Sunday, 28 February 2016

George Crumb "Vox Balaenae": An intelligent approach to silence 

...Of the four characteristics of the material of music, duration, that is time length, is the most fundamental. Silence cannot be heard in terms of pitch or harmony: it is heard in terms of time length. Cage

"Piano Piece #10"...lasts about 26 minutes... at the beginning there's a very dense period of music about 2.5 minutes long which has all the musical material in extreme compression. And then, one by one, fragments of music occur and die out in resonances. The silences finally go up to about one minute, which is an extremely long time to make a minute musically interesting. So I discovered a new way to prepare for a certain duration of silence by what happens just before the silence, so that one can hear again, like an echo, the figures or structures before the silences.

Karlheinz Stockhausen interview for Modulations 1999

In the same article Stockhausen uses the phrase "coloured" silence, i.e. not complete "non-activity" but sounds outside the main constructional argument of the music, the radiators in the auditorium are mentioned as an example. In Cage's 4'33 one could argue that such sounds are the sources for construction. In the music that follows the revolution created by 4'33 composers have adopted a working method of using silence which incorporates a scale of events such as indicated in the table above. It may not be at the forefront of their planning, but every composer has had their awareness of degrees of silence heightened since 1952.

The following commentary is on George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae" and uses this recording as a source that all can follow on You Tube:

If Takemitsu's works can be described as exploring silence or "Ma" then it is fair to consider Crumb's work in the same category. Indeed his interest in oriental sounds may be an indicator of his association with such ideas, experts on his music may wish to contribute their views. An excellent PDF is available on the exploration of MA in Takemitsu's work at:

While "Vox Balaenae" has many moments of suspended activity there is only one of non-activity. As stated in the previous blog periods of non-activity as felt more keenly by some than others.  In the field of popular music the song "Wild Thing" by the Troggs is a famous example of "power-silence".  It lasts about 2 seconds, and for me it is a dramatic pause, however there is no doubt about its effectiveness.
Crumb is a master of texture and we are given tremolo, wide vibrato, glissando, usually on harmonics, piano strings are scraped and left to resonate, the flautist sings into the flute and the cellist uses hand percussion on the cello. All the effects come together to provide a poetic interpretation of the sounds of the sea and the actual space of performance takes on bluish hues to heighten associations with the sea.

All times are approximate.

The graph below illustrates the degrees of activity to silence described above.
Left click the image to enlarge, timings given on the top of the table.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Silence is dead....long live silence.

In this blog I am going to avoid certain aspects of silence, partly because they have been well represented in writing about music, and partly because they are not silence in the sense of non-activity. The topics to be dismissed are starts and ends of pieces along with periods between movements, long pauses, dim al niente , extreme pp range. Rests are a slightly different matter as we shall see as the blog progresses.
We live in a world of continual sound and vibration, some within our hearing range and some outside of it unless we process that sound. If we consider the radio sounds of the cosmic background radiation one may think of the entire universe being flooded with sound. Silence is a rare commodity and we have certain built in responses towards it.
When I started to learn to play the fugues from The Art of Fugue I was delighted with the moment in the first of the set where Bach interrupts the flow of the music, it is a dramatic moment, and restarting the music requires more than just a counting of the beats to judge reentry, The skill is not unlike the timing discussed when telling a good joke, and that is because silence has the power of building anticipation. A question we must ask is how long can we use silence before the dramatic effect is lost, and given longer time frames does silence take on a different role?
If you have used mindfulness techniques or engaged in meditation you will be familiar with "counting the breath" techniques. It is very simple, in order to focus attention, or refocus from the continuous dialogues which plague us, you simply pay attention to each breath and count each as it comes. After a while one begins to register non-activity, a quiet state. I find there is always a tension in the non-active moments which I put down to arising from body awareness. When music introduces non-activity there is a real dramatic tension, not dissimilar to body awareness, as the silence works to heighten our response to the whole. This expectation/ awareness is heightened when in a group or audience, this may well be a primitive response but it certainly exists.
Recently I have been listening to works which use electronics to provide a spatially enhanced experience these included Jonathan Harvey's fourth string quartet which makes use of 6 loudspeakers and a recent quadrophonic radio presentation of Hymnen by Stockhausen. It struck me how it is possible to place the sounds in one particular place in the concert hall, so that the remaining spaces are empty/silent. This has the effect of heightening the sense of drama. The techniques of spatial setting go back in time, even if we only consider art music, but there is an essential difference in electronic music in that the sound environment as a whole can be engineered.  Monteverdi had the acoustic of St. Marks as his background, but in the concert hall we can introduce any soundscape should we wish.
There are many recordings of natural sounds available to us these days, and some enterprising souls make great use of these. Of course nobody has a recording of silence, we enjoy varieties of noise and welcome them. As long as we have control, or we pass the responsibility of control, to other people. Many recording programmes, like Nero or Audacity, have the capacity to place silence into a recording. Some time ago I had made a piano recording and replaying it noticed unwanted sounds during a period of short length inactivity, rather than re-record the section I pasted in ‘silence’.  It was unsuccessful, in fact the result was in every sense wrong. 
A rest is a period of non-activity, depending on the instrument and acoustic it could be a period of silence or not. It is the element that shapes, forms phrases and more, as Lao Tsu says:

“We join spokes together in a wheel, 
but it is the center hole 
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot, 
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house, 
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being, 
but non-being is what we use.”

There is a difference between successive short rests to articulate e.g. a type of phrasing and a period of silence to create emotional impact. Reading about Takemitsu one constantly comes across his use of silence in music, relating it to Japanese philosophy. This interested me on several levels, but there are many works in which silence is not a significant feature. There are long pauses on sustained piano with the use of pedal carefully notated. There are periods of very quiet sounds fading away, and it is possible that the process carries on in our minds after the music stops. Is silence then a matter of length of time, where some are more sensitive than others to the spaces between events?
I have been working recently on a piece which takes its design from the Fibonacci series, and as the series progresses the events that articulate the passing of time are placed further apart. Listening to the skeleton structure was very interesting as I was awaiting the events for up to 8 seconds with silences between. This made for a music of contrasts with high levels of activity followed by inactivity. The composition required more to express the design that I intended, but there was a quality in the bare bones that required further attention in future works.
After Cage composers had to review their thoughts on silence, both as a structural device and in considering what sounds could “populate” the areas contained by it. Stockhausen makes two distinct points on the matter in an interview he gave for “Modulations” in 1999

There's one work of piano music, for example, "Piano Piece #10", which lasts about 26 minutes. And it's true that at the beginning there's a very dense period of music about 2.5 minutes long which has all the musical material in extreme compression. And then, one by one, fragments of music occur and die out in resonances. The silences finally go up to about one minute, which is an extremely long time to make a minute musically interesting. So I discovered a new way to prepare for a certain duration of silence by what happens just before the silence, so that one can hear again, like an echo, the figures or structures before the silences.


I think there is a very secret science of musical composition in knowing what one has to do before a silence in order to make the following silence meaningful. And I'm still trying to expand this relationship between something and nothing

The preparation for silence demands a degree of intensity, a Zen story provides an insight,

A zen student and nun Chiyono studied under Bukko but she was unable to attain true “emptiness”.
One moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was “enlightened”.
Her poem marks the importance of the event:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

I used the title “Silence is dead” as listening to a number of recent contemporary works I have noted how little space exists between events. I am taken to considering if we have started to turn our backs on Cage who provided us with one of the great contributions to modern music.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Composition fault finder

To use this properly you have to be honest with yourself, there is an alternative, get a friend to work through it with you, and make sure he/she is a real friend who can be open in his/her views!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Music for meditation?

There is an enormous interest in the relatively new genre of music concerned with meditation and relaxation, and it forms a lucrative market for producers of new-age music.  As this subject brings together two of my interests, music and meditation, I thought it worthwhile to comment on this popular trend and explore the thinking behind its use.
The origins of the word meditation are from the mid-16th century
Meditation n. quiet thought, reflection
Mid 16th century: from Latin meditat- 'contemplated', from the verb meditari, from a base meaning 'measure'; related to mete. Greek medesthai to be mindful, take thought, plan.  The Welsh meddwl, both senses of mind, to care for and to think.
(sources Chambers Dictionary of Etymology)

As a distinction is made between meditation and contemplation:
Contemplation….the act or fact of looking at or considering. (CDoE)

Both of these definitions are in keeping with Western religious attitudes, and it should be the case that it satisfies a large number of Christian worshipers who would turn to plainsong, masses or hymns as their source of music for contemplation.  It is clear though that the new kid on the block is not of this nature.
From the perspective of 20th century music John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen both have a part to play in the fusion of meditation and music, the notion of non-thought occurs regularly in their writing and music.  “Stimmung” (KS) is a model for much of the popular music that follows, there are many levels of design to this work, one part is the use of texts relating to the names given to gods/goddesses, but there are erotic verses as well.  The title which literally means tuning reminds one of the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out popularised by Timothy Leary in 1966 two years before Stimmung (1968 Madison, Connecticut). The 60’s was the period for the popular exploration of Eastern philosophy, the echoes of which are still with us today. Stockhausen’s title also refers to the term die stimme – voice, and this needs further examination in the context of this blog.

The voice has a significant role in meditation and takes many forms, chant turns up in most religious traditions; comparing the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer with shamanic throat singing may seem a world apart but their intentions are not. When I discussed meditation and the voice with Herbert Whone (1) he constantly turned the conversation to “the inner voice, the one that is never still”, and he used the phrase monkey-jumping to describe the way in which it (the inner-voice) had the remarkable ability to move from one consideration to another with considerable ease.  This is really the heart of the problem that faces a majority of our population and causes us to search out a solution, usually a solution at the cheapest price and least effort. We are distracted beings, for musicians whose concerns are tied into the moment by moment exposition of material this isn’t good news.
In the musical world there is a popular element to many of the recordings made for meditation, the production is slick, the sounds modified to be acceptable, the use of soft synthetic voices, and recordings of natural sounds for urban dwellers.  All of this is wholly acceptable for people who want to follow an easy route to a difficult problem. Like learning a language we all know the usual tricks of “Learn to speak…in 10 days”.  I have nothing against such marketing, there is no untruth in the comment, it is of course, partially true.
A recent popular meditative movement is mindfulness, it has many qualities, it is not based on religious teaching, it has simple procedures to follow, it may be taught to any age group. It does not have a problem with using music as an accompaniment to use. The term often used is insight meditation.
As we restrict the blogs to 1k words here is a straightforward and short account which draws together some of the positive attributes of mindfulness for the performer and listener:

There is no particular type of music for mindfulness exercises; it can be the metal clang of cymbals or the clang of heavy metal. On a personal level I can recall as a teenager listening with great care to “The Rite of Spring” and noticing after the music had finished that the notion of listening to a recording (on a rather cheap mono player) had vanished.  There was an acute response to the material in terms of feeling the phrasing, the melodic units etc. I had, by paying attention to the music, slipped into a more refined listening.  This was not the last time I experienced “improved” listening, the most recent was with our study of Bax, and the music was the third movement of the third symphony.  I have listened to this many times in the last couple of months but only once experienced such a deep contact. 

Do musicians who listen regularly and pay attention to music naturally enter a form of meditation?
My belief is that they do, but this is not to say that using meditative techniques in addition to listening doesn’t refine the process.  At university I was taught the Alexander technique to assist performance skills, and it was quite a gently amusing sight to see those involved in its use at afternoon recitals sitting in such a different way to the slouching composers and researchers (myself included).  The point is that this technique also had the attention drawn onto a particular focus, rather like the difference between hatha and raja yoga. As such it was a valued tool in improving the skills of the students. (In passing I will pass on the information that Adrian Boult was strongly influenced by the technique).

I was asked by a friend to write a work which would assist with his use of mindfulness, so I spent some time listening to other approaches.  In the end I turned to my own experience.  Many decades ago while passing a rehearsal of a Cage piano piece for prepared piano I couldn’t help but stop and listen for a period of several minutes.  Later that night, just before sleeping, the sounds came back to me, as if there was a performance taking place in the room, it stopped as suddenly as it started. This is one source of my interest in bells and bell like sounds.  The music link below takes us to an exploration of bell sounds with phrase lengths based on breathing.  It never achieved popular status, but it seemed to satisfy one customer and I still listen to it myself to stop the monkey leaping from tree to tree.

1.       Herbert Whone: The Simplicity of Playing the Violin (1972), with a foreword by his friend Colin Davis and illustrated with his own drawings. Two further volumes, The Hidden Face of Music (1974) and The Integrated Violinist (1976)