When everything is surprising, nothing is surprising. That’s today’s observation with respect to experimental electronic music. When a musical style has no norms, no method of organization that gives shape and structure to the musical ideas, then we can formulate, at any given moment, no guess about what may be about to happen in the next five or ten seconds. Anything might happen, and no matter what it is, it will be equally surprising. Consequently, whatever happens, it won’t be surprising at all.

The only norm I’ve been able to detect is that the composer’s attention span is typically somewhere between 20 and 90 seconds. At some point within that span, the composer is likely to decide to change something — to do something different. But as a norm, that’s not much help for listeners. Something is likely to change, but we can’t begin to guess how it will relate to what we’re hearing now.

Or rather, since music is comprehended retrospectively, by analyzing (quickly and subconsciously) the last few events we’ve heard, when something new happens we will be unable to perceive any coherent relationship between the new thing and whatever preceded it.

In classical composition, on the other hand, stylistic norms are constantly in play. A classical piece is rather like a work of fiction: We don’t know what may happen next. There is suspense. There is uncertainty. But after it has happened, we’re able to perceive that whatever happened was more or less inevitable. In fiction, the sense of inevitability arises from our understanding of human nature and the characters in the story. In music, the sense of inevitability arises from our knowledge of the norms of the style.

The style permits certain types of relations among events, and precludes others. If a classical orchestra, in the midst of a performance of a Brahms symphony, were suddenly to start improvising free jazz, there would certainly be a moment of surprise. But the surprise would have nothing to do with the norms of Brahms’s style. Whereas, conversely, if Brahms modulates rather abruptly from E minor to C# minor, it’s surprising, but it’s within the normal bounds of the style. Assuming the piece started in E minor, we can anticipate that there will be further modulations, leading back eventually to E minor (or perhaps to E major). We already know something about the future, and we can be confident that Brahms won’t disappoint us!

No such prediction can be made, as far as I can see, about experimental electronic music. Or almost none. The norm of experimental music is to be ugly and jagged and avoid anything resembling traditional styles. If an experimental piece were suddenly to be interrupted by a fragment of a Chopin Nocturne, we could be reasonably confident that before very long Chopin would be ripped to shreds in some manner or other. To the extent that that’s a norm, it’s problematical, because who but a psychopath really wants to listen to ugly, jagged music for hours on end? A little of it can be quite nice, but too much just gives listeners a headache. This is why the audience for experimental music is so tiny. It’s not because listeners have been brainwashed by over-exposure to Beethoven — it’s because your music is ugly.

Wendy Carlos told me a story about this trend once. She did a statistical analysis of a bunch of 12-tone rows used in serial music by well-known composers. What she found was that the distribution of intervals in the rows was not random. The composers were deliberately using lots of minor seconds and tritones — the ugliest intervals — in order to avoid giving the impression that the music was tonal.

This is kind of sad, when you pause to think about it. These highly intelligent, creative people were going out of their way to avoid pleasing their listeners.

In experimental electronic music, of course, everything is a minor second or a tritone. There is no hierarchy of tone colors that would define something that would be stylistically or psycho-acoustically equivalent to a major triad.

I think I’m drifting back in the direction of tonal music. I’m looking at my modular synth and thinking, “This is about orchestration. Here are a bunch of new tone colors. How might they be used to add fresh but meaningful changes to a tonal piece in a regular meter?”

It’s clear that there are good and bad ways to do this. This morning on Pandora I heard Tomita’s rendition of the Debussy “Arabesque No. 1.” As orchestration, it’s a complete, abject failure.

Lots to think about.

Footnote: I think this video illustrates what I’m talking about. I love the sounds. (Also the blinky lights.) But is it music? Arguably not. I’m not hearing any perceptible formal relationship among the sounds, either at the large scale or at the local scale. And in the absence of such relationships … well, okay, technically it’s still music. But is it meaningful music? I’m not sure.

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9 Responses to Surprises

  1. Cameron Bobro says:

    I’m following your modular/composition journey with great interest!

    I’ll respond with a piece of synthesizer music, give me a day or two to finish it.

  2. Tom Bitondo says:

    Hey Jim,
    The reasons you outlined above are precisely why I’ve embraced the music of Bartok (specifically, the Mikrokosmos). They have a certain degree of being “out there” without losing the plot of the story, so to speak. I recently downloaded a master thesis from 1946 by someone who analyses them. He went into great details about the controlled dissonance and the reasons why people are drawn to it. At least for me, it was spot on. If you wish, I can send you a link from my Dropbox. Just shoot me a message on Facebook. It’s a huge file, since it is a scan of a typewritten paper! But I think it’s worth reading, to put a lot of this in perspective. Tom.

  3. Cameron Bobro says:

    Well, Jim Aikin, I made a musical reply to your musings on modular synthesis and contemporary compositional dilemmas.

    • midiguru says:

      Excellent — thanks for sharing! I like it partly because it’s tonal, I’m sure, but also because it has a definite form. The poem is good, too.

      • Cameron Bobro says:

        Thanks, Jim Aikin!

        For me, microtonality (“ Just Intonation” in this case) allows tonal progress “sideways” rather than a retreat. On paper, the piece would look laughably dissonant, full of “quartertones”, but obviously it doesn’t sound that way. Also I use “odd” and “complex” rhythms but bend over backwards to use them in an organic way so they go unnoticed at a conscious level.

        One great thing about modular synthesis is that you can morph in and out of pitched sound elegantly.

  4. wheel says:

    I’m sorry but this really is just nonsense. You like some music, you don’t like other music. Fine. You don’t like experimental electronic music ? Fine, I do. I also like free jazz, free improvisation and atonal contemporary music. I sometimes listen to it for ‘hours on end’ Why do you feel obliged to call me a psycopath ? Why the necessity for this pompous, self-entitled aggression ? Are you threatened by the realisation that you just don’t ‘get’ some music that others do. The ‘ugliest intervals’ to who ? You ? Fine, go listen to some music that you like, but please save us your condescending remarks about other musics. I also write music, some is melodic and completely tonal, some is not, and is probably what you would call ‘experimental’ So I guess I must be one of these people ‘going out of their way to avoid pleasing their listeners’ with their ‘ugly music’. What utter nonsense. Who exactly appointed you arbiter of beauty for this planet.You, sir, are a fool. And a pompous fool at that.

    • midiguru says:

      Here’s the thing, Wheel: I’m entitled to have opinions on these matters. I’m also entitled to articulate my opinions, privately or publicly. Because I’m a professional writer, I will sometimes present my opinions in colorful or provocative ways. No one is obliged to agree with me.

      What I have observed in the past, and what I suspect may underlie your tirade, is that people who love music that is chaotic and ugly are often defensive about their tastes. If you criticize the music they love, some of them have a tendency to blow up. I suspect — and I’m not a trained psychologist, but I’ve been around the block a few times — that this reaction is due to the fact that chaotic experimental music attracts people who WANT to feel neglected and misunderstood.

      Every genre of music attracts certain people for extra-musical reasons. People who like country music may live in a small crowded apartment, but they love to imagine that they’re living on a ranch and that they’re “real folks.” People who like classical music enjoy imagining that they’re part of a cultural elite, maintaining the standards of civilization against the encroaching hordes of mediocrity. People who love death metal … well, I’ll let you fill in the blanks on that one. So it’s not at all surprising that experimental music attracts people who have a certain mindset.

      You’re entitled to feel aggrieved, certainly. You’re entitled to express your aggravation. But because this IS a public forum, you DO run the risk that someone will comment on what you’ve said, and perhaps attempt to analyze your motives. That’s the way the blogosphere works. You’ve analyzed my motives (rightly or wrongly). I’ve responded by analyzing your motives (rightly or wrongly). So we’re even, okay?

      To be a little more specific, the tip-off to your motivation lies in the sentence, “Who exactly appointed you arbiter of beauty for this planet[?]”. The answer, patently, is, nobody did. I don’t think of myself as the arbiter of beauty for this planet or any other planet. I’m just a guy with an opinion and a blog. Yet you have, in your imagination, elevated me to some sort of exalted position from which, you imagine, I am attacking you. It’s all in your head, dude. Get over it.

  5. Ricardo says:

    good article, and fiery comments 🙂

    “highly intelligent, creative people were going out of their way to avoid pleasing their listeners.” Jim, there are people out there piercing their whole bodies, inking their eyes and whatever else brings more pain. There’s always an audience for the most degrading stuff someone can come up with, that’s the sad reality of mankind.

    I don’t have to listen to shit just because it’s all we got, specially in the day and information age. same for everything else…

    ah, and pleased to meet you. I’ve played and enjoyed some of your IF works.

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