Beginnings and Endings
This paper attempts to outline a framework for understanding implications of the musical devices used by composers in the opening and closing moments of electroacoustic music, with a particular focus on acousmatic music. The beginning-middle-end paradigm exerts a strong influence on the way practitioners and listeners formulate frameworks for the creation and reception of Western music (Agawu, 1991), as does the concept of the narrative curve (Childs, 1977). Thus openings and closings are particularly telling parts of musical structure. They are significant aspects of a work’s rhetorical character, often embodying much of the way music functions at levels of phrase and more extended sectional boundaries. They are also elements of a work that frequently differentiate the formulaic from the genuinely innovative and inventive. It is self- evident that openings establish a frame for the types of materials employed in a work, as well as establishing a relational and temporal architecture between them. The opening of a work inevitably influences the way listeners form expectations around the experience of a piece and interpret the ongoing nature of a musical design. Closure is considered here fundamentally problematic in musical structures that are not organised around the kind of perceptibly hierarchical syntax that is projected in tonal music. Focus on the transformation of sonic material, rich noise textures that pose segmentation problems and direct use of natural environmental sound tends to place electroacoustic music in this ‘difficult’ category. A distinction made by Meyer (1996) is used here to characterise the problematic nature of electroacoustic music’s materials, namely that of primary and secondary musical parameters. Primary parameters are those capable of being segmented into ‘perceptually proportional’ steps, with relationships between them shaped by ‘syntactic constraints’ enabling a set of tangible hierarchic value relationships to emerge between them. The psychologically complex consequences of discrete pitch steps used to evoke a tonal centre (definitively or ambiguously) and metrical rhythmic formations are core examples of the musical efficacy of primary parameters. Secondary parameters are those that cannot be separated definitively into proportional values, nominally: tempo, dynamics, and timbre (Meyer uses the term ‘sonority’) and are apt to function through relative increases and decreases in quantity or alterations in character, rather than a relational syntax. The polarised textural and behavioural sonic continua proposed by Smalley (1997) exemplify ways in which electroacoustic composers, and many spectrally or sound-object oriented instrumental composers, have dealt with the problem of creating a coherent basis for meaningful distinctions and oppositions between materials at this secondary level. For instance, in terms of spectral types, following the more detailed model of Schaeffer (1966), Smalley’s continuum of note-to-noise represents a theoretically summary of a sense of both the psychological distance between these notional sound states and the potential for grasping an uninterrupted sense of parametric coherence between them. That is to say, in a musical work, we need to be attuned or acculturated to the notion of such a continuum in order to gain meaning (such as tension/relaxation or goal states) from stages and states of progression or play within it. A supporting perspective is that of Snyder (2000: 201), who emphasises a culturally relativist perspective for all cases, in that within a particular cultural frame ‘the meaning of learned syntactical patterns must constantly be maintained by repetition or it will be lost, both on the immediate and historical time scales.’ But despite it being aurally verifiable that Smalley and Schaeffer’s nodal states of spectral definition and density are perceptually relevant, and despite the fact that in certain circumstances we might reasonably regard a focal pitch as a kind of goal state, movement through the continuum cannot be generically quantised, and therefore the sense of a definitive point of arrival (viz. closure) will tend to be tenuous. A similar critique can be posited for a continuum between sonic abstraction and realism, again a frequently summoned compositional strategy in acousmatic music. Assuming the absence of a culturally embedded syntactical scheme for electroacoustic music, it is hypothesised here that a generalised model for analysing the implications of ‘opening’ within this multi-faceted genre is that of entering a ‘space’. Space is used here as a metaphor for the volumes, distances and material associations that a listener might infer from the nature of the sounds and the timing and style of their presentation. A set of interrelated criteria, derived from extensive comparative listening, is proposed for evaluating the rhetorical and behavioural implications of the way a composed space is presented at the outset of a piece. In the spirit of an ecological context for musical understanding (as elaborated in Clarke, 2005) this is underpinned by a fundamental notion of low-level structural inference: that the opening of a work allows the listener to witness a spatial construct that is either: (1) already formed, or (2) in the process of forming. These are regarded here as structural primitives. In a formed setting a confluence of contextual information provides a sufficiently stable sense of spatial/material identity that the listener can comprehend as a coherent scene. This need not be naturalistic, but may be a complex amalgam of divergent material sources: such as in the opening of Federico Schumacher Ratti’s El Espejo de Alicia and many works of, or influenced by, a soundscape approach. Forming settings involve gradual assemblage of materials which unfold over time, elaborating characteristics and dimensions of an acousmatic space, as in Natasha Barrett’s The Utility of Space. In both cases of these opening structural primitives there are qualitative and temporal features of the materials that influence the richness and cogency of the design and its implications for the work. For example an initial sound of high or low frequency may imply the possibility of motion into some not-yet-stated frequency regions, or a granular edge to a pitch offer the potential for movement towards more saturate or noisy spectral constructs, while short fragmented noise bursts may afford potential for a clustering or coalescing process. From this perspective, very simple means at the outset of a work can be seen to have rich and imaginative implications, such as in Enrique Belloc’s Para Bla, which presents stark juxtaposition of relative pitch and noise—calling attention through the rhetoric of gestural immediacy, contrasting sound types and registral displacement. Additional factors such as the degree of divergence in the characteristics of materials and the timescale over which events are presented are also taken into account as defining formative seeds. In fact it can in itself be a significant analytical challenge to determine where the ‘opening’ section of a work ends, and another phase of continuation or involvement in discourse commences. The paper concludes that there is a richer range of opening strategies than closing ones in electroacoustic music where, in the latter, recourse to fade outs, singular upward or downward motion of pitch, or decisive final gestures are common devices. This kind of emphasis on secondary parameters for closure is also an element of classical tonal music, but is the staple of electroacoustic music without the additional advantage of a widely comprehended syntax that allows for structural clarity as well as playful and meaningful ambiguity (for example in many of Haydn’s endings). However, it is suggested that by identifying archetypal strategies within the electroacoustic genres and by drawing sensitive parallels and analogies with aspects of the tonal tradition, it may be possible to find ways to explain electroacoustic forms to a wider audience as well as locate ways for practitioners to expand and enrich their vocabulary.
Citation : Young, J. (2013) Beginnings and Endings, paper presented at the 2013 Electroacoustic Music Studies Network Conference, Lisbon.
Research Group : Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre
Research Institute : Music, Technology and Innovation - Institute for Sonic Creativity (MTI2)
Peer Reviewed : Yes
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