Monday, March 19, 2007

Notes on Continuity

I'm drawn to two extremes, as separate as continents, of musical continuity. One is smooth and seamless, unrelenting in its progress, and the other moves in fits and starts, interrupted by new ideas, or broken by silences as much as by noises.

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Some musicians hear music as lines, but some lines are full and others dotted, branched, or even broken.

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Traditional forms, whether song or dance in origin, derived continuity from rhythmic movement, on the one hand, and tonal expansion and closure on the other, and combined the two in the form of the cadence, which in essence was a signal that the continuity, the movement, was over.

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Traditional continuity was challenged in two ways, first through backgrounding the continuity, in a figure and ground arrangement (c.f. the second movement, "Szene am Bach", of the Pastorale Symphony), and second through making continuity out of continuous change (Brahms' "developing variations") or of continuously refreshing a small set of source materials, as in the fugue.


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Christian Wolff's essay On Form in die Reihe: a shattering experience, redefining the extent of a piece as the time available in a program, and continuity within a piece reheard simply as a sequence of events, adjunct, overlapping, or separated by silences. The system of cued continuities used in many of Wolff's scores shows how rich this terrain might be (John Zorn's game pieces were related).

James Tenney's Meta+Hodos introduced the terms of cohesion and segregation, useful notions in characterizing the relationships between materials, whether successive or simultaneous. (Ezra Pound's little book George Antheil & The Theory of Harmony described an economic relationship between the distances among sounds in terms of time and type; late in his life, John Cage would advocate an ecological balance among sounds based upon loudness: when quiet, any sound could follow an other, but louder sounds required greater separation in time).

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The form of much electronic music has been based upon a substitution of the basic binary nature of a circuit -- either on or off -- for the system of movement and cadence. The tendency of pieces of electronic music to fill their entire durations with sound is a pronounced one, from La Monte Young Dream House to Douglas Leedy's Entropical Paradise to the convivial worlds of house and techno; examples in which electronic music has turned toward a more broken continuity, via a more frequent use of the switch (my favorite is Gordon Mumma's Pontpoint with its rich islands of sonority divided by oceans of silence), are rare but rich.

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Always keep your ears out for a reconciliation of opposites. The experimental music important to my musical youth included both the broken continuity heard in some of Cage's or Christian Wolff's music and the breathtakingly non-stop continuity of 60's/70's minimalism. Bridging the two continents seemed an essential and urgent task, but solutions were rare. Jo Kondo's music offered one solution; its mixture of tonal ambiguity and quasi-repetition created an environment in which everything heard was recognizably a part of a whole, yet it was seldom certain why this should be precisely so.

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In my imagination, the minimalism of my youth shares a compartment with a few pieces of extraordinary film-making. One of these is that magnificent last shot in Antonioni's The Passenger. A single non-stop camera shot that moves up and out of a room, through (how?) a barred window and onto the dusty street, while the "action" takes place, audibly only, and off and presumably behind the camera, in the it has left. Absolute continuity and a eventful narrative are placed in counterpoint by the severance of sight from sound. Another is Claude Lelouch's legendary C'était un Rendezvous, a high-speed race (probably in a Ferrari 275 GTB) through Paris in early morning light, an uncut single-reel shot, in which the continuity is continuous broken by details -- the scenery, the changing noise of the transmission, the sudden appearances of pedestrians rushing for dear life away from the on-coming traffic offender, and the shockingly neat finale which gives the film its name (again, how was that done?). Both of these bits of camera work have an odd effect on the viewer in that we become separate ourselves so comfortably into schizophrenic halves, one of whom is intensely aware of the technical achievement, and the other of whom is fully lost to the moving image and its wealth of details.

The connection here is to the music of Young, Riley, Glass, Reich, and others in which our attentions drifted inevitably to the complex and unpredictable acoustic graffiti or halo of combination effects while the actual physical "notes" played on instruments or sung by voices -- which were not necessarily interesting in their own rights -- vanished below the threshold of attention. (A friend pointed to a funny moment in a recent online interview with the composer Nico Muhly in which he talks of this music being "about maths" but still being heard with an emotional charge (excuse my paraphrase if I got it wrong) -- but it was never "about maths" in the first place but always rather about the potential of music to go beyond a reduction to maths, and the composer's task was to locate musical scenaria in which this potential would be realized in a clear and vivid way. )

1 comment:

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz said...

We showed The Passenger in a festival 30-plus years ago. One of the folks involved in the film told us that the final scene was done with a building that opened up as the camera dollied out, and people with brooms brushed away the tracks of the truck and boom as they pulled away. Yes, it was a brilliant scene.

Dennis