Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Brevity Is The Soul Of Non-Tonal Music


If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd agree with me.

I've said it many times before (at a party last night for instance, fascinating company me) but now it's official.

There are exceptions that prove the rule of course (prove as in test obviously, prove as in confirm would be a bit mental) but generally speaking non-tonal music is like a cup of espresso coffee, or a shot of whisky (single malt naturally) or perhaps most cogently, a poem.

Music which has no pulse, no 'tune' and lacks a tonal centre ought to be fairly brief; unless you can find other means of parsing the material into graspable sections or moments (as Sciarrino does with silence/space or Kurtág via many short movements to cite two examples).

To break this 'rule' or to compose in ignorance of it is to run the risk of writing music which approaches a sort of entropy; so much information that the listener can't process it, can't remember it or walk away feeling like they have a clear idea of the piece. Boredom would be a more prosaic description.

More is certainly less in most cases, many a beautiful chord or flowing contrapuntal section has been ruined by suffocation.

If you're going to write a long non-tonal piece (let's say 10+ minutes) justify it, musically (not with some guff in the programme notes or commentary).

Rant over/off.

Feel free to disagree, as always.

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/37p95s4

8 comments:

Dan said...

I think another exception to this is if the musical information progresses at a very slow pace... ie Feldman. The listener has plenty of time to absorb the information and isn't faced with something new before processing the current.

I think this is also true of certain textural music (like early Ligeti or Penderecki) in which the "local" note information is subservient to a larger musical gesture... and it's the larger gesture that is the focus.

My 2p.

cheers
Dan

PS Good to see you back.

John Blackburn said...

Yes, you need clear musical structure to build large intelligible works, but this is hardly new. Gabrielli, Frescobaldi, or earlier composers wrote relatively short pieces; their larger works were multi-movement constructions. Longer single works/movements didn't really blossom until the Baroque, and then it was because chromatic harmony and other elements had developed to support them. Frescobaldi's snippets of counterpoint rarely rose above episodic imitation and so could not support great length, nor did he have as fully developed a harmonic language as later composers. So you got short works.

Today, the tonal/diatonic melodic and harmonic language is all but dead. There are still works being written using that language, but just as people still speak Latin, the language itself is dead in that it will not evolve.

The question today is whether the modern fragmented society can evolve a replacement language. There's little to indicate that it can, unfortunately. In its place we're likely to get style and fashion with little substance unless real compositional "schools" develop with real audiences listening repeatedly to their art.

Jamie Bullock said...

I like your ideas about entropy and espresso! Linking in with this, I propose that the shorter (or smaller) something is, the easier it is to make it perfect. So, there's an inherent truth in what you're suggesting.

However, I find that for me I just get a different experience from longer atonal works, it's less about perfection and more about catharsis. A good example can be found in Boulez Répons. The entry of the small ensemble+electronics in section 1 wouldn't be anywhere near as effective were it not preceeded by the lengthy 6 minute introductory exposition. It sets the scale of the canvas the rest of the work is developed on.

tom said...

Is your argument this?:
1. Non-tonal works are more complex than tonal ones.
2. The longer a work is, the more complex it is.
3. The more complex, the harder to understand a piece is.
4. There is a level of complexity over which a work becomes non-understandable.
4. Being understandable is essential to aesthetic quality.
---
Conclusion: Non tonal works should be shorter than tonal works.


If this is your argument, there are still some gaps.

Why are non-tonal works more complex? You refer to information so I assume the claim is that they repeat less and are therefore less 'compressible' (noise-based works would add an additional layer of non-periodicity). You could back this up with statistical claims that tonal music essentially involves greater repetition of the key-defining tones (IIRC David Huron's claims this in his book 'Sweet Anticipation')

Why does being longer always add to complexity (it could allow for greater repetition)?

Why is being understandable essential to aesthetic quality? This is actually quite a deep problem to do with why we get pleasure in abstract/fictional objects at all-it seems to have something to do with the playful use of our cognitive faculties.

I also assume you don't think that the easiest works to understand are the best- so how do you determine the ideal balance of simplicity and complexity?

Can you give examples of any works that are at an ideal length?

Edward Lawes said...

Dan: I agree. Re Ligeti, I think he is perhaps the 'best' post war composer in terms of pacing his compositions and keeping them moving/developing without the material becoming remote/disconnected. Notable though that most of his 'major' instrumental pieces are under 15 minutes.

I remember playing Atmospheres and Lontano (loudly) to some 'drum and bass' fans after a nightclub years ago, they listened all the way through and one of them even asked if I could pause it while he went to the toilet.

Never seen listeners not familiar with contemporary music respond like that to any other composer. They wanted to go and see some performed but alas, the CBSO don't really do that kind of thing (not since Rattle left anyway, and even then it was rare). BCMG don't very often either (they couldn't do the orchestral pieces anyway).

There's an untapped audience for orchestras there.

John: I agree with what you say about larger works but the point I was trying to make is that contemporary non-tonal music which avoids regular pulse and theme etc is in 'spirit' a short form, perhaps tonal music is too but we're so used to the techniques employed to develop it into larger works we've forgotten this (history becoming nature to paraphrase Foucault fairly badly).

To make successful longer pieces in a non-tonal domain the composer must recognise the density of the material and attend to the listener's needs. In tonal music arguably the problem is inverted, boredom sets in rather quickly due to the high level of harmonic redundancy (borrowing from information theory again).

I think it's worth making the point that composers shouldn't try to fit more modern harmony/gestures into an old form without a clear idea of why they want to write a longer piece and how to deal with the technical demands (imposed by the listener). Hence the post (which is of course full of holes, more on that below).

Re the society issue, don't have much to say about that (today at least). I think a common language so to speak would just bring forward a new set of problems, as seen in popular music and jazz (cultural oversaturation, commercialisation, etc).

Jamie: Good points about perfection and catharsis. I too like the effect of longer pieces and agree that they wouldn't 'mean' the same thing in shorter form.

Not easy to do though and ultimately I still prefer shorter pieces as approaching a sort of perfection is appealing and in short form it's something you can take away with you so to speak, just like a poem, an equation or a proof perhaps.

Interesting to consider, perhaps, whether there is a connection between duration and perfection or 'elegance' in music, analogous to 'elegant' equations in mathematics/physics etc.

Edward Lawes said...

Tom: Firstly, my views on this are obviously subjective/tendentious and given the space/context here a full philosophical treatment of this issue would be out of the question (and out of my subject area really).

I knew when I posted the article it was full of holes, a polemic, partly the preface to a conversation/debate (hence the small print at the bottom).

Composer's don't require a categorical definition of form or of their material in order to function effectively, arguably such definitions don't or can't exist anyway.

I think I'm just scratching the aesthetic surface so to speak but primarily attempting to challenge or reveal an ideology and ask composers and listeners to think more about the issue.

My comments below are pretty off the cuff, discursive if you like (I haven't even spellchecked it, wild); certainly not an attempt to thoroughly deal with the issue so please forgive the rather clumsy responses.

Re complexity. Yes and no. I recoil slightly from that term as it presupposes some objective reality regarding the material, or the 'production'. I prefer to put the emphasis on 'reception' with all its generalisations and culturally specific 'realities'.

Therefore I'm always taking the the 'view from somewhere' to look at this issue. When I refer to information, too much or too little and its relation to attention or boredom I do so from a limited vantage point, i.e. the average listener in our society (even that is difficult but at least it's more tangible than transhistorical/cultural absolutes).

In a parallel universe it might be the case that non-tonal non-thematic music is the norm and most people have no problem listening to pieces which are two hours long, however in our society tonal music is the norm and listeners tend to hear music through that filter so to speak.

Even listeners like myself who are used to listening to non-tonal harmony find it wearing after a while as without careful handling harmonic emphasis is lost (no tonic or point of return). It's from this vantage point I made the comment 'Brevity is the soul of non-tonal music'.

With that in mind, I'll attend to each of your points...(in part 2, letter limit in effect unfortunately).

Edward Lawes said...

Part 2:

1. Non-tonal works are more complex than tonal ones.

More complex to the 'listener' (see above). I prefer to discuss it in terms of information as it's a more neutral term. Complexity comes with many connotations which are unhelpful in my opinion (complexity and quality are often related in some contexts for instance).

2. The longer a work is, the more complex it is.

The longer a work is, the more information it contains depending on the level of redundancy (repetition). Most non-tonal pieces tend to be low in redundancy and repetition is normally found at a local or cellular level, the glue that holds the harmony together and maintains an 'atonal equalibrium'.

Repetition like that found in Feldman's Piano and String Quartet is a different matter an something of an exception to the rule, or put another way, a solution to the 'problem' of how to write longer non-tonal pieces.

3. The more complex, the harder to understand a piece is.

The more information a piece contains, the harder it is for the listener to appreciate it as a contiguous or coherent entity. Entropy or information overload if you like tends to make listeners confused, and bored. A piece may contain some beautfiul moments or passages but they are overwhelmed by the context.

4. There is a level of complexity over which a work becomes non-understandable.

There is a quantity of information over which a work becomes confusing, boring, annoying. The threshold is different for each listener but generalisations can be made (with caution, this is art not science).

4. Being understandable is essential to aesthetic quality.

No. There are no rules about aesthetic quality, only generalisations which refer to specifc cultures at specific times. Also, the point is not that piece be 'understood' (see Stravinsky about that), it's that it ought to be perceived.

Another generalisation but one that makes the point that too much information results in the failure of the listener to perceive the piece as a whole (because it would be too much effort and there is a limit where a work is just too large to be considered as one piece, the mind's buffer is full. This would apply to tonal pieces too, some limit of perception must exist for each individual).

Edward Lawes said...

Part 3:

Why are non-tonal works more complex? You refer to information so I assume the claim is that they repeat less and are therefore less 'compressible' (noise-based works would add an additional layer of non-periodicity). You could back this up with statistical claims that tonal music essentially involves greater repetition of the key-defining tones (IIRC David Huron's claims this in his book 'Sweet Anticipation')

Re why is non-tonal harmony richer in information? Hard to pin down to any objective cause (I speculate further on). It might be primarily cultural, we are so used to tonal harmony and it's sense of 'being and going' (Lansky) that non-tonal forms defy our expectations and we find drawing relations between objects more difficult.

Also the point about 'noise' may play a part, the more dissonance/difference tones etc the more information the brain has to process to make 'sense' of the sound. So perhaps, the physical reality of the sound is more complex (fairly happy to use that term in this context) and culturally there is more information to process and new skills to acquire.

Ultimately, as a composer not an academic I follow my nose, non-tonal pieces feel different and make different demands of the listener/composer.

Why does being longer always add to complexity (it could allow for greater repetition)?

See above.

Why is being understandable essential to aesthetic quality? This is actually quite a deep problem to do with why we get pleasure in abstract/fictional objects at all-it seems to have something to do with the playful use of our cognitive faculties.

See above.

I also assume you don't think that the easiest works to understand are the best- so how do you determine the ideal balance of simplicity and complexity?

Can you give examples of any works that are at an ideal length?


This 'ideal balance' is one of the places where the 'art' happens, it's a moving target and can't be defined. The interaction of composer/listener/society determines what is 'ideal' though it's always, of course, contentious.

Each new piece makes new rules for itself and composers can find new questions to ask of the audience, or new solutions to old 'problems' by being in tune with where we are in terms of our ability to deal with information and our desires in that regard (peaceful minimal music like Part for instance might be popular today partly because of its relationship to a busy, cluttered modern environment, music as medicinal information, possibly).

Re pieces that are ideal, any piece which you can perceive as a whole.

This may require many listens, or just one, depends on the individual/context/piece. Obviously this is more difficult if the piece contains a great deal of information, the task for the composer who wants to write a longer piece therefore is to offer rewards along the way so the listener returns to it many times and finally has a grasp of it (while ideally never exhausting it, perhaps).