Music and the Nine Deadly Perils

On any piece of fertile land in a warm climate, a jungle is a natural happening. Parts of it are old and ancestral, other parts are competing for the light, and some is destined never to make it successfully. In a society which has lived a thousand years, the there will be comparable jungles --- impenetrable, self- perpetuating and very confusing.

Music since the twelfth century has developed just such a jungle of overgrowth. We can try to sort it out as social development in what we call Music History. But for a student of music or a composer it is still very confusing, all the more so because we learn music from the early stages of life, and absorb along with the beauty and delicacy of the music of each century, the formal notational characteristics of the music of that age. Step by step we move through the jumble of time, into the morass of a set of musical layers, remembering every detail in our unconscious mind, until we begin to invent our own voice, our own sound, under the burden of a long past. Rigidified patterns from the ages become the perils of musical inventiveness, and I note a short list of such perils as symptomatic:

1) Rhythmic repetition and rhythmic even-ness, come from ancient use of music as accompaniment and regulator of the steps for popular dance. As workers move better to a chantey, or soldiers march to a drum or song, so dancers need a beat for their feet. This persisted into Classical musical forms as the Gigue, the Allemande and all the elements of the Baroque Suite (which was finally no longer a dance mode). Rock, Country and Jazz music still lockstep to the beat of the measure, creating the symmetrical sound to which our society is attuned. For peoples of the world who have complex and subtle metrical cadences, our Western music seems altogether too measured and tight.

2) In the West we have developed large instrumental ensembles which have the problem of the voices sounding exactly together. If you are going to have Harmony and an Orchestra, you will have to synchronize. In the 18th century the Conductor tapped the beat out with his baton and that was his primary function, although smaller ensembles could follow the bow of the first violin as a baton of sorts. This need for multi-instrument synchronizing lies behind the modern teacher's insistence that the young student count out "ONE and TWO and..." evenly. And if there is question, that instrument of musical torture, the Metronome, can be brought out. Recordings in the last fifty years have become increasingly firm about exact timing, often to the extent of sounding mechanical. The great pianist Alfred Cortot (l877-1962) in his wonderful recordings of the four Chopin Ballades in the l930's, used subtle rhythmic variations as part of his interpretation, possibly following Chopin himself since he studied in his youth with the last of Chopin's students. Or consider the way Casals played the Bach Cello Suites, with their subtle and meaningful off-time variances. The term Rubato is literally "robbing" some time from a measure at one end and restoring it in synchronization at the other end of the phrase. If one wonders why we have become so mechanized, just take a look at the hundred piece Symphony Orchestra,. a little music making factory where everything must fit perfectly. One can even compare the Orchestra with a well run office of a major insurance company, precisely integrating a host of varying functions.

3) It is not just in popular music, but everywhere there seems to be a need for the regularity of an Upbeat and a Downbeat in each Measure. First count out the measures according to a set timing, then divide each measure into parts with a strong dynamic on the first note, a weak one half way through. Now count these out evenly "ONE and..." as a student, or add them all up arithmetically as a composer. They must all "come out right" in our musical arithmetic. If you can't do the complex math and guarantee results for publication, let a modern Notation Program do it with its better computational abilities.

4) Harmony is certainly the notable characteristic of Western music. The piano keyboard invites and then demands Harmony. You can play it as a solo instrument with eight synchronous notes if you want, or three or four voices can be monitored with a little care. The white notes once represented the basic series, the scale or "ladder" which you climbed up or down fingerwise. But it is an odd-runged ladder, with uneven spacing, so between the larger intervals were put smaller ones as half-tones, which appear as the smaller (black) keys on our keyboard instruments. All composers have, by their musical training, something of this piano Graphic-Layout in mind, it is a basic part of music training and of harmonic thinking. But as piano is now taught, from traditional examples with a right hand melody and left hand "accompaniment", it becomes monophonic in spirit and a foe to the intelligent leading of voices. Would it be unreasonable for me to call this the Tyranny of the Keyboard?

5) Form has been so codified that the musically aware public looks automatically to the familiar "form" of the Sonata, the Symphony, the Suite as a necessary part of music expression. What is a Fantasia but something "fantastic" and unreal, in a world which rewards accountants more than dreamers? Doesn't the barebones outline of the Sonata seem a little like the pre-drawn canvases with numbers for fill-in painting? Aren't the sequences of a symphony as expectable as the scenario of a cowboy Western?

6) In closer view, I must note the ubiquitous four measure phrase, with its repeat, its variation, its resolution. This might have been a clever notion at the start, but running through two centuries of compositions as a cliche', it has become trite and boring. Good for a song with many stanzas, good to remember and sing along. But it is bad when it gets into the uniform fabric of musical thinking, which is what has happened If a phrase is found good, why repeat it, why repeat a section, why do variations at all? Would we repeat lines of poetry to get the message through to the casual reader ?

7) There is a standardized set of timbres which goes with orchestral expectations, another one with country music, another with jazz. In developing with great skill the musical instruments in the l9th century, we standardized a lot of our thinking about sound.The classically trained singing voice became a formalized sound, which weonly begin to hear as a Western style, when we hear the Chinese operatic voice or the many voices out of Africa.

8) In this jungle where is the MUSIC? Does it become music only when played by highly trained performers reading marks on scores and supplying the musical remainder through intuition? Scores contain less than 40 % of the composer's intentions. Some believe that the score in black and white (like the office ledger) is really the hard, musical bottom line, the real reality, and that the Sound is a variable which is added by "artists" in performance. Others would go further and see musical reality in social notions of the History of Music, the true mycelium from which music appears incidentally like mushroom buttons.

9) As soon as you study an instrument a while. you have to confront that historical bugbear which we call "Notation", which is the accretion of times long past, needs long forgotten, instruments gone to dust and crude approximations of sounds in time reduced to tight formulae which we teach our children. If we are taught early to hold the hand or the bow in a certain "acceptable" position, and count out automatically "One...and...TWO....and....", that will do a great deal to form the mechanical musical taste which we will live with for the rest of our lives. Why say more here?

We all remember the old lady on the TV ads who quizzically looked at a hamburger and asked to our delight "Where's the meat?. That's soon forgotten, but the situation remains for the tens of thousands of kids who do their traditional music lessons traditionally only to ask later "Where's the music?"

In this jumbled jungle the greatest effort with the sharpest machete will not get you through to the open and quiet place where you can attend to the sounds of your own mind and generate your own personal notions of sound.. To write or play music out of this maze of historical layerings, groping for a disappearing musical heaven, is not a healthy business for a sane mind.

BUT there are several ways out of the maze:

Hands on Improvisation in Real- Time

1) It is possible to sit down at the piano or get the viola up to your shoulder, and actually play some music of your own. I am not speaking of a piece which has been studied and at last memorized, but of the ancient and very honorable Art of Improvisation. In past centuries any educated person could play out extempore a piece of his own, just as Welsh farmer could sing from his heart walking through the fields, or a banjo player could run out a fluent set of improvisations based on a musical idea of his own. But with the rigid standards of performance and analysis of music which appeared a century ago, extemporization disappeared from the scene and there are now professional composers who cannot play any instrument, remarkable as that seems.

Improvising is to the composer what voicing an idea aloud is to the poet, and it was in this laboratory of testable ideas that a Bach or a Mozart of a Brahms developed segments of sound for themselves, as part of their musical thinking. It is true that there are poets who can't read their poems convincingly, they are divorced from the musical sound of poetry, and produce "paper poetry" of a sort that Sappho would never have understood. Just so some composers write "paper music". All the notes on the score look real enough with the usual musical accouterments, but the work was not conceived in Sound and is not acoustically delightful or inviting. This is the ultimate betrayal of the ancient lyric Muse, Euterpe.

I learned the basics of improvisation as a lad from an old German teacher who still reached back to the days when a teacher knew enough theory to play out real-time something of his own devising. There was a time when, if you wanted to hear a Mozart Sonata you had to sit down and read from score, but that time is long past. I have played through Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata to see what the master was actually doing, but if I want to hear it, I put on the Alfred Brendel CD. And when I want to "play" some music rather than work at it, I play my own pieces, which flow effortlessly from my hands moving on the Steinway keyboard. I have a musical feeling and much listening over the years, also I know enough theory to make the harmonies come out right or to develop a melodic line gracefully. But I am not musical genius, this is something anyone who has studied piano for a few years should have been taught to do as a natural part of his musical education. I believe a great many former students of the instrument will find they have more music in their fingers than they ever thought. There is music in all of use, it is just up to us to find a way to let it come out, and instrumental improvisation based on some early training is an inviting and most natural way.

Improvising with Electronic Equipment

There is much more to be said about traditional improvisation, but I am going to turn to the less well known world of Electronic Music generation, which offers unusual opportunities for improvisers as well as carefully scored compositions written for electronic sounds. Working with Electro-Acoustic instruments which put the music directly on tape as the final medium, we incidentally solve most of the problems of the Traditional Jungle which I have described above. This is new so I want give it some additional delineation and space.

You can use electronic orchestral instrumental sounds and devise trios, quartets and even add orchestral ambiances as you wish. The sounds may not be as convincing as the sound of a professional orchestra, but there is plenty to work with and the sound are getting much better all the time as the industry develops.

Perhaps the only danger is there is too much there, an oversupply of choices and acoustic richness, and this can stand between you and your independent, inventive music thinking. I am now finding that the violin and especially the viola offer me some new discoveries which the piano, which I know so much better, doesn't offer. Sometimes one needs a new area for real "Inventions" in music, and teaching yourself the flute with a few lessons may bring out new thoughts which you never sensed.

Electronic music instruments using MIDI or digital recording, are these days is quite accessible, with the development of the compact, electronic musical instruments we call Synthesizers. Since these are keyboard based to begin with, they offer a novel way into creating personal, improvised music to anyone who has a modest sense of how the piano keyboard works. Now you can have the sounds of any instrument, of many instrument together, with more options than you can shake a baton at. Given an improvisational penchant, the electronic Synth is an inviting piece of equipment, and it can operate in two dimensions:

The really good synthesizers have ways to alter sounds away from the traditional timbres, and some like the Kurzweil can generate entirely new sounds in a world of their own. This world is taught in the Universities, and it is called Electro- Acoustic-Music or EAM, and it has generated in this last half century a wholly new approach to music and sound. EAM music is not easy to get into, there are lots of technical terms and functions which a person who hasn't pulled back the Computer Curtain would find impenetrable. And EAM music is not to everyone's taste. Some EAM composers incline toward squeaks, raps, sirens and musical moans, but in the hands of the new generation some really lovely music is coming forth. You may have heard a lot of it already without realizing the source in cinema and TV musical scoring, where it has made a strong inroad since is it new, different and also economical as studio produced work.

Electro-Acoustic Music may not be the final word as this century comes to an end, but it can solve most of the above "Sins" (while acquiring a few of its own). Now for the first time, Sound can be manufactured and manicured to be whatever the composer wants, and it can be spread over a time sequence in any way the composer wishes. There are no bars, measures or downbeats needed, problems of what goes with what, and what goes where, can disappear. The idea and concept come first, and almost everything can be adjusted and rearranged in the composing process or on the digital editing screen. In short we have in EAM at last a musical carte-blanche, on which we can write the musical ideas of the moment into the library of the future.

There have been enormous musical shifts of taste in this last hundred years. Arnold Schoenberg was breaking new ground in the piano Opus 11 of l909 with his Little Piano Pieces, as he turned his back, with something of a wrench, on the l9th century harmonic music he had been writing just a year before. These short studies are wonderfully imaginative and new, they explore the pan-tonal possibilities of sound. But in a dozen years Schoenberg had replaced much of this hard-won freedom with the twelve-tone serial concept, a rigid notion which persisted in academic circles until it wore itself out by mechanical over-use. The promise of the 12 tone Row did not offer a great deal for the musical future of the West, after all.

When John Cage after WW II brought back from Zen philosophy notions of fortuitousness, the aleatory process in the moment of swift-passing time, this seemed to point to new ways indeed. But brilliant as Cage was, his work ended in self-repetition, and development of a style (which was the very thing he was avoiding). After l970 there has been a swift succession of New Styles following the Cagian Fortuitous, the Minimalist, the "experimental" and notions borrowed from the world of Ethno- Musicology. But these tend to be of concern to relatively narrow ranges of academic persons, while Electro-Acoustic Music on the other hand has grown systematically as new electronic digital equipment develops with our New Electronic Age.

In just the last three decades we have started to open up new worlds, unknown realms of musical sound, with EAM. Not all of it sounds as great as the above tout, because EAM composers are generally schooled in university programs which teach the state-of-the-art composition of a given date. Much EAM music sounds alike, much has not got out of the academic groove. Some is designed as a style which will best get acceptance in EAM competitions. Some pieces are academic "exercises" like the tens of thousands of student fugues written a hundred years ago in the Conservatories of the world. But these are human problems likely to occur in times of social flux, they are certainly not musical problems.

When there is staged an annual SEAMUS festival and we listen for two days to a selection of new EAM pieces, some of us must be struck by the feeling that here are several hundred composers whose work is being played for them alone, while the great world outside basks in the shopfuls of popular "throw-away- music", CD's which make money. Are we in the universities a child of the Ivy Walled Tower, the disdainful Academe which lives in a world of its own creation?

Let me give two examples to show that this need not be so.

First, an obscure radio station, WGDR at Plainfield Vermont, with a broadcast range of about fifty miles at most, has been doing a Saturday afternoon program of two hours a week for several years. The director is the composer Dennis Bathory- Kitsz, who selects things people would not normally hear on commercial channels or on CD's. He asks for phone-ins of opinions which he can air while the show is running. Last year the new CD of George Todd (EMF 001) was on the air one fall Saturday afternoon in this local, countryside area with one small city and a ring of villages and farmland. While Todd's CD was playing, the calls started to come in one after another, more than any of the radio shows in a 130 show series, and they were all positive, interested, appreciative. The day of people hating new sounds is disappearing. I did not say that it is gone, but there is anew sound in the air and people are beginning to like it.

Second example: My high school age son always says I am pigheaded and hate popular stuff, I make a case that it is because it is bad music. But when he played the first cut of the first Enigma disc that appeared in l998 ("Return to Innocence"), a remarkable studio piece from Germany which instantly became famous here, I sat in absorbed silence. We played it again and again. I bought a copy for myself, and can report to you that there is new EAM studio sound out there which the young people have already discovered as valid and vivid. I touched just the tip of the iceberg, but know that there is a flow in that ocean which comes from the swells in our remote backwater. Our electronic studios are no longer the sole property of the universities, newer and perhaps better studios are being assembled in garages and basements. There is poor music being turned out there, and among us also. But there is good stuff too from the public outside world, don't you forget it, Ladies and Gentlemen! Never think we are alone in the world of new music.

So there are two roads to follow: There are composers who use traditional instruments, and even traditionalal formats and sounds structures, although not necessarily in tradition always. A student in a TV interview asked Itzak Perlman why there was no more new music in the Classical Style, to which he answered academically that each period creates its own music, which is locked into that historical period. But Brahms knew better and said that each morning started with Bach! Once I asked the sculptor Charles Wells, who does beautiful figurative stone carving with a distinctive personal style, where his influences stemmed from. He said: "Only from Italy in the mid l6th century! " These people were not suffocated by the jungle, they saw into it, went right through it and picked out what was useful, ignoring the rest.

You can take the path of Electro Acoustic Music and work with great satisfaction in the constant flow of new musical possibilities. Just as we are living in a new world of electronic thinking, a world unimaginable half a century ago, a world of fiber optics, computers and satellites - - - we are also living in a new world of art which these things made possible. Forty years ago a college colleague of mine was punching cards and taking them to a college with a bigger computer to eke out a few sounds. Today I can output my Kurziwel K2000 directly into digital format on the computer, edit it with any one of a dozen screen editors, and send it to a colleague on telephone lines for an opinion. This is an exciting time!

Now we have new sets of problems. Are we to become slaves to electronic gadgetry, fiddlers with wires and monitors and plug- ins to the degree that we forget that we are composers of music for people to hear and revel in? Yes there is that jungle also, but it is easier to deal with since it is a contemporary problem with no reverential history out of a long past. It has no hold on you, since it is based on electric circuitry, and as with all electric devices you can turn it off with a flick of your mind. Electronics are good servants, they wait for us until they are needed.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College