As part of my ongoing quest to learn more about how music is being made, or might be made, with a modular synthesizer, I’ve been having a few discussions on Facebook. This morning I found myself using the phrase “interlocking layers of organization” to describe conventional composition. I think that phrase provides a useful way of looking at the topic.

The first question that might be asked is, does experimental electronic music (or for that matter experimental acoustic music) exhibit anything comparable to the interlocking layers of organization found in conventional classical composition? If so, I’d love to have someone point out where I can find those layers, and how I can come to understand them. In the absence of any musical examples accompanied by a clear analysis, I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer is no.

The second question is, does that matter? Assuming that my answer to the first question is accurate, does the absence of this type of organization have any significance, either to listeners or to composers? I would argue that it does. Not to all listeners, certainly. There are people who love improvisatory, aleatoric, or simply bewildering music. That’s fine. If you enjoy it, I’m happy for you. In the end, I can only speak for myself. But on the off-chance that others may be interested in these questions, I’m going to try to show how it matters.

You’ll find this type of organization in almost every measure of every piece of classical music, from before Bach up through Stravinsky and beyond. It’s perceptible to the listener. And not only perceptible but satisfying. It satisfies a deep human need for order.

I happen to be familiar with a number of Bach’s keyboard pieces; they provide as good a set of examples as any of this kind of order. Let’s look at the opening movement of the Second Partita, for instance. At the highest level, this movement, a Sinfonia, falls into three very definite contrasting sections. Bach’s movements are seldom laid out in this tripartite manner, but he loved to do things in threes and multiples of three, possibly for religious reasons. So the fact that there are three sections may be significant. The first section is a dramatic overture, only seven measures long. The second section is a free two-part invention with a rapidly flowing melody. The third section is an insistent, almost obsessive two-voice fugue with a three-measure subject in 3/4 time.

The movement is in C minor, but the first two sections both end on a G chord — the dominant. This makes it clear, at least to listeners who are familiar with the conventions of tonal music, that the movement is not finished, that more is to be revealed. Interestingly, however, the first G cadence is clearly a half-cadence; we’re still in the key of C. Prior to the second G cadence, we’ve modulated to the key of G minor. This is a full cadence. And yet it’s positioned at the beginning of the bar in the new time signature. In other words, this “final” cadence in G isn’t final at all. It forces us onward.

The second section makes repeated and prominent use of a rising scale of an octave — first in C minor, then in F minor, and finally (twice) as a C minor scale under a Neapolitan flat II chord in G minor. The rising scale is then taken up, in a slightly elaborated, intensified form, as the main fugue subject of the third section. In this section it rises a minor ninth rather than an octave.

But in fact, this idea (the rising scale that traverses a minor ninth) has appeared in disguised form in the first section. It’s disguised by dropping back an octave after the first three notes, but in bars 2 through 4 there’s a clear rising scale from G up to B-flat, then dropping back to a lower B-flat and rising again to an A-flat. This kind of detail probably isn’t noticed by most listeners, but arguably it contributes in subconscious fashion to the listener’s appreciation of the Sinfonia as a single unified piece rather than as a set of three unconnected bits. In the same way, the opening melody of the overture section (E-flat rising to A-flat and then falling back to E-flat) has much the same contour as the opening melody of the middle section (C rising to E-flat and then falling back to C). It’s an open question whether Bach was even consciously aware that he was creating these details, but he was a genius, so even if he wasn’t consciously aware of them, it’s inevitable that his creative unconscious knew perfectly well what it was doing.

I could go on at great length. I could point out how the fugue subject is stated in many different ways — never the same way twice. I could point out sequences in all three sections, or how the left and right hands trade off with the subject and counter-subject. I could analyze the harmony in more detail. But I trust the point I’m making is clear. All of these types of organization are present, simultaneously, and they’re all perceptible, simultaneously. If they weren’t perceptible, their presence would have no meaning. But the movement is meaningful, and its meaning is to be found not only in the emotional textures of the three contrasting sections, but in the details of their construction.

If you don’t know this kind of thing is going on, I suppose it might slide right past you. You might find listening to Bach as boring as trying to follow a conversation in Italian when you don’t speak Italian. The question I’m looking at is whether experimental music is genuinely a language, capable of conveying ideas in the way that Bach’s music does, or whether it’s just a bunch of babbling. And if it’s just babbling, is there any way in which it might be organized so that it might cease to be babbling and acquire meaning?

Or am I barking up the wrong tree? Is experimental music somehow meaningful to composers and listeners in a way that has nothing to do with syntax or semantics?


8 thoughts on “Interlocking Organization

  1. Here’s a rather good analysis of Morton Subotnick’s Sidewinder (bottom of article):

    Granted, it’s rare to find proper analyses of any experimental [electronic] music work, but perhaps that’s simply due to the fact that it isn’t easy to do so, mostly because there are often no [traditional, or known] musical methods or schemes to refer to. This applies to both a reviewer, and a listener… If one would try to analyse, or seek “recognisable patterns” in an experimental work from within the [familiar] boundaries of a classical framework, the result would most likely end up being nill, or questionable, or just going-nowhere.

    Trying to use “what-is-known” and applying this to find “interlocking organisation” within such works, is moot, and will only give you non-satisfying questions, and no answers [in as far as “an answer” would be needed anyway]. The musical rules as-we-know-them simply do not apply to most experimental works, otherwise they wouldn’t be experimental in the first place.

    Experiments often only exist because of humans’ need to “shift boundaries”, to break through the known barriers, and to point us to other possibilities beyond the familiar. Sometimes it’s only that, sometimes the work has deeper roots and meaning, though that isn’t really necessary all the time. Sometimes “the shock of the new” is enough to shift our view(s), to make us realise that there’s things beyond the familiar, if only we open up ourselves to it. Remember what Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” did to the early-20th century audience — it was then as unfamiliar to them as it is familiar to us now.

    Perhaps within a few decades, some experimental music will sound as “normal” to us, and recognisable, as Bach is to us now?

    Listen to some original Javanese gamelan music. It uses unfamiliar scales and rhythms to our Western ears, and sometimes the musicians even re-tune their instruments to yet another-slightly-different scale whilst playing, which makes it very hard for our Western-trained ears to find or recognise the “interlocking organisation”. Still, it’s there, as it has been for many hundreds of years. It doesn’t take practice nor skill for the Javanese audience to hear it and admire it, but it does for us.

    That said, to me personally, the “better” experimental compositions do have some sort of correlation going on; which might be seen as a subset of your “interlocking organisation”. If there is a correlation between timbres, rhythm(s), [pitch] intervals, dynamics, etc — and those correlations are not necessarily related to the compositional tools we’re familiar with, we might just have enough at hand to listen to this composition over and over again, and still discover new things, often buried far beneath (or beyond?) familiar territory.

    We do need the Picassos and Ligetis and Subotnicks and Warhols, if only to push us further, to make us realise that human creativity has no boundaries. That doesn’t mean that anything before those artists isn’t any good anymore (or, for that matter, anything after would be inherently “good”), it’s just… different. It demands a different mindset and a different framework of reference, which do not necessarily refer back to the known.

    Referring back to the unknown Italian you speak of… yes, it might be boring when you try to understand it (but you don’t). But if you try to listen to it in a completely different way — NOT trying to understand it, but rather listen to its beautiful and vivid timbres, staccato’s, pitch-bendings, and so on… you might suddenly perceive it as something musical, attractive, and intriguing. You only don’t understand it because you don’t know its [secret] interlocking organisation, but once you do (which requires study), a whole new world will open up, as an *addition* to its musicality, pleasant timbre, and so forth… You will also find out, perhaps to your surprise, that it uses a different interlocking organisation than the one you’re familiar with (English, in this case).

    Admittedly, in many cases [of experimental electronic music] there’s only “babbling”. That might not be satisfying in the long run, but sometimes just some loose babbling (chit-chat?) is enough. Maybe the babbling was only meant to be just and only that, to and for the composer him/herself ? But even in that case, that’s enough justification to call it “music”. Because it was meaningful to the composer.

    /// hopefully this doesn’t come across as pedantic or patronising; it certainly isn’t meant so.


    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments! Much appreciated. I love gamelan, by the way. I own half a dozen CDs of authentic gamelan, and enjoy listening to them … without, of course, understanding exactly what’s going on. I’ve read a bit about the melodic modes, but the method of organization quite eludes me. Nonetheless, I can perceive and appreciate that there IS organization.

      1. Gamelan, yes… strange things (in the best of ways).
        All what I’ve read about it — in order to understand it a bit — has been written by Western observers/musicians. But I think that none of our Western rules (scales, rhythms, etc) apply to any or much of theirs (implying they *have* rules, which might not really be), so it’s bound to be wrong or at least mis-interpreted anyway. They don’t really know about Fsharp or F-almost-sharp or any note we know of; but we can only try to do an interpretation starting from what we [Westerners] already know. It’s a bit like trying to translate ancient hieroglyphs to a Roman-based language (or, e.g. from Khmer to English): we can only approach it with our vastly underpowered script (e.g. Khmer has over 70 letters in its ehm, alphabet), so it’s going to be off in any case.

        And I think the same applies to experimental [electronic] music. We can only try to interpret/translate it with the tools we’re familiar with, but we will always fall short to some degree. Therefore I feel we shouldn’t try it, or we shouldn’t seek “organisation” (or similar) in it. It might be there, or not; but most likely it’s something we haven’t “recorded” yet — familiar references are lacking. Hence: do not try to “translate” it.

        Still, I think I know to what kind of experimental electronic music you are referring to in your article…
        Back in the old days when I started with EM — some centuries ago, it seems — we often called “that kind” of music “biep-toet-kwaak”, which might be loosely translated as beep-honk-quack.
        So, perhaps this is what might define experimental electronic music as either “good” or “what!?”: if it lacks coherence, correlation, organisation, or any other parameter ever-so-slightly familiar to our untrained ears, it might just pass as “experimental”, and nothing more. Which, of course, is in itself a merit as well.

      2. The parallelism between gamelan and experimental electronic music is worth exploring, but inexact. For one thing, the people who are making experimental music are part of our own culture and speak the same language we do. For another, gamelan has a long tradition in Indonesia; experimental music has much less tradition. It has existed, in some form, for at least 50 years (and longer if we include Russolo’s noise orchestra!), but the technology has changed so rapidly that the existing “tradition” of tape splicing or whatever is not too relevant today.

        In any case, my interest in this question is not as a music theorist. I’m interested because I want to compose some music using my modular synthesizer, and I’m not even remotely satisfied with just making beeps, honks, and quacks! If there is anything even vaguely comparable to a Walter Piston theory book, nobody has mentioned it to me yet. It seems very doubtful that there is any such thing.

  2. I love Bach, but I loved him before I really understood him. I doubt I understand him nearly as well as some.

    Bach’s music has so much structure that can be unpacked and analysed, but is the same true of experimental music? Depends on the music. Some of my own experimental music is just taking an concept or a patch and seeing where it goes. There’s structure there—and intent—but much less of it than Bach infused in his compositions. There is certainly “interlocking organisation” in some of my experimental stuff, particularly that which uses modular sequencers that cross-modulate each other. But is this the same thing you have in mind?

    I think the answer to your question appears to be “It depends.” Can you ask a more focused question? 🙂

    1. A more focused question … hmm. The reason I’m exploring this topic is because I’d like to be using my modular synth for composing. I’ve done a fair amount of composing over the last 25 years, almost all of it using synthesizers — but my work is tonal and organized in more or less traditional ways. It has melodies, bass lines, time signatures, chord progressions, and so on. I like this kind of organization. It feels natural to me. It feels good because I can perceive and understand the relationships among a large number of elements.

      When I record a few tracks of abstract, non-tonal sounds from my modular, I have no idea on Earth how to create, perceive, or develop similar relationships among the assorted sounds. So I guess my more focused question is, “How would I do that?” I like the sounds, but I don’t see how to put them together in a way that I can understand as music.

      1. The answer to “How would I do that ?” seems pretty obvious to me.


        Just like you would with traditional instruments.

        Personally I use two different approaches to this, depending on whether the work is intended for electronics-only, or when it’s a combination of electronics and one or more traditional [acoustic] instruments. In the latter case I will most likely opt for a traditional score, since this is what most musicians are familiar with. My parts (the bleeps, so to speak) are scored in whatever method fits me best, but is still readable/understandable by the classically-trained musicians.
        For purely electronic compositions, I often use graphical ways to represent what I’m aiming for; they’re still referring to pitch-range, progressions, timbres, tempi, etc… and sometimes I use a traditional orchestra as a reference point for these parameters, but not limited to their typical ehm, limitations (pitch range, timbre range, spatialisation,…) Such a composition first shapes itself in my head (just as it would with traditional orchestration, I assume), and is then translated to a graphical score in which I try to represent the possibilities of my “instruments” as close as possible, but still leave enough “playing room” for improvisational techniques and methods which might (or might not) develop during practise and recording (such is the nature of an electronic musical instrument anyway). It takes a VERY long time before I even touch the synthesizer… I know the possibilities of my instrument(s), and how to achieve the sounds I want and need to fill in the score, so I don’t need to use the synthesizer during compositional time.
        In other words: the composition — the overall structure, to put it simply — comes first. What exactly I want to express within that structure, and how those expressions need to be filled in, comes later. Smaller details — gesturals, spatialisation, etc are then filled in during play, and are often a result of “experimenting, or wandering off whilst performing”.

        In theory, this is easy and as I said, obvious. In practice however, it turns out to be pretty darn hard to arrive at anything worthwhile. But that’s perhaps because I’m not such a good composer, despite being a reasonably accomplished synthesist. Ha.

      2. My MIDI sequence composing doesn’t usually start with any large-scale idea at all. I find a sound I like, record a phrase with it, and then fit something else to that phrase. It’s through-composing; very little is planned in advance. After I finish a sort of rough draft of the opening section, I say to myself, “Okay, time for some contrast.” That could mean a key change, a new instrument entrance, or something else. I seldom give a moment’s thought to the B section until I’ve given some shape to the A section. The overall structure is something I discover as I go along. To quote Theodore Roethke, “I learn by going where I have to go.”

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