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.