Skeleton: the Decayed Remnants of Time. An Investigation of Memory Through Sound.

TitleSkeleton: the Decayed Remnants of Time. An Investigation of Memory Through Sound.
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsBerger, M.
Conference NameHawaii International Conference on the Arts and Humanities
Conference LocationHonolulu, Hawaii, USA
KeywordsCompositions, Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal +, Génération 2008, Skeleton
Abstract    The goals of this research are to explore the implications of a new definition of music exemplified in a new composition, and, through its forthcoming premieres, to examine the performances and reception of the work in order to assess the validity of the definition.

    In the experimental environment of the early Twentieth Century, the composer Edgard Varèse described music simply as “organized sound.”  At the time, when many composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss were pushing traditional Tonality to, and indeed past, its breaking point, the question of what is music was of particular interest; and Varèse’s definition was an eye-opener.  It solidified an expanded aesthetic point of view that served as both a condition and catalyst for most avant-garde musical work and thought thereafter.  It is from this definition that most of my thought on the matter has stemmed.  In considering it together with others and my own experiences in music listening, performance, study and creation, I propose the following adjusted definition: that music is the artful parsing of memory by sound, or as is the case with acoustic music, by performed sound. 

    The same openness and interpretability of Varèse’s definition that allowed for some of the most expansive and valuable contributions to music in the last century now also contributes to the overly-subjective environment of the post-Cagean jungle.  In order to formulate discussion of a qualitative nature with regard to music there needs to be a more appropriate criterion than the degree to which a piece of music is organized. 
    My proposed solution to this is perhaps a paradoxical one, and potentially invites even greater degrees of subjectivity.  After all, it is art’s very subjective nature that gives it such power and sway over the hearts and minds of those who receive it, and its capacity to provoke thought — and music is no exception.  The term “artful” offers a channel through which the subjectivity in music is guided and contextualized where it has hitherto been unbounded.  Though easily as implicit as it is ambiguous, it is with this element of music that I seek to explicitly modify Varèse’s use of, ‘organization.’
    In music one is always comparing what one hears in the present to what one has heard in the past and the trained listener will apply learned structure(s) to what he or she is hearing and thereby devise an interpretation.  This foregrounding of “memory,” in combination with the term “artful,” elucidates a point that, though only implicit in the definition itself, is perhaps its most important feature: that music requires human agents and interpreters to be.

    I have approached my composition, <b>Skeleton</b>, with these distinctions at the front of my mind.  The meaning of the title, and the subsequent philosophy of the piece, is therefore twofold.  <b>Skeleton</b> simultaneously refers to the foundational function of the score to the music and the music to the memory, and to the ever-fleeting infinitesimal nature of the present moment.  It alludes not only to the musical and social structures that support it as a ‘piece of music,’ but also to the decaying remains of the present as it passes through our memory of it. 
    The piece is made up of many short segments or quanta that are constantly developing or repeating in order to directly address the memory of the present as it flows through the mind the listener.  The rate at which this flow occurs is also of interest to me, and methods of its control, varying from the proportioning of silences to the fluctuating of tempo to the point of extreme rubato, are employed therein. The quanta’s eventual combinations and interactions produce increasingly larger chunks of time to the point where their identities are indistinct from one another and little of their origins remain other than the inevitable silence that follows them.  In order to take full advantage of the human agents involved in the piece’s performance, the quanta are designed to be fundamental units of human expression (i.e. a gentle or melancholy ‘sighing’ motive, or clamorous outburst of anger).  This directly ties the identity and humanity of the performers to the musical output of the piece.

    <b>Skeleton</b> will be premiered in November of 2008, and with a total of six performances across Canada in the same month, I hope to research and judge the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of these thoughts and approaches on both the performed result and its reception with diverse sets of listeners, through direct observations and discussions with the musicians and audiences. 
    Does this approach affect the resulting music in a way that justifies its use?  What can be learned, in either case, about the piece, about psychoacoustics and memory, and about musical art in general?
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