Music: Form and Material

I will start this off with some definitions, so non-musicians can follow along. Music: the organization of sounds in time. Form: The structure by which sounds are organized. Composition: the act of organizing musical material, usually by deciding which sounds (or materials) should be used and what form should be used for organizing the piece. MAX: a popular program for electronic music composition that I don’t use anymore because I’m cheap. KYMA: an extremely expensive hardware / software package used for electronic music composition (that I know nothing about yet, except that I’m too cheap to buy it.) Protools: awesome hardware /software package for doing audio editing, which I’m willing to shell out cash for.

Yesterday, the TA guy for my school positted that there should be no difference in compositional process for electronic music vs acoustic music. This alarmed me somewhat, but then I remembered that I came here because my grasp of musical form is, um, well, auto-didactic. I usually just stick things together according to how I like them, by sliding sounds around in protools. I really like sonata form, apparently. I always thought of my favorite form as sort of a lopsided palindrome, where I move through a few musical ideas and then repeat them in reverse order, somewhat shorter and usually slightly modified. I visualize this as the listener journeying into the pice and then back out again, like a trip into a sonic landscape or something. I was informed last spring that this is sonata form. Like the Mozart Sonata in B minor (or whatever, I just pulled that example out of my ass). It would probably be better if I used a few different forms rather than writing hundreds of electronic noise sonatas.
Today, I ran into my TA guy at IRCAM, and we talked briefly about the tools of electronic music. He was talking about how KYMA is way better than MAX. However, he noted seriously, he just had a conversation with Jon (the other text sound composing tuba player) about how even the most advanced tools are still not all the way there to completely realize the composer’s vision.
I find this idea to be extremely troubling. I mean, I can see how talking about ideal tools is really useful if you’re going to do research or software development. Making lists of features you might like is really handy if you’re going to program them or somebody else is. But I don’t see what that has to do with the compositional process. Isn’t it like complaining that you can’t play c0 on the flute? (c0 is a really low C, that I think tubas can play, but really I dunno this classical terminology stuff, I’m just trying to sound smart. anyway.) You don’t write for some idealized über-flute, you write for the flute you have. I’m using the flute as an example because about 1.5 years ago, I promised the fabulous Anne Casey that I would write her a piece for solo flute that she, as a hobbyist, would be able to play. I still haven’t written it, although not for lack of thinking about it. I got Robert Dick’s excellent flute book out of the library and read it (it’s more for players than composers) and I made a few sketches and ran them by a flutist, but, alas, they got a thumbs down for actually working. and now, when I’m on the subway, I sometimes imagine the flute and the sounds it makes and try to think of it’s essential flutishness. Because that’s what eludes me. I could just write a melody, but then there would be nothing that made it a flute piece. It could just as easily be for any other instrument in that range. But I want to write something that is fundamentally for the flute and explores some aspect of the flute that is unique to that instrument.
And that’s how I think about material. If you’re going to write a piece, say, for solo triangle, it should be like Lucier’s piece Silver Streetcar. Alvin’s wonderful piece is like half an hour long and it’s for a single, solo triangle. *ding*. But what’s great about it is that the performer is not just tapping out written rhythms that could be written for any instrument. Instead s/he’s exploring the sounds in the triangle. S/he is constantly varying his or her speed, amplitude, the part of the triangle that’s being struck. The performer even grabs part of the triangle to dampen it and is constantly moving his or her hand, changing locations on the triangle and strength of grip, etc. The piece is fantastic live. And the material instructs the form. the player explores different configurations of hand position, amplitude, speed and striking location by cycling through them according to an algorithm. When s/he finishes the algorithm, the piece is done.
The idea of having some sort of vision outside of the available material is . . . (I’m sorry for the slander) modernist! Composition as a realization of a platonic form! And what is a composer then, but a brilliant visionary who tries (alas in vain) to realize his or her vision onto the imperfect world? Our pieces are, alas, shadows on the cave wall, but eventually, as technology develops, we may come closer to the objects carried in front of the flame, or even, dare I mention it, the sun itself!
I had a conversation last night, over too many beers, about why we compose. One fellow positted that it’s because we all think we’re clever. Ahem, well, there’s that. But really, I compose because it makes me happy and I like to do it. Sitting in front of my synthesizer trying to come up with an interesting texture is a joy. It makes me feel good. Even writing supercollider code (which is not as much a joy) makes me happy. I do it because I can and when the money runs out, I’ll go back to engineering and keep myself happy by composing on evenings and weekends. Some people hike, some people play sports, some people knit. I compose. It’s more important than a hobby, in that I derive some of my sense of identity from it, but I don’t know about this notion of Artist with a capital A or composer with a capital C. Yeah, I’m clever. But anybody who had the patience and access to equipment could learn to do the kind of noise music that I did for years and I don’t say that to slight my own work. I spent a lot of time figuring out how to use my tools and I’ve thought deeply about it. But that doesn’t give me access to capital T Truth, because there is no such thing. Modernism is a lie.
My supercollider pieces are NOT sonata form, mostly. The explore some phenomenon for some amount of time. For instance, with my Anne Coulter piece, they use material that contains a lot of nonsense and cross-talk. So the algorithm highlights those two features by manipulating the material in an ironic manner. I figured out how fast to change it and how long for it to go by getting feedback from people. But the form itself was implicit in the material and the idea. My Rush Limbaugh piece uses what was supposed to be the third section of “Coulter Shock” (but she was droning on for too long) and looks at pitch of speech and how subtext become clearer on repeated listening. Again, the duration came from listener feedback as did the time changes. And again, the material dictated the form. My just intonation pieces mostly use a particular algorithm to move from one pitch to another. When they finish the sequence, they’re done. I used my taste to set durations and I put a bunch of bell sounds at the end of one of them because I wanted it to sound more funeral. But the form is implicit in the material and the ideas are implicit in the material. How could you have a non-material idea?
Michael Nyman’s book Experimental Music creates a binary opposition between European Art Music and American Experimentalism. I was dubious of this distinction, but I think I’ve just run into it. Experimental music explores something that exists in physicality. It’s definite ties to the real world imply a rejection of holy and pure Ideas of Art and thus the whole genre is implicitly post-modern.
Therefore: The TA is right, there is no difference between composing acoustic music and composing electronic music. In both cases, the composer has to examine the material, figure out what is fundamental to the material. The fundamental ideas already within the material will suggest an algorithm to explore them and the algorithm contains within in implicitly a form. The composer just needs to decide how much detail to include: enough so that the idea gets across but not so much that the listener gets bored. The composer then is clever, but is hardly communing with a sacred platonic form. The role of the artist (without a capital A) is a tour guide. “Come here and listen to this. See how this is kind of interesting? Listen to what’s hidden here in this material. Isn’t that cool / disturbing?”
This still leaves the problem of form for noise music. Because synthesized textures are what they are. You can morph them over time so that their composition is clear, but that’s not necessarily interesting. What’s interesting in noise music is just the sounds themselves. The composing of noise is the creation of the materials and the dropping them into some sort of form. The material is all created, so it suggests nothing implicitly, unless there’s intentional tuning stuff happening. It’s more like traditional composing of ensemble music. Therefore, if I’m going to keep sharing the results of having fun with my synthesizer, I need to look at forms the same way a European Art Music composer would. Noise is more traditional, in that way, than my other genres(!).
It will be a year of noise music, then. And this is a good thing because I still love making textures, but I think I’m done with sonatas.
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Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

2 thoughts on “Music: Form and Material”

  1. “The idea of having some sort of vision outside of the available material is . . . (I’m sorry for the slander) modernist!”

    But on the other hand, it’s kind of wonderful when an artist is able to reference/describe/share a vision using the “limited means” of music, ie the beautiful assymetry of antique Turkish rugs in Feldman’s pieces. But Feldman’s approach was a bit more humble than Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. Maybe it’s the “gesamt” part that causes problems?

  2. Celeste:
    For most of the modernist period, into, maybe, the late ’80’s, the general assumption was that new music HAD to be hard to play. Otherwise, if it was too simple it might indicate that the composer wasn’t up to the challenge.

    But a lot of new music since then is actually very simple. Feldman’s music is mostly simple, but he wrote it in such a way that the notation made it look hard. That was his little game with the performers.

    Write that flute piece. It doesn’t have to be hard. There’s a lot you can (still) do with just four notes, even.

    I hate it when young composers think they have to throw every “advanced” technique into a 5 minute piece.

    Oh, and read Kyle Gann’s blog

    cheers from Oakland.

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