Sunday, 13 December 2009

Time, Space and Making Music (1)

My last but one post and the comments it attracted got me thinking about space, time and music, and in particular, the way Western composers have played games with time and space. Time is to musicians what space is to sculptors. There is time as we usually use the word and the technical term time, meaning the pulse of the music. Music can seem to move fast, or slowly - or even at different speeds, simultaneously. It can create the illusion of a world in which time is standing still, running backwards, or even running forwards and backwards at the same time. Physical space is a bit more tricky to manage: more of that later.

Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) wrote the earliest complete polyphonic setting of the mass to survive, the Messe de Nostre Dame. (Polyphonic: multiple voices, singing different melodic lines). In it, he employed a technique called isorhythm. Buried in the musical texture are the notes (but not the rhythm) of a pre-existing plainchant melody. The pitches of the melody are assigned to a repeating rhythmic pattern of the composer's invention.  This is generally slow-moving. Over the top of this, higher voices sing ornate lines, more densely packed with notes. The plainchant tune is not easy to hear. As someone once half-flippantly put it, the music was so complex that "only God could understand it." There was no need for the listeners to understand what was going on, any more than they needed to understand the latin! Below is clip of the Agnus Dei from Mass:



This preoccupation with complexity -sometimes in fashion, sometimes out- has been a strand running through Western music ever since. Roughly speaking, it fell out of favour after the Bach era, but fell in again in the 20th century, partly inspired by our growing appreciation of the complexities of the world exposed by science. I'm speculating here, but it seems to me that Machaut's complexity grew out of the preoccupations of his own age and -although it's nigh-on impossible to think 14th century thoughts with a 20th century mind- it's difficult not to draw parallels.

Machaut was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, who famously wrote:

"Also in this He shewed a littil thing, the quantitye of an hesil nutt [hazel nut] in the palme of my hand; and it was round as a balle. I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made"
The Shewings of Julian of Norwich (1373) (lines 148-51).
This is a startling thing to read, especially to someone living today: it sounds almost like the sort of speculation a modern cosmologist might come up with. I'm not suggesting anything out of the ordinary or supernatural here. As I suggested, it would be foolish to pretend that one can understand the 14th century mind, but it's perhaps not surprising that her intuition should lead her to think like that. Physicists today often talk about the importance of intuition in what they do, even if they don't call it "the eye of their understanding".

14 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

Now you are talking my kind of music. That is one of my favourite pieces - haven't heard it in a long time but could listen to it all day - immensely polyphonic, tons of movement, yet a pure, simple "melody" running through it.
Thinking of what you say about space and the sculptor - I always understood that the sculptor took space very seriously - that the spaces (or negative shapes maybe?)
were just as important as the solid form - I am sure this relates to music also - in fatc on thinking about it, to all art forms.

the watercats said...

when you mentioned "western music" my mind instantly presumed you were talking about good old cowboy and injun soundtracks.. and I was agreeing... the way a good soundtrack leaves enough space for a moment to stand still...
anyway, then I realised you were talking about proper serious music and started not understanding words... but I think your post was interesting and the video was ..yes.. complex... it took effort to listen to, and when it finished I felt like I'd been swatting for exams or something!

Dominic Rivron said...

WG: Pleased this is your kind of music! Not sure my next installment will be...

the watercats: funny you should say that. There's a whole space and time post there - the way kinds of music, by repetition in films, get associated with wide open spaces, etc.

Get Off My Lawn! said...

Western music is good at this kind of thing. Expressing the ideas and moods of a given time. Sometimes, as you say, it remains relevant or weaves in and out of relvance as history polughs along. This is definitely one of those pieces that has the ability to remain relevant.

Totalfeckineejit said...

I like people talking about stuff they really love and know about and I like what you said in your response to The Watercats.I really like choirs singing and I think this is probably a beautiful piece of music but (did you sense a but coming?)I can't gel with that high male voice( is it alto or castrato or cornetto or something?)I get the theme tune to Blackadder in my head and can't get it out. Is that voice synonymous with music of that time,is it necessary? I am completely ignorant of all these matters (apologies) but look forward to your next installment.Diggin that snow too!

Dominic Rivron said...

GOML: It does, doesn't it. One thing that fascinates me about music is its tardis-like quality: when you invent it, you never know where it'll end up and when you listen to it it can take you back to when it was made.

(Is Dr Who international? If not I should just mention that the tardis is his time machine).

TFE: It can be castrato (thankfully they don't do that anyomore - I'm not sure but I don't think they did it in Machaut's time either) or, more usually, countertenor. Countertenors work on the high voice men can produce (usually for comic effect) until they can sing really well with it. It certain takes you aback when you first hear it.

Check out Alfred Deller singing John Dowland.

PS Dandruff is catching.

swiss said...

what sort of notation wuould they use? are they at the stage of those proto note things or are they still using something liek pitch indicators?

Dominic Rivron said...

So-called "mensural notation". Rhythm was notated along with pitch, which enabled singers to sing their parts together.

There's a facsimile of a page here and an explanation (for those who can't get enough music theory!) here.

swiss said...

cheers dominic, i wasn't sure if it would look like this or not. i knewa vague bit about it once and was even able to 'sing' a bit of it off, i think, sweden's oldest piece of music.

i felt a bit of a tit but t liked it and the locals weren't offended.

talking of things scandinavian. been listening to lots of this recently
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kq-ZtTmiJh8
me and t saw him as part of thre tune up series early in the year and loved it. he had some guy playing a nykelharpa, which was a new one on me.

Dominic Rivron said...

I'd forgotten about the nykelharpa! Just checked it out on Wikipedia. (I found meself in Sweden twice - once, as I mentioned recently, visiting a friend (doing a postgrad degree in Stockholm)and once touring as part of an orchestra for a choir). I've put the link on for a listen...

Dick said...

A great post, Dominic. What a glorious piece of music - so ornate so early. And I love the Julian of Norwich re-phrasing of the grain of sand metaphor.

Have you come across Eric Whitacre?

Dominic Rivron said...

Pleased you like it, Dick. I hadn't come across Eric Whitacre, but I have now.

ArtSparker said...

I know the other Julian of Norwich quote, Have never seen this one. Have been thinking along these lines recently though.

Dominic Rivron said...

ArtSparker: It is that sort of thought isn't it? One that crops up independent of others who think it.