The form of my sample-based, electro-acoustic 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 way 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 music and the perception of form through musical temporality;
- The phenomenology of sample-based music, with particular emphasis on principles and techniques correlative to the practice of modular counterpoint; and
- A dialectic between technique and technology according to which processes and structures are developed immanently from concrete aspects of sound-making devices.
The Materials of Sample-Based Music
For me, the process of composing begins with the act of listening for unactualized potential in a pre-given sound. It should be emphasized that such an approach in no way implies a disregard for the original qualities of the sound to be sampled. On the contrary, as a matter of principle I take every such sound to be possessed of two qualities a priori - those are, morphological integrity and structural momentum. Having thus conceived of its materials, the craft of composition becomes to me that of distilling the essence of pre-given sounds through recombinant juxtaposition with other sounds of equal integrity, with the ultimate goal of unlocking one of the many formal potentialities inherent therein.
An illuminative precedent for this conception of sample-based musical composition is the mid-20th century French tradition of musique concrète. Uniting the group of musicians and body of work collectively housed under this term is a distinct compositional worldview according to which sound is conceived of first and foremost as a concrete phenomenon to be worked upon directly. To throw its distinctness into starkest possible relief, a comparison of this musical worldview with that of the historically contemporaneous German tradition of elektronische Musik is useful. Unlike composers of elektronische Musik, who, by and large, focused on the mathematical synthesis of sound, composers of musique concrète adapted audio recordings indexing a pre-given world of sound as the points of departure for their work.
The Tools of Electro-Acoustic Music
To continue with this historical heuristic in the interest of providing context for my understanding of the relationship between technique and technology: While composers of elektronische Musik may be said to have prioritized the abstract over the concrete insofar as they were focused on the synthesis of artificial sounds, it must also be noted that they established the constructive possibilities afforded by the technologies generative of their music as fundamental to the compositional process. By contrast, composers of musique concrète may be said to have conceived of recording technology merely as a means to the end of fixing a pre-given sound on a workable medium. In so doing, it could be charged that they did not give due consideration to the generative potentialities of the individual audio devices they employed.
Mindful of the territory traversed by these two camps of forebears, I ground my music directly in morphological qualities immanent to the samples 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 techniques and principles of composition directly from the affordances they offer.
A historically-informed dialectic between compositional technique and material technology thus fuels my compositional practice at its core. In characterizing this dialectic, etymology is helpful. The Greek equivalent of the Latin ars (from which we get our words "art" and "artifice") - 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, I place the two ostensibly distinct arenas of the compositional process that they are meant to denote into dialogue with one another in order to reveal their true nature as dual extensions of one and the same phenomenon.
The Ontology of Musical Sound
The phrases "sample-based" and "electro-acoustic" are therefore not just stylistic descriptors of my music - rather, they indicate something fundamental about my approach to composition. Most fundamental of all in this respect is my understanding of the ontology of musical sound and the aesthetic injunction that follows therefrom. To formulate these briefly: Music is (contrary to not a few schools of aesthetics) not information arranged statically but energy moving dynamically. To grasp this true nature of music, we must, as listeners, transcend the habitual modes of aesthetic perception that have misleadingly come to present themselves as self-evidently fundamental to the experience of music as such.
Consider, for example, the paradoxical yet demonstrable ontological unity of pitch and pulse - the bases, 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 qualitative difference between a single pitch, resulting from the regular oscillation of a sound wave, and discrete pulses, resulting from the relatively slower oscillation of precisely the same type of sound wave. The perception of sound waves as discrete pulses as opposed to a discrete pitch, then, depends not on the objective properties of the phenomenon perceived but rather on the perceiving subject.
For our purposes, the point is this: Movement between ontological and epistemological modes may be leveraged in the compositional process to enable apprehension of the distinctly temporal type of "phase transition" - itself characterized by the supersession of structural accretions by 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 origins in the repertory of European polyphony composed over 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 foundation for subsequent elaboration. Indeed, the molar edifice of contrapuntal music built up piecemeal by European musicians of the Middle Ages, 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 therefore derivable from, a single originary source.
Polyphony as Qualitative Multiplicity
Western musicians habitually distinguish between two textures - the first, polyphony, conceived as the result of weaving together independent musical entities (typically understood as “linear” successions of pitched sonorities known as melodies); and the second, homophony, in which an abstract system governing simultaneous relationships of pitch serves as the structural framework for a melody of hierarchical focus. In homophonic music, structural coherence derives from melodic participation in the fulfillment of a schematic pattern of pitch simultaneities - i.e. a harmonic progression. By contrast, in polyphonic music, such coherence is achieved via a process called counterpoint, by virtue of which individual voice-parts are integrated into an aesthetic whole by coordinating the momentum immanent to their modular components while simultaneously maintaining their morphological integrity.
And yet, the essence of polyphony resides not, as Western musicians would have it, in the degree of autonomy exhibited by pitched sonorities from some schematized harmonic logic. Rather, it resides in a distinct intentional attitude adopted by the composer toward the nature of the musical material. On the one hand, such an attitude is exemplified by a process that adapts pre-given sonic structures, be they abstractly notated melodies or concretely recorded sounds, as the bases for elaboration. On the other hand, it is epitomized by a correlative preservation of each voice-part as the index of a unique sonic source.
Timbre, Technology and the Voice-Part
To reiterate: Texture in Western music has been traditionally defined according to the way in which relationships of pitch are coordinated among elemental components postulated to be voice-parts. By contrast, it is not pitch that I take as the parameter prerequisite to the distinctness of voice-parts, but timbre. That is to say - rather than to construe "voice-parthood" as an abstract quality emerging a posteriori from the evaluation of pitch-based relationships between elements merely asserted to be 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 Scottish philosopher Duns Scotus (c1266-1308) to refute the then-influential doctrine of nominalism, which holds universals not to exist apart from particular instantiations. Haecceity was thus intended by Scotus to serve as a bridge two conceptual extremes - the particular and the universal - and to show them to be compatible rather than mutually exclusive. 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 real and 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 particularly itself.
In attempting to ascertain the nature of haecceity specifically as it pertains to the relationship between timbre and the voice-part characterized above, it is helpful to consider the difference between analog and digital sound (re)production, which may itself 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 during the recording of a given sound to, say, magnetic tape, is qualitatively distinct from the translation of such fluctuations into the 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, whereas, by contrast, all digital devices impart one and the same timbre to the sounds they process - that is, no timbre at all.
Permutational Logic and Serial Organization
Further axiomatic principles govern my approach to composition. For one, the classic polyphonic desideratum that no one voice-part gain undue emphasis over another necessitates that certain compositional measurements be made following a serial distribution of structural events. When considered 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 take the form of permutational techniques of iterative variation, which are, by name, augmentation, diminution and retrograde.
First implemented in Europe by composers of polyphonic vocal music during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, these techniques migrated across genres to become of particular interest to Baroque composers of keyboard music, and, following a lengthy period of desuetude, came to figure centrally in the work of twelve-tone composers of the 20th century. The historical distance separating their heydays recommends these techniques uniquely among many, though not more so than their logical foundation in the true nature of musical material. To convey the fundamental importance of these techniques to my music, I thus offer the following critique of conceptualizing 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 the misapplication of spatialized logic to musical material under the guise of melodic inversion.
Traditionally, melody has been postulated as tantamount to the compositional idea. And yet, this traditional conception of melody as a “linear” succession of notes relatively consonant or dissonant with regard to a subordinate harmonic accompaniment relies overmuch on the "spatiality" of sound. Briefly put: "Spatiality" is in fact only a metaphorical quality of musical sounds defined exclusively according to pitch (as are those that figure in traditional melodic thinking) and not immanent to them as such.
The epiphenomenal nature of of melodic inversion vis-à-vis sound qua sound is seen most clearly through such a “spatialized” conception of sonic ontology. To wit: Melodic inversion is implemented around an axis of frequency 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, we might next ask: To the mind's ear, is there a qualitative difference between perception of a "low" pitch as opposed to a "high" one? Of course there is: The "higher" the frequency, the more the tension perceived - i.e. the more intense the sonic energy conveyed. Considered in this manner, it is clear the logic of melodic inversion relies upon a false conflation of pitch with number that reduces pitch to its abstractly quantitative dimension and speciously 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 quality that is in fact immanent to musical sound as such. In conceiving of such an approach, a heuristic from the logic of audio technology is useful. Compare to inversion the technique of retrograde, or sounding a series of entities in its backward permutation. What is it that makes the compositional technique of retrograde more immanent to musical sound per se 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: Time as we know it cannot reverse itself. And yet, when a sequence of sonic events is recorded onto, say, magnetic tape, it may in fact be retrograded (e.g., by flipping the sides of the cassette) with the identity of said sequence remaining in tact. 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 slowed down or sped up.
Finally, it remains to be observed (in an amount of space disproportionate to the significance of the observation) that to proceed on principle from the self-sameness of musical entities across permutations invites the 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 time.
Repetition and Periodicity
Subtending these more elaborate instances of motivic transformation is one most basic to my music - that is, repetition. Indeed, at an architectonic level, my compositions emerge from 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 doctrines concerning the mystical qualities of numbers and the proportional harmonies that bind the cosmos. Reverent of the provenance of its fundamental principles, Medieval composers dutifully cultivated isorhythmic relationships regardless of the fact that they are not always immediately perceivable by the listener.
Regardless of the apprehensibility of its resultant structures, it is here worth pointing out that isorhythm necessarily entails a modular conception of motivicity that is 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 structural elements of voice-parts. Laying the groundwork for aesthetic coherence to emerge are the objects of measurement themselves - modular building blocks adapted from pre-given material - and their presentation by voice-parts, each of a determinate origin.
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 this conception of motivicity: The integrity of the pre-given materials 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.
Practically, in attending to the qualities immanent to the samples I adapt through processes of recombinant transformation, I am guided by methods of phenomenological reduction and eidetic variation that were pioneered by German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1939). Theoretically, in elaborating from individual samples the form of a given composition in toto, I am guided by the relationship between time and identity as refracted through the concept of "duration" that figures centrally in the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Finally, subtending the compositional attitude exemplified by these heuristic devices is a perpetual consciousness of musical sound as the physical ornamentation of metaphysical order that is itself central to the teachings of Pythagoras (c570-495).
As a composer of sample-based music, I aim to uncover fundamental morphological qualities of specific sounds that are recombinatorily compatible with ostensibly disparate sonic phenomena. To put it another way: I make sample-based music as a way of illuminating habitually unseen connections obtaining between pre-given sounds I sample and the world of sound at large. Husserl attributes such "habitual unseenness" (as it might be termed) to our "natural attitude," by which he means the unreflective manner in which we navigate day-to-day reality. Conceived of along these lines, each sample I adapt as the basis for a new composition may be said first to "naturally exist" in its original context as part of a matrix of structural and eidetic relationships.
Distinguishing it among the other approaches to the problem, Husserl’s way of unveiling the essence of a 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" is thus 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 a great many other schools of thought, establishes as ineradicably constitutive the role of the observing subject to whom the object of perception appears. Accordingly, it adopts not the part but the whole as its point of departure, presupposing not the isolation of objects and subjects from one another but their mutual 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 opportunity of apprehending its essence.
In the context of 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, perceiving subjects, bring the sum total of our experiences, which are ever growing, to each and every new situation. Although commonsensical, this basic truth, Bergson reminds us, is often obfuscated, such as when, for example, we habitually conflate spatialized modes of being with temporal ones. This 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 itself a misnomer, since what goes by that name is not really "time" strictu sensu but rather an atemporal consequence of the application 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 think of lived experience as constituted by 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 in 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 imperfect copies of an ideal essence. Rather, the accretion of experience via aesthesis by the perceiving subject necessarily transforms the phenomenon repeated. Otherwise put, no two experiences of the "same" phenomenon are in fact themselves "the same," seeing as we bring the cumulative total of our experiences, which is ever growing, to each and every new situation.
In my music, then, Bergson’s notion of duration and 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 rather than categorically asserted entities.
Freedom from categorical imperatives imposed from without is a goal traditionally shared by aesthetic and philosophical enterprises alike. To wit: Of the philosophical issues that were of interest to Bergson, arguably 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, 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 apprehensibility while its individual components simultaneously appear in their morphological uniqueness. As it happens, Medieval European thinkers experienced and conceived of this mode of aesthesis as anagoge. For them, the locus classicus of music as a 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 fundamentally in terms of numbers. Indeed, a central tenet of Pythagoreanism is that the ratios governing, say, 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."