Talking and Writing about Music

Do we compose music so we can talk about it?  The late composer and theorist Milton Babbitt suggested this. Can music (or organised sound) stand on its own, without explanation? Should we perhaps discuss music with music? Hans Keller proposed that possibility – and tried it (see about wordless functional analysis in his book Criticism)

Such questions have been troubling composers for several centuries. I often go back to Thomas Morley and his delightful A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music where Philomathes tells Polymathes that ‘ supper being ended and music books being brought to the table, the mistress of the house presented me with a part requesting me to sing; but when, after many excuses, I protested unfeignedly that I could not, every one began to wonder; yea, some whispered to others demanding how I was brought up, so that shame upon shame of mine ignorance I go now to seek out mine old friend Master Gnorimus, to make myself his scholar.’ And what follows is an intriguing discourse on the rudiments of music.

51-1A page from Thomas Morley’s A Plain and Easy Introduction to Pratical Music

We might consider such a book now ‘about the theory of music’, to help, in Thurston Dart’s words  ‘the average and ignorant music lover of his time to the point where he was a competent scholar and composer, able to turn out a madrigal or motet in a sound contemporary style . . .’ Morley’s book divides this theory into three: the rudiments, the arts of counterpoint and canon, and composition.

With Milton Babbitt’s guidance, from his Wisconsin Lecture on Professional Theorists and their Influence, we could begin to fill in the historical gaps of general learning about music theory. I was recently reminded about this lecture when examining the contents (on line) of Beethoven’s personal library currently being reconstructed at the Beethoven Haus in Bonn – for my China in Beethoven project. Beethoven had all the latest theoretical publications on his bookshelf. In his lifetime being a theorist as distinct from being a composer, was an acknowledged profession.

51-2Part of my collection of theoretical and musicological books . . .

From Beethoven to Brahms the ‘master’ was Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. His Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, part 2 specially) and, of course, the standard manual for composition was his father’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. With Berlioz, who being a guitarist never looked at either, we come to an early manual of orchestration, closely followed by that of Rimsky-Korsakov without which Stravinsky might not have excelled as an orchestral composer. Then soon enough we arrive at Schoenberg, who wrote several theoretic books. He passed the baton to Hindemith who, despairing at the standard of musical learning when he arrived at Yale in 1946, spent several months studying past and present theoretical writing on music before writing his Elementary Training, one of my college textbooks. I have, of course, left out many, now minor if not now forgotten, names of theorists that composers of the past – Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms among them, went to study with personally. Even in relatively recent times a composer such as Michael Tippett went to study renaissance polyphony and fugue with specialist R.O.Morris.  Harrison Birwistle sought and won a Fulbright to work with Milton Babbitt.

This long exposition is by way of responding to the latest issue of the UK’s contemporary music journal of ‘new music’ Tempo, published by Cambridge University Press and edited now by composer Christopher Fox. For me this journal has long been a kind of thermometer and weather vane to the condition of music, where the winds of the ‘new’ were coming from. This issue for October 2016 contains a Festschrift for Tempo’s previous editor Jon Gibson, as well as research articles and reviews of performances and publications.

 In the UK we don’t really ‘do’ music theory, analysis and research certainly, but theory per se? No. I don’t think there is a department or even a course in a university I know of that acknowledges ‘music theory’ as a legitimate subject. We learn our ‘music theory’ subliminally; by playing, listening and composing, guided by tutors, mentors, experts and specialists. We may learn about specific techniques such as figured bass or serial composition or spectral morphology, but only as an adjunct to analysis or in historical studies. The context is always all-important. Composers seem best at providing that context, so composers in the academy do sometimes write papers about how their music works or the philosophical / aesthetic / information-science content that underpins it. But, and I have encountered this often at conferences, some composers maintain an ultra-modernist stance or ideology that proclaims that the only explanation has to be the work itself. The music is the text. 

 An aside: my formative education into music came from a weekly broadcast on public radio (now BBC Radio 4) by a composer called Anthony Hopkins. He was not a significant composer but he could talk about music, and with the help of just a piano he not only educated me about how music worked, but created an enthusiasm and curiosity that I hope has never left me. It was a wonderful moment when I finally met him – to be able to tell him how much I owed to his talking about music! Perhaps if I listened now to his weekly broadcast Talking About Music it would all appear very dated, but YouTube may remind me otherwise. Some of his broadcasts have remained, probably as treasured off-air tape-recordings. As a teenager I used to record these every week and listened to them time and time again.

 I’ve come to understand that whilst talking about music can definitely be a good thing, writing about it can be equally valuable. With writing there’s time to reflect and consider. I like to talk and write about music because in doing so, coherently (I hope), I develop a better understanding, and this benefits my own composition. This is the premise I believe upon which most higher education operates. Talking first (if only to ourselves or in the seminar group) is useful because to do so we have to have marshaled some facts, experiences, examples and arguments – and not just listened but read a score or two! Is the text we speak of as music the CD? So Brain Ferneyhough would have us believe. This is why Morley’s Introduction with its Socratic triologue remains a powerful device. I do believe memory and the internalization of music heard (and things seen) can become a powerful factor in the creative origination of personal music.

51-3Guess who? a drawing by Pablo Picasso.

 I’ve just been reading Picasso’s Brain by Christine Temple (ahead of going to see the major London exhibition of over 80 of his portraits). Temple writes about Picasso  ‘overlearning’ images, looking at them so intently that he could then work from memory. It was also good to realize that such a great artist gave serious attention to art works of the past and would experiment with such images as the basis for new work. Temple cites Picassoproducing 58 interpretations of Velázquez’s 1656 masterpiece Las Meninas, a number of which focus particularly on the child at the front of the painting, thought to be the eldest daughter of the Queen, Margaret Theresa. 

 Jon Gibson, former editor of Tempo, had, I think, a similar attribute to Picasso. He could listen very attentively, enough to be able to deduce and illuminate for his audience of readers and listeners the complexities of music that for us lesser mortals pose serious problems of reception, not least in spectral and microtonal music. I was reminded just last week of a piece on the Opusmodus Forum about the microtonal world, and how little of it I have personally come to terms with, indeed acknowledged. Gibson wrote a cracking biography on Harry Partch, he of the 43-note just intonation (and whose work is available wonderfully now in the hands of Ensemble Muiskfabrik). Gibson’s essay on James Tenney, another explorer into microtonality, is a must-read, if you feel this composer has passed you by. Writing about Sheperd Tones in my previous blog should have reminded me to have included Tenney’s unique piece in this phenomenon For Ann.

51-4A bar from James Tenney’s Arbor Vitae used as an illustration in Michael Winter’s paper (see below)

 As if this wasn’t enough I learn that Michael Winter, responsible for helping Tenney complete his final string quartet Arbor Vitae is in town this week, at the University of Leeds for a lecture/ seminar and performance. If the example of a possible microtonal tuning scale from theorist Torsten Anders looked forbidden territory there are musicians who can actually play scores that use such tunings. Michael Winter’s fascinating paper on James Tenney’s Arbor Vitae for String Quartet shows several intriguing and complex score examples, and the amazing Bozzini Quartet (on YouTube) show how its done! On microtonaility generally I should point out that composers have become very canny about setting up the microtonal phenomenon without having to address the complexity of tuning each note and scoring it with special notations. Look no further than Geog Freidrich Haas. Here’s his programme note for his Guitar Quartet.

 I have already requested in some of my earlier pieces that the strings of the instruments should be deliberately detuned, so that simply by playing the open strings an overtone chord can be produced. In the case of the guitar this is relatively simply achieved: one has only to tune the bottom string a whole tone lower, the third string slightly more than a semitone lower, and the second string slightly more than a semitone higher. If the remaining strings are then tuned accurately in pure fourths and fifths, the six open strings produce a chord composed of the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth partials of a low D: D-A-d-f# (minus 1/12 tone), c’ (minus 1/12 tone), e’.

For aesthetic reasons, the purity of sound of these open strings needs to be ‘blurred’. For this purpose the second guitar is tuned a twelfth of a tone lower than the first, the third two-twelfths (one sixth) of a tone lower, the fourth three-twelfths (a quarter) of a tone lower.

The music derives its impetus from the contrast between these ‘pure’ chords derived from the overtone series (including their ‘shadows’ lowered by a twelfth tone or its multiples) and sixth- or quarter-tone passages composed in free microtonality, which make use of the harmonic concepts of Ivan Vyschnegradsky.

Between these a kind of ‘singing’ in twelfth-tone clusters repeatedly asserts itself. This simultaneous sounding of pitches which lie very close to one another is of course no longer in unison, but at the same time not quite a chord either. Instead it creates a sound rich in beat phenomena, which is used in the composition like an expressive unison.

 Returning to Jon Gibson, and talking / writing about music, his website includes a library of  ‘documentaries’ he recorded just prior to his untimely death in 2015. This is a treasure-trove of final thoughts about composers, music and the experimental world of music and sound. The Links page is also a valuable source of discovering where music thinking and creating arrived in January 2015. I also learnt that he was planning to write a book on Kevin Volans, on non-conceptual composition and composition as a visual art-form. Intriguing ideas!

 There is so much more that could be said in following this pathway. But, as ever, I’ll conclude with further thoughts I’m having towards a new composition. In its first instance, as it is for keyboard initially, I have been looking backwards at some of my keyboard compositions that derive from parametric composition. In last fortnight’s blog I showed how a ‘found’ chord object was developed using the gen-hopalong algorithm as imaginary fingers: in . . . touching the distance from 1996. I’ll now skip to Gifts from the Pavement, 32 miniatures for a keyboard instrument written in 2013.


 This work is best explained by an introductory diagram in the score – shown above. It displays a guide to one of the miniatures that each last between 30 secs and 2 minutes; it suggest how the work might be interpreted and extended by the performer. In some ways my ‘method’ takes a cue from Picasso – in that I’ve ‘overlearnt’ one short musical creation and developed it from memory, writing a single score-file that contains the seeds for the whole 32-miniature sequence. I’ve built on this score to evolve the next, and so on. Although the musical and visual images change, the pavement, the context, doesn’t go away. The ‘gifts’ are things found, rubbings of the pavement, rubbish, things dropped, detritus gathered from the pavements of a small village, the rather unique 19C urban village of Saltaire in West Yorkshire.  They then became the basis of layered prints by the artist Alice Fox.

 Whereas in . . . touching the distance I ‘found’ one tonality by experiment at the keyboard, in Gifts from the Pavement I have used an algorithmic expression (also used in two previous keyboard compositions) for ‘finding’ tonalities – but just twelve in all. In some ways the code could be said to mimick ‘finding’ at the keyboard. These tonalities are then algorithmically ‘sorted’ by random sampling to make a list of 32. I’m attaching an example of the miniature in a score-file translated into Opusmodus code to give an idea of how the music is imagined.

 Gifts was devised with funding from the Arts Council UK as a smart-phone app for a community arts festival in the village of Saltaire, the pieces being triggered by GPS locations linked to each object’s (gift’s) finding place. The web interpretation gives a rendition of the complete sequence – as-is compiled from the score-file, and then extended versions of selected ‘gifts’ by the improvising pianist Matthew Robinson. The complied version has computer-generated tempo, dynamics and articulation, something I usually don’t include within my score-files.

 Finally, another sort of ‘overlearning’ is evident in my Chicago Quartet No.1, now published this week by Tonality Systems Press. Here the overlearning was a composition by Telemann that I explored in very great detail – to enable my musical memory to work (without further reference) on a very particular aural and structural model throughout my music’s composition.

Pavement Piece #1.opmo (zip)

Leave a Reply