Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Has modern music finally exterminated nuance?

I was listening to a podcast on Elliott Carter’s music the other day (Paul Steenhuisen via iTunes), where the discussion lingered on complexity. The composer played down the complexity issue stating that his ideal was to make the music “live in an expressive and meaningful way”. Robert Aitken illustrated the point and referred to a conversation with Carter where the composer, reflecting on a piece written several months earlier stated:

“Bob – you know that E natural ….. I think we should change the dynamic from mp to mf.”

Most composers will have come across a moment in their music which causes them to feel that the flow of the work is hindered, probably not as refined as the example above, but hindered nevertheless by a detail. It reminds me of “Zen and the Art” where the author explains to his non-mechanical friend that correct running of the engine requires precise adjustment with tools that measure in thousands of an inch.

In today’s music there are works where one senses that finding a wrong pitch or a badly articulated event is impossible, perhaps because we are bombarded with information or that the pathways of logic that we are familiar with have been abandoned for an exploration of terrain utterly foreign to us. We know from previous blogs that repeated exposure adjusts our perception of our experiences, we become less shocked, more accepting. We develop our long term memory of events and so associations between prominent landmarks can be established.  I have frequently asked myself if it is easier to recall works like the Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition” or Schumann’s “Carnaval” selected as both vary their material to construct a number of loosely related scenes or Horatiu Radulescu’s “Das Andere” for solo viola

which I believe explores a single compositional intention. Memory permits me to recognise all these works, I could isolate sections of and then sing or whistle the melodies of the earlier works while that is considerably more difficult with the latter; doing so in the street might raise an eyebrow with Mussorgsky or Schumann while attempting Radulescu’s music might see me being taken away to a secure establishment! This is not a value judgement on my behalf, there are many engaging features in all three works. For many people the vocalisation of music (internal or physical) is part of the act of sharing with the composer, as is moving in time to the work. One has to be careful with this argument of selecting fragments, there are parts of Radulescu’s work that remind me of the Bach solo suites and it is possible that given time one simply adjusts to the style. This is the argument applied to Webern (who we are told would sing parts of his works during rehearsal to articulate the phrasing he wanted); Webern’s works have been heard for the best part of a century, it is still rare to hear fragments of them sung in the street.

Before leaving Radulescu may I also suggest for those who are less familiar with his work this video with Roger Heaton discussing “The Inner Time” it includes a score:

Nuance in music is created through the subtle control of rhythm and dynamics. Listen to the Bernstein rehearsals of Mahler on youtube to experience the way he shapes particular phrases. The continual focus on detail is the bedrock of making the performances identifiably his own, it is the process of connotation, the association or referencing of meaning onto the composition which may or may not be as the composer intended. (I suggest listening to Bernstein’s first movement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony as an illustration of the argument, there is a partial recording linked below or the full symphony is available on YT).

How much in depth listening is required to appreciate the nuances in performance in the “complex” world of some new music? The response to this question may be made even more difficult when the composer considers composing outside the structures of pitch organisation.

As my colleague Nurtan Esmen was reading through this blog he suggested that I mention the Murakami book “Absolutely on Music” where his interviews with Osawa focus on Bernstein and Mahler in particular.

There are a number of ways of organising music other than designing structures where pitch dominates. Humans are very good at determining quantities of events and density has a significant part to play in our perception of music. The gradual accumulation or reduction of events can become the basis of design, as could rapid alterations of dense and sparse areas of sound. Previous blogs have dealt with the importance of repetition and to work with this as a composing intention one could take a sample of a sound and repeat with gradual reduction, or reverse the process and start with a fragment and expand. I particularly like technique this when using words that offer new meanings when cut, as in God is love becomes odd is love in one of my R. S. Thomas settings. Expansion could also include interlocking material, nesting one musical chunk inside another. The Part work “Frates” was discussed in an earlier blog, and offers one more conventional example of this process. In the world of sampling transformations are a stock in trade and gradual alteration can become the primary (or sole) characteristic of the music. Transformations can also be applied to pitch, and have been for a long period, as in the opening movement of Mahler’s 8th symphony, or in a more prescribed manner in Maxwell Davies’s music. In an art form that uses a moment to moment argument its use is almost inevitable in one form or another, its use can be as modern or old as the composer wants.

We are very responsive to regular pulses of sound, but we can also expand the pulses to regularity within longer (much longer) periods of time. This is akin to using space as architecture. The placement of music within the golden section is familiar to those who enjoy Bartok and Radulescu but there is no limit to working other proportions which may be populated with sonic events of any description. On a personal level I find that playing with our experience of time has great potential for relating psychology and art, this is not new as can be seen in Dali’s work The “Persistence of Memory” which in the painter’s own symbolizes “the passing of time as one experiences it in sleep or the persistence of time in the eyes of the dreamer.”

When nuance is considered in music we think of elegant and refined control in performance established through many hours of rehearsal and research into the composer’s intentions. The performer or conductor works to produce characteristic phrases, which in context become part of the (reproducible) performance. When recorded the mannerisms are fixed in time and we identify the product as a collaboration between composer and interpreter. Many modern composers have searched for methods of producing music which is more than superficially different each time, in relation to nuance the result is its erosion close to a point of extinction.

When a composer’s score is hugely complex and multilayered repeated performances by individuals will have greater degrees of dissimilarity, (we may disregard performance errors which may or may not be of great significance to the intention of the work). Recording the music gives the performer the opportunity to rework passages, but this may be outside the intention of the composer, after all there is a particular quality to music which is one performance in one place at one time.

Nuance offers the listener the opportunity to use the experience of listening to compare and determine (if of an analytical viewpoint) the quality of a performance, it may also make one performance “sing” where another is more pedestrian.

In techniques of acting we think of nuance as an embellishment which highlights character traits, posture, poise, mannerisms and so on. Music as art expressed in time has something, if not many things, in common with drama. Even music which makes every effort to avoid the types of narrative depicting a Don Juan or Quixote will inevitably have stylistic mannerisms when they are performed by humans. Composers plan and carefully execute their designs, a gradual acceleration, crescendo and increase of density with contrapuntal voices can often be found in Maxwell Davies’s music as a device to create a climax point, but the conductor will also shape that intention. Is the score to be taken as a blueprint or a guide?  

These blogs have restated many times that our minds are fashioned to build narratives into the most complex or sparse designs. In psychological terms we have strong reactions to both over and under stimulation. Musicians have a long tradition of working abstract designs but once these are in the hands of performers the music breathes (consider Bach’s A minor Two Part invention No XIII).

There may be nuances of character in a play that are exterior to the script but essential in the delivery of the character, the gestures and tone of voice that Othello makes to demonstrate love, doubt, jealousy are all essential to our belief that this noble man can be corrupted. The gradual process of change brings about certain arrival points where the alteration is unmissable. In the past music was full of these arrival points; I was reminded of this listening (in particular) to the middle movement of Sibelius’s firth symphony conducted by Sakari Oramo. The layering of different characters (the sustained chords, the pizzicato figures and the melody) along with the conductor’s flexibility of tempo made the movement compelling listening. If one plays Brian Ferneyhough’s “lemma-icon-epigram” after the Sibelius and considers points of arrival, these are there to be heard, what is more difficult to ascertain is the type of relationship between the component parts.

Recent musical trends have gone further than ever in challenging the listener’s attention, this is justifiable as the listener is privileged to turn off or walk away at any time. It is also justifiable in that music has always presented us with challenging and/or puzzling moments, e.g. the purpose and design of the Quodlibet in Bach’s Goldberg variations or the presence of the Dancing Letters in Schumann’s “Carnaval”. Once we were invited to dwell on intentions, today there is less of the invitation and more direct challenge.

Returning to the dynamic of the E natural at the start of the blog a case can be made for questioning how loud a particularly important event in a work should be played, a controlled dim. from fff to mp over 4 demisemiquavers within a complex passage with multiple events raises different issues.

Most teachers of composition know the trick of presenting their pupils with the question “Why did you use that chord at that point? Now they can be even more irritating and question its density in relation to the others, the play of dynamics, its place in the time scheme and so on, all of this is fascinating to those with time and purpose to enquire but perhaps the essential question is does it satisfy the demands of the listener?