Monday, 21 August 2017

Melody and memory

As music moves through time the listener has to process and retain chunks of information while being receptive to new material. One of the most elegant solutions by composers in assisting the listener is the creation of melody. There are various ways of thinking about melody, I like the notion of it being a pathway through a harmonic scheme. Melody is a line, and the best examples have an elegance which assist our memory. While it is a line it is also a chunk (less elegant word) of information in that it is linked with register, rhythm, articulation through dynamics and accents. In terms of human interaction it is what we sing (or whistle) from a composition to show affiliation with the composer. The elegant linear design may be subjected to reduction, expansion (Part’s Frates discussed recently forms an excellent example of the latter), or gradual transformation, but whatever the process the function of aiding memory is paramount.

Let us examine a segment of Scarlatti’s sonata in B minor Kp 377 to see the relationship of melody, harmony and character. The opening is in essence a B minor triad with an auxiliary note A’ leading back to B. The B, A’, B figure becomes a driving 16th note entity several times in the music. The A’/B pair also become a character of the melody by being placed in the upper register (twice with the repeated phrase). Underneath the melody we have a scale falling a sixth from B to G repeated four times, (recall that the opening melody outlines F’ down to A’ then rising to B). At the second part of bar 7 the bass figure is transferred to the upper where we have a run from G to B followed by the driving A’/B 16th notes.

The next section takes the rhythmic chunk of 2 x 16th notes followed by 4 x 8th notes and plays with it over a harmonic sequence, adding trills to make a fall of a fifth as in the opening bar, at the end of the sequence we repeat the driving A’/B figure which itself leads to a long sequence of 2 x 2 bars which is the transition to D major in the sonata design.

From this segment alone we can hear the witty interplay of figures, the chunking of scale and chord with repetitive rhythms and decorations over a static bass figure, preparing us for greater momentum in the second half of the sonata. It is delightful and elegant in forming a pathway through the work by repeated figures, (these as you would expect continue throughout). This seemingly simple two part work is rich in detail, just as required to assist our recall to hear the progression from start to close.

As music extended its scope in time scale and changing key and harmony these melodic chunks became longer and more complex, complex in the sense that the internal structure of the ‘string’ extends and alters, as it does e.g. in the opening movement of Mahler’s 8th symphony.

Bartók, who incidentally studied and admired Scarlatti, made dramatic and fascinating use of melody in his last string quartet. The opening melody introduces each of the movements, gradually extending its length on each hearing, transposed on G sharp, E flat, B flat and back to G sharp. Even in the first movement the theme is long, to my ears it has a basic outline of a rising passage and descending passage followed by a cadence section. Within this general shape there are a number of cells several of which are repeated, especially at the close where we have 01478 x 2 and 0147 sets. The sets have the characteristic of imbrication or if you prefer, overlapping, as may be seen from the second diagram’s opening line.

The building of longer passages from fragments of the melody (particularly through his contrapuntal skills) can be heard as Bartók moves towards the Vivace section, where successive 015 figures lead us into the faster tempo (recall that 0135 is the second of the sets at the opening). The two dotted 8th notes add to the character and forms the chunk that enables recall despite set / harmonic alterations. Between repeated sets, the ascending and descending character (see bar 197 in particular) and the dotted quavers Bartók ensures a clear pathway through the music, music which changes character in such a way that we have little doubt that the work is autobiographic in nature.

Completed in 1939 this music may be heard as backward looking, it has tonal / modal references, the use of folk elements is particularly clear towards the end of the movement, the autobiographic quality makes connections with romantic music (is it me or is there a brief R. Strauss reference in the movement)? Yet for all that the continual changes is like a Picasso portrait where we see an image from several different viewpoints, and as such far more modern than the immediate impression suggests.

portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler Picasso

By 1939 12 note compositions were well known, and according to my suggestion of melody being a significant aspect of retention, these should have been easy to recall because they demonstrate powerful interval structures. Despite the internal repetition of material many of the works require time and effort to recollect after hearing and anecdotal evidence suggests that even a century on there is still difficulty in engaging with this music. As we have seen pitch on its own is insufficient to chunk the material. There has to be character within the information given (as in the leap to A’/B in the opening of the Scarlatti), elegance in the outline, a fusion of parameters to form a chunk and articulation to direct the ear. This can be achieved in serial music or in in any style which creates design with fixed intervals and rhythm. Order alone is no guarantee of memorability.

I would like to finish with the point that melody has evolved as we become used to different long-term patterns of harmony, stepwise motion may give way to wider intervals, tonality altered by different tunings and micro tonality, clusters of events and so on. This third extract is rather beautiful, the opening of Sollazzi’s Evoked Potential Hour- Sea, it seems to move freely but in reality is based around D. It is lyrical, modern and old at the same time, and in that we have another function of chunking and memory, the relationship between our cultural experiences and the new.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The analyst’s toolbox

Making sense of musical information

In recent blogs we have considered the matter of complexity and simplicity in music. Most of us as well aware of the planning that goes into making a coherent pathway through a composition. Many of us have seen the Beethoven sketchbooks and his furious deletions in an effort to find the best of the possible routes to be taken to progress logically through a composition. A coherent pathway is for many listeners essential to the enjoyment of music, and coherence comes through repetition, sequences, confined tonal frameworks, adherence to convention and similar signposts. Without the guides that make a pathway a motorway many listeners give up on the music they hear, but some of us prefer the less well walked routes and a few relish the opportunity to take a risk and endeavour to encounter different landscapes.

Evolution has developed us into creatures that establish pathways through our daily experiences to guarantee our survival. In our time the evolutionary process empowers us by finding patterns of activity in finance, science, literature and the arts, and how we hear music. In order to clarify this let us begin with an extreme viewpoint and examine how we react to randomness. As randomness can mean different things to different people let us use the definition

The quality or state of lacking a pattern or principle of organization; unpredictability.

Randomness is the antithesis of the quality which for many is the essence of art and music, order. Cage’s introduction of indeterminate procedures marks for many the point where sound and music part their ways and all that was familiar becomes alien. However, if we examine our responses to the unpredictable without bias some fascinating aspects come to light.  

Humans are not well designed to accept randomness, we impose by instinct order onto random information and we filter that information to impose a narrative on our experience. One recent example of this revealed itself to the listeners of MP3 music on devices that offered random selection, the problem being that listeners considered the results insufficiently random. The selections were considered to be too closely linked. For an experienced listener one might argue that there may be limits imposed by the listener’s own collection of music, but whatever the restrictions because randomness lacks pattern clusters will occur. The problem for the technicians was how to identify sufficient differences to satisfy the listener’s notion of ‘newness’. The solution to the problem was to shuffle the entire content of the player so that each piece was played once and not played again until all others had their turn. If the owner had 10 different works he or she should have the full range during a run or car journey, but if, like me, you have a large collection you are likely to switch off your player and in this case the shuffle starts again.

So powerful is the characteristic of imposing order on events that it creates life-destroying characteristics, the “gambler’s fallacy”, the notion that a string of losses (denied expectation) means that a win has to occur. Translating this to the MP3 player is like saying “I should have the Tchaikovsky next” when there are several hundred composers on the device.

We are caught in an ancient dilemma, predictable patterns are desirable but we find rapid change both stimulating and worrying, we have to accept that there may be a tiger in the tall grass, as there is in Rousseau’s wonderful painting “Surpris!”

What happens when (if we chose to do so) listen to haphazard, unpredictable successions of sounds? The answer is that at times we will sense continuity which we will cluster into an event and at other times discontinuity, the alteration of these frames will impose over time a sense of order. If restrictions are placed on the origins or nature of the sounds the clusters will be more frequent, and the restrictions may be one of any of the musical parameters.

In the blog on simplicity diagram I marked a point at which musical matter (pitch, rhythm etc.) 'evolves' into information.

How does information arise, how do we recognise it, is it just a process of chunking different materials so that matter evolves into a more distinct form? The following table sets out to categorise the actions we engage in when encountering information, whether organised or not. To demonstrate its use let’s use the opening pages of Ligeti’s Etude No 4 for the piano, “Fanfares”.

Making sense of information

R.H. / L.H. activity
Main design
Rhythm / ostinato 3+2+3
Part to whole
Changing rhythm of dyads (constrained by ostinato)
Progressive change
Expansion of original dyad phrases (imbrication)*
Changes of register
Accents on dyads, suggested bar line downbeat
Bartok dances

*The imbrication or layering of the four lengths are shown by / marks:

First appearance                 

a 3+2+3+3 
b 3+3+2+3 
c 2+3+3+2
d 3+2+3+3 

Second appearance

a 3+2+3+3 
b 3+3+2+3 
c 2+3+3+2

b     3+3+2+3

a         3+2+3+3

Third appearance                b, c, d / c and then a / c / b / a

Though these combinations of 4 length units will not be noticed by the listener they are of some interest to the analyst at this point in that they may predict later events (or not).

We should notice:

A recurrence of particular clusters of information
Particular types of change
A pattern that reveals the rate of change
Some evidence in the opening pages.
Cyclical events
Stability or capriciousness to clusters of events
Lengths of longer phrases between LH / RH exchanges small scale changes

I found this particular approach useful when approaching the Feldman work for Bass Clarinet and Percussion discussed in a recent blog “Space and the composer’s toolbox” and with “Cartridge Music” by John Cage “What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen”.

The difference between indeterminate music and organised music is that the regularity of what we perceive to be a cluster of events is going to be far higher in the latter. The process of articulation in performance plays a significant part in our perception of these clusters; articulation is part of the toolbox for both composer and performer, though in performance they may disagree with each other! Mahler’s use of markings on his symphonic scores should produce greater similarity, but experience shows there is great diversity. Articulation is so important in the process of creating information from text that it deserves a blog of its own.

I shall close with this observation on information:

A piece of information is considered valueless if, after receiving it, things remain unchanged.