The Rambler :: blog

Friday, October 31, 2003

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There's nowt more prog than Stockhausen. Speaking of whom, some more words on experiential time...

Stockhausen's idea ran roughly as follows: in a given piece of music, 'processes of alteration' follow one another at different speeds. It is these alterations (loud/soft, high/low, short/long) that define musical units and large-scale form. Borrowing (with typically scant regard for technical vocabulary) from information theory Stockhausen suggested that

"The more surprising events take place, the 'quicker' time passes; the more repetitions there are, the 'slower' time passes. But there is surprise only when something unexpected occurs: on the basis of previous events we expect a particular kind of succession of alterations, and then something occurs that is quite unlike what we expected. At that moment we are surprised: our senses are extremely sensitive to absorb the unexpected alteration, to adjust themselves to it. Thus after a short time a constant succession of contrasts becomes just as 'boring' as constant repetition: we stop expecting anything specific, and cannot be surprised: the overall impression of contrasts is levelled down to a single information."

In other words, the musical syntax of a work, as well as the subjective expectations of the listener create patterns of information and redundancy as the music progresses. A musical loop has a very high degree of redundancy, and therefore time feels slower; highly contrasting music passes more quickly because of the greater degree of information being carried. Music that is constantly changing generates the expectation that it will constantly be surprising, with the effect that it starts to become redundant itself, and in fact a few bars of repetition in the middle will become the most information-heavy part of the piece.

As Stockhausen points out, this seems paradoxical: surely musical moments that are more information-heavy will pass more slowly, since there is more mental processing to be done? In fact, what he suggests is the case is that

"The greater the temporal density of unexpected alterations - the information content - the more time we need to grasp events, and the less time we have for reflection, the quicker time passes; the lower the effective density of alteration (not reduced by recollection or the fact that the alterations coincide with our expectations), the less time the senses need to react, so that greater intervals of experiential time lie between the processes, and the slower time passes."

Which is fine, up to a point. But Stockhausen had never heard Donna Summer or Richie Hawtin so was missing a few things. What really happens, I think, is it's all about tension. If you start repeating things, or holding back on expectations, you create tension. That's really what music does better than any of the arts. Just watch an audience at the end of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or the beginning of Penderecki's Threnody. You can see the tension and the release physically. People can't help it. Now, as far as experiential time goes, I say it's like a rollercoaster (yeah, yeah, hackneyed analogy, but go with it...). The repeating 'dugga dugga dugga dugga' keyboard loop in 'I Feel Love' winds up the tension, because surely it has to be going somewhere, right? (And remember what it was like the first time you heard anything like this!) Time starts to move more slowly, you're aware of every single pulse. (And Stockhausen had never done E, either, so let's leave the drugs out of the equation for now...). Until the key change, up a gear - 'Ooooo, you and me, you and me, you and meee....' - and the tension goes, you've had that change you've been waiting for, time flies past you, you lose track of the keyboards - they've shifted too, but you don't have time to listen any more - and the whole lot plunges. And then you're back. 'You and me. I feel love...'. Back to the home key, you know where you are, you should be able to relax a little - but that tension's still there, and now you know where it can go (you've got a sense of the syntax), so it's even more this time around; and pretty soon you've stopped counting the beats, stopped feeling the seconds because they've fallen away and it's just that pulse, that 'ooooOOOO' that tells you where in time you are.

And people say disco's all just about sex...


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