This was offered in June 1992, and published in the newsletter Consorting
Copyright ©1992 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz
Thomas L. (Larry) Read’s two-part essay in Consorting (Fall/Winter 1991/2) was a great pleasure to discover. I am fascinated by his approach and ability to articulate how a way of process-composition not only came to be, but came to be human.
In the six months I have spent here in Europe, I have met a number of composers for whom process-music -- especially computer-generated process-music -- is the most significant (if not the only) method they use to organize their notes. The best of it is extraordinary because it is created by composers who are exceptionally talented; the worst of it is beyond miserable in its uninspired mechanality.
At the Roboard pFestival, December’s (1991) automatic piano concert in The Hague, Bösendorfer instruments were outfitted with Midi-controlled solenoid assemblies, and some were entirely retuned for certain pieces. Spectral Canon by James Tenney is the ultimate in process and also simplicity: entering one at a time, the notes of the natural harmonic series are played ostinato (each shorter than the previous), until an effect akin to phase-shifting (flanging) is produced. It begins in the mid-bass and rises, ending in a tiny glitter of notes in the high treble. Complex arrays of mathematical processes are involved in Klarenz Barlow’s Çogluotobusisletmesi, a half-hour work of knotty dynamic and rhythmic interplay (actually written for live pianists but extremely difficult to perform). A Midi transfer of Conlon Nancarrow’s original piano-roll composition, Study No. 7, moves in progressive durations without reference to more formal rhythmic expectations. Sonority and musicality arise from all this music; wherever the process itself is audible, it reveals not itself, but rather the development of the music.
Self-conscious, retrospective analysis of our compositions can be a treacherous and sometimes (self-) deceptive activity, yet Larry succeeds exceptionally well in explaining a music whose integrity is remarkable without such explanation. Thus wary of the potential dissimulation of retrospective analysis, I offer my own method (oh, that word) for creating and composing some of my recent music. It is a method which adopts and adapts process techniques -- phase shifting, isorhythms, pulse-minimalism, etc. -- without submitting to their tyranny. In other words, I like to break the rules I set up, departing from patterns when my subjective view of the sonority demands it, just as Schoenberg would spring himself from harmonic traps (major chords, for example) by momentarily altering his tone rows. Techniques we take as given in the study of harmony and melody (false cadences, modulations, Landini cadences, species of counterpoint, etc.) had their origins in the modification of (or disaffection with) ways of composing (rules, if you will, or even current "process"), and were not necessarily natural or inevitable consequences of some method. The dilemma now is that the modifications to processes may be ways out of bad processes, not ways of revealing processes through their exceptions (or, better, of revealing sonority through exceptions to process).
My justification for this loose construal of musical process architecture is a large orchestra work in four movements (as yet neither complete nor, more important, titled!) which began in 1989.
The first movement (performed in 1990 as Yçuré, and since revised) is an instrumental isorhythmic motet in the form of a concertante fanfare for two chamber ensembles. In its simplest state, an isorhythmic pattern consists of a melodic phrase and a rhythmic figure, each of different lengths; when played repetitively, their two aspects become displaced from each other -- go out of synchronization -- and produce what can sound like entirely new melodies, one after another. (This is more sophisticated and musical than it seems. Try singing the 21 notes of Mary Had a Little Lamb, leaving out the word snow at the end, instead singing that final pitch with Ma–. Repeat the tune: –ry now goes with the first pitch of the song, and the rhythm follows the words, not the notes. It will take 21 passes to get back in synchronization with the original, having produced 20 hauntingly similar isorhythmic variations.)
There are five melodies (in related tonalities) and an equal number of unique rhythms in this movement, played in the upper parts. The lower parts provide an initial underlying pulse. The process begins immediately as the upper parts are shortened by one melodic note while their rhythm remains intact, and the lower parts undergo a progressive disintegration as they gain or lose one, two or three beats per part. The lower voices walk apart but, with a brass/percussion pulse holding the rhythmic architecture together, an increasing alienness of the regular rhythm and incongruity (and incoherence, it sounds) arise in the total structural trio. When the rhythmic disintegration appears to be at its most extreme, the strings return a formality with chromatic (hence, not in keeping with the intertwined tonalities of the upper parts) ostinati, reasserting a rhythmic insistence. There suddenly seems to be little conviction for the process-nature revealed at the outset.
However, this chromatic pattern is illusory in its apparent resistance to process, as it is itself transferred to the ensemble as dense chords; the new rhythmic regularity contrasts with complex harmonic "rhythmicity." The remainder of the work consciously develops and reconsiders these isorhythms and harmonies: the isorhythms return in string chromatics and interruptions in a multi- ensemble cascade, overlapping in polyrhythms (barred as 4/4) and in a counterpoint of echoing isorhythms. It proceeds in long, fugato augmentations and diminutions in multiple ensembles, leading to a fanfare organized on the skeleton of just one isorhythm. The isorhythms are then compressed and expanded within themselves in a long contrapuntal elegy, answered by a highly pulsing pizzicato section with isorhythms passing so quickly in sequence that the music seems a field of undifferentiated plucking pulses with only a faint, fading reflection of the original melodies in woodwinds above. The coda repeats part of the fanfare.
The movement is moderated by its underlying resilient clock: all beats are large fractional multiples (60, 90, 120, etc.), so one beat subdivides triplet/dupletlike from previous to next; thus, rhythms are never lost in this milieu.
The second movement, which proceeds without pause from the first, is a slightly revised version of Softening Cries (1991). This section is more obviously concerned with process per se, yet with layering of much simpler processes.
Binding the movement together is an ostinato, perpetuo, dissonant, chordal rhythm with accelerating changes in the string ensemble. These pulses sit on one harmony for some time at the outset, but increase their change (and hence their energy) as they proceed toward the middle. The process reverses, as do the harmonies, from the middle to the end, providing a very clear (but largely inaudible) mirrored curve of energy.
The second process is a dream-suspended F major (!) chorale of 42 notes, which is pulled across the entire 15-minute movement, with its chord-to-chord modulations stretching and shrinking via prime numbers 17 to 43, chosen without interest in the (again) common time barring and intended as a kind of Greek-chorus-gone-autistic in its maddened introspection.
Constantly reshuffling groups of low instruments play homophonic, quasi-tonal chorales or melodic segments in complex relationship to the basic beat, but which are, with respect to themselves, in simple rhythms of 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Counterposed to these processes and layerings (more on this later) are woodwinds which cry in expanding and contracting waves of sliding chromatic expressions, referring to the first movement’s harmonic-melodic exchange, and rising out of and falling into the remaining orchestral activity; sonorities in the third movement are also foreshadowed by this.
Through strict attention to certain automatic processes and with rhythmic detail emphasized for individual parts, a free-flowing, floating sonority is created.
The third movement (again played without pause) originated as two separate pieces, The Lily and The Thorn (1991) and Northern Lights ... Seeking Sasquatch (1989). This combination of two pieces -- recomposed and integrated -- provides a release from the intellectual rigor of 40 minutes of isorhythms and prime numbers. The concern which gives a textural integrity to the movement’s place in the larger work is an intense exploration of the layering of individual parts and ensembles.
Students of music history are introduced early to baroque terraced dynamics, through which dynamic contrast and energy are achieved by adding and deleting orchestral ensembles. The entirety of my new orchestral piece is an exploration of terraced compositions; that is, each chamber ensemble within the orchestra is in counterpoint with others, and may be extracted from the whole and play its own music. What will be heard is a complete composition in itself. This idea was touched upon and abandoned some years ago (Stockhausen’s Carré comes to mind), but it was one that fascinated me and posed the questions: how much can someone hear, and when do they stop being able to hear it? Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium is a celebratory choral piece that has 40 simultaneous, independent parts. To me, after the entrance of a dozen parts, the contrapuntal clarity of the music is obscured, and after 16 parts or so, it is little more than a kind of moving harmony.
So with this composition, I continue my interest in sonorities, continue my exploration of the results of process, but most significantly, I push multi-emsemble density (or contrapuntal compositions) to the limits of my ability to hear.
To return briefly to the Lily and Sasquatch movement: it is in strict, audible meter, combining strong minimalist pulse, layering, and a highly (shall we say) subjective jazz quintet in the central section within the minimalist arch. This relatively conventional movement (an overture/fantasia, perhaps) concludes in open harmony, out of which arises without pause the longest, most complex, and densest section.
This untitled final movement returns (at first) to rigorous process. It originated as a dripping water tap plopping into an unwashed pot. The pattern of notes produced, their frequency of occurrence, and their pitch fascinated me (and kept me awake). I pulled myself out of a comfortable bed, copied these patterns onto paper, and later performed a Markov analysis on them, eventually programming a computer to generate a 15,000-note sequence as compositional raw material.
If this immediately offends a sense of how music is composed, then let me recall this line from Larry Read’s essay: "I knew intuitively, I suppose, that my subjective musical inclinations were freely and effectively engaged when interacting with some sort of automatic, mechanically sustained rhythmic phenomenon and, quite suddenly, a simple possibility occurred to me wherein the formulation of a foreground pitch succession and duration would be united in a single generative process." After following intuitive understandings -- inspirations, if you will -- he uses consummate musicianship to create (not merely compose (set up musical objects)) remarkable sonority.
In this Drip Piece (oh for a clever title!), the number 12 becomes crucial: it is in 12/12 (12 twelfth notes per bar, that is, 4/6th of 3 sextuplets or, alternatively and less devilishly, 3/2 without the triplet brackets); its phrases are grouped by 12 notes; entrances are 12 notes apart; there are 12 parts to the harmony and counterpoint; there are 12 notes to the dripping scale (D, E, E 1/5#, F, F# 1/5 flat F#, G 1/5 flat, G, A 1/5 flat, A, D, E -- always within a ninth for any given instrument); hockets are in 3x4; strings, winds and brass are always in groups of 12; and many other internal relationships are based on 12 ... even a baker’s dozen appears at one point.
The architecture of the movement is long (40 minutes); here is a brief overview. The music begins with all muted strings, without vibrato, and engages in a slowly (x 12) building, quickening counterpoint until a regular rhythmicity is apparent. Here brass and winds flood into the texture, walking through the drip patterns in a (modified) process-meter and, by means of metered decelerandi, the ensembles arrive at a four-level hocket (process tampering is necessary to get here). There is shifting orchestration, fragmentation, disintegration and, eventually, full drip harmony -- limited by the lack of B-flat to C-sharp in the scale, but enriched by the appearance of the four microtones (changed to quarter-tones for practical reasons). Process mirrorings, contractions and expansions develop the harmonic vs. contrapuntal sounds; hints of the earlier movements are suggested, and there is a return to emphasized 12-patterns. Block chords which have appeared eventually release to melodies, and contrapuntal melodies are also eventually released to a single melody in drip-serial form, with metered fermatas. The unision orchestral melody settles firmly on the drip-tonic.
There are several problems not only with the last movement, but with the work as a whole. One, of course, is its 100 minute length, not only for economic reasons, but for the stamina expected of the musicians, some of whom play (with obvious breaks for physical recovery) throughout the piece. There is also the demand on an audience for their time: few composers in the symphonic genre have risked attempting compositional unity and audience attention over that length (without pause), and with that kind of density. One (more typical) problem is that the work itself may entirely fail in its objectives. [Note: Dripworks was abandoned in 1995.]
One reason I have chosen this work for discussion is to ask whether the lack of exactitude or rigorousness in the process execution, their lack of mathematical sophistication, and my willingness to break my own process rules, all conspire to so weaken the process architecture on which the work is predicated that I have composed a piece which merely lopes along dilettantishly for some 1500 measures. I hardly agree. Yet, in the past few months, I have met a number of talented and credible composers who feel that if a complete piece cannot be reduced to an easily programmable algorithm, it fails in its theoretical unity. Can it be that music which follows a process must indeed follow it rigorously, mechanically -- even digitally -- for that is very much the nature of process itself? Is it possible that without rigor, a composition can risk being so intuitive, so inspired, that there is no convincing answer to the important question, "where do you get your notes?" That question is so critical (and Larry voices it in his own introduction) that Dutch composer Louis Andriessen asks it repeatedly of his composition students. The next question, almost as important in this context, is "what process have you used to write?" There is no historical parallel to this, I believe; most stylistic analysis has been retrospective, whereas it seems that this tries to be prospective.
This prospectiveness may be a serious mistake, for we may not know what is important in our work as it will be understood either by our present audiences (oh, them!) and by future musicians. I am reminded of a story in which a space explorer spends 25 years on a round-trip, first-time visit to another planet, traveling at such high speed that, upon his return, all his friends had died long ago. His return is greeted not with the scientific enthusiasm he expected, but with literary adulation: posterity wanted to hear tales of his college friend and roommate -- the greatest writer of his century.
So to the next question: Is process, or only the effects of its influence, more significant? I recently discussed some of these ideas with musicologist Alcedo Coenen, who is completing a book on Stockhausen. Coenen suggested that Stockhausen’s serial approach to music is at such a deep level that it may in fact now be a new art form quite different from the musical sound it makes. On the other hand, the influence of American music (especially minimalism) is powerful yet unacknowledged (almost dismissed) here, and Coenen was surprised when I suggested this: If you accept Cage’s piano dances and Webern’s orchestral pieces as the beginning of minimalism (the early 1940s), and Terry Riley’s 1964 In C as its first manifesto, then the style has been with us nearly 50 years, and will in all likelihood (in our accelerating society, moreover) be of greater longevity and eventual influence than the geographical minor classical era that begins with C.P.E. Bach in the 1750s and ends with Beethoven about 1810!
Even if this be exaggeration, I present it to suggest that the process implicit in minimalism may indeed be our time’s musicological significance. We have created the musical era of process.
But there is for me a danger implicit in process-music, beyond the shackles of any inflexible style, be it Cinquecento madrigals or Babbittist serialism. It is the reason my process work has been largely non-theoretical, and also why I change the process in motion and tamper with the results. I believe that we, as a world culture, have begun to cede control of our humanity to computer-controlled process. I do not suggest that there is nothing to be learned from digital process, nor beauty to be made with it. But the program viruses so blindly and unquestioningly accepted by mindless computers should warn us that we ourselves may be infected, by our own ease, with a technological disease. Artists have been called upon to document Guernica, to resist Torquemada, to bear witness to justice and to celebrate humanity. Not only what we have to say with our art, but how our art is produced, will be our legacy. For me, perfect art will remain imperfect process.
In this discussion -- the humanity of music (indeed all of the arts) brought hard up against the rise of processes and particularly computers -- argument can be very hot. Though composers here in Amsterdam are collegial and sincerely warm toward each other, they intensively argue and openly critique colleagues’ music. I find this refreshing, but it is difficult to keep up with the unspoken understandings, and I find myself listening hard and asking many questions (the common language is English, so at least my problem is not a verbal one).
Their question of raw materials ("Where do you get your notes?") has already been introduced. It is certainly possible to answer the question by denying its validity; it is, after all, largely a 20th Century question, and may pass into history as such. For many, the answer is simple: the sources are inspiration, tradition, textual implications, trial-and-error (fooling around), personal systems, existing systems (such as dodecaphonics), dreams, chance, or simple theft (such as most variations). As chance sources have had several decades of exploration, they have entered the musical vocabulary; but a new entry in the encyclopedia of those sources is the computer.
Let me review how this device has become a part of our musical lexicon, technique and instrumentation. I want to make a distinction between computers used in musical generation, and electronics used in music generally; this latter includes early explorations such as the Theremin and the Ondes Martenot, and appears later in such equipment as the first Moog synthesizers and various tape- looping and sound-modification electronics. Computers have something in common with only a few previous instruments (the player piano and the street organ are among them): the ability to recall and replay a sequence of music. Quite different from the mechanical devices, however (and from human-experience–influenced origins, such as aleatoric performances of the 1950s onward), the computer is also capable of generating -- originating -- sequences of notes (vertically or horizontally in any combination) and timbres. It can thus produce note patterns not humanly conceived, and timbres not initiated by an ordinary physical object’s vibration (letting rest the point that the reproducing loudspeaker is itself a physical object).
Sound can be measured and quantified; understanding that, one can create it both in new guises and in an original, formulaic manner. Computers are ideal at following simple instructions to create moving patterns of numbers -- patterns which can (perhaps) outline the mathematical shape of what might just be a sound wave. Acousticians began to comprehend the workings of sound, and composers longed for perfect performances of the increasingly complex music of this century. The French acoustic/musical research institute IRCAM began cataloging sounds from the entire world, and newer, smaller, faster computers there, in the eastern United States, and in the WDR studios in Cologne were outfitted with hardware that transferred certain operations of the computing machines to loudspeakers.
Heady with the notion of complete control over their compositions, writers of music experimented with rigorous rhythms and pitch leaps, and the influence of computer scientists and mathematicians encouraged a manner of thinking not before present in music-making. Such machines were not only natural performers of serial compositions, but they also invited the theories of composers as diverse as Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and many others to be tested.
The test itself is problematic. Stockhausen and Xenakis have been influential in the abstraction of music into what might become a separate, non-sonic artform by the end of this century. So the definition of music itself must be massaged to prepare the questions. Such definitional adjustments have in the past been limited to (bitter) arguments over Schoenberg’s 12-tone concept, and its expansion over 50 years, but now they may shake music at its core: its humanity.
Let me turn back to the historical stream. In the 1950s, computers were able, through direct, detailed control by composer-acoustician-programmers, to produce sequences of sounds. Experiments in timbre and duration -- among the most difficult for performing musicians to address -- were prominent in these works. Because of the difficulty of achieving the programming skills (and patience and money) necessary to create computer music, the field was limited to specialists and geniuses.
In the early 1970s, electronic musical instruments -- synthesizers -- became affordable, and the area of electronic sound and hybrid compositions (tape pieces and musique concrète) grew rapidly. The arrival of low-cost digital counting circuitry gave mechanical control of note order and duration to the composer at large; this was about 1973. Personal computers made their appearance shortly, and composers such as David Behrman immediately put them to use not only as note sequencers but also as tools for live-electronic interactive performance.
By the early 1980s, the fields of electronic music, pop music, concert music, film music, academic music and experimental music were all looking toward the keyboards, synthesizers and computers (and various other gizmos) as real, integrable musical tools. An ad hoc committee of interested musicians and engineers proposed a musical instrument digital interface -- a hardware/software standard which would translate the thousands of different actions of machines, computers, solenoids and electrical paraphernalia. This translation system -- Midi, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface -- encouraged (despite its limitations) an extraordinary expansion of the use of computer control in music. A somewhat refined but still crude body of computer software today permits control over virtually any musical parameter.
Parameter is the key word here. The parameters of music can be said to be pitch, rhythm, timbre, counterpoint, harmony, duration, tempo, form, architecture, and so forth. Parametric variation can be viewed in, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations: The composer chooses a body of raw materials (in this case, the bass line of a tinkly tune that implies melody, harmony, rhythm and gesture), and deepens the understanding of that material by exaggerating, expanding, coloring, limiting, twisting, breaking or reframing the original material, in a series of ordered sequences. Each one is both logical and original, while depending for its origin on the initial handful of notes.
Randall Neal has presented his own system of live (real-time) variations on existing American folk music, and we have heard some of those results at Vermont Composers festivals in the past four years.
I am in Europe in part through an invitation from Klarenz Barlow, a composer living and teaching in Cologne and in The Hague, where he directs the Royal Conservatory Sonology Department; he heads a contemporary music studio in Germany called Gimik, and is a leading proponent of compositional rigor and automatic processes.
For the past year I have been listening to a recording of his orchestral work, Orchidiae Ordinariae, or the Twelfth Root of Truth, and have had an opportunity to study the score and attend his lecture on the composition. The work is divided into several movements: Chorale, based on a simple chorale of his own; Périgord, variations on the final dance from Le Sacre du Printemps; Hornpipe, an extremely slow dance; Exsequor, a Bruckneresque rendition of a silly song he had written; two shorter, transitional movements, Orchidae and Scorpio; and a final coda, Pandora, for solo piano (!). Orchidiae is a piece of expansive musicality, drama, intelligence and beauty.
Barlow created a computer program, Autobusk, as a compositional assistant; it is a parametric note- sequencer and variation generator ... and it was used to compose most of Orchidiae.
Autobusk is not unique, but it has deeper features than similar commercial software. First of all, it contains a harmonicity section. Harmonicity is a concept of intervallic pleasantness, one might say, in which the purity of intervals may be determined for any set of octave divisions. For a tempered chromatic scale, the harmonicity of all notes is consistent because the divisions are even. However, in an infinitely retunable instrument, it would be possible to examine the tonal direction of a piece of music and adjust the intervals for a greater level of purity to the ear. Barlow’s harmonicity theory can be applied to a complex 17-tone scale (which he used for his automatic piano piece Otoblu), or to something as simple as a pentatonic scale. Autobusk will calculate the detailed pitch relationships of greatest harmonicity for any scale pattern.
Other features of Autobusk are a note-sequence generator in several simultaneous voices with independent parameters for each one. This can be completely original (i.e., from a random-number source), or in the form of variations on a melodic/harmonic Midi input. Autobusk presently uses an Atari system with a 40-megabyte hard drive.
The most interesting parameters include rhythmicity (how a rhythmic stream will vary with respect to an original); tonicality (how close to a tonality it will remain); eventfulness (how often a note will occur). There are also range; distance from a central pitch; the interval limit the melody may leap; tempo; note duration and embouchure; chromaticism; voice assignments and usual Midi parameters; and a number of specialized controls.
One can start, for example, with four note streams, each assigned to the usual ranges of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. These can flow in a simple rhythm, together, in a major key, within a fifth, and in a legato-like connectedness. By using software sliders, each parameter of this rinky-tink melody can be moved from its conservative starting place, increasing its chromaticism, reducing regularity, increasing the leapiness, and so forth, until the very discontinuous result is, as Barlow wryly calls it, "original new music."
This is all very glib, and the ease of using such a program suggests that it may demean the notion of conscious choice behind music as we know it. Barlow’s program even calls the method of saving segments of these computer sequences flushing, implying a somewhat distasteful activity.
The pitch, counterpoint and orchestration of Orchidiae’s first movement, Chorale, were created entirely from Autobusk processes. The chorale as Barlow composed it was stored in memory, and the program was put to work creating massive streams of simple variations. By selecting a certain range of parameters -- the same ones he would have used in his mind during a pencil-and-paper composition process -- Barlow obtained a full Midi-orchestra performance of enormous streams of variations. In this case, upper instruments were assigned to faster and more chromatic textures, and lower parts were given rhythmically more stable and tonally narrower expressions. Thus, the entire orchestra was playing all the variations at all times -- quite a big noise.
The next step was his selection from this, which Barlow did by another process. He created a path through the orchestral map, training a sonic spotlight on the first performer in the path (a third clarinet, in this case). The solo spotlight moved slowly through the ensemble; but as it traveled, it gradually widened, picking up two players, then three, and eventually the entire orchestra -- playing the complete portions of the parametrically composed variations that Barlow had flushed to disk.
In Périgord, the variations on Stravinsky’s Sacre (hence the pun on ‘per Igor’), the initial material is the ballet’s final dance. This time the variations are not only parametrically composed, but they are selected and ordered through strict mathematical processes into repetitive rhythmic groups that are (dare I say it?) more intriguing and precipitous than the master’s own.
I will ask you to grant that all of Orchidiae is an excellent and powerful work to hear, without knowing a single idea behind its composition; I was moved at my first hearing of it, which was without explanation. But the questions must now be posed: Who has composed this work -- Atari? Barlow? Electrons? Does that matter? (A similar, parallel set of questions might be asked if a Mozart 42nd Symphony appeared. Masterful? Anachronistic? Great if it were composed by Mozart and what, exactly, if it were composed last week? Does that matter?) Why has this exceptional composer allowed even a portion of his process to be taken over by a machine, even if the program and its parameters were all created by him?
I asked Barlow this question, and a month later he was ready to talk about it. Using a nearby paper napkin, he outlined his ideas in a diagram:
In this model of human creativity, culture (experience, nurture, influence) informs the development of judgment; likewise random whim (molecular randomness, nature, biology) also informs judgment. Such random whim directly influences what choices are made in an artistic situation, as does the judgment grown from culture and whim. Judgment is also modified by the decisions made as time goes by; random whim and culture exchange a bit of influence. Out of this womb plops the resulting artwork. According to Barlow, the only source of uncertainty in this model is in the random whim, which can be equated to the random number/noise generator in a computer.
I proposed a balance-summer influenced by the random whim, and whose output influences judgment, which Barlow accepted, and a feedback from decision to random whim and from result to both random whim and to culture. Finally, I suggested an oscillating system of high complexity surrounding random whim itself. All of this modified the diagram as follows:
This model Barlow also found satisfactory, and appropriately subject to algorithm. He saw no conflict between the role played by the computer in replacing his own initial role in generating notes, and (if the model be this simple) I would tend to agree. In that way the composer can concentrate on choices, not origins, which are sufficiently random to be insignificant.
After enough Heineken and Jenever to leaven a discussion of the indivisibility of time quanta, we tussled over whether or not it was possible to create an algorithm which could keep pace with the oscillating system outlined above, without violating the indivisibility of the time particles. We disagreed.
Barlow’s final comment on a fresh bar napkin was this:
Random = God.
These may, however, be issues of no importance, for two reasons: first, the increasing and deepening use of new technology is simply inevitable, barring catastrophic social revolution or collapse; and second, the entire field of music being discussed is at an end. This is far more serious than Wagner’s failed Artwork of the Future; it is not a stylistic revision that may overwhelm us, but rather a fundamental revolution in the character of what we call music in this twilight of the acoustic age -- a complete change in its creation, in its performance and indeed in its basic purpose.
I was confronted with this by Zbigniew Karkowski, a member of the electronically driven, rhythmic, computerized music ensemble Hafler Trio (two people and their electronics). Karkowski is an accomplished composer who studied with Xenakis, Messiaen and Boulez, and who believes the future of music lies in power and rhythm. Computers, playback devices and amplifiers will replace acoustic music, and are already producing the only fresh music: Hafler Trio (profiled last year in Option) itself creates that massive kind of sound.
By way of preface, Karkowski pointed out that his compositions, modestly recorded and played in small towns in small concert halls, have already been heard and appreciated by more people than all of Mozart’s music during his own lifetime.
Karkowski was being deliberately inflammatory, but he asked me a valid question: what difference does the music I write make if so few people hear it? What difference do any of us make without listeners? The attendance at new music concerts is certainly higher here than in the United States, and there are far more recordings available (Stockhausen’s work, for example, has been rereleased in its entirety -- 28 disks -- in a country where a single CD retails for $30), but the situation is still typical: The concert variety of newly composed music has marginal visibility.
(Nevertheless, it remains the subject of significant arts funding; a large budget is set aside, especially here in the Netherlands, for works by resident composers. In fact, this may be a part of the problem, as there is no test, so to speak, of an artist’s powers, however problematic (and at its heart, invalid) that test may be. One is a composer by declaring oneself such, and money follows that.)
It is pointless to renew the 75-year old dispute over whether there has developed a schism between audience and composer; there has, there is, and it has worsened the ill health of what I would call music of substance: music with multiple implications, extended architecture, cultural references, and a range of character and color. Yet Karkowski’s concerns are similar, and are expressed bluntly. He rails against the dishonesty of composers who disrespect their audiences, composers whose works are neither exciting nor even alive, and music which is dominantly complex and intellectual.
Indeed, a composer known and somewhat feared in Europe is Brian Ferneyhough, who embodies a style called the new complexity. Peter Smithuysen, contrabassist with the Asko Ensemble, told a story about Ferneyhough. The composer wrote a piece so difficult that the performer struggled with it for months. Smithuysen screwed up his face and said, "He composed 4/8 with five and then seven and three within it and a subdivision into nine at the end, followed by a measure of 3/10 divided into seven and four and five and then you play it pwaahng, phfft, pff-boinng, plll-pft-pop!" The performer had managed to play only a small portion of the music correctly, but Ferneyhough was enthusiastic in his congratulations. Some months later, the samer performer played the piece with much greater accuracy; Ferneyhough was only politely pleased.
Musicologist Alcedo Coenen provided an explanation for this: Ferneyhough believes that, if his music is unplayable enough, then the performer will try extremely hard to perform the music correctly, but will be unable to do so. Out of this struggle, according to Coenen, will arise a kind of intense performance tension and attention which transcends both his notes and the performer’s talents.
The idea behind the new complexity seems a valid one; indeed, living, communicative performance tension is precisely what is missing from most new (or classical) music concerts, and an experiment in its restoration would be welcome. Yet it is exactly this sort of intellectual approach that Karkowski despises, and why his approach with the Hafler Trio is rhythmic, bombastic and visceral.
These apparent conflicts provoked self-reflection: I love exciting, honest new music of all kinds, and compose what I think is honest, exciting, even beautiful music -- yet, in this disintegrating Euro-culture, what I do stinks of the rotting heritage (or is it the corpse?) of the musical culture which is its long-ago ancestor. If these are death rattles, can there be no more western music which is music of vigor and excitement, and yet also of pause, consideration and reflection? In the face of this decaying system (into which Karkowski, an Eastern European emigré, also binds social democracy and government arts grants), must everything always, unto death, be superficially new and attention-grabbing? Is there no place for the refinement of an art before it becomes trash?
I now write almost totally acoustic music, having abandoned synthesizers and sequencers, electronics, massive hurlings of sound, most avant-garde styles, serial techniques, most performance art, computer assistance (except for installations), hoots and honks, boops and beeps, heartfelt romanticism of my youth, and just about every glitz and gimmick -- in exchange for a direct expression of my sonic vision in human-performed acoustic sonorities, always pushing ahead my own view of the edge, where the textural map evokes our earthy, human understandings and sensations. This might be construed as an approach with emotional underpinnings, although to admit emotions into the discussion is to be misunderstood by those who would remark, "aha! you are a romantic," or those who would comment, "aha! you are a romantic" -- from opposite positions of judgment, equally shallow.
Frankly, I believe that this is the future, not one of computer-generated patterns and overwhelming sonic bombardment (all of which will become an exhausting background roar). Yet, in a world made from the detritus of advertising jingles, CNN, noise bands, crossover-1960s retrogression, cultural stagnation, political confusion, artistic mutual-deafness, and the righteousness inferred from economic acclaim (one of Karkowski’s arguments in his Mozart reference), where is there now time or space for someone to say, "wait, take some time, listen"?
Earlier I suggested that it may be necessary to massage the definition of music to accommodate the changes in the art form. Coenen has already offered that Stockhausen, Xenakis and their followers may be creating a new art which arises out of technology much as photography became a discipline distinct from other two-dimensional arts early in our century.
To determine the future of our new music, it is useful to remark that popular and film music increasingly use the compositional ideas first presented in the past new musics of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, then Stravinsky and Bartók, and later Cage and Boulez. Music with any depth moves, today, both cross-culturally and cross-historically, a process which is not new, but which is now rapid and visible. One can point to the Beatles’ eastern music references as a starting point in this popularization, and follow it through a quarter century of adaptation, assimilation and, if you will, exploitation to the work of Paul Simon, David Byrne, Michael Jackson and others. Electronic samplers have encouraged the theft, in fact, of not only the color and stylistic feel but also the instrumental substance of cultures and individual artists worldwide, and a move toward musical entropy.
This leads to the temporary conclusion that new music as we know it is an experimental laboratory -- the experimental results from which will be popularized by later engineers, just as Simon, Byrne and Jackson do today. The term experimental has been largely misunderstood and widely misused, leading any composer who chooses to create noises not previously defined as music to call such compositions experimental. Valid though such music may be, it is not properly termed experimental, even if we do not take experiment to mean, specifically, a method of scientific inquiry. It is still a question of what one is seeking to demonstrate by such an experiment. That is, an experiment tests a hypothesis or theory. If that is so, how do we know when that hypothesis is proven or discredited? What, indeed, are the terms of the hypothesis and the quality of the experiment?
Musicologist Coenen offered John Cage’s notion of experiment: that which is done for which the outcome is not known. This is not satisfactory, as experiment (even in a more general sense) sets out with hope, desire or intention to have a known outcome. It is invention, not experiment, that Cage was proposing; our musical vocabulary even includes this formal term, and Stravinsky called himself "an inventor of music." (I have pointed to my orchestral work as an exploration of terraced compositions. In fact, this may be its experiment, although it would be difficult to determine such an experiment’s success or failure.)
Coenen played an excerpt from a mass by French composer Michel Chion. The Sanctus was a crackling, solo setting of the text; I found it very exciting. My friend, a lay listener unaccustomed to the vocal explorations pioneered by Luciano Berio and furthered by Diamanda Galas and David Moss, was so offended by the sounds that she was angry. Chion’s style is evocative in the extreme, and hence provokes extremes, especially in those who have not followed the course of vocal experimentation. It is a solo (not multiple), male (not female), animal (not angelic), stark (not etherial), emotional (not dispassionate), angry (not awed), funny (not reverent), choking (not ringing), very human (not godlike) voice of heavy breathing (anti-?) praise. Is this experimental? If so, has the experiment succeeded or failed? What entries should appear in the lab notebook? If some hypothesis has indeed been tested, what is it? How can future artists apply these discoveries? (Are these the wrong questions?)
I was recently asked if I take pleasure alienating audiences with my music. It is possible that alienation is a test of a work’s unfamiliarity and simultaneous power to move people. Terms of my experiments are: boring unfamiliarity is a failure, and comfortable familiarity is also a failure. Certainly I do not seek to strike a balance, but I do feel the applause/boo ratio and the enthusiasm/alienation ratio are part of how I evaluate my work. If a work is hated at some level, that means not that it has failed to communicate (which would result only in confusion or lack of interest), but rather that the composer has engaged the listeners and confronted them with something uncomfortable -- which is not necessarily itself ugliness or unpleasantness, but rather that which touches a place within themselves they simply may not know, and hence may be afraid to face. The next step, of course, is to enjoin the listeners themselves in the experiment, and to develop a body of informed, enjoined audiences. (Recently, even David Gunn’s new setting of the text By the waters of Babylon alienated some people with its use of In-a-Gadda-da-Vida in a structured reflection of the renaissance technique of building motets and masses on familiar pop tunes such as Fors seulement, L’homme armé, and Ma maitresse. Informed audiences alone could mitigate this hostility bred from ignorance.)
But this may be nearly impossible, if the premise is that the entire field of music we have been discussing is at an end. The evidence thus far includes the shrinking audience for and influence of new music worldwide; the drop in significance of individual composers and the move toward computerized music generation; the diffusing of musical focus and a potential upcoming state of musical entropy; the rise to dominance of mass-marketing, quasi-democratic techniques; the fragmentation of the already small new-music stylistic community; and a redirection of music’s purpose either towards utility, musical engineering, or its representation as entertainment (wherein extra-musical messages may be installed as needed).
Furthermore, western music has explored harmonic, contrapuntal and textural limits, including the physiological boundaries of hearing (frequency range, pitch discrimination, dynamic acuity, and masking effects). Nor is there agreement within the musical community as to where artistic life is: Joel Ryan of the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) believes that life is in jazz and its kin, whereas Karkowski could hardly be harsher in his opinion of its artistic bankruptcy; Klarenz Barlow avidly follows MTV, but Coenen sees only shallowness in it, watching with the sound turned off.
The problems are embodied in the world of extended arts, not acoustic music alone, which is being supplanted by a new simplification, to counterpoint Ferneyhough: cartoon images (even in John Zorn’s music, for example), thin literature (the reader/buyer ratio: under 5% for Salman Rushdie, close to 100% for Stephen King), supergraphics (where are the murals of Calder?), modular architecture, digital thinking ... and the imminent, virtually omnipotent drug of Virtual Reality.
Let me break from doomsday generalization to offer a few anecdotes for reflection, especially for the American ear. I have been posing a question to composers and other musicians I encounter here: "Why do European composers all talk about methods and systems, ideas and process, rather than about the sound and the music itself?"
Coenen has said quite simply that ideas propel the sound, and pointed to a Louis Andriessen work (Hout) we had just heard premiered, which was highly structured and systematic: "The sonority comes through from the ideas, yes?" He later rethought his answer, commenting that everything should come through the sound, obviating any need for verbal translations.
A performer in the LOOS ensemble (which had done the Andriessen premiere) laughed aloud at the question, calling it "so very American. Only Americans are concerned with how their music sounds." Yet this statement was in dramatic contrast to the rich, musical, exciting performance he had just given.
The most incisive comment came from young composer Yannis Kyriakides: "Because in Europe, we have no room for the sound." He continued that it is characteristic of American music to be large and expansive -- Copland, Bernstein, Ives, minimalists -- and, like the land itself, not to be constrained by rules. Kyriakides noted that since Europe invented the forms, the instruments, and the orchestrations, they feel they must reject them to be new, and do what cannot be done: make music without concern for sound.
Morton Feldman turns out to be an important figure in Europe, and his particular significance is revealing in light of Kyriakides’ comments. John Cage, Alcedo Coenen explained, is one reason Feldman is revered here. The revolutionary ideas of Cage gave rise to many Cage festivals in Europe, but these are circuses -- loud spectacles, with people milling about and talking, plus non-stop, simultaneous performances, without peace or even time or place to concentrate or let the mind find its own level of attention. Feldman, even though he was in the Cage compositional tradition, demanded silence for his music, so its serenity and beauty and barrier-crossing ideas were held in sharp and sensitive relief. He made room for the sound for the Europeans.
De IJsbreker is a café/concert hall where new music is performed; it was here I spoke to Kyriakides and also here that we attended a concert of duets composed for the Asko Ensemble -- horns, pianos, violins, cellos, flutes, trumpets, trombones, and clarinets. It was this last duet, by Margriet Hoenderdos, that best represented what I had heard said about musical sound and concept. Written for two Eb instruments in their highest registers, the piece consisted of 20 minutes of breath-long, slow, microtonal glissandi. It had sustaining power, was static, minimal, with audience-provoking strength and without compromise. Interestingly, for all its systematic sequences and mirrorings, it was the only composition that would fail in other than live, room-filling, sonorous performance. (It was also called "an earache" by the Amsterdam local, Het Parool.)
Across town at the Bim Huis, another bar/concert locale, frequent jazz and crossover concerts take place. One enthusiastically received group was Dr. Nerve, a New York octet whose combination of Zappaesque rhythms and attitude and conservatory exile performance skills made them a perfect example of the super-controlled, vacuous, post-noise-band sound: precise playing (two trumpets/euphonium, soprano sax, bass clarinet, electronic vibes, guitar, electric bass and drums) in highly accurate intonation, repeated sets of complex 13th-chord rhythmic and cross-rhythmic modules, a discontinuous module-solo-module-ensemble-module-break-switch (etc.) pattern, no development, and pseudo-anarchic tongue-in-cheek avant-gloss. John Trubee and his Los Angeles-based Ugly Janitors of America were doing this in 1978, with more freshness and original drive; Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, of course, had the original sound in 1968. The audience, however, was wildly appreciative; interestingly, Louis Andriessen and other composers in the new music genre attended.
Amsterdam is a cultural meeting place for Europe and America: English is its common language, and composers and performers arrive here to share their artistic wealth. It is also here that a tottering musical artform can be clearly seen and heard.
It was a lovely day in late March when I began to understand how cults arise. The lectures at the Royal Conservatory that day were exploring the creation of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge; these were talks given by Elena Ungeheuer, a musicologist too young to have been there in 1956, and assisted by Konrad Boehmer, one of the Cologne Studio participants.
Gesang is a remarkable, gripping work for child’s voice and electronic sound, from a period of otherwise dreary attempts to extend logic into music from mathematics, architecture, language and other fields. Gesang is subjectively compelling, beyond its coherent theoretical base.
The first lecture covered the structure of Gesang and Stockhausen’s use of formants as architectural elements: these formants -- analyzed vowel sounds -- were used imprecisely as pictures from which note patterns and structural organizations were derived. Other formants were simple geometric shapes (circle formants, for example, and their fragments) which gave rise to note patterns in horizontal or vertical arrangement. Such patterns were carefully notated by Stockhausen.
But with a concert date set, the composer and his crew were pressed for time, both for the creation of precise score notation and for the production of the final five-channel tape; because six seconds of music had already required several weeks to produce, the familiar calibrated oscillator tone production and tape splicing were abandoned.
Machines in hand, Stockhausen and his technicians twisted knobs until their combination of oscillator, impulse generator, volume control, filter, etc., provided a close approximation of his working score (itself by now only approximately shaped). He then isolated himself in the studio, selecting the versions that sounded best to him. Using this trial-and-error method, Stockhausen and the technicians were able to complete most of Gesang der Jünglinge by their deadline. (No more was ever produced, alas, and only six of seven sections conceived form the final work.)
Out of a response to time pressure, Stockhausen -- like all of us -- had cut corners and creatively fudged his own score realization. But being a brilliant musician, Stockhausen had produced a memorable work.
However, the analysts view it differently, even while recounting an identical story. Before Gesang, the musical world was atomic; that is, a note was a note, what you wrote was what you wanted, and what you wanted were atoms of music. Gesang upset that belief because the composer’s approximations were as convincing as the original detailed pitch and time elements (better, some say). Suddenly, the atomic theory of Einstein and the world was upended by the field theory of Heisenberg, and Stockhausen’s cut corners became the foundation of a probablistic or statistical analysis of music ... and the basis of new, parametric compositional thinking.
The German notion of creativity is described not as the theologically laden inspiration, but as a combination of systematic theory and Einfall -- the dropping into the head of some driving picture, sound or idea. The Einfall for Stockhausen’s Gruppen for example, was the view of the Alps from his rented château; a sketch of this vista became Gruppen’s structure.
Certainly Stockhausen’s time pressure can be viewed as a fortunate accident vis-à-vis the compelling forward motion and musical character of Gesang der Jünglinge; yet even at this early point in the present compositional era, theories were being breathlessly promulgated to support, if you will, such Einfälle -- the eventual effect of which can be seen in the present tendency (-cum-religion) to propose theory first, establish parameters second, compose later, and create music last (if at all).
Stockhausen himself was not inattentive to his results; indeed, the most musical results were what he selected for Gesang from his improvisations. (More bad words: Jazz -- referred to as "banana music" by a Stockhausen acolyte -- has improvisation; serious music in the Germanic tradition uses aleatory. If there is some difference in performance, there is far more a schism from aleatory’s élitist attitude.) But the affection for theory, for systems, for rules and for algorithms following Gesang has become -- here and for the moment -- its legacy.
So what is the point? On the pop, jazz and crossover scene, there is near total European capitulation to the American model. But in Northern Europe there is, if not denial of American concert music influence (especially the dreaded minimalism), at least strong resistance to it on a theoretical level. Nevertheless, it (and pop) permeate composition here on the sonic level -- the level first perceived, first assessed, and first understood. Music is being infused once again with physicality, expressiveness and affect, while European theoretical music continues to spin ever further into its own obscure orbit, where it will eventuall meet the previous, forgotten generation of American concert music. Banana music accusations aside, the heartbeat and expression are returning to music here, music which left the rest of the world with 75 years of theoretical experimentation and raw nerves.
After this essay was finished, I was sitting in a café with Leigh Landy, an American musicologist who has settled in Europe. He told of his encounter with a distinguished East German composer a few years ago, when the composer’s society was still closed. The musician had been offered an opportunity to leave the East to travel ... and had turned it down. His society, he said, was the last enclave of native European culture, and (despite the greater freedom he was promised) he did not want to be poisoned by contact with the American-dominated west. If the Berlin Wall ever came down, he postulated, European art and thinking would be swept away in the Anschluss of American culture.
In the final two weeks of my Amsterdam stay, I completed a piece for contrabass and viola entitled Binky Plays Marbles: A Bruckner Boulevard Dance. Pressed for time, I brought the pencil score to the Sweelinck Conservatory to computerize the final draft. Every available program -- Performer, Composer, Finale and the rest -- choked on its polyrhythms, leaving me once again to spend days producing a pen-and-ink copy of the 31-page score. It confirmed my reluctance to cede creative control and the making of choices to such machines: these are the equivalent of typewriters that are unable to type the words and phrases you write, but which promise to create poetry in your stead.