Sunday, December 26, 2010

From my deathbed

Out to lunch with the boys, I posed the following question: As some fields of endeavor, such as Spelling, are arbitrary and make no bones about it, and other fields of endeavor, such as Science, hope to be non-arbitrary and even verifiably so, then where does the judgment of rightness and wrongness in music lie?

I was surprised to hear both of them answer, immediately and in chorus, that musical judgment is completely arbitrary.

To set the stage, the conversation had begun with my prediction that "you're" was quickly being replaced by "your", that this trend was clear to see in text messages and Facebook threads, for example the future president's daughters' friends' discussion here.  I had also complained that my phone's automatic spell checker attempts always to change "its" to "it's" regardless of the change's grammatical correctness, and it was with these two prologues that the question was posed. To reiterate and expand: is there a way to judge whether a musical moment, an event, a pitch, a sound, a timing, a whatever, is correct in its context?  Is there a way to judge the making of one musical choice over another?

Again, these two wise men say no.

As the 'boys' in question, let's call them 'Doug' and 'Thom', are current and past editors of the Computer Music Journal, and as one of them is a composer of Tape a.k.a. Fixed Media music - a species of composition where every detail of the final sound is chosen by the composer and there is no performer intermediary - and moreso is a composer who agonizes over each of these aforesaid details, I was quite surprised. And disappointed too, as in reality I was baiting them, as I knew that they would both inwardly bristle at the aforementioned changes to the language, as much as they know suchlike changes are inevitable, and I thought that the linguistic setup - the bristling - would force them into a conservative proscriptive stance, leading them to take a strong position against the arbitrariness of music and art.  This would allow me to then spend the next hour getting the better of them, comfortably chipping away at their position, one which is in reality quite difficult to defend.

So I pressed the point. "But as a fellow electronic musician you must have had the experience where moving an event a few milliseconds made all the difference between a musical passage being successful and not, the musical equivalent of the 'For the want of a nail' proverb?"  "Yes," he replied, "but it really is completely arbitrary. The importance of my choice may seem that way to me, but the next person could make the opposite choice and find that to be perfect."

I can't really make a rational argument against this.  But I don't believe it passes the common-sense test.  While all combinations of sounds may be interesting in some ways, some combinations do appeal, do have value beyond others.  In my heart, I know there is a certain rightness to my musical decisions. Maybe I have to think that way.  Maybe if I did not, it would call too much into question my whole choice of artistic career and lead me to tuck my head into the oven, a note left behind, upon which is scrawled a crying out against an Existence Too Evil.

But I do believe in the Composer's Hand which, like the Hand of God, touches those things that need to be touched, a Hand that is able to work in a world full of contradiction and pain and randomness but can craft something out of that muck that transcends it. We hear it in the work of performers, where the nuances that separate the merely great performance from the life-changing performance are very small to the oscilloscope, but are very large to the human heart.

A tangential point

When Everett and Brian and I lived together, we built many instruments.  A number of these had arbitrary tunings.  We scoured hardware stores and the like for scraps of sheet metal of varying thickness and size and arranged these in approximate pitch order - as the pitch of vibrating plates can sometimes lead fair women and men to disagree - placing their vibrational nodes carefully on felt supports. When one began to improvise on such an instrument, certain combinations of tones would quickly appear as meaningful, and sometimes one would feel drawn to a particular sequence, almost as if the allegedly arbitrary tuning would suggest a certain piece of music that was innate in it. Similar statements have been made about pieces arising from particular Indonesian gamelans, each of which feature a tuning that is consistent among the instruments of a single orchestra, but which is always distinct from that of the orchestra down the street.

The winds of history have blown in all of the givens with which we start any piece: the pre-existence of certain sound generators, the limitations of human hearing, the accidents of standards of notation, of performance practice, and maybe those are deeply arbitrary, but from those we must choose, and we must believe we can build.
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