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?