Saturday, 17 September 2016

To compose is to be three times truly human

These three qualities are the use of language, tools and the ability to socialize. One aspect of the latter is the ability to evoke responses from individuals and groups alike. Music can draw enormous audiences, as can the greatest of speech makers, who extend the fabric of their argument with repetitions and devices which strongly associate with music, frequently extending the range of the voice to the point where the boundaries of speech and music are crossed.

On a more fundamental level we may substitute the term cooperation for socialization, and that form of collaboration enables us to manipulate raw material into art and share the tensions and resolutions within the ideas expressed. Such raw material could be Tracey Emin’s My Bed, the exploration of jealousy in “Othello” or the expression “God Save the Queen” in the Sex Pistol’s song.

Language is the oil which enables and serves our emotional expression, and musicians have developed many tools to extend the vocal utterances in the form of conventional acoustic instruments, from the reed to tortoise shells and guts as in the myth of the contest of Pan and Apollo, and more recently the electronically produced, ever variable sounds. One of the catch-22 aspects of language (both verbal and musical) is that despite its ability to reveal a great deal about our emotional states and our thoughts it is not the words or notes themselves that carry the meaning. Finding difficulty in continuing one’s musical expression may not be a matter of sorting out pitch relationships or working a given rhythm.

In recent blogs I have attempted to answer the question of what a musician does if he or she runs out of ideas in the composing process. There are many techniques of shaping the progression of a piece of music, particularly in certain styles of music, and many musicians hold opinions as to the content of best to weakest progressions, to the point that these drills become rules. However there is nothing to stop a composer from following one sound with any of an infinite number of alternatives if he or she has no fear of the audience response. One could quote a section of the Moonlight sonata, break the flow of the music and pour a glass of water audibly into a glass and then resume playing. There would be a variety of reactions, mostly negative. I once played a work by Kagel that involved a rather unique approach to pedaling the piano, the response of the audience, and the academics in the hall, was severe.

It seems we have conventions for the use of language, socialization and the use of tools, and there is a cost to tackling and breaking these conventions. We manipulate others by making them responsible for their actions, but we are usually gracious enough to direct our judgement to intentions rather than accidental or unintended outcomes. If I had stated at the start of the performance of Kagel's music that I intended to perform a work which demanded considerable pressure on the sustaining pedal there would have been a very different outcome, possibly including my removal from the auditorium.

In the very human act of composing we play between constructing a succession of event and providing these with the impression of caused reactions. There are a vast number of ways of linking events, and rather like the man who spins plates on a stick the greater the number of associations the greater the chance of failure to ensure continuity. Many composers prefer to work within restrictions, these are often inherent in the style of music and instruments used, as would be the case for writing for gamelan orchestra. Selecting a scale, mode or key instantly imposes some restrictions, particularly in the short term, but possibly in the larger scale construction of the work too. Rhythm can be restricted to cyclic patterns, as in varieties of dance music or Indian tala. Some composers like Morton Feldman restrict themselves to specific dynamic ranges.

As humans as highly responsive to change, establishing one state and then rapidly moving to another has become a well-established method of retaining the listeners attention. So one obvious response to the question of what to do if stuck musically is change direction! As is so often the case Cage takes a different viewpoint, suggesting if you find a certain action boring stay with it long enough and it will become interesting. If this concept seems unappealing it is clear that many musicians who have been drawn to the organ work ASLSP disagree.

While considering the process of conjoining events, whether to give the impression of causation or separation I drew up a table of ways which I use to extend or make more continuous the musical argument. Some require a lifetime’s work to explore fully, as in the use of one chord to another, as in my own work on the hexachords present in the Bridge piano sonata, where, in my opinion there are good and less good progressions. Many of these events are easy to apply, particularly if using electronic sounds, but as with all language a well-crafted sentence may require considerable work.