30 May 2020

Conquering Dependence on Necessary Evils

One day as a high-schooler writing music on my Dad's PowerMac, I discovered that ConcertWare had a meter called "Free Time." Thus began an abiding compositional habit of periodically dispensing with barlines. Having now seen much more printed music and made many more forays (not totally successful ones) into hand-written/mind's-ear composition, it is always a bit embarrassing to think back to moments like this, when composing was for me something of a video game. Whether the software thus encouraged that impressionable young person to play fast and loose with convention or whether it merely allowed him to is a question of framing rather than of substance, and one which composers will answer more according to our own orientations rather than according to reality. Since the reality was in my particular case lost to the sands of time without anyone (including myself) caring nearly as much as composers seem to care about this issue in the abstract, perhaps this is just fine. Admittedly, from the perspective of a more experienced quasi-teacher attending to a hypothetical student, I would not be totally at ease with such a process now. Yet the same hindsight shows that there were at least two undeniably propitious elements in my case: (a) the ease and accessibility of this feature exploded a hitherto unquestioned convention rather than rigidifying it, and (b) ConcertWare undeniably handled unmetered notation far more flexibly than Finale, Sibelius or MuseScore do, even now.

It is true that such departures can be made too easy as well as too difficult, depending on the technical intermediary and the cultural atmosphere. It is also true that frequent interface with printed music outside of one's computing life has a way of diluting the computer's influence over notational decisions. I was fortunate as a tween to at least be seeing printed music in band class, and occasionally tripping over stacks of it at home. I suppose it was only later, when I realized that composers, publishers and conductors I had heard of (or at least a few of them) were open (or at least not irrevocably opposed) to temporarily dispensing with barlines, and when I encountered my first gentle opposition to this practice on the part of other musicians, that my decision thereby became something of an informed decision, taken freely. And when a beloved college wind band conductor habitually referred to barlines as "a necessary evil" in rehearsal, as an idealist I of course heard "evil" more than "necessary," and at that point all barline bets were off.

Unmetered notation remains controversial, even among the most seasoned and fluent musicians. Periodically I have occasion to pause and reflect on this situation, and it occurs to me now that there is a significant connection here to another Style Wars polemic which bubbles up occasionally: the question of learning one's part from notation as against learning it via aural transmission. In addition to asking for unmetered music to sound a certain way, by writing unmetered passages composers are asking the player to do some extra work; perhaps to figure out for themselves, by shedding, where the barlines might be if they had been used; perhaps to become familiar enough with (essentially, to memorize) the passage such that the coordinating function of the barline is superfluous; and perhaps therefore not to concern themselves with what other players' parts might be asking of them, nor with how those other players might handle those demands, including the possibility (within reason) of different grouping/phrasing in different parts. There is more to unmetered passages than the possibility of multiple "correct" meterings or the absence of composerly guidance (not to say intent) on said point: there is, more importantly, a practice, rehearsal, and performance process which is mediated by a notational decision. The result of this now-changed process is what I am seeking with unmetered passages. I am not seeking a "perfect" rendition as if barlines had been deployed and subsequently observed by unusually adept players or by a machine. I am, in a sense, actually going out of my way to avoid this.

Process is the only reason that the performance of unmetered music might, potentially (hopefully?), sound different than if the music were metered; getting music to sound a certain way is the only logical reason to depart from received notational convention; and departing from received notational convention is a good way (if not the only way) to shake up the performance process. This is the kind of procedural perfect circle that composers dream about, and usually only dream about. If the "process" merely consists of the performers staying 5 minutes after the first rehearsal to compare parts and draw in uniform barlines, then we can still say that the notation has mediated the process, and that the music might still sound different than if the composer had provided the same information to them from the outset. But this amounts to normalizing/conventionalizing what was non-normative about the piece in order to make it easier to play. That maneuver is the domain of Jobbing, not of Artistry. Shedding also makes any given piece easier to play, regardless of notation, and invites the reflection which breathes life into Dead Tree composition. It is socially ungraceful to point this out in a world where Everyone Is Busy and there is already plenty of music to listen to. I accept that judgment on a cosmic level. On an earthly level, meanwhile, I see unexplored/neglected aesthetic avenues hiding in plain sight and conjecture that they might be fun to explore. So come fly with me, or whatever.

Reflection tends to be baked into the process of aural transmission, and it tends to be eschewed (usually almost totally) by users of notation. This I do not deny, but I do choose to find fault with the users rather than with the notation. Thus for me the basis for preferring one mode of transmission to another is a matter of what I might want to do with it, not what everyone else thinks everyone else is doing with it. Modes of transmission are mere vehicles for the realization of the abstract concept of a work; it is the concept which indicates favorably or poorly for either process, not the other way around. Notation is all about expedience, and this is both its best and worst quality. Notation allows Eye Players to realize music without reflecting on it, perhaps even, as the figure of speech would have it, without even thinking about it. Owing to innumerable big-picture factors which are best set aside for now, this is normally exactly what happens (or doesn't happen). Certainly no one is more puzzled by or discontent with this situation than I am, and I will not be out-discontented by partisans of Ear traditions who choose to resolve this structure-agency question one-sidedly. It is true that the structure here (the notational system) is what enables users to become passive re-creators, but it is not true that it imposes passive re-creation, nor that the etiology of passive re-creation is entirely or even mostly a matter of the notational system, nor that the notational system has nothing more to offer us than the shortest on-ramp to the path of least resistance. If any given Eye Player chooses to reflect upon their Eye Music, they will find every bit as much to reflect upon as will the ear player upon theirs. If they neglect to take this opportunity where it presents itself, then my heart bleeds for them.

Writing without barlines aims at imposing a process that is intermediate between the rhetorical extremes of the Ear Player who is forced into a reflective outlook by the laboriousness of their process and the Eye Player who habitually tears through piles of written music without any reflection whatsoever because Everyone Is Busy and reflection would slow them down. Writing without barlines aims at imposing selective reflection by omitting small pieces of customary information, while nonetheless providing all the other information that written music customarily provides.

Notation doesn't breed soulless performance; rather, soulless performers gives soulless performances. Unfortunately this conclusion has become unavoidable as Ear Playing increasingly carries the day and soullessness remains rampant. Yes, Everyone Is Busy, and so there aren't too many bands around today where everyone really commits to the Mingus process. We're so Busy, actually, that the dwindling repertory has moved decisively away from anything even as structurally specific as Haitian Fight Song. The overdetermination of musical structure by social structure is a material question, not an expressive or metaphysical one. You cannot claim the exquisite-corpse process as an affirmative creative decision when your five band members have moved to five different states! You cannot claim notational or conceptual simplicity as an affirmative creative decision when you know that no one is willing to rehearse! I am not saying that you cannot succeed under these circumstances. What I am saying is that you cannot claim success.

When process is materially circumscribed from the outset, concept can only trail at a distance. It is unideal for process to lead concept in this way because all processes are conceptually limiting. Ideally the creator of the work would have taken account of this from the embryonic stage of creation, identifying a process which best serves their concept while working around the inevitable potholes. That is, ideally the mediation between process and concept takes place though the creative process itself, not in sequence with one consideration leading the other around by the scruff of the neck after the piece is "done." When process dictates to concept, its flaws and slippages are foregrounded anywhere the creator is unwilling to sacrifice concept to expedience. On one hand, this unwillingness is socially maladaptive; on the other hand, it is one leading indicator of the presence of a soul. Hence owing to unconscious self-other identifications that even educated citizens of enlightened post-industrial societies are subject to, this unwillingness to compromise tends to be rewarded by the soulful and punished by the soulless. And that's where we're at!

8 comments:

Stefan Kac said...

from Rudolf Arnheim, The Genesis of a Painting, Ch. I

"The mere shuffling and reconnecting of items of experience leads...to nothing more than a clever game unless it is steered by an underlying vision of what is to be attained. Such primary visions seem to derive from a way of looking at things which Wordsworth may have had in mind when he wrote that no valuable poems were ever produced "but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply." The attitude I have in mind here cannot be described simply as "openness to experience." It involves more than passive reception. Wordsworth mentions the two essential components; yet it is not enough to be sensitive and "also" to have thought long and deeply. Rather does the creative person think deeply through what he observes so sensitively; and his observation consists in seeing the appearances of our world as embodiments of the significant facts and forces of existence. This perceptual wisdom of the artist could be called the symbolic attitude if the word "symbol" had not been deformed beyond recognition. I prefer to call it the visionary attitude, since artistic vision occurs indeed within the visible world and not outside it."

Stefan Kac said...

(on Arnheim)

Since music is not poetry, and since it sometimes involves an extra set of intermediaries (i.e. performers) between artist and audience, perhaps we can relax these lofty standards just slightly vis-a-vis such intermediary roles. Of course once this relaxation gets started it generally goes much too far, which is, to reiterate, a course permitted by notation but not solely attributable to it. My very specific, unforgiving, and at times individualistic compositional practice once seemed to me to require the collaboration of the skilled tradesperson who Can Play Anything; nowadays this is only slightly more appealing than the self-directed artist who struggles to function in any musical environment not of their own design. The reason is that both types, at least in the situations I seem apt to put them in, are not particularly reflective, even if earnestly engaged. I need "poets," damn it!

Stefan Kac said...

(on Arnheim #2)

I don't think it's a coincidence that the best recent jazz/creative/whatever music I've stumbled upon tends to issue from small networks of players who appear frequently in each other's groups. If there is an unspoken tit-for-tat here, that cannot be a bad thing, but nor can it be the only thing. It may seem as if only the front-name changes, but actually this way of working generates more musical diversity than any of the alternatives. Quite informative, no? I have to imagine this is because everyone in the circle is, as the above gushfest would have it, a "poet" rather than a jobber, and that they have banded together on precisely this basis. What has confounded me in my own endeavors is the near-universally espoused sentiment that this kind of long-term, committed collaboration can in fact arise only from quotidian personal intimacy that has little or nothing to do with music. Most famously Elvin: "You gotta be willing to die for a motherfucker." Less famously and more recently (and WAAAY more mundanely): for one of the musicians I am specifically thinking of here, this is, as I recall from a school masterclass, something like a matter of everyone living on the same block and sending their kids to the same school. The juxtaposition between these two statements is only as meaningful as my selective memory is reliable. I do think it is apropos of a certain bourgeoisification, but happily we can table that hornets' nest for now, since I am speaking of musicians who I uniformly have great respect for, way too much respect for such biographical details to carry much weight.

Stefan Kac said...

(on Arnheim #3)

I certainly would like to know, though, how much this is really about mundane personal affinities and how much it is really about the affinity of "poets" for other "poets," about Game Recognizing Game, particularly since as creative musicians we constantly struggle to cast the role of the intermediary, and since we share this struggle with only a small cross-section of the broader Arts world. Channeling my own archives: The Social Art is also The Art of Socializing. For better or for worse? And does it matter? My problem is that my own reflective qualities are what specifically preclude this kind of intimacy with more than a few people, reflection being as it is highly destructive of pretense, thus also of bourgeois tranquility. The mutual admiration societies I have been a part of have not been nearly as deeply-rooted or long-lasting as the ideal I am describing (despite generating some work along the way which is, let's say, above average but definitely not on the level of my chosen models). In my defense, I must point out that the poet is not exactly the paradigm of life "embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures" (D. Brooks) such as bourgeois mundanity signifies and imposes. I mean, how many great poets even had kids, let alone practiced concerted cultivation of them? I tend to think that, like just about everything artists say about themselves in masterclasses, the chain of causality has been reversed here: more likely the group came together based on their poet-ness, and only later and on this basis did they become so "embedded." I am further emboldened to don my psychoanalyst's hat and propose that in the topography of the mind the site of such inversions is anything but incidental; rather, its supreme significance here is nothing less than self-evident given the topical significance of the utterance for the utterer. (Yes, please turn this methodology back on me! A privilege it would be for this self-conscious reflector to be treated to a view from the outside!) Artisthood-versus-Bourgeoisity is like the sci-fi-porno version of the rom-com Career-versus-Family: it overlays this archetypal conflict with all the older archetypal conflicts faced by artists. Yuck!! There is only so far that public policy can be rejiggered to ease these conflicts without simply reproducing the disenfranchisement on some other group (see: the chatter around the property tax deduction). But kudos to those who somehow pull it off without the help of ever-forthcoming reforms and make great art. Meanwhile, if anyone needs me, I'll be holed up in my poet's lair reflecting on all of this.

Stefan Kac said...

"It has long been a sociological truism that a human group that persists for any length of time will develop a "world view," a comprehensive scheme in which all familiar elements have a proper place. I am not certain that any group ever operated like this. Radical groups that meet periodically to try to hammer together an alternative viewpoint seem to drift aimlessly without dramatic ups and downs. This stands in marked contrast to the impact of their cultural productions, their mass protest demonstrations which shock the national consciousness. I am quite certain that if the idea that "a group develops a world view" holds a grain of truth, modernity reverses the relationship or inverts the structure. Modernized peoples, released from primary family and ethnic group responsibilities, organize themselves in groups around world views provided by cultural productions. The group does not produce the world view, the world view produces the group."

Dean MacCannell
The Tourist, p. 30

Stefan Kac said...

"Culture can continue, via its productions, to provide a basis for community even in our complex modern society. In fact, it is only culture—not empirical social relations—that can provide a basis for the modern community. Working through cultural productions, people can communicate emotions and complex meanings across class, group and generational lines. Music and games, for example, have always had deep roots in the human community because they permit anyone who knows the basic code to enjoy nuances and subtleties in the playing out of variations. Strangers who have the same cultural grounding can come together in a cultural production, each knowing what to expect next, and feel a closeness or solidarity, even where no empirical closeness exists. Their relationship begins before they meet. In modern society, not merely music and games but almost every aspect of life can be played at, danced, orchestrated, made into a model of itself and perpetuated without leadership and without requiring anyone's awareness or guidance.

"As cultural productions provide a base for the modern community, they give rise to a modern form of alienation of individuals interested only in the model of the life-style, not in the life it represents. The academic provides some nice examples. Education in the modern world is increasingly represented as a form of recreation: suburban housewives vacillate between joining a reducing "spa" and taking a class at the university. Our collective image of the "college experience" emphasizes the swirling ambiance of the campus lifestyle..."

(MacCannell, p. 32)


I think this alienation is real, and I agree with my more bourgeois peers that one way out of it is to form particularistic attachments, both inside and outside of the communities we form around our "cultural productions." Unfortunately in my case, these attachments don't form themselves.

Stefan Kac said...

I also agree that "closeness or solidarity, even where no empirical closeness exists" is decidedly second-best. This points, as I also tried to do here, to the mild absurdity of the NASPA Scrabble slogan, "Making Words, Building Friendships." Similarly, the nametags mandated by my most recent employer are to supposed to tell total strangers the name used by one's intimates, and one's "hometown." These little badges also are absurd in their conceits and supremely effective in achieving their ultimate ends: when a stranger calls you by your real name without having to ask, this engenders a certain kind of interaction while precluding other kinds. (Just as the intimate name often is not (quite) one's given name, the "hometown" can be and usually is different from one's physical birthplace. For one eastern-Californian friend of mine it is a small town in Alabama where she spent a few summers with a relative. While these were indeed formative experiences, she willingly offers that her choice is mostly about sporting a "hometown" which is unique even among an enormous cohort. I suspect that it also denotes a political identity. I now feel more at home in Los Angeles than in Minneapolis, but I confess I have succumbed to more or less the same temptations; hence I am from my birthplace. There are endless variations: another co-worker was born and raised in White Bear Lake but is "from" St. Paul, a city he has never actually lived in; St. Paul probably looms larger for him than rural Alabama does for my friend, even though she actually did live there. If you really don't want to play along, you can be "from" the work location, thus indistinguishable in this regard from countless other employees who may or may not either have been born in or be "from" the same place as you. The tiny area of leeway in an otherwise rigidified social environment can be endlessly fascinating.)

Stefan Kac said...

The checkpoint also had an element of false intimacy which fits MacCannell's account almost to the letter: no one was ever happier to see me than in the occasional emergency when a nearby checkpoint had sent its last male screener home sick and I was scrambled to process the mounting backlog of male pat-downs (most of whom I'm sure would much rather have been felt up by a lady screener without being delayed). I think this specifically happened to me only once, but it was very common for the reverse gender disparity to arise, in which case we were overjoyed to make the faux-acquaintance of a female screener, no matter who she was or how tenuous her grasp of the game's "basic code." Owing to her own bosses' willingness to dispense with her, usually this grasp was quite tenuous indeed; yet for our purposes it was masterful and we loved her for it. (This seems to me highly destructive of Personal Responsibility on all sides of the transaction. Where is the Conservative outrage over this aspect of our consumption-driven economy? What is consumptive exchange but a "code" which "alienates" in precisely this way?)

Needless to say this is how jobbing works too. It may be that art/poetry does not work this way. But I don't know that this is the same thing as saying that music is a Social Art. Empirically, there is evidence that music-making succeeds best when it is built on particularistic attachments; but this is quite different from what one compadre of mine used to insist, that "Playing music is the most social thing you can do with someone." MacCannell here identifies one way in which playing music can be (and more often than not is) downright anti-social. I think that the highly technical nature of many musical instruments and styles only exaggerates this problem: the various "codes" hover over everything musicians do with each other, no matter the terms (aural or written) in which the codes have been learned, and no matter if the musicians have much of anything in common vis-a-vis codes. Unless we only ever play in a family band, The Music Itself is always, in MacCannell's terms, a relationship which has begun before we meet. No other kind of band is really a Family Band, not even if everyone in the band says it is. The various end-runs around technical matters (free play, drum circle, automation) are, I think, often worthy and effective but ultimately too aesthetically limiting to be the panaceas they are sometimes claimed to be. Eventually we will be literally dying for the aesthetic products of alienated technicians, just like the Marxist anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights who wear Nike clothing. To the extent that *Playing Music* is properly "social," it is to that same extent, following MacCannell, alienated and alienating. Attachments grease the skids. I don't know that they drive the bus.