Sunday, December 26, 2010

melody and line: "Pedagogical Sketchbook" and revisiting Ernst Toch's "Melodielehre"

How many students who major in musical composition nowadays read Austrian composer Ernst Toch's The Shaping Forces in Music, an Inquiry into the Nature of Harmony, Melody, Counterpoint and Form? I've happened to know the publisher Dover is going to reprint it. It will be out there on April 21, 2011. So, there may still be demands. Google Books allows you to take a look at some chapters in which Toch analyzes many melodies. These chapters are the part of what was originally called Melodielehre (1923). And this is, I guess, the most well-known his writing. When I was 17 and just got my private musical composition lessons with a composer who had been born in around 1930 started, he rented me a worn-out copy of the Japanese version of Melodielehre to help me be prepared for learning counterpoint. It is a practical book that teaches how to produce a good melody in a conventional sense and how to be analytical to read scores. On the other hand, if you don't take what it tells too dogmatically, it is, as the title "The Shaping Forces" suggests, also about the intensity of music. Toch in this book sees making music as sculpting energy.


Revisiting Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook last week reminded me of this my experience as an apprentice of musical composition. The composer I studied with recommended me to draw a line before writing an actual melody. Klee suggests the intensity of lines he draws. He first lays down a reversed "S," then says, "An active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal. A walk for a walk's sake. The mobility agent is a point, shifting its position forward (Fig 1):" A point goes for excursion. He categorizes the lines into three: the active, the medial, and the passive. Points regulate the move, so the line can enclose a plane (medial). Or, when the line is moved (passive) it can generate a plane within a certain shape, such as a circle or a square. In "Fig 12," titled "Three Conjugations," he draws the infinity symbol and shows how a line, oscillating between activity and passivity, can "conjugate," and notes: "Semantic explanation of the terms active, medial, and passive: active: I fell (the man fells a tree with his ax. medial: I fall (the tree falls under the ax stroke of the man). passive: I am being felled (the tree lies felled)." Nonsensical? We should listen to what he is trying to say. A line is a verb: it can be either transitive or intransitive. It can move, it can move something, and it can be moved.


Formalism is, contrary to the popular usage of "formalistic", not about making something stiff, but about an idea that "form does something." In this sense Klee shows what form can do. Why does a point take a walk? It is because form doesn't need us in order to exist, play around, and reproduce itself. Here my reference is Manuel De Landa's reading of Deleuze, that of what De Landa calls "nonhuman formal expressivity." I link his lecture here (very easy to follow). The idea of "nonhuman formal expressivity" appears to pave the way to some concepts of non-intentional music, such as something like John Cage's chance operations, Iannis Xenakis's stochastic process, or some sound-generating software. On the other hand, for Klee, a line is simultaneously being the line itself and being something else. It is hieroglyphic in the sense of Hegel's "ideal" art--his observation of a child's attempt to draw a human figure: untrue to the model, but adequate for the purpose.

Also Klee's line is as energy projection. I quote some notes here:

Fig. 54: A bullet, fired at a steep angle, rises with diminishing energy into the air, it turns, and falls to earth with accelerated energy. (Loose continuity.)

Fig. 55: A climber of stairs, ascending with increasing energy from step to step. (Rigid continuity.)

Fig. 74: In the world of physical reality every ascent must be followed by a descent at the moment at which the gravitational pull of the earth overcomes the ascending energy of the rudder. The physical curve thus ends as a perpendicular line (theoretically in the center of the earth).

The figures show that the denser the energy gets, the bolder the line becomes. And then, I quote from the Toch's book. Analyzing and experimenting with melodies written by various composers, he explains that a good melody in general has a peak near the end, and says:

It seems as though these characteristics of the middle line--the single appearance of the climax, and its location near the end, between a long ascending and a short descending branch--would have their roots outside of music or art altogether in physical and psychical provinces.

In the progress of many natural phenomena similar conditions prevail. There are thunderstorms with a marked tendency to rise to mounting fury by comparatively slow degrees and to abate quickly after their most vehement outbursts. It is a pattern of many illnesses to develop slowly towards a "crisis", after which recession and reaction set in quickly. It is also the trend of slowly developing anxieties, fears, and hopes to be quickly released after the materialization of their objectives. Finally, the phenomenon touches upon the physical-psychical borderland of our love-life.

Toch was a craftsman, known for his film music, but also as modernist as Klee was. Both were interested in the laws of nature.

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