The Rambler :: blog

Friday, October 31, 2003

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...


Thursday, October 30, 2003

Mid-note to the ongoing repetition/time-travel thang: some lovely words by Brian Marley [reviewing Feldman's Late Works with Clarinet (Mode 119 CD)] in the current Wire:

"One of the characteristics of Morton Feldman's music is the way silences are thrown into stark relief. Each silence - freighted with memory, charged with expectation - becomes a unique presence in the music more than merely an absence of it. Though his silences are measured in units of time, they also contain an intimation of infinity. The music of the 'classical' tradition slows down, speeds up, layers and otherwise manipulates time. Of the other arts, only cinema plays with our temporal perception to a greater degree. But we've become so accustomed to this happening that we hardly notice it. Feldman's music, especially that of his later years, more nearly approximates the quotidian time of which we're only fleetingly aware. If his music seems strange, it's not because it employs the temporal distortions to which we've become accustomed but, on the contrary, because it doesn't."

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Scanner meets Alvin Lucier meets Iain Sinclair. I can only approve.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Ligeti at 80 weekend, Barbican Centre, London, 18-19 Oct 2003

Andrew Clements' review in the Guardian

A whole weekend of music, films and other baubels celebrating Ligeti's 80th birthday (which was way back in May, but you know how it is with booking places for yr birthday bash). I got to one of the films (the talk with Ligeti's recent biographer, Richard Steinitz, and the composers Steve Martland and Robert Saxton was sold out, and the first film clashed with England-South Africa...), and the two centrepiece concerts: four concertos (although, disappointingly, not the Cello), and a staged version of his only opera Le Grand Macabre.

Clements says the four concertos 'span' Ligeti's career, but they also serve as bookends. Strangely, aside from the opera, none of Ligeti's music completed between 1951 and 1988 was here. And - again the opera notwithstanding - this forms the bulk of the music upon which his career has been founded, and his reputation achieved. There was - I think - performance of Poème Symphonique (yeah, yeah), but I have a feeling this was more because of its interactive/didactic element ("Have you got a non-electric, mechanical, pyramid-shaped metronome? Bring it along...") than anything else.

The three late works are very much the compositions of a man reaching the latter days - and greatest maturity - of his career. They lack none of the invention of his earlier music, but they have that assurance of technique that tends to come with age. I can't imagine any composer younger than 50 scoring parts for ocarinas and swannee whistles (played here with plastic, toucan-shaped toys) in that most serious of genres, the piano concerto, and doing it with a (mostly) straight face. It's the kind of gimmick you can only get away with if you have the confidence 80 years give you. The simple fact that many of Ligeti's late works - the concertos and piano studies - draw on historical, Grand Master resonances (you can't not think Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt) are an unmistakeable sign that this is a composer putting his house in order, assuring his legacy. Which is fine - but it is telling that it is with such works that the Barbican chose to mark this twilight anniversary.

At the start, though, we had the UK première of the Concert Romanesc, written in 1951 while Ligeti still lived in Soviet Hungary, two years before Stalin's death, and five before the uprising and the moment Ligeti made his escape to the West. This piece has been available on CD for a while now (Teldec 8573 88261-2), but was clearly programmed as the best opportunity for its UK stage debut.

It's a fine, curious piece - miles removed from Ligeti's post-1956 work, but one of the better works to have been composed in Hungary at that time. It is the fourth movement that really grabs the attention. The piece is given the bombastic, pseudo-folky ending familiar from a lot of Soviet music (Shostakovich, later Prokofiev), but Ligeti tacks on an extraordinary coda - a stratospherically high violin hovers above some offstage horn-calls, suspending all expectations. It's a frequent trick to a lot of later Central European music - you see it a lot in Górecki, for example - to subvert and upset a musical structure like this. The form suggests that the ending should be here, everything you've heard said it should be; but instead, it's here, and nothing that went before meant quite what you thought it did.

And I'm tickled to see that CDDB categorises this month's Wire giveaway CD as 'Easy Listening'...

So, I've been thinking for a few days that having this blog is all very well and all, but what is it actually for? And it seems to me that although there is plenty of excellent blogging around yr popstars, and yr Wire-friendly music (and we all know who I mean - check right), I've yet to see anything consistently tackle that awkward stuff 'modern composition', 'contemporary classical', or whatever you want to call it. I've only seen a handful of 'classical music' blogs, and talkboards, and they're pretty bad. (The one that used to sit on the Guardian's site was like a horrible pastiche.) For some reason, concert music is really poorly served by popular writing; and contemporary concert music even worse.

I don't know for sure why this should be, but I suspect it is to do with the way in which a musical style/genre reaches maturity in relation to its critical support. Jazz is a classic example. Journalistic writing/reviewing of jazz became very sophisticated relatively early on - the same is true for rock, pop, and so on. Perhaps because the two, mutually dependent streams developed at the same pace. However, the drier, strictly academic-analytical work lagged behind, only to be rectified a few decades down the line. < anticipates chorus of protest...> So-called contemporary classical music, on the other hand, was conceived in the midst of an already established critical form, a form that had been comfortable dealing with the core 1650-1900 repertory for many years, but was ill-equipped to deal with rapid new developments. The academic work, on the other hand, in contrast to popular streams, was newly burgeoning, and thus capable of dealing with the new challenges.

This is a loosely conceived theory, but the upshot of it all is that while there is a vast array of excellent academic work on contemporary composition, the world seems almost incapable of talking about it on a popular, accessible, but meaningful level. Perhaps I'm being unfair, but aside from The Wire itself (which has some excellent coverage this month, including a primer on Spectral music. Do check out Grisey - the première of Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil just a few weeks after his death was a formative experience for me. The percussion section includes a giant 'keyboard' of about 20 gongs, which the percussionist has to hurl himself across the stage to play - all at an extremely quiet dynamic. Beautiful.), there is very little else, in print or in blog.*

And there is no reason why this should be. So, following in a grand tradition, expect to see more of me writing the kind of stuff I'd like to be reading.

*Please send any suggestions/oversights to the usual address!

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Some good stuff on minimalism by Philip Sherburne in the current Urban Sounds.

Monday, October 20, 2003

Following on from the spam poetry mini-post below, the Rambler is amused to note that one Brad Sucks has actually produced a whole spam-inspired album. And listening to the MP3s does capture some of the feeling of swimming through Sobigs, porn and viagra adverts of a Monday morning...

[Spotted via The Register]

Friday, October 17, 2003

Well, frankly, this Google referral flatters me somewhat...

Spam poetry. Excellent stuff.

A quick glance at the Rambler's Hotspam account reveals that Gollum, of all people, is trying to flog me some Viagra: "Ktn confidence staarts in youur panntss s," he hisses.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Linda Bouchard

I've just discovered this woman's music (doing some research for The Day Job), and I really like it. Not every day that happens.

P.S. - there's sound on the homepage, in case you're in an office or something.

Hey! Check me out! Now I have an RSS feed, without paying a penny. C'mon!

OK, what happens now...?

Update: I should add that because I'm using a free feed, it's headlines only at the moment, no permalinks. So you have to Click through to my main page if you want to read anything in full. Sorry about that - I'm still exploring (free) alternatives.

Update II: Fingers crossed, I think I've cracked it. So if you have by chance tried syndicating me before now (ie, 16/10/03, 17.15 GMT) then scrub whatever you had: this is the URL you need.

Oh, and milady wouldn't allow me to let this go by without a plug for Gaiman's splendid Neverwhere.

Ha ha ha!

Oh yeah! It always sounds dumb and pretentious when I say it, but I say it anyway: music is a form of time travel. Stockhausen hasn't said too many smart things, but the whole idea of bending time with music (through repetition and change etc) was one of his smartest. I'm supposed to be working, so maybe I'll come back to this soon... [but if you really want the full on loony-Teuton version, go see K. Stockhausen: 'Structure and Experiential Time', Die Reihe, iv (1959), 121-35]

OK, due to popular demand - and the Times having an annoying registration system to read their site - here are 'highlights' from that Sunday Times (12 October 2003) article I'm linking below. It's not actually about Mr Rascal, but football, but is a bit of a swipe at everything really.

Of course, before cutting and pasting an article en masse, I can only recommend registering with The Times: registration is free, and you are given access to the many exciting and innovative online features as well as all you'd expect from Britain's best quality daily. (Hopefully I won't get done for copyright if I say that...)

Comment: Minette Marrin: It's not football I hate, its the phoney-as-hell fans

The Chinese sage Confucius advised us, in the pursuit of virtue, to avert our eyes from what is unseemly. Unfortunately with football this is impossible.
There is no escape from football. Everything you can see and hear is dominated by footie news, and when there are two or three footie scandals running at the same time, the media can hardly pay attention to anything else, so obsessed are they with what they mysteriously call the beautiful game.

[...] The game itself may be beautiful at times, like many games, but what surrounds football these days is an ugly stink.

I'm not so much thinking of the usual nastiness of corruption, greed and beastly behaviour.

All proletarian spectator sports attract all three, for obvious reasons. I'm sure that the ancient Romans had just as many trouble-making hooligans, in and out of the arena, as we do.

Gladiators made equally sensational sums of money and were just as keen on the ancient Roman equivalent of "roasting" [...] at least one Roman empress was rumoured to have boffed a top gladiator.

One despairs of today's silly little slags, who dress like tarts and go to the hotel of a celebrity they have just met, even though such girls deserve the full protection of the law. But it is hardly worth getting upset about the silly salaries of greedy managers and coaches. Who cares, really? Nor does it matter much if they fill the tabloids with love-rat shenanigans. That is at least a form of light entertainment.

Perhaps it is rather sadder that talented young boys from nowhere who suddenly become football stars go equally suddenly wrong, with their defenceless heads turned by money and fame. It's not easy to go from a sink estate and a single mother to fame and £50,000 a week. You might have thought that their coaches and managers could advise them and guide them. But then with role models like Sven-Göran Eriksson, one can hardly expect much.

Why I hate football has nothing to do with any of that. What I hate is the strange football orthodoxy of today.

[...] You must think football is really, really important. Otherwise there must be something wrong with you. Worse than that, you must be an out-of-touch toff so no one can possibly take you seriously.


[F]ootball has come to stand for something quite other than men in shorts with a ball, or reasonable national pride.

Football means demos, the masses, the people. If you love footie, understand footie, you care about the people. You are of the people; with your belief and your passion you can somehow identify yourself with the people, even if you were born a bit of a toff, or went to Fettes. Ich bin ein footballer. To claim your love for football these days is to claim serious prole cred, or so people are stupid enough to imagine.


In other words, this is all about middle-class guilt and middle-class fear of the masses. It's the same thing that made people in the 1960s prole down their accents. It's the same thing that makes otherwise intelligent middle-aged toffs go about boasting they simply love hip-hop and rap when they don't. All sorts of top media intellectuals and novelists, often Oxbridge white males, go about publicly proclaiming their love of gangsta-rap. Maybe they do. But in fact it doesn't matter what you actually like; it's what you publicly say you like.

Alastair Campbell had himself pictured after his resignation watching footie with his son. Campbell does truly love football, but that doesn't matter either way. It was the prole cred (and incidentally the dad cred) that mattered. Football these days is one of the most efficient ways of getting prole cred.

We can all understand why politicians are in hot pursuit of prole cred, misguided though I hope they are. I hope the few genuine proletarians left in this country despise them as frauds. What is much more hateful is why intellectuals and film makers and writers, and even normal people, seem increasingly to feel driven into the same pursuit.

Call me naive, but these are the people we depend on to tell us deeper truths. And this is a particularly dishonest form of political correctness. Wisdom cannot thrive on pretending to be something you aren’t, by pretending to like something you don’t, or don’t care about.

Why must a novelist be interested in football to be any good? One might as well say he ought also to be interested in military history, or musical counterpoint, both just as important and a lot more interesting, but entirely lacking in prole cred.

This is not to belittle football, or the pleasure of football fans. Good luck to them. And good luck to all the rugby players and ice skaters and showjumpers and skateboarders too. Sport is wonderful. At the same time, it creates lots of work and wealth, some of it perfectly respectable.

In the absence of any real religious sense, or national sense, or feeling of shared identity, there's something very shabby in trying to create a false one out of a game. And it's intellectually very shabby to impose on a game more significance than it has and to sneer at those who refuse to do the same.

If football were only a game, I wouldn't hate it. I would just ignore it. If only they'd let me.

I don't want to make a big thing of this at all (this is just a columnist doing her job, after all), but I just found the whole thing such a bemusing and frustrating opinion that I had to share.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

OK, I'm probably the last onto this one, but here are a couple of neat Google quirks. (scroll down through the comments too).

Ignore the XML button over on the right - I don't think it's really working yet. But hopefully it will soon, and then I can join the ranks of the syndicated...

This is ironic, right?

OK, so I've spent the whole morning fannying around with BT's disaster area of a website, trying to get a little webspace and e-mail set-up to go with my broadband connection.* Honestly, almost every single page (and I had to work through dozens and dozens of them) had some design flaw, functionality issue or downright illogic. Even the pages about website design. And this is supposed to be a friendly service for the non-initiated (who'd better not own a Mac, 'cos they don't even acknowledge you exist then...). Gah!

NTK run an occasional thing on hacking websites to make them friendly. Wonder if they'd be interested...

*Small prize for anyone else with the patience to find out how to do this...

Anyway. The upshot is that one day, before too long, I hope, there'll be some new groovy stuff here like RSS and whatnot. But don't hold your breath...

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Of course, all the below notwithstanding, I still love my guitars, bass and drums as much as the next man - it's like the orchestra, you should never write it off as a line-up. So, I'm enjoying worlds of possibility's stuff on Japanese and Norwegian noise-core. As milady will tell you through gritted teeth, I do enjoy some High Rise of an evening...

somedisco has been excellent of late.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Since I'm English and all, and I love talking about the weather, I'm giving a weather flapper - courtesy of Weather Pixie - a trial run. But at the moment she's apparently too busy swigging champers down at the Hot-to-Trot Club in Piccadilly, and there's nothing showing at the moment. Flighty young thing that she is...

Angus is right, of course - 'repetitive' is a really dumb pejorative, particularly for music. Music is the most temporal of the arts, and thus the most concerned with memory and its manipulation. How can it not be repetitive in one way or another?

Angus notes the point that between individual tracks it is equally difficult to tell indie rock tracks apart as it is with the tracks in a DJ set. This is certainly true to some extent. What I think is a crucial difference is the role of memory played here. When rock acts imitate one another - and note that they and their fans will paradoxically be the more concerned about perceived 'originality' - it is to add to a tradition, to work within the boundaries and expectations of a classicised form. (Of course, plenty of acts transcend these boundaries, and make genuinely original contributions, but they're not Green Day/Limp Bizkit/The Darkness.) When dance/techno acts imitate one another, it is partly to fashion a tradition to be sure, partly homage, but in large part to recapture and recontextualise musical material: a guiding principle at the heart of almost all composition. In all of Angus's examples (and my earlier ones), repetition is never doing the same thing twice ('Same again, please/How can you have the same again?' says that advocate of repetitive rock riffery, Mark E. Smith). Memory plays a part, and composers know this.

(As a sideline, I watched Memento for the zillionth time over the weekend. It's striking how musically structured this film - which is, after all, about memory and repetition - is. Just watch it and feel the pulse layers around which the film is built. From the opening, repeated shakes of a Polaroid, to the strophic cutaways between the black-and-white and colour stories, to the beep-beeps of the car locks, marking deep, slow pulse cycles like Japanese gagaku or Messiaen.)

When Mozart returns to his opening themes at the end of a movement (recapitulation), it achieves a very specific effect in the listener: we're expecting this return anyway, and when it comes, after a sustained period of development and change, it sounds comforting and refreshing at the same time. Themes change their character depending on context, as well bring forward a whole set of memories and expectations. (A really good book to read on this point is Leonard B. Meyer's Music, the Arts and Ideas.) (Incidentally, I take the local point Angus is making about lyrics being distinct from music, but in fact rhyming poetry works in a similar way - our memory of previous lines sets up an expectancy when we reach the end of the next line, which creates a powerful point of tension and structure for the poet to work with.) As previous discussions elsewhere have eloquently demonstrated, a musical unit like the Amen break carries with it a whole bunch of suggestions and so on - to the point that Luke Vibert's new record can carry several layers of memory and meaning by nostalgically quoting and manipulating a nostalgic quotation. This is, in part, a tradition-fashioning stance, but, crucially, there is not the rhetorical baggage of 'originality' in the way. Vibert recognises that that break recaptures something very particular and special, and it is that memory that he is working with. As is anyone who has used a sampler or scratched a record in their life. Actual quotation, however, particular to the point of downright precise copying, is extremely rare in rock, because of this different (and flawed) set of musical concerns. Bizarrely, it is an aesthetic of originality over repetition and quotation that has lead to genre stagnation.

N.B. In the spirit of the loop, this post relates to a couple of previous Ramblings, on sonic signatures and context as creative.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Tom Ewing keeps going, and now he's getting to the good stuff.

I never had high expectations for ITV's World Cup coverage, but I swear the TV was on for only three seconds before Jim Rosenthal came out with a faux-Aussie 'No worries'. The first of many, I fear…

Still: the Rambler's not-even-looking-at-fate-from-the-corner-of-my-eye tip for the tournament: watch out for group A. Out of Argentina, Australia and Ireland, any two could conceivably go through, and no one will want to meet them in the quarters. But that said, anyone who reckons Australia will roll over easily is a fool: what may count against them is that the opening game of the tournament is absolutely crucial for them.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

OK, I only bought it after the Nobel Prize, but Fateless is a stunning book. And with Sándor Márai's Embers doing so well, it's good to see Hungarian literature getting some recognition. If you can, get hold of this - one of the most moving accounts of World War II life you'll read. And it has some choice writing on the troubles of being middle class.

You can start to smell the cold. Oh yeah.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Since my club are such an utter pile of doodah, I'll be a non-league supporter soon enough. So a superiority complex might be some compensation at least ;-)

Discovered via Angus and Jon, this is kinda fun. Create your own avant-garde, asynchronous machine mix. I like the bluesy swing of the second one, myself.

Which is interesting, now that I think about it, because I know the guitars are being played by machines, and yet I still put a human spin on the sound they make. I know nothing about Remko Scha, so I hope I'm not doing him an aesthetic disservice (and from now on I'm referring to him metaphorically anyway), but in my experience, the musical conservatives who use 'anti-humanistic' arguments as a defence are missing a point. Someone has to build those machines in the first place, make decisions about gearing, speed, position relative to the guitar, that sort of thing. And Scha is - as a conscientious musician - well aware, after a period of practice and experiment, of what effects different adjustments will probably have (maybe not precisely, but at least generally). So he retains some level of control. He may choose to abandon this, of course, to varying degrees - set the machines up blindfolded, say, or get a non-expert in to do it for him, or use chance methods, or whatever - but even that is a choice. And all along, he has been making these decisions based upon his knowledge and experience of his medium and a certain amount of intuition. Which is, after all, all that any artist can really claim to be doing. (I'm very pragmatic about the whole business, you see.) What distinguishes the good from the bad lies in this knowledge of one's medium. [This is a whole other post, and one I might get round to expanding upon - what really matters here though is that take any great artist, and one of the most impressive things that binds them all is absolute control over their material.] So, to return to our musical conservatives, the ones who would indict 'automatic' music, it may be that they are overlooking Scha's actual contribution to the work itself. The work has all been done pre-compositionally, rather than at the point at which the sounds are produced: this doesn't mean that it is not there at all.

Maybe Scha intended that by setting up his machine in a certain way, he would get a swingy, 6/8 time, slap string sort of sound. I doubt he would have intended the blues feel that I hear - and why should he? - but by engendering his systems with certain identifiable traits (a twangy guitar sound, a lilting rhythm), the listener is bound to make some neural connection and think of it in a certain way.

All of which brings me to drones. I'm inclined to think - as Angus suggests - of a drone as a 'zero-degree loop'. In the sense that a pure drone, once begun, will continue indefinitely and without variation, just as my electronic loops. But in practice these are extremely unusual, and, like pure electronic loops, tend to come with some variational aspect incorporated or overlaid. (I was stunned, for example, when I first heard John Cale's Sun Blindness Music - after all the reviews I expected it to be pure drone, but no, it's almost continuously changing. Definitely scrolling, not looping.) This comes back to the point I made before about the psychological impossibility of non-variation. When does a long chord or note become a drone? Cale's piece, I would argue, is more about long notes than drones. (Interestingly, as a sideline, dronemeister extraordinaire LaMonte Young started out this way - his earliest pieces are twelve-tone serial works, just written very very slowly. And from there, the notes got longer, and fewer, until you have drone music.) To take a facile experiment - listen to Fratres by Arvo Pärt (get one of the ensemble versions, not the solo violin and piano version). Throughout the whole 10 minutes, you have a two-note drone (sustained by a solo cello in most versions) running beneath the rest of the music. When does it start sounding like a drone? Pretty soon, I would argue, after around 5 seconds or so. Not much longer than the first note of Beethoven's 'Egmont' overture. There's something different in our experience of both these pieces that inclines us to think that one sustained note is a drone, the other a defiant opening gesture. It's to do (I think) with envelope (the Beethoven has a diminuendo written in, the Pärt is just at a constant volume), and context (with the Beethoven there is nothing else happening at that point, in the Pärt other musical material is overlaid); but also the basic experience of listening creates a change in how one hears a drone. For a few seconds, it is just a long note. Lengthen it a bit (and/or add some other pointers) and it becomes a 'pedal' note (as you get in the bass at the very beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra). Lengthen it still further, or disrupt the expectations your pointers have set up, and it becomes a drone. Lengthen it again, and again, and again, and it becomes different again, and again, and again - we just run out of words to differentiate it. Lengthen it really far - into the electrical hum of a desktop computer, say, or the white noise of a distant motorway - and it may disappear altogether, only re-emerging at unexpected times. Once you take it beyond a certain point - and that point depends on both listener and context - the drone (or loop) detaches itself from everything else and becomes its own entity.

And then you get into a whole other question - when the humanity of production defers to the humanity of reception. And I'm too hungry to start that one now.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Dunno about you, but I can't wait.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Angus has written a fabulous post on electronic music, loops, synchronicity, and, well, loads of stuff - go and read it.

Despite his self-deprecations, Angus is pretty much on the money - what follows is a footnote, I suppose. Certainly, in my experience anyway, Angus isn't reinventing the wheel - the whole issue of electronic vs acoustic vs all-the-grey-areas-in-between is still pretty thorny, and it's rare to hear anyone talk about it intelligently (so don't expect anything from me!).

There are some occasions when contemporary composers have used literal clockwork mechanisms in their work. Rebecca Saunders is one who habitually uses wind up music boxes in her work (which I believe is all acoustic). The result is an extension of Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes - you get an apparently repetitive system set up, but in fact it changes continually as the spring mechanisms unwind, and the music boxes/metronomes slow down. And of course, being analogue and not digital mechanisms, the rates of change are subtly different, so you get a constantly changing field of sound. Moving away from literal clockwork to the more metaphorical kind, Steve Reich obviously springs to mind, but again, his music actually sets up mechanical processes in order to watch them fall apart at the seams. In the two early tape pieces It's Gonna Rain and Come Out identical tape loops are played simultaneously on two different machines - what Reich realised and worked with was the fact that no two machines are identical, so very quickly the loops shift out of phase with one another, again creating more-or-less unpredictable patterns of sound. In the pieces for solo instrument and tape - Vermont Counterpoint (flute), New York Counterpoint (clarinet) and Electric Counterpoint (electric guitar) - a live performer is playing along to multiple recordings of themselves. Although you'd expect this to be metronomically precise music, in reality the live performer is constantly struggling against the prerecorded rhythmic nuances on the tape. Six Pianos, the result of Reich's ambition to write a work for a whole piano shop is another precise piece of clockworkesque minimalism, but this time the analogue imprecision comes in the tuning of the instruments. In practice it is nigh-on impossible to precisely tune two pianos to each other, so six is out of the question. Thus, Reich's precisely written music is blurred around the edges once more, this time by unexpectedly complex microtonal variations.

What all these examples have in common is that in using analogue/acoustic mechanisms they actually highlight the imprecision and fallability of the mechanical life. What's more, they are practically impossible to reproduce digitally (apart from the Ligeti, which was recently realised digitally at the South Bank, but this is probably mathematically the simplest of the examples I've given).

Details on the Sounth Bank thing may be found here (it was also reviewed in The Wire and elsewhere). What I thought of all that is another post, but relevant here was the attempt to draw a parallel between the digital loops of Aphex, Squarepusher, et al, and the acoustic mechanisms of Ligeti and Nancarrow (Nancarrow always knew his piano rolls were a compromise). And I think it failed pretty badly because of this misunderstanding about digital and acoustic musical production. In Angus's taxonomy, acoustic music (including metronomes and music boxes) scrolls, not loops. The point being, I think, that with scrolling music you can never be absolutely sure what you'll get next, even if you set the system up in the first place. With a loop, you know, exactly. So unless you want zero variation or interest (a state I believe is psychologically impossible anyway*), you have to change other parameters in your music - layer your loops, fade/phase things in and out, add a vocal line, whatever.

In actual fact, in almost all cases of digital looping, the composer/artist is adding almost constantly making decisions, changes, adding input (ie 'humanity'). Of the most 'inhuman' mechanistic works I can think of, the Ligeti sets up a situation that demonstrates the actual non-repetitiveness of machinery (it was also a joke, which makes it pretty human, I guess), and the Reich tape pieces use human voices (a preacher and a victim of racial violence) as its loops making the humanity impossible to avoid.

So much for the naysayers, then.

What this all adds up to musicologically I'm not yet sure - certainly some sort of improved taxonomy like Angus is suggesting is helpful, and better than the sort of 'them and us' kind of divides (and equally lazy attemps to cross those divides) musicology lapses into these days. I'll be watching Angus's space with interest...

*Cage again: If you find something boring the first time, try it a second. If you still find it boring, try it four times, then eight, then 16. Pretty soon you find it's not boring at all.

Well, comments are back...

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

And this is a great find at antipopper. The crescendo opening, the modal chords, a terrible solo, that voice ... and lyrics I doubt even the Pistols would have touched with a bargepole. C'mon!

A couple of recent things this week on American cultural hegemony and the cartoon. This article on the Air Pirates series of comics from the '70s, which appears in the Boston Globe (some cover pix from the comics are here) chimes nicely with this piece by Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times. Obviously things are more complex than Appleyard allows for in his piece, but if I wasn't attracted to half-baked cultural analysis I probably wouldn't be here... ;¬)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License. All non-proprietary code is valid XHTML.