Three new books in the Music Scores series – #3 Ritornello, #4 Melody Surplus, and #5 Motif – have been published.
What is music? Answers may differ depending on who asks this question. Some say that music is something that prompts them to look at themselves unexpectedly while opening the refrigerator door; some others say that music is the relationality of sounds. Some discover music from repetition; others are tired of ABA. Some musicians have played music without sheet music for more than twenty years; other musicians have been struggling to build a world with the music score. What is music? Answers may also differ depending on where the question started. When viewed from the point where sound is engendered, music appears to refer to something concrete. The first musical instrument of mankind might very well have been the human body, followed by a variety of “things of music”1 that have cooperated with the body. The body and objects have naturally invited words and actions into music. It’s hard to say that music is completely irrelevant to any event or narrative in so far as words and actions operate within music. However, what if we restart from the idea that music is time-based art? When viewed from the assumption that there are time-based raw materials, such as ‘image,’ ‘movement,’ ‘sound,’ and ‘words or text,’ and music gives priority to sound over the other things, music can be abstract.2 Time is irrevocable and sound is invisible. Thus, music had to come up with a language in which we could communicate in the arena of thought to perceive, construct, convey, and remember something invisible and ungraspable. Such a language concentrated on a relationship that could be sensed without seeing, and has developed, based on natural and abstract traits that are inherent in sound.
Sound is vibration. When something tangible moves, the air around it vibrates. If the vibration with a specific frequency is transmitted to the human ear, it is perceived as sound. Waves of vibration may be either regular or irregular. A regular wave means that the pitch is constant so it’s easy to perceive and control it. Waves of vibration can be either singular or combined. A combined wave means that even if it seems to be heard as a single sound, it’s actually made up of several sounds woven together in a specific relationship, vibrating together. This relationship becomes the basis on which to judge whether this sound will be in harmony with another sound. Music choses the ‘musical tones’ that have regular and combined sound waves as its primary material. Sound waves of a musical tone include not only a ‘fundamental’ vibration, which sounds loudest and lowest, but also ‘overtones’ interwoven with the fundamental vibration, which are based on the numeric relations of the frequency, and which sound softer and higher than the fundamental vibration.
The language of Western music has been systemized based on the relationship between the fundamental note and its overtones. A variety of musical signs were developed to record this system and have since evolved and fallen into wide use up to now. Throughout Classicism and Romanticism, tonality rooted in this system was established and evolved further, and the logic and reason behind composing sound became the overarching requirement for composition. At the same time, the sensory aspect of music was also cultivated and refined within this system of tonality. Even though the musical system is abstract, it was not difficult to communicate (at least for a while) in the course of composition, performance, and appreciation, since it is fundamentally based on natural phenomena. As tonality was seen as having reached a breaking point in the 20th century, however, the sensory system that had be framed in collaboration with both nature and convention in music also began to be shattered. Perhaps composers since the 20th century might have resorted more to reason when conventional sensibility became impractical. Only highly complicated reasoning seems to have been left in contemporary music. Composers still say that they wish to communicate with their listeners, but it’s not easy to carry out ‘structural listening’ without seeing the score, and some music is too incomprehensible to keep listening. Music seems to have transformed into something extremely metaphysical.
The history of Western music represents various transitions of materials. The first material might have been a single note. Musicians soon realized many notes could be played at the same time. In the Middle Ages, the perfect intervals (perfect fifth, perfect fourth) including the perfect eighth (an octave), which feel hollow because of less conflicts between sound waves, was used as the primary material. The third (sixth), considered the most ideal in harmony even until now, was adopted as the key material in the Baroque period, then prevailed in the Classical era. An experiment to depart from the third (sixth) gradually began after the Romantic period, and then the harshly colliding second (seventh) became the main material of New music. Before long, microtones (intervals smaller than a semitone such as 1/4 tone, 1/8 tone, 1/16 tone, and smaller) were widely chosen as material. As such, each change of the musical material that was favored by each era corresponds to a gradual narrowing of the intervals in the harmonic series, as if planned in advance.
Narrow intervals between notes have got so close, they almost make contact with each other, and overtone-based materials were finally used up by the mid-20th century. Since then, music seems to have expanded its research on materials in a variety of ways, from concrete sound to electronic sound, algorithm, extended technique, spectrum of sound, noise, saturation, and so-called interdisciplinary approaches. I used to think that John Cage’s “silence” was an experiment on composition technique by composing music by means of chance, which has shaken the fundamental concept of composition in music. But recently, I reconfigured my view on it as an experimentation on the new material by accepting sounds produced by chance as musical material. In other words, the material came first and determined the means to compose. (Perhaps the potential method for composition is fundamentally inherent in all materials). However, it was not easy for me to figure out what these materials were commonly pursuing. When I was a music student, I learned that sound can be categorized into three types: a musical tone as a sound that vibrates evenly with its overtones; a pure tone that vibrates without an overtone; and a noise that vibrates unevenly. Music chose the musical tone as its first main material. Thus, when I became aware that the era of musical tones had come to an end due to the depletion of new materials derived from the harmonic series, I naturally expected that the next material would be adopted out of the other two types. Indeed, the experiments conducted in the 20th century seem to have been associated with pure tones or noises. However, these tones alone are insufficient to represent the future of music.
If the most important event of 20th century music was the collapse of tonality, what will be the most momentous event of 21st century music?
I recently began to suspect that music would desire other materials than sound after it uses up every material that can be obtained from the overtones.
Musique concrète often superposes sound with scenes. Whenever I listen to Schaeffer’s Études aux Chemins De Fer, fabricated images of a train crossing and blowing its horn, or a crewman blowing a whistle pass by like a memory. At times, Ondřej Adámek’s music fictionally stimulates a sense of sight. Voices intertwined with musical tones in Ca Tourne Ca Bloque (2008) give rise to an illusion as if I am watching scenes from a film or animated film3, in the same way that the trailer-like film The Diamond Lane (1981) by Barbara Bloom calls to mind an afterimage of an inexistent film. Kagel’s 'Repertoire' in Staatstheater is a presentation of a series of real scenes. At first glance, it might look like a theater play, but I hear it as music. The grammar which constructs relationships in music seems to have been expanded to not only sound but also matter, form, and movement. Adámek’s Le Dîner (2012) features more sensitive, organically intertwined scenes whose forms come off as multifarious. Scenography is exquisitely created as images, sounds, actions, spoken words, and texts are edited by the collaboration between musical instruments, objects, bodies, and a film.
Meanwhile, the extended technique sheds light on “the body”4 in the course of researching invisible sounds that are innate in musical instruments. Diverse “surfaces” of instruments have been thoroughly investigated in order to find new sounds that could be potentially made, but weren’t, or shouldn't have been. As a result, extraordinary “movements” that follow newly found surfaces of instruments were naturally choreographed. Surfaces and movements have always accompanied sound, even before the extended technique emerged. Yet, they always came second to sound; neglected. They are even excluded in recorded music. On the contrary, the new and odd surfaces and movements aroused from the extended technique sometimes overpower the sound, be it the composer’s intention or not. Lachenmann’s Guero, in which a performer scrapes and plucks piano keys rather than pressing them, is heard more vividly when we actually see it being performed. Saturated music including that by Raphaël Cendo brought about stronger and rougher surfaces. The rough tactility of its sound, which almost seems visible when heard, sometimes resonates like a scream declaring that music is also corporeal. The more the sound revokes an impression of matter, the harder it may be to account for and predict it. It may be also difficult to record it without using unfamiliar signs that are newly designed or additional descriptions. This is in line with the fact that body movements are complicated to record. In that sense, the score for such music becomes similar to dance scores. In fact, Adámek has employed some choreographic elements such as body and motility into his works. Karakuri Poupée Mécanique (2011) employs the act of shooting an arrow and the motion of a shot arrow as its raw materials. Shapes and mobilities of the scene in which an arrow is shot are decomposed into ‘rebound,’ ‘disturbance,’ and ‘a gradual decline,’ while the decomposed fragments are expanded into voices and the sounds of musical instruments. Kameny (2012) applies sounds that can be made by stones, actions that can be done with those stones, and sounds that can be assumed by that action as its resources. The connections between objects, actions, and sounds cut across the boundary between idea and matter.
Music by Julia Wolfe at times seems to visualize its sounds into a graph. For example, Lick conjures up positive and negative space. It seems to have erased the main melody and left only the jazz-style garnishing bits and pieces. These fragments are developed instead of the melody while alternating their intermittent and continuous occurrence in turn. Similarly, the first half of Lad (2007) sounds to me like portraying the sound of a bagpipe with points, lines, and planes. Meanwhile, Adámek’s Conséquences Particulièrement Blanches Ou Noires (2016) also arouses an illusionary vision using only sounds without stimulating any memory, sight, or cinematic imagination. It’s like looking at a moving image where something unidentifiable appears and disappears or continuously moves. Its shape is blurred yet its action is vivid. I am not sure yet how and why this illusion emerges. But I assume that it derives from matter. I also speculate that it’s associated with a sense of temporal, physical, and conceptual space in some way. Unstable sounds that vibrate irregularly by roughly blowing, scratching, beating, or plucking objects are hard to be designated as a single coordinate either temporally or spatially. Such a sound that occupies several coordinates at once, even if a moment is sliced into pieces, seems to wobble in the cut plane. Perhaps aural instability and its mobility that will never stop even when a moment is frozen call to mind such images?
At this stage of my thinking, spectral music5, which adopted the spectrum of sound as compositional material, seems to bid farewell to an era when music resorted to overtones rather than a challenge to suggest a new direction of music.
Sound is vibration, i.e. movement. However, this movement is invisible to the eye. I presume that the music of our time expands its raw materials from ‘invisible vibrations’ to ‘visible vibrations.’ According to this assumption, a sound expands to an image or a motion, an instrument to the body, and playing musical instruments to a multi-disciplinary performance. Sound can be seen as an imaginary or tangible scene, shown as a pronouncing body, or visualized as a lively sense. Musical composition, within the correlations between matter, body, movement, image, and sound, has begun absorbing visual art which has explored matter and image in addition to choreography that has researched the human body and motions. Of course, it is necessary to meticulously weigh what kind of relationships images and movements enter into with sound. If images and movements are not contained within sound but are just consumed to spice up the sound or to be juxtaposed with it, they cannot be seen as musical materials.
The transfiguration of music from something only audible into something potentially visible, implies a possibility to make up for the blurred universal senses in contemporary music with the sense of sight. If the universal senses are supplemented, they might naturally improve their legibility. This is not the only reason why music’s visibility is intriguing to me; its visibility may work as the overarching source for studying the common language of the three fields of music, dance, and visual art and to usher sound, movement, and image into a primal state in which music, dance, and visual art are one and the same. When time encounters the body, it generates movement and space and leaves behind images and sound. Music, dance and visual art employing time as their material can be closely bound up to a point where fundamental questions concerning these elements are raised.
If the suppositions mentioned above are correct, an artist who deals with time requires eyes and ears that can critically see and hear the relations of movements, images, and sounds. In fact, I needed both while working on Absentee, as the work, by intentionally making sounds hard to hear, pays attention to what has not been seen or has been overlooked in music. To train my eyes and ears, I started another experiment, in which the concept of Absentee is couched in other languages, non-musical ones. This new experiment can be called an etude in that it is for practice or training. However, it is not an interpretation in which annotations are applied to each sound component in the timeline; it is rather a representation of the significant ideas extracted from five pieces of Absentee, that are paraphrased into universal language instead of musical language, and again into movement language. The conceptual materials drawn out from Absentee are newly choreographed from scratch, performed, recorded, and completed in a film called Alexey. Alexey served as a guide to make blurred concepts and directions more apparent, just as we make more persistent efforts to grasp ambiguous parts when describing mathematics in writing, or translating another language into Korean. In this respect, Alexey is the score for the concept and direction of Absentee.
1 Yeasul Shin, The Things of Music, Workroom Specter, 2019.
2 New Ace, a Korean dictionary, defines abstraction as “the act of apprehending things and symbols through an extraction of their traits, commonalities, and nature.” The term abstraction as it is used in this text, however, borrows from the New Oxford American Dictionary’s definition as “existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence”.
3 Considering that I do not speak Japanese or French used in Ca Tourne Ca Bloque, it is obvious that my illusion has nothing to do with my understanding of their meanings.
4 This is used to refer to both a musical instrument and its player.
5 Spectral music is music that exploits the spectrum secured by an analysis of sound as the resource of musical compositions.