My music emerges from the following aesthetic axioms and compositional techniques.
TECHNIQUE AND TECHNOLOGY
Possible musical forms are as limitless as the exterior forms of crystals.
- Edgar Varèse, The Liberation of Sound
Like many musicians before me, I compose as a method of conducting experimental research. For me, such research constitutes exploration of the following realms:
- The epistemology of musical time, with dual emphases on temporal perception through musical aesthesis and the apprehension of musical form through temporal experience;
- The phenomenology of musical form, with particular emphasis on formal principles and compositional techniques correlative to the practice of modular counterpoint; and
- A dialectic between compositional technique and material technologies by means of which musical processes and structures are developed immanently from the concrete affordances of sound-making devices.
For me, the process of composing begins with the intentional act of listening for yet to be actualized potential in pre-given sound. As a matter of principle, I take each and every such sound to be possessed a priori of two qualities - those are, morphological integrity and structural momentum. Having thus conceived of its materials, the craft of composition becomes for me the task of educing the essence of a pre-given sound through recombinant juxtaposition with other, analogously-conceived aesthetic phenomena.
An illuminative precedent for this approach to composition is the 20th-century French tradition of musique concrète. Uniting the wide variety of music collectively housed under this term is a compositional worldview in which sounds are conceived of first and foremost as concrete phenomena to be worked on directly by the composer. To throw its distinctness into the starkest possible relief, a comparison of this musical worldview with that of the contemporaneous German tradition of elektronische Musik is useful. Unlike composers of elektronische Musik, who focused by and large on the synthesis of electronic sounds de novo, those of musique concrète adapted audio recordings indexing a pre-given world of sound as the points of departure for their works.
To continue with this historical heuristic: Whereas makers of elektronische Musik may be said to have prioritized the abstract over the concrete insofar as they focused on the synthesis of artificial sounds, it may also be noted that, to their credit, they established the constructive possibilities afforded by the technologies that were generative of their musical practices as fundamental to the compositional process. By contrast, it could be argued that composers of musique concrète conceived of electronic audio technologies solely as so many means to the end of fixing sound onto a workable medium. In so doing, it could be further charged that they did not give adequate consideration to the aforementioned constructive possibilities afforded by the specific audio devices employed in the compositional process.
As I navigate the territory traversed by these two camps of forebears, I ground my music directly in the morphological qualities immanent to sounds I adapt as the bases for new compositions as well as in the unique features of the technological devices I employ in the construction thereof. In other words, rather than naturalize technologies fundamental to the practice of electro-acoustic music, I foreground them by developing both techniques of composition and principles of form directly from their unique affordances.
A historically-informed dialectic between compositional technique and material technology thus animates my approach to composition at its core. In holistically characterizing this dialectic, etymology is helpful. The Greek equivalent of the Latin term ars from which we get our words "art" and "artifice" - that is, techne - emblematizes, by serving as a common etymon, the type of interdependent relationship between "technique" and "technology" here intended. Mindful of the original conceptual unity of these two terms, then, I place the two ostensibly distinct realms of the compositional process they conventionally denote in dialogue with one another to reveal their true nature as dual extensions of one and the same activity.
That said, most fundamental to my approach to composition is a particular understanding of the ontology of musical sound, one that correlates to an aesthetic dictum. To formulate these briefly: Music is not, contrary to the idealist theorist, information arranged statically, but energy moving dynamically. The aesthetic dictum that follows from this propositional fact runs as follows: To grasp the true nature of music, we must, as listeners, transcend habitual modes of aesthetic perception that have over time come to present themselves misleadingly as prerequisite to experiencing music as such.
Consider, for example, the paradoxical identity of pitch and pulse - elemental substrates, respectively, of harmony and rhythm. Although perceived as distinct by the mind’s ear, it is evident from an ontological perspective that there is no essential difference between a single pitch, resulting from the regular oscillation of a sound wave, and discrete pulses, resulting from the relatively slower oscillation of exactly the same type of sound wave. Thus, the categorization of sound waves as discrete pulses as opposed to a discrete pitch depends not on the objective properties of the phenomenon perceived but rather on the faculties of the perceiving subject.
For our purposes, the point is this: Induced movement between such ontological modes may be leveraged in the compositional process to enable the apprehension of a distinctly temporal type of "phase transition" - itself characterized by a sudden supersession of structural accretions by a singular morphological transformation - that serves as the hallmark of all process-based music.
The following rule may be set up as a primary law in the evolution of music: From a certain form A, one arrives at a new form B, by varying A gradually until finally it is so far varied that it becomes the new form B. From this viewpoint, one may, with a certain justification, regard all music … as an unending chain of variations, all naturally standing in more or less obvious relation to the theme, but all having one thing in common, namely, the visible or invisible, actual or ideal cantus firmus, to which they are linked and upon which they continue to build.
- Knud Jeppesen, Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century
The Latin phrase "cantus firmus" that figures in the quotation above may be translated as "fixed voice-part." Here a question arises: What is the distinctive feature of a cantus firmus? It is not, as might be imagined in light of its fundamental importance to European polyphony composed over the course of the five centuries following the year 1200, the type of "voice-part" in question, nor the manner by which it is fixed. It is, rather and quite simply, hierarchical fundamentality - i.e. "fixedness" - that qualifies a cantus firmus as a cantus firmus. Otherwise put, a cantus firmus is what it is insofar as it serves as an architectonic structural foundation for subsequent elaboration. Indeed, the molar edifice of contrapuntal music built up piecemeal by European musicians of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras may be, as it is above, most fittingly thought of as the accretion of elaborative structures, all of which may be construed as transformations of, and therefor by extension derivable from, a single originary source.
Western musicians habitually distinguish between two principal textures - the first, polyphony, conceived as the result of weaving together independent musical entities, themselves typically understood as “linear” successions of pitched sonorities known as "melodies," and the second, homophony, in which an abstract schematized system governing simultaneous relationships of pitch serves as the structural framework for a melody of hierarchical focus. In homophonically organized music, structural coherence derives from melodic participation in and fulfillment of patterns of pitch simultaneities known as "harmonic progressions." By contrast, in polyphonic music, such coherence is achieved via a process called "counterpoint," in which multiple voice-parts are integrated into an aesthetic whole through the coordination of momentum immanent to their modular components, all undertaken while maintaining the latter’s morphological integrity.
Thus, the essence of polyphony resides not, as Western musicians would have it, in the degree of autonomy exhibited by individual pitched sonorities from some schematized harmonic logic. Rather, it resides solely in an intentional attitude adopted by the composer toward the nature of the musical material. On the one hand, such an attitude is exemplified by processes that adapt pre-given sonic structures - be they abstractly notated melodies or concretely recorded sounds - as the bases for subsequent elaboration. On the other hand, it is also epitomized by a correlative preservation of each voice-part as the index of a unique sonic source.
To rephrase: The two main textures of Western music have been traditionally defined according to the ways in which relationships of pitch are coordinated among their elemental components, themselves postulated barely as voice-parts. By contrast, it is not pitch that I take as the musical parameter prerequisite to the distinctness of voice-parts, but rather timbre. That is to say - rather than to construe "voice-parthood" as an abstract quality that emerges only a posteriori from the evaluation of pitch-based relationships between elements merely asserted as distinct entities, I take it to be determined first and foremost by concrete sonic origins.
In my music, then, timbre functions an index of haecceity. What is haecceity? In short, haecceity is a heuristic devised by the Medieval Scottish philosopher Duns Scotus (c1266-1308) to refute the then-influential doctrine of nominalism, which holds that universals do not exist apart from their particular instantiations. Thus was haecceity intended by Scotus to serve as a bridge mediating between two conceptual extremes, the particular and the universal, thereby demonstrating them to be compatible rather than mutually exclusive. Specifically, rather than to claim, for example, that universals are only ex post facto abstractions from the world of phenomena, or, by contrast, that only universals are truly real with particulars imperfect instantiations thereof, Scotus devised haecceity in order to validate the participation of universals in particular phenomena while at the same time appreciating that which makes a phenomenon uniquely and particularly itself.
In ascertaining the nature of haecceity as it pertains to the musical relationship between timbre and the voice-part characterized above, it is helpful to consider the differences between analog and digital sound production, which may be aligned with the ontological poles of discrete and continuous value. That is to say - the continuous transduction of molecular fluctuations in air pressure into electromagnetic waves, such as takes place, for example, during recording of a sound to magnetic tape, is qualitatively distinct from the translation of such fluctuations into discrete units of binary code. One consequence, among many, of this distinction is that every piece of analog technology imparts a unique timbral quality to the sounds passed therethrough. By contrast, all digital devices impart one and the same timbre to the sounds they process - that is to say, they impart no timbre at all.
Further axiomatic principles govern my approach to composition. For instance, the traditional polyphonic desideratum that no individual voice-part gain undue emphasis over any other necessitates that certain compositional measurements be made according to the serial arrangement of structural events. When it is taken in conjunction with the aforementioned stipulation that the modular components of individual voice-parts must be at all times integrally maintained, this desideratum further requires that motivic transformations brought about by such measurements assume the more specific forms of permutational techniques of iterative variation. These are, by name, diminution, augmentation, and retrograde.
First implemented in Europe by composers of polyphonic vocal music during the Middle Ages, these three techniques eventually migrated across genres to become of particular interest to Baroque composers of keyboard music. Following thereafter a lengthy period of desuetude, these techniques came to figure centrally in the music of certain twelve-tone composers of the 20th century. The historical distance separating these heydays recommends these techniques to the composer uniquely, though not more than the security of their phenomenological foundation in the nature of musical material. To convey the fundamental importance of these techniques to my music, then, I offer the following critique of the conceptualization of melody as coextensive with the compositional idea (an idea that serves, not coincidentally, as the linchpin of the two Western musico-historical epochs that demonstrated the least interest in such permutational techniques - those are, the so-called "Classical" and "Romantic" eras) as well as one of the application of "spatialized" logic to musical material under the guise of melodic inversion.
Traditionally, melody has been postulated as coextensive with the compositional idea. And yet, such a traditional conception of melody as a linear succession of pitches, each of which is heard as consonant or dissonant with regard to a subordinate accompaniment, relies overmuch on the "spatiality" of sound. Briefly put: Spatiality is in fact only a metaphorical quality of musical sound that has been defined tendentiously in terms of pitch and is thus not immanent to it as such.
The epiphenomenal nature of melodic inversion vis-à-vis sound qua sound is understood most clearly through such a spatialized conception of sonic ontology. To wit: Melodic inversion is implemented around an axis of frequency effected by a factor of transformation - e.g. A440 : A880 :: A440 : A220. We ask: Is there a qualitative difference between the solutions to the equations 440(x) = 880 and 220(x) = 440? No - there could only ever be a quantitative one. Pursuing this line of thought further, we might next ask: To the mind's ear, is there a qualitative difference between the perception of a "low" pitch as opposed to a "high" one? There certainly is: The "higher" the frequency, the more "tension" perceived - i.e. the greater the sonic energy conveyed. Considered in this manner, it is clear that the logic of melodic inversion relies on a false conflation of pitch with number, one that reduces pitch to its quantitative dimension and projects the resultant numerical relationships between pitches onto spatialized coordinates.
What is needed, then, is an approach to composition based not on the logic of space but rather on that of time - a phenomenon in fact immanent to sound as such. In conceiving of such an approach, a heuristic drawn from the affordances of material audio technologies is useful. Compare to inversion the technique of retrograde, or sounding a series of entities in its backward permutation. What makes the technique of retrograde more immanent to musical sound as such than inversion? Retrograde also happens around an axis, though, crucially, in this case, such an axis is a qualitatively experiential moment in time and not a quantitative abstraction therefrom. There remains a paradox here: Time as we perceive it cannot run backwards. And yet, when a sequence of sonic events is recorded onto, for instance, magnetic tape, it may in fact be retrograded (i.e. by flipping the sides of the cassette) with the identity of said sequence intact. Thus, in this case not uniquely, material technology informs compositional technique.
Lest the foregoing seem to elevate the analog at the expense of the digital, consider the fact that augmentation and diminution, techniques of transformation equally immanent to sound as such, are not implementable in their most essential forms with analog technology. This is because the perceptual qualities of pitch and tempo, as they inhere in sound recorded to a physical medium, remain inextricably intertwined. Both of the aforementioned techniques, then, are only possible with the digital transformation of sound, by virtue of which proportional relationships of rhythm and pitch can be preserved, while the entirety of the sample is either slowed down or sped up.
Finally, it remains to be observed (in a manner disproportionate to the significance of the observation) that to proceed on principle from the self-sameness of musical entities across permutations invites application of serial logic, insofar as both modes of musical thinking are predicated on the ontological fundamentality of a sequence of events qualitatively experienced in durational time.
Subtending these more elaborate instances of motivic transformation is one far more basic to my music - that is, repetition. Indeed, at an architectonic level, my compositions are founded on the coordinated interaction of loops describing proportionally related periodicities. The historical prototype for such an approach to composition is the technique of isorhythm - a method of coordinating voice-parts according to periodic processes that was pioneered by Medieval European composers. A truly speculative pursuit, isorhythm traces its origins to Pythagorean doctrine concerning the mystical qualities of numbers and the orbital harmonies that bind the cosmos. Reverent of the provenance of its fundamental principles, Medieval composers dutifully cultivated isorhythmic relationships, undeterred by the fact that they are not always immediately perceivable by the earthbound listener.
The perceptibility of the structures it produces notwithstanding, isorhythm, it is worth pointing out as something of a postscript, by necessity entails a modular conception of motivicity, itself characterized by the a priori postulation of atomistic blocks of musical material.
The process of sculpting motivic material from pre-given sound to the end of transforming it into recombinant parts to be reconfigured anew may be termed "modular counterpoint." In my music, such modular components function as the constitutive elements of voice-parts, themselves each of singular, determinate origin, and lay the foundation from which aesthetic coherence emerges.
If you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics you will find that their minds rarely move in a line.
- Brian Eno, Before and After Science
To reformulate the foregoing conception of motivicity: The integrity of the pre-given sounds that I adapt as the bases for subsequent elaboration is of paramount importance to my compositional process. In working with and on sound in such a way, certain principles guide my music - principles that may be illustrated by heuristics adapted from the realm of philosophy and aesthetics.
Practically, in attending to the qualities immanent to sounds I adapt via processes of recombinant transformation, I am guided by the methods of phenomenological reduction and eidetic variation pioneered by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1939). Theoretically, in working out from individual samples the form of a given composition in toto, I am guided by the relationship between time and identity ensuant to the idea of "duration" that figures centrally in the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Finally, beneath the compositional approach exemplified in equal measure by these two heuristics is a principled consciousness of musical sound understood as the physical ornamentation of metaphysical order that is itself notably operative in the teachings of Pythagoras (c570-495).
As a composer, I aim to reveal, through their fundamental qualities, how certain sounds might be recombinatorily compatible with ostensibly disparate sonic phenomena. Put another way: I make music in order to illuminate the habitually unheard connections obtaining between the pre-given sounds I adapt as the bases of new works and the world of sound at large. Husserl would attribute this "habitual unheardness" (as it might be termed) to what he terms our "natural attitude," by which he means the unreflective manner in which we navigate day-to-day reality. Conceived along these lines, then, each sound I adapt as the basis for a new work might be said to "naturally exist" in its original context within a matrix of structural and semantic relationships.
Distinguishing it among other approaches to the task, Husserl’s way of unveiling the essence of such a phenomenon laden with "conventional" relationships and associations is subject-based and processual rather than object-centric and definitional. The difference between these two approaches gets at the central theme of Husserl’s work, which goes back to that of Descartes. Briefly put: Both these philosophers sought to determine the precise nature of the relationship between thinker and thought. Proceeding from the hallmark insight of Cartesian epistemology, the goal of Husserlian phenomenology is the apodictic experience of truth.
The term "phenomenon," in both my work and in Husserl's, then, is therefore to be understood in its etymological sense as the "appearance" of an object of perception to the experiencing mind. Consequently, phenomenological inquiry, in contrast to not a few competing schools of thought, establishes as ineradicably constitutive the role of the observing subject to whom the object of perception is disclosed. Accordingly, it adopts not the part but the whole as point of departure, presupposing not the isolation of objects and subjects from one another, but their mutual and radical interdependence.
These facts have methodological ramifications. Specifically, rather than to break an object down into constituent parts in analytic fashion, a phenomenologist seeks to apprehend it as a synthetic whole by systematically exploring its many aspects. This is why Husserl terms his dual processes "eidetic variation" and "phenomenological reduction" - the latter involves "reduction" insofar as in such an investigation a phenomenon undergoes a process of estrangement from its original context that results in the shedding of its non-essential properties, and the former entails "variation" insofar as one must continually alter one’s perspective on the object under consideration in order to open oneself to the possibility of apprehending its essence.
In my music, then, eidetic variation and phenomenological reduction correlate to the distillation of a given compositional idea to its essence through processes of recombinant variation applied to its modular components. As means employed toward the end of uncovering such an essence, Husserl's methods find a complement in Bergson’s concept of "duration," which holds, inter alia, that no two experiences of the "same" phenomenon are in fact "the same." In other words, we as perceiving subjects bring the sum total of our experiences, which are ever growing, to each and every new situation. Although commonsensical, such a basic truth, Bergson reminds us, is often obfuscated, such as when, for example, we habitually conflate spatialized modes of being with temporal ones. Such a type of conflation is at the heart of Bergson’s distinction between "clock time," which is discrete, quantitative, and divisible, and "durational time," which is, at its core, a qualitatively indivisible unity of experience.
In fact, "clock time" is a misnomer, seeing as what goes by that name is not really "time" strictu sensu but rather an atemporal consequence of the misapplication of spatial logic to "real time" - i.e. durational time. Only in spatialized modes of perception, in other words, do we number things as quantitative multiplicities. Moreover, were we never to apply a spatial lens to the indivisible flow of time, we would never be able to conceive of lived experience as made up of discrete moments separable one from the other. In durational time, then, multiplicity is by necessity qualitative, and each entity inhabiting durational time is constituted a priori by its radical uniqueness.
One more consequence of Bergson’s distinction between "clock time" and "durational time" is that the existence of any such thing as repetition distinct from variation is precluded. Otherwise put, repetition as enacted in durational time - as is done paradigmatically in music - ought not to be conceived of as the reproduction of so many copies of an ideal essence. Rather, the accretion of experiences by the perceiving subject via aesthesis necessarily transforms the phenomenon repeated. Otherwise put, no two experiences of the "same" phenomenon are in fact themselves "the same," since we bring the sum total of our experiences, which is ever growing, to each and every new situation.
In my music, then, Bergson’s notion of duration, coupled with Husserl’s methods of eidetic variation and phenomenological reduction, serve as lodestars guiding the implementation of compositional techniques aimed at revealing the essence of musical phenomena as dynamically emergent, as opposed to categorically asserted, entities.
Freedom from categorical imperatives imposed from without is a goal traditionally shared by artistic and philosophical enterprises alike. To wit: Of the philosophical issues that were of importance to Bergson, the most vital was this type of freedom - that is, freedom from the unreflective subsumption of particular phenomena under the rubrics of generalized categories. To forge a conceptual framework for the experience of this type of freedom, Bergson sought the aforementioned a priori separation of the realms of space and time, which, when conflated, give rise to a situation in which absolutized categories of thought metamorphose into barriers barring the appreciation of phenomenal particularity.
Aesthetic unity (in our case and not uniquely, perception of the compositional idea) thus occurs as a synthesis of consciousness emerging in durational time - that is, as a moment of cumulative insight by virtue of which the essence of a totality comes into perceptibility while its individual components simultaneously stand out in all morphological uniqueness. As it happens, Medieval European thinkers experienced this mode of aesthesis, and conceived of it as anagoge. For them, the locus classicus of music as conduit for the anagogic apprehension of metaphysical truth was Plato’s Pythagorean vision of the universe, wherein sounding harmony metaphorizes the primacy of cosmos - a Greek term translatable as both "order" and "ornament" - imbuing all creation. For Plato as for every Pythagorean, such order may be expressed most potently in terms of numbers. Indeed, a central tenet of Pythagoreanism is that the ratios governing, for example, the division of a monochord into consonant intervals, also govern the disposition of the physical universe. Such logic forms the basis of the fabled doctrine of the music of the spheres, which holds the proportional motions of celestial bodies to produce real, actual harmonies - the sounds, to a Pythagorean, of cosmos cosmetos, or "order adorned."