Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Music as a process, gradual or otherwise

In 1968 Reich spelled out his new aesthetic in a terse essay titled "Music as a Gradual Process." "I am interested in perceptible processes," he wrote. "I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music."

This philosophy differs starkly from the thinking inherent in Boulez's total serialism and Cage's I Ching pieces, where process works behind the scenes, like a spy network employing front organizations. Reich's music transpires in the open air, every move audible to the naked ear. Recognizable in it are multiple traces of the creator's world: modal jazz, psychedelic trance, the lyrical rage of African-American protest, the sexy bounce of rock 'n roll. But there's no pretense of authenticity, no longing for the "real." Instead, sounds from a variety of sources are mediated by the composer's personal voice.

The above is from Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, which I am finally getting around to finishing. (If you're familiar with it, you may understand my reading strategy, which has been to savor the text over an extended period, rather than wolfing it down in a weekend or two.)

The quote got me thinking. Much of the material I write for the IJG is designed to be transparent, too. I hadn't thought of that in terms of audible processes, per se -- for me it's more about constructing things in such a way that the listener is thinking about the mechanisms that propel the music, and there's no sleight of hand. It's a bit different from, and even antithetical to, the idea of washing over your listener with a "narrative," or a seamless flow of polished and refined sound, in which the things that are going on under the hood are somehow less compelling than the ride you are taking. I've spoken of it before in terms of using art not merely to tell stories, but to tell how books are made.

Not sure if that is a comprehensible distinction at this level of abstraction, but that is basically how I think about it.

In any case, the really interesting question for me is whether this quality is, in part, dependent upon familiarity. Now that Reich's music is so much a part of the "art music" landscape, I wonder if anyone actually does still hear it in terms of "perceptible processes"? Does broad familiarity undercut the power of a completely open compositional strategy, to the point where however much the composer is trying to lay bare, all we hear is the surface sound?

[Photo credit: Al Pavangkanan]


James Armstrong said...

This is a perceptive essay, Andrew. The concept music-as-process makes sense to me. But it is you've suggested: those processes may not be always be obvious.

A while back, I had a would-be student who bailed on his lessons due to an alleged lack of structure.

I'd given him a book of Monk transcriptions, chosen a specific piece for practice with only general instructions, and asked that he return in a week for an initial performance.

The structure was quite literally in his hands.

But perhaps some would-be musicians expect an instant yield. Monk spent a lifetime on his music, and the intricacies of his forms aren't immediately discernable, at least to the uninitiated.

A similar argument could be made about Andrew Hill's music. I've been working on a transcription of his piece 'Love Chant'. This thing used to blow my logic circuits, but I've finally made some progress.

As musicians, especially improvising ones, we really do need to be tuned into processes. And there are a lot of them.

Best to you all.


Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks for your comment, James! I appreciate your thoughts...