Friday 25 July 2008

Gann on Byrne and the issue of 'Access'

Kyle Gann posted a blog entry about David Byrne`s recent article and/or review of Zimmermann`s opera Die Soldaten. I posted a response on Gann`s blog which never appeared for some reason, so i`ll post it here instead....

This line [from Byrne`s article] seems to sum up the article from my perspective...(I didn`t take much notice of the guff about what is or is not 'accessible', there is no metric for that)

'The opera is a classic of 12-tone technique, which means that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are permissible at any time, and none are emphasized over and above the others.'

This is wrong, the idea that all 12 notes are 'permissible at any time', that contradicts the serial principle (and connotes randomness), and if we are talking about 'free atonality' then it doesn`t make sense either as most of the music classified as such uses limited collections of intervals/pitches which are manipulated by the usual methods (transposition, inversion, retrograde, sets and subsets, complements and so on), a piece may use the full chromatic but does so in methodical or rational way, all 12 pitches or 6 intervals classes (if you like) are certainly not 'permissible at any time' (I am generalising but most music of this type seems to work this way to my knowledge).

The same could also be said of tonality (you could use the full chromatic while making use of a clear tonic and/or using standard triad formations for instance, these different harmonic practices are not very far apart in my view, however shades of grey don`t make for good copy)

On the one hand it`s good that Byrne is taking an interest in contemporary music, on the other hand it isn`t as he is misrepresenting it or aspects of it, I am not surprised as it`s fairly complicated stuff (harmony in general, tonal or otherwise).

I don`t have a solution or opinion on this, should Byrne and other mainstream/popular figures not pass comment because they lack the knowledge or should they speak up even if their comments misrepresent the subject?.

I don`t know, upsides and downsides, I think I`m past caring (almost, if I really didn`t care I wouldn`t post anything).
I`ll just develop this point about 'accessibilty' briefly. For something to be 'accessible' you need to know what it is for, you need to understand its function.

This was not discussed in Byrne`s article nor in Gann`s blog entry, which is odd because the whole issue revolves around the function of music/s as far as I can see. Both writers assume we all know what music is for, and that we can discuss music and its 'accessibilty' without defining our terms.

I think not, it could be argued that each 'innovation' in Western music, or any music, means to change the music`s function. Consider Bach`s cello suites, Beethoven`s 9th, Webern`s Symphonie Op21 and Stockhausen`s Kontakte, is this music all created for the same purpose?.

Broadly speaking, no, although this is a subjective issue, as per usual. Even if we ignore the production aspects of the music - which might seem fair given that a few hundred years separates the oldest and newest works and the instrumental forces vary - and its historical reception and focus on contemporary reception issues we find that people listen to this music for different reasons, it serves different functions in people`s lives, it depends who you ask, and when.

So how can we talk about 'accessibility' when we don`t know what is being accessed and who by and what for?. The simple answer is we can`t. We have to contextualise the issue before we can make a judgement, is Stockhausen`s Kontakte 'accessible' for a group of elderly people on a cruise ship? ('diffused' in the dining hall perhaps?).

Probably not, the music is not well designed for that function (relaxing background music to eat by). Bach`s Cello Suites on the other hand would be fine, is this music more accessible?, in this hypothetical context yes, partly because it is more easily ignored, or tuned in and out of so to speak. You`ll be able to find contexts where music is or is not 'accessible', this says less about the music and more about the circumstances (Stockhausen`s electronic works are more 'accessible' to fans of 'Electronica' for instance, many of whom find Bach 'boring', or 'inaccessible' if you like)

Even the idea that music is soley an art of the audible is not something that should be assumed, as if it were nature not history. Not all music is written to be judged or experienced purely in terms of how it sounds, there is more to it than that, though you wouldn`t guess it from reading Byrne`s article or Gann`s critique of it. I`ll end by quoting Nicholas Cook, from his book Music, Imagination and Culture.

Audibility, in short, is not everything in music. Dahlhaus writes that 'an undogmatic theory of art must recognize that the criterion of audibility, of complete realization by perception, is not a natural law of aesthetics but a postulate of historically limited scope. By rigorously restricting the concept of music or of "music proper" to the perceptible, one curtails historic reality for the sake of a dogma not older than the eighteenth century.' ( 1983: 54.)

One cannot reasonably demand that music must, by definition, yield all its meaning in perception. It would obviously be narrow-minded to deny the aesthetic validity of Machaut's palindromic chanson Ma fin est mon commencement, or to refuse to recognize it as music, simply because of the impossibility of grasping its structure in purely perceptual terms; it is equally narrow-minded to reject a piece of serial music (as people actually do, or at least used to do) on the grounds of its consciously adumbrated organization, without giving it a hearing first.

If, however, such a work were to yield nothing of interest in perception--if, in Dahlhaus's words, it remained 'a surplus intention which does not attain phenomen­ality' ( 1987: 225)--then one would have good reason for rejecting it, or even for failing to recognize it as music; for without the criterion of perceptual gratification there would be no means of drawing a distinction between music on the one hand and numerological speculation, theatrical activity, or mere mechanical exercise on the other. Consequently, while a musical composition may not be exhausted in perception, some degree of meaningful or gratifying perceptual engagement with it is a prerequisite if one is to approach it as music at all.

Friday 11 July 2008


Yes, it has returned, IMSLP/Petrucii Music Library is back online and while some content is under review, much of the older stuff seems available (e.g. a Bach solo flute partita).

Good work/nice action IMSLP team.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Quotes of the Day 09/07/08

R. Murray Schafer

'We are usually more touched by what we hear than what we see. The sound of rain pelting against leaves, the roll of thunder, the whistling of wind in tall grass, the anguished cry excite us to a degree that visual imagery can seldom match. Music is for most people a stronger emotional experience than looking at pictures or scenery... Partly, perhaps, because we cannot close our ears as we can our eyes. We feel more vunerable to sound...
...Auditory space is very different from visual space. We are always at the edge of visual space, looking in with the eye. But we are always at the centre of auditory space, listening out with ears.... Visual awareness faces forward. Aural awareness is centred.'

'R. Murray Schafer: Quoted in Resonance: Essays On The Intersection Of Music and Architecture.

Man has not always been dominated by vision. Robert Mandrou stated that "the hierarchy of the senses was not the same as in twentieth century because of the eye, which rules today, found itself in third place, behind hearing and touch and far after them. The eye that organises, classifies and orders was not the favoured organ of time that preferred hearing."

Walter J. Ong in his book Orality and Literacy points out that the "the shift from oral to written speech was essentially a shift from sound to visual space," and that "print replaced the lingering fearing of dominance in the world of thought and expression with the sight dominance which had its beginning in writing."

The dominance of the sense of vision in architectural design was reinforced by writings of modernist architects like Walter Gropius, who stated that the designer "has to adapt knowledge of the scientific facts of optics and thus obtain a theoretical ground that will guide the hand giving shape, and create an objective basis," and Le Corbusier, who wrote "I exist in life only if I can see," supporting the notion that vision is the crux of everything by stating "I am and I remain an impenitent visual - everything is in the visual," and "one only needs to see clearly in order to understand."
Galia Hanoch-Roe; Scoring The Path: Linear Sequences in Music (printed in Resonance: Essays On The Intersection of Music and Architecture)

History of Symmetry Podcasts

Graph of E8 Gosset polytope, 42,1

Yes, a podcast series by Ian Stewart of Warwick University, to accompany his recent book, Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry.

Monday 7 July 2008

Pun Babbitt, Pun Babbitt, Pun!, Pun!, Pun!

Another awful pun title I know but you`ve got to make this blogging lark fun somehow. Here is Milton Byron Babbitt`s complete works for piano performed and hosted by - the generous - Augustus Arnone. Free to stream or download (creative commons licence).

Sunday 6 July 2008

Quote of the Day (06/07/08)

'Creativity arises as a result of the intersection of two quite different frames of reference'
Arthur Koestler (quoted in Resonance: Essays On The Intersection of Music and Architecture)

Guess The Pattern: Win a Prize

The first person who can tell me how I made this pattern* wins a special prize. It`s a set of geometrical relationships, but which?. I`m wondering if there is some music here (time will tell, I`m working on it)..

It`s not designed to look nice, infact you could say it isn`t designed at all really, it`s just as it should be, as the proportions dictate. It has a sort of (ancient) Egyptian or Art Deco look to it, a bit.

*Don`t try anything cute like....'you made it with a pencil, a ruler, a compass and some paper'

EDIT: I just made this one from the same proportions..(why wasn`t geometry this interesting at school?)