composers” in your essay with the phrase “a certain microscopic minority of academic composers committed to a late-19th-century-derived Hegelian historical teleology as their musical ideology,” that would cover the case a little better.
Pathologies and dysfunctions like the kind of high modernist compositional ideology you’re talking about in this essay I think result from the tectonic social upheavals of shocks like WW I and WW II and Mao’s Great Leap Forward. But as Stephen Pinker points out in his Edge article “A History of Violence,” we’re actually living in the most peaceful era of human history. And events look like they’re headed toward less violence, not more — media sensationalism notwithstanding. Genocides and large-scale wars have become much less frequent as the twenthieth century waned and the 21st century dawned. And for technological reasons explained by military historian Martin van Creveld in his book “The Transformation of War,” both the destructiveness and the cost of conventional weaponry have exponentiated so fast that at this point in the early 21st century, catastrophes like WW I or WW II or Mao’s or Stalin’s genocides are now obsolete. They just don’t make sense anymore. Back in the early 20th century, infrastructure was crude and raw materials + slave labor were the most valuable things you could get when you invaded another country. Today, intrastructrure + human brainpower accounts for much of the value of a society, and you destroy those when you invade another country with today’s tremendously lethal JDAMs and clusterbombs and depleted-uranium artillery. The big prize when Hitler invaded Russia in 1942 was the oilfields at Kursk. Today, the big prize in another country is something like Silicon Valley CA or Shenzen China, and you can’t “capture” those kinds of resources, because they’re made out of infrastructure + brainpower, and the people will flee if you invade.
I’m guessing that the kinds of academic high modernist composers you’re talking about are dying off. Like the scientists who opposed quantum theory, they can’ t be converted to the new worldview, so they’ll just kick the bucket and progress will roll on that way.
It’s frustrating to have to live in a world that’s mostly stuck in the past, musically speaking, but as William Gibson noted, the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed. That applies to music as well as tech.
Graham Clark says
Doug Skinner says
One other point about theatrical naturalism that i hope is useful: theater has always required stylization just for the actors to be seen and heard. Actors needed masks or garish makeup, broader gestures, brighter costumes, louder speech. The artifice of an audience seated around a stage required further artifice, for purely practical reasons. Artifice is often simply more efficient.