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Music and the Nine Deadly Perils

by William Harris

     On any piece of fertile land in a warm climate, a jungle is a natural happening. Parts of it are old and ancestral, other parts are competing for the light, and some is destined never to make it successfully. In a society which has lived a thousand years, the there will be comparable jungles --- impenetrable, self-perpetuating and very confusing.

     Music since the twelfth century has developed just such a jungle of overgrowth. We can try to sort it out as social development in what we call Music History. But for a composer it is still very confusing, all the more so because we learn music from the early stages of life, and absorb along with the beauty and delicacy of the music of each century the formal characteristics of the music of that age. Step by step we move through the jumble of time and into the morass of a musical ROM, remembering every detail in our unconscious mind, until we begin to invent our own voice, our own sound, under the burden of a long past. Rigidified patterns from the ages become the perils of musical inventiveness, and I note a short list of such perils as symptomatic:

  1. Rhythmic repetition and rhythmic even-ness, which come from early use of music as accompaniment and regulator of the steps for popular dance. As workers move better to a chantey, or soldiers march to a drum or song, so dancers need a beat for their feet. This persisted into musical forms as the Gigue, the Allemande and all the elements of the Baroque Suite (which was finaly no longer a dance mode). Rock, Country and Jazz music still lockstep to the beat in the measure, creating the symmetrical sound to which our society is attuned.
  2. Instrumental ensembles have the problem of all the voices sounding together. If you are going to have Harmony and an orchestra, you have to synchronize. In the 18 th century the "conductor" tapped the beat out with his baton, that was his primary function, although smaller ensembles could follow the bow of the first violin as a baton of sorts. This need for synchronizing lies behind the teacher's insistence that the young student count out "ONE and TWO and..." evenly, and if there is question, that instrument of musical torture, the Metronome, can be brought out. Recordings in the last fifty years have become increasingly firm about exact timing, often to the extent of sounding mechanical. The great pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) in his wonderful recordings of the four Chopin Ballades in the 1930's, used subtle rhythmic variations as part of his interpretation, possibly following Chopin himself since he studied in his youth with the last of Chopin's students. Or consider the way Casals played the Bach Cello Suites, with their subtle and meaningful off-time variances. For us "rubato" is literally robbing some time from a measure at one end and restoring it in synchronization at the other end. One wonders why we have become so mechanized.
  3. It is not just in popular music, but everywhere there seems to be a need for the Upbeat and the Downbeat in every Measure. First count out the measures according to a set timing, then divide each measure into parts with a strong dynamic on the first note, a weak one half way through. Now count these out evenly "ONE and..." as a student, or add them all up arithmetically as a composer. They must all "come out right" in our musical arithmetic.
  4. Harmony is the notable characteristic of the West. The piano keyboard invites and then demands Harmony, you can play it solo with eight synchronous notes if you want, or three or four voices can be monitored with a little care. The white notes once represented the basic series, the scale or "ladder" which you climbed up or down fingerwise . But it is an odd-runged ladder, with uneven spacing, so between the larger intervals we put smaller ones as half-tones, which appear as the smaller (black) keys on our KB instruments. All composers have, by their musical training, something of this piano "graphic layout" in mind, it is a basic part of harmonic thinking. But as piano is now taught from stock examples with right hand melody and left hand "accompaniment", it becomes monophonic in spirit and a foe to the intelligent leading of voices. Would it be unreasonable forme to call this the Tyranny of the Keyboard?
  5. Form has been so codified that the musically aware public looks automatically to the "form" of the Sonata, the Symphony, the Suite as a necessary part of music expression. What is a Fantasia except something "fantastic" and unreal, in a world which rewards accountants more than dreamers? Doesn't the bare form of the Sonata seem a little like the pre-lined canvases for fill-in painting? Aren't the sequences of a symphony as expectable as the scenario of a cowboy Western?
  6. In closer view, note the ubiquitous four measure phrase, with its repeat, its variation, its resolution. This might have been a clever notion at the start, but running through two centuries of compositions as a cliche', it has become trite and boring. Good for a song with many stanzas, good to remember and sing along. But bad when it gets into the fabric of musical it has. When a phrase is found good, why repeat it, why repeat a section, why do variations at all?
  7. There is a standard set of timbres which goes with orchestral expectations, another one with country music, another with jazz. In developing with great skill the musical instruments in the 19th century, we standardized a lot of our thinking about sound. Even the Western singing voice became a formalized sound, we only begin to hear it as local when we hear the Chinese operatic voice or the many voices out of Africa.
  8. In this jungle where is the music? Does it become music only when played by highly trained performers reading marks on printed "scores" which contain less than 40 % of the composer's intentions? Some believe that the score in black and white (like the office ledger) is really the bottom line, the real reality, and that the Sound is a variable which can appear in one or another local performance. Others would go further back and see reality in the social notions of the History of Music, the true mycelium from which music appears incidentally, like mushroom buttons.
  9. We are all aware of that bugbear which we call "Notation", the accretions of times long past, needs long forgotten, instruments gone to dust and crude approximations of sounds in time reduced to tight formulae which we teach our children ( One...and...TWO....and....) and live with for the rest of our lives. Why say more here?

     In this jumbled jungle the greatest effort with the sharpest machete will not get you through to the open and quiet place where you can mind your own mind and generate your own personal notions. To write music out of the maze of historical layerings, groping ahead for a disappearing future, is not a healthy business for a sane mind.

     But there is a way out:

     Electro-Acoustic Music (EAM) may not be to everyone's taste as this century comes to an end, but it can solve most of the above Sins (while acquiring a few of its own). Now for the first time, Sound can be manufactured and manicured to be whatever the composer wants, and it can be spread over a time sequence in any way the composer wishes. There are no bars, measures or downbeats needed, problems of what goes with what, and what goes where, can disappear. The idea and concept come first, and almost everything can be adjusted and rearranged in the composing process or on the digital editing screen. In short we have in EAM at last a musical carte-blanche, on which we can write the musical ideas of the moment into the library of the future. Arnold Schoenberg was breaking new ground in the piano Opus 11 of 1909, with its Three Little Piano Pieces, as he turned his back, with something of a wrench, on the 19th century harmonic music he had been writing just a year before. These short studies are wonderfully imaginative and new, they explore the pan-tonal possibilities of sound. But in a dozen years Schoenberg had replaced much of this hard-won freedom with the twelve-tone serial concept, a rigid notion which persisted in academic circles until it wore itself out by mechanical over-use.

     Now in just the last three decades we have started to open up new worlds, unknown realms of musical sound, with EAM. Not all of it sounds as great as the above tout, because EAM composers are generally schooled in university programs which teach the state-of-the-art composition of a given date. Much EAM music sounds alike, much has not got out of the academic groove. Some is designed as a style which will best get acceptance in EAM competitions. Some pieces are academic "exercises" like the tens of thousands of student fugues written a hundred years ago in the Conservatories of the world. But these are human problems likely to occur in times of social flux, and they are certainly not musical problems.

     When we have an annual SEAMUS festival and listen for two days to a selection of new EAM pieces, some of us must be struck by the feeling that here are several hundred composers whose work is being played for them alone, while the great world outside basks in the shopfuls of "throw-away-music" which makes money and which the people love. Are we a child of the Ivy Walled Tower, the disdainful Academe which lives in a world of its own creation?

     Let me give two examples to show that this need not be so. First, an obscure radio station, WGDR at Plainfield Vermont, with a broadcast range of about fifty miles at most, has been doing a Saturday afternoon program of two hours a week for several years. The director is the composer Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, who selects things people would not normally hear on commercial channels or on CD's. He asks for phone-ins of opinions which he can air while the show is running. Last year the new CD of George Todd (EMF 001) was on the air one fall Saturday afternoon in this local, countryside area with one small city and a ring of villages and farmland. While Todd's CD was playing, the calls started to come in one after another, more than any of the radio shows in a 130 show series, and they were all positive, interested, appreciative. The day of people hating new sounds is disappearing. I did not say that it is gone, but there is a new sound in the air and people are beginning to like it.

     Second example: My highschool age son always says I am pigheaded and hate popular stuff, I make a case that it is because it is bad music. But when he played the first cut of the first Enigma disc that appeared ("Return to Innocence"), a remarkable studio piece from Germany which instantly became famous here, I sat in absorbed silence. We played it again and again. He is in college now and has the disc, today I bought a copy for myself, and can report to you that there is new EAM studio sound out there which the young people already know. I touched just the tip of the iceberg, but know that there is a flow in that ocean which comes from the swells in our remote backwater. Our electronic studios are no longer the sole property of the universities, newer and perhaps better studios are being assembled in garages and basements. There is poor music being turned out there, and among us also. But there is good stuff too from the public outside world, don't you forget it, Ladies and Gentlemen! Never think we are alone in the world of new music.

     So there are two roads for composers to follow: There are composers who use traditional instruments, and even traditional formats and sounds structures, although not necessarily in traditional ways. A student in a TV interview asked Itzak Perlman why there was no more new music in the Classical Style, to which he answered academically that each period creates its own music, which is locked into that historical period. But Brahms knew better and said that each morning started with Bach! Once I asked the sculptor Charles Wells, who does beautiful figurative stone carving with a distinctive personal style, where his influences stemmed from. He said: Only from Italy in the the mid l6 th century! These people were not suffocated by the jungle, they saw into it, went through it and picked out what was useful, ignoring the rest.

     But there is another path to the fresh air, one which clears away the jungle with one fell swoop. You can take the path of Electro Acoustic Music and work with great satisfaction in the constant flow of new musical possibilities. Just as we are living in a new world of electronic thinking, a world unimaginable half a century ago, a world of fiber optics, computers and satellites.......we are also living in a new world of art which these things made possible. Forty years ago a college colleague of mine was punching cards and taking them to a college with a bigger computer to eke out a few sounds . Today I can output my K2000 directly into digital format on the G3 and edit it with any one of a dozen screen editors, return it to DAT, and send it to a SEAMUS colleague on telephone lines for an opinion. This is an exciting time!

     Now arise new sets of problems. Are we to become slaves to electronic gadgetry, fiddlers with wires and monitors and plug-ins, to the degree that we forget that we are composers of music for people to hear and revel in? Yes there is that jungle also, but it is easier to deal with since it is a contemporary problem with no reverential history out of a long past. It has no hold on you, since it is based on electric circuitry, and as with all electric devices you can turn it off with a flick of your mind. Electronics are good servants, they wait for us until they are needed. Meanwhile I catch hold of the thought I wanted to put down at the start, but I think it is more fitting to insert here, after this long diatribe:

     In the world of music there are only two basic functions, Sound and Time, which are disarming in their simplicity. They expand exponentially into that vast array of connections which we hear as music. Heraclitus knew in ancient times that this is "The Duality of the One and the Many" which are as he said (when all is said and done) one and the same thing.