Tuesday, July 17, 2012

You Gave Me Such a Start

So Beff and I have been doing yoga since February. Regularly, faithfully, daily, dailily, daylily. The lexicon is now full of previously unknown terms like downward facing dog, half bow and half boat pose, locust, warrior one, happy baby, reverse triangle, and cross legged lunge, among many others. And camel's pose just sounds like a euphemism. Half bow, will travel. I could go on. Warrior one, villager zero. I did go on.

And we have blocks, and straps, and mats, and a ball. Oh my.

We do all of our yoga to DVDs of people doing yoga, and though we've been through the how to keep your form perfect so you don't add injury to injury routines, we're beginners, and likely kind of sloppy (we won't be making any yoga DVDs soon), and we are aware that any serious yoga person would laugh at us, and then would have to go to the bathroom. Yet, pressing on is being done by us, and feeling as if we're getting better is also being done by us, and suppler is also on the list of how we feel. How soon before we're ready for the intermediate DVDs? Hey, I can already do a heel-to-floor down dog. Which would have been a nonsense sentence at the start of the year. Even moreso than it is right now.

Has there been any tangible benefit to the scrappy yoga that has been practiced by those who happen to be us? Is it even pointful to be results oriented? Perhaps. Well. The TMJ thing seems a bit better, the stiff neck thing is largely gone, the back feels pretty good. How much longer can I talk about middle-age body crankiness before you, the reader, get dizzy from the eye-rolling?

And of course we are self-taught. To the extent that following a bunch of instructions on a DVD that never wavers, no matter how many times you play it, can be self-taught.

Among many pictures I've seen lately on Facebook (eye roll) has been students en masse submitting to a yoga teacher, who is correcting their form. Aaaagh! Self-conscious! Self-taught! Self-aware! I don't want someone to be telling me my form is laughable when I already know that, but I can say hey, the TMJ is better, really it is! And my back! It's better, really it is!

Of course, that makes me stupid.

I was also self-taught at digital font-making. And it made me famous, in that severely limited way. It was only after the fame kicked in that it dawned on me that I'd been doing it all wrong. And that it could, and should, be done much, much better.

So I did. That made me smart.

And when they write on the blackboard in South Park, that's my font.

That makes me tingly.

In the local Roche Brothers supermarkets, prices for some of the produce are printed on (maux) faux blackboards, and in my font. The same font.

That makes me laissez faire.

Guess what? Once I knew what I was doing in font making, it took a lot longer to make fonts.

And they were of a distinctively higher quality. Something noticeable when printed at large sizes. Oh, self-awareness, thy sting is legion.

If somebody hasn't copyrighted that phrase already, it's mine. Never mind that it doesn't make any sense.

I got to thinking about self-awareness (cue awkward segue music) recently when I was charged with sifting through a large pile of orchestral scores submitted for some opportunity or another. It's an urban myth within the composition biz ...

Urban myth? Urban myth? How inappropriate is that term? It discriminates against rural composers, privileges city composers, etc., ... although in its favor, it almost rhymes with crystal meth. No matter hard I try, my name will ever do that.

... within the composition biz that pieces with snappy openings fare better with impaneled panels. The urban myth continues that the first 15 to 30 seconds are make-or-break (sometimes achy-breaky) for a piece, and you don't get a second chance. Why? Impaneled panels are pressed for time, impatient, and likely have heard several dozen pieces before hearing yours. Also, they are stupid.

So, spending no small amount of time being impaneledly paneled and stupid, I noticed certain trends emerging. Namely that, in this pile, sizeable though it was, there were a mere three archetypes of how the pieces began. For the sake of breaking up the text with delightfultude of formatting, I give you those archetypes as bullet points.
  • Mommy I'm scared. (ca. 50%)
  • Hark! Is that an ... orchestra? ... I hear in the distance? (ca. 40%)
  • Look at me, I'm a clown! (ca. 10%)
The backpatting I did of myself to celebrate the list's extreme cleverness gave me arm cramps for days (something that yoga could not fix), but I was on top of the world!

(For those of you who like having the joke explained, the previous sentence uses inappropriate and silly overstatement in tandem with a pop cultural reference (The Titanic) to create a delightfully serendipitous bisociation. It's funnier now, isn't it?)

The problem with recognizing, and cataloguing, the archetypes was the self-awareness imbued when the next task was at hand: write the first movement of a symphony — for which three movements have already been written — and avoid cliché. Eschew your cliché before swallowing.

I've decided not to copyright that joke.

Uh oh, self awareness. Ness. Do any of the other movement beginnings fall into cliché? Am I stupid even when I'm not impaneledly paneled? Let's see — piano chord strummed inside and string section emerging on same chord. Check — that's pretty cool. Slow unaccompanied descending melody in first violins and first flute. Check — mysterious. Fast goofy tutti. Check. Okay, perhaps I have a Look at me, I'm a clown! beginning, but the other two don't lapse — too much — into cliché. As far as I know, and I'm stupid. Plus, choosing the archetype least traveled is a good idea, right?

Thus did I charge myself with writing a beginning that would set the tone for about 22 or 23 minutes of music, and not lapse into cliché. Aaagh! It's like the yoga instructor telling me my form might suck (and then having to go to the bathroom), this self-awareness thing.

Well, okay. Okay. You know that sub-class of Mommy I'm Scared cliché beginnings where a loud sound is followed immediately by something soft and sustained? Student works and Uptown music are rife with that beginning.

I did that.

And I liked it. Because ... because ... maybe it could be cool to make a cliché not a cliché. If life gives you clichés, make clichéade! Witnesseth (even though you are not privy to the score) that all the strings are tutti pizzicato at the outset — and for the next 35 bars they do nothing except tutti pizzicato. Nutty! What happens next for the strings? 12 more bars of tutti arco! My cliché turned into an interesting onerous restriction. And everybody knows I love onerosity in my restrictions. Plus, if I did it right, maybe the strings playing separate and different parts for the first time could be a nice moment in the music.

All of which gets me to musing musingly about beginnings of pieces. I've already written about endings, so this will be that blog post's bookend (and I love Cajun bookend salmon, rim shot). We've already noted (hey, I'm in the first person plural! My nefarious plan never looked so good) that the chatterel among composers who enter stuff is that something really cool has to happen in the first 15 to 30 seconds. Okay, fine. That doesn't say anything about what happens after the beginnings — after all, wouldn't it follow that the impaneled panels would listen more if they liked the beginning?

So imagine there's more to a piece than its beginning. This is the customary way, after all. The beginning is followed by — uh, not the beginning. Middle music, maybe. When does a piece stop beginning? By that same token, when does a piece start ending? And what's in the chewy center?

So let's start (or begin) with what sort of functions beginning are said to have in a piece. Let's bullet the points, too, because it's formatting gooiness!
  • It breaks the silence that precedes it.
  • It gets our attention.
  • It sets the tone. Or the key. Or the speed. Or the motives. Or the materials.
  • It tells you what the piece is going to be about — by establishing a modus operandi.
  • It sets the emotional tone.
  • It suggests the time scale of the whole piece.
  • It sets the table for the chewy center of the piece.
Presuming that the above list is an acceptable one, there's also another kind of beginning, a corollary to those above.
  • It comments on our notions of beginning.
Of course. Because once the bar is set for something, it's up to composers to move that sucker. The last one, alas, has spawned at least one more cliché beginning — the beginning (of which I am already tired) that emerges from the ensemble's tuning as if there were no demarcation between getting ready for the piece and playing the piece. Okay, as a commentary on the ritual of live performance, that's cool. The first time. And, as of 2012, very much overdone. I would note, though, that Jeff Friedman came up with a nice variant on this idea when he wrote an encore for the National Symphony: the shuffling of feet that musicians do in lieu of applause (because they are holding instruments) to express approval of, say, a concerto soloist after a performance is the beginning of the piece, and it segues nicely into the written music (which begins with the players shuffling their feet, duh). Nifty. Thus do we witness a commentary on a commentary on the notion of beginnings. It turns out there are no drugs for that.

The composer-student-applies-for-stuff notion of beginning —
  • It gets your piece noticed by impaneled panels. Filled with stupid people.
...is one I'm going to ignore by the very act of not ignoring it. See, commentary.

Me 'n' my academic friends — as well as various raccoons from the area — have fixed terms to describe how a passage of music feels. That is, is this beginning music, middle music, or ending music? What exactly gives each its quality? Can you start with ending music and end with beginning music? Well, probably, but you'd have to use strategy and sleight of hand. But consider that in traditional musical narrative (and any time-based art), there isn't much waverance from the beginning, middle and end paradigm.

So be it agreed that a beginning establishes something. Perhaps we can be precious (I'm writing in first person plural, so why not?) and say that beginnings teach you how to listen to pieces, and point the way to the meat and bones, where that knowledge will come in handy. So given this, how do we know when a piece has stopped beginning? When does the teaching stop and the doing stuff begin?

Take an example: the beginning of Beethoven's Ninth is telling the listener what, and has what musical function? Well, of course, the opening contains the piece's A and E, and its ANE (a joke that may have actually been funny if Beethoven had started on the tonic). The slow noodling of two-note groups around just the open fifth of the dominant triad gives a clue that the piece is going to take its time — and that it's going to be really big — and the rapidity with which it reaches its first climax and its forcefulness tells us there are going to be some tantrums along the way. Not to mention, the first occurrence of the actual tonic note is made to sound strange and exotic. Yet the climax doesn't make the piece stop beginning! The time scale of the simple fifths and the constant turning on a dime of the tantrummy stuff add to the impression that this will be one huge maux faux. And so it is.

So given all the major climaxes and all, why does it feel like a beginning for so long, and not middle music? To me, it's because there is no structural downbeat, despite all the seeming preparation for one. What is a structural downbeat? According to Edward T. Cone (with whom I took one composition lesson and left with my tail between my legs, if I'd had one), it is
a point of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic arrival that turns everything before it into an upbeat.
Ah, so beginnings are context-driven! Rhythm, key, harmony don't come together for a while, so it feels like the piece is still in beginning mode.

So then, middles of pieces begin at the structural downbeat? Is that a hard and fast rule? I would simply say no — the structural downbeat paradigm is just a very common manner of musical narrative, inherited from all manner of dead Viennese. It's possible to realize you're in the middle of something only retrospectively — as this is one of the things that composers do to keep it interesting — in much the way you never remember exactly when a dream started.

We have a common term for the setting up music that separates it from that which is set up — introduction. There are even pieces, such as Ravel's Introduction and Allegro that seem to make a point of saying that a whole movement can be beginning music. After all, that's what an introduction is, right?

Oh wait. Since we're talking about paradigms inherited from dead Viennese, what about sonata-allegro form? A few issues about beginning come up. First, how come some symphony first movements have slow introductions before the allegro, and others don't? And we know there's a big structural downbeat at the recapitulation, which brings back the beginning music. How can the same music be both a beginning and a meat and potatoes? One sentence Italic paragraph guy?

How can the same music be both the beginning and the meat and potatoes?

OSIPG, I've missed you. Let's start with the slow introduction. Haydn 104 has one. Mozart 40 doesn't. Why? To answer that, let's talk about something completely unrelated. Remember those fast little zoomy toy cars you had when you were a kid? You could quickly run the bottom along the floor, the wheels would get all excity, and then when you dropped the car, it zoomed forward as soon as it hit the ground. Lots of beginnings have the excity wheels. Mommy I'm Scared beginnings certainly do.

But if you had one of those toy cars that didn't have the zoomy capability, you could still make them go fast by simply pushing them hard, or, say (here is pushing it), pull them back on a rubber bandy slingshotty thing and let the releasing of tension of the rubber band shoot the car forward. Slow introductions are like pulling back that rubber band.

Now use all of your bisociative associations, and see that some allegro themes have a downbeat quality built into their openings — thus they can simply begin — and others need an introduction to create a big upbeat such that simply beginning something on the tonic becomes a downbeat in retrospect. Yes, Mozart's 40th has the zoomy wheels, and Haydn's 104th needs the rubber band. Any questions?

As to recapitulation. The beginning of Mozart's 40th comes back literally, yet it's not beginning music any more. It's like encountering a toddler and all the associated googooness at the beginning, and later, conditioned by the experience of the piece, you encounter the same person as a grownup. That's pretty cosmic, so I'll stop the metaphor right there. But for our purposes, we can say that the recapitulative occurrence of the opening is preceded by a sizeable dominant preparation, and the first one is not. And Haydn 104? The allegro music requires the slow upbeat and dominant preparation to precede it, and thus its recapitulation requires another, different dominant preparation (a fast one and not a slow one).

And therein lies the key to some of the great magic of music. Stuff comes back exactly, and yet you hear it (or listen to it) differently. Recontextualizing beginning music to make it sound (or more precisely, feel) like ending music? It's what I live for, and I continue with this unpointful clause so that I will not have ended that sentence with a preposition. Case in point: listen to the fifth of Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs. One of the many things that makes this piece one I return to regularly is the fact that the climax isn't the climax, and the recapitulation isn't the recapitulation. It's not only gorgeous, it's smart.

The slow introduction to the allegro is also something that became enough of a common paradigm that, of course, composers started messin' around with that. Case in point, Schumann's second symphony, which starts with slow music followed by fast music — and the trumpets at the outset do exactly what the trumpets do at the beginning of Haydn 104. But in this case, the slow music is the piece's actual beginning, and it does not create the required upbeat to the allegro. How 'bout that? That's smart.

What about a piece like Four Organs? The entire piece is accumulative — which is to say you could think of it as a giant transition in many small stages from the opening music to the ending music — and there's no structural downbeat of which to start. Yet there is a point when you know it's no longer beginning. Indeed, the beginning gesture ... slow mutation ... is actually not a beginning, but the whole piece's paradigm. Thus the beginning-middle-ending paradigm isn't sufficient to describe the music in this piece.

In this post, I complained about Dvorak and his chamber music that ends over and over. It would make sense that there are pieces that, for whatever reasons, begin over and over, too. In which case, the educated and engaged listener will start feeling antsy and start thinking, "when is this piece going to get to the point?" Pieces with multiple beginnings start feeling like you're breathing in, but can't breathe out, but still have to breathe in more, and so on, until you need to get to the window for some fresh air. Come to think of it, lots of the leg lifts on the yoga DVDs are like that, too.

We have the term in medias res to denote things that join our narrative, already in progress — that is to say, they start in the middle of something. Dichterliebe begins this way, and for a good affective reason related to the story. It's not just a commentary on beginnings. In this case, the listener is surprised and engaged, and it makes perfect sense. How can a composer bring off a beginning like that that isn't a beginning? That would depend on the feel of the middle music, wouldn't it? So composers, your assignment is an in medias res piece that works. Be concise, and use three examples.

Much of this post that isn't about yoga or fonts has concentrated more on the rhythmical aspect of music than on the gestural aspect. Yes, we know that beginnings start on downbeats, or labor deliberately on an upbeat to make a downbeat pop up out of thin air. But what about the affective quality of beginnings? And what happens in the affective realm to make music stop beginning and start gettin' down to it? The answers would seem to be completely context-dependent, take breathing in and breathing out into consideration, and would involve changing speeds, changing textures, changing registers and all. After all, what fun is a ten-minute orchestra piece that is all Mommy I'm Scared, or all Is That An ... Orchestra? ... I hear?

Well, the answer is, the good composer is aware of all of these things, is always seeking out new stuff and listening to other music, and is constantly in search of a way to combine all these Lego pieces in new ways that are beautiful and surprising. Sure, I started my symphony with a cliché beginning. But I tried to continue the music in different and unique ways in order to neutralize the feeling of been there, done that.

Composers who write those Mommy I'm Scared beginnings though, you are on notice. Stupidly impaneled panel members are onto you.