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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Outside the Comfort Zone

I like to say that the most underappreciated art form is food. The purpose of any food, as far as most people are concerned, is to taste good. But didn't we get past that stage around the advent of romanticism? Heck, go even beyond that- all the way back to the introduction of baroque cadences in music. (It probably goes back further, but hey, I'm not a historian.) You always need to have the height of tension right before resolving it into the "tonic" chord. You do that by slipping in a chord with some dissonant notes and an uncomfortable interval. It wasn't until centuries later that the obsession with dissonance as a fashion statement began, but even back then we've got composers recognizing that uncomfortable sounds can be used in the service of beauty rather than simply eliminated. The public gradually adjusted to the idea that music wasn't going to bend to make them feel more comfortable, but they'd have to bend to appreciate the music.

And where were the chefs through all these centuries of progress? Apparently, they slept through it. The public doesn't put any effort into appreciating food; the food exists only to make them happy. If a chef wants to flex his creative muscles a bit, the best he can do is improve the presentation of the food- If it looks fancy, maybe no one will notice that its taste is not. Any evolution in the primary content (taste) is prohibited, so most efforts at innovation go into supportive content instead. This is not healthy for any Form. Where are the meals with small unappetizing courses to prepare the taste in your mouth for the next main course? Where are the dishes which taste different on opposite sides? Where are the expressive foods?

So I say with righteous indignation whenever the topic of discussion gets near. On a theoretical level, I love this argument. It leads to all sorts of fun possibilities. On a practical level, I'll have nothing to do with it. By which I mean, if you were to hand me the culinary equivalent of Beethoven's ninth symphony, I would refuse to allow it anywhere near my mouth. To say that I am a picky eater is putting it rather mildly. If fruits, who I am certain do not like to be eaten, saw my eating habits, they would frown.* (If you would object to this statement, consider that fruits have no eyes.) My diet consists almost exclusively of lasagna, bagels, Pringles and ice cream. Why am I willing to overlook such hypocrisy? Because food is just food. I don't care about it enough to accept anything outside my tiny comfort area.

Last week my parents bought me two CDs: Variations by Steve Reich, and Alina by Arvo Pärt. They had promised to buy me CDs by those composers for Channukah. I'd requested their music specifically because I'd heard one piece written by each (Proverb and Tabula Rasa, respectively), and loved their harmonies. Nonetheless, I didn't really know what these CDs would be like; I sat down and started listening.

Variations' first piece, Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards, started with a bit of a shock- it took all of six seconds to get both dissonant and chaotic. It was frantic right from the very beginning, and added in more voices before I could figure out what was going on. And just as I was getting comfortable with the disorientation, and eager for more abrupt developments, I learned a thing or two about Steve Reich's style. I tell you, all that repetition is not enjoyable for a person who has just gotten used to the idea of breakneck pacing. The effect is instant boredom. Thankfully this didn't last long, as the melody (if there is such a thing in a Steve Reich piece) started taking on Chinese characteristics. I don't like Chinese music very much, but I kept listening.

By a minute in, I'd gotten the hang of it enough to enjoy some absolutely gorgeous harmonic twists in the bass. Each time he stuck in an interesting bass he'd linger on it, as though trying to get as much out of its sound as possible. After a while, though, it began to frustrate me that he wouldn't continue moving harmonically, when clearly (I saw as an amateur composer) there was some amazing potential there, if only he would have continued that sentence there, or added in this here.... It was not what I wanted, and that is frustrating. I quickly put myself back in my place, and started enjoying it again.

It occured to me that Steve Reich's minimalist style is perfectly suited to an interactive soundtrack. In fact, I've been wondering for a long time how soundtracks could react to a player's movement and actions. So it was very satisfying (on a theoretical level) to have the answer practically handed to me. The key is repetition with multiple voices. One voice repeats itself for as long as you stay in one small node, while the voices around it cycle endlessly. When you move to a new node, another voice (which one depends on where you're moving to) stays in place while the others, including the one which had been staying, cycle around it. This would need very complex scripting; I'm not sure if any composers are on the level to do something like this. Regardless, this is a very bright future.

After a while (ten minutes or so), the repetition really got to me. This technique was meant for background scores, not to be listened to on its own. I started regretting not asking for a specific CD by Steve Reich, which was closer to what I was familiar with. This just stayed in one place for two long; I wanted something that would remind me of the chaos of my own compositions, though more skilled. It was going on for too long to be a standalone piece, but I kept listening through the entire 21 minutes. It was worth sitting through; many more harmonic curiosities appeared briefly. And then it ended, as abruptly as it had begun, the false hopes it had inspired in me leaving behind a vague dissatisfaction.

The second piece, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, was just annoying. The changes from repetition to repetition were too small, too insubstantial. The frustration led to the aforementioned idea concerning interactive soundtracks to bounce around my head another five times or so. And then the music starting giving me a headache. This was not what I had expected.

It seemed good for background music, and good for theoretical purposes. But it didn't seem to be too good for just listening to. I more or less understood what it was doing; I saw why it didn't matter, shouldn't matter that I wasn't being more engaged. But it did matter to me.

Around four minutes in, it made a neat leap, but then it slowly went back to boredom. It was a lot like Electroplankton, really, but it needed that personal involvement. There was another leap nine minutes in. Around this time, my unfortunately nearby family members started complaining loudly, so I skipped to the third and final track.

Six Pianos, played on six of the tinniest pianos I'd ever heard, instantly reminded me of ragtime music. The liveliness, the repetitive rhythm, the way it grated on my ears. The incremental changes were barely perceptible, and it took all of two minutes for me to decide I didn't like it. It may have been fascinating to play, and it's probably fascinating to analyze. But I just didn't care. I stopped listening, very disappointed.

I would compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.
Arvo Pärt
Imagine you're in an empty room, and a white light is shining in. The white light is pretty. Now imagine staring at this light for fifty-one minutes and twenty-four seconds. You know what, just to be more fair, let's say you've also got a prism to play around with. Sound like fun?

I started getting worried when I read the track list:
Spiegel im Spiegel
Vladimir Spivakov, violin
Sergej Bezrodny, piano
Für Alina
Alexander Malter, piano
Spiegel im Spiegel
Dietmar Schwalke, violoncello
Alexande Malter, piano
Für Alina
Alexander Malter, piano
Spiegel im Spiegel
Vladimir Spivakov, violin
Sergej Bezrodny, piano

Arvo Pärt's Alina is music serving the purpose of a sleeping pill. Almost nothing happened over the course of the entire disc. No surprises, no sudden inspirations, no memorable melodies, no excitement. Just two of the simplest tunes you can imagine, repeated until you either have a philosophical revelation or start snoring. (More likely the latter.)

It was pretty, to be sure. Oh yes, it was pretty- I don't think I've heard more elegant music in my life. It has a purity to it I'm not familiar with. And the presentation was incredible. This is the sort of music which demands a silent reverence, demands that all distractions be eliminated, demands your full attention, demands that you make an effort to appreciate it. Well, I tried to show it the proper respect, and turned my monitor off, and sat straight and listened. And I didn't get much out of that.

I found the format of the CD very appealing on the higher levels of the brain - I love title="Tapestry Thread: Light Confusion">symmetry, I love thinking about symmetry. In practice... I don't care about symmetry as I'm listening. I don't care about the slight differences in nuance. I don't get so involved in music that I might notice the differeces. I didn't notice the differences. So what I had was two very lovely, if dragged out, pieces, and three exact repetitions. (I really couldn't tell the difference between the performances.) When each repetition is ten minutes long, that's a problem.

..for me, I mean. Right. [frowns thoughtfully]

I stopped listening, full of frustration. I let it out on a piano improvisation which represented what I had wanted to hear. That improvisation was one of the finest I have ever played. (It was lost to the great oblivion to which all good things go.) And I was content.

I have since listened to both CDs, in their entireties, more times. Variations has really grown on me. I mean, I still don't like Six Pianos -I'm not really into percussion- but I've really come to like the first two, now that I know what to expect. Maybe there is hope for me after all.

As for Alina, the two sides of my brain are in disagreement over what to make of it. I am inclined to believe that it is a masterpiece, but I am not capable of appreciating it. I cannot blame Pärt for my own inadequacies, and this is a very good decision for my own sake since I would have to throw out V.O.V. if I had concluded otherwise. Nonetheless, future pieces should try to appeal... Well, not to the lowest common denominator, but at least to anyone who puts in the effort it deserves.



Now I'm really curious to hear it, after you've pulled it all apart, and try to see it from my perspective. I know our tastes are a different; I'm much more into traditional chords, you know, the classical and romantic periods. Give me a Beethoven to resolve an augmented chord any day. And needless to say our dear David Lanz uses very simple chords and chord progressions, usually with a very similar accompaniment, too. But I like to say that the most beautiful things in life are sometimes the most simple.

Most New Age music bores me to death, though. There are a few artists who manage to keep my attention--David Arkenstone sometimes, Tim Janis sometimes, Ken Elkinson sometimes. Maybe I look for a certain pattern of chords to twist my feelings in a certain (new?) way.

Anyway. I wonder how well you'd do at writing and performing scores for movies--analyzing the changing emotions within through music. Have you ever tried putting a story into music? Or writing a tune to lyrics? Sometimes the translation from a different medium is nearly impossible, since it's so well expressed in one particular kind. Of all media, I find music easiest to understand and convey a message.

And I'm just blabbering now.


If you like simplicity you would certainly like Alina- it doesn't get any simpler. I can virtually guarantee that none of this analysis will apply to you, since it's not really the music I'm analyzing so much as myself when I first listened to it.

I've tried to write music with less abstract meanings - and failed. I'm no good with that literal stuff. My compositions progress by train of thought, which doesn't exactly lend itself to that sort of music. I would be interested in videogame scores, however, since they don't require quite as much precision.

I've written a pieces to lyrics, but in those cases, the music was just a way to enhance the expression of the words, not an expression in itself. Sometimes it did really click and I found myself understanding the song at a different depth once it had a tune, but mostly the tunes simply reflect the lyrics in the simplest possible way.

So I am a writer at heart, and words are my best way to express myself. Sometimes I feel at a disadvantage, because I understand music better than I understand words. Also, words are so limiting. When you put them together into an idea they can soar off on their own, but they still need to follow a basic structure even in the vaguest poetry or prose.

I wonder how my life would be different if I had your gift. Perhaps I wouldn't really speak at all, never really learn to use words to my advantage, because I'd have a highly superior way of expressing what I feel--the piano.

Maybe I should be grateful, then. Words seem to be the more socially accepted manner of communicating.

Interesting how God chooses to invest His gifts.


Yes, it is- I've actually dealt with that issue somewhat. However, I think God has given you more than you realize. I don't see why you see piano as "superior" to text- it's really not. If you doubt the potency of the written word, I refer you to my two greatest achievements on this blog: the mundane and The Imaginary! and I'm not.. They are at least as beautiful as, and certainly more sophisticated than any music I have ever composed. If you feel prose is limiting, then just break the rules a little. Isn't that what rules are for?

The reason I don't put music to lyrics is that in general I don't like the combination of music and lyrics. I like the purity you get from either one on its own, but when you throw them together each one cheapens the other. The one time I did find music for lyrics was when I was writing the poem in the "About Me" tab. I'm not much of a poet, and I found that by translating it into very dynamic music I could get a better feel for the rhythm. It sounds vaguely repulsive that way, though, so I do not plan to ever share the tune.

I understand what you mean about the purity of each, but sometimes I feel that words are almost musical, having a rhythm of their own. And sometimes the music will give the words meaning they didn't have before. This is, of course, provided that the words had meaning in the first place, which is not true of a large majority of popular music out there.

And I'm certainly grateful for everything God has given me. He has given me a taste of many worlds. I don't wish for anything more than that. I just wonder, though, how I would be different... which would help me understand why He chose to give me what He gave me.

I love that music is always with me, and that through the tapping of a rhythm, the clanging of bells, or the rustling of leaves I can hear music. I love that I can sometimes find words to describe an action or a feeling hard to define. I love that I can reproduce a sound in my own throat, harmonize naturally, and make music without requiring a single instrument. I love that I can see others' emotions, take them into my own soul, churn them around and express them through my own face, my own motions, or my own words. He has given me so much, a unique perception and ability of execution... sometimes I wonder what I will have to do in my life that will require all of these skills.

I tried to read your links, but for some reason they're not working. Maybe I'll try again on a different computer.


Forget the links- all the posts are on the main page! I see you're using IE; I think you get the "find" feature in IE with Ctrl-F, no? So just use that to find the titles. Oh, and if you're confused by "I'm not.", it might make more sense if you read the first post (at the bottom of the page) too. But you don't have to.

I actually did read your first post most dutifully when I first viewed your blog, and began reading from bottom up but didn't make it too far.

My blog involves a lot more aimless blabber about my life, but in between I do post bits and pieces of writing. You seem like the sort of person who would either really hate modern poetry or really like it. Here's some of mine:,, and (you'll have to log in to LJ to see then, as they're friends-locked). I have a particular fondess of brushing and bouncing off rules, like flowing in and out of rhyme (like in the first one).



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