Friday, 9 September 2016

Where to go next – part 2.

Following on from the blog about causation I wanted to consider how events link and react to each other on different levels and parameters in music. Is there a lexicon which determines what happens in a second event following the first? If there is, is this lexicon part of our “hard wired” expectations or determined by rules established over a given period of time?

When using the tonal system there are a number of expectations and conventions which simulate causation. In my early education examiners awarded marks for correct use of cadences, avoiding parallel fifths and many other issues all of which probably cemented the idea that there was a perfect example of progressing from A to B. There are strong figures which are regularly used, with rising scales the leading note regularly moves to the tonic, it sounds and feels like a natural progression. The perfect cadence isn’t the only way of finishing a work but it is regularly used as is a leap of a minor sixth falling to the fifth. Sequences aid the ear to hear a longer term event and are satisfying provided they are well executed and not over used. Many readers will be familiar with Schenker and his ideas about longer term unity in tonal music, for those new to the idea this short account may be of use:

Let us not forget that rhythm also creates expectations and has regularly used designs, repetitions of dance rhythms are familiar to people of all cultures, larger scale phrases and rotated blocks of events establish patterns which makes music accessible to all.

Music from the 20th century set out rules for composition which is another way of saying that there are expectations as to how music progresses from one event to another. There were numerous suggestions as to the method of constructing 12 note music from ways of generating musical figures to the degrees of tension between events, a later variation on the collapse of a 2nd inversion chord to a root chord. Structure or the long term planning of music became a feature of composer’s discussions about their music, some providing detailed notes to demonstrate the degree of logic and mathematics applied to the music. I recall Peter Maxwell Davies discussing his mathematical planning and saying that it would be possible to find “errors”, but that in his view what was written should be taken as the composer’s intention.

If a piece of music is determined by an imposed order does the question of “where do I go next” arise? Pitch construction and rhythmic design, even register and articulation of pitches can be part of a design, so theoretically a composition could “work itself out”. It is still a composition, it may be musical and it may be shared and enjoyed by others. If such constructions can be put together why do composers intervene in processes?

One consideration is what happens after the process is worked out? Having established and exhausted one idea the options are to conclude the work or extend its content by variation or contrast. One needs to consider is such an event caused by the first action, does it arise from the original idea or is it a dramatic gesture, for example introducing a change of mood or tempo? Some composers adopt a programmatic element to their music, let us take the Stations of the Cross as an example. The 14 images or activities have been used by a large number of composers using tonal examples through to contemporary styles and popular music. The actions or images progress from the Last Supper through the agony in the garden to laying Jesus in the tomb and the resurrection. The fact that the progression is one known to many and can be shared is important in the consideration of action and reaction.

Recognising that it is possible to plan a section or entire piece of music in which events unfold as a process we should accept that humans respond to design and order, sometimes abstract as in Islamic art and sometimes arising out of an external programme of events. Humans react differently to a design as we can observe in the “carbuncle” comments in architecture. Sometimes we have to learn how A progresses to B, without the historical link we make little or at least less sense of the innovation. This raises the question of whether the listener has a responsibility to the artist to be educated in the progression from one state to another.

Any rule given to enable a steady or even a beautiful progression from one event to another can be broken. If we hear a phrase like “I won’t never not do that” some of us will take offense at the construction and some will find the potential for its use, perhaps in a comic manner; I refer to this particularly as grammar is supposed to be “hard-wired”.

When composing with materials outside the conventional language of music, e.g. types of noise or sampled natural events, there is still the possibility of experiencing problems with the flow of the product. The exhaustion of the ear with a given sound might demand a different event and finding one that is agreeable might be difficult. Agreeable is a subjective term so do we require a set of aesthetic values to provide the next stage, such as the Japanese values discussed in a previous blog? If we wanted to test ourselves on how long an event can be sustained within a context one might use the synthesiser sounds from “on the run” in Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. Are the ostinato figures perfectly proportioned to get the maximum effect? Given the number of sales of the album one might use an economic rather than aesthetic argument, but then again one might consider the passage as a development from the long opening track of “Atom heart Mother” which creates more interesting and complex relationships, as does the alteration of the synthesiser tone to recorded footsteps and the introduction of the clocks in the later album, all of which may be regarded as a well-designed progression.