Monday, November 17, 2008


I was just reading the wikipedia entry for Harrison Birtwistle, who I actually met in 2003. I came across this interesting notion in the second paragraph (if it is true great, if not all the same it is an interesting notion) and I quote (that which seems to be a paraphrase)
His favourite image for explaining how his pieces work is to compare them to taking a walk through a town—especially the sort of small town more common in continental Europe than Great Britain. Such a walk might start in the town square. Having explored its main features, we would set off down one of the side streets. As the walk continues, we might glimpse the town square down different streets, sometime a long way off, other times quite close. We may never return to the square in the rest of the walk or we may visit a new part of it that was not explored initially. Birtwistle suggests that this experience is akin to what he does in the music. His image conveys the way that a core musical idea is altered, varied and distorted as the piece of music progresses. The core music forms a reference point to which everything else is directed, even when we are walking in a completely different direction. Sometimes we will be less aware that it is the same musical material we are hearing; sometimes we may have been listening for a while before realising that we have heard this music before (just as one might have been looking up the street before realising that it is the town square that can be glimpsed through the traffic). He is not, therefore, suggesting that we imagine this walk through the town as a literal explanation of what is happening in the music; he does not 'recreate' the effect in the music (as Charles Ives does in some of his orchestral pieces).

What I like is this notion that the listener holds on to the initial material in some fashion and then experiences the rest of the piece in relation to it. This works very well if the initial material is very striking, maybe not as well if that material is not. What I wonder about is the ability of the listener to carry that memory of that material forward. Is this always possible? This model works intuitively well for music that has a strong motive or theme which is then developed through out the piece and re juxtaposed as the piece progresses. Yet this model does not account for other musics (say that of a minimalist texture that evolves through the unfolding of a process). But, this definition is not setting out to explain all musics, rather it is set out to explain one persons music. Still I feel the need to follow out tangents of logic.

This mental model of a composition does do a great job of removing the strict linearity of time through the notion of moving away but still often in contact with the initial material, ie. looking back on the square having gone elsewhere. Clearly the listener is moving through time, but the time is understood to be within a limited zone, the length of the composition.

One thing I really love about this whole description is that it reminds me a description of sound the Marcus Novak once gave. He was trying to get us to understand morphology and he described the sound of a loud crowd that was nearly the entirety of a cities population gathered in one place emanating thorough the city streets as he rushed to get there. As the sound emanated portions of the spectrum were attenuated and pronounced depending on the material that it came in contact with. When it finally reached him, the sound was the result of it's journey and of it's source. Fused together, a new and rich sound emerged. This notion of the sound being changed by it's journey in conjunction with Birtwistles notion of looking back on the city center from various vantage points is quite poetic.


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