Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Meter is dogmatic, but rhythm is critical."

Composer Kyle Gann's recent entry titled "Resisting the Narrative," in which he reintroduces John Alden Carpenter's uncharacteristic piece called Sea Drift and discusses things revolving around composers' narratives, begins with this anecdote.

One of the things I love about Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music is its emphasis on how an evolving public narrative privileges some composers and marginalizes others. For instance, he writes about how when Ligeti came to Darmstadt, because he was Hungarian he had to rewrite (with Erno Lendvai's help) Bartok's reputation from that of a collector of folk music to that of a formalist using golden sections and axis systems. Communist Hungary needed to see Bartok as a champion of he proletariat (Lendvai's decadent-formalist book got him fired from Budapest Conservatory), but at 1950s Darmstadt, a quoter of folk music would have been merely pitiable. Ligeti needed to refurbish Bartok's narrative in order to polish up his own legacy, even to make it palatable.

I read the Japanese version of that Lendvai's book when I was a student. Then I once asked a professor/composer who taught us analysis if Lendavai's argument about Bartok's pieces was legitimate. He said, "I met Lendvai. He's a crook!"

Enough gossiping. My question at that time was that, suppose that Lendvai's claim that the structure of Bartok's work is based on the Golden Section or the Fibonacci Series (which is questionable), whether Bartok planned so: whether he decided, for example, the place of the peak of the first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta before writing it, and then he tried to get there with pinpoint precision. And then, if he did so, why?

I'm not saying such a pinpoint bombing raid is impossible. But, whether it's possible or not depends on what a composer wants to do. Bartok basically did not give up the idea of "shaping forces," so, to say the least solving the golden section puzzle was not his priority.

His harmonic sense. He liked friction (and Ligeti developed, or systematized, this effect later). For example, G and A flat are rubbing against each other. Or a movement (vibration) of G-A-G-A-G-A and another movement of G flat-A flat-G flat-A flat-G flat-A flat rub against each other (Mikrokosmos 142, From the Diary of a Fly). An old woman reluctantly sings her village's song and she has no idea why he wants to listen and even record it with his strange device. Flies are noisy. Cows are mooing. The field is muddy. The cabin is filthy. It smells horribly. And he is sweating. He is thirsty.

He might have loved all this, but he didn't want to idealize it, I believe. What's interesting for me is that "a song" and "a landscape" are intertwined in his music. The Boundary between melody and cluster is not always clear. He basically didn't do like, "This part is the song, and that part is the landscape. So the song is safe." A melody itself often becomes a landscape. Or, I could substitute "a child" for "the song," and "home" for "the environment." Then I could say, "Home doesn't preexist." The quote below reminds me of Out of Doors.

I. A child in the dark, gripped with fear, confronts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a tough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadone's thread. Or the song of Orpheus.

II. Now we are at home. But home does not preexist: it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile center, to organize a limited space.

I've just gotten a copy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (trans., Brian Massumi), because Manuel De Landa says a musician has to read its chapter titled "1837: Of the Refrain." The above is the beginning of it. I'm still trying to understand what it says.

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