Why Systems?

Why Systems?

Composers are afraid of using the basic building blocks of their trade.

The Romantic period in the arts put at its heart the expression of the individual: artists and composers of the period were often cast as heroic or worthy individuals who went against prevailing mores and practices, until they took on a legendary hue. A grotesque ghost from this now haunts the liberal Western education, encouraging everyone to believe that they have a unique and fascinating perspective coupled with unlimited creative potential –one requiring little work to unlock. That last bit is a problem: it has got to the stage where student composers often seem to believe that acquiring detailed technical knowledge is a form of brainwashing. Certainly they come out of the system not yet having investigated properly the techniques that have a label, and what’s worse, they are afraid to. Yet the tiresome cliché of the artist doing it all by direct inspiration alone is of little help to those whose business it is to learn the trade of artistic creation.  

When it comes to the recent past in music – modernism – practical knowledge is not being passed on in any rigorous way. The same can also be said for the ancient tonal practical techniques. All of this is detrimental to the practical understanding of the amount or type of work behind great works. Unfortunately the big guns of modernism were terrible show-offs who left behind enormous turgid tomes that claim to elucidate their techniques while ignoring at least half of what they did and obfuscating the rest in a cloak of pretension. Indeed in this respect they seemed to be operating under the Romantic rubric of self-glorification, and subsequent generations have reacted negatively.

The old techniques such as species counterpoint, figured bass, fugue and four-part harmony served the organisation of symmetrical and tonal music. The organisation or handling of asymmetry (such as irregular timing) and of more complex pitch and rhythmic structures requires a logic that is quite separate, and, more importantly, frequently opposite to those ancient procedures. Furthermore, it is still handed on, in person and by composers for the most part. Lastly, modernistic treatment of the symmetrical and modal forms a third stream of technique – without a knowledge of this, composers will be reinventing the wheel. 

A particular problem arises if one is trying to write in a complex idiom. Juggling many decisions that govern multiple simultaneous musical parameters without at least some background assistance from rule-like techniques, seems foolhardy. A distrust of even acquiring these is a bit like a house builder distrusting blocks in case they dictate form – which to an extent they do, of course! But to build, you either use an existing material or work out how to make a new type of material. Either way you cannot build with an absence of material, or with a non-supportive type of material. The more ambitious in either scale or degree of complexity a musical structure is, the more mastery of technique along these lines is needed.  

A recognisable voice
An interesting or important composer tends to be one with a recognisable voice which is the realisation of a personal vision allied to a personal library of techniques. To be coherent and audible, these have to be systematic to a degree, in a way that is analogous to the ancient techniques. One genuinely scary ideal, put about by Stockhausen back in his heyday, was that these should be created completely afresh for every piece. Few ever followed that, but a general habit of transitive change from piece to piece became quite common. 

As modernism called forth more and more complexity, the structuring principles became more all-encompassing – initially to assist with the computations, as it were; and of course to assist with the fact that classical music notation and performance practice is set up for symmetrical and tonal music: the control of asymmetry on the page is counter-intuitive and ungainly to operate. These pressures led to the ‘total’ kinds of techniques that the Integral Serialists used for while in the 1950s – they tried to systematically organise timing, pitch, register and tone colour all together under parallel rules. From there it was a short move (perhaps via Xenakis) to the dream and eventual realisation of algorithmic composition, where a computer can create actual music from a programmed set of rules. 

Thus a clear conceptual line runs along technique, in the wider sense, from most musical decisions made purely and only from the composer’s intuition and musicality, right over to where the composer determines rules that then write all the music for him. The Romantic viewpoint will tend to dislike the sound of algorithmic creations, as they appear to distance the artist from the realm of intuition and self-expression. However, we can simply characterise the whole thing as a continuum that each composer and listener is free to range over – extremes are not for everyone and that’s fine.

Algorithmic composition is in its early stages, in that no major figure has arisen from it. Xenakis is a father figure for it, mainly because of the extent to which he illuminated the importance of the systematic side of his work – and shaded the intuitive side. In general, of course, his generation features a number of composers who were prodigious in inventing sets of rules to govern the inner world of a given work. Critics felt that the composer’s intuition was getting sidelined in this situation. Yet interestingly, the first creative critical reaction against the resulting style of complex modernism did not involve a reduction of rule-based composition: with minimalism, the music is much simpler because rules had even more control. With the process music of early Reich the rules govern the complete path of the music after initial conditions have been set in motion. In that light, minimalism can be seen as partly informed by the background aesthetic, and failing to truly react against it. 

The modernists and minimalists alike made it acceptable for music to have an almost cyborg quality – a marriage of human and mechanistic qualities. In that sense, Reich was furthering things by making it all simpler. Ligeti in turn was influenced by Reich’s process music, but he stayed away from regularity and simple modality, and he took from this style the possibility of the mechanical element going on a sort of robotic rampage, which suited his sense of fantasy and humour. 

John Cage was never slow to express his revulsion at having his feelings ‘pushed around’ by composers of the Romantic era. He was inclined to find that choosing note orders by intuition alone leads most composers back towards those expressive tendencies he hated so much. We should not be surprised to find then, that he too used external structuring systems, hidden in his case. They work in his music to create sound-worlds that have a calm disinterest in achieving ‘expression’. The use of chance procedures was just one of his technical devices for distancing the intuition from the foreground layer of structure, in order to achieve interesting discoveries that did not sound rooted in the past. 

Distrust or fear of systems is not a productive starting point for composers of music that seeks to break new ground. The composers mentioned here are all major figures, and they are from completely different aesthetic camps, in some cases reviling one another, yet they share this overarching late twentieth-century quality of generating material in a sophisticated way that is at times rigorously systematic, and that achieves a necessary distance from the heart-on-sleeve sound that tends otherwise to result.

Published on 2 February 2011

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.org

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