void

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.

Introductions, part 1

Well, there's just one introduction. It's the most unified section of the piece. It will actually have a standard score with a time signature, bar lines, and synchronized parts. I knew the kind of texture I wanted; it came out of an improvisation with Impulse back before the holidays. The primary gesture is based on the physicality of playing the piano in the low register, thumbs together, alternating hands playing "random" notes within a generally fixed range in a fast, regular pattern. The pitches aren't important except in that they should not overly emphasize any particular pitch. Of course, as we know from the history of serial music, it requires some kind of non-intuitive system to make an even distribution of pitches sound just right. In my improvisation a couple months ago I felt like I was getting the right texture intuitively, but when it comes to making decisions about pitches to go down on paper I felt I needed to go to the computer to generate a texture closer to my improvisation. Besides, while my improvisation

felt

 right, without a recording I can't be objective enough about it (not to mention I can't transcribe what I played). Intuition is a dangerous place to spend too much time :)

I went to Max because it's very flexible. I built a very rudimentary patch that outputs MIDI information directly to Sibelius. Here's a picture:

The toggle in the upper left turns on the patch. The metro object bangs the toggle below resulting in alternating 0s and 1s. The 0s go to the "left hand" side of the patch, which generates the left hand notes, and the 1s go to the "right hand" side. Both sides are essentially parallel, generating numbers between 48 (the MIDI number for C3) and 48+6 (or 54, F-sharp3). The left hand side is then lowered 7 semitones, producing the range of F2 to B2. The result is alternating left hand and right hand notes, each hand covering the range of a tritone, which fits very comfortably under the hand.

Once I decided the length of the gestures, I added the objects on the right side of the patch to add a curve to the gesture (more on the length of the gestures below). The center pitch above is MIDI note 48 (C3), or 21 semitones above E-flat1, a tritone above the lowest note on the keyboard (i.e. as low as possible without the left hand running off the keyboard). During my original improvisation I moved gradually to the bottom of the keyboard, and I wanted to recreate that gesture here. I tried to descend by semitone every measure for 21 measures, but found the descent was too regular for my liking. By connecting the

itable

object to the transposition factor (see figure above), I could control the rate of descent. I simply drew the curve that I wanted with my mouse (of course, I had to set the parameter of the

itable

first--in the example above I knew I needed 377 notes, so the x-axis was set to 377). The transposition factor adjusts the center pitch, which is 48 by default, thereby lowering all the pitches proportionally. When the curve reaches the bottom of the

itable

, the transposition is 21 semitones down, for the bottom of the keyboard.

The form of the introduction

The introduction is around 2:20 in length, but it gradually dissipates into the main body of the piece making the ending of this section ambiguous. It represents no more than 10% of the entire work, and probably a little less. I first thought of it as a stand-alone, unrelated section, but now I think of it as crucial to the development of the three component pieces: In the beginning the three are integrated into one gesture, but during the course of this introduction, they begin to foreshadow their distinctive behaviors and come apart from one another. If the idea for the entire work is three separate pieces, the introduction tells the story of how they became separate.

The first 30 seconds or so is an extended reproduction of the improvisatory piano gesture I described above. Percussion and the electric guitar join in unison or octaves, dynamically coloring the piano's timbre. This is notated by 377 sixteenth notes. After one sixteenth rest, the same gesture is played again, but shorter this time--233 sixteenth notes. Then another sixteenth rest precedes a third gesture taking 144 sixteenth notes. There are twelve gestures like this, each getting shorter according to the Fibonacci series down to a one-sixteenth-note gesture. The rests between each gesture (#thevoid) get progressive longer according to the same series.

These rests between each piano/percussion/guitar gesture are filled in by harmonic series chords in the winds, strings, and sopranos. Conceptually, I just wanted static surface texture to contrast with the active sixteenth-note surface. However, as the piano's active texture is colored by the percussion and electric guitar, the static-texture interruption is also elaborated somewhat. The primary static material is found initially in the bassoon and clarinet (though these may change later in the introduction--it's not finished yet). The first static gesture is only one sixteenth note, so in order to avoid it blending too much into the piano/percussion/guitar texture, I orchestrated the event with some higher-frequency resonance. This resonance is found in the flute and string harmonics, and it is sustained somewhat longer than the single sixteenth note played by the bassoon and clarinet. The singers, too, project this idea of resonance with even longer (approximately two measures) passages of unisons and close-voiced harmonies that slowly change.

As the static gestures get longer they come to dominate the surface of the music. From a position of practicality the resonances must either get shorter (because the time between gestures is getting shorter) or begin to wash over the beginning of the next gesture. I will play with this, probably alternating between abrupt changes with no resonance and resonances that become asynchronous with the static event rhythm (think of waves crashing irregularly on a beach). The nature of the soprano parts as harmonically dynamic resonances will begin to change to more static material that will eventually lose prominence to the strings and winds, which will gradually become more active. The sopranos' movement toward stasis will foreshadow the beginning of sopranos' large-scale gesture, which begins quite statically. The winds/strings' growing prominence will signal, by the end of the introduction, the beginning of isorhythmic texture that will dominate those instruments' large-scale gesture. The piano/percussion/guitar part, with its curves in pitch space, foreshadows the tempo curves that will dominate the behavior of those instruments later.

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

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