global musical analysis

I recently received notice of a call for papers at a conference being organized to address the development of (among other things) an analytical approach that is equally valid for sound art and music. The Sound Energy Aggregate (SEA) method is essentially that already, having grown from my experiments in sound as the fundamental expressive medium, so I look forward to addressing the issues raised by the conference in a new paper. On further looking around, I was intrigued by finding mention of a move to create a globally applicable foundation for music criticism or analysis.

The search led me to the realization, at the end of another semester of teaching Contemplating Music at the Longy School of Music, and after the fourth meeting of the new organization by the same name, that the SEA is in fact a tool ready for use in the analysis of music from around the globe. I will work these ideas out more fully, but here is the thinking at the moment:

Certain features (parameters) of music are so basic that operations which use them are quite likely truly global in scope. The old maxim that “music is the universal language” has always both bothered and excited me, and I am beginning to understand why. Those who dispute the notion usually do so because of the degree to which culturally learned features mean that what practitioners of a tradition gets from the experience can be quite different from what listeners from another culture get. Likewise, it is easy to show that what happens in a person's imagination while listening to music, creating what the music “means” is often vastly different even among even members of the same tradition.


What I am beginning to think is that indeed, the subtle aspects of a tradition, the features involving pitch organization, are culturally determined and take years of practice to fully understand and process while listening to or performing music. On the other hand, the most obvious features of music – it gets louder, it gets faster, it gets higher, etc. – communicate very directly, are responsible for a huge proportion of what is often called “emotion”, and have pretty much escaped the attention of those who theorize about music. I can certainly state that intuition about western classical music, and from what I know about the musics of other cultures, suspect it to be true rather universally.

As I say in my classes, “the obvious is in control: expose it!” The most obvious force in our daily experience, gravity, escapes our notice most of the time, and is yet to get a fully satisfactory theoretical explanation, even in our scientifically advance age. Yet we all benefit from the line of brilliant minds who have attempted to explain gravity: Newton, Einstein, Hawking. Shouldn't we in music have the courage to stick with the task, and bring the most obvious features into the rigorous world of musical analysis?

The Sound Energy Aggregate offers a way to bring the obvious factors into analytical consideration, by estimating or calculating the energy contribution of each parameter to the ever-shifing energy field of music as it interacts with our consciousness. The more subtle energies of pitch usage, refined over centuries in the musical traditions of the world, are likewise estimable in energy contribution. These will probably always lie a little beyond a totally inclusive global analytical framework, but an incredible amount of commonality exists on the obvious aspects of sound that will allow an incremental step toward a worldwide technique.

So, shared by all, theorized about by almost none: the basic features of sound:
  • dynamics
  • register
  • horizontal density
  • vertical density
  • timbre
  • articulation
How many times have my students listed at least two of those in their list of three required parameters to explain the energy of a piece of music? Over and over and over again.

Ok, so they're obvious! Let's deal with it. If we want to develop a means by which to discuss music from around the world on equal footing, why start theorizing about things that require extensive explanation when the things that most deeply affect listeners, cause physical reactions, are so immediately obvious, easily defensible, and clearly responsible for the listeners' reactions? We will gain perspective from dealing with what is already available, and allow important musical factors to put all traditions on equal footing in at least the most fundamental parameters.

To end for now, a personal experience of note: At the last meeting of Contemplating Music: the Greater Boston Center for Contemplative Mind in Music, we listened to a selection of music from Azerbaijan, very much in the tradition of Persian music. I had thought beforehand of using SEA principles to analyze a piece together, and on hearing the music, I was reminded of just how powerfully the approach yields results. It was hardly even necessary to talk over how clearly the use of rising register, volume and activity level were responsible for communicating energy to a listener. This experience preceded only by a day or two the discovery of a person in the UK seeking to develop a global critical approach to music, and leads me now to think of the SEA as not only a contemplative approach, not only as a phenomenology of music, but as a globally applicable method of analysis.

Contemplating Music: the organization

It's been a long time since my last post, but not for want of activity in the contemplation of music arena! In fact, one reason for the dearth of posts this fall is that I have founded an organization that meets monthly. In addition to a very heavy teaching load, this has taken up the little extra energy I have available.

The organization, called simply Contemplating Music, but with the more verbose subtitle, Greater Boston Center for Contemplative Mind in Music, meets at my home for the present period. We have a number of people of widely varied interests who have attended regularly or seek to find a way to make it to the meetings. A Longy student, a blues pianist, a musicologist, a clarinetist, a cantor, a body-mapping practitioner: all use contemplative methods in their musical work in some manner.

In starting such an organization, I wanted there to be a natural growth which would allow the organization to be what we want it to be. That is happening, I am pleased to say, and the outcome is really unsurprising. What we will do, it seems, is find out what each of us does through presentations at meetings, and encourage each other thereby simply to keep up the work.

A by-product of our sharing is the slow realization that there is a tremendous amount of musical activity supported by and making use of contemplation. When one encounters the work of others, or reads about it, it creates the awareness or affirms the presence of the contemplative mind in our own work. For example, on reading of the work of tubist Karen Bulmer from the conference catalog of the recent national conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, my wife (Vivian Montgomery) realized that the writing she has been doing that grows from her experience teaching excellent pianists to play the harpsichord in fact is quite in the tradition of mindful writing and teaching. When she then talked about her work at our last meeting, I became aware of just how much good teaching in music springs from a contemplative place. How could it be otherwise, after all?

The upshot for me is that encouraging each other to go forward with and deepen our work is a very valuable act, and that the fledgling organization can play an important role in music and music teaching.

So, I've got a lot more on my mind to share in upcoming posts. Check back in soon.

Conquest of Cold

The music I contemplate most, of course, is my own, during the process of composing. Since I have a premiere coming up next week of a piece that is deeply involved with contemplation on a conceptual level, let me devote a bit of space to it.

In the new brass quintet, commissioned and to be premiered on March 6 by the Redline Brass Quintet, I decided to go for an arrival that is the opposite of what is expected in Western classical music, an area of extraordinarily low kinetic energy. The decision had a technical stimulus, in fact, which was my desire to use the harmon mute as a careful filter of the brass sound. I pondered this desire, imagining placing the sound in the spot of the “great arrival” and how that would affect the overall shape.

From the outset, a central premise I worked with was that such an area of low energy would correspond to an experience of extreme mental clarity during meditation. Since I always name my ideas, I may as well admit that I called this the experience of pure consciousness. One possibility I considered was that some kind of stress-producing, anomalous event early in the piece would get one reaction, and after the experience of pure consciousness, it would get a different, transformed reception in the imagined mind whose energies the music carries.

It's worth mentioning at this point that after thinking, contemplating, planning for quite a long time, the initial start proved frustrating and difficult. An experience of Zen chanting provided the sound infusion I needed to start over from a place of inspiration. After that, the piece unfolded well.

Sketching ahead the possibilities for a gradual dissipation of kinetic energy, I laid out the energy states that the group would go through. As I got closer to the entry into pure consciousness, when no one really moves any more, and the magic of overtone interaction begins, I realized that I had encountered other conceptions of similar states of being. I read Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold by Tom Schachtman some years ago, and learned of the discoveries made as scientists were able to get closer and closer to absolute zero. These include superconductivity and the amazing superfluidity of helium when it is cooled to near absolute zero.

This strange behavior of the physical world seemed to provide a parallel to the effects on consciousness of not following thoughts, of just sitting, allowing what is to simply be there, almost as if the act of thinking is akin to the action of heated matter. Maybe that sense of connectedness to all things and beings which can emerge from calming the mind is more similar to the reduced molecular or atomic vibration which we call cold than we realize. For my purposes as a composer, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that the similarity gave me a sense of expansion, of discovery, and a title that resonates with the piece and my life.

The sense of connectedness that meditation brings leads to compassion, and compassion is indeed the Conquest of Cold on the interpersonal level. The quest for absolute zero led to the discovery of superconductivity, superfluidity. The practice of meditation leads to compassion, or the sense of superconnectedness to reality. What is, is.

What is in the music, is that action – articulation and movement of notes – virtually ceases. Only slowly evolving and interacting overtones emerging from harmon-filtered (muted) brass exist at that lowest ebb of kinetic energy. Yet the hope is that this will be the most magical place in the piece, a real high point of interest that will demonstrably transform the ensemble reaction to anomalous events.

A composer is often filled with hope...

the obvious

We should not be afraid to start from the obvious. Failure to admit the obvious will lead to serious error. The remainder will unfold if we keep going back to the source, asking questions of it and ourselves. The beginning, then...

Music is first of all sound. This unifies everything. Timbre, sound: the basic expressive medium. Start there, unpack the ingredients, discover what is. No one aspect is superior, privileged to produce meaning. All aspects are dependent upon the others. They interact, they change according to their own nature, and are conditioned by the nature of the others.

energy and popular music

The semester has come to a close, and I'm reflecting on the Contemplating Music class just ended. The number of student presentations dealing with non-classical music was remarkable, with a number of treatments of popular songs from the last 20 years. What is interesting is how useful the Sound-Energy Aggregate is in penetrating music that would yield little if analyzed by ordinary music theory procedures. Harmonic analysis of these pieces would get a predictable set of chords, the melodies aren't terribly complicated, and so forth. But such lack of complexity on one side of the equation leads, as we found, to very high-level and often quite subtle operations on the performance or production side. Vocal timbre, dynamics, pushing or pulling back on the beat, careful treatment of register, instruments incorporated: these things and more are deployed to keep the energy of a song gradually growing to deliver at just the right moment its main arrival. All of this underscores my conviction that any music which moves the seasoned listener is the result of a pretty high level of sophistication, and classical music has no exclusive claim to quality.