Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Vessel with the Pestle

Form is the vessel into which musical substance is poured.

Whoa, excuse me. I think I'll throw up now. I'll be right back.

I'm back.

Form is the vessel into which musical substance is poured.

Cut it out! Unless you want to save the retch of, like, me.

A former colleague of mine once told me that, when observing a graduate student teaching a section of music appreciation, he actually heard said graduate student introduce musical form that way.

Well, if this is so (hold on a second — dry heave — okay, better), then music takes the shape of its container. Meaning that it doesn't actually unfold in time. It's just a bunch of stuff with a shape and hardly any spontaneity. Sort of like an administrator.

Go to the opposite end of the argument that I seem to be having with myself. To coin a double negative, it wouldn't be proper to say that there is no such thing as musical form. It is an observable fact that pieces of music — particularly those from the same style period — follow certain shared patterns of behaviour such that there are a lot of resemblances in the way the pieces get put together.

Wow, that's a really wordy way to say common practice.

The thing is — no one who's ever put notes to paper and survived would say that they were creating substance that would be shaped by a vessel. Whatever this nebulous thing we call musical form is, it certainly isn't a prescriptive list of things you must do to satisfy an a priori notion of how a piece of music goes. But neither are notes-to-paper-putters unaware of the elements of musical form and how the shapes and relationships they are creating make larger shapes and relationships.

The problem is, when we teach musical form, we more often than not teach it as a straw man. What makes Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin et al great is how they push the conventions of the form. You can't make that statement without teaching the conventions of the form. And in the classroom, it's just not that interesting to trot out a piece of music that embodies the conventions of a form for deep study, especially when it's obvious that the piece that has been aufgetrotted is there only as a straw man. Do creative writing instructors make students read completely predictable novels to serve as the control group against which the actual good, unpredictable novels are compared?

A better question is do any pieces of music exist that exactly embody the archetype? Where do we go to find the control group?

By the same token, are there any families that exactly embody the archetypes of the American family, what with 1.7 children and all? If there are, I suppose it's best to make up the 1.7 children as .8 of a child and .9 of a child. For that, you have to plan in advance. There is apparently some received wisdom about that from Solomon, as well.

As a sidebar. What of music that is specifically written to embody a theory of music? Other than ewww, the response might be — why not? Why wait the customary thirty or so years for theory to catch up with the practice? If the textbook for a whole body of music is written before any of that music is written, then its students can get the books at remainder prices.

When I taught at Columbia, there were graduate students doing theory degrees who were allowed to take the masters-level composition seminars, and I taught some of them. One of them was such a speculative theorist, as I guess they get called. His idea of combining his theory studies with composition lessons was to modify one small portion of the apparatus for writing and analyzing tonal music by changing the rules therein, and to write inventions and fugatos that would follow the new rules. Specifically, tritones and sevenths were now consonant, and sixths and thirds were now dissonant — and there were probably some other rule changes that I don't recall.

In baseball, hitting a ground ball that can be fielded by the shortstop is now a home run. Any ball hit in the air is now an out. A foul ball is worth two or three points depending on how far into the stands it lands.

You can imagine the composition lessons with the theorist, as I had to shift my brain from practice to theory while reading through the inventions and fugatos. Commentary from me as to whether it was good music would have been pointless. Instead, mostly I could either agree or disagree that this musical excerpt correctly embodies the theory.

And boy did the consonant chords sound strange.

And while I'm on the tangent, here I can recall the weirdest, most cosmic question I ever got asked by a composition teacher, obviously zonked from reading a particularly dense dissertation he'd been advising: How would your music be different if you didn't have octave equivalence?

Rather long silence.

It'd be different, that's for sure is how I broke the silence.

I do recall reading in an august music analysis publication from the 1960s that in certain music that was fashionable to write at that time, the theory and the composition are one and the same.

This is a symptom, not a cause, of why composers now can have PhDs.

Teaching a complicated thing like sonata form, though. It has to be done, because so much great music follows the so-called archetype in a very general way. Typically it's taught on a timeline, going left to right on the X axis on the blackboard, with descriptors hung at certain points. Thick lines mark sectional divisions. And of course, every section has a name. Which is, I suppose, as it should be. After all, what's exciting about a false recapitulation if there is no such thing as a recapitulation? And now, tra la and voilà! The entire form can be viewed, like a painting, instantaneously.

And therein lies the problem. We teach sonata form as a vessel into which ... I can't type the rest of that sentence. By doing so, we lose the sense of how the nature of the musical materials themselves, unfolding in time, create a dynamic, ever shifting musical experience. You don't experience a piece of music all at once.

Call me Mr. Wordy.

As a note-pusher myself, I can offer a few small observations. Composers often set out with a plan for a piece and get derailed from that plan when doing the actual writing. It's not for lack of discipline. Good composers recognize various potentials for their own musical ideas, and often a new idea comes during the act of composition that makes fulfilling the idea of form as a vessel impossible. Much more often than not, the tangential way of composing is far superior.

Think of it this way. The analysis is like looking at the maze from above, where all possible paths out and all the paths that lead to dead ends can be found out very quickly. The composition is like being the mouse going through the maze.

Let's try another metaphor. A piece of music is like a living, breathing thing, with an emphasis on the breathing. If the composer is trying to make tension and release — I am such a composer — then the living, breathing part is accomplished by various ways of building tension and releasing it, on several different structural levels. Exactly how that is accomplished is, of course, complicated. It's up to the composer to find the right combinations of rhythm, notes, colors, harmonies, etc. that makes for musical magic.

I have come to find it useful to think of these tensions and releases with pretty generic terms — upbeat and downbeat. The words themselves suggest a physicality affected by gravity, and being aware of which one you are trying to compose is very helpful. In the sonata form archetype, there is a big structural downbeat at the recapitulation, often (but not always, etc.) preceded by the tensest music of the entire piece. Thus the many recapitulations of Haydn and Beethoven that seem to slip through a crack in the door unnoticed — brilliant.

Because when they do that, it violates the archetype. When you recognize that, you can then get to a useful discussion of the character and content of the musical material that made such a thing possible, or even inevitable.

Which is useful to a composer. Because then the discussion, instead of being about the notes, starts to be about the magic.