Friday, March 16, 2007


In an item in Lou Harrison's Music Primer, Harrison describes the "tune kit" from which the odd-numbered movements of his Pacifika Rondo were composed. He used the permutations of a set of numbers (for example: {2,3,5,6}) to determine the lengths of successive measures within a phrase, and then started applying accents, ornaments, inserting rests and additional tones, etc., with each addition procedure introduced at positions fixed by alternative permutations of the numbers within the phrase. Explained in inimitably clear Harrisonian fashion, here was a rich way of organizing and generating variety from a very small set of materials.

I was given a copy of the Music Primer in High School, and it's been a constant source of ideas and enthusiasm for my own musical experiments. Many years later, in a Darmstadt chalk talk, I watched Brian Ferneyhough demonstrate a procedure that was, at root, essentially the same as that used by Harrison, but used by Ferneyhough to a vastly different effect. Harrison's music in Pacifika Rondo was modal and monophonic, with some simultaneous variations on the trunk melody within the ensemble, an hommage to East Asian court music traditions with a quirky but coherent formal and rhythmic spin. The application of the various layers of procedures added detail and drive, but the whole retained a unified and lyrical character. Ferneyhough's example sounded totally unlike Harrison's, due first to a more unruly choice of materials, and then his even more densely layered use of the procedures could be said to have had the tendency to break-up, or even make polyphonic, rather than to unify. These two examples demonstrate how a choice of materials, and the aesthetic governing their application can trump similarities in method.

This example of a convergence of methods and divergent musical results may be a useful counter to the complaints that modern music has been over-obsessed with its construction. (The extreme of this idea is the notion that describing how a piece was made will be an adequate and sufficient account of the work). To the contrary, I think most composers are well aware of both the utility and limits of their methods, and particularly the role of personal taste and style in realizing the potential of a given method. If our talk about music seems dominated by talk of method, it's not because any particular importance is to be located in a particular method, but simply because it's something that can be talked about. On the other hand, while music of any sort may have the power to invoke speechlessness, the absence of talk around a music, be it talk about its construction, reception, or context may be strongly suggestive that the absences are more than just talk.

Harrison found a real richness and balance in his best music (he was a marvelously uneven composer!), which is at once complex in its construction and web of external references and immediate in its reception. Other musics, like that of Ferneyhough, have found and will find other ways of locating and balancing these elements.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

I love the phrase "marvelously uneven composer!" and have never seen it before.