Three new books in the Music Scores series – #3 Ritornello, #4 Melody Surplus, and #5 Motif – have been published.
When I heard (and saw) the live performance of Julia Wolfe’s Lick for the first time in April 2017, I was met with an inexplicable, eerie sensation. In the western music tradition1, the theme introduced at the onset of the piece such as the melody, rhythm, or direction provide clues as to how to follow the rest of the piece. Failure to find such a theme may lead the listener to lose their sense of direction or even interest in the piece. Lick, however, ostensibly presents neither a point of departure nor arrival; instead, it lets its run engine run avidly free somewhere in the middle ground without moving toward any linear direction, seemingly abstaining from presenting the theme all the way to the end. Despite this, however, in Lick I saw a clear sense of direction and velocity that in fact kept me on my toes. I could not deduce where the direction of the piece was headed, and the fast tempo of the piece also seemed to bide in the same spot. Such idiosyncrasy was difficult to fully identify even after the piece had played out in full. I then began running along its vectors that headed towards an unknown destination.
“Lick” is a jazz term referring to a short melody that jazz musicians practice in advance to apply to their improvisation. As the eponymous title implies, Lick alludes to the spontaneity of jazz improvisation. However, the pitch, sequence, and duration of each note has been deliberately and thoroughly planned beforehand.
I believe improvisation in performance is a process of spontaneously selecting, executing, and combining elements that have been curated beforehand, rather than a chaotic directionless behavior where anything goes. To prepare and collect such elements, the performer begins with the theme and studies how to increasingly drift away from the theme. For instance, if the theme is “walking,” information on body parts directly related to the activity, i.e. legs, feet, arms, hands, and eyes, would be collected first. Then their movements would be separated or altered to prepare the elements for improvisation. Other elements that could be derived also include components related to the state or quality of the walk, including the stride length, speed, frequency, and attitude. Moreover, the context of the walk such as the location or destination could be shifted, or the external mechanisms that affect the walk such as shoes and clothing could be distinguished. The relationship with other performers who are also walking or with the spectators could also make interesting resources. To take it a step further, it could be possible to elevate the very activity of walking to the higher concept of “movement” or distilled to a subcomponent like “repetition.” One could even draw vectors instead of actually walking or dot several different points. By starting close to the activity of walking and increasing the distance from the original concept, one may find oneself at a place that seemingly has no relation to walking, prompting the question, “what then, is improvisation?” Although it is theoretically possible to extend that distance to infinity to expand the pool of ideas for elements, it is unlikely that all of those ideas will make valid components for improvisation. At some point, the performer will select the ideas that would function properly as components in the performance, and begin to refine the distance between the theme and those elements. This process can become an important part of rehearsals for performances, including those that entail improvisation. The form, length, position, quantity, layers, and elasticity of the distance of the elements from the theme comprise a language unique to the artist or the performer, which in turn provides a map for the audience to appreciate the performance.
By default, the elements that have been considered as instability in classical music such as dissonance, incomplete progression, and irregular sense of syncopation are all fundamental components of jazz. Improvisation is also an inherently unstable concept, as it cannot be fully planned ahead. Naturally, improvisation is right at home when it comes to jazz. The concept of improvisation in jazz does not fundamentally differ from my idea of improvisation in that it begins with elements surrounding the theme such as the melody of the thematic motif, rhythm, scales, chords, and harmony, and introduces distance from the theme by altering those elements. The one difference would be that the improvisation I practice involves some prior coordination and limitation of choices depending on the concept of the performance and the piece to be played. In contrast, jazz improvisation seems to call for a more comprehensive technique that can be applied to any theme. On top of the foundational, universal music theory, jazz artists learn the grammar and vocabulary of jazz which has been studied and performed throughout the history of improvisation. They update their portfolio with the latest trends and develop styles unique to each of them. They excavate and collect choices they can make for their entire lives. Then when the moment of performance arrives, jazz artists weave through the vast range of options they have amassed to make choices in the moment. Such decision-making forms an inextricably entangled web of the traditional and modern, conventional and unique, application and creativity, and composition and performance.
Making variations of the theme to generate distance from it is not a concept unique to jazz alone. If anything, such method of forming music was already defined in western classical music. The difference, however, is that in classical music, the composer predetermines how to develop the theme and lays out the exact notes, duration, tempo, dynamics, and even the directions for how to express the music on the score for the performer to read. By contrast, in jazz, the performer makes the decision on how to progress the theme during the performance. Whether the music has been deliberately planned prior to performance or decided spontaneously on-site, both types of performance brings the creator, performer, and the listener to explore the distance between the theme and its variations.
In the 1950s, John Cage introduced “indeterminacy” of music wherein the composer does not decide everything beforehand. I presumed that this concept has had a significant impact on contemporary composers as the idea personally felt more potent than any other changes in paradigm in music history. However, most contemporary composers who continue the western music tradition still seem to have a penchant for deliberately and meticulously determining everything beforehand. Perhaps due to such tendencies, one can often find improvisational pieces not being considered as a genre of “contemporary music” or the rather peculiar term of “contemporary classical music” being used to refer to music composed today. In order to avoid confusion in discussion with others and in my own thought process, I decided to collectively refer to all music composed in the current era as “contemporary music.” For now, I have also decided to use the term “determined music” to refer to music in the western music tradition wherein the composer still insists on determining everything beforehand on the score. “Determined music” as I define it would be a subcategory under my abovementioned category of “contemporary music.”
The reason one cannot hear a “catchy tune” in Lick is not because the outline of the theme has become blurry as the music progressed away from the thematic melody as in jazz improvisation. The notes that a jazz performer plays during improvisation as an introduction, transition, accompaniment, or embellishment are not derivative of certain themes. Rather, these phrases in and of themselves comprise the theme of the music in jazz improvisation. As the listener who is new to this piece becomes lost and startled at the illusion of the missing theme, these ostensibly derivative or allusive fragments diligently develop throughout the performance as the theme of the music. The fragments continuously intensify and sometimes revert back into fragments or coexist with remaining fragments as they transform. As the elapsed time, frequency, and range accumulate, the points transform into vectors, the vectors into planes, and the planes back into points. As these points, vectors, and planes intersect with each other, they also overturn each other and expand.
When a person says they know a particular music, they usually think of certain melodic passages, usually the very first melodic phrase in the piece. It is also highly likely that the melody is in fact the theme of the piece. Theme often represents the respective piece of music, much like how a person’s face often represents that person’s identity. While the conventional definition of “theme” in a work usually refers to a message that the work is ultimately trying to convey, in music, themes more closely resemble main material. The theme is usually introduced at the beginning of a piece to serve as a sort of a compass that determines the direction the music will take. In order to be able to read the flow of a piece, it is important to catch the theme first. In music, theme is more of a starting point than the ending.
Sound is the basic component of all music. Sound is technically a vibration. The speed of the vibration decides the pitch of a note. The duration of vibration determines the note value. The amplitude of the vibration determines the volume of the note. A combination of different speeds of vibrations creates pitches. The sum of different durations of the vibration creates rhythm. The variance of different amplitudes creates dynamics. Simply put, a melody is the combination of pitches, rhythm, and dynamics. Therefore, to listen to the melody means to distinguish the speed, duration, and amplitude of vibrations entangled in the melody. In the world of vibrations wherein everything can be calculated as numerical values and their relationships, a specific message is never valid to start with. The theme is therefore but a construct of abstract relationships.
Once introduced at the beginning, the theme repeats itself throughout the entire piece. However, the theme is not repeated as is, but instead changes throughout the course of the music. The change assumes the existence of the “original” and “variations,” two elements that are inevitably related to each other. Therefore, a change in the theme in a piece of music also implies changes in the relationships of that theme. If the change cannot be explained through the relationship, such change would be more accurately referred to as an entirely new creation. Music that is not built on relationships is more like an array of sounds laid out, rather than music in its conventional sense. Sometimes through the course of a piece, the theme seems to disappear while a seemingly new motif emerges. This does not mean that the theme has vanished altogether. Somewhere hidden beneath the layers of the sound, traces of the theme remain, albeit somewhat more distant from the original theme. The continuation of weaving relationships through such variations and repetitions is referred to as “development” in music terminology. Setting the relationships between the theme and development appears to be based on the relationship already inherent in the theme itself. It may even be more accurate to say that the thematic motif is built on the relationship that the composer seeks to explore throughout the entire piece.
The term “development” may lead one to expect that it has a more advanced standing in music than the original theme, but it is difficult to say which of the original (theme) and the variation (development) takes precedence in music. Considering that complex decisions must be made throughout the piece based on a short theme, it may be more reasonable to expect that how the theme develops—rather than the theme itself—determines the identity of the piece. Many composers have created their own renditions of a common theme. One major example of such practice can be found in how hundreds of composers including Jean-Baptiste Lully, Corelli, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff borrowed the theme of “La Folia,” a melody that had long been popular in Europe. Another example is variations on the theme from Paganini’s “Caprice” Op.1 No.24, composed by the likes of Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff. Development is not limited to a particular, singular direction; rather, it is open to any direction.
The composition of film/performance shares similarities with musical development in that such composition is a deliberate organization of structure based on meticulous consideration of the relationships between the components, even though such visual composition does not introduce or repeat a theme as in musical development. The main material I use in my compositions are bodies and movements. Of those, I have been particularly interested in “urgent” movements that seek a certain goal, which seem quotidian and familiar yet are charged with an unclear narrative. While the overarching structure of bodily movement is designed based on the pertinent concept of the work, the detailed composition thereof utilizes actual bodies. It is at this juncture that one must consider elements of relationships in causality, context, roles, body, awareness, form, decision versus spontaneity, abstraction, and composition, by asking questions such as “Why must this be done?”; “What is the cause and effect?”; “Is this actually feasible?”; “How can this be done?”; “What must the performer be aware of during the performance?”; “What does it all look like?”; “Does it appear like what is actually being performed?”; “Once seen, how does that scene disappear?”; “If what is seen is ephemeral, how can we then remind the audience of what they saw while keeping it foreign?” and “What should be predetermined or left open?”
Even after I managed to surmise the general direction of where the music was headed by reading the score of Lick, I still had more questions to ask. The fact that “the theme did not sound like the theme” kept pestering me like the pea under the bed in Anderson’s fairy tale. What does it even mean to “sound like a theme?” Or conversely, what does it mean for something to “not sound like a theme?” Is there some established sense of what a theme is supposed to sound like? What was I even expecting to hear from this piece?
For a long time in western music history, the diatonic scale (comprising both a major scale and a minor scale based on tonality) was comprised of seven notes. Each of these notes has a role to play. The 1st note (tonic) is responsible for the beginning, the end, and stability. The 5th note (dominant) opens the door to change and anxiety. The 7th (leading tone) heightens the anxiety and pines for stability. Each note and the role it plays is connected to sensations of the start, stability, movement, change, anxiety, uncertainty, mitigation, resolution, and completion. Later, the scale systems transformed to introduce uncertainty or equity in the function and roles of each note. Evocative of Debussy, the whole tone scale obscured the once conventional roles that each note played in the diatonic scale to obfuscate the senses. Dodecaphony, which sought to utilize all 12 notes of the chromatic scale as championed by Schoenberg, denied the role of the note and abrogated the very sense of tonal context. Atonal music not only obliterated tonality but also questioned the roles of notes that had long been established in western music theory. Cage’s indeterminacy challenged the roles of not only notes but also those of the composer and the performer.
Although I do not completely concur with Cage’s arguments, I do not wish to deny them either. As every moment of reality is rife with uncertainty, I am more of a determinist, seeking to reduce cause for anxiety at every possible turn. However, I also believe that nothing can exist solely in idealism and imagination, and that ideas become real only when they are manifested in reality regardless of the means of doing so. I also accept that there are constraints in reality that prevent predetermination at times. I also realized the beauty in the absence of predetermination. In that vein, Cage’s question still remains a valid one for me. Although I believe that there is an ultimate difference in the roles of creators and performers, that boundary seems to be more fluid than stationary. Once the curtain rises, even the most dictatorial director has no choice but to leave the show to the performers. From the performers’ perspective, sometimes they can feel as though they are taking on the responsibility for experimentation on the director’s behalf. This illustration is not limited to only creators and performers. I often see the breaking of the fourth wall across the stage. During a performance, the invisible (or intended to be invisible) crew share the same space and time with the visible (or intended to be visible) performers in a heightened state of awareness. Simultaneously, the audience (that are sitting there to see it all happen in the first place), the performers (who must be able to see it all to duly carry out the performance), and the author (who has no choice but to simply watch it all unfold) all engage in the act of “seeing,” which is difficult to distinguish across the parties. The same goes for the process prior to mounting the show on stage. During production, all parties involved collaborate based on initial direction as they discuss with each other, opening new doors and closing old ones, developing each of their own thoughts. Regardless of their designated role, all collaborating parties contribute to the creative process of production during this period. Although the author may present the initial direction, the final product is an edited work of extensive exchange and coordination of other directions provided by parties with various roles and responsibilities.
Before I heard Lick live for the first time, I had the chance to hear a recording of the piece. However, when I heard the recording, I did not experience the same eerie, provocative sensations that I felt during the live performance. I speculate that such sensation was delivered by the factors present during the live performance but not in a recording, i.e. the bodies of the performers visible to my eyes.
As if emulating the rhythm of jazz and spontaneity of improvisation, Lick artificially excluded regularity from the piece, playing sudden and subtle syncopations or inducing slight new variations in each repetition. In this predetermined piece of music, there is indeed a theme, but it is not quite like a theme in the most conventional sense; the theme repeats itself, but again, not quite in the conventional sense. The piece is in fact an anti-physical piece of music in that it makes it difficult for the body to naturally ride the groove of the music while playing or listening to it. In order to share the twisted and dispersed sense of time, the performers must actively rely on each others’ bodily cues. Also, they must maintain the most heightened state of awareness in each second of the piece. As such, Lick is paradoxically both an anti-physical and a very physical piece of music to play.
Sats is a term coined by Eugenio Barba of the Danish theater company Odin Company. It refers to the state of readiness to move in any direction2. The term is sometimes translated as “pre-expression” in Korean. A more tangible illustration of Sats would include something like crouching before taking a leap, breathing prior to speaking, and flexing the fingers prior to pressing a key. It is a concept that should be studied in all types of performance arts that uses human movement, including dance, theater, and music performance.
Sats occurs with every bodily movement of the performance, and must therefore be considered with each activity. However, thespians therefore hope that the audience does not catch on to their Sats, which proves more natural, streamlined expression. In dance by Yang-hee Lee, a choreographer, Sats is often easier to hide, as it is naturally absorbed as a part of the dance movement. However in music, performers do not shy away from exposing Sats in its rawest form if it is necessary to do so in order to create the ideal sound. When playing in an ensemble without a conductor, performers may find Sats beneficial in ensuring the rhythmic integrity of the performance, and thereby even intentionally accentuate Sats. The more difficult a piece is to play in an ensemble, the clearer and more urgent the Sats will become. Perhaps the reason why one may prefer live performance to recordings is because they enjoy seeing the performers’ Sats while listening to the music.
Music is often used as sound effects in cartoons. Although it may be difficult to create a message solely with vibrations, the sensations triggered by such vibrations can easily cling to a message. Although I do not personally like it when music is reduced to a background effect, I cannot help but grow anxious when dissonant chords climax as Tom catches up to Jerry, or become struck with pity for the poor mouse when the fiddle tragically plays a tune in minor scale with a strong vibrato as Jerry collapses from exhaustion. While I find such potent effect of music to be rather dangerous, the film industry seems to find it quite useful. There is a sound effect technique used in the film industry that synchronizes background music with the activity on the screen and its context, called “Mickey Mousing,” in reference to how the notes descend in sync with each step Mickey Mouse takes up a stairwell. While such artificial alignment of visual and auditory elements may be reduced as an unnecessary redundancy of information and an obvious, un-artistic, un-contemporary choice in visual arts and dance, people still seem to prone to becoming mesmerized when what they see match what they hear, sometimes even referring to such moments as “musical” (although I personally disagree with such notion). Since a cartoon does not have material substance that can vibrate, it becomes necessary to create vibration in the material world to apply the ensuing sound onto movement on the screen. Exactly how such application of sound would take place becomes a matter of choice. However, in the material world, vibration naturally leads to sound and is therefore already tethered to movement. In reality, sound is the product of movement; therefore, sound is movement.
To me, the relationship between motion, sound, and time is a technical issue that must be decided and selected with nuance based on each context and its placement between “natural” and “intentional” status. The sound of music in a performance is also a result of the performer’s movement. Although movement and sound may be synchronous in this regard, the movement of the performer and the sound of music are never perfectly synchronized. There is always bound to be a gap of time between the moment the motion begins and the sound is produced, from the time the pianist lifts her arm and presses the piano key. It would not be a stretch to refer to everything that occurs in this gap as Sats. However, this gap becomes slightly more complicated when considering the fact that Sats can occur even before the movement begins. Meanwhile, in a dance performance, there is an element of choice in the combination of movement and sound. Sometimes the motion follows the sound, in which case the sound and motion cannot be synchronous if the latter occurs in response to hearing the sound first. No matter how promptly the dancer responds, there is bound to be a gap between the moment the dancer hears the sound and the moment he begins to move. There is another gap between the moment the motion begins and the moment when the nature of that movement is revealed. Again, Sats occurs during these gaps. While a dancer could rehearse to close such gaps to a negligible amount, it is impossible to remove the gap altogether. If the goal is to make it appear like the movement is synchronous with the sound, the dancer should anticipate when the sound will be played and begin to move before he can actually hear the sound. The ability to anticipate the sound would mean that the dancer shares an objective sense of time like clockwork with the music, and has already internalized the Sats required to prepare for the movement.
Lick seems to be walking on a tight rope along the boundary between the conventional and unconventional. While the ostensible sensations were novel, the internal skeleton did not appear to deviate dramatically from the familiar. Perhaps this signifies that conventions can be that difficult to abandon, or maybe it serves as a cynical demonstration of the fact that it is already impossible to escape conventions in the first place.
Whenever I begin to question myself on whether I am a prisoner of conventions, I think of the story of Steve Reich. When Reich was studying the 12-tone technique, Luciano Berio (perhaps jokingly) told Reich that he should “just make tonal music if [he] wants to make tonal music that badly.” Thanks to such urging of Berio, Reich returned to tonality (albeit in a rather untraditional way). While jazz refuses to comply with the convention of predetermining notes, it too holds onto a different set of conventions. While nothing is completely new, “nothing is not new either” as the choreographer Yang-hee Lee told me in reference to the Suzuki Method3. Newness occurs in the distance from the old, shining in the relationship with such distance.
1. Back to Lick
Improvisation drawn in advance
Subject displayed like context
Totality placed in the part
Physicality embodied by extreme rationality
The body highlighted by the body’s insensibility
Form discovered through invisibility
Impulse derived from obscurity
Velocity promoted by ignorance
Motion caused by motionlessness
And stillness resulting from movement
I am not sure whether it’s coincidental or deliberate, but there are no licks to be found in Lick.
Beethoven’s sonatas, particularly his latter ones, are infamously difficult to play. It is not so much the technical rigor that is required but due to the fact that it is difficult to fully comprehend the logic behind the composition by simply “sensing” the music alone. Naturally, it cannot be easier for a pianist to actually play a note when they are uncertain of what that note is doing there in the first place. For me, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111 No. 32 was a particularly uncomfortable piece to play. In my youth, I did everything I could to avoid playing it. During my work with Sonatas in 2016, I deconstructed the score without the pressure of having to play the piece. It was only then that I was able to finally pick upon a surprisingly keen sensitivity in Beethoven’s work. For Beethoven’s contemporaries, the diminished 7th repeated three times in the introduction must have seemed quite problematic. While the interval appears dissonant on the score as a 7th, a slight change in just the notation without altering the pitch would make it a 6th harmonious in the context. In other words, 7th can be either consonant or dissonant both in theory and in sense. Upon a closer look, it seemed like Beethoven illustrated a journey in the melody of the first theme in which the leading tone escaped to the diminished 7th, instead of moving on to the tonic only to be dragged down to the tonic eventually. It appears that the leap to the diminished 7th from the leading tone was such a taxing first step that the note prepared for its first leap, only to give up and return to the beginning for another attempt. As if trying to mitigate the shock of discovering the wildly deviant diminished 7th in the first theme, Beethoven forewarns its arrival across three instances, like the way the scent of a fragrance brushes against the nose. While this fragrance is subtle enough that it requires one to eagerly sniff around to notice its presence, it is robust enough that one only needs to think of it in order to fully replicate the memory of the smell after the first sampling.
I now tread back a bit further into the past. In April 2015, I was in Paris viewing the Eric Duyckaerts exhibition Terpsichore. In the film Notation (2015) set up in the hallway, Duyckaerts was slowly explaining something. However, I did not understand a word of French and began to gradually lose my focus. Suddenly, I noticed the relationship between Duyckaerts’ head and the blackboard stand behind him. The tip of his head was uncannily parallel to the stand’s horizon, just barely maintaining contact. It was almost unsettling to watch. As satisfying as it was when his head was perfectly aligned with the stand, I was greatly anxious that his head would soon drift away from the stand. When the gap widened enough, I found a sense of relief but also a perverse sense of frustration. The anxiety and frustration continued even after I returned home. I grew uneasy and curious that I may have missed something about the relationship between “the forms I saw” and the “words I could not hear.” I thus began to investigate further about Terpsichore, Notation, and Duyckaerts. While the anxiety that drove me was uncomfortable, it was also titillating. The investigation and the feeling of tension only subsided when I paid homage to Notation in my work titled A Sit (2015).
I do not think that the immediately understandable alone are interesting. I am uncertain whether I can fully understand anything in the first place. My head responds most strongly when I encounter things that I do not understand. When I am in such a state, there is a most peculiar coexistence of the sense of velocity and stillness in my head. The clash of these two differing speeds brings me both discomfort and satisfaction. Although I begin to research for answers to my questions, I do not expect that I can find immediate answers through such query. Instead, my research leads me to a new discovery or a new assumption. Such discoveries or assumptions provide clues to create a new form in my work. The research comes to an end as it bears the fruit of certain forms in my work, usually leaving yet another question instead of an answer. Whether or not my quest yields answers, my questions tirelessly give rise to new questions, spinning and expanding.
I imagined a pair of socks, rolled half-way inside-out while they were taken off. I also assume a movement that remains in place by coordinates despite its incessant motion. I thought of a garden tree, trimmed to a state that makes it difficult to ascertain which branches have and have not been cut. I pictured a status in which two disparate branches are entangled in such a complex, precise, yet neat fashion, making it almost meaningless to distinguish between the clearly contrasting branches: the in and out, before and after, and natural and artificial.
1 As Lick was composed using the language of western classical music and since I am conveying my perspective based on my studies in western classical music, the term referred to as “music” herein without further caveats refers to music that shares, influences, or is influenced by the conventions of western classical music.
2 Eugenio Barba. The Paper Canoe, A Guide to Theatre Anthropology. Translated in English by Richard Fowler
3 A physical training method developed by Suzuki Tadashi and his company, SCOT (Suzuki Company of Toga)