Wednesday, January 10, 2018

a piece at New Music Box advocating for polychromatic music becomes a reminder of something Leonard B. Meyer wrote about the low probability of genuinely new "rules" for writing music since the 20th century

It's been a while since I've linked to something at NewMusicBox.  It's not that I don't read it anymore, I still do.  But I have begun to notice something about contributions there that aren't interviews with established composers and musicians, and that's that there's often an advocacy for a type of music.  That's fine, too, really, but the new music or new-music scene is chock full of advocacy for this or that new thing that the artist believes can be a new path forward.  I'm hardly against that, either ...

and yet I tend to be skeptical of the idea that we're going to suddenly start doing microtonality and extended just intonation across the board even if I love the string quartets of Ben Johnston.  A lot of the newer ideas that have been proposed in new classical music, or post-classical music seem to me, as someone who grew up steeped in classical music but also getting exposed at a young age to jazz, blues, rock and some country, to be ideas that stopped being normative in Western art music practice since roughly the time of Beethoven and the Romantic era--most of what the classical avant garde wants to bring in or bring back is stuff that never went away from vernacular music.  Ben Johnston, certainly, gets this, and he's written about how microtonally adjusted chords and solos are all over jazz recordings.  But we'll get back to Ben Johnston's music after a few detours.
One way of understanding and distinguishing our contemporary musical terminology of xenharmonic, polychromatic, and microtonal is by a rudimentary differentiation of philosophy, system, and method:
Xenharmonic refers to a philosophy which regards the infinite pitch scale division methods applied to the pitch continuum as equally valuable. Also, it expresses an aesthetic of freedom and openness toward any and all methods of pitch scale division and the exploration of their melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, timbral, etc. implications in new musical compositions.
We have no words for many perceptual aspects of hearing.
The polychromatic system is an intuitive, unifying conceptual framework for exploring any conceivable pitch division method. Our language is grounded in visual concepts: we have no words for many perceptual aspects of hearing: imagery, visualization, dimension, space, etc. As a result, we are faced with communicating auditory concepts in analogy or metaphor. My perspective is to link visual and auditory perceptual concepts into an idea of ‘pitch-color’. The visual basis here is the color spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. From this intuitive basis, we can move from a vague flat/sharp conception of pitch to more refined and distinct conceptual ‘pitch-color’ anchors. So, with yellow as a basis of reference, orange and red would be progressively flatter, and green, blue, violet would be progressively sharper. Using a color spectrum with integrated visual/audible associations on a scale from (infra/flat)red to (ultra/sharp)violet. The distinctions of flat and sharp become an increasingly refined spectrum relative to the chromatic (macro)pitch division method, i.e. C, Db, C# etc.
The polychromatic system uses the chromatic language as a common point of departure. In this context, the chromatic language is characterized by the use of letters as pitch names, and by the representation of musical intervals numerically (and modally:  C-B as a major 7th rather that an 12th). Also, since the pitch-colors of the system are relatively defined (by the method of pitch division), it creates an intuitive bridge between differing microtonal scale derivation methods.
Microtonality consists of the various, exclusive, and divergent methods of pitch division, notation, and theory. Without a unifying conceptual framework, these methods remain mutually exclusive and excessively difficult to assimilate in a unifying and complementary manner.
A point of clarification: with respect to an integrated philosophy-system-method perspective of music, the chromatic musical language is a system, while the various temperament derivations (meantone, well, just, equal, etc.) are methods (of pitch definition).
The above categories are generalized for preliminary understanding. I see polychromatic music primarily as a system, and secondarily as an aesthetic. For me, this aesthetic involves evolving reflections on humanism in an era of increasing technology. And this is why I devote the effort to physically learn and perform my compositions: to create not only demonstrations of new musical possibilities within the polychromatic framework, but also examples of the human musician utilizing technology in a creatively assistive fashion vs. the human musician creatively assisting (editing, compositing) increasingly sophisticated technological processes.

I couldn't resist a broadly spectrum-spanning quote for the New Music Box piece.  Associating sound and color has a long history.

Briefly, with the caveat that I've got nothing against the music of this composer at all, which I haven't heard, what interests me about New Music Box pieces is that many a contributor attempts to lay out the basis for what is proposed as a new way to conceptualize music.  Not everyone, certainly not Kyle Gann, who is pretty up front about his creative influences and debts and was the one who introduced me by way of a blog post he wrote to Leonard B Meyer.

Being by disposition and custom fairly anti-Romantic in my sympathies and thoughts, I found Meyer's writing about the Romantic era to be revelatory.  He (and Charles Rosen) together laid bare for me why I felt Romantic era music was long-winded and substituted bigness for interest.  It wasn't that there are no Romantic era composers I can admire.  I respect the music of Mendelssohn and Chopin, for instance,,  I even like a decent chunk of Chopin.  Lizst ... eh ... in small doses.  Wagner .... eh.  Schubert, no.  I don't even tend to think of Beethoven as Romantic so much as really late Classical, or if he is Romantic then so is Haydn, in which case I'd say I enjoy "proto-Romantic" composers like Haydn and Beethoven, or even Clementi or Matiegka.

But, anyway, Meyer wrote something about how the likelihood that genuinely new rules or constraints would be formulated in the realm of music in the West seemed pretty unlikely.

Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago 
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 343

In the ideology of Romanticism greatness was linked not only to magnitude but to the prizing of genius; and genius was, in turn, bound to the creation of innovation. This coupling occurred because the Idea of Progress made innovaton an important value and there needed to be causal agents of change. Geniuses were believed to be such agents. But if the future is unknowable and chancy, and if change per se ceases to be a desideratum, then the creation of categorical novelty (for example, the devising of new musical constraints) becomes less important, even pointless, because there is no assurance that innovation will "advance" musical style or lead anywhere--that is, be part of a coherent, predictable pattern. For these reasons, few "hats-off" geniuses will be hailed in the coming years, and creativity will involve not the devising of new constraints (for instance, serialism or statistical techniques) but the inventive permutation and combination of existing contraint-modes, especially as manifested in stylistic eclecticism. 

page 344

The theoretical problem of pastiche eclecticism in the arts has to do with what, if any, is the rationale for the interrelationships, both proximate and remote, among excerpts and styles within compositions: a problem that has scarcely been dealt with, let alone solved.  

I don't want to go overboard with an already mostly-quotes post as it is, so I won't quote Meyer on formalists and stylistic fusion from the aforementioned book.  Instead I'm going to shift over to another one of his books.  Meyer proposed in a later book that musicology and music history prized innovation at the expense of examining choice.  He got more specific, writing that innovative originality at the level of rules tended to trump the study of other forms of artistic activity:

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

page 31
...The distinction between rules and strategies helps, I think, to clarify the concept of originality, as well as its correlative, creativity. For it suggests that two somewhat different forms of originality need to be recognized. The first involves the invention of new rules. Whoever invented the limerick was original and creative in this sense, and Schoenberg's invention of the twelve-tone method also involved this sort of originality. The second sort of originality, ,on the level of strategy, does not involve changing the rules but discerning new strategies for realizing the rules. A Bach or Haydn, devising new ways of moving within established rules--or an Indian sitar player improvising according to existing canons on an age-old rag--is original and creative in this way. "It is surprising to note," observes Josephine Miles,

that the so-called great poets as we recognize them are not really the innovators; but if you stop and think about it, they shouldn't be. Rather they are the sustainers, the most deeply immersed in tradition, the most fully capable of making use of the current language available to them. When they do innovate, it is within a change begun by others, already taking place. ["Values in Language", p 11, Critical Enquiry 3, No.1 1976 pages 1-13]

And the same seems true in music. For though some composers have both invented new rules and devised new means for their realization--Schoenberg is surely the exemplary instance--most of the acknowledged great masters (Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart, and even Beethoven) have been incomparable strategists. 

Now we can get back to Ben Johnston.  Johnston has made no secret he studied with John Cage and also with Harry Partsch.  he didn't introduce new "rules", and within the American avant garde tradition in which Johnston has worked nobody would necessarily say they were trying to make something "new".  Even Partsch, in his way, was moving more in a direction of recovering for or within Western music-making contexts ideas and ideals that had gone out of style since equal temperament began the norm.

Johnston, for his part, has done a fine job of articulating a strategy for notating microtonal, just intonation and extended just intonation music within the parameters of Western musical notation.  Particularly now that I'm more familiar with Johnston's work, Andrew Durkin's Decomposition seems more off bass than I thought it was the year I read it. If Johnston can use traditional Western notation with a few modifications to delineate the difference between one note and another note that is three cents higher than that earlier pitch, the problem with Western musical notation not being "accurate" or "clear" about pitch is arguably a rhetorical flourish of the sort we don't have to take at face value.  Yeah, there are all kinds of shortfalls in Western musical notation and a lot of them have to do with rhythmic values.  There are issues with pitch, too, but those challenges do not necessarily mean that we "can't" notate all the gorgeous things John Lee Hooker plays in a song like "Boogie Chillin'".  It might be more accurate to say that the detail needed to properly "score" a John Lee Hooker performance in standard Western notation is so much work that people from within the blues side of things wouldn't want to spend the time doing so and people from the classical tradition who may only know of blues idioms through the shorthands and conventions ins coring that are used at a popular level will do what they too often do, delude themselves into thinking it's all simple four on the floor 4/4 when so much of it is really very limber 12/8.

And Kyle Gann has blogged about how he's told students that mastering a vernacular/popular musical idiom like barbershop or ragtime or blues can make far more physical and mental demands on them as musicians than a lot of the post-tonal atonal avant garde stuff.  If you play a few bum notes in a Brian Ferneyhough piece the composer will notice and devotees of the style but "normal" people won't.  By contrast, if you butcher Scott Joplin's The Entertainer just about anyone in America who's ever had an ice cream truck drive by their home will know you've screwed up the piece.

Now composers who have in the past written music I can enjoy have done the color and sound association thing.  Scriabin certainly did it and while he's not my all-time favorite his piano sonatas are kinda cool.  Messiaen did this kind of thing and I like him quite a bit more.  But color-sound association is only worth something based on the sounding result.  I have for a personal reason or two never been in a rush to equate color with sound.  It's not my deal.  Other people can do it and if it works for them, great.  I prefer to deal with sound as sound as much as possible.  When I break out colors and spatial reasoning it's because I've written a theoretical musing upon the possibility of syntactic correspondence between ragtime and sonata forms like I did last year, but that's got to do with time-space/space-time distinctions of the sort that a George Rochberg would write about.

Which is to say that I like to read New Music Box from time to time but I feel that as a cubicle drone sort of person who can't afford to get instruments that allow for microtonality it's not going to be my thing.  It's great if someone like a Ben Johnston or someone into microtonality plays with that, but I feel that Taruskin' has been right to say that the chasm between the academic canon of music and the repertoire canon of music has gotten too big.  I think that dissolving the class distinctions between the syntactic parameters of 18th century art music forms and procedures on the one hand and the vitality of vernacular, folk and even popular gestural styles on the other is worth exploring.  If Haydn could get that to work in his era then we have at least one composer who can demonstrate, per Charles Rosen's observations, that a fusion of popular and academic musical idioms is possible.

We don't need to invent or discover new "rules" to create a set of new styles in Western music.  I don't think we need to import non-Western scale approaches in place of Western idioms.  Ben Johnston has written about that, too, and advised that we want to revitalize the musical languages we have and that simply importing scalar and harmonic idioms from Asia might more often lead us to botching Asian music than to revitalizing Western music, though if you're genuinely into Asian music have at it.

In a similar way to Johnston's comments on that topic, I think that those of us who only own instruments tuned to equal temperament have to figure out ow to work with the constraints we have.  So for me it seems much easier (which is not to say this is easy) to figure out how to revitalize developmental processes liek sonata and fugue with blues riffs, ragtime and jazz by steeping myself in that music on the guitar while also steeping myself in the classical guitar traditions, too.  That doesn't jsut mean Sor, Giuliani or Tarrega, fun as they are.  it also means Gilardino, Matiegka, even some Diabelli and Coste or Legnani.  And a lot, I mean a lot of Haydn.  We guitarists too often don't absorb enough music beyond our istrument's literature.  That's been so eloquently discussed by the late Matanya Ophee I don't want to reference that beyond a nod to "Repertoire Issues'.

People who invent new rules for a new form of the game are going to do that anyway.  I'm more partial to cultivating the approach of being a flexible strategist.  I want to figure out stuff such as how to start off with something like an homage to Brahms that transforms into an invocation of Don Helms by the tie the piece is done.

Dissolving the conceptual and class boundaries across styles seems like a more urgent and pressing artistic goal than trying to invent new sets of rules that revolutionize things.  It's not that nobody could revolutionize music in the next century or so, I'm sure some people will.  I just personally feel that amalgamating vernacular and popular idioms into what's colloquially known as art music or classical music is tragicomically overdue.  All sorts of microtonality can play a role because microtonal adjustment of music mid-performance has always been part of music-making.  We're in a unique position less for the reality of this long-standing behavior than because since Anton Reicha speculated about quarter-tone divisions and got that ball rolling for Lizst and eventually composers like Wyschnegradsky or Partsch or Johnston, etc, we have managed to have a notational nomenclature that allows us to specify those things in scores in a way that wasn't the norm in Western scoring conventions earlier. 

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