Monday, 16 January 2017

Be serious for a minute.

Some months ago I bought a copy of 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life by Roger– Pol Droit.  The experiments are challenges to our way of acting and thinking about matters that we take for granted, as in “Try on Clothes”. Some might seem familiar to John Cage and Zen enthusiasts: “Encounter pure chance”, “Listen to short wave radio” or “Be aware of yourself thinking”. "Be serious for a minute" takes a similar approach but its intention is to explore some musical considerations.

Be serious for a minute

Duration 1 minute

Props None

Effects critical

If you have made the effort to be serious you may have encountered some problems, perhaps one of these:

What am I going to be serious about? How can I be serious, I am in no mood to be serious? There are far too many pressing problems for me to worry about making an effort to be serious.

Given that our attention to everyday life is forever mercurial exercises like this are quickly put to one side and we move on to the real concerns of the day.

Having imitated Droit’s style let us move back to familiar blogging territory. Many years ago in my early teens I listened to Tchaikovsky’s final symphony and asked myself “how does he sustain a particular mood for such a long time”? At that time I held the view that one’s artistic work reflected the emotional state of the creator as he/she worked, I imagine it is a view that has been shared by a number of people.

So what is “serious” and why do we regard it as a value so highly? Two useful definitions can be applied:

That which is demanding and requires careful consideration and application.

Acting or speaking in earnest, rather than in a humorous or light-hearted way.

The first definition seems to be perfectly suited to musicians. Without stating the obvious we all agree that there are many demands on performers, composers and listeners when approaching a great work of art, several of these demands have been considered in our blogs, most recently that of attention which is particularly problematic for the physically less active listener.

Art music (the opposite face of folk music) makes great play of the application to detail, organic growth requires step by step logic and serious listeners delight in how subtle the alterations can be in developing musical material.

From Classical times onwards the separation of the composer’s music from his hands to those of the performer placed new demands on the detail required in a score to show musical intentions. In our own time this problem has resulted in many scores being prefaced by pages of instructions as each composer explores a range of new approaches to texture and rhythm in particular. In the light of these comments are we to consider the work of La Monte Young as wholly unserious in the "Compositions 1960"? Here are the instructions for #4


Announce to the audience that the lights will be turned off for the duration of the composition (it may be any length) and tell them when the composition will begin and end.

Turn off all the lights for the announced duration.

When the lights are turned back on, the announcer may tell the audience that their activities have been the composition, although this is not at all necessary.

The arguments for the serious side of such compositions are well known, but at the time the humorous presentation here (as with a number of Cage’s writings) must have created mixed feelings amongst critics and audiences.

The second definition is particularly important to the music of the 20th century. Being serious is a matter of constraint. Musicians love working with restrictions, they can offer types of scaffolding that enable rapid progress. Educationalists also like scaffolding in early stages of learning, but are wary of their being over used and retained for too long. The development of the 12 note system may have seemed like a blessing to scaffolders, but that view is fraught with danger. The system is not a form nor is it a formula for expression, yet the view held by many that the two are inseparable, with the emotional content expressionistic. The association of 12 note music with expressionism reads like an inescapable chain of historical events; brutality, industrial growth, inner conflict and neurosis all have their part to play in the voice of the serial style, and these are among the dominant concerns of the first half of the century.  

If we listen to the music of Webern we are presented with some interesting considerations regarding seriousness. He is methodical, and his music is associated with structure, so much so that his work was adopted as the source of educational study for serialism by many, if not most, universities. Yet Webern’s music is not expressionistic, it is abstract in the sense that it draws on design, canons and palindromes in particular, these arising from his studies of medieval music. Here we have beauty in form. The PDF “Anton Webern and the influence of Heinrich Isaac” makes interesting reading for the above named sources of Webern’s composing style, a development from his earlier involvement with Romantic ideals.

The last accusation one could make against Webern is not being earnest (2nd definition), but it is one that was often made against the British composer Malcolm Arnold. Arnold had the gift of presenting humour in music, and his film music makes great use of parody and instrumental colour as in the “Belles of St. Trinians”

as Kenny Everett used to say, “all done in the best possible taste”.

It seems to have been a problem for many that Arnold could write light-hearted music and symphonies. There is an implication that one cannot be humorous and intellectually rigorous. This of course was not a problem for the first Viennese school. Not only are Arnold’s symphonies logical, sometimes employing 12 note music techniques, they can be intensely dark and serious. The first symphony is remarkable in contrasting the two sides of his personality, particularly in the first movement which is driven by the aggressive opening rhythm. The movement presents a kaleidoscope of emotional changes bordering on the psychotic. The music has many features in common with Nielsen’s 4th and 5th symphonies both in design and quality. Interrupting the darker side of the music there is a violin and harp episode in the fourth minute which is akin to an offstage comment in the theatre, it has a cheeky character, but this evolves from the pianissimo level and light scoring to a full attack on the ear. The symphony is played in full here:

To conclude, for the composers who read these blogs I shall paste some further instructions in the style of Roger-Pol Droit.

Be serious for two minutes

Duration: 2 minutes

Props: An instrument/voice

Effect: instructive

Improvise two contrasting pieces, the first serious the second humorous.

Having followed the exercise determine which was easier. Try again and sustain the mood for longer.


Monday, 2 January 2017

Time travel and music.

I listened the other day to a podcast from the BBC series “All in the Mind”, it explored the idea of mental time travel and how we revisit our past and anticipate the future. It explored the idea of the uniqueness of this activity to mankind. Having made progress with the research into primates being able to sign and respond to a limited vocabulary it seems that we desire something more complex than the use of language to demonstrate our uniqueness on this planet.

As we have said before music is an art form played out in real time, performers, composers and listeners are all deeply involved with the passing of time and perhaps less obviously involved in the anticipation of what is to come. We must also be aware of the instant at which we perceive the unfolding drama of music, I use ‘perceive’ as the physical processes of response may mean that we are constrained from responding in the present, but experience delays, more of that later.

Let us begin with familiar examples of visiting the past. We have built up a hugely profitable recording industry on reworking performances of Baroque and earlier music. There is considerable research to demonstrate why certain choices are made but in all truth reconstruction of music is as much an act of imagination or mental time travel as it is science. Many unfinished scores have been completed, some, like the final fugue from the Art of Fugue have several possible workings while others may require less speculation, for example the orchestration of piano scores. Reconstruction from sketches is a task requiring considerable empathy with the composer's technique, and the musical world owes a debt to the work done with Elgar and Maher in particular. This is not time travel as in Star Trek but the deep insights gathered through diligence provides opportunities for pleasure and discussion.

Listeners attempt reconstructions when they recall previously heard music. I understand that I am not alone in having lucid recollections of music, rather like an MP3 player being switched on in my head. On a lesser level I can conjure up a melody and play it at the keyboard adding appropriate (and sometimes more exotic harmonies). All of this is revisiting past material which forms a template from which I can draw at will. Some Jazz players enjoy blending melodies into an improvisation when the harmonic formula is shared, it can be amusing or even striking if well prepared. This idea of a matrix of events like a cutlery drawer from which you draw the appropriate tool for the job has an important role to play in the process of anticipation.

Anticipation is an everyday event in our lives, we are sometimes surprised by the fact that our bodies have taken over the task of picking up the correct screwdriver for those tiny computer parts before we realise that they are needed. In terms of artistic matters we may anticipate how a novel or film will evolve, it is often the essential part of the entertainment provided. We may anticipate the outcomes of discussions on political or philosophical matters, though we are learning that anticipating the results from a large community can be unreliable.

For music the process of anticipation is essential as it often requires rapid and skilled responses, whether accompanying students in an examination, performing in an ensemble, improvising in a group, or controlling a mixing desk. Slow responses can terminate and ruin any of these, and experience helps provide rapid responses that make the errors pass by with little or less attention.

Musicians like actors often picture themselves performing in a hall or theatre with audiences before the event, for many it is a way to overcome the sense of fear before the presentation. The usual model for anticipation is stimulus / reaction, repeated as a chain of events for the duration of an activity. In “guided imagery” there is no real stimulus though we may use our memory to simulate the sense of expectation. In the sporting field much is made of visualization, but to think of the action as visual is misleading, the kinesthetic and auditory functions are equally important. I recall a visit to Cardiff Arms Park where I was shown how their amplification system was used on entering the playing area to get players used to the roar of the crowd and increase the adrenalin before play. Those who are unfamiliar with the technique may start with this short but intriguing document:

The quantity of material as stimulation in music can be large. Consider the information in sight reading a single line from a vocal score at a moderate pace. Now reflect on the idea of playing the Ives piano sonata (Concord) at sight which is on a par with climbing Everest. Remember that if the stimulus has to be processed (reaction) there will always be a time lag. This applies to reading a text, and research has been done to determine the time lag in the process of the working of the eye, processing the text, recognition of patterns and conventions, e.g. speech marks, use of italics, rhyme in poetry, bold lettering and so on. The lag is increased if the text has to be read out to an audience. Many of us are aware of the power point curse of people reading from the slides, and our gratitude when there is an experienced user who draws on experience and uses the slides as simple markers. In order to perform a reading, whether it is text or music, we cannot let the chain of physical events slow us down, so we draw on the matrix of experience. Having played many Bach piano pieces it is easier for me to sight read a new Bach piece than it is to play a Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue, and that may be easier than playing a Bax sonata, and that again easier than a piano sonata by Nurtan Esmen even though the technical demands may not be dissimilar. Put another way we can make predictions even though we may not know the exact context.

In our experience we may know for example the reactions demanded of us in playing a scale and gather that requirement as a chunk of information rather than read one pitch after another. At the level we are discussing the structure of the performance is prepared before notes are played. Psychologists recognise that we are creating structures from birth to develop anticipation.

The notion of training now takes on a different emphasis, repetition isn't the means to accelerating our responses, rather it is the development of the experiences which form the matrix that permit rapid reactions. For the improviser anticipation is the filtering of possibilities from the schemes in his / her experience, the main material is already in place.

To return to teaching, one could describe in words how to play an instrument, but this sort of instruction does nothing for the novice performer. There are physical interventions, demonstrations and many repetitions of basic movements. No one really knows how these skills are incorporated to produce a performer, how the individual actions move onto the level where we no longer pay attention to the control of single events, we abandon our concern for the basic structures, we have to, as dwelling on any part of it interferes with the process.

This has its part to play in the listening process, and, to return to the previous blog on musical climax, a significant part to play in the engagement we have on an emotional level with the music we enjoy.

For most of us the subject of conceptual involvement in the past and future is understood at an intuitive level, but when applied to music making we often take the miraculous, like time travel, for granted.