Noise and meaning

In my mind sound mass music and noise music are similar. I'm not sure if that simply goes without saying or if scholars have already teased them apart in some way, but in both cases there is a kind of semiotic disruption; what we thought we knew about musical meaning (I mean we in the most general sense) is distorted to the point that it doesn't make sense as music. I'm not arguing that it isn't music, but Ligeti's Atmosphères doesn't make sense in the same way as a Schubert song. I'm also not arguing that music carries intrinsic meaning, and I accept that musical meaning is, or could be, the result of cultural conditioning. So, maybe one day someone will hear the Ligeti the way we here the Schubert. I think that will be the case, anyway.


I like music with some noise. I think I like it because the meaning is ambiguous; I have greater freedom to interpret it. I also like composing with noise partly because it removes the burden of dealing with universally understood meaning. A film score composer, for example, must be able to convey fairly specific senses or moods with music. I don't have to worry about it in a more abstract setting (i.e. the concert hall) because the listener has more freedom to interpret. I don't think that means noise music, or noise-in-music, is a cop out for the composer. Anyway, it makes sense for me given my formative musical experiences with rock music, with its distorted guitars, scream-singing, and drums. It's a legitimate musical impulse, and can be treated with skill in the same way Schubert, for example, treated melodies and harmonies.


I tend to think of sound mass music in two big styles: Penderecki's static blocks of microtonal clusters and Ligeti's (and Xenakis's) hyper-active surface counterpoint. I recognize there are more than two ways to skin a triad, but when I compose I think in terms of these two polarities. It occurred to me today, however, that I am beginning to develop my own approach. Basically, I layer semiotic music so densely that it can't be heard as semiotic. When I say semiotic I mean music that conveys some universally understood characteristic. (Is that vague enough?) For example if a person hears "I Wonder as I Wander" he or she will have some perceptual response based on previous experiences. Even if the person doesn't know the song, or lives in a non-Western musical culture, it will at least make sense as a melody. If a person hears Schubert's Der Wanderer, there will be a similar response.


In my piece The Wanderer for wind ensemble, I used both of these melodies to create a sound mass near the end of the piece. I layered "I Wonder as I Wander" five or six times in close imitation and transpositions. On top of that (and a lot of other stuff) I added motives from the Schubert. The result was music so dense that it prevented the perception of melodic and harmonic sense. This may not be noise in the strictly acoustic domain, but it is very much noise in the semiotic domain. (For me, it's really a combination of the two.) I think it's important for me to embed more comprehensible music in my noise music (or sound masses), even if they won't be heard as such, because that's what the modern world seems like to me. The metaphorical noise that we deal with on a daily basis (i.e. stress or anxiety) is not abstract or meaningless. Every fragment, every insignificant component part of the stress of modernity is a perfectly comprehensible thing. It is the sheer density of these component parts that makes it incomprehensible.


This is the backdrop against which I need to think about this dissertation. No one will describe this piece with the word "clarity." I've really been struggling as I write the piece and it becomes more and more real because I've been grasping, unsuccessfully, at clarity in the traditional semiotic sense (i.e. "Will this be perceived/easily understood as music?"). However, I don't want to let that struggle for clarity undermine the noise element.

Shepard tones

I've been struggling for a couple of weeks to decide how to end of this piece. I finally took a "just compose" course and started writing out notes. Soon I realized I was doing something like Shepard tones, so I thought, "Maybe I'll do this for awhile and then end it." Then I went through everything I had written up to this point and timed it. The passage shown below corresponds approximately to the jagged, angular section in the sopranos, beginning around 13:30. It ends about 15:30, but is just beginning to pick up some momentum at that point (haven't filled in everything yet in this picture). I began to realize that this could be the way I build to the end. It's a simple way to gradually layer repeated figures to thicken the texture. The timing is almost perfect. But the best thing about the Shepard tone* is its representation of circularity. Considering the selection of the text with its circular form, and that it will become intelligible as language during this passage, I think this is a bit of serendipity to have happened on the Shepherd tone.


*) Of course this isn't a real Shepard tone, but it is a stylized approximation similar to the one found in Ligeti's etude "The Devil's Staircase."

Composing in the void

I vaguely remember Steven Johnson talking about the patterns in Feldman's Why Patterns when I was in his 20th century history class back in 2007. Yesterday I came across the collection of essays he edited,The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts, and was happily surprised to see that the volume ends with his essay "Jasper Johns and Morton Feldman: What Patterns?" I haven't finished it yet, but the description of patterns in Johns's cross-hatch painting Usuyuki stopped me in my tracks. I'll paraphrase Johnson's description (using a different painting from the same series) and show a variation on an example in his book.

Johns,  Usuyuki  (1979)

Johns, Usuyuki (1979)

Usuyuki is good example of stasis through motion. It appears kind of all-over, random, on the surface, but on a larger level it moves downward as it moves left to right (I assume you can see the division of the work into 3 panels, and each panel into 9 self-contained blocks). What I find especially interesting is that the system (it's not at all random) is not restricted to the visible portion of the work. Or a better way of putting it is the system includes content that will never be seen by the viewer. Of course blocks A-F will eventually show up in the second and third panels, but they actually exist as part of the concept in the first panel where they are not seen.

Last spring I wrote a piece called Don't cross the streams for solo horn and computer music that is based on the idea of multiple "streams" happening simultaneously despite the fact that the horn meanders among these, and only one "stream" is heard at any point in time.

I'm reminded of a criticism of Ligeti's music along the lines of Why write such intricate and systematic canons when they will never be audible in the texture. So why create something that will never be seen or heard? This gets me to the Void, an idea that deeply informs my aesthetic.

The void as I understand it comes primarily from Seyyed Hossein Nasr's writings on Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. He summarized it this way: "…[T]he void, or that which is empty of things becomes a trace and an echo of God in the created order, for through its very negation of ‘things’ it points to that which is above and beyond all things. The void, therefore, is the symbol of both the transcendence of God and His presence in all things" (Islamic Art and Spirituality, 186). This is one explanation of aniconism in Islamic art, which moved Islamic art toward abstractions centuries before Western modernism. But, the concept of the trace and echo resonate with me. Negation, inversion, etc. are profound ways of pointing directly at something. Those inaudible or invisible parts of a system (the "created order") are echoed by the audible and visible parts. They are often crucial to a complete understanding of a work of music or art.

©2017 Joshua Harris