contemplating timbre

My venture into contemplation and music began with a fascination with timbre. I long said, and still say, that sound itself is the most expressive musical medium. Such a statement is fairly obvious, for without sound there is no music. But what I mean is that the quality of sound, timbre, is that expressive foundation. Harmony is clearly a subset of sound, a series of pitches is a subset of sound. And I was at one time very excited just to hear Schoenberg’s statements at the end of his Harmonielehre where he envisioned a day when melodies would be made of tone color, etc. My excitement for the statement has diminished over the years, as I realize more fully that he intended that timbre be subjected to the same kind of hierarchical thinking that pitch was over the centuries, a concentration of thinking and composing that produced the wonders of functional harmony. I now realize that as timbre comes to be fully utilized and understood, our awareness of it will dawn in a day in which hierarchy is not held in the same light as in the past. In fact, our age seems to search for the expressive use of chaos, and timbre fits into that realm much more comfortably than into a hierarchical structure. Our age questions hierarchy, and the music that grows up in the age of global awareness will grow into the next available higher-level category to be filled -- timbre, of course -- making sense of it, organizing it in a way that matches the spirit of our age.

just listening

The Contemplating Music class spent about six or seven weeks analyzing one movement of Stephen Hartke’s King of The Sun. In one of the last weeks, after much discussion, listening, probing, we decided to do a contemplative exercise and then listen to the whole piece again. I found myself quite delighted by the process, mostly because I find the piece so engaging and delightful, but the delight caused difficulty for me in the act of just listening, of truly being open to hearing the piece unfold in my consciousness. It occurred to me at those moments that while my delight may have been simply about the music, it was as likely to have been because I thought I’d discovered some key to understanding the structure, to the process of its unfolding and creating its impact on the listener. Further thoughts have occurred to me over the weeks since that took place: Is delight in listening to music deeply and repeatedly a kind of self-congratulation? Is delight memory? Certainly delight of that nature is a kind attachment to my thoughts, rather undeniably a game of illusion that my delight comes only from the music. These are questions anyone who would analyze music needs to raise.

from our class

This blog was started a couple of years ago when I first taught the class, Contemplating Music, at the Longy School of Music of Bard College. So finally I’m adding thoughts two days in a row!

Yesterday in class, students gave their first presentations on pieces using the Sound Energy Aggregate analysis. One student presented a piece of popular music, and our discussion about it made very clear that the concept of energy management, maintaining the thread of attention/tension, is of vital importance to popular music as well as classical. Of course, I’ve always believed that, and in the equal value of all kinds of music, but it was very gratifying to witness that realization emerge in a class discussion!

contemplating counterpoint

I have long thought of counterpoint as utilizing intervallic energy to propel the music forward (or not!) Add to this the energy created by trading of action, of moving together or against each other, sharing material or not, existing at equal levels of rhythmic subdivision or being stratified → each of these suggested tidbits could be a field of study to itself in the realm of kinetic energy, empathic energy, the energy of the interaction of expectation and fulfillment, to name just a few. This set of thoughts points to the theory of the Sound-Energy Aggregate, which I’ve been utilizing for a good while now, and have a website which begins to explain some of its concepts. More on this path in the future...