24.2.05

Transparency

I started this post a while back, during the last "simplicity/complexity" blogotempest. I put it on hold because it became clear that the simplicity/complexity axis is really beside the point. More to the point, then, is comprehensibility, which I think is different from that old bugaboo "accessibility". For my purposes here then, "comprehensibility" results when a composer's language is the right one to say whatever it is that is being said in the music. That is, when the means go with the ends, or at the very least when the difference in means and ends results in frisson rather than friction.

Steve Reich, in his 1968 essay "Music as a Gradual Process" declared:

I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.

Mr. Reich's great early works, like Clapping Music, Come Out, and It's Gonna Rain exemplify this desire in telling and expressive ways. The means (slowly phase shifting phrases) and the poetic ends are inseparable.

What results is, I think, a kind of transparency wherein the expressive intent of the composer comes through regardless of the means employed, be they complex and/or simple. One is tempted to think of this as a matter of texture--the thinner the texture, the more transparent the music. There's a relationship there, but counter-examples spring immediately to mind, like Feldman's For Samuel Beckett, Reich's Come Out (especially near the end), and the micro-polyphony of Ligeti's Atmospheres.

Complex works can be transparent, as well. Carter's Fifth Quartet, for instance, Boulez' Repons, and the late Beethoven quartets, to name a few examples.

Just as complexity for its own sake can easily lose its transparency and become mere complication, so too can simplicity become simple-mindedness and the transparency turn into nothingness.

14 comments:

  1. I agree largely with this post and love Reich's early works a great deal. But I do wonder exactly what you think the "poetic ends" of those works are....? I've always thought of them as pretty abstract.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's a good question. The real answer is that those things can't be put into words, or else they would have been, but that can really sound like a copout. I think that part of the poetic content of Come Out is the relationship between how the young man whose words were recorded has been dehumanized by his experience and how his words, as they are repeated and distorted by the phasing, are separated from their meaning. That's a good example, in my view, of means and ends being bound together.

    By the way, I think all music is abstract. Especially program music.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Interesting - do you think lieder are abstract, too?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Pretty much, yes. Though the presence of a text complicates issues.

    ReplyDelete
  5. So the spinning motive accompanying Gretchen am Spinnrade doesn't bring to mind a spinning wheel to you?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Stravinsky covered this in the paragraph following "Music, by its nature, is essentially powerless to express anything at all...":

    "If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention -in short, an aspect unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being."

    The extramusical web of associations creates the spinning-wheel, not the tones.

    The catch is that Stravinsky should never have used the word "music" as the essentialized term for an organized grouping of sounds. "Music" is really those sounds *and* their associations as deployed by creators and processed by consumers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I've always thought that Stravinsky's comments (not only on this subject but many others as well) were intentionally exaggerated for the sake of drama. But I agree with his large point and with Jason's gloss on it.

    I think the "spinning motive" is heard as such largely because of the title and the text. There would be many ways to here it otherwise.

    ReplyDelete
  8. 'I think the "spinning motive" is heard as such largely because of the title and the text. There would be many ways to here it otherwise.'

    Yes, of course. But can you really separate the text from the music? What would be the rationale for doing so? There are certain musical gestures that elicit certain responses, don't you think? Perhaps those responses are socially constructed, but that in no way makes them unimportant. To me, it's all part of the final product.

    I taught a music appreciation course to non-majors a few semesters and played the openings of Brahms 4, Vltava and Pacific 231 without telling the students anything about the pieces and asked them to describe what they heard. Nearly everyone got that Pacific 231 sounded like a machine starting up (several mentioned a train). Vltava was identified as something watery by many and by most as a group of objects gradually accumulating (dancers, birds, streams). The answers were most divergent for the Brahms. The results were the same every semester I taught the course. I think that says something....

    ReplyDelete
  9. I don't disagree with you, Marcus, I think I just see that as a different level of abstraction. There's no question that Pacific 231 evokes machinery (hell, that's exactly why it's on my "101" list), but I still think it's abstract because "train" is one level of abstraction or specificity from "machine".

    Which may well be a distinction without a difference. But it doesn't feel like it to me.

    Have you noticed that many (if not most) people eqate "abstraction" in music with pantonality?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Steve wrote: "I've always thought that Stravinsky's comments (not only on this subject but many others as well) were intentionally exaggerated for the sake of drama."

    That's putting it somewhat gently. I'd say, "for the sake of being outrageous."

    Marcus's suggestion that extra-musical associations are perhaps socially constructed (I'd say, culturally associated) is, I think, right on the money, from both the composer's and auditor's standpoints. In the last century the main source of that association in the mass is most powerfully the cinema, and in the prior century, the opera. Beyond major and minor modes, which seem to tap some hard-wired human-brain thing, I defy anyone to attach such associations to the music of, say, Bach, or any of the pre-Mozart composers.

    ACD

    ReplyDelete
  11. Oops.

    My parenthetical, "(I'd say, culturally associated)" should have read: "(I'd say, culturally constructed)."

    ACD

    ReplyDelete
  12. Yes. That makes more sense.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Steve wrote: "Yes. That makes more sense."

    Which? My typo correction or my comment?

    ACD

    ReplyDelete
  14. The corrected comment makes more sense than the erroneous one.

    ReplyDelete