Monday, 29 May 2017

Space and the composer's toolbox

Using nothing as a composing tool took on a new importance in 1952 when Cage composed 4.33”. Over the years it received a lot of discussion regarding the nature of silence but less on the notion of the space it creates, the space we perceive individually and collectively when we “hear” the music, or perhaps we should say engage with the musical intention. Before making use of musical space in music the composer must consider what type of space to use and how it influences the content we apply onto that space. Astronomers have used the following phrase as a definition of space:

Nothing as undifferentiated potential

What we need to consider is the use and transformation of that potential within nothing and the effect of nothing on its content.

Using space as a characteristic of a composition or art work is not new, what has changed is the degree of space that we are willing to accept into our field of expectation. I have recently reread Hardy’s “The Return of the Native” (1878) and now appreciate the role of Egdon Heath in a new light. Previously I took Egdon Heath to be a character in its own right, in the way the local inhabitants react and interact with the landscape.  Now I regard it more as space in which the events are permitted to occur, and as space to provide time for the development of the novel. Every art work in every medium requires time to develop, in discussing architecture later we will see that there is an instant response followed by a movement through time where we review our perceptions of the forms. An immediate response to a canvas similarly alters as we examine different aspects of the space used, even before we begin to consider symbolic meanings, associations or cross references.

If one listens and examines the proportions of the rondo of Beethoven's Pastoral sonata (D major), the repetitions differ by small quantities, a bar or two, the music is breathing more deeply to accommodate the harmonic changes and respond to the musical drama. Regular 16 bar sections occur in the Rondo, e.g. at the beginning and in the preparation for the final piu allegro, but Beethoven prefers flexibility.  This expansion and contraction is the composer building with space, and it is this that makes the examination of formal structures fascinating not the naming of parts.

In the hands of the performer this musical space is worked on with the result that no two performances are ever the same, sometimes we forget how differently performers differ in terms of the space they use. Those of us who enjoy listening to Gould may be more aware of this; I am reading through Murakami’s conversations with Ozawa and the discussions on Beethoven’s piano concertos return time and again to the matter of musical space in Gould’s interpretations.

There are types of music in which the use of space is very regular and rigorously used. Recently the New Music Hub on G+ hosted a discussion about Morton Feldman's music for bass clarinet and percussion; in that work there are successive repetitions of a fluctuating quaver pulse into which the musical content is placed.
3/8  3/4  7/8  2/4  3/8  2/4  3/8  3/4  2/2  3/4  9/8  2/4  3/8  10/4

The 10/4 bar is a resting bar for the clarinet but the percussion either plays in that bar of is permitted to vibrate over the length of the bar so it is less active space not empty space (not that such a concept can occur in a concert hall). We may think in this case of musical space as a mould, nothing new in that, though as implied above after Cage's 4.33" the varieties of moulds have expanded dramatically.

Our style of musical education often leads us to the view that musical form is a Lego-like structure of blocks added together to create a shape, held in the space of performance time or on the pages of a score. For some styles of music this is appropriate but as music developed processes of thematic (and rhythmic) transformation formal constructions could vary between rigorous and distinct to flexible, with dramatic or subtle changes, as heard in the Feldman bass clarinet work. It is true that Feldman's music on paper can be read as being contained within large block units but musically the listener has to be particularly aware of small textural alterations and the use of transposition to perceive such changes. Did Feldman expect such attention from his audience? These blogs have touched many times on the nature of attention and how the composer can aid the pathway through musical time. Going back to Egdon Heath Hardy makes us aware that it is a bleak environment and then colours it with many detailed descriptions of its unique plants and insects, the big and the small create a dynamic force in the writing. My instinct tells me that there are several different aesthetic values at play in Feldman’s use of musical space; it may be that he is offering us an opportunity to hear music in a variety of contexts, to offer us the opportunity to repeatedly consider music as it undergoes small scale changes, to have the space to evaluate our own changing responses, to gauge the altering responses of the audience. When I walk through a cathedral I am aware of the stone, designs and spaces as well as the content, but unless I enter the building with the intention of undergoing some change of my own awareness then I am not fulfilling the intention of the space. Here is Feldman his preferred term is scale, but essentially it is space:

"My whole generation was hung up on the 20- to 25-minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20- to 25-minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy: just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter."
Returning to the block view of music in space let us consider one composer’s development of its use post 1950; there are many examples of Maxwell Davies's music where he provides distinctive character changes between sections, all of which share thematic and rhythmic material arising from a single source. His method is to create a continuum of micro variants of his source. In figurative terms the blocks are shattered, kaleidoscopic, but in essence the pathway is clear enough. Urban design has indoctrinated us into thinking of pathways as a linear design, if you have time read “The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot” by Robert Macfarlane to understand how awareness of markers can link spaces together, and how small and unobtrusive these can be for those attuned to the landscape.
Is there a guide for composers that helps determine the time or space allocated to a composition? Some types of music are associated with given lengths, the popular song had a three minute format and that still holds for a large number of songs produced for the mass market. Composers writing film music can be required to work second by second. Setting a text is more flexible, but questions of continuity and poetic constructions may influence the composer. Many time constraints are a matter of audience expectation, a 25 minute hymn in the middle of a service would not be acceptable in most Welsh chapels, but a 25 minute qawwali song would be acceptable in a concert hall, yet both serve the same general purpose. Classical Indian music has conventions that match the time of day, hour by hour, but as with improvisation in general the ability to captivate the audience is key. Contemporary composers often make demands of the audiences with improvisations that exceed conventional time limits as with the texts of “Aus Den Sieben Tagen”; this link provides a large amount of information that may promote further thoughts on the micro and macro us of time in a composition:

Is expectation our only guide? Do composers work in a more purposeful way with time? On You Tube there is a conversation with the composer Enno Poppe where he discusses his cello piece “Zw√∂lf”, he describes the music as a succession of miniatures, lasting three seconds, four seconds, five seconds and so on.

Making progressive numerical patterns is one method of providing the listener with a musical pathway through music, expansions and contractions of figures in time have been commonplace throughout musical history for this very reason, though not in the way Poppe employs expansion.
Poppe also refers at one point to the musical symbolism of the number 12 and makes a claim that without its “mythical” value “12 tone technique would not have been so influential without this aspect”. However one responds to such a statement there is no doubt that number symbolism has played a significant part in music and art over the centuries. As these blogs are concerned with music of the 20th century onwards less will be made of the issue than it deserves, but some points need to be made as they have influenced at least the aesthetics held by composers in approaching space and time in music.
During the medieval period proportion played a significant role in architecture, Platonic ideas were adapted into Christian buildings and number symbolism can be found in many diverse places. An easy to read article dealing with proportion and light can be read at:

(windows at Chartres)

The following passage regarding the sketchbooks of Villard de Honnecourt makes correlations between music and stone:

The proportions of Villard’s Cistercian church designed ad quadratum that is, one proportions are derived from the square which used to determine the dimensions of the entire structure.
The proportions of Villard's Cistercian church correspond to the Boethian sequence of proportions. Nor were his discussions merely theoretical since there is evidence that these plans were employed by Cistercians in the construction of their churches. According to Villard's canons, the length of the cathedrals nave is in the ratio of 2:3 to the transept. This relationship may be considered in the proportion of a fifth in musical terms or a sesquialter in mathematical vocabulary. The ratio of 1:2 (duplex), or the octave, occurs between the side aisles and the nave. We find the same relationship between the length and width of the transept and interior elevation. The ratio of 4:3 of the nave to a choir is a sesquitertial relationship or the musical fourth. 5:4 relationship of the side aisles taken as a unit and the nave is a third or sesquiquartan. The crossing, liturgically and aesthetically the center of the church, is based on the ratio of unison, the mathematical unity, the most perfect of consonances and the foundation for all number.

Whether these descriptions were accurately translated into buildings or not it reveals the intention and more importantly awareness of the potential of space in design. Architecture has certainly made use of the power of proportions, particularly in the use of the golden section. This reaches into musical history via sonata form and Mozart, and remains with us in  post 1950’s music. A balanced view on Mozart and the golden section may be read at:

and more food for thought regarding Bartok and Webern at:

One final example before we return to musical space, this time relating to poetry:

The arithmology of poetry seems … musically inspired. The significant numbers that scholars have found in Dante and Spenser, for instance, are all governed by unmusical principles, such as Christian number symbolism or the Kabbalah. On the other hand, we could take the fourteen-line sonnet as an example of harmonic construction of the most perfect kind. The so-called "octave" of the first eight lines, divided into two quatrains, exemplifies the musical interval of an octave (proportion or 2:1), while the closing "sestet" of six lines relates to it in the proportion of a perfect fourth (8:6 or 4:3). Moreover, each line is an iambic pentameter of five beats, concluded by a pause or rest of one beat. However much rubato is used in an expressive reading, the underlying meter is triple, like a slow 3/2. This may be somewhat elementary mathematics, but so are the perfect consonances and meters that are the basis of all music. A case such as this illustrates the effectiveness of harmonic proportions when applied to other media.

Can pitch selection determine the way space is used in music? Webern comes to mind with his condensed and highly symmetrical constructs. Symmetry defines space and does so in several different ways, previous blogs have touched on symmetrical scales and modes of limited transposition. These create compositions often characterized by a quality of timelessness, Holst and Bax have used them for formal contrast (back to Egdon Heath again) while Vaughan Williams creates a masterpiece of its use in the last movement of the 6th symphony.

Having touched on some aspects of space in music perhaps one should ask at which end of the composing process should one begin? Is it best to consider the scale of one’s music first and then fill in the content or play with the material you chose to develop and permit it to occupy space which may or may not display proportions, symmetries or even number symbolism? For many composers the question does not arise, models are in place for their designs. There is undoubtedly something that pleases in proportional design whether it is experienced walking through Chartres cathedral, perhaps making one’s way through its maze, or listening to the process that generates the climax at the “golden” moment in the ultra-romantic “Ein Heldenleben” (R. Strauss). Having touched on Beethoven in this blog it is well to realise that his sketchbooks often contain verbal comments as indicators of the processes to be worked, there are blank bars, spaces to be realised later or other musical shorthand reminders, all of which imply that the shape of the music was well established even if the details still required work.