Aug 15, 2013

Remembering Memory

I have been writing a big orchestra piece (38 minutes for large orchestra). The commission contract calls it a Symphony which carries the connotation to me of a piece without extramusical program. My last few pieces have had governing metaphors built into the commission. For example, I recently finished a piece to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assasination of JFK, and a piece commissioned by an Aquarium to highlight the interconnection of marine and terrestrial life along the densely populated southern California coast. 

 In fulfilling a commission that comes with a task, the Kennedy piece is a good example, there is a target expressive character present when work begins. In my previous post "Nothing Funny About That," I wrote about the challenges of avoiding, against my nature, anything playful or light-hearted. On the positive side, a given text, program, or metaphor can provide a road map or at least some criteria for deciding which fork in the road to follow.

When beginning a new work of free, abstract composition there are no a priori guidelines regarding tone or mood and one has to invent reasons to pursue one fork over the other and construct a map as you go. 

I believe there is a quote by  famous author whose name escapes me along the lines of "I don't write to tell people what I think, I write to find out what I think." It is both exciting and frightening to work without a priori concept, just the invitation to find a few frequencies in a few temporal positions that have some personality and then extrapolate that personality into a long arc. 

 I began work on this piece by digging in the garden – allowing myself to freely discover material without regard to form or function. As I was gathering little treasures I couldn't resist the temptation to see how the unearthed fragments might connect and combine with one another – like trying to figure out what structure might be built from a few stray tinker tolys left on the floor. While trying to form continuities out of seemingly disparate parts I stumbled on a particularly interesting juxtaposition between two ideas. The ideas didn't flow easily, one to the other. The joint had an odd flavor and I couldn't immediately decide if I even liked it. My subjective perception of the moment was that the second idea sounded like a memory. I realize the crackpottery of such a statement but it did make sense that if the second idea were indeed a recalling of an event that happened earlier in the piece, I could have my cake and eat it too: I could explore the expressive effects of the subtle discontinuity in harmony and voice leading which made it difficult to understand the event as a natrual progression in the present moment by making it an event that we remember from the past - a memory. (Just to be clear, I am talking about the memory of a previous event in the present piece, not a memory of some other piece - a quotation). 

I was reminded of a dissertation on the album Relayer by the band "Yes" written by my former student Mike Early. He described a sequential progression of a phrase rising by step until it was a tritone away and then snapped back to the original transposition. The local discontinuity forced the listener to remember the original phrase in order to make sense of the bumpy landing from the tritone leap.

I was also reminded of my time as a teaching assistant at SUNY Stony Brook, teaching ear training and sight singing. I don't have perfect pitch but I have a good memory and it seemed helpful to my students and myself to combine memory - going back to a remembered pitch - with singing forward, interval by interval.

In composing this piece I started to consciously explore the territory between arriving at an event because it was the convincing next step in the present versus understanding something as a recollection of the past. The recapitulation in your average 18th and 19th century masterpiece represents the former extreme. The return is meticulously prepared. The jacket is tailored, brushed and held open by an experienced valet so that the recap can easily slip its arms in. The other extreme is te return of previous material which is unprepared anc creates a schism in the musical flow which asks the listener to understand the event as an interruption or a flashback and not part of the present. I am particularly interested in the middle ground where voice leading and memory share the load of making sense out of a continuity. The point is to create unusual expressive alchemies in the present by asking the memory to do part, but not all, of the work in understanding an event. If memory does all the work the harmonic interaction is overlooked, excused, made inert. The hope is not only that some interesting harmonic gaps can be bridged by memory.

In blending present and past experience I suppose the feeling of Deja Vu - experienceing a new event as if it had been experienced before - and its opposite - experiencing a past event as if for the first time, are relevant possible outcomes.

I am not claiming that this is a revolutionarily new way of thinking about music. It isn't even the first time that I have mined the potential of memory for poignant moments, but it is the farthest I have come in exploring the possible relationships between syntax and memory. 

Actually, in 1981 when I was in graduate school at Brandeis I wrote a piece called "Four Pieces in Three Movements". The idea was that, strewn across the three distinct movements separated by pauses, there was a fourth piece of music which began somewhere in the middle of the first movement and reappeared, continuing from where it left off in subsequent appearences. The concept was not executed particularly well for three reasons I think. First of all, the subesquent appearences of the fourth piece were too well integrated into the flow of the music so there was not enough contextual clues that the flow of time in the present was meant to be suspended. Secondly, the fourth piece was not striking enough in the context to stand out and be memorable and related to that, thirdly, by picking up the fourth piece from where it left off I was making unreasonable demands on the listeners memory by asking them to remember what they expected would happen next but hadn't actually happened.

 I don't think memory has been the focus of much music in the past 50-75 years. Minimalism lives primarily in the now moment as a process unfolding in the present. Modernism often eschews recongnizable repetition which puts memory on the back burner. 18th and 18th century music surely employed memory but those composers were not allowed the kind of syntactical license that we are in the post emancipation-of-the-dissonance era. You rarely find broken rules with the purpose of highlighting memory. One exception is the premature entry of the horn as we approach the recap of the first movement of the Beethoven's 3rd Symphony. 

The tonal freedom of the early 20th Century was an ideal context for using syntax to suggest various shades of belonging to the present or past, waking or dreaming, etc. and composers like Ives and Stravinsky made good use of memory.

I'm using the exploration of memory as an idea, something to refer to as I make the myriad decisions about where to go in the journey of creating a new piece. I anticipate that it will impact the piece in a couple ways: the hope is not only that some interesting harmonic gaps can be bridged by memory but the recollections and shifting sense of past and present will have some formal consequences which can hopefully be massaged into an intrinsically expressive shape.