Sunday, 18 April 2010

A Brief Autobiographical Technical Encounter, In Lieu of Anything Else

Not Jamie and I discussing something, I've no idea who these people are but if they keep talking much longer they're going to get wet feet. Or are they? Perhaps the tide is going out in the picture? I've no idea but I think the purpose of this picture caption is fulfilled and I'll end it here.

Given the lack of any decent 'original' content on m'blog of late I thought I might post a brief 'discussion' about harmony which occurred on that popular 'social networking' site recently.

The two protagonists are my fine self, and the most distinguished Jamie Bullock. I lead off with a 'status update' about material from a string quartet I'm currently writing...

EL ('status update' 17/04/2010): how can two different transpositions of the same rotational array produce different pitch class sets? I must have made a mistake. Hopefully the decent bit of music I wrote using one array is the correct one of the two. Good times.

EL (comment on 'status update' 17/04/2010): Fixed. Got one line wrong when transposing to the second array somehow. Thought it was odd as the sets were of a different cardinality. Decent bit of music saved then, all is well with the world (apart from war and poverty and disease and old age and, stuff).

JB (comment on 'status update' 18/04/2010): Your compositional techniques sound so much like computer programming (or maths). (Absolutely no implicit criticism intended, BTW). Out of interest, do you ever keep stuff that works musically, but breaks the process you are using?

EL (comment on 'status update' 18/04/2010): It is basically maths I suppose. Set theory a bit but it's more like combinatorics (from what little I understand of higher mathematics anyway).

Also geometry plays a role. I plot every set on a clock face so it's mod 12 arithmetic. Transposition becomes rotation, inversion becomes reflection etc.

Re keeping stuff that isn't justified within the system, no. But more specifically I wouldn't find that material as I don't use my 'ear' for generating material. Only for auditioning material I make via the pre-compositional procedures outlined briefly above.

I have so many ways of generating material from a basic line or set I have no need to use pitches from anywhere else, and it sounds better that way to me. I don't trust my ears any more, I never think 'that would sound better if it were a semitone or a tritone' or whatever, I just accept the results of the system and if I don't like it I use different basic material.

It might sound a bit rigid or dogmatic but if you think about it tonality is just as 'restrictive'. It's only because it's an ideology that many don't see it that way, history becomes nature as Foucault might say.

You wouldn't go from a II-V- progression to a dense chromatic cluster for instance, you'd use tertiary harmony and would consider the root progression. If you list the 'rules' of tonality there is nothing 'natural' or 'free' about it.

The same process applies, one auditions the available material (an output from the system) and one chooses the 'best' stuff.

Same could also be said for our western tuning system. It's sort of amusing that we have a sort of romantic noble savage popular music culture that suggests one can 'invent' or 'create' new music 'freely' by 'ear' as a product of 'inspiration' without any 'training', when in fact the harmonic system employed is just as rigid and limited as any other and the only reason the untrained can write songs/music easily is because of the hard work of many theorists and musicians over hundreds of years.

Oh, the irony.

(this discussion continues in the comments section, feel free to join in).

Tinyurl for this post:


afryklund said...

Well said, and quite an appropriate followup to your last post regarding style. Particularly that final paragraph - sums up so many things I've thought when someone sends me the latest youtube Chopin but have been unable to put to words so nobly.

Anyways, I always enjoying the chance to peer into another's compositional process. Thanks for sharing!

Ro-55 said...

Thanks for sharing your point of view, it gives me some clue where you're hanging out at the moment.

I have so many objections and questions raised by what you said, it would be unfair and to try and cover them in a short text comment.
Something to chew over one evening over a few beers perhaps.

Hope you're well,
All the best,

Edward Lawes said...

This comment is from Jamie on FB...(will reply to all this tomorrow probably).

Very interesting indeed. If your theory is true it should be possible to automate most of your pre-compositional process. I don't know if you use software at all, but I think it would be possible to make algorithmic compostion tools that emulated your processes. There might even be some existing ones that are a close fit.

I agree re tonality and '... See morepop' music. I wonder if your point also holds for Acousmatic music where there is no abstraction layer (notation/ score) between the act of composition and the acoustic end result -- the composer works 'by ear' directly organising the sound in software like ProTools. I'd love to know if there are any emergent 'rules' of acousmatic music. I'd guess there are, we just haven't formalised them yet...

(feel free to add this as a comment on your blog if you like -- my url:

Lizzie said...

I really enjoyed this little discussion and your points and explanations on compositional techniques. It's funny how we accept western harmony as being more free and musical and open than say serialism. But yet the rules are so overwhelming. Your explanation was refreshing and easy to understand. However, there was one thing I didn't understand & that is what a rotational array is.

Glad you've come back to your blog, I've missed your updates.