It’s all a game (piece)

I like the idea of process music. I like it a lot. Something about the idea appeals to me. I suppose it’s the fact that I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but have lacked a sense of mastery over any form of tools. I don’t know how to paint, how to draw, how to sculpt. I only barely know how to create music, and even then I am not able to write down or record what I do, so it tends to be lost to the ether.

A clarification: I do not take the time to write down things. I can play the guitar reasonably well, and one thing I’ve learned during my time working on taiko et al is that any piece of music, no matter how complex, can be mastered (or at least rendered playable with some facility) with the liberal application of time and effort. So I assume that if I wrote down some of the things which come out while I’m noodling on my guitar, I’d have something of value resulting. Even if it’s too complex for me to play at speed *now*, I would be able to keep it in the file and woodshed it, polish it until it gleams. One day I’ll be able to play shakuhachi honkyoku properly. Not today, not next week, and probably not next year.

But one day.

I guess there’s a movement in music towards the unprepared. It’s often portrayed as letting chance have a say in things, but that’s not really the case: if you were going to let chance have a say you’d work on music that was planned but open, rather than work on a song that you play the same night after night but don’t bother to rehearse so it sounds ‘edgy’. The lo-fi movement is great in that it reassures the listener that they, too, could record an album. You like albums by The Mountain Goats? Hey, that guy knows about five chords and recorded most of the early stuff on a boombox. You could do that!

And you could, as the formula is pretty simple. But you’ve still got to bring something to it – life experience, dedication, something you can’t snap down. There’s rules to making an album of this kind but they don’t guarantee success in the way other compositional approaches do. One of the best quotes about this ephemeral thing is from Steve Albini:

There’s no shortage of bands that attempted to sound like the Clash or the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. From an academic standpoint, you could say they sounded very similar but they weren’t as good as those bands. And the same can be said of all the bands that tried to sound like AC/DC. AC/DC seemed to be a fairly simple band from a conceptual level and an execution level. It seemed like anybody should be able to do that. But everybody who tries just makes a fool of themselves. And the only band that’s like that, that’s any good, is AC/DC.

Perhaps it’s the case that I like the idea of composition by rigid process because it takes a particular type of chance out of the equation while allowing another in. That’s not to say that it’s not at all an easy path – that’s not the case, and I’m not trying to say that composers or classical musicians are writing easier music, or that it’s not difficult. Or, indeed, that it’s something that I’ll be able to crack out of the park on the first go. But I am of the belief, however potentially misguided, that composition according to particular rules is something which will allow me to put my ideas into the world now while I work on increasing my skill level so that I can transcribe melodies to stave, say. (Something I can’t do at present.)

Classical music by and large is technically more demanding than some rock stuff – but where rock is played pretty open, classical adheres to a set of rules. Except for a section of cadenza, there’s likely no room for variation. If in a large ensemble, you’ll be constrained by how the conductor feels the piece should go. The tempo will be marked. You can’t really freestyle in classical – much as you can’t riff on a book if you’re reading it aloud to an audience, if you want to stay true to the spirit of the thing – yet practitioners are lauded as being somehow more musical than their four-on-the-floor brethren. Is it because orchestral players fiddle with more complex-looking instruments? Because they don’t (usually) wear jeans on stage? There is undoubtedly more ability required in most instances – but the chance to use that ability to spontaneously create is often limited.

The process or game pieces are especially interesting to me as they allow one person to create a set of rules or a framework within which the player can have some leeway. Yes, they’ll have to play something akin to what is set down on the paper, but depending on the openness of the system there’s a lot of room to make the piece your own. There’s really two manners of openness on display here, though – performative, where the performance is mostly left up to chance, within certain boundaries, and compositional. I really appreciate watching technically-skilled performers wrestle with a piece that has some kind of room for them to fly – John Zorn’s Cobra can be a good example of this kind of thing, where, with help from a prompter, the players are thrown into constant rivalries and associations, having to think on their feet.

Composition processes are the most interesting, though. I’ve dabbled a bit in this – it’s where you take structures from life – jumper patterns, Morse code transliterations, street names, menu contents – and turn them into music. It doesn’t matter the mechanism by which you turn them into sound – it’s the fact external data is driving the creation. There’s not a reliance on finding something inside your head – it’s a mode of creation that brings itself into life. I’ve written a piece for singing bowls based on the players’ birthdays. It was quick and it did what it was supposed to – it calmed three nervous taiko players before a performance, because they were able to concentrate on something outside of them. The simple rules removed a lot of stress purely by forcing people to count a particular way.

The music of the birthday was always there. It just took the right conditions for it to make itself known. I’m hoping I can discover more of these patterns, even if the music is never heard by anyone else.

(This thing grew from my daily 750words practice.)


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