Beethoven

Everything and Nothing

Jerry Seinfeld did an AMA on Reddit awhile back. Eventually someone asked him about the "show about nothing."

How did Seinfeld come to be? What obstacles did you face when pitching your idea of a show about "nothing"? Who supported you and who didn't?

The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it's the opposite of that.

The opposite of that? So it's a show about something? Everything? Anything? Being? Of course it is. It's a show about the minutiae of daily life--those tiny things that we are so familiar with that we presume we don't need to talk about them. But Seinfeld did talk about those things: the close talker, man hands, the insecurities and neuroses that we all struggle with (double dipping, etc.). Seinfeld was a show about being.

Anyway it got me thinking about the void and nothingness, and I couldn't help remembering the "silent piece" that John Cage wrote, 4'33". Cage uses silence to point our intentionality toward the mundane sounds that surround us all the time. This is like the Sufi idea that the void points us to God. By not saying his name, or painting his picture, we are more aware of his presence. That's a powerful idea. The absence of something forces us to take notice of that thing. A shadow is the absence of light, for example, and a shadow is an immediate sign pointing to the thing that casts the shadow. When Beethoven delays the recapitulation of a symphony movement, the immediate result is the listener thinking about the recapitulation. Nothing always signals something.

Dissertation Proposal

Introduction

The original composition will be a single-movement work for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, electric guitar, piano, two percussionists, and three sopranos. Though it will be a single movement, I think of it conceptually as three overlapping movements, each being independent and distinct. In other words, I will be thinking carefully about experimental approaches to and interpretations of form, not as a simple delineation of linear time, but as counterpoint between contrasting musics.

The impetus for this approach will be discussed in detail in the critical essay. I think of this project as another step in a rich tradition of music, visual art, and prose that explores such concepts as circularity, deferred resolution, stasis, and the void as metaphorical constructs. The critical essay will elaborate on this tradition and make connections between various composers, artists, and writers with my own work.

Overview of the original composition

The original composition for mixed chamber ensemble will focus on formal counterpoint. By formal counterpoint I mean relationships and interactions between temporally discrete sections of music that will be cut, superimposed, merged, and permuted in a variety of ways. Each of three formal sections ("sections" is used loosely since they will overlap with each other temporally) will focus on a single, distinct systematic approach to composition and, to various degrees, on groupings of instruments. The first section will be primarily played by the flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, and electric guitar. The second section will be primarily played by the piano and two percussionists. The third section will be primarily performed by three sopranos. I have chosen these grouping to achieve a relatively homogenous tone color in each section (although there is obviously variety in the degrees of homogeneity in tone color—the singers being more so, for example, than the winds and strings). Sometimes various instruments may leave their group to join another group or to perform in a secondary section.

Section I (flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, electric guitar) will focus on isorhythm. I will base all of the parts in this group on four taleae and four colores. There will also likely be taleae based on patterns of accents and dynamics. The taleae will also be permuted by various processes and may migrate among the five instruments.

Section II (piano, percussion) will focus on tempo curves. These tempo curves will be transcribed from click-tracks generated by a computer. The content of these instruments' parts will be single notes or short non-pitched gestures that accelerate or decelerate according to the tempo curves. Not all of the curves will be heard all the time, but they will fade in and out. Other instruments outside this group will be included as the gestures become more pitched. A single audio file will be created to be played along with this group to bolster the texture and to ensure precision with very small tempo variations.

Section III (singers) will be more focused on teleological motion from speech phonemes devoid of linguistic meaning toward clearly discernable, meaningful language. This motion will be imperceptibly slow and follow a complex system with multiple layers of change happening constantly. The text will finally be heard at the end of the composition as the song sung by Vladimir at the beginning of Act 2 of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. This song summarizes the themes of circularity, stasis, and deferred hope that pervade the play—a verbal analogy for the kind of music explored in this dissertation:

A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a crust of bread.
Then cook up with a ladle
And beat him till he was dead.

Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb
And wrote upon the tombstone
For the eyes of dogs to come:

(repeat) A dog came in the kitchen, etc.

The overarching compositional idea governing all these sections is the notion that counterpoint happens on larger levels than traditionally understood by composers. This is merely an extension of the conceptual evolution of counterpoint during the past 100 years. Each of the sections described above will have an independent form that could serve a stand-alone piece of music. The setting of these multiple pieces against one another in counterpoint, however, conveys a different level of meaning to each section.

Overview of the critical essay

I have always thought of composition as being, at its heart, a balancing act between various simultaneously occurring materials. This original composition will be an exaggerated expression of that idea. The critical essay will trace the process of composing this work and analyze the final product, but will also examine the musical and extra-musical influences and precedents for the work. Among the formal and compositional themes influencing the original composition are notions of the Void, stasis, patterns, and non-linearity. Among the many influences for this piece I will focus on a few especially relevant ones: isorhythms and serial procedures in Morton Feldman's Why Patterns?; patterns in Jasper Johns's crosshatch works like Usuyuki; formal counterpoint in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot; and The Void as perceived through a Sufist reading of the late works of Shakir Hassan Al Said.

Below is a proposed outline for the critical essay as well as a list of proposed resources.

Outline of the critical essay

Chapter I. Introduction

Chapter II. Patterns and Systems
    A. Historical precedents
        a. Serialism
        b. Minimalism
        c. Process music
    B. Patterns
        a. Analysis of Why Patterns and Usuyuki
        b. Analysis of the original composition, Section I (isorhythm)
    C. Algorithmic composition
        a. Analysis of the original composition, Section II (tempo curves)

Chapter III. The Void
    A. Notions of the Void
    B. Musical applications of the Void
        a. Negative space (Beethoven)
        b. Evocations of memory (Schubert)
        c. Inversion and other permutations (Webern)
        d. Defamiliarization and recontextualization (Wagner and Lachenmann)
    C. Semiotic networks
        a. How a thing might be emphasized or pointed to by its absence
        b. Sufist reading of Shakir Hassan Al Said's work
        c. Analysis of the original composition, Section III as a process that illuminates emerging signification

Chapter IV. Formal counterpoint
    A. Brief tracing of thought about conterpoint from Bach to Penderecki
    B. Juxtaposition and simultaneity
        a. The problem of non-linearity with respect to music as a temporal art
        b. Formal counterpoint in Beckett
    C. Counterpoint and memory
    D. Analysis of form in the original composition

Chapter V. Conclusion

Getting the question right

A few years ago I took a graduate seminar on aesthetics taught by Michael Hicks. We asked many questions like what is art? and what is music? Must it be man-made? Can an object's display in a museum alone make it art? Is the score the musical work? Must a musical work be performed? Can it exist in the mind? Can it be a recording? etc., etc. As it turns out, there were no good answers.

And that makes me wonder if we were asking the right questions. I could go on with some philosophical implications for various answers to the questions above, but to paraphrase composer Mark Applebaum, it bores me (at least right now it bores me). In fact, I should share a video of Applebaum's TED talk.


To sum it up, Applebaum says questioning whether something is music is to ask the wrong question. The right question he says, and I agree, is "Is it interesting?" So much ink has been wasted on criticism of classification.

Pixels, too. I just read the following comment on a YouTube video of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot:

"Is this the purpose of theater? I must explain myself, I really like the play, and in general Becket (sic), nevertheless is a masochistic pleasure. Every time it gets me, however, after that I feel terribly empty. Even banality can inspire art, but haven't we created art as an escape from banality? Is this the purpose of theater?"

The commenter really likes it! But still, he can't swallow it's classification as theater. Or rather, its fulfillment of the purpose of theater. When can we get past this modernist obsession with classification and uniformity? For one thing, it's arrogant. As though we are armchair experts on music or theater, knowing surprisingly little about being human ("haven't we created art as an escape from banality?"--who is this person and how does he know so much about art?). But the larger problem for me as a "composer" is that narrow definitions are restrictive. Of course I think that what I do is music. But I also see music in almost everything. In fact, I would say that I think of any dynamic relationship between moving parts as intrinsically "musical". But, what difference does it make in the grand scheme of things?

I appreciate Applebaum saying he doesn't write music like Beethoven. Bravo. I'm not bored with some pieces by Beethoven, I am bored with others. But boredom with old music (whatever that means!) is a trend I've noticed in my own listening.

(I having a feeling that's why orchestras are going broke--there must be a lot of people out there who find Beethoven boring. Orchestras are asking themselves "why don't people get this 200 year old music with its arcane rules on clapping?" and "how can we make young people interested in classical music?" Something tells me those are the wrong questions, too.)

©2017 Joshua Harris