Monday, 15 May 2017


Changing hierarchies.

Over the past few weeks Nurtan and I have been looking at the musical equivalent of supervenience, or at least something very close to it. If you are new to the term:

In philosophy, supervenience is an ontological relation that is used to describe cases where the upper-level properties of a system are determined by its lower level properties.

Nurtan’s use of mathematics to refine some of the issues has been interesting, as has the process of turning the observations into a set of statements in plain English. The discussion has generated a large number of e-mails and involved other composers and linguists; it may be a while before the results form into a blog.

In the meantime, as a side issue, we came to thinking about order. Surely this term would be much easier to deal with, it is something we are all familiar with; however, it has a degree of flexibility that requires comment.

The synonyms and phrases that may be substituted for order which are of interest to a musician could include arrangement or sequence, proper condition, (where proper = appropriate or strict), function, method, system, procedure, instruction, and action towards some end.

There is room for discussion here with the terms appropriate and strict, indeed it has been a major part of the previous discussions regarding flexibility and rigour. To develop, and introduce some fresh thoughts, let us take a rejuvenated view of a frequently discussed element of order in music, hierarchy. We have made several references to hierarchy following the blog on the Webern lectures, with tonic-dominant and overtone series considerations at the fore. Because traditional harmony remains the preferred method of teaching music in schools we are conditioned into thinking of the leading note moving to the tonic, what form strong and weak chord formations and order as simple formal structures ABA, AABB and so on. To quibble one might argue that the leading note could just as easily move to the dominant or mediant, but quibble I will because it shows preference, such as with the use, or restriction on the use of the augmented fourth in Renaissance times. It is a significant factor to composers that preference as hierarchy is central to post 1950’s music. It can be argued that music provides its reference point for a central “tone” by its own context, as with the minor dyad of C and E flat in Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Stone Litany”. The presence of reference points like this is to guide the listener through the musical argument and help retain the structure of the music. The hierarchy is established through duration, placement of tones at significant points within a phrase, the use of a drone, metric stresses, i.e. hierarchy is in the recurrence of detail. The more listeners are familiar with these details in one work the greater the ease in mapping the skill onto other compositions, in simple terms, we get used to listening that way.

Memory plays a significant part in musical hierarchy, what we recall with greatest ease takes on greater or greatest significance and that which we struggle to recall is regarded less well or disregarded. The popular song with its hooks makes this self-evident. Chunking material is a recognised way of assisting recall. Returning to hierarchy by specific content, we come to recognise order by the structuring of material into familiar groups, e.g. modes of limited transposition, symmetrical formations, which then cluster into larger groups by devices like canon, passacaglia contained within augmented and diminished rhythmic values or repeated cycles of rhythm. Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum is an excellent example of this approach. Psychologists refer to the memory constructs as displaying “psychological distance”, strong or weak depending on their intrusion on our conscious recall. It reminds me of the joke, “What is the difference between a drummer and a drum machine”? “You only need to hammer the rhythm into a drum machine once”.

On a more serious level we must understand that hierarchy is not only a system of order in music, but an integral part of the process of learning, recognising and feeling secure about the work we engage with. One may consider that disrupting the hierarchy could become a means to achieving the shock element which also has its place in art and music. Musical changes (e.g. in melodic outlines) are more easily identified in familiar hierarchical constructs. This is a given state of affairs with tonal music (at this time in history with those familiar with art music), so we recognise and find a pathway through the evolution of motifs in Mahler’s first movement of the 8th symphony, but might struggle should alterations to the regular and highly organised melody occur in Maxwell Davies’s “Ave Maris Stella”.

Preference is a blessing and a curse in music, one way which it shows itself is the way certain musical features dominate the aural landscape. Let us take the common triad, seventh chords and the diminished chord as examples. They are so familiar that they become a “landscape” feature in post 1950’s music. They perform as a focus point even whether or not the composer has not set out for them to have additional significance. They can take on a psychological identity. I set out with that purpose when writing an oboe and piano work which included three chords from Holst’s “Egdon Heath”.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y90QWfdIGsQ


Some composers have endeavoured to avoid the use of such chords because of their disruptive qualities particularly in serial music, and this extends to other tonal characters like the use (or non-use) of the octave, whose character has altered from being one of articulating strength to one of disrupting structural integrity. One still needs to consider carefully whether this is structure or preference.


When considering order some (rather radical people) may be tempted to question the value of order as a necessary component of music. In a work like “Cartridge Music” we have a clear understanding of its content but not its internal order. There are indications for the performers to follow but the listener would not be or need to be aware of these when executed. On a personal level this doesn’t make the music less appealing, indeed performances of the music draw an audience, some people wish to engage with the work, and even use a recording which is a form of ordering, because it preserves the events in a fixed state. Reordering most music would destroy its integrity, but some works are designed to randomise order, this happens in LutosÅ‚awski’s later works where he avoids the synchronisation of internal events. What we do experience as a shared factor in pre-50’s art music, LutosÅ‚awski late works and Cage’s “Cartridge Music” is homogeneity, a sense that the internal contents belong together. Given that hierarchy can be an operating system on any content is it this quality that we search for when we listen to music?
When we approach a piece of music most of us have pre-conceived ideas of its form and content, for some listeners the joy of music is in having these met or partly met, and for others it is in breaking away from prescription. For those who write music and create art the process of innovation (on some level) is essential to developing a recognisable style; popularity depends on balancing innovation and finding consensus. It may be that the consensus leads to a musical school of thought or is shown in the mass purchasing of a new popular song, the numbers are only significant when, or if, we consider the financial outcome. We have discussed in previous blogs the power bred by consensus groups and the degree of vitriol they can generate, that is the most negative aspect of unanimity. These days it is much easier for innovators to reach out to an audience, in my opinion the proliferation of such music can only be good for the listener, who is hopefully discriminating enough to search out valuable contributions while remaining in control of the off button.
Are we to take pre-conception as a required condition to recognising order? If you have time look up expectation states theory and make up your own mind on the matter.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that art is like a playground, a place where regulation exists but feels best when we deceive ourselves that we are free of constraint.