Sunday, April 15, 2012

Gesture Processing Theory

Good music is meaningful, purposeful, and sophisticated.
Good music begins with one or more meaningful sound-gestures.  These can be anything from a hot guitar lick that becomes a rock song, to a particular rhythm, like Steve Reich's clapping music rhythm, to a spectralized series of indefinite pitches generated by computer.  All composition, regardless of style, consists of processing sound-gestures.
Without recognizable gestures, it is nearly impossible for music to be meaningful.  Some kind of proto-organizing principle has to connect your piece to human feelings or else it's not music.  People can't perceive a gesture that's too long, or too complex.  Most successful gestures mimic language or dance and are as digestible as a sentence or a step.
Traditionally, sound-gestures were called themes, motifs, or melodies. They were traditionally processed through harmonization, by developing the material through counterpoint, by adding contrasting material, by varying the texture in which they were presented, and by altering their rhythms or intervals.
It's fun, and it makes for interesting pieces.  Various styles identified in music history class represent trends in processing gestures.  That's why you can take a traditional melody and present it in Baroque style, Jazz style, or Mozart-style.
These days, gestures aren't always melodies. Plus there are new ways of processing a gesture.
I say all this to contextualize serialism.  I now think that serialism is one of many methods of processing a musical gesture available to composers. A series of intervals, derived from the chromatic scale and not repeating a pitch, creates a given effect that may enhance a meaningful sound-gesture. Indeed, the sound-gesture may derive from the set, as in traditional 12 tone writing. This results in a perceived heavy-handedness with the effect of serialism, like over-using a vocoder or ring modulator in a dance piece. It's cool for the first 30 seconds . . .
I have been struggling with meaning in 12 tone music. I think it is possible to write 12 tone music that has meaningful sound-gestures, but it is hard.  And there is no real reason to limit yourself in allowing meaningful sound-gestures outside the system to appear, and helping them grow.  Bottom line, you are limiting the expressive capability of your music. Why?
There are innumerable ways to process a meaningful sound-gesture - the critical thing is recognizing meaningful gestures in your improvisation and picking good ones to go together. Then let your training and imagination kick the gesture around and make it amazeballs.
If you let a tonal melody resonate traditionally in your mind, you hear the appropriate diatonic harmony. (Picture a melody glowing warmly in multiple simple colors)   If you then substitute a few chords, you can tweak the resonance to add a secondary dominant (if you're Schubert), a tertiary or whole tone progression (if you're Debussy) or a series of parallel ninth chords (if you're Gershwin or Monk). Alternative diatonic harmonization is one of the best ways to process a melody or lick.  Jazz, yo.  (picture that resonating melody as a fascinating kaleidoscope)  If you repeat a melody on top of itself, shifted in time, you get a canon, which can become a fugue, or a minimalist cycle, depending on whether you are Handel or Phillip Glass. You can add noise to the gesture, which would be a trill or ornament if you are Vivaldi, or a cluster of glissandi microtones if you're Xanakis.  Improvisation by the performer can even be part of the experience - again, if you're Beethoven, this is a cadenza in a concerto, if you're Sonny Rollins, this would be a solo based on a standard tune, and if you're John Cage, all of the processing of the initial idea might be up to the performer in real time.
It's like a pedalboard for composers: alternative harmony, instrumentation, counterpoint, improvisatory sections, register, timbre, texture, tempo, augmentation, diminution, serialization, modulation, ostinati, obligatti, pedal points, voicings, modes - OK it's a huge pedalboard.

It is useful, I think, to speak in terms of signal processing. We all know about mixing a tune and adding reverb, echo, EQ, or stupid audio tricks.  But developing a melody (or jamming) is one thing the stomp boxes can't do. Neither can the Supercollider or MAX program on your laptop.  Composers are the only outboard gear that can take a gesture and turn it into something inspiring. Only humans can see the human meaning in a bit of sound and play with it.
But it's still processing - teasing out the potential of a nugget of audio curiosity. And composers in various cultures will each do it differently.  Composers in different time periods will do it differently.

Much as I admire some so called "process pieces" and do not doubt the artistic integrity of their authors, I think the essence of good music is in taking gestures that resonate with the preconscious mind in a noticeable fashion - physically moving material - licks that feel good, that swing, that cry, that wail - the Mozart sigh, a brass fanfare, African polyrhtyhms, jazz syncopation, the beat drop in Dubstep -  and presenting them effectively to an audience. With love.
I think it is pretty much agreed by physicists that there are very likely an infinite number of dimensions to reality.  Meaningful music transports the listener to one or more of them. It resonates with the human spirit. It communicates a satisfying sameness and a wholeness.  Usually a successful communication of wholeness, a successful transportation of the listener to another dimension, is followed by the "wow, beautiful" reaction, rather than the "wow, interesting" reaction. Music is an ongoing journey into other dimensions, and an ongoing conversation between hearts traveling those heavenly regions.

The end of Beethoven's 7th symphony, "Ave Maria," the "Dies Irae" from Verdi's requiem, Van Halen's Eruption, La Fille aux Cheveaux de Lin - each is a transporting moment of power, awe, empathy, tenderness, etc.
Sorry, but that is what music is actually about in the end. Something beautiful, not something important. Unless you think that beauty will save the world. In which case, I goes it would be the most important thing of all.