I stopped playing in popular music bands a few years ago because I felt a bit board and jaded with playing rock and pop music. I felt I was just turning into the grumpy old musical snob I knew I had always been. But when I think more about it, I realise that my falling out of love with popular music and turning to classical listening and playing, coupled with a little ‘advanced technique’ jazz performance, happened when I took a six month sortie into the world of electronic and experimental music in college.
The composition pictured above was a marker for my rejection of the concepts and ideas that underpin computer music. I studied in college three specific pioneers of these genre, Karl Heinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis and Curtis Roads. I have no problem with acknowledging these people as highly skilled and knowledgeable composers in their field. But it’s the field I have the problem with.
Rejecting computer music
My composition above is an obvious aping of the Mark Applebaum style of written score. I like the idea of the score being a work of art in and of itself, that gives a performer free reign, and encourages imaginative interpretation. So it’s not that I am against innovation, change and experimentation in music composition or performance, I just feel that fundamental skills in playing techniques and insight and thought about ALL aspects of music composition, ( harmony, structure, tempo…etc etc), get conveniently ignored by the computer music world. Yes, there can be beauty in the elegance of a computer program and the math and propositional logic that underpins it, but that beauty is only apparent to computer programmers, and the concepts behind a computer program don’t make noise. If the noises that these programs and ideas lead to have no harmonic, rhythmic or dynamic interest………are they worth anything as music?
Whats this got to do with popular music?
So why would a study of computer music put me off popular music? Well it has to do with the ALL Pervasive nature of computers in the composition and production and performance of modern music. Have you ever stopped to consider how every aspect of popular music has been shaped by computers for the last fifty years? “Well that’s just utilising technologies to do things better or more efficiently”, I hear you say. But computers have changed the way we think of and what we expect music to be. I never hear the rhythm of a composition being given to melodic instruments to hold in modern music, rhythm never changes throughout a modern popular composition, only the layering of ‘off beat’ percussive sounds changes the texture in the rhythm, the technology dictates that the rhythm, or should I say ‘beat’ is always the bedrock of the music, leaving no scope for it to just be implicit in the melodic or harmonic aspects of the composition, (if there are any). It makes the idea of varying tempo very difficult to approach if an electronically driven pulse is holding a composition together, so people just don’t.
The software in use at most modern music performances such as Ableton are all marketed with the notion that they provide endless ways to create and perform, but I think that’s just a “Marketing Lie”. The very nature of this type of software is to push music performance and composition into only one approach, which is the looping and layering of repeating beat patterns. Melodic lines are slaved to the pulse set by these percussive loops, there is no chance for nuance and expressive variation between performances and they give the idea that this is really the only good way to produce music. They are in fact utterly myopic and restrictive in their nature and the music produced using them is one dimensional and banal.
Music is more than timbre
You get electric guitar fanatics constantly blabbing on YouTube and chat rooms about the perfect tone and how the right combination of effects pedals can achieve the perfect sound. These people seem only ever concerned with a ‘holy grail’ of the perfect nuanced timbre. I never hear anyone talking about melody, harmony, modulation, techniques for phrasing and playing interesting chord inversions or substitutions, they just bang on about timbre. It is the same with computer music freaks. Everyone just talks about the quality of sounds and waxes lyrical about the amazing sub bass tones they can get with their latest Moog synth. I think the simple reason for this is that they have no opinion or thought for much else, because the music format they have an interest in is so lacking in substance or breadth, there is nothing else to talk about other than the ‘Quality’ of the sounds made.
Traditional Notation isn’t getting off lightly either
I am not a traditionalist snob, however. I like innovation and new approaches and I am not against the use of computers in music outright. I have many problems with people who cling on to pointless notions about more traditional music theory. The composition below is a rant at daft notions people hold concerning music ‘rules’.
I feel that people seem to mistake the map for the territory when it comes to music notation. Even strict ‘traditional’ notation is an imprecise language, meant to be open to interpretation and expression. People who annoy me the most are those musicians who insist “well, music is just math really”. I can’t express how irritated that commonly quoted aphorism makes me feel. Let me just point out, that mathematics is an exacting and precise method of using logical propositions to test and prove theorems, expressed with symbols that have very clearly defined and agreed meanings. It is a field intimately related to number systems and arithmetic, which share the utilisation of symbols, (in this case numbers), that mean only ONE thing. Now, reflect on music notations such as a tied triplet in a bar of 4/4 time. Yes, music does use vague arithmetic sounding language with its ‘quarter’ notes and and numbered time signatures, but what does dividing a quarter note into 3 eighth notes actually mean in a mathematical sense? I will tell you, i doesn’t mean anything. Go get a calculator and divide a quarter, (0.25) by 3. Then let me know how long you plan to play each of the notes of that triplet for. Music is most definately Not Math.
Does compound time actually exist?
A little playful thought I like to throw out to other musicians is the seemingly bonkers notion that 3/4 time and 6/8 time are the same thing at different speeds. The howls of annoyance I get from people with this are priceless. They roll their eyes in patronising derision and explain to me how I havn’t understood the concept of compound time. Having done this for a few years now, I notice a common theme in peoples responses. They talk about the notion that 6/8 time has a completely different ‘feel’ or pulse to it compared to 3/4 time. Then they ramble into the vague notions of it being about the math of odd numbers. They are caught up in notions they haven’t really thought through. They are parroting what they were taught in music theory class and just learnt the notions verbatum, never questioning if these concepts made any sense. It is another case of mistaking the map for the territory. Whatever you might feel about 6/8 time, it is essentially two groupings of three notes in each bar. My point is that this grouping is just a convention of music writing. I imagine it stems from the composer phrasing the melodic lines in such a way that they feel 6 eighth notes per bar is the most handy. With the traditional Irish Jig, the pulse of the music is two ‘pulses’ of three per bar. Well, I am simply pointing out, that 1,2,3 1,2,3 1,2,3 1,2,3 1,2,3 is just the counting of a waltz. Yes I know that the melodic phrasing might be different between a waltz and an Irish jig, I am a musician, I can hear they are different music, I am simply suggesting that the notation itself doesn’t tell you any meaningful difference. You know it through your experience of hearing those two types of music and knowing, culturally that they are played at differing paces. I understand the two time signatures indicate a different approach, but it is in the melodic phrasing and speed that they differ, not in the rhythm. 1,2,3 1,2,3 1,2,3, is just that, at any speed. (This argument only really works in relation to waltz and jig, both, incidently, social dance music forms).
The point of the argument is just to show that notation is vague and open to interpretation and meaning. You really could very easily re write a Vienese waltz into ‘jig time’ and it would still work musically, and still be recognisable as the same piece. Though why anyone would want to bother doing anything with a Vienses waltz is beyond me!
Next instalment on this new section will be about my approach to composition, what influences me and what I feel makes good music. I include below some links to some of my favourite pieces of innovative music composition. Mostly guitar based, but not all.