Music Theory: Live Burial in the Solar Anus by Aaronsen P.T. Bell
I’m not a music critic. I don’t think that I’m qualified to be one. Mostly because I don’t know what the hell people mean when they say “music.” I don’t even know what I mean when I say “music.” I do say: Bounce a basketball once, and there’s your first symphony. If you’re not satisfied, get more basketballs. Maybe throw in (and throw downward) a medicine ball or a crystal ball.
I am a huge proponent of musicologist Christopher Small’s idea of musicking. Here’s what Small has to say about musicking, according to Wikipedia:
The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They are to be found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance; and they model, or stand as metaphor for, ideal relationships as the participants in the performance imagine them to be: relationships between person and person, between individual and society, between humanity and the natural world and even perhaps the supernatural world. 1
The makings of an act of musicking are chaotic, complex, extremely elusive. No two listeners agree on the significance of a composition and the fashion in which it is performed; no two listeners use the same language, or regard the same aspects of some musical event. But there tends to be a quiet agreement about importance, and about how a piece should or is intended to evoke some sensation, even in the absence of such a claim from the composer or performer.
But it’s still uncomfortable, and I am unwieldy with the musicking idea because:
1) It’s hard to say when an instance of musicking ends, if you’re into rigid definition–if you’re still fresh to the social sciences and generic theory and Marxism (!!!), that is. Carnegie Hall hasn’t collapsed yet, so why not say that the first instance of musicking about the first “piece of music” played there is still happening?
2) In talking about musicking, it becomes impossible to evade discussion about the political ramifications of a “piece of music” being performed. You have to take into account where it’s performed, how it’s presented, who capitalizes on it… who is excluded from experiencing it, on what grounds are they excluded. You have to think about who’s making the piece, who commissioned it (if anyone), who’s recording it, who’s distributing it, promoting, selling tickets to the performance of it, who built the venue, why the venue was chosen, what kind of neighborhood the venue is in, how much tickets cost, whether or not there’s an interpreter if there are lyrics being spoken or sung, if the joint is accessible to those who can’t walk, those who can’t see, on and on and on. Every thing, every event becomes exceptional through this view (within reason, within one’s perception).
3) Formal musical concerns, in and of themselves, dissolve under this sort of musicological lens. That is to say: I am not certain that there is any quality peculiar to any subset of pieces of Euro-American “art music” (example subsets: Baroque; Viennese Baroque; Viennese Late Baroque; Bach’s compositions; Bach’s Chaccone in D minor) that necessarily catalyzes or begets the reactions we have to elements of that subset, or sources the conventions around a performance of that piece.2 A Hindemuth sonata (which one, of the millions?) probably isn’t any more fitting for the gentry than the sound of Yamantaka Eye driving a backhoe through the venue wall… not for reasons beyond our own making, and beyond concerns with genre and precedent.
4) Rummaging through dated music theory texts through this lens leads to a redoubling of my belief that the limitations of one’s enjoyment of sound or sounds are defined only by belief and normativity. It seems that there comes a point where a piece isn’t bad for not conforming to some formal concern, but it is completely other, not even worth examination as it is not amenable to examination. I offer two examples:
a) In the mid-13th century, there was a music theorist who modern theorists know as Magister Lambertus. It’s not evident which person that name corresponds to, though–one prevalent theory is that he was a Frenchman who wrote one of the “five major theoretical works from the thirteenth century which deal with the music of Notre Dame.”3 Music historian Willi Apel was kind enough to translate some of Lambertus’ Tractatus de musica in his “Notation of Polyphonic Music”:
“[I]t appears that an imperfect longa [which is a long note] can be executed only in connection with a following or preceding brevis [a term that usually refers to a note half the length of the longa], since a longa and a brevis… together always complete a perfection. Therefore, if someone were to ask whether a mode or a natural song can be formed by imperfect longae [that is, formed of the long note over and over] exclusively just in the same way as it can be formed by perfect longae, the approved answer is: no.”
In less heady terms: According to Lambert, a spokesman for the most visible music school in Europe in the 13th century, an all-quarter-notes melody in a 4/4 time signature was a musical oddity.4 Now, it’s rock’n’roll (and “classical” and blues and metal and polka and funk and and and…) bread’n’butter
b) Arnold Schoenberg is best recognized as the creator of 12-tone technique, the ordering of all 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale, so as to exhaust all 12 notes before repeating any.5 But there is more involved, a lot of shit you can do to such a procession of notes, but it’s a doozy to pack in here. So, if you haven’t heard Schoenberg’s work or read his theory books, check out his Verklarte Nacht, then check out anything he wrote way after he wrote Verklarte Nacht. Maybe read the theory book I’ll mention in a sec. I mention Nacht because it is another venue of musical impossibility. The 40-somethingth bar of this piece features a chord in fourth inversion: The diatonic note immediately above the root of the chord becomes the lowest note in this chord. So as to avoid getting into early music theory, let’s leave it at this: Dude flipped a tall chord upside-down, and it sounded like hot piss to other dudes with money and power and women. In Schoenberg’s “Harmonielehre,” his treatise on composition, he claims that “[i]t is self-evident: there is no such thing as an inversion of a ninth chord; therefore there is no such thing as a performance of it, for one cannot perform something that does not exist. So I had to wait for several years [for someone to perform the piece].” The jury presiding over the programming department of the venue at which his piece was to premiere rejected the piece on the grounds that nobody had thought to write that kind of chord, so nobody should allow that kind of chord to be performed, lest people get the idea that it was socially acceptable to write that kind of chord. Hmph.
In both of these cases, the impossible musical event could be performed mechanically speaking. But, ideologically, it could not. Thinking in terms of musicking, and reading shit like this, I can’t help but wonder what impermeable walls have been set up around me, so as to preclude me from forbidden musical practice, musical practice that I can’t capitalize on, that’s necessarily invisible.
That said, I still think about musical forms and events a lot, on a solely structural level. I tend to do it compulsively. Composition is what I do when I want to do something that I feel is so important that I simply can’t spare the tine to talk to loan officers or people I’ve wronged. So, a quick thought about esoteric structure, and then one more about criticism.
This is the first image that pops up, if you Google “musical palindrome.” I don’t know what the hell it’s from. Looks hard to make happen quickly.
Palindromic musical operations, passages that you can read forward and backward and still end up playing the same thing, those aren’t common. At least, I can’t recall having heard many. It’s hard to make them sound fresh, unless they unfold over a long period of time–and then, it’s hard to make them sound coherent with whatever rules one likely composes by (I have not encountered a great many for whom the only rules are “make some sounds” and “make those sounds backwards”). A composer named Olivier Messaien managed to pull off small-scale palindromic structure in the 1st and 6th movement of his Quatour pour la fin du temps. Igor Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum is very nearly palindromic, if you only listen to the 1st and 5th movement. I couldn’t find scores for to illustrate this fact succinctly, but give them a listen (at least at the beginnings and ends) and you’ll hear it. Fuck me, yeah?
Well, anyway, this palindrome thing… it depends on your frame of reference, the extent of its… palindromocity? Let’s say you hand the above passage to a 3-piece ensemble (piccolo, mini Moog, and muted tuba), and they manage to play it as written. Then, you tell them to play it backwards. They will almost certainly play the same thing, unless they chump a note. You could record the forward and backward performance at the same tempo, and the pitches and rhythms and general contour and texture of each would match up perfect (well… if you totally ignore the fermatas, the little moustache-and-goatee markings).
Something dawned on me a few months ago: A score might be palindromic, but the sound that results from it cannot be reversed and remain the same in some cases! If you take that first recording you made and just play it backwards, the pitches, the rhythms, they’ll still be in the same places. But the “attack,” the “hit,” the “start-sound” of each note (the “bwomp” of the tuba, the “hweeeow” of the Moog, the “fwhih” of the piccolo) will be in a totally different place, and the way the notes swell will change. In that sense, the physical sound, etched into the very fabric of time, is not a palindrome (unless you’re using only sine-wave generators as instruments, as they (ideally) produce no “hit” sound, no “start-sound”… but let’s discard that idea for the purposes of this dribbling).
Creating a “true” musical palindrome would require that the volume of a held note and that onset, that “start-sound,” be… uh… palindromed, as well. This is not a process that I think many performers are prepared to perform–it is a process that some might not be able to perform with their weapon of choice. I can’t conceive of a way in which a guitarist might produce a reverse-note without some serious (and seriously costly) electromagnetic manipulation. Drummers of the world! How the hell might you play a snare hit, in reverse!?
This relationship between that which is notated (in Western Standard notation, mind you) and that which sounds is vexing. It demonstrates, to me, that there’s something lacking, in terms of widely-understood representations of loudness and texture. A bunch of absolutely wacky folk have conceived of sorts of standardized loudness-and-texture notation–cats named Xenakis and Smalley come to mind, most immediately. I like Xenakis’ (check out his screen theory), but it doesn’t work so hot outside of the realm of computers. Computers are money. Money is violence.
Stockhausen is a composer who just sidestepped the whole damn issue of representation; many of his pieces call for a type of action to occur, and he trusted that the specificity with which he decided the type of action would limit the scope of sounds that might occur in light of that action. So, each performance of such a piece is entirely different physically, but is the same or similar experientially. Maybe.
I mention these things not because they’re profound ideas and I feel cool typing them (I’m pretty frustrated, actually, and I feel a bit incomprehensible; the feeling that bats words away; I don’t know how to make these ideas universally understood in only so much space). My hope is that my typing only serves to prompt you to call into question how one represents a musical event, in case you haven’t been exposed to gibberish like the gibberish above.
Some of you reading this swear by Western Standard notation, and mutations thereof. Some of you can’t sight-read worth a damn, and don’t give a damn. I suppose that I’m curious about collecting some perspectives on how people communicate musical ideas. And perspectives on musical structures! Is it sufficient that what is read bears the structural rigor, even if the sound etched in time does not? Jo! Noah! How might we collect some responses to these oh-so-pressing questions!?
I don’t think that any piece of music is Good or Bad, even if its performance causes me physical pain (though, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t listened to… felt? Felt enough persistent, high-power, ultrasonic acoustic emissions to know if I like them or not… does music have to be audible, anyway, man?).
A lotta folk I know tout originality as the sine qua non for Musical Goodness. Originality isn’t a great criterion for quality, to me. Imagine this:
Entity 1 plays what can be fairly called a Piece of Music, and we’ll call that Piece “Piece of Music.” Entity 1 plays “Piece of Music” for you.
Entity 2 plays for you something that you sense is roughly the same piece of music that Entity 1 played, well after Entity 1 did, and even goes so far as to say “I, Entity 2, thought this shit up, and I call it ‘Musical Piece.'”
Is “Musical Piece” worse than “Piece of Music”? In and of itself, I wouldn’t say so. Maybe Entity 2 is an asshole or a plagiarist, but the auditory result of plagiarism could be pretty alright.
So, when we talk about plagiarism, about unoriginality, I think we are talking about it in terms of remuneration, royalty checks, fame, merchandise, big fucking money. The piece that results from plagiarism is not bad; the fact that somebody might get some kind of capital (cultural, monetary) for plagiarism is bad.
This, of course, is a bit of an oversimplification–because there is a difference, in some cases (hip-hop music, hello!) where there’s a fine, fine goddamn line between a bad rip and a sick flip. If you don’t remember Frank Ocean’s “American Wedding,” check that piece out when you have a free moment…
…But I get the sense that I’m running out of space, and running out of steam…
I hope that something I typed here was food for thought. I hope I haven’t been preaching to the choir. I hope that enough people like this so that Jo and Noah and whoever else is involved asks me to do this again, and to really hammer out something gorgeous and concentrated. I guess this is sort of a trial run, to get back into essaying.
Let me know how you feel about it; drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.