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.