This week’s class looked at drones and modes. A very straightforward session on two related and relatively straightforward musical ideas that pre-date the Western tonal system (although the modes we use today are “rationalized” versions of archaic proto-modes). Modal composition and drone-based musics have become far more visible and “respectable” since the late 1950s, particularly because of the interest in non-Western music.
Here’s a YouTube version of the sort of things we listened to (again accepting the range of possible musics we could have listened to here is very broad indeed):
The composition specification simply said create a piece using two main elements:
A drone. Use any sound source but it must evolve (be “organic”).
At least one mode (from a basic set of seven as described in a handout).
There were some very inventive and fresh compositions from the students. Here’s my rather conservative attempt that uses the Aeolian and Locrian modes in A:
Last weekend I went up to London to see my long-time friend Julian, who had very kindly offered to take me to see the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate Modern (as he’s now a member).
I very much enjoyed the show. Lichtenstein’s work has been worn very thin through over-exposure, but the dead hand of cliché was put firmly in its place by confrontation with the real thing. The first room was dedicated to a number of his “brushstroke” paintings and their impact was immediate and profound: simply being exposed directly to these iconic images at full-scale transforms the experience into something emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating.
Close-up the paintings come alive: one can’t help but be affected by the colour, the craftsmanship of the outlines, the interplay of the textures, and the painterly eye realized in the coherence and artistry of the overall image.
With Spray (1962) for example, I spent a long time looking at that thumb: the elegance of those curves, the simplicity of the nail-varnish effect, the quality of that red. And at this scale one can’t see it, but at this relatively early stage in his career those Benday dots are hand-painted.
These Seascapesfrom 1964 and 1965 are gorgeous.
Hopeless 1963. 33 years between this one and:
Landscape with Philosopher 1996.
I thought it significant that the last room of the exhibition had been made-over into a Lichtenstein-only shop (in addition to the substantial one on the ground floor), just in case we forgot why we were really there…
Afterward we had a whistle-stop tour of some of the other standing exhibits. I spent a quarter of an hour sitting in a room of full-on Rothko’s but, I’m afraid, no good: I just don’t get Rothko at all. Here are a few random snaps:
Choucair sculpture room. Derivative painting, but everything else very impressive.
Marshall McLuhan has presumably been into this Cy Twombly room: “Art is anything you can get away with”. He would have had plenty to say about this too, no doubt:
Finally up to the member’s lounge for a cup of tea. Stunning view. Shame about the freezing cold weather and massive hailstone deluge…
The first week of term after Easter things were slightly disrupted because of a trip to Dublin, but in the Thursday session we got around to looking at John Cage’s work in some detail.
Of course no review of 20th Century music could claim to be complete without at least some consideration of Cage. In our case we only looked at a limited number of his compositions, specifically those that used electronic means as an important element of the composition or realisation. Having said that, it could reasonably be claimed that, in any case, it is Cage’s ideas that are the crucial aspect here. Briefly, his key ideas are:
All sounds are equal. The naturally occurring sounds around us are as important as those we deliberately make with musical instruments.
Silence is never really silent. There is always some sound. In his most famous book (Silence) he repeatedly uses the example of where he went into an anechoic chamber but could still hear two sounds, one low pitched (his blood circulating) and the other high (the whine of his central nervous system).
Indeterminacy: using random numbers or the I Ching to remove the “intentionality” of the composer from the work.
Composer = “organizer of sound”.
The perfect realisation of all these is his infamous 4′ 33″, almost certainly one of the key conceptual works of art from the last century. Labelling it as such should not deter us, because at the end of the day it’s very, very, simple: all he’s really doing is asking us to actively listen without prejudice to the world around us. These are some of the works we listened to:
Fascinating. Finally, though, I wonder whether this non-intentional approach isn’t basically flawed: because everything is random the pieces lack formal development and therefore the emotional and intellectual satisfaction that we seem to crave. Surely the whole point of art is that it isn’t random in the way that nature is; it is the very shaping and manipulation of the materials that determine its special quality.
Taking all this into consideration the specification for this week’s composition looked like this:
Use a random process as the core generative element of your composition, but organize it in such a way that it has development, an emergent musical structure. In other words use a Cageian algorithm but without the piece being a shapeless mess.
One or more spreadsheets (or similar).
For the “vocals” there were two basic sources of inspiration. Firstly, I had just read Steve Reich’s Writings on Music and became interested in his ideas on speech melody. Secondly, I had just been watching The Wire on DVD and thought this would be a good source of speech: some of the dialogue is fabulously colourful.
I used seasons 1-3, each of which had either 12 or 13 episodes each. A random number generator was used to choose in turn the season, episode, and instant (in minutes) where I would sample. I decided to take five samples: not too many, but enough to give me a bit of leeway…
As we can see, one of the samples didn’t record: very professional. Of course I took this as a Cagean random event and moved on…
For the music itself I used a random website generator (after briefly considering using YouTube). I simply kept clicking until something suitable came up. The first usable site was digeum.org, which had 208 podcasts of House mixes done by a couple of guys called Apollo Lee and Jay Def. Each of the podcasts was a continuous mix around 80 minutes long, giving me over two weeks worth of music to choose from. Using the random number generator again I ended up with podcast 103, and from this I generated four random instances where I took samples (4, 32, 47, and 74 minutes).
Putting it all together: I had four speech samples but only used one. I also had four music samples: I took a two-bar loop from one, a kick drum from another, and discarded the other two. The whole track was made from these three elements.
I improvised a single EQ “performance” on the synth loop but edited quite heavily afterwards. I then improvised a dub-like echo track from a part of the vocal sample using a software delay line and an external tube EQ unit. I made three passes, discarded one, and edited the other two together into a single track.
Finally, I just edited more stuff out (e.g. an intro, drum fills, FX): it’s pared down to an absolute minimum. It seemed right to me but judge for yourself:
Can I just say I loved making this track? I love its simplicity, I love its funkiness, I love the way different elements of the loop emerge as the EQ sweeps across it, and I love the way it appeared magically out of thin air. I’m sure John Cage would approve…
It also brings up some interesting questions. Is this track something I’ve “composed”? All the sonic materials were derived using random selection, and I didn’t play or compose a single note of the music. However, there are clearly crucial points where I have made artistic decisions that have shaped the outcome decisively: I chose to use vocals, I chose to use The Wire, and I chose which samples to use and which to discard. I am the epitome of Cage’s “organizer of sound”, but whether that makes me a “composer” or not is another matter. Perhaps what it means is that our definition of “composer” needs to be reviewed (as perhaps it has done since the “Electronic Tonalities by Louis and Bebe Barron” credit on Forbidden Planet)?
Taking this one stage further: is my track “original” or is it a “remix”? The main loop I’ve used is from DJ Moguai’s 1998 track Beatbox. But it isn’t the original version I’ve used, it’s the Inpettoremix and the synth loop is from this latter version: it’s not on the original at all. So, in theory, the track should go down as a remix of the DJ Moguai track, but he hasn’t actually contributed to it in any way!
Finally: assuming we credit Inpetto with writing the loop, at what point does “organizing sound” take us from making a “remix” into the creation of an “original” work.
My point being: the technology takes us into very strange places where our archaic copyright laws just don’t go. And it just isn’t as cut and dried as the music business lawyers would have us believe…
And this is why we should all spend some time listening to and thinking about John Cage’s work: he calls into question some very basic conceptions we have about music, composition, and listening.
Just to recap: this semester I’m teaching a Contextual Studies module on the MA Creative Sound Production degree at Swansea Met. Each week the students are invited to produce a composition study based around something we’ve been looking at in class: I said I would work alongside them and produce something of my own each week. Great fun it’s been too…
By now we were up to the 1950s and had been looking in some detail at the short-lived but very real rivalry between the studios in Paris and Cologne, between Musique Concrète and Elektronische Musik in other words. Schaeffer’s work we had already looked at in the context of “noise” so we ran through a few of the other usual suspects:
Having arrived at these last two pieces by Stockhausen and Berio, we decided this week’s study was to be what is usually known as a “text-sound composition”: that is, one where the entire musical material is derived from a vocal recording of some kind. The “product specification” looked like this:
Choose a text.
Spoken voice or sung; male or female.
Produce a piece using only the recorded text as your sonic material.
The text must be intelligible.
The nature of the piece must reflect the meaning in the text.
Just after Easter Simon Kilshaw and myself drove up to Leeds Met at the invitation of Dr. Nikos Stavropoulos. Nikos kindly took out a large part his day to give us an extensive tour of the campus and the Music Tech facilities in particular: all very impressive.
Walked in the freezing cold from Odéon down to the Boulevard du Montparnasse for the end-of-conference “banquet” last night at La Coupole. Tragically we were in the downstairs ballroom rather than the brasserie itself. Food mediocre but the company very good: had long and involving conversations with Joshua Parker (Dept. of English and American Studies, Salzburg), Brian Richardson (Professor of English, Maryland), and Golnaz Shams (PhD student, Freiburg).
This week: another one-note composition. I felt that the students did not engage with problem last time around to the extent that I would have expected at this (Masters degree) level. And so after a long conversation—taking in the nature of the sound, musical structure, and conceptual art—we agreed a slightly different set of rules for this one.
With the previous one, I had focused on the sound of the single note, and so this time I was thinking in terms of shapes:
Again, not entirely successful as a piece of music, but simply as a “composition study” it is: it has led me to explore musical ideas that I never would have gone near otherwise and there are at least two things in here that would work really well in a more straightforward piece that allowed tonal movement.
Furthermore, I am convinced that the discipline of finishing a composition every week (no matter what) is beneficial in every way: creatively, conceptually, technically, emotionally…
In last week’s class we looked at The Futurists and the emergence of “noise” as an explicit element of our musical language. We began by tracing the development of the idea of noise through Busoni’s Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (1907), Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909), and finally Russolo’s acidic Art of Noises (1913).
Moving chronologically through the music we listened to and discussed:
Of course there were many, many examples we could have chosen… Great fun. Here’s my attempt at a “noise” track:
Despite the fact we limited ourselves to only two groups of all possible noise sounds—electronic machines and the kitchen—it is still incredibly hard to do this kind of music well. There are just too many options and, as with the previous composition study, no obvious way to use pre-existing musical structures. Consequently, in the limited time available to complete the track I found myself resorting to some rather well-used sounds. Still, it has a certain quality that I do like very much and it’s something I’ll perhaps come back to.