Saturday, June 13, 2015

Not Repeating

Ornette Coleman just passed away recently. I didn't talk about it because jazz is really not my beat and I don't have much empathy for the genre as a whole, though I certainly respect many jazz musicians. There was an interview with Ornette Coleman in NewMusicBox several years ago, after he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music and he said some interesting things about composition:
So for me, composing is a way of keeping up with not repeating. For me, that’s what it does. It makes me aware of how much I’m repeating and what I’m not repeating. What I’m not repeating is better.
Composition is largely about finding new ideas and new ways of expressing ideas. That has been pretty much a given for about the last 200 years. Prior to around 1800, repeating yourself, if you could get away with it, hoping your patron didn't notice, was not an artistic sin as such. Bach, Haydn, Mozart all recycled music in different ways and forms according to their needs. Sometimes Mozart even recycled music by someone else! But around 1800 there was a profound ideological shift in aesthetics and the need for the authenticity of personal expression became an inherent feature of art music. This lasted up until modernism started moving to the view that music should not be the personal expression of the composer, but rather an abstract, objective exploration or experimentation with sounds. But the older view still persists in pop music and a lot of classical music as well. While jazz has some aspects that are modernist, it is, I believe, an inherently expressive medium in which the authenticity and originality of the expression is crucial. Since you are a slightly different person every day, your music will be a bit different every day. I think that is what Coleman is saying when he says "What I’m not repeating is better." When I am not just repeating myself, it is a unique personal expression.

I ran across this quote via a posting by Alex Ross at The Rest is Noise where he achieves his usual level of fatuity by saying:
Ben Ratliff has an obituary for the jazz master, who once said to Frank Oteri, "For me, composing is a way of keeping up with not repeating." No better definition has been devised.
"No better definition"...? I kind of enjoy these little nuggets of meaninglessness that I stumble across every time I visit The Rest is Noise. Actually, the name of the blog itself, taken from Ross' book title The Rest is Noise, is another one, isn't it? A little lapidary phrase with no, or highly ambiguous, meaning that tweaks us in a fatuous way. Didn't the New Yorker used to be better than this? I know that music criticism was.

I have a book on my shelf by Peter Kivy titled The Fine Art of Repetition that gets its title from one of the essays. Here, let me offer a couple of quotes. First of all, Kivy quotes a passage from the great music theorist Heinrich Schenker as a frontispiece:
Our understanding of musical technique would have advanced much further if only someone had asked: Where, when and how did music first develop its most striking and distinctive characteristic--repetition?
The essay itself contains this elaboration: alone, from Bach to Brahms, and before and beyond, consists to a large, although of course varying degree, in quite literal repetition of what has been heard before.
To flesh out a bit that "before and beyond" you should recall that a great deal of Medieval and Renaissance music contains repetition of various kinds and, of course, since the high tide of modernism began to recede in the 70s, a great deal of contemporary music also involves various kinds of repetition. While you would get an argument from certain quarters, I think it is reasonable to say, along with Schenker, that the most striking and distinctive characteristic of music is repetition.

But this, in good music, is always balanced out by the principle of variation. Music that is too repetitive, such as some pieces by Philip Glass, suffers aesthetically, and music that contains too little or no repetition, as in some pieces by Pierre Boulez, also suffers aesthetically. At least, I would argue thus.

I want to stop here because I am going to prepare a post about one of the most interesting examples of modernism, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments written by Stravinsky in 1920. What I am going to do is look at two aspects of it: the amount and kind of repetition and the use of montage.

But as an envoi to this post, let's listen to some Ornette Coleman. This is Lonely Woman, the first cut in his 1959 album, The Shape of Jazz to Come:

UPDATE: Well, so much for that plan! The Symphonies of Wind Instruments is not available on IMSLP or anywhere else I can find online. So, in order to get the score I will have to cough up $30 or so and purchase a copy. Which is completely fine! I believe very much in paying for creative work. But this means that I can't do anything soon with that piece. I do intend to as soon as I can get a copy of the score. I very much think it is worth a close look and I need the score for that. It is not just that it can help us hear what is going on, it is also so I can put up musical examples so you can see it too. I can hear what is going on in the piece, but without the score, it is difficult to show you what I am hearing.

In the meantime, let's have a listen. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments a fairly short piece, about 9 minutes long, composed in 1920 by Stravinsky:

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