A common trope of music criticism is the idea that the structure that generates, or that is presumed to generate, a piece should be perceivable and understandable by a listener. With new or difficult music this often arises in the form of a protest: “Nobody could hear that!”, followed by a detailed story of exactly how it could not be heard. The response is usually in the form: “I can”, followed by a detailed story of exactly how it could be, and of exactly how, presumably, it was, in fact, heard. Years ago, listening to some early Stockhausen or other, I realized that the least interesting aspect of it, for me, was the fact that it happened to be twelve-tone. I asked myself then why exactly it should matter that the generating structure (the chart) should be what we understand or perceive the piece to be.
One of the underlying points made by Benjamin Boretz, in Meta-Variations: Studies in the Foundations of Musical Thought is the notion that carefully analyzing our methods of thinking about music can reveal alternatives to those methods, and that in so doing new musical possibilities could be invented. I make no claim that I was the first to try this, but sometime in the 1990’s I asked myself what music might sound like if I redefined, for compositional purposes, the idea of the modular interval. In other words, what would happen if notes an octave apart weren’t treated as the same note, if some other interval were treated as generating matching pitch classes? Specifically I started inventing systems in which the modular interval (traditionally 12 semi-tones) was redefined to be 17 semi-tones (an octave plus a Perfect 4th). Since then I have written many of these “mod 17” pieces, using both content-determinate and order-determinate systems.
I have found that, in practice, thinking along these lines tends to loosen the ties between designed-in structures and my listening perception of what is going on in the music, often to the point where I doubt whether the chart could possibly be derived, even with careful analysis of the score, from the music itself. A problem, perhaps, just not my problem. For me it has been exhilarating. Among other things, it operates as a subtle fracturing of the idea of the note as the atom of musical thought, an exciting result.
In Corollaries I wondered what would happen if I took the 17 integer row I have been working with recently and, instead of applying it to the pitch-classes as a tone row, apply it instead to the intervals between pitches, as an “interval row”—ignoring, as it were, what the notes are as pitch-classes and shifting syntactic emphasis to the relations between them. Of course intervals, being relations and not objects, have some interesting qualities. Is it an interval up or an interval down? Is the inversion of the interval also fair game? For my first foray I decided to go as dirt simple as I could. For (Up’s Up) I present the interval row (in three interval-transpositions) as a series of intervals going up (flipping around to the bottom when I run out of keyboard). (Down’s Down) is the same but with descending intervals. (Up’s Down) are the inversions descending from top to bottom and (Down’s Up) are the inversions from bottom to top.
St. Helena is a small and extremely remote island in the South Atlantic. It was used by the British as a waypoint during ocean crossings and is a prominent feature in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Mason & Dixon. I have never visited St. Helena, and I probably never will, but Pynchon’s description left a powerful impression on me, particularly his line, “The Wind, brutal and pure, is there for its own reasons.” As I began to get a sense for this piece and where it wanted to go, this scene from Pynchon’s novel, this idea of constant wind, brutal and pure, resonated strongly with me.
In the piece, I deal with the issue of time as a constant, unavoidable parameter. I wanted to comment on the rather peculiar phenomena of the performer having a click-track which only they can hear and in doing so explore the idea of ever-present but rarely instantiated time.
Saxophonist and composer Neil Welch will debut Exit Cycles—four brief compositions for tenor/soprano saxophones and mezzo-soprano vocalist. Neil will be joined by Danielle Sampson, a widely-acclaimed vocalist who recently moved to Seattle from San Francisco. Exit Cycles came to light while reading William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell, and Neil’s work here addresses the experience of entering into and exiting from the artistic process in day to day living.