Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Blog Relaunch

Welcome back everyone--for those of you that might be out there, anyway. I am, to some extent, relaunching my blog. Due in no small part to the redesign and relaunch of my website. I would like to get back to blogging more. We'll see how that goes. In the meantime...there are the older posts!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Busoni, Prophecy and Objectivity

I finished reading Busoni's Sketch of a New Musical Aesthetic. It is, apparently, one of the important early 20th century aesthetic works. Busoni laments the state of music (lamenting not uncharacteristic for Busoni, whose most well-known works are Elegies) and has a few interesting contributions to musical thought. Perhaps I'm understating that a bit--so let me put that into context.

When Busoni was writing his "Sketch," Europe was still enraptured with the late Romantic works of Wagner, Liszt, et al. Tristan und Isolde was not quite half a century old and Richard Strauss' Elektra and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder had yet to reach the world. It was with these two works (particularly Elektra) that the Romantic era came to an end. So, when Busoni was putting to paper his aesthetic musings, composers had not yet come to face the hard problem of music in a post-Wagnerian age.

In this regard, Busoni's writings are ahead of there time.

It might not be coincidental that Schoenberg had started to eschew tonality a few short years after the publication of Busoni's book. Indeed, several passages in Sketch of a New Musical Aesthetic appear to be incredibly anticipatory of Schoenberg's own treatment of harmony.
Strange that one should feel major and minor as opposites. They both present the same face [...] and a mere touch of the brush suffices to turn the one into the other. The passage from either to the other is easy and imperceptible; when it occurs frequently and swiftly, the two being to shimmer and coalesce indistinguishably.--But when we recognize that major and minor form one Whole with a double meaning [...] we arrive unconstrainedly at the perception of the UNITY of our system of keys. The concept of "related" and "foreign keys vanish, and with them the entire intricate theory of degrees and relation. We possess one single key. [emphasis original]
This can only be considered prophetic.

Busoni is also of the Objectivist school of musical though:
[...] [R]epresentation and description are not the nature of music; herewith we declare the invalidity of program music[...].

In reality, program music is precisely as one-sided and limited as that which is called absolute. In place of architectonic and symmetric formulas, instead of the relation of Tonic and Dominant, it has bound itself in the stays of a connecting poetic--sometimes even philosophic--program.

True, there are unequivocal descriptive effects of tone-painting (from these the entire principle took its rise+, but these means of expression are few and trivial, covering but a very small section of musical art. Begin with the most self-evident of all, the debasement of Tone to Noise in imitating the sounds of Nature--the rolling of thunder, the roar of forests, the cries of animals; then those somewhat less evident, symbolic--imitations of visual impressions, like the lightning-flash, springing movement, the flight of birds [...] These are auxiliaries, of which good use can be made upon a broad canvas, but which, taken by themselves, are no more to be called music than wax figures may pass for monuments. [emphasis added]
Busoni goes on to echo man of Hanslick's indictments of music as a means of expressing human emotions--that music cannot represent as object things which are essentially concepts.

This is somewhat puzzling to me as it seems outrightly contradictory to Busoni's thoughts in the very first chapter of his sketch:

Art-forms are the lasting, the more closely they adhere to the nature of their individual species of art, the purer they keep their essential ends.
Sculpture relinquishes the expression of the human pupil, and effects of color; painting degenerates, when it forsakes the flat surfaces in depiction and takes on complexity in theatrical decoration or panoramic portrayal.
Architecture has its fundamental form, growth from below upward, prescribed by static necessity; window and room necessarily provide the immediate and finishing configuration; these are eternal and inviolable requirements of the art.
Poetry commands the abstract thought, which it clothes in words. More independant than the others, it reaches the furthest bounds.
But all arts, resources and forms ever aim at one end, namely, the imitation of nature and the interpretation of human feelings. [emphasis original]
Strange. Not only is this contradictory, but Busoni never resolves this. If the goal of all art is to imitate and interpret human feelings, but music is impotent to do so, how precisely do we arrive at accomplishing this through music?

For this reason, it seems to me that Busoni has some interesting approaches to some of the problems of the aesthetics music--and has some very compelling and admirable prophesies!--but has little to offer the field as a whole. His music is great though!

Friday, August 27, 2010

On Hanslick's "On the Musically Beautiful"

I finished reading Eduard Hanslick's "On the Musically Beautiful" last week. In many ways it is very clearly a product of its time and in one very surprising way it is ahead of its time (this will be addressed later).

Hanslick's critique of musical meaning is elegantly stated (if, at times, belabored and redundant). By contrast his attempt at a scientific analysis of what constitutes "beauty" in music is less than cogent.

He attempts to argue that "imagination" is that which endows a musical work with "beauty." His approach to this is based on a sort-of "it couldn't be this, so it must be this" mode of reasoning. In addition to being a shaky (nay, invalid) approach to philosophical (let along "scientific") argument, it seems to me that it does not necessarily follow, particularly in light of (and possibly in conflict with) his argument regarding "meaning" in music.

In short Hanslick argues (with absolutely success, in my opinion) that music is impotent to
convey emotions. This is a limitation, in some way, of all the arts: a painting cannot convey anything, it can only depict a set of circumstances--the meaning, he maintains, is extra-depictorial. For example, a painting of Prometheus Bound does not itself convey to us anything about the tragedy--it is only a depiction of a man chained to a rock being attacked by an eagle.

So it is with music, in fact music is far more limited in its power to depict. Painting can depict objects through literal representation (albeit, in two dimensions), it can depict actions (albeit as still-life). Music can only depict action as music exists only in time and not as object (although, this is itself a complicated aesthetic question!). So, music can convey events to the listener by imitating them (this is how we know music is depicting a storm, or the wind, or the ocean)--music conveys actions through abstraction. Music cannot convey abstractions, i.e. emotions.

So, this raises the question, what is imagination? How is it that the creative act (composing) endows a musical artifact with beauty? It seems to me that the notion of "imagination" is every bit as abstract as love or longing. If music cannot convey love or longing, how can music convey imagination? If love and longing are extra-musical interpretations, how is imagination any less extra-musical? So, in short, positing that imagination is the substance of beauty seems to me to be classic question-begging.

To be sure, I think there is an answer to this question--but Hanslick fails at answering it.

I will say, one of the things that frustrates me about a large portion of aesthetic writings I've encountered so far is their penchant for prescription. Many philosophers make descriptive statements about music and proceed to make prescriptive statements (Aristotle, for example) that do not follow from the description--you can't say what should be the case from what is the case. It's a fallacy that many otherwise good philosophers fall victim to when dealing in aesthetics and as such, I appreciate Hanslick's assiduous avoidance of the problem (this problem is known as Hume's Guillotine).

What's incredibly forward-thinking about Hanslick's book is his speculation regarding neurology (this struck me as being very similar to Darwin's speculations regarding DNA). At the time biology understood the physiology of the ear and they knew about neurons and the interaction of the body with the brain through the nervous system. What wasn't understood was exactly how the nervous system interacted with the brain--how were the stimulations sent through the tiny fibers transfered into the grey-matter and turned into sensations? Hanslick, in 1854, was already speculating that many of the answers to questions regarding musical perception and sensation are to be found in the study of the brain and the physiological interactions between the ear and the brain.

That, in my opinion, is stunningly brilliant thinking in the neurological dark-ages!

There have been several books published on this topic (books by Patel, Levitin and Huron to name only a few). The technology is still new and the extent of the research is still comparatively tiny--however, this has been one of the most fascinating and insightful areas of research into music to date (obviously, I suppose). There will no doubt be many more insights to be gained from neurology and this will certainly be an important facet to our understanding of aesthetics in the future.

We should, as Hanslick, assiduously avoid prescription, even in light of anything neurology might tell us.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sylvano Bussotti and Aleatory

One of, by far, the most interesting artistic developments in the post World War II generation was that of aleatoric music. This procedure of composition crossed the Atlantic with the likes of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earl Brown, who--like so many composers of the time--were drawn to the Darmstadt Summer Music Courses. Each of these composers contributed something new to the mix.

John Cage had started the idea and had explored many different ways of taking elements of musical composition out of the hands of the composer and putting them into the hands of the performer(s). His approach typically involved employing the I-Ching as a compositional "magic 8-ball." His most expansive use of this approach was in his "Music of Changes" (which is a direct reference to the I-Ching, which is called "the book of changes"). When Cage had first developed this method of composition he had called it "chance procedure." The process was later taken and adapted by Pierre Boulez and called "aleatoric."

Morton Feldman contributed "graphic notation," a system so called because Feldman's initial compositions in this style we're made on graph paper. Feldman's most expansive use of graphic notation is in his collection of pieces called "Intersection." There are a series of works, each for different instruments (two of which are for piano). In these pieces Feldman write numbers in any of a set of three rows of boxes; the upper most row indicates the high resister, the middle row indicates the middle register and the low, of course, the low register. The numbers in the boxed indicates the number of notes to be played in the indicated register.

Earl Brown, possibly the most important for this discussion, contributed the elimination of anything resembling usual notation. His first work in an aleatoric style is "Folio and Four Systems" and uses a completely different approach to notation. It's hard to say what it is exactly, but somehow the markings on the pages of this score are the vehicle for some sort of musical event. Brown has various compositions which combine somewhat "normal" notation with a wide variety of graphic notation (sometimes scribbles, some times shapes, so on). In many of Brown's works, the intent is that the shape or gesture of the notation prompt the performer(s) to mimic the shape or gesture.

In Europe, the notion of "chance music" was at the complete opposite end of the creative spectrum. Europe, and particularly the composers of the Darmstadt School, had become obsessed with absolute control over the musical substance. This search for control was a logical out-growth of Schoenberg's 12-tone method. The control exerted over the musical tones of a composition was soon expanded to the rhythm, durations, timbres, registers and dynamics of the musical fabric. This was "total serialism," or, as it is sometimes called, "multi-serialism." Total serialism inevitably led to the development of electronic music--but we will discuss that in another post.

Composers who were seeking something new, something other than total serialism, were drawn to John Cage's chance procedures. Sylvano Bussotti was one such composer (though it should be noted that chance procedures were used by total serialists, Boulez and Stockhausen among them).

Bussotti is a veritable Renaissance man. He is talented as a painter, poet, novelist, photographer, director and composer. Many of his works are as visual (both in a theatrical approach to performance and the appearance of the written page) as they are sonic [see the picture above].

The picture you see is the first piece in a work by Bussotti, "Fogli d'Album (1984)." It is a work for solo piano. It is a set of 13 pieces, each piece is one page and has musical notation in various places of photographs. Some of the notation is fairly traditional (as in the photo above) and some if graphic. The composers own performance of this work lasts just over 50 mins. The picture above is extracted from another work by Bussotti, his "RARA Requiem." Extracting parts of a larger work for presentation as a solo work is quite common for Bussotti, and not too uncommon for other composers of the time.

Of this work (i.e. Fogli d'Album), the composer has said: "The ideal performance[. . .] would be where sound managed to incorporate the actual taking of and impression left by the photograph. This would be rewarding for those who simply wish to look at these works and those who wonder what they actually sound like."

I had listened to the recording of this work before I received the score for it (the score is actually not published for sale--that's an interesting story in itself) and when I had sat down with the score and the recording I was puzzled. (I was astounded by the score when I first opened it--I had never seen music like this before!)

What was puzzling to me was how much the composer departed from what was written on the page. Now it seems that I should have expected as much! I emailed the composer about this work and about his performance of the work and asked him to clarify some things for me. Bussotti, however, does not speak a word of English. He forwarded my email to a friend of his in California, Luciano, and we discussed the work.

Bussotti, I was told, is not concerned with whether or not the perform plays the musical notation. His interest, instead, is on the performer spontaneously composing his impression of the page--the photo, the music, the interaction of the two.

What this work represents is a reversal of the usual imagination/musical conception. In other words: We are used to the notion of hearing a piece of music and, in our minds, creating an imagine, a scene, a story. This is almost second nature when hearing a piece of music--we almost can hear music WITHOUT seeing a picture. How odd is it then to be given the picture and also the music which accompanies it!

It is this factor, the picture preceding the music, which makes this set of pieces intimate as a piece of art. Bussotti put it nicely: "[T]he way the score is written out is a direct expression of the way the composer thinks."

I would add, that given the nature of the role of the performer--that of spontaneous improvisateur--the way these pictures are rendered is a direct expression of the thoughts of him as well.

Bussotti suggests that a performance of "Fogli d'Album" be an audio/visual performance, with the score projected on screen for the audience to see. As I record and upload these pieces to my youtube channel, each recording will be accompanied with the picture of the score and (where available) the original photograph.

Here are some of the more interesting works by Bussotti available for viewing on youtube:

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Feldman In My Life*

In an effort to keep my youtube channel regularly updated, I've decided to start a project I've been planning for some time. When I bought my laptop, I also bought recording equipment for it. When I finally bought my piano, I began making plans to produce my own recordings.

Recording the piano works of Morton Feldman has long been a part of my plans.

Feldman's compositional output for the piano falls into two basic groups; ubiquitously, the early works and the late works. The early works (those published, at least) span the decades from 1950 to 1964. The works, while not serial, owe much to Feldman's style; soft, short, terse. They range in length from a few lines to several pages and the temporal lengths are highly variable (Feldman provided metronome markings as ranges rather than explicit BPM's). The late works begin in the late 70s, with the publication of "Piano." This work begins to move towards many of things found in Feldman's late style; repetition and length. "Piano" does not exhibit the obsessive repetitions to be found in "Triadic Memories," published four years later.

"Piano" very clearly bridges the gap. Some of the early works begin to look forward to Feldman's obsession with repetition (the end of "Intermission 5" is a good example). "Piano" builds on this and adds modestly to the duration (by comparison, "Intermission 5" is roughly 5-6 minuets and "Piano" is roughly 20-30, depending on the tempo).

Length was increased exponentially in Feldman's next two works for the piano. "Triadic Memories" is a 90 minuet epic and "For Bunita Marcus" follows closely behind at 80 minuets (again, depending on tempo). These two works are highly repetitive, often with subtle permutations of rhythm to ensure that the listener have something to listen to. The length of these two works, and their repetitive nature, might seem off-putting to most listeners. Once the listener settles into the aesthetic Feldman is employing, the works become rich and dramatic in their own way.

A handy literary comparison would be that of "On Love and Barley" by Basho. While the Haiku's are not repetitive and the length of the individual poems might not be comparable, if one reads the entire collection of poems, the rhythmic composition of the Haiku becomes entrancing.

"Palais de Mari" closes the late works with palindromic satisfaction. "Palais de Mari" is a return to the sensibilities of "Piano" both in length and the use of repetition.

I will begin my project with the early works, though not in chronological order. There are also a handful of pieces for piano that are earlier than the published works or which have not be published. I've contacted the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basil. They are the owners of the manuscripts of these works. I hope to be able to obtain copies and also record them.

The project will be two-sided. I will record video performances which will be posted on my youtube channel. I will also record audio performances which I will produced and edited. The audio recordings will eventually be put on CD and made commercially available. I also hope to record the late works--eventually. I want to set my goals where I know I can reach them for the time being!

This will all begin as soon as I have my piano tuned!

*This is a reference to the title of one of Feldman's ensemble works.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

4'33": A Closer Listen

Those who don’t know exactly who John Milton Cage, Jr. is, usually know about a piece of music that is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence.” I say “silence” because John Cage did not believe that silence exists, as such, and as the readers of my previous post will know, pointed to the lack of silence even when one is placed in an anechoic chamber. In any case, 4’33” is an almost ubiquitous piece of music, and can be found in all manner of “arrangements” for various instrument groups (it should be noted, though, that John Cage had himself composed “sequels” to the work involving different durations of time and different ensembles, though, clearly, none as successful—or perhaps, groundbreaking is the word).

When I was an undergraduate the work was a lark and students often joked about using it to fill recital time requirements, or performing it as an encore, or composing a theme and variations on it, or some other absurd pastiche. . .

The work, I admit, was absurd to me at the time and I took part in the caricatures of its substance.

It was absurd until I read the lectures and essays of John Cage; henceforth, the work has borne a peculiar sapience.

The most common interpretation of 4’33” (and that which implied in the clip above) is that what constitutes the piece is the ambient noise of the hall; the coughs in the audience, the hum of the ventilation system, passing traffic, so forth. This is true, but only in the most shoal consideration. This is, and is the only candidate, for the substance of the piece—non-musical noises. Considered in this light the piece can be little more than quaint. Separate from its philosophical genesis, it is not profound in the least—which is precisely while the piece is so
ripe for satire.

Cage was taking the next step in a journey which had been initiated by Arnold Schoenberg. In his book “Silence,” Cage says that Schoenberg had sought to make available all vertical combinations of notes (where previously, rules of tonal harmony reigned) and that he (Cage) believed that in the future composers would have at their disposal all musical tones and all “noises.”

(As a side note, I think that the gradual expansion of “battery” percussion through the 19th century helped prepare the way for Cage’s hope.)

When Cage really wanted to compose using “noise” he was very specific in going about it. As was seen in the clip in the previous post, Cage meticulously wrote out the instructions for reproducing his event pieces. So, why is 4’33” different?

In his film “The Alchemist,” Bruno Monsaingeon has a conversation with Glenn Gould about the reception of 20th century music in modern audiences (in the 1970s) and Gould makes an interesting point about Cage’s music:

“I think what John Cage would want us to know is not his music, it is his belief; that there is one perceiver which also has a reflexive angle and that is the doer as well, and the listener and the maker are intermingled.”

So what does that mean?

There is an almost religious hierarchy in classical music. There is the composer that is analogous to god, a performer that is analogous to a high priest, and an audience (that needs to analogy). This dynamic can be pernicious—it removes the composer from the audience and their only interaction is through the medium (almost in both senses of the word) of the performer.

Music only exists as an action, not as an object, and so its essence is dependent upon its reception—if a tree falls and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound? So what Cage accomplishes in 4’33” is the unification of both sides of the musical experience—that of composer and audience—and brings them together, eliminating the need of a performer.

But he does more than this.

The content of the piece of music is entirely wrapped up in the perception of it—not only does the work not exist as an object, but the audience is composing the work as they perceive it! Thus, as Glenn Gould noted: listener and maker and intermingled (and quite nearly unified).

Cage, then, is making two statements. One artistic and one philosophical.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Discussing the Definitions of Music

If this is to be a blog about the various aspects of music, it might be beneficial to discuss just what music is. Defining music, it should be understood (and perhaps, even, go without saying), is wrought with not only philosophical difficulties (those of defining its aesthetics and hermeneutics) but also practical problems (those of actual practices)—this is, of course, bypassing the question of taste (or, opinion) entirely. Thus, be forewarned, what ensues can only be considered intellectual meanderings on a few of the more interesting definitions of music.

There are three definitions of music which will be considered. The first is the work of my musicology professor, the late Irving Godt; the second a general definition of whose attribution I am unaware; the last is a definition by Carl Rakhonen, an ethnomusicologist.

When I was an undergraduate music history major, all of the students of Music History I were required to know this definition. Irving Godt, it might be worth noting, was part of the “old school” of musicologists, who—while not confined to “traditional music” entirely—tend to be conservative in their estimation of contemporary art. His definition and discussion can be found here.

The second: Music is the organization of sound and silence.

Carl Rakhonen is the Music Librarian at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is one of the most interesting ethnomusicologists and music librarians I have had the pleasure to meet; though, granted he is the only one I have met—I imagine that his personality traits are prerequisites to his job description. His definition of music is simple and to the point:

Music is an accoustical phenomenon that is whatever a particular people say that it is.

To discuss:

Both the second and third fit readily into contemporary thought, while the first can seem highly exclusive. While the second and third best reflect contemporary thought, it is the first that is most readily accepted by the majority of both learned musicians and the lay public. That this first, seemingly exclusive, definition of music is the most widely accepted can be seen in the resistance of the majority of audience members to musical aesthetics which lie outside of the first definition.

How many times have you been to a concert and heard something like this?

The first definition is problematic due to the amount of grey area created by an evolving aesthetic—it excludes to a degree not clearly defined; thus, since we cannot define, in an objective way, the parameters set out by this definition, we cannot successfully decide that which is and that which is not "music" (at least not in any universally agreeable way). Discussion of music in the terms laid out by this definition would be preoccupied with the degree to which a particular piece of music adheres to the aesthetic principles therein. In short, it would lead to “hair splitting” and would offer little objectivity, though it appears at first glance to be highly elucidated.

The second definition is less problematic except, perhaps, on a purely philosophical level. To explain: If sound is the opposite of silence and it can be demonstrated that the opposite of sound (i.e. silence) does not exist, what is there to differentiate between music and any other noise?

Followed to its logical conclusion, this approach to musical thought resulted in Cage's "event" pieces (the execution of instructs to produce noise in a controlled way, as in the clip above) and his application of chance procedure, wherein he applied parameters to systematically remove the composer from the equation of musical creation (as counter intuitive as that might sound; chance procedure will have to be discussed in another post).

Cage gives example that even in an anechoic chamber, where no artificial sound is produced, the subject within those conditions would still hear (1) the sound of their own nervous system functioning and (2) the sound of their own circulatory system. Thus the question is raised, if sound is always a part of existence can it then be regarded as an artistic medium or simply as a condition of life?

The composer is simply superimposing sounds which are selected and executed in duration, timbre and morphology against sounds of similar characteristics which are not selected. Where, then, does the actual music lie? Since sound always fills a controlled musical objective (i.e. a piece of music), does that which is not controlled bear any less "musical" ends?

So, is it music? This question need not be asked on the grounds of personal hermeneutics. In this context, though, it becomes a potentially devastating question. If this question is asked of music of the 20th and 21st century, then it can equally be asked of the music of the 18th and 19th century. The only differences that might be notable are the intent of the composers and the process of selecting sounds. But this, too, becomes subjective and illusive. As the only differences between composers of the past and composers of the 20th and 21st centuries are the precess and the materials (this, too, will be saved for a later discussion).

Perhaps the only definition that is not philosophically dangerous and allows for all of the grey areas of an evolving aesthetic is that of Carl Rakhonen. John cage would have agreed with Carl Rakhonen, Irving Godt did not (they often debated their definitions of music). The trick is getting more people to understand music in terms of the Rakhonen definition.