Saturday, 19 December 2009

Time, Space and Making Music (2)

Fast forward: I've included a clip of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony below. This huge 10-movement work was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and completed in 1948. The orchestra includes a lot of percussion instruments, including the piano and the celesta: sometimes the sound is not unlike that of a gamelan orchestra, rather than a Western one. It also uses an electronic instrument, the Ondes Martenot.

About four minutes in, the brass, piano and percussion start up an unstoppable, machine-like music (the sound quality in the clip below is not of the best, but it's one of the most unique sounds I've ever heard an orchestra make). Against it, the violins play a seemingly unending melody made up of longer notes. I saw the piece played in the Sage, Gateshead not so long ago. I was lucky enough to be sat in the cheapest seats, in a gallery high above the stage. From there, we were looking down on the orchestra and the structure of the piece could be seen as well as heard: whole blocks of orchestral players could be seen moving together, each block moving at a different pace. Listening to Turangalila, time sometimes seems to be moving at different speeds, simultaneously. The name Turangalila is constructed from two Sanskrit words: turanga and lila and means, more or less, "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death." True, there are huge differences, but there is something going on here that is not a million miles from the world of Machaut. I know this is a 21st rather than 14th century way of putting it, but both composers (as have many in between) are trying to convey the illusion of a world beyond the three dimensional world we inhabit, by consciously playing very similar games with time.

Regarding the Ondes Martenot, I found this interesting short film about it on YouTube - essential viewing for Star Trek fans:

So far I've been talking about time. As for space, spatial effects can be hard or inconvenient to create. The most obvious one is dance. Dancers (either as performers or participating listeners) can add a spatial dimension to music. Experiments with other spatial effects have also cropped up now and again in Western music. Gabrielli, in the sixteenth century, was famous for writing pieces in which the direction from which the music came from was an important part of the music's structure. However, this aspect of music only really came to the forefront in the twentieth century.

John Cage, in Variations V, a work written for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, set up a system whereby sound was controlled by the movement of dancers through a set of light beams. In breaking the beams, dancers operated photoelectric switchs which in turn triggered sounds.

Stockhausen -as religious a composer, in his way, as Messiaen and Machaut- endlessly experimented with time and space in his pieces. He experimented contracting and expanding musical space and time: for example, near the end of Mantra the entire piece is compressed into a short, virtuosic burst for the two pianists. In his electronic pieces, the direction the sound comes from or moves in is often as important as the texture of the sound itself. In Ylem (inspired by the theory of the universe expanding and contracting on an 80 billion year cycle):

"...10 of the 19 players stand on the stage around the piano; after a sound explosion they walk playing into the hall and take up position to the left and right of the audience (the remaining 9 players stay on stage). Towards the end they go back onto the stage, stand around the piano, and after a second explosion, all 19 players walk off the stage and out of the building, while continuing to play (the 9 players who were playing on stage have small portable instruments)." Stockhausen

Stockhausen pursued these sort of preoccupations most sensationally in his helicopter string quartet (there's an excerpt from from it below - a good note to end this post on). Love it or hate it, it is perhaps, in its way, as embedded in our view of the universe today as Machaut is in the 14th century view:


Totalfeckineejit said...

Great post Dominic.Informative and authorative.The first piece I didn't particularly enjoy as a piece of music but as a fantastic experience live it would be a treat.
That Andes Ocelot is a fascinating creature,I'd never heard of one before.It made some wonderful noises and beautiful sounds.I'd like one of them ans a Theramin or whatever they're called.
Stockhausen is The Daddy though.Madness in a bottle, deeply disconcerting to the point of being disturbing. It was the most interesting and the thing I would have to listen to again.Might try and write something as I listen

Thanks Domo!

tony said...

Stockhausen ! Yea! I will live with this music a little............Splendid Food For Thought!Oh, The World is so Wide ,if we let it In.

Dominic Rivron said...

TFE: It is a fantastic experience live. You've got me hankering after a theremin now (DIY?). It would be a great novelty teaching aid.

tony: The world is so wide if we let it in. Great quote there. It kind of sums up my feelings about music.

John Hayes said...

I've been saving this post until I had time to really savor it, & am glad I did; fascinating music in each case. I'll have to think about space in music--as a performer of popular music I have a different orientation to this--obviously, it's always great when you get people to dance, which as you point out is a way of creating space. I do think of music as creating interior/emotionally imaginative (or imaginatively emotional!) space for both performer & listener. These are great posts, & will look forward to more!

Dominic Rivron said...

JH: I've been thinking a bit about time, space and popular styles.I keep thinking of bluegrass playing, when it's fast, and there's like a cloud of notes - but I'm not sure how to say what I mean about it. Then there's simple things (in all styles) - like the significance of repeating a tune and the way our expectations are set up.

"I do think of music as creating interior/emotionally imaginative ... space". Yes: this might sound a bit strange, but it's a bit like those magical spaces inside a Christmas tree, come to think of it.

I've started writing a part(3) but it's not quite finished yet!