Monday, 26 February 2018

Let me share with you the 3 improvisations for piano left hand by Frank Bridge.

Some useful musical dates relating to the discussion:

“La Mer” 1905 (first movement "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" / "From dawn to noon on the sea").

Frank Bridge “The Sea” 1911

Three Improvisations for piano left hand 1918

Ravel concerto for the left hand 1929/30

Two definitions:

The first is from Wiki:
Musical improvisation (also known as musical extemporization) is the creative activity of immediate ("in the moment") musical composition….Sometimes …ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes…. One definition is a "performance given extempore without planning or preparation.

The second from the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians:
Impromptu, Impromptu, “in the 19th century and since, is a composition, usually for piano, in an offhand or extemporized style or perhaps intended to suggest the result of sudden inspiration.”

There has been a long tradition of composers being improvisers so it is with some interest that I approached these three works to hear how a meticulous craftsman like Bridge would work his improvisations. The three pieces follow a pattern often heard in the composer’s music, very similar to classical models, an intellectual movement, a slow, lyrical movement and a lively conclusion.

I use the term intellectual with care, all of Bridge’s works are highly crafted and meticulously developed, but the first movements often contain themes that are designed to direct harmony and structure rather than present cantabile melodies which some listeners might expect from his regular use of descriptive titles. This is not to say that the movements are dry or academic, any more than are the first movements of Beethoven sonatas where thematic development is his primary concern.

Improvisers like to use simple harmonic formations like pentatonic scales or modes, and it is with this in mind that I am going to take the last movement “A Revel” first. This movement is of a tocatta style and is easily the most accessible movement of the three. It opens (and closes) with three bars of unambiguous pentatonic music, but quickly moves onto more complex harmonies. There is a lot of repetition of melodic material in chunks, e.g. the opening 7 bars are repeated from bar 15, while the melody in bars 11 and 12 is taken from the pentatonic collection of the opening, but the accompaniment is minor diatonic. The rhythm after the three eighth note opening is dominated by triplet 16th noes until bar 57 where the music reaches its climax (pentatonic), marked brilliante and takes us to the coda. While certain sections are repeated in transposition at a semitone, minor third and fifth this is well within the capability of improvisers, and the introduction of chromatic runs of differing length only adds to the feeling of a good pianist playing with a few fragments of musical material.

Turning our attention to the first movement we have a different story, though at first sight we might make a wrong judgement as “At Dawn” opens with four bars of whole tone scale material. This texture is amorphous, the rhythms make no attempt at forming figures for development, 64th triplet notes require some rubato in performance so that with the arrival of steady semiquavers in bar 6 we might think the music has settled onto its main argument, but this too is preparation for the main melody at bar 11. One can make the argument for main melody based on exposure to his music as Bridge has the tendency to repeat his main melodies in octaves with little or no alteration apart from raised dynamics, as is the case here.

Being able to integrate relatively large chunks of musical material into the music is again well within the range of good improvisers, though the transitions here are very well crafted.

From bar 9 onwards the music is glued together with arpeggio figures flowing from an open fifth, over the long term the harmony is rooted around two fifths E/B and B/F#, which leaves us with the sensation that we are, if not in the key of E, circulating around it. If you examine bars 6 to 8 you will hear that the music is highly chromatic, and even with the pedal notes the music is harmonically restless which gives it the character of more modern music. While the music alternates between different types of harmony the voicing is so well controlled that the listener will hear a continuum and feel cohesion.

Before we leave this movement some mention must be made about the form which is basically very simple but with some interesting characteristics. The introduction falls into two four bar sections, the first dominated by the pentatonic scale, the second 4 bar section confirms through its melodic that we are moving towards E as a tonal point, though the harmony covers 11 of the 12 chromatic notes. Bar 9 takes us to the A section proper, bar 29 repeats the first part of the introduction, A is repeated from bar 33 and 46 takes us to the coda. What is interesting in this journey is that the internal repetitions show the following four chords (represented here as collections) which form the larger part of the music are reversed in their order from bar 36.

0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10

0, 2, 4, 6, 9

0, 2, 4, 7, 9

0, 2, 4, 5, 7

The from bar 36 these formations are reversed but a 0, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 set occurs just before the whole tone collection, and it should be clear that the penultimate harmony is rich in whole tone steps. If such harmonic control results from coincidence it is surprising, if it is the result of improvisation it could be a fortuitous result or it could be meticulous planning.

The middle movement “a vigil” displays several of the characteristics of the outer movements so I shall refrain from dissecting it and give way to my wife’s comment that a song without words should be taken for what it is. While “At Dawn” seems an appropriate title with its side references to “La Mer” first movement, this title, should we ascribe any value to titles, seems misplaced.  I would have liked to have a metronome mark provided by the composer as taken too slowly the lyrical aspect can be lost, and for me the better performances are those with more rather than less movement, to state the obvious fine gradations can make the difference between an acceptable and a great performance.

These days the term improvisation suggests far greater freedoms than Bridge would have ever considered. Our technologies permit us to play and record, replay and modify, alter timings and durations in such a way that a spontaneous product can be refined into an artistic statement, it may be that like Schubert’s impromptus (set 2)  this is Bridge’s working method but applied in to a more complex harmonic language.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Psychological functions of music (and why music can make us angry).

These psychological functions generally fall into three types, intellectual, emotional and physical. There are of course many functions to music, generating income, drawing attention to an event etc. but this blog is concerned with interactions between music and its audience, individually or in groups. The word function has a number of definitions for the moment I will take one which has a bias to our sensibility (sensitivity to sensory stimuli.)

Function: an activity that is natural to or the purpose of a person or thing

On an intuitive basis one would assume that listeners are rarely participants of one type only – trying to force individuals into one group is rarely helpful, as e.g. educationalists discovered when trying to educate people as visual, aural and kinetic learners. A table is offered below of characteristics belonging to each listening type and each reader can pick characteristics which relate to themselves. It was while drawing up the table that two more interesting questions came to mind, what purpose do these psychological functions serve, and where in the listening process do they take place?

On the latter question I determined that one required a three part model that consisted of

Frequency     Process          Response

Frequency was used in place of music as these days a composition can consist of any combinations of sound sources from highly organised to chaotic. Once we have an input the listener must consider the material, sort it, chunk it, store it, compare it…all in real time, like a surfer adjusting all the time to the whims of the sea. There are some who would prefer the terms thinking, sensing, evaluating and perhaps include the use of intuition too, but it all comes down to process in the end. Response is our evaluation of the experience and will take the form of acceptance or rejection (or various degrees between the two). Response also brings into play bias, an issue which requires a few comments, but will be considered a little later in the blog.

Turning to the first question what purpose do these psychological functions serve there seemed to be only one answer, they are for self-regulation. Self-regulation is the fine art of keeping our personality in good condition, making adjustments to improve our perspectives and life-balance. As one ponders this the role of bias becomes increasingly clear and opens the possibility of understanding why certain individuals are so abusive and combative when discussing music.

We are at least in some measure consciously aware of these psychological functions when we reach out for a disc, a score or even a pen to compose some music. The performer similarly will, through experience, understand the expectations of the audience, and may even enhance these through dress codes and mannerisms.

When we examine the responses of people to music we will see that the three functions can occur simultaneously if not equally.  We may well eagerly await a cocktail of different responses, and respond accordingly if these expectations are not met. The research into the psychological functions of music is ongoing and there are a wealth of different responses and expectations, but the consensus is that these can be reduced to the following categories;

·         Emotional regulation

·         Awareness and intellect

·         Physical responses

·         Creating social relationships (intellectual or emotional)


This table is not exhaustive, but if offers sufficient scope to illustrate types of expectations. Let us take a few examples, social contact through music can be seen in sports (singing of national anthems), work songs (weaving, planting), military (marching, war songs, protest songs). Music can be used to stimulate action or reduce it, religious music can be of either sort. Music also assists people on the individual level, it may help reduce the anxiety regarding death or understanding our mortality. On a lighter note we all understand that music brings pleasure, both on emotional and physical levels.

As we develop our inner library of musical works and styles functions become expectations, and as stated these expectations can have both positive and negative outcomes, most music lovers have been asked (or asked) in their past, “how can you listen to that?”

Since music recordings became available at a reasonable price the vast majority of teenagers have been subjected to this question, usually followed by a demand to turn the volume down. All music enthusiasts know that this statement can be highly charged and lead to rifts and arguments. We sometimes forget that while music may enable social wellbeing it can also be intrusive and become a socially negative experience.

A better version of this usually rhetorical question is “why do you listen to that….?”  It brings into play the above discussed psychological factors.

As we increase our scope of listening we also develop expectations about what we are about to experience. When these experiences are fulfilled we feel positive emotions, when they are not the reactions are negative and may become aggressive. Our expectations can encompass different types of sound, e.g. acoustic v electronic, the length of engagement, tempo and a myriad of other factors on their own or in combination. Little wonder then that cliques build up around specific genres, which in turn consolidate expectations. Members of such groups often generate the most aggressive criticisms of other styles, particularly closely related styles.

We know that exposure helps us to adjust to new ideas, and the internet has brought innovations in music directly into our homes. This is not without problems, addiction to newness for its own sake may be found to have short-life satisfaction. The music industry also plays with our expectations from the quality of sound we experience to alternative performances and arrangements of well-known works. Research has opened up alternative methods of performance and timbres in early, Baroque and Classical music, all of which have altered expectations and sometimes redirected our preferences, making once favoured recordings into music that fails to meet the authenticity test.

It is possible that even within a specific social gathering that participants expectations may be wide and varied.  Let us consider music used in funerals, the music can be stylistically extensive. One person would find a hymn acceptable, another a piece of dance music, a third a popular song and a fourth a serious work. In each case the focus is on engagement with the deceased with the understanding that the celebration of that life reduces the anxiety felt by the participant. We intuitively understand that music activates associations, memories, experiences, moods, and emotions and as such it has a natural function at the end of our lives. There is no single piece of music that can be the perfect model for an individual’s passing, satisfying our expectations in such a case is very personal; for some the choices made may seem inappropriate.

Let us return for a moment to bias, and consider some recent research, the wiki entry for bias blind spot is helpful:

In simple terms we believe that we can evaluate the degree of bias we apply to art, music, film etc. and that we are wholly aware of all the factors that sway us to one preference over another. The truth of the matter is far from intuitive and should leads us to some soul-searching.

On a practical level awareness of the main types of psychological functions can assist the composer, let us take the example of writing a piece of music for education, say a work for small ensemble with moderately challenging demands on technique. There is always the possibility of making it socially inclusive through audience participation and include physically stimulating characteristics by clapping or singing to an arranged melody. A recent Proms performance with the Dunedin Consort had the audience engaged with Bach’s Passion through an invitation to sing three sections of the chorales, while this was a part of Bach’s expectations its inclusion in a concert hall setting is unusual, it alters perceptions and challenges some expectations.

Understanding audience expectations can be to the composer’s advantage as it permits the element of surprise. One may argue that the surprise arises out of convention, only when we understand the rules do we respond fully to their being broken. However there are times when the composer feels inclined to break with expectation on a far more radical level. Those who have followed the tonal to atonal argument understand the gradual progression that took place, but to ease the change some composers made the intellectual blend more palatable by including dance elements (social interaction/ physical functions) within the new tonality. Stockhausen’s most popular work is (in my opinion) Stimmung, which meets all three functions, it is something to consider when reaching out for pen and manuscript.

In recent weeks Nurtan and I have been paying more attention to the first part of the listening process, the input. At the moment we are considering the term random in relation to music. It has already taken us many e-mails to clarify this starting point. At one point Nurtan said

….totally random sequences (white noise) is not recognisable as means of communication.

While I wholly agree with his point we are both aware that people choose to listen to random signals. Try typing in white noise on You Tube for a variety of results including keeping a baby quiet during a night’s sleep! All of this suggests only one thing to me, a recognition of sound as a means of self-regulation.

An earlier blog asked the question Why do we listen to music, the blog is now deleted but I include it below as it relates to the above:

Why do we derive pleasure from listening to music?

Music has existed in human societies since prehistory, perhaps because it allows expression and regulation of emotion and evokes pleasure.

The observations made in this blog owes much to the observations made in the article: 

From perception to pleasure: Music and its neural substrates: Robert J. Zatorre and Valorie N. Salimpoor.  It may be read in full at:

In order to answer the question of why we derive pleasure from listening to music we must consider several aspects including physiological ones. We now understand that humans naturally produce dopamine when listening to music, this is a substance that creates in us a sense of wellbeing and pleasure.

If some readers found the previous blog on motivation difficult as it sometimes focused on our basic responses (such as our need for group recognition and a desire for leadership) the notion that pleasure in listening to music arises from the same source as sex, drugs, gambling and even food may not please everybody either. Research on brain activity notes that when you engage with music your brain releases the chemical responsible for motivation and addiction. So powerful is the effect of music that even the anticipation of listening releases dopamine.

Musicians might find happier ground in discussing the pleasure of creating their own narrative about a piece of music, be it on the level of hearing the sounds of nature in Beethoven’s Pastoral or following a process through in Sibelius’s 5th symphony. Researchers note that the process of engagement through anticipation of events – and their resolution – acts as a major source of stimulation.

(The) perception of … a melody does not proceed in a simple sequential manner. It also involves an active component, such (as) expectancies generated based upon a listener’s implicit knowledge about musical rules that have been acquired by previous exposure to music of that culture. This phenomenon is significant because it points to our highly adaptive ability to predict future events based on past regularities.

The argument is expanded into other methods of structure:

In metrically organized music, a listener develops predictions about when to expect sounds to occur (a parallel to how tonality provides the listener with a structure to make predictions about what pitches to expect).

It should be evident to most musicians that listening over many years builds up a lexicon of expectations, these may be built on rules of harmony, outcomes from the use of tonality, or a knowledge of rhythmic devices (e.g. in dance) all of which leads to a refined level of expectation and can create a surprise element when the unexpected occurs.

Performers in particular will be aware of the physical effects of engaging with music, increased heart rate, respiration etc, all of which indicate levels of “self-reported pleasure” but this is equally experienced by listeners. What may be more surprising is that a physiological explanation can also be ascribed to our sensation of goose bumps which happens as a second event stimulating the brain in a separate area of cognizance.

In observing physiological effects on the enjoyment of music (and art forms like poetry readings) the work of the auditory system cannot be overlooked, but we may not always consider the way that both external sounds and their recollection as internal states permit us to recreate emotions, and not just pleasurable emotions.

Nurtan has often elaborated on the fleeting quality of music and our ability to hold such events is truly remarkable as well as pleasurable:

Humans have excellent ability to maintain auditory information as it comes in, which accounts for our ability to relate one sound to another that came many seconds or minutes earlier...

This ability may well have developed from our earliest survival skills; when we combine it with the desire to belong to a group where we may discuss and reinforce our perceptions and understanding of music, then we may see a progression from survival to enriched living.

Aesthetic rewards are often highly abstract in nature and generally involve important cognitive components. In particular, they are highly culture-dependent and therefore imply a critical role for learning and social influences. These features suggest that they may involve the “higher-order” and more complex regions of the brain that are more evolved in humans.

I cannot leave this blog without putting in this extended quotation from the paper. It concerns some of the differences between humans and our near neighbours:

When given a choice between listening to music versus silence, our close evolutionary relatives (tamarins and marmosets) generally prefer silence. Some animals may be capable of processing basic aspects of sound with relevance for music. For example, rhesus monkeys do demonstrate an ability to judge that two melodies are the same when they are transposed by one or two octaves. However, this ability is limited: the monkeys failed to perform this task if melodies were transposed by 0.5 or 1.5 octaves. There is also some evidence that monkeys can distinguish between consonance and dissonance. However, they do not seem to consider consonant sounds more pleasurable, based on the finding that cotton-top tamarins showed a clear preference for species-specific feeding chirps over distress calls, but no preference for consonant versus dissonant intervals.

The 1K word limitation for our main blogs prevents the examination of why we prefer certain types of music over others, e.g. there is much to be said about why we like sad music in relation to the question of pleasure.

Perhaps I should finish on a personal note and explain why I like listening to music. I enjoy the physical aspect of playing (how well is not relevant). I love exploring sounds and feel like a pioneer when using samplers to create never before heard or used sounds. I love the sense of playfulness that is open to me when composing, the fact that I can make several choices before I determine the outcomes that make a written piece of music. I could carry on for some time. I have no objection to my body producing a substance which increases my sense of pleasure, I should be thankful that it is there, along with the willingness to study and work hard with the elements of music.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Delius: Elegance and economy.

Frederick Delius Prelude No.2 for piano (completed 1923).

This short prelude of 32 bars is a remarkably elegant composition. I played through the music several years ago and was immediately attracted by a quality of lightness in the texture but put the music aside in my search for newer and more radical ideas. Like so many other piano pieces of the early 20th century it sat on my library shelf gathering dust. I rediscovered the music recently and decided to examine the harmony to see how Delius obtained this quality of elegance and light.

The musical shape is simple enough, ABA, the A section characterised by RH semiquavers throughout in 3/4 time, the B section in 4/4 is little more than a series of arpeggios, A1 has a short transition (harmonically) to a partial repeat of A material with written in rit. via harmonic rhythm and a coda of two bars.

My first thought was to examine the RH part of the A section, this revealed parallel 4ths moving chromatically,  a cohesive feature, but this seemed secondary to the work as a whole, so a vertical examination of the music was required.

The opening bar forms a pair of fourths a tone apart, the next bar adds a D natural to provide a pentatonic figure carried over to bar 3. The introduction of C natural in bar 4 and the B flat semiquaver redirects the harmony to a formation of five tones and a semitone (0,1,3,5,7,9) set 6-34 in Forte’s comprehensive list of chord formations, and it is this formation that provides the glue for the greater part of the music. This chord is paired with one other major formation heard for the first time in bar 5, also a hexachord, 0,2,3,5,7,9 (set 6-33)

The four whole tones account for the lightness of the texture and the additional semitone can act as a pivot between the chords, the first time we hear this between bars four and five we have


B flat
B flat
A flat


Chord 1: 0,2,3,6,8, chord 2: 0,1,5,7, and chord 3: 0,2,3,5,7,9, which are sets 5-28, 4-16, and 6-33, the set 4-16 is a subset (i.e. common) to both hexachords 6-33 and 6-34.

Examine the table below to see how these two formations account for the harmony throughout the music. The one chord that lies outside the logic of construction lies in bar 16, in context a rather beautiful sounding C natural, a composer’s privilege for that reason alone. In tonal terms we could think of it as an accented dissonance resolving on the B natural (prepared by the previous C/B in dotted 1/2 notes). One can of course look at the whole work in terms of conventional, if extended, harmony, but my intention is simply to show the cohesive features which I find best illustrated through reference to sets.

Working within the harmony there is a melodic character to the music, though not cantabile the stepwise character of the left hand part is delightful and I am sure appealing to those who love jazz formations, this is not surprising given the closeness to pentatonic formations within the chords, and to those who know the personal history of Frederick Delius this makes perfect sense.

There are many additional features deserving comment in this short work (and in the 3 Preludes as a set), e.g. I have skipped over the note density and the more rapid alteration of the first section in relation to the second, but I hope that there is sufficient detail here to encourage a closer inspection of the composer’s works.

Further commentary on the Delius 3 Preludes for piano. 27.10.2017

Written in 1923 when he was 61 years of age this set of three short Preludes are delightful works, well written for the pianist and show some fascinating details in their construction.

Where do we place our focus when listening to these Preludes? They do not have a “cantabile” melody, they are not illustrative pieces to conjure images on the inner eye. They do have a touch of Bach’s design in the control of harmony (and they are mostly in two part writing, unlike a great deal of British piano music of the time).

Let’s take the melody of the third Prelude (starting in the second bar), there is a repetition of three bars to assist the listener in recognising the melodic character and rhythm, but then the melody moves (seemingly) freely up to bar 17 where it briefly returns before more rhapsodic material. In reality the melody is more structured than one might suspect.

Just to clarify the opening seven bars of melody forms a hexachord from which nearly all the remaining material is drawn. The E sharp forms a chromatic rise as part of the closing cadence, a feature also seen in the second Prelude. The second part of the melody in 3/4 time is played in octaves but reduced to bare bones in the illustration.

While this set also features vertically Delius would find this too monotonous as a single formation, he blends the music with another hexachord 0,1,3,5,7,9, and makes particular use of the whole tone feature as both four and five note collections. The same process is at play in the first Prelude where the main collection is 024579, and from bar 4 to 11 we can hear this chord alternating with the whole tone pentachord 0,2,4,6,8. It is unlikely that all listeners will be conscious of this detail, far more likely the focus will be on the dotted quaver semiquaver and dotted semiquaver and demisemiquaver skips which give the scherzando marking its character. At its most regular use the exchanges of harmony produce harmonic rhythm, and many listeners will be aware of this characteristic, and once recognised will provide greater coherence to listening pleasure. For all three Preludes the density of music is regulated within hexachords and subsets so the degree of dissonance and compactness of harmony is well regulated, a feature of which most listeners to Delius will be aware. For those who may ask why the progression of the music by chromatic descent has been omitted, I will only say that the feature can be heard, as can ascents. There is much to be discovered through repeated listening.

The pieces may be heard at:

If you want a clearer score one can be downloaded at IMSLP composers – Delius.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Christian Wolff

The notion of experiment, contingent processes, matters because I think it represents an image and attitude which allow for the possibility of change (for the better). 

In an earlier blog (Creativity and aging) we discussed characteristic stages of artistic endeavour at different periods in our lives. It would seem that Wolff is now in a mid-stage between the “Summing-up” phase (looking at the events of one’s past and creating a narrative from these events), and the “Encore” phase (reaffirming beliefs and opinions and exploring variations on those opinions). His lecture in London 2014 available as a podcast from iTunes New Music insight lectures demonstrates this, as in discussing his new music the greater part of the talk focuses on the past. There is no judgement on my part in saying this, time has moved on and reflection on how we arrive at a given point is illuminating particularly when we are hearing it from one closely involved with the great figures of 20th century American music.

It is also part of my own summing up phase as I had the opportunity to talk with and perform some of Wolff’s music many decades ago in Manchester, an event I was reminded of when I came across the scores we used as exercises in a far from regular clean out of music on my shelves. The image below is part of the optional percussion part. There is a multi tracked performance of the pitch material from the first page available on soundcloud:

Having spent some time with his works on You Tube and shared some of the best performances on the New Music Hub on G+ I came to the conclusion that his music is primarily concerned with economy, interaction, adaptability and sonority. It is a style that has many strengths and some limitations.

In essence Wolff’s compositional intentions and methods can be reduced to a small number of significant experiences and beliefs, several of which were formed in the earlier days of his musical development. There was a period of conventional musical study but it was hearing the music of the second Viennese school that sparked a desire to write, particularly after coming into contact with the Webern symphony which he describes as a sounds in isolation but within a logical scheme. It seems that Feldman consolidated that view of the Webern symphony as the unification of parts and wholes. It is the potential for parts to exist as events within and outside a structure that changes the perspective in relation to earlier music, the hint of the possibility in Webern becomes a flowering of new music.

Wolff asks himself a question in the podcast, one which is more significant than it seems at first, “why does one make a deliberate effort to make one’s music different?” He considers his youthful opposition to the ‘tired’ styles, and reflects on the term experimental, starting anew. Every composer that aimed at controlling or even defining experimental brought out divergent views and results, as the following comparison of Cage and Wolff demonstrates.

Cage summarised an experimental action as one where the results of a composition would be unknown. Added to this was the view that with chance you use what you get (never a choice). Neither the composer of the performer is privy to intelligence about the actual outcome, the performance. Wolff has a less severe outlook and believes that the unforeseen in music permits the possibility of ‘useful detachment’, giving consideration from moment to moment without too much anxiety about expression or having to create a narrative. Expression can exist but as a by-product of composing. This difference in the view of detachment takes Wolff into permitting flexibility in the hands of the performer to determine the musicality of his / her actions, and this musicality need not arise from instrumental training but experience and personal artistic insight. The integration of a wider range of performance attitudes brings a different focus and becomes in the composer’s mind a metaphor for social change.

Another significant difference between the two composers is shown in Cage’s opinion that once the piece was complete it was fixed. Wolff’s social attitude integrates the indeterminacy into performance, into music that can be endlessly renewed.

Usefully for less technically proficient performers Wolff’s music is characterised by passages playing with a limited number of different notes, and as he suggests the less material the more invention is required. Let’s restate that after the experience of hearing Webern’s symphony, creating pieces with sounds, permutations of notes, playing individually or sustained became his main intention. It is this economy that diminishes the role of drama and surprise within the music, but as said above, one gains a lot and loses a little.

It seems that on reflection Wolff’s considers his working with Rzewski in 1957 on Duo for Pianists I as a seminal moment.  A piano composition was required with insufficient time to prepare, so a system for improvisation based of time units and sounds was developed. Foe me his view of the outcome on reflection is significant: “It sounded fine, just as complex as the complex music. It was different every time, and different because of what the other performer did.” The significance comes in two parts, the evaluation of the outcome in relation to composers like Boulez and the social interaction.

Performances of Wolff’s improvisatory music are akin to role playing, sometimes one is in charge of the performance other times passive. The notation is designed to make the performer focus on progression in a different way to the conventional demands. The reward is that rhythm takes on a unique character.

Over his career Wolff has explored various degrees of indeterminacy or ‘flexibility’ from largely rigid to very free; no instrument, dynamic, tempo or register specified, free durations and options for repetition. He has also reworked original material though that is outside the consideration of this blog. His music is primarily for smaller forces simply because the degree of interaction becomes more difficult the more people are involved. The possibility of mixing fully composed and indeterminate music was explored, but Wolff cites clarity as an issue in such a scheme, his solution is to divide the forces into coexisting ‘subgroups’.

When Wolff describes his manipulations of pitch and rhythm we are given processes of expansion, transposition, loops and cycles, he could be describing the techniques encountered in Feldman’s compositions, but it isn’t the manipulation that is important it is the outcome, and as in all social interactions each person takes responsibility for the choices made.

 Selected videos from New Music Hub on G+

Preludes for piano

For Morty for Vibraphone, Glockenspiel and Piano (1987) [Score-Video]

Another Possibility (2004)

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Has modern music finally exterminated nuance?

I was listening to a podcast on Elliott Carter’s music the other day (Paul Steenhuisen via iTunes), where the discussion lingered on complexity. The composer played down the complexity issue stating that his ideal was to make the music “live in an expressive and meaningful way”. Robert Aitken illustrated the point and referred to a conversation with Carter where the composer, reflecting on a piece written several months earlier stated:

“Bob – you know that E natural ….. I think we should change the dynamic from mp to mf.”

Most composers will have come across a moment in their music which causes them to feel that the flow of the work is hindered, probably not as refined as the example above, but hindered nevertheless by a detail. It reminds me of “Zen and the Art” where the author explains to his non-mechanical friend that correct running of the engine requires precise adjustment with tools that measure in thousands of an inch.

In today’s music there are works where one senses that finding a wrong pitch or a badly articulated event is impossible, perhaps because we are bombarded with information or that the pathways of logic that we are familiar with have been abandoned for an exploration of terrain utterly foreign to us. We know from previous blogs that repeated exposure adjusts our perception of our experiences, we become less shocked, more accepting. We develop our long term memory of events and so associations between prominent landmarks can be established.  I have frequently asked myself if it is easier to recall works like the Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition” or Schumann’s “Carnaval” selected as both vary their material to construct a number of loosely related scenes or Horatiu Radulescu’s “Das Andere” for solo viola

which I believe explores a single compositional intention. Memory permits me to recognise all these works, I could isolate sections of and then sing or whistle the melodies of the earlier works while that is considerably more difficult with the latter; doing so in the street might raise an eyebrow with Mussorgsky or Schumann while attempting Radulescu’s music might see me being taken away to a secure establishment! This is not a value judgement on my behalf, there are many engaging features in all three works. For many people the vocalisation of music (internal or physical) is part of the act of sharing with the composer, as is moving in time to the work. One has to be careful with this argument of selecting fragments, there are parts of Radulescu’s work that remind me of the Bach solo suites and it is possible that given time one simply adjusts to the style. This is the argument applied to Webern (who we are told would sing parts of his works during rehearsal to articulate the phrasing he wanted); Webern’s works have been heard for the best part of a century, it is still rare to hear fragments of them sung in the street.

Before leaving Radulescu may I also suggest for those who are less familiar with his work this video with Roger Heaton discussing “The Inner Time” it includes a score:

Nuance in music is created through the subtle control of rhythm and dynamics. Listen to the Bernstein rehearsals of Mahler on youtube to experience the way he shapes particular phrases. The continual focus on detail is the bedrock of making the performances identifiably his own, it is the process of connotation, the association or referencing of meaning onto the composition which may or may not be as the composer intended. (I suggest listening to Bernstein’s first movement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony as an illustration of the argument, there is a partial recording linked below or the full symphony is available on YT).

How much in depth listening is required to appreciate the nuances in performance in the “complex” world of some new music? The response to this question may be made even more difficult when the composer considers composing outside the structures of pitch organisation.

As my colleague Nurtan Esmen was reading through this blog he suggested that I mention the Murakami book “Absolutely on Music” where his interviews with Osawa focus on Bernstein and Mahler in particular.

There are a number of ways of organising music other than designing structures where pitch dominates. Humans are very good at determining quantities of events and density has a significant part to play in our perception of music. The gradual accumulation or reduction of events can become the basis of design, as could rapid alterations of dense and sparse areas of sound. Previous blogs have dealt with the importance of repetition and to work with this as a composing intention one could take a sample of a sound and repeat with gradual reduction, or reverse the process and start with a fragment and expand. I particularly like technique this when using words that offer new meanings when cut, as in God is love becomes odd is love in one of my R. S. Thomas settings. Expansion could also include interlocking material, nesting one musical chunk inside another. The Part work “Frates” was discussed in an earlier blog, and offers one more conventional example of this process. In the world of sampling transformations are a stock in trade and gradual alteration can become the primary (or sole) characteristic of the music. Transformations can also be applied to pitch, and have been for a long period, as in the opening movement of Mahler’s 8th symphony, or in a more prescribed manner in Maxwell Davies’s music. In an art form that uses a moment to moment argument its use is almost inevitable in one form or another, its use can be as modern or old as the composer wants.

We are very responsive to regular pulses of sound, but we can also expand the pulses to regularity within longer (much longer) periods of time. This is akin to using space as architecture. The placement of music within the golden section is familiar to those who enjoy Bartok and Radulescu but there is no limit to working other proportions which may be populated with sonic events of any description. On a personal level I find that playing with our experience of time has great potential for relating psychology and art, this is not new as can be seen in Dali’s work The “Persistence of Memory” which in the painter’s own symbolizes “the passing of time as one experiences it in sleep or the persistence of time in the eyes of the dreamer.”

When nuance is considered in music we think of elegant and refined control in performance established through many hours of rehearsal and research into the composer’s intentions. The performer or conductor works to produce characteristic phrases, which in context become part of the (reproducible) performance. When recorded the mannerisms are fixed in time and we identify the product as a collaboration between composer and interpreter. Many modern composers have searched for methods of producing music which is more than superficially different each time, in relation to nuance the result is its erosion close to a point of extinction.

When a composer’s score is hugely complex and multilayered repeated performances by individuals will have greater degrees of dissimilarity, (we may disregard performance errors which may or may not be of great significance to the intention of the work). Recording the music gives the performer the opportunity to rework passages, but this may be outside the intention of the composer, after all there is a particular quality to music which is one performance in one place at one time.

Nuance offers the listener the opportunity to use the experience of listening to compare and determine (if of an analytical viewpoint) the quality of a performance, it may also make one performance “sing” where another is more pedestrian.

In techniques of acting we think of nuance as an embellishment which highlights character traits, posture, poise, mannerisms and so on. Music as art expressed in time has something, if not many things, in common with drama. Even music which makes every effort to avoid the types of narrative depicting a Don Juan or Quixote will inevitably have stylistic mannerisms when they are performed by humans. Composers plan and carefully execute their designs, a gradual acceleration, crescendo and increase of density with contrapuntal voices can often be found in Maxwell Davies’s music as a device to create a climax point, but the conductor will also shape that intention. Is the score to be taken as a blueprint or a guide?  

These blogs have restated many times that our minds are fashioned to build narratives into the most complex or sparse designs. In psychological terms we have strong reactions to both over and under stimulation. Musicians have a long tradition of working abstract designs but once these are in the hands of performers the music breathes (consider Bach’s A minor Two Part invention No XIII).

There may be nuances of character in a play that are exterior to the script but essential in the delivery of the character, the gestures and tone of voice that Othello makes to demonstrate love, doubt, jealousy are all essential to our belief that this noble man can be corrupted. The gradual process of change brings about certain arrival points where the alteration is unmissable. In the past music was full of these arrival points; I was reminded of this listening (in particular) to the middle movement of Sibelius’s firth symphony conducted by Sakari Oramo. The layering of different characters (the sustained chords, the pizzicato figures and the melody) along with the conductor’s flexibility of tempo made the movement compelling listening. If one plays Brian Ferneyhough’s “lemma-icon-epigram” after the Sibelius and considers points of arrival, these are there to be heard, what is more difficult to ascertain is the type of relationship between the component parts.

Recent musical trends have gone further than ever in challenging the listener’s attention, this is justifiable as the listener is privileged to turn off or walk away at any time. It is also justifiable in that music has always presented us with challenging and/or puzzling moments, e.g. the purpose and design of the Quodlibet in Bach’s Goldberg variations or the presence of the Dancing Letters in Schumann’s “Carnaval”. Once we were invited to dwell on intentions, today there is less of the invitation and more direct challenge.

Returning to the dynamic of the E natural at the start of the blog a case can be made for questioning how loud a particularly important event in a work should be played, a controlled dim. from fff to mp over 4 demisemiquavers within a complex passage with multiple events raises different issues.

Most teachers of composition know the trick of presenting their pupils with the question “Why did you use that chord at that point? Now they can be even more irritating and question its density in relation to the others, the play of dynamics, its place in the time scheme and so on, all of this is fascinating to those with time and purpose to enquire but perhaps the essential question is does it satisfy the demands of the listener?