Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Glass Bead Game: The New Abnormal.

First, an announcement . . . .

Mary Ann and I, along with our two golden retrievers, Sally and Sundance, are moving from the Washington metro area to Charlottesville VA in November (actually, just outside Charlottesville in Keswick). I will likely not be adding many (or any) new posts to this blog until the dust settles. But when I return to Essays & Endnotes in November-December, I have plenty of material I am planning to cover: not only the music theory and deep connections that I have been slowly trying to develop, but interesting offshoots such as an educated guess about Milton Babbitt's role in WW2 and its connection to his subsequent music & music-theoretic contributions. And what may appear to be my running in meaningless circles around elementary neo-Riemannian theory & attempts to find a way out of what appears to me to be contemporary music's death spiral, will finally focus on, among other things, Roger Reynolds' bizarre "editorial" compositional techniques as he has consistently applied them in the creation of virtually all his music. (I say "bizarre" not as a pejorative, but because these techniques, applied to what begins life as a 12-tone work, have the effect of totally destroying any reference whatsoever to the original row.)

Until I'm back, here is a restatement of what has been driving me for so many years now.

A little over fifteen years ago I wrote a short essay, "Riemannian Variations on a Theme by Milton Babbitt." The theme running through this essay was something I called a "Babbittian Question" which I defined as a problem whose solution is likely to result in further questions. Nowadays I think of it more cryptically as a question whose only correct answer is another question. (Milton indicated his approval of the idea as originally stated, but I'm not so sure he would have approved of this Cagean twist.)

Here is a slightly updated version of the theme of that essay.
Around 1900, give or take a quarter century, Western music's common practice died. But the hole it left was almost immediately filled with a different commonality that survives with a vengeance to this day.
Here's the situation:

On the one hand it is nearly impossible to imagine Mozart sitting down before a blank sheet of manuscript paper and asking himself, "How shall I arrange the twelve notes this time?" On the other hand it is equally dificult to imagine any composer of our present age sitting down in front of a blank sheet of virtual manuscript paper and not asking some version of that very question. Even the "neo-tonalist," simply trying (intuitively?) to write some of that good music left to be written in C major, at least feels its ominous presence.

Our current language points to the problem. If we were to utter words like "precompositional design" or "compositional algorithm" to Mozart, he would no doubt stare blankly at us. And if we were to mention "compositional theory" he might respond, "What other kind is there?" Borrowing a phrase from Michael Colgrass, "Instead he just wrote music. Poor soul."

So here it is. Laid bare. The truly radical core of the twentieth-century revolution in music. The single thing binding together the most antagonistically disparate minds.
We have become self–conscious.
Now, after the Great Demise, we must think about it – theorize if you will – before we compose. Whether this is a one-time event beginning our career or a re-evaluation mid-career or, literally, every time we sit down to make a new piece of music.

Whether we choose to be serialists, atonalists, diatonicists, minimalists, maximalists, spectralists, microtonalists, fractalists, math rockers, quasi-anarchists (even John Cage chose to use the I Ching), or proud naifs – before we get down to work – before we can create – before we can compose, perform, listen, judge and bloviate – there are decisions to be made and questions to be answered.

But what questions?
And do they have a common source or thread?
Perhaps they are all models of the same quest–
And, a bit out of sequence, here are two more sentences from that essay.
A sampling of current terminology is revealing: "original instruments," "authentic performance," "re-releases," "revivals," "restorations," "golden oldies," "creative programming," "cross-over." These all represent pleasant and often worthwhile and sometimes important ways to rearrange the musical furniture provided by our heritage; but they also represent convenient strategies for turning our backs on invention and innovation.
So now, here is the puzzle. Given that the common practice died, i.e., used up all the harmonic resources based on the ubiquitous """consonant""" major and minor triads such that they could no longer express anything truly new, and given that there are seventeen other perfectly good triads in the twelve tone chromatic that might expand the composer's fundamental material, why hasn't this expansion taken place in such a way that a new common practice has begun to appear?