Tuesday, August 30, 2016

a riff on Leonard B. Meyer's observation about the capacity for early formal arrival of syntactic climax in music and its potential application for a synthesis of ragtime with sonata form

Style and Music: theory, history, and ideology
Leonard B. Meyer
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright (c) 1989 by Leonard B. Meyer

page 304

... In sonata-form movements the chief syntactic climax is the action whereby the instabilities and tensions, the ambiguities and uncertainties of the development section are resolved either directly to the stability and certainty of the recapitulation or through the clearly oriented, regularized tension of a dominant preparation.

...Two characteristics of syntactic climax are particularly pertinent for the present discussion. First, though often congruent with a statistical high point, a syntactic climax essentially involves a change in function. It is an action in which the tensions of instability are resolved to the relaxation of regularity. This being so, a syntactic climax can occur at a low point in a statistical/dynamic curve shaped by the secondary parameters. [Meyer's example in this case was Haydn's Op 76, 4 "Sunrise" quartet, movement 1] The second characteristic--one related to the first--is that a syntactic climax can occur relatively earl in a musical structure, as early as halfway in a small form and two-thirds of the way through larger ones.

That thing about syntactic climax and syntax has been something I've been thinking about for years.  it would seem that even an older self-avowed conservative like Roger Scruton can articulate clearly there's a trouble.  As he sees it, there's an impasse, a separation between serious music (i.e. art music) and popular music. 

He proposed that:
... the question that surely troubles all serious music-lovers now, which is whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of [George] Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture.

Now maybe not everyone will agree George Rochberg's music necessarily pointed a way to the future, or that his music highlights a question as to whether there is a way to find a musical syntax that is expressive within art music and yet not shut off from the realm of popular culture.

If there could be a problem in the occlusion of formal analysis or stylistic analysis in musicology on this matter it could be that, as Kyle Gann and otehrs have complained, identity studies can seem as if they have trumped more formal analysis of musical srface. 

But then it may also be, as Meyerprposed, that a lot of music has shifted from what he described as syntactic formal paradigms to statistical formal paradigms.  If you want to read an amusing rant on how this penchant for "statistical form" plays out in pop music here's part of an amusing rant against "crescendo rock"


Beneath the surface, the National’s work is full of moves like that. But I still dislike the surface. I dislike the traces of a British accent in Berninger’s rich baritone (he’s from Cincinnati). I dislike the midrange restraint of most of the melodies and the sleepy midtempo pace, making it artificially thrilling when things pick up at all—as when drummer Bryan Devendorf kicks the march beat into double-time, two-thirds through the new album’s first single, “Sea of Love,” though Berninger carries on the same oh-so-stately procession. Most of all, I dislike the way many of the songs milk themselves, doubling down on their repetitions by getting denser and louder in later sections.

This is a common trait of many popular and acclaimed bands that turn me off. I call it Crescendo Rock—I’ve had similar misgivings about U2 and Radiohead, though I’ve aired them less because their fans go way more apoplectic. To me, the bands each sound like a group of guys who feel they’ve got something to say and demonstrate their significance by saying it over and over, getting louder and louder.

Ah, but thanks to a century of popular song isn't it a concession to the cliches of formality to have a verse, chorus, bridge, verse and chorus?  Perhaps the old forms have fallen partly into disuse beause after a century of popular song the people who are conscious enough about form can be loathe to embrace it and those who aren't have no qualms about writing the same song in installment packages a la new pop country. 

Or not, that's a deliberately sweeping statement, after all.

Bu tthis thing about the distinction between syntactic and statistical climax intrigues me.  When I hear people attempting to go for fusions of jazz and pop styles tha tthey assimlate into classical music (for wnat of a better term) what I tend to hear is an interest in assimilating the vocabulary of the musical style without necessarily hearing the composer or performing musician experiment with the syntax of the idioms. 

Why would that matter?

Well, one of the common claims made by ans of art music over against opular music is that popular music lacks conceptual argument or developmental trajectory.  This tends to be presented as if it were inherent in the nature of the music itself.  But I would propose that it is a problem of the deployment of vernacular musical vocabularies more than proof that these styles can't be worked into the 18th century developmental thought processes that have been described in formal terms by music historians and theorists.  In other words, there isn't any intrinsic reason that I can see for you not being able to employ the vocabulary of blues or ragtime within the formal processes of sonata or fugue. 

But in order to do that you have to have some grasp of the syntax of these formal approaches.  If we take Meyer's axiomatic observation that a syntactic climax can happen as early as halfway through a shorterwork then let's consider, oh, to pick a completely non-random example ragtime.  A Scott Joplin rag like The Entertainer has its climax, arguably, either at the return of the A strain (you know it, we'll assume) or at the arrival of the climax of the returned A strain. 

So, for all of us who heard the sound of Joplin's famous rag when the ice-cream truck rolled by, we only ever heard the first two strains because they cycle back on each other.  Well, if we float this idea that the syntactic climax of sonata, as Meyer described it, is in the recapitulation of the opening material, then if we wanted to develop a hybrid of ragtime and sonata form what we would need to do is find a way for the syntactical/formal functions of the components of ragtime and sonata to correspond to each other. 

Well, sonata tends to be treated as if it were discursive and dialectical but this could be casting it in Hegelian terms that were literally inconceivable in the decades in which people like Haydn were refining the sonata process.  So let's try another idea, which is to suggest that for both sonata form and for ragtime the structural/formal repeats that tend to get ignored in many a contemporary recording ... actually matter.

In a sonata exposition that repeats the effect would be A, transition, B then A, transition, B, or ABAB.  In ragtime the presentation is more simple, AA BB.  In a sonata we get a development (sometimes) before the first theme recapitulates.  Something William E. Caplin mentioned in his writings that inspires me is that we can observe that in slow sonata movements there's a tendency to collapse transitions into the second thematic group those transitions anticipate.

Everyone who has ever looked at a Scott Joplin ragtime even once in their lives can't help but notice that two-word admonition, "Not fast."  There are even times where Joplin insists that it is NEVER APPROPRIATE TO PLAY RAGTIME FAST. 

Well, if we also float in the idea of structural rotation from, not randomly, James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy, then how themes come forth and come back in expositions and recapitulations can play a syntactic role in establishing, departing from and then returning to a set of thematic relationships.  Which is to say that if we want to arrive at a fusion of sonata form and ragtime we have to modify elements of both ragtime and sonata form. 

The way ragtime would have to be modified is a bit more obvious.  Instead of a Joplin-style AABBACCDD pattern we'd need something more like AABBA(A)B(B)  Or maybe something like AAB(B)CABC.  We'd have to make sure that the procession of thematic ideas could plausibly fit the syntax of ragtime but also of a sonata. 

This would be where the internal repeats that are requisite in ragtime give us wiggle room.  Suppose we took the B material/theme 2 or Group 2 and weren't very literal about it?  It's not as though there's no basis for modulating transitions or passages within ragtime, a modulating transition could anticipate Theme 2 (or the B material); lead into the B material, and then lead, in turn, to development.  This couldn't be a very long development section for a sonata/ragtime hybrid, because the important expectation for both the ragtime and the sonata form would be the return of the A material, the Theme 1.  But to properly mimic ragtime you'd have to have a fully repeating, identifiable A theme/Theme 1  That means you'd have maybe just the sixteen to twenty-odd measures of B and its repeat within a ragtime stricture to get your ideas across that this is a ragtime that will proceed more like a sonata.  It seems like it could be done, but that doesn't mean it would necessarily be easy.

If you can successfully hybridize not merely the vocabulary of ragtime but the formal syntax of ragtime into a sonata, and vice vera, a ragtime sonata form should theoretically be possible.  Frankly even a fugue using a ragtime melody as its subject doesn't seem impossible to imagine but it requires a grasp of the syntasx of the formal and stylistic components of the different idioms.  Since in many respects ragtime simply altered the rhythmic profiles and quickened the harmonic rhythms of existing Romantic music this might not be as hard to do as theory professors might initially tell you it is (which is not to say it's easy, at all, just that it may be more feasible than some music teachers would propose). 

So, take The Entertainer, that endless V-I vamp would have to not be the B theme for a ragtime/sonata hybrid to happen.  It would need to be an identifiable theme that doesn't have a dominant preparation vamp as its foundation.   Paradoxically this would fit with Meyer's comment that syntactic climax in a sonata form is either the full recapitulation of the expositional material OR the arrival at a dominant preparation.  Well, obviously we can't have the traditional ragtime dominant tonic oscillation because that is precisely the kind of dominant preparation vamp that leads back to the A material that can be taken as equivalent to a recapitulatory anticipation to begin with.

So your B material would have to be identifiably different from your A material but also not obviously a vamp that sets up its return.  If you wanted to you could compose a kind of ragtime countersubject ... oh, yeah, and if this were a sonata hybrid the theme would need to be in the dominant key, not a dominant-tonic oscillation within the tonic key, in most cases.  That way when the recapitulation of the A material happens it can lead to a recontextualized B material that comes back I nthe tonic key as it would for a sonata and also play, possibly, the "C" role in the Joplin rag. 

Or, as I'm thinking about this, an ABC pattern might be best for a ragtime/sonata hybrid because it emulates the cast-size o a rag without being fixed to the repetitions of the form.  You could have the A material repeating as expected and then have a B section that is both transition and presentation of a B theme/Theme 2 that can lead to a C theme and developmental material before the A material returns.  This would give you a chance to recapitulate the B and C material as a macro Group 2 where it should be in a sonata form.  It might even give you space to do variations or expansions on the group material. 

After all, if the syntactic climax of a ragtime/sonata hybrid is where it would tend to go to work as a syntactic climax for both a short/slow sonata form and a traditional ragtime, somewhere in the 45-66% region of the total playing time would seem in order.   This would require a development section in which the themes are not fully developed. That's okay.  It's not as though Haydn exhaustively developed all his thematic potential from his exposition themes--there was room to develop ideas in the recapitulation through ornamentation, feint, and through compensating development that balanced things out in the second half of a sonata movement.  For a ragtime sonata hybrid what you can try is substituting expansion episodes of development to replace what in a more literalist ragtime form would be literal repeats. 

All of this sounds fairly simple when you write it out on a page but it's not necessarily so cut and dried when you try to write actual music working this way. 

Doesn't a sonata form work on the assumption of contrasting thematic characters?

Thanks to Haydn and Clementi, no.  Monothematic sonatas were more common than 19th century and onward pedagogy would have us believe.  It's possible to compose a theme; compose another melody as a countersubject to that theme; present them as structurally distinct themes within your exposition; and then bring that back in simultaneous recapitulation as subject and countersubject in a sonata form.  Monothematic sonatas don't tend to be cast as inventions but if we only ever wrote music based on the ideas that music teachers officially gave us permission to do there'd be much less music in the world.   So when people who write about music say that blues doesn't obey "the rules" of the art music tradition it's important to remember that until we got to people like Schoenberg the music theory we learned was very often spectacularly after the fact.  12-bar blues more studiously sustains the idiom of functional harmony than a twelve-tone row might.

There's never been any reason you couldn't have your first theme in a sonata form be a 12-bar blues any more than there's any real reason you couldn't have both of your themes in a sonata movement be ragtime strains.  Sure, if we have an academic culture in higher education that reflexively regards the sonata form as obsolete then, yeah, people will tend to think of sonata as obsolete and think of the blues as a century old popular/vernacular style without thinking about how easily these two could be used to recontextualize each other.

Consciously and even systematically hybridizing the vocabulary and formal syntax of popular music with the "academic" formal approaches of sonata and fugue is a time-consuming process but it's worth remembering that even sonata was not necessarily as academic back then as we might feel it is as we listen to a sonata now.  You can hear the complexities of the exposition, development and recapitulation as verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, and chorus if you want.  Sure, ,the chorus is in a different key than the verse the first two times, and you have to figure out how to get them in the same key near the end; and you've got that bridge that's a mash-up of stuff from before but for the willing mind the conceptual barriers between a pop song of the Tin Pan Alley tradition and a piano sonata by Haydn can be far more a sense of formal scale and conceptual relationships than some impassable conceptual gulf. 

So a sonata form taken up chiefly in the idiom of ragtime seems practical, if perhaps challenging at a few levels.  It might not please those who are purists with ideas of what they expect a real ragtime to have or a real sonata form to have.  But I'm not really setting out to write music for those people. 

The idea that the vocabulary and syntax of a musical style can be separable might not be what people spend hours thinking about but I'm one of those sorts of people.  If we don't accept at face value narratives that say this or that musical style "broke all the rules" because that would presuppose a proper understanding of the rules, then the possibility that blues or jazz or country or rock can be a vocabulary rather than some set of forms can be kept in mind--the experiment would be to see how the vocabulary can be fused with the syntax of 18th century developmental thought process inventions by not assuming these things are forms.  But to do this you have to have enough competency in the vernacular musical styles to find potential conceptual overlaps with more academic musical approaches.  You can't chart the Venn diagram if you don't understand the spheres well enough to see where they can potentially intersect and overlap. 

I just don't see why you couldn't, given enough time to study 18th century contrapuntal processes and Delta blues, create a fugue based on a blues riff.  Plenty of people have to have done this before but in times like these when some music educators would cordon off jazz from formal study and others would say that, oh, you can't really teach jazz in school (as if we've successfully taught 18th century contrapuntal idioms in school as a point of contrast?  Not so sure that's worked out either). 

While I've been mulling over writing about ways that other composers have experimented with the vocabulary of jazz and the syntax of contrapuntal procedures blogging about Nikolai Kapustin had probably best wait for a bit longer.  I'm still feeling overdue to get back to Rebay. :( 

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