But…Where’s the Structure?

    Despite John Cage’s rhetorical advocacy for “sounds in themselves,” sounds become marked as “music” because they evidence human intervention; and, because of that, we listen differently than we would otherwise.  As it is, we routinely notice sounds as indicators of a frictive activity somewhere; but, in this case, we begin to surmise the intentions (sorry John, even yours as well) of a person going through the peculiarly human complications of decision making (which sounds go where?), that opens a witness’ speculation to the “whys” and “what-ifs” of that particular sonic fiction.

In this way, the potentials of musical experience reach beyond indulgence, solipsism, fantasy and entertainment to include empathy — a recognition of, if not an identification with, the actions, motivations and circumstances of another human being.  Musical attention accordingly follows this narrative (what happens next?) of sonic choices that are initiated by a music’s decisive agents: its composers.

To compose (literally, to put together) music is to decide which sounds go where; and the extent to which anybody does this, that person is acting as a composer.

Conventionally, people tend to think of a “composition” as an organization of sounds.  However, music is also inseparably a social activity; and a musical composition has to address both sonic and social organization as interdependent constituents.

 How compositional information (the indicators of which sounds go where) is circulated among participants figures as central to a composition’s musical form as its arrangement of sounds.  That musical sounds, as instruments of communication, accomplish a ranging variety of address only underscores that how they are directed changes their meanings, which, in each instance, calls for appropriate adjustments in listening.

In witnessing a sound body as “music,” a listener encounters sounds and some relations posed among them.  These together assemble a music’s “sonic image” — which is what most people assume to actually be the “music” Itself.  However, these same sounds also display audible symptoms of a music’s more invisible and inaudible constituting activities, These include the implied decision streams of a music’s composers and the evolving effects of these choices.  Both musical process and its sound — with neither abstracted from the other, but interconnected — together constitute a music; and, as each inevitably assumes a structure of some sort, both components have also to be considered as structural elements of a music’s composition.

 Who decides most influences compositional structure.  There are important and significant differences between a sonic event that corresponds with the decisions of a single composer alone and one that traces the interactive choices of a number of composers.

The single composer model prevailed in Europe for centuries; and, like so many things European, has since waxed globally influential.  This configuration now habitually defines for many people just what “music” and “composition” are.  Its mode of organization could best be described as a “monological” one, which is to say that a music’s sonic image uninterruptedly emanates from the choices of one. and only one, compositional agent.

Maintaining within ensemble music such precise correspondences between the sounds a composer proposes and how a music will actually sound requires instituting a division of labor between composing and performing.  Compositional information channels unidirectionally from the music’s composer, by means of faithful renderings of performers (who, aside from “interpretive” choices, emphatically do not choose among sounds), toward a music’s listeners. Within practical limits, this grants a composer the greatest possible control over a sonic image.  And to maintain what can be so easily fractured a consistency, the music’s sonic image becomes regularized and fixed as a “piece” of music, which (depending on the fidelity of its performers) sounds “the same” each time it’s repeated.

However, a musical composition, when conceived as a stable, dependably repeatable, sonic “thing,” doesn’t, in practical reality, actually manage to succeed as an autonomous, freestanding object at all.  It can’t even appear to exist without this wholly deferential silent partner, without the distinctly social collaboration of a rigorously standardized interactive system that’s structured to minimize, if not eliminate, any interruption of the clarity of a unitary compositional signal.

Patterns of interaction and internal communication may seem to disappear completely from consideration as compositional components in monological music because its interactive structure almost never varies, but instead, pretty consistently relies on this endlessly repeatable, command/control conduit formation.  But, well outside of monological practice, over among dialogically organized musics, variety in interaction and information flow proliferates.

Dialogical conditions engage more than one composer in determining a music’s sonic image at the same time.  Under these circumstances, composers exchange control for influence. No single composer is able to maintain a position of dictating the totality, or even the fine details, of a music’s sonic image.  Influences turn immediately reciprocal with each composer contributing to the overall life and coherence of the music’s sonic image, while integrating, instigating, and responding to, the initiatives of one’s, not entirely predictable, collaborators.  In cohabitating so closely with disequilibrium, dialogical composing negotiates a wide swath of indeterminacy; but, unlike monologically organized aleatoric music, each composer still reserves capacities to respond to what had previously been imprevisto, which is to say, unforeseen.

Responding compositionally in these circumstances adds to a push/pull dynamic between centrifugal and centripetal evolution of the music.  Divergences among distinct composers may widen as far as entropy, while mutual listening and alertness continually draw the trajectories of these choices back toward overall sonic and communicational interconnection. Monological design neutralizes these tensions through establishing an interactive stasis.  Dialogical structures, however, cohere more through homeostasis.

Sonic images of dialogical activity compatibly sound as changeable, unstable, unpredictable and unrepeatable as the compositional interactions that generate them.  A monological image seems to arrive nearly ziplessly from the imagination of its (frequently remote) composer.  Dialogical constructs, contrarily, unravel fluctuating, complex, multidirectional interchanges of musical information among a plurality of compositional agents.

That Portuguese word just called upon for describing the unanticipated, imprevisto, happens to map very nicely across the English word improvise — which happens to be exactly what dialogical composers are doing,  This is also affirmed by a much more common and familiar term for dialogical composing: collective improvisation.  However, the conventional opposition of the terms “compose” and “improvise” confuses and distorts at least as much as it distinguishes real differences in procedure and circumstance.

In both contexts, musicians choose among sounds. Both are composing music.  Neither monological nor dialogical composer is necessarily any more “serious” or any more “aesthetically evolved.”  Meaningful contrasts aren’t really to be found in any “quality” of compositional process, but in where and how this action of choosing among sounds is situated, part of which has been adeptly summarized (in exactly 15 seconds, by the way) by Steve Lacy: “In 15 seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what you want to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.”

The other distinguishing contrast is composed through the musics’ social structures.  Monological structure is predispositionally hierarchical.  Composers issue directives. Performers comply.  Dialogical organization accommodates more mutualist and egalitarian relationships, where a symbiosis has to be continually renegotiated between individual creative liberty and sonic community.

These aren’t trivial or incidental distinctions.  As Christopher Small has eloquently put it, “We are moved by music because musicking creates the public image of our most inwardly desired relationships,” which means, in practical application, that a composer’s aesthetic responsibility encompasses both sonic and social structure.  Electing to compose either monologically or dialogically declares a specific aesthetic and ethical commitment.

But more accommodating and humane social structures don’t necessarily promise more fulfilling sonic experiences; and what would realize a social order pretty hard to take in daily life happens also to be capable of hosting subtle and complex soundscapes that would be unattainable in any other way.  This intrinsic conflict of interest between sonic and social imagination unavoidably immerses composers in an imperfectly resolvable conundrum (the upside of which just about guarantees a perpetual dissatisfaction pretty close to ideal for indefinitely motivating further continual creative experiments, imaginings and innovations).

But, in actual practice, the working border between monological and dialogical organization isn’t so very closely guarded in every quarter.  Hybridization abounds, especially when contending with the ever so complicated challenges of coordinating musicians (and musical intelligences), which, like housework, present endlessly unfinished business.  The seeming effortlessness of a well seasoned musical ensemble belies just how complicated, difficult and failure prone musical coordination really is.  Organizing effective formal communication among musical participants persists as a perennially unsettled (and sometimes unsettling) concern of musical composition.

But, complicated as this genuinely is, it’s equally hard to imagine any musical event actually springing whole off of a blank slate as if by immaculate conception — how would musicians even begin to understand each other without any mutually recognized commonalities?  Particular compositions – their communicational social structures and sonic designs – tend to nest within more widely inclusive (and much more slowly evolving) organizational structures which operate at a more generalized scale that could be identified as metacomposition.

Metacompositons are collectively evolved presets, clusters of compositional decisions already accepted in advance of even beginning to design a musical event.  These compose a commons of collectively assumed musical behaviors, practices, procedures and expectations that define “what everybody knows” (or “should” already know) within a particular sonic community.  The metacompositional context within which a composer chooses to work becomes absorbed into one’s own specific composition as if these decisions were also one’s own.

A monological composer working at a score depends on an extensive metacompositional infrastructure that makes it practical to design musical sound in this way.  There’s a dependence not only on its reductively streamlined interactive system, but on all the standardization of musical behavior necessary to keep a common system of notation both viable and trustworthy.  Monological organization favors closed, internally referential, systems that commemorate an earlier, already finished, compositional process that are therefore tightened to resist responding to anything beyond these borders during performance; and, in this respect, a symphonic performance and a playing of a pop recording share more with each other than either does with improvisers’ music.

Dialogical music thinks out loud during performance.  Its boundaries are much more permeable.    Sounds communicate compositional information among contributors (which may include, for example,  dancers) at the same time they reach out toward their listening audience.  Notation and memorization can adequately ferry (as well as hide out of earshot) most monological instructions, but they can’t facilitate the multidirectional signaling and instant communications that’s going on here.  This is also why common reference coordinates can so often be audibly sounded in many dialogical settings.

A “tune,” for example, in a straight ahead jam session isn’t really functioning any more as a “composition’ in the monological sense of acting as a terminal endpoint for compositional process.  It’s been appropriated as a metacompositional interface to provide foil for yet further compositional activity, a role much more akin to that of an Afro-Latin clave or the bell patterned time lines of a lot of West African percussion music.  The actual composing in this context (the choosing among sounds) is ordinarily identified as “improvisation,” as it also is in that most radically dialogical of practices, “free” improvisation, which grows no less around common, metacompositional understandings.

Where musicians move to deliberately design compositional interfaces and, (in tweaking metacompositions) intentionally reorient a music’s potential interaction patterns, we meet the fine art of composing for improvisers (which is, in effect, an art of composing for composers).  Dialogically addressed sounds, (as are improvisers’ own initiatives) angle toward making something happen — to stimulate, if not to inspire, still further, as yet unforeseen, musical invention.

A composer for improvisers tilts at a moving target of what are, at best, tenuously herded cats – these being other composers with minds and skills of their own that are not the same as those of the initiating composer(s).  Here, the commonplace, but absolutely important, observation that Duke Ellington composed for more than instruments, but also for their players’ peculiar personalities, accurately describes the reality (and opportunities) within which many composers for improvisers orient their constructions.

In thus departing from the relatively deterministic methods of monological organization, composing for improvisers bends more probabilistic and eases a lot closer to poker than engineering.  A coordinating composer in this position is able to propose a specific environment, or ecology, the topography and climate of which can, by displacing and disrupting habit, persuasively incline an ensemble’s activity and corresponding sound in directions that they wouldn’t evolve toward otherwise.

Such compositional strategies usually involve more than sonic designs but also conjunct, interconnected matrices of thought, specific ways of developing relations, sounds and ideas.  Ornette Coleman, for example has proposed more than “tunes” to his collaborators.  He’s constructed an integrated system of musical conception, interaction and development that’s communicated through sound, design, conversation and example all together.  A more laconic example might be John Coltrane’s, whose orchestral conceptions seem to have been disseminated primarily though choice of personnel and whatever came out of his horn, with very little “written” material at all.  “Leaderless,” collective, “free” improvising ensembles might likewise evolve a reliable, ensemble specific, compositional language simply though extended experiences of playing together, thereby feeling it out, event by event — which, by the way, can embody a exceptionally discerning and well informed framework of thought.

The very real social (and therefore sonic) complexity of musical organization that’s so especially evident in dialogical musics can be measured against the far more simplified messages staged through sound recordings; which, marvelous as they can often be, deliver a capacity to preserve and repeat only a music’s sonic image.  A side effect of this instance of abstraction is that it may collaterally encourage (as does so much conventional, Eurological music education) a sort of one-size-fits-all impression of music as being only this sonic object (and often an article of consumption at that), with musicking thought to offer no more than a utilitarian means to that end.

A sonorous “object” that may indicate “music” is not, all by itself, a music.  It’s a focal juncture pivoting a much wider swirl of relationships.  Sound forms the audible skin, the membrane, through which musical activity – listening, imagining, choosing, sounding, responding, feeling, coordinating and reflecting (much of which is both invisible and inaudible) – is able to become more conscious of itself.  This isn’t at all to say that the sound doesn’t matter.  Everything revolves around that – and this “everything” populates a complete musical organism by means of these sonic contacts.  But, without its Everything, musical sound might only manage to pass itself off as ear candy or (maybe even worse) …  noise (!).

Although many sonic conventions can still remember perfectly well their originating communities of practice, sonic signifiers of styles and genres don’t often by themselves tell all that much about what’s really going on in a music.  Focusing most on these consumer stereotypes is a little like prizing the ambient sounds of a spoken language over what’s actually being said with it.  Recordings and global communications have already turned many stylistic markers into so many interchangeable hats (or are they masks?).  What really matters much more are the reasons, the intelligence involved, in choosing one hat or another at any particular moment.  The deeper structures of a music still reside among its “whys.”

What this means for composers is that there’s really no such thing as “unstructured” music.  Musical activity and its sounds always develop some kind of structure through patterns of interaction, movement and sound.  It also means that all music is “composed music” — although it’s not all composed the same.  Whether a music is “well” or “interestingly” composed; whether its sonic image successfully manages to persuade and arrest listening attention describes a very different topic about which people can always disagree.  Whether a music’s effectively structured for its purposes is substantially different from whether there’s a “structure” or not.

Composers can’t really, in good conscience, take the social structure of a music’s composition completely for granted.   Compositional “structure,” is unavoidably social (even political, if you like) in that musical coordination depends on social agreements (tacit or otherwise) among people as to which sounds and behaviors are to be admitted within the frame of “music” in each instance.  Even the statement projected in seeming to dodge the social through electronics and machinery no less expresses an attitude and takes a stand here.

The most structurally influential decision each composer makes is whether, and to what extent, one’s willing to invite other musicians to compose as well.  This immediately qualifies the possible functions and forms of a music’s sonic image; and it plunges a composer into other important social considerations, such as which metacompositional practices to ally with and how to structure communications.  Of course, the sounds one’s after also have to influence these compositional choices; but the sounds actually heard still trace inevitably back to the social conditions that generate them.  In a paraphrase of painter Ben Shahn’s contention that “form is the visible shape of content,” musical sound corresponds with the structures of its compositional activity.

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Widening the Frame called “Music”

    How we conceive deeply affects how we hear and what we sound.  Ordinarily, people talk about “music” as a sonic “thing” we “make” and listen to.  But, this is only a shorthand for a much larger field of activity; and most musicians (at the very least, by feel) know this.

First of all, “music” is not a “thing”, but an activity, a way that happens in an interaction among people, sounds and imagination; and music’s sound is the audible symptom of all this doing.

Sounds that act as music, just like any other sound, trace back to some generative source; and these in particular become marked with the whoness of a composer, an agent, a person — a somebody.  To compose is simply to choose among sounds.  So, when we pay attention to music, we listen not only to sounds and how they interrelate, but to what composers are doing.

Composition, however, is more than the design of a sonic image.  It’s also social organization — not only assembling sounds, but coordinating connections among people.  Who decides makes all the difference in musical structure.

When musicians sound the decisions of a single composer, its interactive structure could be called  monological.  Musical information (what to play when) flows unidirectionally toward a fixed, generally repeatable, sonic image.  A lot of what’s called “composed” music (say, Beethoven — or even a Pop tune) behaves this way.

Dialogical structures happen when a number of participants are composing simultaneously.  Here, the information flow is multidirectional and reciprocal.  Each composer’s decision stream affects all the others; and the music’s sonic image changes in correspondence with these interactions.  It not only doesn’t, but can’t, “stand still”.  Where a monological structure waxes predominantly deterministic, dialogical structures bend more probabilistic.  Dialogical music, which is also known as collective improvisation, is a gift offered (through example) to the world by black North America.

Specific compositional decisions participate in a metacompositional context.  Metacompositions are communities of precomposed assumptions.  For example, Euroclassical performers in general, do not compose, but train to create very specified, standardized sounds to correspond with the compositional messages they follow through notation.  A structure like guaguancó is metacompositional.  All the information necessary to contribute to a “straight ahead” jam session (including the “tunes”) are metacompositional.  The actual composing (the choosing among sounds) is ordinarily called “improvising”.

In addition to the metacompositionally based composing that’s achieved in a jam session, or through purely free improvisation, there’s also an option to compose for improvisers, which would be to invent a specific structural interface for dialogical composing.  This is in some ways similar to, but still different from composing for readers or reciters.  The difference is that the information conveyed to improvisers is oriented to incite yet something else to happen that’s not been predetermined, while at the same time focusing these improvisations in very specific (albeit probabilistic) ways.

The difference between a “tune” or purely “free” playing and a composition by Monk, Mingus or Threadgill — or Ornette’s overall compositional concepts regarding improvisation within which his “tunes” are embedded (“Let’s try to play the music and not the background.”) — is that metacompositional structures by themselves tend to default to a baseline average that can only be redeemed by very exceptional playing, while the interface structures proposed through a composition for improvisers raises the bar in a way to push an entire ensemble’s dialogical composing uniquely beyond what’s standard.  However, this kind of composing isn’t limited to handing out new charts.  It might also be accomplished through gathering around particular generating concepts, or through special understandings evolved through playing together over time.

There’s really no such thing as “unstructured” music.  A music’s structure includes the coordinating of sounds, the kind of thinking circulated and the interactive relationships  fostered within an ensemble.  Composing for a player piano, a recorded tape or a computer is very different from scaling a conception to be embodied by an actual player.  And that’s equally different from a player conceptualizing and composing music in situ.  All are available, and all are possible; but they’re not at all the same (no matter how much recordings may make all of these seem “equal” and interchangeable).  It’s a matter of what kind of world you want to enact and what kind of story you want to tell.


Published in the New York City Jazz Record, January 2012, page 11, Megaphone column.

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#14. The Jam Session’s Metacomposed Interactions

         The jam session is a profound social and aesthetic achievement.  It could seem astonishing to a witness, who’s sufficiently unfamiliar with this sonic community, that any gathering of musicians (who themselves may never have met) would be able to instantly arrive at hours of richly coherent and inventive music with neither rehearsal, sheet music nor pre-recorded (or digitally pre-programmed) resources.  The metacompositional frameworks that enable this apparently immediate fluidity have been developed, tested and altered by innumerable musicians as part of a long term, ongoing, community project.

         Developed in black North America, the metacomposition that informs a jam session constructs an immensely adaptable platform for dialogical composing.  But as event, the jam session is also much more than just this.  It consolidates an occasion for modeling and developing character while transmitting and transforming values and attitudes.  All at once, it functions as school, workshop, symposium, experimental laboratory, sketchbook, proving ground, sparring gym, networking opportunity, celebration and dream pool.

         In contrast with the exacting standardization of individual musicianship that’s so pivotal to most monological organization, compositional and interpersonal heterogeneity is assumed in a jam session from the start.  Contributors don’t have to all be “the same” in this way — and it’s actually a lot better if they aren’t.  The metacomposition coheres out of a more unevenly distributed common engagement in a pool of compositional knowledge and practices, of commonalities that are actualized more out of patchworked family resemblances than from any strict adherence to norms.

         Any decentralized social organization necessarily depends on participants’ self cultivation of autonomy and self reliance.  Accordingly, jam session participants have to seize responsibility for their own musical knowledge, preparation and compositional initiative.  An ability to hold one’s own contributes to a common consideration for the whole, whether that be toward the symptoms audible through the global sonic image or via the collaborative relationships being forged through close, reciprocal listening and instant adjustments to each other’s peculiarities, foibles and proclivities.  This cooperative structure maintains the capacity to foster each individual’s potentially going beyond the ordinary into something personally unique, not only through an aesthetic of open, mutual support, but through an intra-ensemble creative competition that expands the thresholds of creative musicianship and conception throughout a sonic community.

         Successful participants aspire to model performance ideals already learned through previous listening, observing, conversation and direct trial-and-error experience.  And, in tandem with the wide inventive freedoms nurtured by this structure, the accompanying dispersive entropy of free-for-all can be mitigated through a range of compositional devices that regulate and direct sonic behavior, most explicitly where a mismatch of a participant’s preparation, skill, maturity or attitude with a situation disrupts or impedes access for other musicians to musical interactions at optimum intensities.

    Epithets such as “You ain’t playin shit” or “No playin motherfucker” have often been applied with great effect in acute situations where more underplayed messages seem to have been passing unheard.  Pendergast era Kansas City lore recounts Jo Jones having conveyed an airborne cymbal toward the vicinity of a very young Charles Christopher Parker during one of his earlier jam session forays.  Pruning a session’s population may also be achieved somewhat less directly by adopting brutally fast tempos, very obscure tunes or especially unusual keys (skills for which the Yardbird himself later became notorious).

         A player might step right across the path of another about to play.  The session’s leader may suddenly reprise the theme and take the tune out.  The drummer or the bassist (or both) might suddenly go to the bar for a drink.  A set may end unexpectedly without explanation.  A player may be politely requested to sit out and listen.  Or, one could be blankly stared through as if no human body could possibly be occupying the space that unfolds before the viewer.

     Some of these techniques might provoke an impression of hostility (well, sometimes people really are hostile); but these devices could also be understood as instructive – as well as protective – regarding the creative spirit of the session (and besides, hostility or displaced ego seem to insert themselves as unremarkable denizens of just about any humanscape).  The role of a musician who responds to these resistances with adequate agility, or who perseveres long enough to return someday in more able form, transforms from potential interloper to contributor.  This is to say nothing of what’s learned about oneself (and about the generating attitudes and structures of the music) through such experiences.

     Depending on the situation, the tone of mutual support in a jam session can switch from challenge to nurture (which includes various blends along this spectrum).  More experienced musicians may ease up on the intensity of their own invention in order to bolster the confidence of a developing musician.  Common reference points, such as chords, the first beat of a chorus cycle, the “one” or the pulse itself may be stated much more obviously than usual to this end.  The guiding ethic is not to exclusively exert one’s own way, but to achieve successful music as a group, whatever it takes.

* * *

     The most simple version of jam session metacomposition to discuss would be the most commonplace and clearly defined one; and that would easily be the old school, “classic” – what’s now called straight ahead – species of jam session.  This format encapsulates a common lingua franca that could conceivably allow generationally disparate musicians such as Louis Armstrong and John Gilmore — or Anthony Braxton — to perform side by side without any one distracting from the strengths of the others.

     Successful contributors to this particular species of jam session participate in specific metacompositional assumptions about the musical proceedings and organization that facilitate their composing together.  These assumptions address the roles and behavior of different instruments, constructive principles and a common repertoire of interface structures.

     The propensities of differing instrument families ground certain basic expectations around sonic comportment and behavior during this variety of jam session.  The sounds of touch instruments (percussion, piano, plucked strings) generally decay fairly quickly after more abrupt and prominent attacks.  The enfolding silences emphasized by these envelopes imbue a sonic transparency that allows these instruments to sound concurrently without any one obscuring the other.  This, along with a relative ease in playing these instruments continuously, draws the tactile with the kinetic in forming the music’s rhythm section.

     The more continuously sustained sounds of breath instruments (and bowed strings) superimpose more opaquely.  The need to inhale and to give one’s lips a break yield more discontinuous blocks of sound; and the intervening silences accent the ongoing assertions of the rhythm section.  These sonic and technical features generally displace wind and bow sounds away from rhythm section activity; and in the interest of sonic and narrative clarity (along with creative elbow room), improvised contributions from these instruments are customarily deployed sequentially, one at a time, as soloists.

     Aligning instrumental roles around wind and touch generation parallels other important stereo articulations such as paired speech and gesture, storytelling with mime, or song and dance.  But what might ably facilitate ensemble organization applies differently to the possible ranges of individual contribution.  Each participant can draw from the entire spectrum of these modalities.  Each may adopt solo, accompaniment or rhythm section articulation as needed, desired or preferred.  Optimally, wind players must speak Percussion fluently, as touch instruments are clearly able to narrate as fluently in soloistic terms, while drums themselves sing, talk, tell, lead.

     Common reference to an interface structure, such as a “tune” (12 bar blues, I-Got-Rhythms, Tin Pan Alley songs, or well known musician generated material) marks parameters for the application of instrumental roles.  Percussion instruments, who deal in many untempered, “inexact” sonorities, emphasize the shapes and momenta of these patterns in their articulations and proportionings of time, rhythm, timbre, pitch and density.  Instruments congenial to sounding multiple, tempered pitches simultaneously — such as those built with finger or mallet keyboards, or guitars — assume responsibility for sounding chord sequences within the group.  The bass dwells between, emphatically a tuned drum with the pulse world while melodically grounding harmonic sequences for the tempered pitch world.  Those players acting in a solo role assume responsibility for sounding melodic themes (the “head”) as well as constructing their individual narratives as soloists.

     Constructive principles gather around a generally predictable pulse that fulcrums compositional convergence and divergence, along with a distinct quality of rhythmic attentiveness and interaction that’s recognized as swinging.  Superimposed across this pulse community is a melodic theme (the “tune”) in conjunction with a supporting harmonic sequence that describes a specific number of beats.  This reference pattern (one cycle of which is known as a chorus) is continually reiterated, around which the ensemble organizes itself and individual solos are generated and measured.  It’s generally expected that players make aspects of these components audible in their inventions as a way of bolstering and reassuring ensemble focus and coherence.

     This principle is complemented by a common understanding that each musician’s contribution should make other individuals (as well as the band as a whole) “sound good,” which is often achieved through including (however obliquely) some aspect of what each of the others are doing, as much through mirroring as by strategic omissions (silences) and divergences — both of which accent features that are already being sounded.

     Extended variations on the generative principle of call-and-response further broaden this collaborative syntax.  The custom of trading bars, where soloists alternate in groupings of 12, 8, 4, 2 (or even 1) measures demonstrates one very graphic example.  Call-and-response is also deployed more subtly, as where one musician “completes” or punctuates another’s phrase.  Back and forth interchanges also become so densely rapid that, for all practical purposes, they turn simultaneous and mutually intertwined.

     Signaling (even signifying) among musicians also encompasses a larger, common sonic world beyond the immediate circumstance.  Patterns in common with predecessors, ancestors, coevals and competitors — either as acknowledgement, play or parody — enrich the music’s composition with allusion.  And a common convention such as the riff, for example, avails itself as a familiar component in constructing “instant arrangements” that urge soloists and cast relief to their individual improvisations.

     None of these elements by themselves would seem to figure that importantly in musical construction; but taken all together, they describe a set of conditions for a metacompositional community that can then compose together dialogically.  These common considerations foreground a degree of trust and confidence that allows each individual to stretch creatively without excessive and cumbersome concerns for the coherence of the entire musical organism.  Working agreements are achieved around not only sonic parameters, but also regarding important modes of interaction that are clearly enough delineated that they needn’t unduly restrict specific action.


* * *

     One prescient, if inadvertent, insight into the audible presence of metacompositional coordinates in a lot of dialogical music can be credited to the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno.  While not having earned all that much regard among vernacular musicians, Adorno remains an important seminal thinker for the scholarly field now known as cultural studies.  He was an ardent lover of music and wrote about it extensively, studying composition with Alban Berg and becoming a vocal champion of Arnold Schoenberg’s music and the Second Viennese School.  However, when unsympathetic, his writing can occasionally display an inclination toward zero-sum, winner-take-all, polemics.

     While the eminent cultural theorist reserved a lot more invective for the composer Igor Stravinsky, Adorno did publish, beginning in 1936, a number of derisive essays regarding what he understood to be “jazz;” although it’s not really so clear exactly what he meant by this word.  He may have initially been responding to Weimar era knockoffs of Paul Whiteman in Europe or might have meant any kind of commercially disseminated, “popular” music.  Yet, in the 1950s, he manages to mention the word bebop as just another example of more-of-the-same; and even though he enjoyed a comfortable position at Columbia University during the early 40s, there’s apparently no indication that he ever took a quick (less than 10 minute) cab ride over to Minton’s or Monroe’s to talk with, or listen to, Kenny Clarke, or Monk, or Charlie Parker.

     Adorno seems to have assessed what he thought of as “jazz” as a sort of degenerate offshoot of notated European monological practice (it might  have slipped off his radar that black musicians could actually have been appropriating European generated musical materials in the service of very, very different aesthetic applications).  He could thus absolve himself to freely interpret this “jazz” as no more than a species of “mannerist interpretation,” as “music which fuses the most rudimentary melodic, harmonic, metric and formal structure with the ostensibly disruptive principle of syncopation, yet without ever really disturbing the crude unity of the basic rhythm, the identically sustained meter, the quarter-note.”  He thus summarily dismissed this sonic community’s “paltry stock of procedures and characteristics.”

     From a musician’s perspective, it’s unbelievably tempting to speculate as to how such an otherwise astute thinker could turn, in this instance, so slipshod concerning just what it is he actually means by “jazz,” a term that would ordinarily connote the work of artists such as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach or many members of the AACM (all of whom have, by the way, expressed, at the very least, a deep ambivalence concerning this “jazz” word themselves).  But, assuming this is what the philosopher means, it seems odd that such a scholar of Marx would account so poorly for important variations in music’s “conditions of production.”

     Adorno’s admirable concerns about a general dumbing down of listening (with a corresponding circumscription of critical consciousness) might persuade more convincingly if he were describing instead some overly stylized, tightly formatted, commercially dictated monological music.  However, the specific music Adorno targets is a dialogical one; and dialogical listening encompasses, and has to address, significantly different compositional circumstances than does attention to monologically organized sound.

     A great deal of compositional activity, and hence compositional meaning in a dialogical context emerges through the relations among distinct compositional actors.  While each contributor’s inventions may separately achieve a degree of monological integrity, all of this is conditioned by, in relation with, and in reaction to, everything else developing within the ensemble.  The global composition that a listener witnesses derives from the decisions of each contributing composer and their composite interrelations.  Because of this interactive complexity (a variety of complexity that’s almost totally absent from monological constructs), novel and intricate musical messaging can evolve out of communications involving rudimentary, even mundane reference materials – and the transformations of these points of departure can be both subtle and profound.  Yet, different as the elements and context are, from the point of view of each participant, dialogically composing from basic elements isn’t operationally all that different from monologically developing an elaborate fugue out of a simple series of 4 pitches.

* * *

     In terms of relational dynamics among participants, collective improvisation (dialogical composition) can be understood as a theatrical personification of polyrhythm.

     Polyrhythm emerges through juxtaposing and linking contrasting rhythmic patterns.  Unlike syncopation, which describes a single pattern’s displacement of a dominant pattern’s accents, individual components of a polyrhythm sound with equal emphasis and importance.  Conflict and difference among them throw into relief the individual distinctiveness of each contributing element.  Yet at the same time, their differences together configure a harmonic relationship that can’t be reduced either to their individual constituents or to any sum of these parts.

     John Miller Chernoff’s eloquent discussion of interrelating African ethics and aesthetics in his book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility, develops insights into African musical processes that parallel very strongly not just jam session interactions, but much (if not all) dialogically structured composition.  His observations are so substantive that a good stretch of exerpts is quoted here.

     At an African musical event, we are concerned with sound and movement, space and time, the deepest modalities of perception.  Foremost is the dynamic tension of the multiple rhythms and the cohesive power of their relationship.  Founded on a sense of time and presence, the art of improvisation involves the subtle perfection of this rhythmic form through precision of performance, complexity of organization and control of gestural timing.  The act of creation is above all purposeful, never random, and the goal is balance and a fulfilling interdependence.  As they display style and involvement, people make their music socially effective, transforming the dynamic power of the rhythms into a focus for character and community.  We are even quite close to a metaphysics of rhythm if we remember that sensing the whole in a system of multiple rhythms depends on comprehending, or “hearing,” as Africans say, the beat that is never sounded. …

     African affinity for polymetric musical forms indicates that, in the most fundamental sense, the African sensibility is profoundly pluralistic.  One of the most patronizing Western biases regarding people in societies we call “traditional” is the notion that the events of their lives are nestled in and determined by the ready-made patterns of a culture they uncritically accept.

     To maintain that poise in their social encounters, Africans bring the same flexibility which characterizes their participation in musical contexts: they expect dialogue, they anticipate movement, and most significantly, they stay very much open to influence.  The many ways one can change a rhythm by cutting it with different rhythms is parallel to many ways one can approach or interpret a situation or a conversation.  And there is always an in-between, always a place to add another beat.  A musical occasion, like any other social occasion is therefore beyond any one perspective a person can bring to it, and people in Africa are usually realistic enough not to try to impose a single point of view on the larger context in which they are playing a part.

     …The power and dynamic potential of the music is in the silence, the gaps between the notes, and it is into this openness that a creative participant will place his contribution, trying even to open up the music further. … It is not only that one rhythm cannot monopolize all the notes; one rhythm means nothing without another.  In a musical context, separation of parts heightens rhythmic dialogue, and in a musical ensemble, singlemindedness of purpose would be equivalent to poverty of expression. …

     In a musical context, the diverse rhythms help people distinguish themselves from each other while they remain profoundly involved. … From an African perspective, once you have brought a structure to bear on your involvements, and made your peace with it, the distinctive gestures and deviant idiosyncracies of personality can stand out with clarity.

     A continuity of African aesthetic values, as described here by Chernoff, with interactive ethics realized in a black North American evolution of the jam session shouldn’t really be very surprising anyway.  And some of what so ably informs jam session participation has been, and continues to be, influential and active well beyond the peripheries of any particular bandstand.  Commonalities might be recognized in the ring shout, in freestyle exchanges among rappers, on basketball courts, in rapports between dancers or minister and congregation in the black church (and maybe even in the guerilla tactics of Northeastern woodland natives against Anglo armies) in conversations – all this as well as in dialogues between master drummer and dancer in West Africa or between guimbri/sintir and trancer among the Gnawa,

     What’s far more striking, however, is how remarkably different the jam session can be in accommodating what Robert Farris Thompson has adeptly identified as “apart playing.”  African polymetric organization is very clearly and carefully calibrated, and the exact details of each configuration are usually local to a very particular language community, region or even village. In contrast, jam session conventions evolved very quickly among a much larger and far more diverse population that’s been in rapid movement across an entire continent.  Adaptation to these circumstances had to yield a far wider, and even more pliable, span of variables for establishing this reciprocally defining “apartness.”

     The cultivation of a uniquely identifiable, instantly recognizable at first earshot, sonic persona (whether that be Bern Nix, Lester Young or so many others) has been held in high esteem for good reason.  It’s from the vantage  and “way” of the distinct compositional actor (therefore both personified and, in terms of compositional choice, both interactively and dramatically theatrical), the unique sounds and telltale patterns of imagination, the characteristic (or unexpectedly uncharacteristic) compositional decision streams in interaction with all of the others (while, in Chernoff’s words, “sensing the whole in a system of multiple trajectories”) that establishes the diversity and tensions that “help people distinguish themselves from each other while remaining profoundly involved.”

     Some instances of dialogically generated music might not even sound “African” at all or, when extended, even explicitly “African American.”  Yet, the focus of listening, the attitudes toward collective composition, the animating intelligence and activities, of which the sound is a symptom, will still reveal deep kinship with what Chernoff describes regarding African attitudes and practices.

     African or Indigenous American relationships with pulse as nuanced message seem to be absented from Adorno’s more abstracted, notation framed notion of beats as no more than quantitative, mindless (if not mechanical) measurement devices.  His critical framework excludes them as components of a music’s “formal language.”  For Adorno, internal repetition  within a musical event (versus the verbatim, wholesale repetition of a fixed, monological work) breeds a predictability leading to a stereotyped banality that, in true domino theory sequence, retards not only listening, but any ability to independently draw distinctions about the world one lives in.

     However, founding an indictment of a music upon its predictability maneuvers a pretty slippery slope.  First of all, prediction (whether accurate or not) is a consistent companion of attending to any event, music included.  Concurrently, each event settles toward a distinct frequency of predictability.  A musical event that aspires to total discontinuity encourages an expectation that it will continue to behave that way, thus predictably so.  A more realistic notion of predictability would instead assess the dynamic tension invited between apparent predictability and divergent surprise as two interdependent components.  Furthermore, Adorno seems to assume that predictability really is predictable, that the dangers of error, lapses in attention, dissolution or deliberate shifts in musical activity during performance are safely distant probabilities.  Had he ever been on a bandstand?

     Repetition without consideration may well doze off into some species of “banality.”  But, deeply considered repetition in tandem with carefully applied divergence reveals many of the fine distinctions to be discovered among apparently “predictable” beats (if one’s listening with sensitivity and intelligence) that enrich and complicate, rather than enervate, a musical message.  Chernoff, in noting that “a drummer uses repetition to reveal the depth of the musical structure,” footnotes his observation by citing the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “He who wills repetition is matured in seriousness.”

     Jacqueline Pettiford, wife of  bassist, Oscar Pettiford, reminded Downbeat Magazine in 2009 that as

the son of a full-blooded Native American mother and half-blooded Native American father, Pettiford was exposed at an early age to Indian ceremonial music and dance, and he contended that the importance of the American Indian to jazz has been underestimated if not completely overlooked. He maintained that the 4/4 tempo, which after all is the basic beat of jazz, came directly from the American Indian; that, though it existed in European music, it was not used in the same way.

     The Virginia born, New York City drummer, Newman Taylor Baker, once related that, in playing a quarter note as ride (conceived as of swinging or “straight ahead” pulse), he simultaneously hears an unsounded, concurrent triplet quarter note pattern, actively hearing a beat that may be never sounded – a procedure solidly consonant with African practices.  The impact of heard but unsounded musical components can’t be discounted in terms of their influence on important microdetails of invention or on the direction of related inventions.

* * *

     But still, one does have to finally concede that Adorno really is right.  A straight ahead jam session really does rely on “a paltry stock of procedures and characteristics.”  It’s supposed to be exactly like that, and it’s integrated this way intentionally and by deliberate design.  Coordinating references such as “tunes,” common pulses and chord progressions have to be no more than schematic so that they can adequately inform each participating composer’s background awareness without ever overburdening attention necessary for the actual compositional choices at hand.  This is a very practical accommodation of human cognitive capacities.  If too rich, too detailed, too complicated, too unpredictable, metacompositional information would so distract an improviser that the composing process would simply seize and freeze up.

     Saxophonist Marvin Blackman (who worked extensively with both Rachid Ali as well as with Art Blakey) has reaffirmed that these metacompositional supports are only additional coordinates superimposed over multipersonic, polyphonic and polyrhythmic activity that’s already in motion.  These less easily mappable attitudes, activities, procedures and interactions more substantively enact the music than these more mundane add-ons.

     Adorno’s complaint that “the schema shines through at every moment” manages to state what’s often glibly obvious about coordinating dialogical music a lot of the time.  Audible reference interfaces facilitate synchronization and communication among participating composers without leaning on notation (into which such supports can otherwise be offloaded and audibly disguised, if not hidden) or on conductors.

      A “tune” in a jam session is neither “the music” nor is it the “composition” (both of which are discovered as performance).  A “tune” functions much more like a time line, as a centripetal reference signal like the continual bell patterns sounded in much West African percussion music or the clave patterns that undergird so much Afro-Latin music.  In the jam session, even melodic cycles and harmonic progressions become appropriated as rhythmic coordinates (which was not at all the purpose for which they were originally developed during Europe’s common practice era).  The application of these components in black music can often differ substantially from their customary functions in earlier European music.

      As for Mr. Adorno, his conception of how a music’s formal language constructs a meaning seems to have limited itself to habitual monological concerns with only the notation friendly dimensions of a sonic artifact.  Fixating on music’s sonic design to the exclusion of its role within a composition’s social structure reifies music by arbitrarily sundering the interdependent relations of musical sound and musical activity.  In listening to an aurally coordinated, dialogical music through literately oriented, monological ears, Adorno directed considerable philosophical acumen against a straw dog of his own creation, one very, very different from what its musicians have come to know through direct, practical experience.

     A jam session’s fun (and why not?) — along with its nearly self-depreciating, decentralized informality  — just might mislead a casual witness about the true profundity of its supporting metacompositional structures.  However, these continue, over and over again, to prove themselves in practice as embodying highly sophisticated aesthetic resources.

     The jam session paradigm encapsulates a way, a mode of collectively generating music, that informs not only “non-idiomatic free improvisation” but the substrate assumptions upon which the great art of composing for improvisers (as so ably demonstrated by Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra or Henry Threadgill) is able to locate itself.

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#13. Metacomposition in Eurological Practice & 4’33”

     A monological composer working in a conventional Euroclassical context accepts as a matter of course a wide swath of assumptions as built in components of the specific “composition” (sonic design) being constructed. The concert hall convention is assumed, within which an audience quietly attends to sounds emitted by an ensemble of literate performing musicians who act as representative agents of the (usually absent) composer’s designs and intentions. Prevailing standards of intonation and instrument design, along with what kind of timbre and articulation can be expected from each performer are taken for granted as well. With so much structure already in place, it really is practical for a remote composer to commit a design to notation — and for that design to be sounded in pretty close correspondence with what the composer had in mind.

     The remarkable resilience and strength of this elaborate and very particular metacompositional structure (an immense collaboration sustained by the collective efforts of many, many thousands of people over centuries) was remarkably demonstrated by the North American composer John Cage in 1952 with his composition 4’33’’. Cage very cleverly leveraged Euroclassical concert hall conventions in order to intentionally frame a sonic portrait of “non-intention.”

     Listeners responded to notices announcing a concert to be presented by the Woodstock Artist’s Association at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York at 8:15pm on Friday, August 29. During the performance, listeners were seated before a performance area where pianist David Tudor sat at a piano, and placed a score on the piano and sat quietly. He alternately lifted and lowered the keyboard lid to indicate respective movements of the piece while timing the length of each movement with a stopwatch and turning pages at the appropriate moment. Listeners were able to hear the incidental sound of wind among the trees outside, a few raindrops on the roof, page turns and eventually, increasing human whispering and grumbling among the concertgoers.

     Cage’s construct was radically iconoclastic in terms of its sonic “content” in a way that’s since exerted a powerfully enduring influence on the imagination of composers and listeners. Cage could argue rhetorically on behalf of “sound in themselves:” but in order to introduce them as “music,” he (ironically) reaffirmed the underlying metacompositional assumptions of Eurological concert music. The interaction structures segmenting the roles of composer, performer and audience remained intact and unchallenged. As Cage himself once put it, “Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third. What can they have to do with one another?” Cage made sure that everything remained hands-off, non-interactive and non-reciprocal.

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#12. Metacomposition

     A sonic community coheres around commonly recognized notions of sonic and gestural convergence.  What might be called music’s “protocompositional” footings share interactive dynamics with nearly any reciprocal social exchange.  And generally, people have to mutually acknowledge some area of commonality in order to interact at all.

     In playing music “together,” some sort of connective thread, some way of “reading” each other’s actions, some kind of referential context has to be developed in order for each participant’s moves to make sense – not only to each other, but for oneself in relationship with that context as well.  However provisionally, a system of mutual expectations about each other’s sonic behavior becomes established.  In a duo context, for example. the relationship formed by consensus and mutual regard would constitute a third member of the band – and all three would be gauging their adjustments toward whatever the sonic image happens to be doing.

     Two very, very green, rookie guitarists who are trying to play together for the first time either already share musical ideals that they hope to emulate and realize — or if they don’t, they’re soon enough going to have to arrive at some kind of working agreement about what it is they’re doing together — that is, if they’re to continue playing.  Foundational social accord precedes the exact particulars of whatever sonic image emerges out of musical collaboration.

     A compositional design manages to find itself sounded through alliance with a specific social milieu.  This happens because actual performers are always going to have to fill in whatever gaps manage to perforate whatever body of compositional indications.  No matter how well described, mapped, illustrated, demonstrated or explained such messages may be, performers have to bring yet something else that’s not (or can’t be) indicated by the compositional information being circulated.  They add whatever they have to in order for the music to palpably sound.  And, because the ways a gap can be filled is so susceptible to variation, the interpretive community a composer collaborates with makes an important difference in terms of the music’s resulting sound.  A composer has to be able to account for – and count on – the way one’s collaborators process musical information.

     The shared understandings around which these social cooperations gather aren’t at all so incidental to a music’s composition.  Both the working assumptions and social interactions are influential constituents of a music’s construction.  A coordinator of sounds (which is what’s ordinarily meant by the word “composer”) has to therefore consider and incorporate a specific community of practice into the music as an inseparable component of its sonic design.  In coordinating a sonic event, a composer collaborates with a range of customs and conventions that shape what might be called a music’s metacompositional structure.

     Metacompositions are socially shared pools of musical behaviors, assumptions, practices, techniques, experiences, methodologies and expectations that have been evolved through trial, error, experiment and circumstance by a multitude of musical participants over time.  They function as compositional commons, as templates that are both everybody’s and nobody’s.  They’re “what everybody knows” (or is supposed to know) while contributing to a sonic event.

     Metacompositions encompass all the compositional decisions that are accepted in advance as a context within which the act of composing (which is the choosing among sounds) can situate itself.  In other words, most of any musical “composition” has already been composed collectively by a sonic community’s coordinating conventions before a specific composer has even begun.

     An individual composer may be able to noticeably tweak, influence, deconstruct, expand and, to some extent, transform elements of a metacomposition: but a metacomposition’s more or less autonomic footings network a complexity that’s way too dense for any individual composer to completely reinvent (or bother with reinventing) from scratch anyway.  A composer’s sonic influence in ensemble music is conditional and subject to conventional practices already in circulation

     In a very, very rough analogy with verbal language, metacompositions articulate core conventions of a sonic community – as equally in the root senses of convenience and gathering as in the sense of common practice and assumption.  Where the structure of a commonly spoken language can’t help but influence the structure of interactants’ exchanges; a composer can’t avoid absorbing metacompositional decisions into one’s own composing.

     One could think of “metacomposition” as a relatively vast musical composition that’s able to host very particular compositions or compositional acts.  As a collectively formulated artistic “work,” it already poses an aesthetic statement before any particular composer even begins to associate with it.   A composer’s choice of metacompositional context likewise voices aesthetic statement and compositional decision; and the individual responsibility a composer assumes for a metacomposition becomes as if one had composed it oneself.  Such are the paradoxical wages of participation in communal creativity.

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#11. Notation

         The limits of communication in any particular situation define the possible topographies of a musical event.  In order to sound a sonic image (whether predetermined or articulated in progress) a sonic community organizes its activities around the musical information that’s cuing which sounds happen when.  It’s this communication of information that animates the circulatory and nervous systems of a music.  What can be circulated, and therefore sounded, is constrained within the horizons of human capacity.  These horizons curve along the thresholds of memory, attention, interpretive capability, reflexes, ingenuity, habit, adaptability, intuition, technical facility and the generalizing and classification systems (whether personal or collective) that synthesize masses of musical information into manageable bunches.

         Notation — the visual mapping of sonic patterns (especially as developed in Europe since that region’s Middle Ages) — hosts an extraordinary prosthetic extension of memory that accomplishes a remarkably far reaching messaging system.  Its impact on musicking, on conceptualizations of music and on musical imagination is notably formidable.

         Long before synthesizers and digital quantization, notation codified abstractions of actual sound to a visual, legible and transportable system.  The now familiar, descriptive variables applied in musical notation include graphic representations of differences in pitch frequency (metaphorically depicted as “high” and “low” — in place of, say, faster/slower, thinner/thicker or smaller/larger), along with the sequential passage of sonic events plotted horizontally from left to right (as European languages are also written).  This mapping of “time” is further simplified into proportional, sequential bits.  ”Time” is segmented into progressive steps out of which are derived measures, meters and note values such as half-note, quarter-note, and so forth.  Notation, however, offers more than just a tooI.  The nature of its specifications articulates an editorially selective point of view regarding both sound and music.

         The French sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, in a paper entitled Drawing and Cognition: Drawing Things Together, considered the impact of perspective drawing and mapmaking in some ways at could be compared with notation’s relationship with music.  The development of a homogeneous Ianguage based in longitude, latitude and geometry, permitted the spatial relationships among components of an area of land (or, say, a building) to be fixed in a notated form that could travel and make that depicted location persuasively visible (or in the case of building, even replicable) to people in places far away.  Not only that, fictitious imaginings, whether hybrid fantasy or the design of a hypothetical machine, could be accessibly presented through these same media tools as “real.”

         Latour notes that:

 Papers and signs are incredibly weak and fragile. This is why explaining anything with them seemed ludicrous at first.  La Perouse’s map is not the Pacific anymore than Watt’s drawings and patents are engines, or the bankers’ exchange rates are the economies, or the theorems of topology are “the real world”.  This is precisely the paradox.  By working on papers alone, on fragile inscriptions which are immensely less than the things from which they are extracted, it is still possible to dominate all things and all people.  What is insignificant for all other cultures becomes the most significant, the only significant aspect of reality.  The weakest, by manipulating inscriptions of all sorts obsessively and exclusively, become the strongest.

         Latour also· points out that:

 Inscriptions are made flat.  There is nothing you can dominate as easily as a ‘flat surface of a few square meters; there is nothing hidden or convoluted, no shadows, no “double entendre”.  In politics as in science, when someone is said to “master” a question or to “dominate” a subject, you should normally look for the flat surface that enables mastery (a map, a list, a file, a census, the wall of a gallery, a card-index, a repertory); and you will find it.

         Just a few square meters of musical notation can enable a monological composer to design the construction of, for example, a four hour long sonic event that involves the coordination of over a hundred people — and to designate all of this in extremely fine detail.  The labyrinthine, even perplexing, passing by of actual sounds and patterns become shadow frozen, somewhat like Eadweard Muybridge’s early photographic motion studies.  Patterns can be arrested, investigated, reexamined and refined still further.  Notation in this way poses a sonic parallel with the drafter’s camera obscura.

         However, unlike the receptive depiction of physical objects and their relations in space relative to an observer, notation assertively reverses the exchange.  The abject weakness of an abandoned, unread sheet of score paper exposes a vital necessity that notation position itself as an irresistible and overwhelming social magnet in order to wax viable at all.  With the consensual amiability of sympathetic magic, notation introduces into the social relations of music a binding written contract that opportunes to dictate what is and isn’t “music” in terms of its own peculiar limits and possibilities.

         As tails wag dogs, musical notation shapes an entire sonic community around its requirements (and without an accommodating social network, notation can’t hold sway).  Participants must “feed the medium” through acquiring a fluency in its codes; and an entire educational culture (a sort of Bureau of Weights and Measures) has to develop to safeguard consistent and accurate correspondences between written description and sonic execution.  With all the commitment required to make notation practicable, it’s not so surprising that, in some circles, notated music comes to represent the very definition of “music” — period — with notation posing as border guard between composer and performer in a monological division of labor.

         The tactical advantages of socially supported notation are nevertheless pretty hard to dismiss. Its immense storage capacity can compensate for human cognitive limits in some remarkable ways.  The perspective stillness of paper can imaginarily “stop time.”  A composer can step aside from the pressures of sonic immediacy and inhabit instead a niche a lot closer to that of a studio artist or a novelist than to an active performer.  The reflective calm and isolation of paper (or electronic studio) composing favors an uninterrupted focal concentration that can be refreshed by walking away without worries that the preserved sonic patterns might dissolve, disappear or be forgotten (direct, live composing, in contrast, enjoys little to none of this luxury).  The archeological endurance of notation is even capable of withstanding the absence of a composer due to death.  As long as the cultural practices of decoding persist, a notated sonic pattern can be resuscitated over and over, regardless.

         Many of the unique inventions developed by European composers over centuries that have importantly contributed to the world’s musical inheritance may not have developed at all without the complicity of notation.  Early European notation may have first memorized, preserved and conveyed the already existing, unadorned, monophonic, text related, melodic shapes of Gregorian chant; but it’s hard to conceive how the Late Medieval Flemish composers or the Ars Nova could have constructed their complex polyphonies without detailed architectural sketches and renderings (and it may not be so coincidental that these intensely architectonic constructions were themselves designed for sounding within the cathedral acmes of that era’s architecture.).  Counterpoint, fugue, diatonic tonality, and Schoenburg’s pantonality are all complex generative techniques whose development required detailed trial and error comparison on par with that of a mathematician or physicist.  As Latour might argue, careful comparison of documentation is key to weeding out inconsistencies in the construction of a system.

         Within an interactive structure that channels most musical information by way of the page, not only does the eye vie for predominance over the ear, but, where paper comes to do most compositional “thinking,” performers actually don’t have to.  It may seem paradoxical, but diminishing a performer’s compositional responsibility allows more elaborate and dense musical information to be projected into a sonic image.  This is precisely because musicians, thanks to notation, don’t need to totally comprehend compositional messages in order for them to sound.  Transhuman scale can be broached in music by redistributing individual creativity out of performance.  Grandeur levies just a few costs.

         Notation, in return, has to calibrate itself to the cognitive limits of an average interpreter.  Specifications have to be trimmed to what can be relatively quickly assimilated by musicians who are already busily absorbed with their instruments and ensemble coordination.  The more eccentric and complicated written directives, the more time and attention has to be dedicated to processing that information at the expense of these other concerns.

         Notation connects most seamlessly when its language cleaves to the average, conventional and habitual.  What can be easily graphed, and easily averaged, best adapts to being notated.  Following the example of European practice, it seems as if pitch has shown itself to be the most adaptable sonic parameter for notation.  It might even be asked how much of Europe’s long time emphasis on melodic and harmonic development has been symbiotic with its system of notation.

         Other sonic components – timbre – complex, compelling but indescribable sonorities and textures – rhythm — tend to have to creep in through the kitchen door — usually with the help of a composer who’s willing to slip that door open while doing the uncharted heavy lifting and translation (Varese, Ellington or Xenakis, for example).  Conventional notation of rhythm – in contrast with its actual complexity — is schematically crude at best.  And once again, it could be asked if the relatively primitive cultivation of rhythm in traditional Euroclassical practice has been in part due to how difficult the essentials of rhythm — beyond the baseline of durations — are to notate.

         It’s worth considering how the default biases of notation might precondition what’s sonically cultivated.  Being able to graph the relative durations of sounds introduces a fantastic investigative tool; but superimposing the stopwatch click track of technical time across music also opens a share of questions.

         A graphic narrative illustrates “time” traveling in a straight line from beginning (represented as “left”) to end (right).  Time “really” does that?  Really?  The image portrays an undoubtedly useful tactical metaphor; but is it at all what either listeners or musicians actually experience as “time” – or rhythm — in (or out of) a musical context?

         What about the commonplace presupposition in some musical circles that a beat (or pulse) is the inert — or “dumb” — stuff that measures out the “real stuff” of “music” that’s doing the actual “speaking” — such as pitch, melody and harmony.  It’s true that rhythm portrayed as repetitive quantity can make for some pretty uninteresting viewing on a score; but the complicated vectors deployed by a Nuyorican mambo vamp, for example, are anything but simplistic, mechanical repetitions.  The multidirectional relationships among voices continually shift and redefine themselves in a way that never really settles or becomes “the same.”  And this is no accident at all because it’s a deliberate accomplishment of design.

         There’s yet to be a rhythm theory formulated and articulated with the thoroughness and conciseness that’s already been dedicated to diatonic harmony.  Theoretical rhythmic knowledge circulates in the face to face, person to person, experience based vernacular and is continually being rediscovered and worked out by each individual practitioner over and over; and it’s thriving pretty well outside the corral of notation.  The examples of both Indian and Pan-African practice suggest that more rhythmic information can be efficiently encoded and transmitted via “nonsense” syllable complexes than can be easily encapsulated through visual representations.  This can also be noted, for example, in how swinging so effectively eludes notated description.

         The constraints on what can be intelligibly and smoothly grasped within any system of notation inevitably favor presets that encourage sonic presuppositions that, by default, eliminate, if not disadvantage, all of the sounds not represented within the system.

         For example, the lattice of equidistant, tempered chromatic intervals, superimposed over the entire spectrum glissando of pitch, leaves out all the other pitches.  Sounds too idiosyncratic, or too complex, to fit into conventional notation’s apportioned slots may become habitually referred to as “noise.”  A descriptive tool such as notation can hardly avoid drawing insider-outsider oppositions that don’t actually apply to the sound palette of the real world.

         The immense conveniences of notation have to be accepted with at least some degree of salt.  In relation to the genuinely laborious and complicated social cooperations that construct musical sound, notation often contributes a helpful short cut.  Short cuts rarely tend to come cost free.  The totally literate composer Charles Mingus preferred instead to convey the details of his sonic constructs by ear whenever possible because the entire process of assimilation, so amply informed by unnotatable details, differs so much from sight reading and yields a distinctively different musical motion, attitude and sound.  Thelonious Monk would often only show a musician the sheet music for a composition after a musician had worked most of it out without the paper.

         Music (and musical ideas) is expensive.  It demands a lot of time and attention of its participants.  Notation slam-bam cuts to “the point” and emphasizes the literal sound and result — which does minimize a lot of time consuming digestion and comprehension (and many, many times, composers are more than happy to have the option).  It becomes possible to organize fly-by-night sonic realizations almost right on the spot (if the site readers are competent).  Beyond that, recordings and electronic sound generation can exponentially trump what notation’s ability with an amplified capacity to bypass the slow human challenges of information transfer in music.  Well, sometimes there just isn’t time to take the time.  Really.

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#10. Monological and Dialogical Organization

         Who decides influences compositional structure the most. A music’s interactive structure adapts accordingly — with a corresponding impact on the music’s sonic image (this is the audible portion of the music that a listener hears). Interactive structure coordinates the flow of musical information within an ensemble; and musical information indicates which sounds happen when.  A compositional structure orients the areas of convergence and divergence around which an ensemble organizes itself.

These structures gather around two basic orientations.  If a music’s sonic image derives from the decisions of a single composer, its interactive structure could be called monological.  If a sound body accommodates the interchanges of more than one composer, its interactive structure could be understood as a dialogical one.  The two alternatives organize very different varieties of musical performance, while a range of differently proportioned mixed structures are able to blend these in a variety of ways.

The paths pursued by listening in the generating of musical sound leaves tracks along which one may follow the flows of information through a music’s interactive structure.  “Listening to the listening” of the participants who design and sound a sonic image can open insights into how music behaves as event.

A composer, for example, listens to, and for, the unheard, — the not yet heard. A composer listens to, and through, imagination.  A composer also listens to, and for, a music’s listeners (and, after all, a composer is a listener as well).  A composer imagines the listener, imagines a meeting and relation of listener with sound.  All of this inflects the context from within which a composer chooses; and this is a listening that shapes the flow of the music’s corresponding sounds.

Within a monologically organized interactive structure, performers coordinate around the directives of a single compositional persona.  This persona may speak for one actual person (or “composer”). It may assemble the composite persona of an advance collaboration of contributors.  It may represent an inherited, collective, anonymous or “traditional” persona (or it may be posed as an otherwise adopted model for imitation).  Whatever the actual source, it’s this compositional persona who’s decided which sounds happen when.

The performers do not decide which sounds happen; and in this sense, they emphatically do not compose (although unavoidable gaps in any set of instructions always grant some latitude for interpretation).  Performers listen for a composer’s designated sonic image while they listen closely to each other in order to assure that its being achieved in accurate tandem.  Such careful uncertainty amid swift proximity to breakdown animates some of the essential tensions and heroism of musical performance.

In a monological format, musical information flows unidirectionally.  It’s relayed along a lineal, cause-and-effect sequence from “composer” (or model), to performer, to listener.  The steady reference signal of a designated sonic image is collectively accepted as non-negotiable and is bounded clearly by “right notes” and “wrong notes.”  Streamlining a music’s interactive structure this way helps establish a fairly unambiguous field of reference for ensemble convergence and divergence that collaterally frees each performer to concentrate ever more carefully on individual details of application.  Convergence assembles around appropriate and well coordinated execution, while divergence can only register as mistake.

         Divergence functions very differently in a dialogical structure.  A number of contributors venture compositional choices simultaneously while the music’s still emerging into sound.  It’s a mutually recognized condition that decision steams of collaborating composers have to just about immediately begin diverging from each other.  These centrifugal tendencies fuel and complement ongoing and ooIlective renegotiations of the music’s convergences.  Already alert to personal imagination, ensemble coordination and the evolving sonic image, dialogical composers listen to each other in order to decide what to play next.  Overall coherence develops as each participant draws (and draws upon) opportune connections among the sonic initiatives of one’s compatriots.

Compositional information in dialogical structures flows multidirectionally.  The interactions are complex, reciprocal and, in exact detail, unpredictable.  Initiatives are continually absorbed, reevaluated and transformed from as many different perspectives as there are contributors.  Sounds, patterns and concepts (a.k.a. musical “material”) assume an additional function alongside articulating a sonic image: they simultaneously communicate musical information among participating composers.  Structural communication is thus audibly externalized through the sounds of the music. They allow composers to “talk to” each other while these very same sounds address their audience. The composite sonic image of all of these interchanges reflects necessary feedback for continuing inventions and interventions.

Monological coordination leans deterministic where dialogical structures bend more probabilistic.  The first optimizes the clarifying advantages of stasis, while the other succeeds through homeostasis. With the exception of a capella solo improvisation, monological organization tends toward replicable, stable sonic imagery, while sonic images of dialogical music fluctuate in accordance with the curvature of its compositional interactions.

This intimate correspondence of musical sound with the compositional activities that generate it demonstrates that to more accurately “hear” a music involves more than participation in its sonic patterns.  There isn’t really any one-size-fits-all rubric for relating with musical sound as if it were ziplessly born out of some miracle of immaculate conception.  However else they may encounter a listener, sounds frame and indicate music’s more inaudible activities.

What’s inaudible in music?  Silence is acutely audible, but dance isn’t. Attention is inaudible — as are imagination, consideration, decision and coordination.  All may become evident through sound.  The invisible might turn corporeal while audibly dressed.

The activity of music isn’t so much literally heard as inferred through relationship with sound and through relationships among sounds.  The social structure of musical generation (which includes who decides what when, where and how decisions are enacted – how this information circulates within an ensemble – and how they achieve sound) constitutes an indispensable component of a music’s composition, of how it’s put together.

While both monological and dialogical activity resonate sonic images, they each encounter a listener as different events.  To really be “heard,” each demands distinct and appropriate empathic calibrations of listening.

During a storyteller’s monologue, any variety of guises, disguises, ruses, voices or masks may be donned in the telling.  A monologist can deftly dissolve behind the specter of tale; but what keeps this event monologue is that it’s not interrupted.  The story emits from a solitary agent.  The relative dearth of interactive information in monological performance minimizes ensemble response and initiative in deference to the clarity of this single compositional signal.  There’s little doubt invited as to the responsible source of the music’s sonic design.

Monological methods don’t so much “solve,” once and for all, the challenges of structural communication and coordination in music as try to eliminate them through a somewhat fordist standardization that narrows ensemble interaction to its lowest possible minimum.  Interaction is kept so much the same every time that, regardless of the music sounded, it seems to disappear almost entirely as an element of musical structure.  Contrastingly, the acute interdependency of collaborating composers in dialogical music renders interaction and relationship central and indispensable components of musical composition.  The efficiency and success of monological organization relies on just one single species of social cooperation, while the possible configurations of interactive coordination figure more than can be counted.

One of the real wonders of music is that it can allow a listener to hear (and feel) a composer think (“thinking” is posed here as a whole body process that incorporates all the ways a person senses).  A monological format reveals the “thinking” of one compositional persona, while dialogical settings present the multiple contentions of a plurality of musical “thinkers.”  One essays the challenge of internal or personal congruence while the other communally refracts this same endeavor within a conversation of perspectives.

Along with its marked impact on musical sound, interactive structure also links with the social organization and conventions of the sonic community that sustains it.  A monological composer precipices the apex of a closed, command and control system.  However efficient this can be, the literal remoteness of a “remote control” system almost too easily exposes compositional directives to potential sabotage, carelessness, incompetence or sullen compliance — with the composer (well, at least a living composer) being the most likely to reap whatever blame there is to be had for the resulting sound.

The trust coordinating a monological composer’s conceptions with its executors perennially holds fragile. One response to this has been to rigorously standardize musicianship so that instrumentalists sound so nearly identical that they can achieve a sort of anonymous interchangeability (as is the case in Euroclassical training).  There are some very good reasons for this too. A thoroughgoing regularization helps insure that composers who design for particular instruments actually have a prayer of hearing what they’ve mapped out.

Standardization, however, can also ricochet back toward composers at a great expense to sound and conception.  Not only has many an “individualist” composer become heard only at the mercy of rigorous conventionalization, but many musical conceptions have had to be adapted to conventional terms and their accompanying social milieus.  Some avant-garde composers have attempted to break through this sort of impasse with a nearly unbearable weight of compensatory, micromanaged specification; but this also carries with it a downside that still smaller communities of musicians may become able and willing to sound the music.  And yet another progressively more available — and ever more popular — response to this dilemma has been to dispense with people altogether and offload this entire problem of musical transmission onto machinery.

Dialogical composers fare no less vulnerable to missteps and disruptions of collaborators, but this condition is equally shared by every contributor. A dialogical composer willingly foregoes monological responsibilities to a position of omniscience for an opportunity to intervene directly in music’s finding shape as it happens, to be able to change one’s mind — and to do this while in collaborative interchange with minds and sensibilities that are not one’s own.

Direct compositional control withdraws to within the reach of each composer’s own instruments and sonic initiatives.  When each assumes direct responsibility for sound generation as a performer, an ensemble coalition can be assembled with a lot less recourse to individual standardization.  A platform thus opens the sonic palette to idiosyncratic knowledge and capacity, to the one of a kind, the untamable, the unmappable, the unusual and the unanticipated.

A dialogical composer exchanges monological control over a music’s global sonic image for relationship.  Each participates in a more decentralized creative project, within which a network of connections is composed — and it’s this slightly transpersonal collective network that’s actually composing the music.

Within such a network, dialogical gestures become structurally provocative.  They’re angled not only to sound, but also to evoke response elsewhere in the flow of the music.  A volatile give and take ripples among the various decision streams that are generating the music.

A silence can accent ongoings in an ensembie just as powerfully as any flurry.  What counts is the relationship with context, placement, timing and the total synergy of interactions.  It’s not for nothing that Miles Davis practiced boxing from a specifically musical perspective.

Social organization can’t really be ostracized as either a core element of musical composition or as an important component of a music’s total aesthetic statement.  The momentum and impact of the social in musical composition, far beyond instrumental mechanics of how sounds are generated, has been insightfully assessed by Christopher Small in his Music of the Common Tongue:

“We are moved by music because musicking creates the public image of our most inwardly desired relationships, not just showing them to us as they might be but actually bringing them into existence for the duration of the performance.  This will clearly involve our deepest feelings, and thus the act of musicking, taking place over a duration of time, teaches us what we really feel about ourselves and about our relationships to other people and to the world in general, helping us to structure those feelings and therefore to explore and evolve our own identity….  ‘How do I know what I feel until I hear what I play?’  In musicking, in fact we are being touched in the deepest parts of who we are.”

The gaps between music imagined, music sounded and music heard nest composers in imperfectly resolvable, aesthetic and ethical conflicts of interest.  What’s more important — the sound or the way people interrelate?  What’s more valuable — a relatively egalitarian distributing of individual initiative and interaction, or a single individual assuming centralized command?  Is musical activity simply a technical means to a sonic end, or is the sound an indicative partner of the activity? What kind of world, developed through what kind of relationships, is worth cultivating?

These are social questions, questions of worldview, questions about a conception of the human, cosmological questions that don’t actually separate from decisions about sounds.  Social and sonic imagination aren’t automatically fit to each other in advance at all; and it might even be supposed that sounds likewise have their own (possibly quite contrary) social notions.

Composers can’t completely avoid at least implicitly taking a stand on these considerations.  Every time one composes, a social position is declared, or at the minimum, explored.  And, at the same time, those not-yet-heard sonic entities for which composers are responsible might be demanding social coordination appropriate to their needs irrespective of social vision.

There’s no perfect solution.  Monological music aspires for the most part to a stable sonic image that corresponds accurately with sonic imagination.  Sonic images are frozen at the cost of interactive motility on behalf of a reliable clarity and precision.  To keep an image stable and consistent, performers can’t afford to move out of line.  They can’t comment on the music.  They can’t talk back.  They can neither add to the music nor extend it.  Interactive aspects of music are kept as dead, comatose or suspended as possible.  The social structure is hierarchical and command based.

Bypassing direct human collaboration (and interference) — as does electronic studio, computer or otherwise generated sound — no less declares an attitude toward musical social interaction than does live music.  In absenting performers, this presents something of a post neutron bomb soundscape.  It’s for the most part, no less monological: but it is less hierarchical — if only because there’s no longer any people involved in the music’s generation process to be issuing commands to.

In multipersonic, interactive composition (a.k.a. collective improvisation), as composers move, so does sound.  A clear fidelity to an individually imagined overall sound runs fugitive because an improvising ensemble’s sonic image simply can’t stand still.  Communication among compositional personae can’t be hidden.  All of which displays some of the apparent “messiness” that horticultural forest gardening tends to show when compared with the surface tidiness of industrial agriculture — until one begins to consider all the internal connections that are (or aren’t) going on.  There’s a trade off in that monological organization hardly allows at all for recomposing interaction, whereas dialogical structures open to a musical composition of interaction and relationship itself.  This is yet something else to listen for.

Neither dialogical nor monological organization by itself at all guarantees “good” or “better” music.  Their dissimilarities are so location specific that comparisons of their interactive topographies can’t really say anything about the “quality” of a music being generated (which emerges instead out of how composers might navigate a particular terrain).  Neither can be “superior” to the other because they’re responding to different concerns.  And no one concern, whether sonic or interactive integrity, holds superior to any other either – but they are different; and these are distinctions decisively crucial for both composing and listening.

There are yet other ways of imagining relationships among these alternatives.  One would be to consider the speed of a composition’s evolution.  Some ideas evolve instantaneously.  Others molt and transform themselves very gradually – and slowly enough to mapped.  The movement and change between a series of “frozen” monological compositions might portray a very different process than would anyone of them in isolation.  The mutual influence and responsiveness of monological composers to each other shows a much slower kind of dialogue (even if not a part of performance) than does collective improvisation.  A composer’s ensemble might be structured where each participant alternately takes turn in composing for the others.  Then, there’s also composing for improvisers.  This opens a whole other spectrum of possibilities — and a very, very important one.

Unlike an individual plant, animals aren’t bound to a single location.  A composer can go monological on Sunday, dialogical all day Monday and mix it all up on Tuesday.  Sometimes the sonic image gets some; sometimes the interaction does.  Sometimes they talk to each other and work it out for a while.  Every moment, every position in the spectrum says something, means something.  At least, none of them are neutral.

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#9. Composing from the Outside In

Composing a sonic image from the outside in de-synchronizes compositional choices and their sounding by segmenting musical generation into two discrete stages: that of composition and performance.  This is a strategic reorganizational scheme that affords composers some respite from the unmitigated rush of living soundstreams.  To abstract compositional choice away from performance in this way can grant composers a greater degree of repose, some time to think, reconsider, edit, refine and clean up – and all of this, well before committing finally to sound.

This staggered division of labor also introduces a capacity to expedite compositional control at a scale and precision that’s unattainable through ensemble improvisation.  More exacting correspondences between an imagined sonic ideal and its actualization in sound can be drawn within a composer’s reach.  But, in order to hold sounds so accountable to a composer’s ideal, their sonic image has also to stabilize.  Sounds and patterns must regularize and turn more dependably repeatable.  They depart from the changeable volatility of “event” into an emulation of what Amiri Baraka has disparagingly termed “artifact.”

Outside-in composing applies closed system dynamics in generating sonic imagery.  Sound bodies are conceived as finite quantities to be measured, divided up and ordered accordingly (and to limit variables in this way furthermore aids in optimizing compositional control).  This may offer one possible explanation as to why divisive structures, internal formal consistency and linear development from clear beginning to definite end have so come to predominate as indicators of appropriate and successful compositional practice for some practitioners.

Actual sound bodies fade as immediate environs for compositional choice and assume a new role as its terminal destination.  Sounds are cast as objects of observation, poised distant within a regard roughly analogous with a European Renaissance painter’s methodical launching of illustrated objects toward vanishing points.  In a curious inversion of the English art historian Walter Pater’s 19th century suggestion, this system of organizing musical composition poses an instance of musical practice aspiring to the conditions of visual art.

Sound’s indigenous ephemerality, however, slips aside the relative endurance of sculpted stone or fresco.  In contrast with the ever so tangible, but potent, “leftover” that’s called “art object,” musical sound isn’t freestanding or “autonomous” in this way, but perpetually dependent on its enactment in performance.  However, if so desired, what might best approximate the hardscapes of visual artifact could be a recourse to repetition on a grand scale, a firm commitment to thorough re-enactment, to an acting out the ideal of the artifact, the “unchanging” object, as ritual (which, in contrast with play, would filter out unanticipated creative intrusions in advance).

When carefully deployed, outside-in strategies are able to yield sonic imagery of airbrushed, nearly hyperreal perfection, but such an achievement by itself doesn’t really represent some kind of apotheosis of musical possibility.  It articulates only one alternate proportioning of the complex tradeoffs negotiated among the conflicting interests of imagination, social organization and sound.  In this particular variety, performance is rendered as much commemoration as realization.

As with belated news of a long expired supernova, music’s generative compositional energy has been exiled to a remote, possibly forgettable (and even disposable) historical resting place.  The tensions among the inconclusive, the tentative and the decisive have long since transpired way off in some yesterday, to leave behind some potentially vivid, but unavoidably second hand news.

Nevertheless, a music’s sound and design may still (and often does) profoundly move a listener, but only along a one way street along which the music can neither move itself, hear or respond.  And conversely, beyond the narrowed options of dissent, disruption or displacement, neither listener nor performer may move the music either.  This is musical “composition” posed as sonic monument.

In the 21st century, where automated repetition has turned so cheap and easy, it could seem hard to imagine that the archival taint that can now be so easily associated with current, Eurological “classical” practice, for example, might be persisting as an unintended consequence of what was, at the time of its earlier development, cutting edge innovation.  Living without high technologies for capturing and preserving sonic imagery, the fixed, replicable complex sonic patterns invented and developed by earlier European composers were most likely encountered as exceptional achievements amid a much more tenuously evanescent sonic world.

Not only did many of these composers improvise (even if that procedure was restricted to solo execution), their actual working conditions fared a good deal closer to Duke Ellington’s than to, say, Pierre Boulez (and in more ways than class and status).  Like Ellington, they were expected to constantly produce new material.  One’s “best” piece really did have to be one’s next piece.  They were way too busy looking ahead to be thinking in terms of bequeathing cryonic deposits for a future museum status.

All tradeoffs aside however, closed system composing allows a development of ideas and sound bodies that’s can’t be arrived at through open systems.  And there are many kinds of sonic images that can only be constructed through this kind of framework.  Some music can only be discovered from the inside out.  Other sonic imaginings can only be achieved through highly intensive planning and scripting.  Each specific conception has to appeal to whatever its most supportive methodology turns out to be.  In a pluralistic musical world, where no particular musical way can carry a last word, outside-in composing distinguishes itself as a very frequently visited and especially useful station along the sonic pathways.

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#8. Composing from the Inside Out.

         The conventional demarcations maintained between composition and improvisation are fake ones; or, to put it just a bit more generously, they’re at the very least more than a little misleading; Allegations that improvisers don’t compose only imposes more unnecessary and distracting confusion. The distinctions addressed here don’t actually relate to the act of composing itself (choosing among sounds in the assembling of a sonic image is what musicians are doing in either setting).  A differentiation that really does matter, however, concerns how the activity of composing is situated.

Steve Lacy deftly contrasted these options in precisely 15 seconds: “In 15 seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what you want to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.”

The cosmology within which a composer acts, the terms of action, the kinds of information available, the relationship with the sonic image, all differ radically, but musicians might easily snap from one end of this spectrum to the other just like that; and they’re additionally apt to organize a plethora of mixed strategies in relation with what it is they want to accomplish.

Improvisation is not a complete misnomer for situating the compositional process within sonic events as they unfold.  A composer has to integrate responses and anticipations toward what’s imprevisto, toward what’s unforeseen, as a given feature of the field of action.  A composer here weaves coherences amid an open system.  In physicist Ilya Prigonine’s notion of dissipative structures, the more coherent, the more interconnected an open system (and, in the case of music, the more communications effected), the more unstable it is — the more capable of (or liable to) sudden transformations.  Under these conditions, as the poet Charles Olson also relates in his essay Projective Verse: “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. …keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen.”

Compositional immersion in the quick of the moment affords intimate access to, and direct rapport with, the fine local details of the actual sounds at hand — timing, timbre, envelope, emphasis – vital details of affective touch that can move deeply a listener’s attention, and which, taken all together, would be, in practical terms, simply too intricate to either average, map or delegate.

What comes along with such compositional intimacy is a necessity to respond inventively to whatever unannounced shifts happen to permeate a musical biosphere.  The fluctuating sonic imagery that’s so characteristic of music being composed in this way demonstrates the telling impact of the call and response exchanges that are so intrinsic to how open systems interact with their environment.

Improvisation as attitude — as an open system, give and take cosmology — as an ethos, relates (not so surprisingly) with a lot more than musical activity.  Albert Murray writes in The Hero and the Blues that “Improvisation is the ultimate human (i.e. heroic) endowment. It is, indeed; and even as flexibility or the ability to swing (or to perform with grace under pressure) is the key to that unique confidence which generates the self-reliance and thus the charisma of the hero, and even as infinite alertness-become-dexterity is the functional source of the magic of all master craftsmen, so may skill in the art of improvisation be that which both will enable contemporary man to be at home with his sometimes tolerable but never quite certain condition of not being at home in the world and will also dispose him to regard his obstacles and frustrations as well as his achievements in terms of adventure and romance.”

But, from the point of view of crafting an audible sonic image that’s faithful to an imagined one, improvisation also freights a good share of inconveniences, liabilities and lacks.  Improvisers may willingly choose to compose within acutely abrupt horizons; but in having situated themselves inside (rather than outside) a musical event, composers can only act from where they actually are at any moment, at most passingly with the beginning of an event and only briefly with its end along the way.  Musical information continues to shift throughout, perpetually contingent and imperfect. A profound influence might be effected through adroit blendings of cooperation and counterstatement, but any total control over a global sonic narrative is simply not in the cards for any participant — and it can’t be.  Accurate knowledge of an evolving and still indeterminate soundscape can never be more than provisional and speculative.  These are the both limiting and liberating conditions that shape the context and basis within which instantaneous musical invention asserts itself.

Completely out in the open, improvisation radically exposes compositional process and ensconces it without retroactive safety nets within a series of irreversible actions and commitments.  Coherence and presence have to be achieved adaptively and cumulatively.  And the debris of improvised music’s construction – its scaffolds, its hesitations, mistakes, digressions, experiments and reassessments — splays openly within unforgiving earshot.  All of this, together with the composers’ responses, assembles what narratives greet a listener.

The doubts intrinsic to improvisation, its continual spar and dance with approaching vortices of unresolved probabilities enact a drama immediately inhabitable by listeners and composers alike in a way that all can share a stake in the outcome.  This shared intensification of expectancy can become a collective achievement.  And, given its dicey, if not occasionally adverse, circumstances, it’s not all that surprising that persuasive composing from-the-inside-out smacks so much of miracle and revelation for both listener and composer in a way that vividly immerses all participants in the suspense and dynamism of creative process.

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#7. Personics

Persona offers a beautiful and evocative word.  An off the cuff guess as to its etymology might associate per (for) with sona (or son) as “sound,” thus per-sona meaning “for sound.”  But, apparently this isn’t the case.  The word persona circulated among the Etruscans of ancient Italy to designate a mask spoken through by an actor during theatrical performances.  A notion of mask implies vehicle or point of transfer, while the word persona itself recalls its kindred terms, such as personage, personality, person, personal.

         A sonic persona constitutes a composer’s audible mask.  It’s an identity — as protagonistic as in theatre — that articulates an image of agent or actor; and it accomplishes this through neither words, gesture nor facial expression, but conjures this impression instead out of no more than sound alone.  Persona sounds the tip of a composer’s index finger: Listen here!  Listen to this!  Listen!  It articulates its presence through achieving a distinctive way of assembling sound, a pattern and flavor of compositional choices that establish a cumulatively recognizable identity.

Relatively stable sonic imagery that’s been collaboratively invented and maintained bit by bit by many contributors over time exerts more of a community persona, but this presents a persona nevertheless.  No one person in particular may be responsible for the music’s design, but regardless of this, the music has still been composed, and its sound chronicles as much discerning and preferring as would any other.  Likewise, interpretive performers, musicians whose choices supplement a predetermined sonic image, compose to the extent that their decisions modulate the quality and presence of the music they’re playing; and as with actors, there’s enough discretionary latitude in interpretation that many inspiring performers achieve uniquely identifiable personae of their own.

Where an interpretive performer cultivates persona through execution, a composer effects persona more through musical design, through choice of patterns and patterns of choice.   Sonic imagery doesn’t self generate, nor is it self-sustaining. It has always to be built, constructed, put together, composed.  Options have to be considered.  Decisions have to be made.  There are uncertainties — and there grows an ongoing dialogue with conditions.  What becomes audible from all this is not necessarily autobiography or self expression (however powerfully each composer’s peculiar affinities inevitably color these events).  What insinuates among the sounds is the relationships of all of these protagonists in interaction.

Individuals, however, are not at all disposable options. The resonance of the individual person that emerges in music derives from the topographical specificity and uniqueness of the intersection where that particular human being is happening.  The irregular, the unpredictable, the anomalous, the capacity to recognize, sort and integrate the random and surprise, the generative sources of new life in music originate, as elsewhere, with microcosmic individual exceptions to statistical averages.  The sounds that speak as an exception, as music, display an accrual of these individual divergences.  Musical sound resonates as distinctly personified sound.

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#6. Anthropogenic Sound

In putting sounds together, in composing, a composer makes decisions about which sounds go where and when they go there.  This is what a composer does — and anybody (that means anybody) who does this is composing.  What distinguishes a musician’s composing from a listener’s is that a musician’s constructions turn audible.

Most musical bodies of sound manage to self-identify as “music.”  A listener doesn’t have to like a sound or even accept it as “music” for oneself, just acknowledge that it’s got to somehow qualify as “music” for somebody.  Somewhat less often are there sonic events (such as many of those fostered by John Cage, for example) that, rather than quite so explicitly identifying themselves as a sonic exception that could only indicate music,  have often to lean instead on institutional brackets to be introduced to musical attention. But, generally a listener usually doesn’t have to wonder too much whether some sounds are “music” or not because a musical sound body messages a distinctively social gesture that invites a listener to engage it face to face.  It invites a listener to compose along with it.

Musical sound might so engross a listener that many may rarely ever move their considerations beyond what a particular music can do for them (and how could anybody really enjoy listening without some occasion for self gratification anyhow?).  But a musical sound body’s very capacity to “self identify” derives from other avenues of access it presents.  Not so different from the way the shifting geometries of beach sand recount patterned motions of wind and water, musical sounds distinctively symptomize human activity; and this is why it so often draws the turns of the head that it does. Somebody’s doing something. People are doing something.  What’s up?  An alert uncertainty edging on wariness begins to tone attention, and for good reason too: any living system (and people especially) behaves just unpredictably enough to bear some watching out for.  Musical sounds consequently always pose news.

Sounds point back to their generating frictions.  And the sound of a human generated event points even farther back toward the people who’ve initiated these sounds.  A telltale whoness insinuates among sound’s acutely sensorial whatness.  Sonic images swell with forensic clues that both imply and trace the decision streams of their composers.

An overall sound may impart ambience, feel, tone, perhaps even mood; but the compositional choices marking and distinguishing a sound body are what deliver a music’s drama.  Imaginative, empathic, even speculative attention to the impacts of agency on musical sound can reach toward prospective “whys” behind sounds and into the inhabitable “what ifs” of music’s sonic fiction, wherein one might infer – and feel – the sensibilities and dispositions of minds (or even states of mind) other than one’s own.

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#5. Structure, Composition and Sociality

A commonplace in some discussions about music concerns whether a particular instance of music is “structured” or “unstructured.”  This is a distinction that seems to assume that it’s not really all that unusual to encounter events that have no structure whatsoever (which might just be pushing it a bit).  It would seem that anything we run into (and not just music) would occasion some sort of structure, even if that “structure” may seem anomalous.  But, rather than quibbling over a presence or absence of “structure” in any music, why not ask questions about what kind of structures are coming into play or about what purposes a particular structural arrangement might facilitate?

Usually when people talk about “structure” in music, they’re referring only to relationships among sounds; they’re talking about sonic design, which is no trivial concern among musicians.  But there are other important structures that deeply affect and qualify a sonic image in music.  These are the structures of cooperation and communication among the people who generate the sound.

Likewise, the word composition in music talk usually refers only to sonic organization, but a lot more has to be composed than sonic relationships.  Something of a body politic has also to be composed for any music to happen.  People have to agree to cooperate.  Communication strategies and methods of coordination have to be worked out.  All of this together assembles a musical structure.  Musical composition’s organization is social as much as it is sonic.

Any musical composition enlists a social agreement in order to achieve its sound.  A working consensus gathers around which sounds are to be recognized as “the music” along with how people are to coordinate with each other while generating these sounds.  Each specific composition focuses the constitution of a equally specific (if provisional) sonic community.

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#4. “Musician” in Three Attitudes

Amateur — professional – artist.… These clichéd identifiers get thrown around so much that they can distort just as easily as they might clarify.  But, even though any cliché tends to sleepwalk its way into stereotype, layering the conventional amateur vs. professional opposition across the relatively anomalous positions that might be dubbed “artist” can begin to map just a few of the attitudes inhabited by a range of musical practitioners.

Musical listening, for example, can be understood as amateur.  It’s consensual.  It’s voluntary.  And the word amateur itself means “one who loves.”  Love can’t be compelled.  And enthusiasm, (which means “having become inhabited by a god”) can’t be bought either.  An amateur attitude reaches as far as pleasure can — and then some.  People generate musical sound when they feel like it — and they don’t otherwise.  Shared enjoyment would best identify the prevailing destination of this mode of relationship.  But there are also other relatively unconditional, “gifting” practices of music that reach well beyond these immediate, amateur concerns with a “good time,” such as musics that actualize devotion, solidarity or medicinal intent.

In contrast with the consensual communities that can be developed through amateur activity, professional music participates in market relationships that are bounded by “no pay, no play” interactions.  These install a firewall between musical practice and the more unconditional loves that move an amateur; and the insulation introduces a wider range of options stretching all the way out into the mercenary.

A professional filter enables the role of musical fonctionnaire, where sounds are generated on the basis of external demand.  To purvey sounds this way isn’t really any less legitimate (or mundane) than any other job; but as a reductionist exercise of professional attitude, it marks where the professional departs most from the motivating concerns of either amateur or artist.

But in general, he impacts of professionalism figure a lot less narrowly and are often much more complicated than this.  When music’s actually able to attract resources such as income, a demand (as well as an opportunity) evolves for more labor intensive cultivations of craft and capacity that can enlarge everyone’s conception of what’s possible to achieve musically.

Artists draw on components of both amateur and professional orientations while reaping the contradictions.  An artist is a highly intensive amateur who allies the unconditional enthusiasm of the amateur with the discipline and skills applied by professionals (although most of these were probably invented by amateurs and artists in the first place).  Amateur and artist may both willingly volunteer their responsibilities toward music; but, while an amateur might regard professional standards of adequacy as an easily disposable option, an artistic disposition aspires instead to invent and contribute well beyond what would ordinarily be standard, passable, adequate or necessary.

Artistic attitude differs most importantly from either professional or amateur in that artists work more for the music than vice versa.  And such a potentially exhaustive commitment can wax pretty costly in terms of time, energy and labor.  Musicians therefore often turn to the professional sphere not only in order to support themselves (which is a professional value), but to support the music (which poses an artistic one).

But it’s pretty difficult to separate these two in practice. Despite that, the differences between professional and artistic attitude aren’t really trivial.  Push come to shove, the strictly professional has finally to prioritize personal gain over the music itself, whereas an artist chooses to act first as a music’s accomplice (with all the problems that might include).  And it’s not that individual musicians don’t change hats all the time just to stay in motion either.  It’s more a matter of being clear about what’s really important in each instance.

Given that plenty of creatively mediocre work can manage to thrive perfectly well in a professional sense, professional activity by itself isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of any music’s “quality” or “value” (whatever these words might mean).   A lot of serious creative work has long persisted and continues to evolve well off the professional grid without at all qualifying for the sort of dilettantism that such a non-market or “amateur” status might imply.

These attitudes describe a repertoire of roles, different constellations of priorities, rather than fixed personal identities.  And whatever conflicts arise among these are even more likely to be lived as individual experiences than they are interpersonally.  In practice, actual musicians often inhabit various – even contradictory — amalgams of these alternate fields of intention (any of which might shift on a day to day basis).

The components of whatever mix could as easily support each other as conflict.  Amateurs who get paid are suddenly functioning professionally (which might not at all affect how they love what they do).  Amateurs or professionals may (or may not) play with the degree of care that derives from artistic attention.  The boundaries among these three scales of value are porous and pretty apt to fluctuate.

The spectrum that stretches from amateur to artist begins with an amateur’s personal joy in the doing of music (maybe even regardless of how the music sounds).  And everyone — absolutely everyone — starts here.  The more artistic scale of this spectrum doesn’t at all eliminate these joys, but augments them with a growing dedication to the welfare and life of music’s sound in a way that develops beyond personal indulgence into a reciprocal dialogue and responsibility.  Professional activity offers a vehicle capable of either supporting or abusing what’s achieved along this spectrum — as well as delivering varying mixtures of both at the same time.

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#3. What is it that Musicians Do?

Listeners who aren’t generating or sounding music themselves nevertheless compose music.  In other words, listeners do put music together, as only they themselves can make sense out of the sounds that they hear.  To actually invent and initiate musical sound reciprocates by listening out loud.

Musicians serve as advocates for sound entities and their allied silences.  They act as liaisons who introduce sounds to expectancy and midwife music into audibility.  They work around corners of the heard and the not-heard.  They have to listen wide in both directions.  They’re bound to practice multiple allegiances through having to coordinate the contrasting (and often disparate) interests of sound, craft, imagination, and listeners.  Yet, this position doesn’t leave that much room for impartiality because musical actions can’t become so hypothetical as to turn abstract.  They really have to make a difference or they’ll just get lost (and if they’re not cared about, they aren’t going to matter, anyway).  Musicians commit to actual sounds and their consequences.

The presence (or prospect) of a listener — the pressure and pull of that focused waiting that could be called expectancy — activates a musical arena with restless, destabilizing, gravitational currents that each sound has to address upon entering into music.  Neutrality’s not an available option.  Musical sounds assert amid uncertainties that always promise opportunities for failures.  They have to dance among vagaries of attention, among she-loves-me-she-loves-me-nots, among with-its and not-with-its, among persuasion, seduction, resistance, distraction, defiance.  Worlds are already in motion.  Sounds already present their own character.  So do listeners.  There isn’t any blank slate from which a musician may begin.

Even a musician who happens to be composing in isolation at a particular moment is therefore never really alone or asocial, working “only for oneself,” because, as a community language and project, music’s mode of address is a constitutionally convivial and public one.  Musicians inevitably engage beyond “self” in their responsibilities to the sound entities and unsounded motions with whom they‘re collaborating.  This fulfills a symbiotic partnership that furthers music’s evolution and continuing subsistence.

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#2. A Paradox around Identifying “What” Music is.

Edgard Varèse beautifully defined music as “organized sound;” and people commonly speak of “making” music and of compositions as “pieces” of music, as if “music” were some kind of solid, stable, autonomous object — which it really isn’t.  Even if a musical recording can be embedded in a tangible media device, as it so often is, the “music” is no such object.

As an action, music engages listening, imagination and sounding.  There’s a networking of relationships and interactions among perceptions, imaginings, feelings, calculations, sensuosities, social cooperations and techniques.  But, without what’s ordinarily considered “the music” — which is to say, its sound and sonic image — there’d be no musical activity whatsoever.  At the same time, despite this pivotal indispensability, these very same sounds depend absolutely on the nurturings of musical action in order to exist as music at all.

Music is something that happens to sound; and the actions that are also music spin themselves around, over and in sounds.  Sound harbors musical activity’s focal transportation hub.  Everything orients toward and through this.  Yet, even though actual sounds are so immediately palpable, “the music” isn’t  residing exactly in these “sounds in themselves” (and neither can we do without them).  The relationships with, around and among sounds combine in generating the event that we often come to call “music.”  All of these, together with sound, collaborate music.

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#1. What is it to Listen?

         Sound that proposes music invokes expectancy; and expectancy bathes the possibility of music with the light of attention, with a consent to wait and a willingness to meet.  A moment of music accomplishes a tenuous and very fragile consensus within which participants transform what they hear while becoming themselves transformed.  A dedication to listening such as this might open a transport into altered states.  And conversely, far more than any other predisposition, it’s indifference that’s most capable of dissolving such gatherings, such doings, as music.  When cast beyond the reach of caring, musical sounds disperse into incidental noise.


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