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.
For this week’s study I didn’t use any previously existing music as exemplar. Instead we sat down as a group and “performed” a couple of the most basic of John Stevens‘ Search and Reflect exercises, namely ‘1-2’ and ‘Sustain’.
Why? The object of this week’s compositional study was to write a piece of music using only one note and the source material simply doesn’t exist. These were the rules:
A composition using only one note (one pitch).
Multiple instances in any register.
No drones or sustaining instruments.
No drums or percussion.
Mallets (vibes, marimba, xylophone, etc.).
Here’s my solution:
What is the point of this exercise, you may ask? Abbreviating, I think that:
The sound of that note had better be pretty compelling.
It becomes impossible to compose using any of the standard methods: 32-bar, 12-bar, verse-chorus-middle 8, canon, theme-and-variation, sonata form, serialism, additive, phase, modal, etc. Any attempt to fit a one-note composition into these pre-existing formulae or systems is doomed to failure because they all depend upon tonal movement.
It highlights register, timbre, and rhythm as compositional tools.