Now that I’ve spent a fairly ridiculous amount of money on a modular synthesizer, I’m challenging myself to figure out what to do with it. The challenge is this: My whole life has been spent listening to, playing, and composing music that was built out of notes. Or let’s say notes, chords, and phrases. Groups of notes are almost always organized either vertically into chords or horizontally into phrases. In fact, it’s reasonable to say that if a sound of a fixed pitch and duration is heard, but has no relationship to other sounds of fixed pitch, either vertically or horizontally, it’s not a note. The idea of “note” embodies the idea of a certain kind of organization.
It’s certainly possible to play notes, chords, and phrases with a modular synth. But it’s not the best tool for the job. If you want to play note-based electronic music, a software system (Propellerhead Reason, for instance, or Steinberg Cubase and a few good VST plug-ins) is a much better choice. Using software, you can store and recall your sounds. You can keep the same set of notes and try it with different sounds, or vice-versa — and you can come back to the stored piece a month later and try out different combinations.
With a modular synth, you can certainly record reams of audio to your computer, cut and paste useful segments, add effects, and do a mix. But once you’ve pulled apart the chord-generating patch to do a bass, percussion, or melodic patch, getting the chord patch back again the next day will be difficult and perhaps impossible. As a result, the process of assembling a note-oriented piece using a modular synth faces some serious roadblocks.
On the other side of the aisle, quite a lot of composers are using modular synths and other kinds of electronics to perform and record new kinds of music. For the most part, however, this music is not based on the manipulation of notes, chords, and phrases. The predominant elements seem to be gesture and texture. A gesture or texture may contain a line of fixed pitches, which we may as well call notes, or it may not. But if it does, what order the notes are in doesn’t matter, because note order and note relationships are not parameters that are likely to be manipulated by the composer in meaningful ways. A line of notes is simply a gesture or a texture; it floats almost entirely free of the baggage of the last 400 years of European/American composition.
This is not a bad thing. I happen to like Bach and Haydn a lot, but (if Wendy Carlos will forgive my saying so) it’s fairly clear that Bach and Haydn don’t provide the best models for what is being done or might be done to create new music with a modular synthesizer.
The question, then, is this: How do (or how can) electronic gestures and textures relate to one another in meaningful ways within a piece? We can talk about how one texture evolves into another. We can talk about sudden contrasts, where one texture is replaced by another. We can talk about background gestures and foreground gestures. We can talk about dark moods, peaceful moods, and agitated moods. But how do these elements fit together to make a satisfying piece of music?
As I listen to how composers like Morton Subotnick are using these elements, it’s fairly clear that they’re doing something. They’re not just throwing bits together at random. But what are they doing? I don’t know.
Footnote: Last month I played Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Preludes in an orchestral concert. It goes through a number of moods — mysterious, playful, frantic, triumphal. Here’s the thing, though: All of the sections are united by the use of the same three-note motif. He transforms it in all sorts of clever ways, but once you know it’s there, you can’t miss it. That’s how classical composers did it in the 19th century, and it’s an effective way to unify what is, in other respects, a somewhat straggling or disjointed piece. Is there an equivalent technique in electronic music?