Musical Variables

Dec 31st, 2012 | By | Category: Uncategorized

notesIn order to compose music, we should ask what it is that music is composed of. We need to know what building materials we have to hand for the creation of new musical structures, how they work and how they can be combined. Furthermore, if we want to maximise the possibilities of composition to the utmost degree we need to be aware of what the most fundamental levels of composition consist of, what the smallest possible units, the building blocks, of compositional choice are. By analogy, if we wanted to truly maximise the possibilities of architecture it wouldn’t be enough to conclude that the smallest possible unit involved in building, say, a house is the brick, even if bricks can be used to form an enormous number of different structures.

We’d have to go beyond the level of bricks to a much smaller, deeper scale, beyond plaster, concrete, glass and steel, even. If the technology permitted it, we’d want to be able to build houses on the level of a much more radical, fundamental condition of creation – by manipulating forces at the subatomic level.

How do we reach such a point in musical composition? To draw a parallel with the bricks in architecture example, it’s too simplistic, too limited, to say that music is fundamentally composed of musical notes. It may seem like common sense to describe a musical work as a collection of individual but connected notes of different pitches and lengths (an idea that has a long history) but such a description doesn’t allow for sounds that can’t be reduced to what we conventionally handle as notes.

All the details involved in a voice singing a melody, with all the subtle quality of intonation and timing this entails, can’t be boiled down to ‘notes’ as we conventionally know them. At the most, notes are merely the written starting point for certain types of singers, the outline within which a complex and unique performance will occur.

Naturally this depends to varying degrees on the kind of notation used, and whether the notation is used as a performing instruction orsoundwave as a transcription for the purposes of listening along. It’s not difficult to see, though, that the most common system, Western classical notation – of crotchets, quavers, staves, clefs, notes of an octave A through G and so on – is insufficient to describe most of the sounds that can be created in much practical detail or at a level of detail we may wish to express. These may be sounds we might want to incorporate into music, and modern music technology makes it much easier for us to do this. Such sounds – sounds beyond notes – have always been an important part of music, even if the dominating influence of Western classical notation has made it easy for us to forget this, rendering us less aware of them and disinclined to use them with detail. Sounds beyond notes are especially important now, in the age of recording and electronic music, when sound is being manipulated in ways that previous generations of composers and listeners were probably unable even to imagine.

We might say that music is fundamentally composed of sound or sounds, then, and this seems perfectly adequate. Think a bit further, though, and it seems a little vague for our purposes. Are there many sounds or one sound in a piece of music? How should we finally divide music into its particular constituent sounds, or reassemble it out of these constituent parts? Where might one sound begin and another end – are there sounds within sounds? What about silence? In what specific ways can we constitute sounds? Are sounds static or do they change – could we say that a sound can change from one sound into another sound? Might there be more to music than sound? We may rarely run into problems talking about ‘this sound’ or ‘that sound’ in everyday life, but when it comes to composing music, the nature and potential of sounds and their free combination makes isolating the category of individual sounds more complex. Most importantly, if we can manipulate sounds in many ways so that they can be and become anything at all – long or short, high or low, loud or quiet – then simply settling on a category of ‘sounds’ doesn’t have much use or tangibility as a fundamental creative condition of composition. We might as well be philosophers or scientists concluding that the world consists of ‘things’, and leaving it at that.

infinitecoverInfinite Music - Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making

A new system for imagining music, built on the infnite possibilities of twenty-first century technology.

Adam Harper

ISBN: 978-1-84694-924-1, $22.95 / £12.99, paperback, 234pp

EISBN: 978-1-84694-925-8, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook
A timely analysis of musical evolution at a moment when many practitioners have become fixated on the past and thinkers have found themselves unable to locate possible futures. Steve Goodman, author of Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear

...a futuristic manifesto for a revitalised musical modernism, a thought-strategy designed to unchain us from our hoary old traditions, a framework for the imagination which calls into being an uncharted cosmos of musical possibility. Chris Sharp, Wire Magazine

In the last few decades, new technologies have brought composers and listeners to the brink of an era of limitless musical possibility. They stand before a vast ocean of creative potential, in which any sounds imaginable can be synthesised and pieced together into radical new styles and forms of music-making. But are musicians taking advantage of this potential? How could we go about creating and listening to new music, and why should we?

Bringing the ideas of twentieth-century avant-garde composers Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage to their ultimate conclusion, Infinite Music proposes a system for imagining music based on its capacity for variation, redefining musical modernism and music itself in the process. By detailing not just how music is composed but crucially how its perceived, Infinite Music maps the future of music and the many paths towards it.

Adam Harper discusses aesthetics and criticism in music, art and life on his blog Rouge's Foam. He studies musicology, composes music and has written for Wire magazine.

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