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Monthly Archives: June 2013
For our final composition study we looked at the early work of Brian Eno, in particular his generative or systems pieces.
By way of introduction, it is perhaps worth noting that Eno’s career did not begin with Roxy Music: like Brian Ferry he had a lengthy and decisive art-school background informing his every move. Whilst at Ipswich he was tutored by Roy Ascott and Tom Phillips, both now elder-statesmen of the British art scene. It was Phillips, in particular, who opened up the conceptual doors for Eno: Cage’s Silence, jazz and beat poetry, Minimalism, the New York school of composers (Tudor, Wolff, Feldman, Brown), and the British experimental composers (Bryars, Skempton, Nyman, and perhaps most importantly, Cornelius Cardew). Later, at Winchester, Eno became notorious for his chance/non-intentional activities which included a solo performance of La Monte Young’s X for Henry Flynt. Another influential figure, Peter Schmidt, introduced him to the first Velvet Underground album. In 1968 he even wrote an “analytical essay”, a “brief theoretical discourse inspired by lessons learned from John Cage, Christian Wolff and George Brecht” entitled Music for Non-Musicians (Sheppard 2008: 54). The seeds were sown.
The first of the pieces we listened to and discussed is ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’ from 1972’s No Pussyfooting with Robert Fripp. The set-up is very simple: two tape recorders connected in a feedback loop (a configuration directly derived from Terry Riley’s “time-lag accumulator”) with something like a simple mixer inbetween them, allowing control over what is exactly fed back.
‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’, as a system, anticipates Eno’s own ambient style. First of all, the piece is a system, or process: it represents a way of making music, a concept of music-making, as much as it represents a composition in the traditional sense. The process allowed Eno to operate in his favoured gently guiding, rather than authoritarian, role. Making the piece required thought and attention; Eno had to contemplate and inspect the sound as it rolled by, making changes and adjustments. The process, meanwhile, yielded maximal output (a lengthy, complex piece of music) from minimal input (selection of pitches and switches). Finally, the signal-loop procedure itself, with its gradually decaying tone quality, exemplified one of Eno’s cherished axioms: “Repetition is a form of change.”
‘Discreet Music’ from 1975 was the track we looked at next: it uses essentially the same process as ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’ but with synth sounds as the musical sources and a graphic EQ in the feedback loop. The things that affords this track its mythical status are a) it us usually identified as the first example of ambient music, and b) the chance conditions that surrounded its creation. Legend has it that Eno was trying to make a backing track for Fripp, but that the phone kept ringing and people came to the door interrupting what he was doing, with the consequence that it almost made itself. As Eno describes it “I almost made it without listening to it”. And “I thought it was probably one of the best things I’d ever done and I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time” (both quotes from Tamm 1995: 135). Pure Eno.
Finally we considered ‘2/1’ from Music for Airports from 1979. Again, a very minimal means: nine recordings of a female voice singing “ah” at nine different pitches. Cut these up into tape loops of different lengths. Play and record the resulting process:
And so onto this week’s composition, which simply required the students to make a piece using one of the two techniques described above, or a mixture of both. Although I didn’t start out intending it this way, my piece ended up as a mixture of ‘Discreet Music’ and ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation”: looped synth melodies (actually going through a delay plug-in rather than being actual loops) and a distortion track that I generated using a variation on the “time-lag accumulator” idea (that is, using a plug-in delay but sending the delayed signal “out of the box”, through a valve EQ unit, and then back into the system):
Sheppard, D. (2008) On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno. Orion.
Tamm, E. (1995) Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. Da Capo.
The background to the organized sound of Gregorian chant, in a mediaeval monastic community, was not random noise. Silence—the silence of nature itself, in which the random noises of culture were swallowed up—was one of the facts of mediaeval life, outside the cloister as inside it. Against the quietness that enveloped the ear, and the tracts of unaltered nature—wood, bramble, heath, swamp—that made up its solid equivalent, any designed structure of sound or stone acquired a corresponding rarity and singularity. In an ill-articulated world, a place not yet crammed with signs, images, and designed objects, the impact of a choir heard in the vast petrified forest of a Gothic cathedral might well have exceeded anything we take for “normal” cultural experience today. Now we see the same cathedral through a vast filter that includes our eclectic knowledge of all other cathedrals (visited or seen in photographs), all other styles of buildings from primitive nuraghi to the World Trade Centre, the ads in the street outside it, the desanctification of the building, its conversion into one more museum-to-itself, the secular essence of our culture, the memory of “mediaeval” sideshows at Disney World, and so and so forth; while similar transpositions have happened to the matrix in which we hear music. The choir competes, in our unconscious, with jack-hammers, car brakes, and passing 747s, not merely the rattle of a cart or the lowing of cattle. Nor does the chant necessarily seem unique, for one can go home and listen to something very like it on the stereo. Because nothing could be retrieved or reproduced, the pre-technological ear listened to—as the pre-technological eye was obliged to scrutinize—one thing at a time. Objects and images could not, except at the cost of great labour, be reproduced or multiplied. There was no print, no film, no cathode-ray tube. Each object, singular; each act of seeing transitive. The idea that we would live immersed in a haze of almost undifferentiated images, that the social function of this image-haze would be to erode distinctions rather than multiply the possible discriminations about reality, would have been unthinkable to our great-grandparents—let alone our remote ancestors.
We live in a world in which change is primarily driven by emergent technology. We live in a world in which, I suspect, technology trumps ideology, every time.
Our reaction to these things is amazingly similar to the reaction of the Victorians to technologies like the railroad and the gramophone. If you go back to first-person accounts—diary entries of individuals encountering those things—it wasn’t like, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” They were scared shitless. They were reeling with the shock of the new. They didn’t know where anything was headed, and it made them sort of angry, often as not. I think it’s the way we react to these things.
The surprising thing about it – I almost said the insidious thing, but I’m trying to be anthropological—the surprising thing, to me, is that once we have our gramophone, or iPad, or locomotive, we become that which has the gramophone, the iPad, or the locomotive, and thereby, are instantly incapable of recognizing what just happened to us, as I believe we’re incapable of understanding what broadcast television, or the radio, or telephony did to us.
I strongly suspect that prior to those things we were something else. In that regard, our predecessors are in a sense unknowable. Imagine a world without recorded music: I always come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for me to imagine that, because I have become that which lives with recorded music.
Minimalism in music is the avante-garde sound of absolute frequency. Listening to pulsed minimal music, hearing every repetition, is like having the experience not of one consumer, but of all consumers at once. You are the mass market, and you feel the entire pressure of the mass media’s power to construct desire—in other words, in a consumer society, the irresistible power to construct subjectivity itself—directly on your consciousness. The impossible attempt to represent that pressure directly gives the music its teleology, its content—and ultimately its shock and awe. It is not necessarily an unpleasant sensation; it can be quite literally entrancing, as the shoppers floating down the aisles of the local supermarket right now could tell you. In minimal music, the message is the (direct perception of the power of the) media. Or, more pithily, after McLuhan:
In minimal music, the media (sublime) is the message.
This week: Minimalism continued. Having focussed on Steve Reich with the last study, and having had an intermediate lecture where we looked at the cultural context of the form, we concentrated this week on Philip Glass.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the compositional techniques of Reich and Glass are quite dissimilar. Reich’s fundamental technique is canonic “phase shifting” (notching parts in time against each other), whereas Glass’s basic technique is additive composition, an idea he derived from Indian classical music. A quick look at one of his early scores will clearly show how this works:
Figure 1 on the score is the “basic unit”. In Figure 2 the three middle quavers are repeated giving us an 8-quaver pattern. In Figure 3 the two first notes of the basic unit are added onto the end of Figure 2 twice, now giving us a 15-quaver pattern. Etcetera. Hence additive composition. Although this seems ridiculously simplistic it has some interesting consequences.
Firstly, the piece has no given time signature as such. It may have a basic pulse but effectively the additive process “automatically” changes the time signature as we move between figures: 5/8 to 8/8 to 15/8 and so on.
Secondly, if there is a “minimalism” at work here it is in the extremely limited amount of musical material being manipulated: in short, we’re not using many notes. There is no sense of any “teleological” harmonic progression towards some musical climax or cadence, and in fact in his early pieces (up to and including Music in 12 Parts) it is not uncommon for Glass to fashion a compelling and sometimes very beautiful 20-minute piece out of four or five notes.
Thirdly, Glass’s meticulous planning of the development of the Figures give his work that incredible sensation of rhythmic “wheels-within-wheels”. In fact it is exactly because he uses so few notes that this mechanism works so effectively: note how in Figure 4 the G-Bflat-C triplet in the top line changes position from the previous pattern, how the partial repeat of the next descending triplet creates a little rhythmic hiccup, and how the repetition of the opening two-note figure now closes the pattern. It is almost as if using the same notes over and over again in different combinations forces us to concentrate on their rhythmic interplay.
Finally, although you can’t see it from the example I’ve included here, even when you’re limiting yourself to just a handful of notes the patterns cycling against each other in their dizzying permutations generates the harmonic structure of the piece. In other words, as the parts layer up you effectively create a harmonic “stack” that changes configuration as the additive elements modulate against each other.
So it’s all very clever and incredibly hard to do well (and just how hard I found out for myself of course). This week’s composition specification read something like this:
Create a piece that has at least two distinct rhythmic streams:
- Uses additive composition to produce polyrhythmic effects against (1).
- With a coherent harmonic scheme developed between them.
I decided to create a (synthetic) vocal piece, inspired by “Part 1” of Music in 12 Parts and the “Vessels” section of the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack. Here it is: