Notes vs. Process

As a hobbyist-level computer programmer, I find Csound very attractive. As a composer, I find Csound almost impossibly balky and difficult to use.

The key difference is, I’m an old-school composer. My music is made of notes, which are deployed in phrases, measures, and chord progressions. If you want to write notes, other programs (FL Studio, Reason, Cubase, and so on) are much, much easier to use than Csound. Or you could use pencil and paper, there’s an idea.

Csound is dragging me (whimpering gently) toward a different kind of composing — toward a music based on process. A Csound piece lasting five minutes might have only a single “note,” or maybe eight or ten of them, in its event list. Each of those note events, however, would or could have a very complex internal structure — an unfolding process. You could work out ways to make process music in FL Studio, Reason, or Cubase, but it would be as tricky and time-consuming as getting Csound to play notes. You couldn’t do process music at all using a pencil and paper.

Notes are organized into phrases, and the phrases have a cognizable syntax. The syntax is based on what other composers have written, and on what improvisers have played. The syntax (whether or not it happens to be based closely on the “common practice” period in classical music) is part of our common musical heritage. A single note is not very interesting or meaningful by itself; it acquires meaning through its syntactic relations with other nearby notes.

Our brains perceive the patterns in the note groups. We appreciate the patterns, and we also predict, quite naturally and unconsciously, what patterns we’ll hear next, our predictions being based on the shared syntax of note-based music. Note-based composition is all about fulfilling and/or playing tricks with listeners’ unconscious predictions. The classic example is the deceptive cadence, but really almost everything in Mozart and Beethoven is based on that scheme.

The reason so much of the “modern” music of the 20th century is boring and unlistenable is because composers deliberately set about making it impossible to perceive and predict the patterns of notes. They were misled by an attractive but deeply flawed theory of musical progress.

Minimalism goes the other direction. Minimalist composers — at least those who come from a traditional classical background — still use notes. But perceiving and predicting the patterns in minimalism is, by design, very easy indeed. The patterns change slowly (except when they change suddenly), and part of the point of the music is to listen so attentively that you’ll notice tiny changes.

Do minimalist composers like Steve Reich build phrases using a syntax that’s shared widely across our musical culture, in the manner that Beethoven and Brahms did? I don’t know. Probably not.

Dance music, like minimalism, is highly repetitive. It’s more formulaic in its insistence on 4/4 time and a rigid scheme of 2-, 4-, and 8-bar phrases, but within that framework, dance music is a lot like classical minimalism. What they have in common is that they center the listener in the now. The music isn’t going anywhere: It’s already there. Composers from Bach to Debussy were restless. They used syntactic complexity to keep the music moving forward. This may have been an expression of their culture, which was certainly restless. On the other hand, our culture is hardly restful. Maybe minimalism serves as a temporary escape from an insane culture — there’s a thought.

Music based on process rather than on notes can be calm or intensely energetic, happy or despairing, but it isn’t restless. It has no syntax that would require forward motion toward a goal. There are no deceptive cadences, because it’s not possible for the listener to formulate any expectations.

But how do you write music without using notes? I have only the vaguest notions about that. Fortunately, Csound provides a terrific set of tools for exploring the question.

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