meaning

Kristen Schaal is still a horse

One of my teachers in graduate school used to say the difference in repetition and reiteration is that repetition diminishes meaning while reiteration increases meaning.

The repetition in musical Minimalism (think Reich's Come Out or Glass's Einstein on the Beach) is my go-to example for evaluating meaning, or the change in meaning, in repetition. In my own experience, my perception changes gradually over time even when listening to this kind of music. First, I sense the repetition on a local level ("Oh, this isn't going to change, huh?"). Second, I become annoyed and impatient (this happens less now than it used to). Third, I give in and slip into a different mode of perception (some people think of this as a trance; it comes with practice)--a mode that allows me to connects dots that are farther apart, so to speak. The big picture comes into focus and time becomes less important--like I'm looking at a picture, with the freedom to direct my intentionality around a space rather than being locked in the moment, as in traditional goal-oriented music.

I heard a Radiolab episode recently called Loops that dealt with a couple of things that reminded me of musical Minimalism and raised a couple questions about the meaning of repetition. One of the vignettes deals with the composer William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, a series of recordings of old, decayed analog tape loops repeating until they literally disintegrate. This certainly follows one common model of Minimalism: A gradually transforms into B. In addition to the listener's perception changing over time, the music changes literally, though almost imperceptibly.

Kristen Schaal Is a Horse, which is dealt with the episode's first vignetter, on the other hand doesn't change. It is literally AAAAAA.... It's a comedy (or anti-comedy) bit she does with Kurt Braunohler (there's a video below, check it out). But unlike the musical Minimalists, Schaal and Braunohler don't change gradually (except as a result of the physical demands of the performance--hoarse voice (no pun), for example). They seem to undermine even the assumption that something must change, progress, evolve, etc. In the world of comedy this is an extreme version of jokes that run absurdly long on purpose (the giant chicken on Family Guy, for example). My perception of these too-long jokes is analogous to my perception of musical Minimalism (i.e. become aware of the repetition, become frustrated that it's going on too long, then give in), except in this case giving in means to laugh. The transparent, literal repetition in the Schaal/Braunohler gives us a good way to control for the change in perception that occurs (if any). My perception does change; in fact it does all the work. At the end* Kristin Schaal may still be a horse, but the viewer has just experienced a surprisingly rich perceptual journey precisely because nothing happened.

*I understand they have done this bit for up to 10 minutes or more in some performances (or maybe it just felt that way to some people--I haven't seen a longer video).


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.

©2017 Joshua Harris