Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Life and Transformation of European Melody

Over a few crucial centuries, the “classical” music of the West developed a trait that separates it from all other music that exists or has existed: its trademark disconnect with the human voice. Where other cultures (and, in Europe, other times) looked upon the voice as a sort of fertile soil and metaphor for all music, it vanished from the core of European music, taking with it the idiom of vocal melody; in its place, the motive (or “idea”, in its more sublime guise) flowered into the new lifeblood of music. What is, for the world's other musical cultures, an art of the voice and its instrumental proxies is, in the West, and art of ideas and the sounds that clothe them in physical form.

The centuries-long process that took European music from the former art to the latter is, in essence, the story of the fragmentation of melody, and of its disembodiment—that is, the growing disassociation of music and the human voice. In very general terms, it is a transformation that takes us from the music of the late Middle Ages (interwoven melodies of sublime vocal character) to (at least) the music of the mid-20th century (disparate, non-vocal events unified by an abstract concept).

The first heralds of this transformation seem to me to have raised their voices in the early 17th century, although the seeds of this change were likely planted much earlier. The millennium-long melodic heritage inherited by the 16th century masters gave birth to the flower of European polyphony, an art rooted firmly in the powers of the human voice. Through the innovations of 17th and 18th century musicians, polyphony was transmuted; shaped by the forces of instrumental, metered music, and by the new ‘tonal thinking’, the progeny of the old vocal music was a different musical language, in which motive, chord, and meter were the key terms. By the time of Beethoven, melody in the old, vocal sense had vanished, replaced (at least in Germany and Austria) by a fragmented idiom built from the generating force of motivic cells. The composers of the latter half of the 19th century brought this music of atomized melody to its apotheosis; Wagner, in particular, envisioned music as streams of motivic ideas, woven together into a tapestry of ceaseless evolution, a perspective shared by most 19th century composers throughout Europe. Taken by Schoenberg and Strauss, the form-uniting motive gained in power and mystic significance: it became the ‘idea’, an abstract formula holding sway over every molecule of a piece. Music, as understood by the 20th century heir of this worldview, was a series of events in time, unified by warp and woof: the generating idea, and the magnetic force of vertical structure.

One hundred years later, this perspective has become the most widely-believed musical theory that the world has known; it pervades the music of almost all modern composers, from the most abrasive underground experimentalist to the ‘neo-Mahlerian post-Minimalist’ of Grammy-winning fame. Melody is a fragmentary creature composed of borrowed elements, usually the inner parts of some eviscerated harmonic structure; or perhaps it is a symbolic embodiment of the Concept, the social and intellectual significance of which must be discovered in the impenetrable arcana of the ‘artist's statement’. It is an accepted fact that melody is an undefined term, that music without an idea is out of control—and that the composer's task is to give meaning to his sometimes chaotic constructions by musically explaining to the listener what relations bind these events to each other. Idea and structure, warp and woof: and, between them, the manic pandemonia of every sound known to human kind.

Western music grew from roots common to its cultural cousins, yet its flower is of a shape and color that bespeak unique influences. To understand the genetic load of this organism whose inheritors we are, we must trace some stages in its growth.

The Line and the Melodic Tapestry

If there is one feature that renders the pre-1400 musical world alien to the modern musician, it is the purely linear, vocal character of the music. In this time, the first term of musical art was melody. The foremost talent of the medieval musician was for the invention of melodies—lines, as beautiful as possible, harmonizing with the idiom of the human voice and carefully constructed, with close attention paid to their proportions and melodic shapes. The earliest identifiable composers, among them Hermannus Contractus, Léonin, Pérotin, and Guillaume de Machaut, were heirs of nearly a millennium of musical thought—dating as far back as the times of Ambrose and Augustine, if not further—that regarded the perfection of the single melodic line as the sine qua non of musical art. The newer polyphonic approach in which these composers were steeped forced some deviations from this ideal: for example, lines in 3- and 4-voice music could not be as perfectly-formed as their monodic kin if the demands of harmony were to be met. Still, as the following example from Pérotin shows, the strong, proportioned melody of the individual voice had not been seriously compromised in the age of florid organum: 

Fig. 1: (c.f. recording)

Both the “modern” understanding of harmony and the motivic technique were in embryonic form by the early Renaissance. Harmony was concerned with uniting the several voices in a consonance (5th, octave, or unison) on accented beats, and with the avoidance of awkward cross-relations between voices; as yet, it was very much an art subordinate to that of melody. The motivic technique, archaic in origin, was used (to some extent) in the Gregorian liturgy and was probably a common heritage of all composers of the 13th and 14th centuries. For the entirety of the Renaissance, the use of motives was a simple means of relating separate voices and of unifying regions of music—in other words, it was a technique applied to the art of vocal melody, not something intrinsic to it. By weaving a memorable figure into a vocal line, and by duplicating this figure in other lines, the various strands in a polyphonic composition were given a sense of organic wholeness. The motive was therefore a tangible thing with none of the abstract properties associated with it in recent centuries; it was probably not regarded as the ‘fiber’ of music, but merely as an effective addition to the art.

Polyphonic music reached its pinnacle of complexity with the composers of the 15th century. Composers such as Johannes Ockeghem, Antoine Busnois, and, later, Josquin des Prez wove individual melodies of striking beauty into compositions of immense structural sophistication. Central to this sophistication was a greater scope for the motivic technique; in this music, whole regions of large compositions are unified by motivic units, which assert their presence yet never undermine the integrity of the melodies in which they inhere.
Fig. 2

Harmonic thought had begun to influence the composition of lines as well, although its effect at this point was mainly to broaden the range of melodic combinations; the explosion of the fauxbourdon style (attributed, at the time, to John Dunstaple) brought the intervals of the third and sixth—formerly considered somewhat dissonant—into popular use. This development, in turn, pushed the Pythagorean temperament into gradual obsolescence and spurred the gradual adoption of just temperaments; the way was being cleared for a fully triadic music of greater melodic density. 

Melody in Eclipse, Idea in utero


With the final culmination of polyphonic art in the 16th century came also a simplification. Music for 5 or more voices became common, while, at the same time, a simplicity of melody and form replaced the ornate styles of the previous century. The relationship between these twin developments is clear: the growing density of the ensemble placed greater limitations on the individual voice. Complex methods of unifying separate vocal lines—canon and all its derivatives—that had been popular in the music of the 15th century Franco-Flemish masters now lost ground. The motivic technique had gained by leaps and bounds; 16th century composers like Orlande de Lassus and Palestrina followed the lead of Josquin and others by using motives to delineate separate regions in their compositions:
Fig. 3 (c.f. recording)

The density of the larger 16th century ensembles restrained the melodic possibilities of each voice, while the intricate weavings of 5- and 6-voice polyphony fed the development of stereotyped vertical patterns, popular progressions that simplified complex melodic movements by representing them in cross-section. A transition to a new, vertical understanding of music had begun in earnest: as the art of the line found itself increasingly constrained, harmonic thinking gained ground rapidly: polyphony was being transmuted, in an entirely subjective sense, into a procession of 'harmonic moments'. A newly-popular shorthand—figured bass—provided a simple means of notating these melodic cross-sections, fueling the spread of vertical thinking among practical musicians. By the late 17th century, the chord structure had developed from its origin as a kind of melodic derivative (instantaneous cross-section) into the primal substance of much new music. No prophet of this newly-transfigured art grasped its possibilities more consummately than the celebrated Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713):
Fig. 4 (c.f. recording)

It may be difficult for us to understand the impact of this gradual shift in the concept of melody; it may be described as almost metaphysical. Prior to the growth of vertical thinking, melody was music, was the substance of all musical art; during the ascent of chordal thought, melody, though still crucial, was morphing into a dependent of harmony, an expression of the chordal substance beneath. If a 4-part ‘chord’, to the early 17th century composer, was merely a moment in the (highly distinct) lives of four melodic lines—that is, merely an accident of the melodic substance, the opposite relationship obtained between the two phenomena for the composer of the next century.

Two reciprocal axioms make clear the reversal of this relationship, and the clash between the old and modern melodic worlds. “L'harmonia nasce dal cantare, che fanno insieme le parti delle cantilene” (“Harmony arises from the simultaneous singing of melodies”), wrote composer and theorist Gioseffo Zarlino in 1558; nearly 200 years later, Jean-Phillippe Rameau wrote its antithesis: “La mélodie provient de l'harmonie” (“Melody comes from harmony”).[1] Though the influence of harmonic thought did not transform melodic composition from the flowing vocal lines of Monteverdi to the arpeggios of Mozart overnight, our example from Corelli indicates that, even at this early time, ‘chordal melody’ had made powerful inroads.

Rhythmic developments, too, helped feed the growth of this new form of melody: the sudden explosion of metrical music—in previous centuries, a style associated primarily with secular music, as distinct from the primarily free rhythms of sacred music—in the early 17th century lent a strict rhythmic structure to the progression of harmonies, and melodic composition followed suit. ‘Harmonic rhythm’, a product of strict meter and the new vertical perspective, was to shape the concept of melody throughout the 17th and 18th centuries: with pieces increasingly viewed as metered blocks of empty chord structures, to be ‘filled in’ by melodies tracing a path through these progressions, composers quite naturally began to write melodies that cut close to the harmonic backbone. Arpeggios and other harmonic figurations—frequently in sequence—were entirely idiomatic to the new music, and the best composers of the era made extensive use of them: 
Fig. 5 (c.f. recording)
These factors, combined with the popularity of the new homophonic style, gave birth to an era of music (extending from the early 18th to the mid 19th centuries) that was harmonically conceived, strongly metrical, and with a melodic style that referred to motives and figures, rather than linear composition and the human voice, for its form. Polyphony, as such, dwindled (despite the efforts of Bach and, occasionally, Händel), and the new dichotomy between (chordal) background and (melodic) foreground began to dominate music. No longer could each staff in a composition be called an individual voice; in the music—especially the orchestral works—of the mid-to-late 18th century, the vast majority of voices were employed in doubling the single melodic line for timbric effect, or in providing harmonic filler:
Fig. 6 (c.f. video performance)

As the new music of motivic and harmonic figure burgeoned, the vocal-type melody was gradually relegated[2]; by Beethoven's time, flowing, linear melody was to be found only in specifically vocal music and in regions of larger pieces in which a polyphonic texture was needed.[3] The motivic technique gained rapid ground, especially in instrumental music, as a means of binding together the strands loosed by the decline of melodic polyphony. Perhaps the ultimate blow of this development was landed by Beethoven himself, whose music placed the motive more firmly than ever at the center of the art:
Fig. 7 (c.f. video performance)

Partially due to Beethoven's volcanic demonstration of the possibilities of motivic music, the generation of composers that came of age in the mid 19th century focused almost entirely on this approach. Melodies, in the time of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Berlioz, were shaped along motivic and harmonic lines; accompanying ‘voices’ were frequently tasked with the incessant repetition of motivic rhythms, in addition to providing the standard harmonic backdrop.[4]


With the arrival of the monumental works of Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms in the Western musical consciousness in the latter half of 19th century, polyphony began to reassert itself with a vengeance. In this music, counterpoint (newly in vogue, with the revival of interest in Bach and earlier polyphonic composers) was married to the rigorously developmental composition pioneered by Beethoven and his immediate successors; the result was what Ernst Toch calls “fermentative counterpoint”[5], a fluid music in which the tension generated by the motivic interplay between each voice was used to drive larger developmental structures. Gone (to some extent) were the harmonic ‘pads’ of the earlier homophonic orchestral music; in their place, Wagner and Brahms added motive-driven supporting lines that were equally important in shaping the direction and character of the music. A simultaneous development was the return—after over 150 years—of non-metrical melody that eschewed the strict, iambic/dactylic rhythms of the previous era.
Fig. 8 (c.f. video performance)

But this was not the polyphony of Josquin, Monteverdi, or even Bach; the musical transformations of the past three centuries made the polyphony of Wagner and his contemporaries a very different music from that of the earlier arts of interwoven melody. The linear concept of melody, mostly ignored since the mid 18th century, was given only slightly more attention now. Harmonic construction of melody was firmly entrenched, and the motivic technique enjoyed unsurpassed popularity as the main structural element of music: by this time, in fact, the mystic significance of the latter technique was growing, with larger and larger expanses of music deriving their generating force from a primary ‘Idea’. The expanding power of the motive, and its new association with a word drenched in philosophic and spiritual connotations, was the distinctive mark of late-19th century music, and the concept of polyphony, as practiced in this time, must be understood through this artistic lens. Polyphony was understood by the Renaissance composer as the interweaving of independent melodies; for the musician of Wagner's time, it was the interweaving of ideas. Thus, in comparison to the melodies of 15th or 16th century polyphony, the individual lines of Wagner or Brahms appear more as fragments than as internally-complete melodic forms.

Since this distinction captures a crucial aspect of the transformation of melody, let us briefly compare an example of Wagner's polyphony with a few measures from Palestrina's Missa de Beata Virgine:

Fig. 9
Fig. 10

Two interrelated contrasts are immediately noticeable:
  1. The music of fig. 8 is remarkable for the flowing, linear character of each voice and the absolute cohesion of melodic form; each melody presses forward to its conclusion, with careful attention payed to the logic of its linear structure and to the idiom of the voice. In fig. 9, on the other hand, each instrumental voice (excluding the vocal line) is only transiently possessed of a sense of line; no instrumental voice persists long enough to be considered a melodic form in itself—rather, each only lives long enough to present a new collection of motivic figures. Wagner's melodic language, too, is (again, excluding the vocal line) emphatically non-linear.

  1. In contrast to Wagner's intense, line-splintering concentration of ideas, Palestrina's use of the motivic technique is almost disarming in its subtlety. In fig. 8, the primary motives of the composition are woven into the individual lines, and do not, to my ear, draw unusual attention to themselves. Their formal rôle is clear, but the continuity of melody is never disrupted for motivic emphasis. The fragmented instrumental ‘entries’ (one hesitates to term them ‘melodies’) in fig. 9 are, in contrast, aggressively motivic, their linear form dictated completely by the demands of the ideas they present.

However striking, these observations do not quite succeed in capturing the essence of what happened, in the centuries that passed between the composition of fig. 8 and fig. 9, to the notion of melody. Again, our language must tend toward the metaphysical. In the Palestrina example, we may (metaphorically speaking) regard melody—the line, in its individual, linear nature—as the substance and condicio sine qua non of the music. Palestrina's primary concern seems to be the creation of internally perfect melodies; the ‘ideas’ of the composition inhere within the melodic substance, and serve to unite the discrete melodies—complete in and of themselves—into a larger whole. For Wagner, the Idea is core, the first term of the composition. The presentation of ideas is the business of each instrument, with the goal of spurring motivic and dramatic development; the individual ‘melody’ is merely a component of the idea-fabric of the work, and need not conform to any internal logic beyond that imposed by the ideas themselves. Palestrina's music is a polyphony of melodies; the music of Wagner, a polyphony of ideas.

The last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th brought the implications of the ‘idea-polyphony’ of Wagner to their logical conclusion. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg took Wagner's compositional approach as their point of origin, and developed from them striking new implications: Strauss applied the ideas of developing polyphony to orchestral program music, and Mahler, to a monumentally enlarged concept of the symphonic form. Schoenberg, in perhaps the most far-reaching development of ‘idea-polyphony’, concentrated and streamlined his polyphonic style to an extraordinary extent before bringing it beyond the bounds of tonal harmony. All three composers, along with most of their contemporaries, composed music of great polyphonic complexity with non-metrical, free-flowing melodic forms. That this music was still very much of the 19th century, idea-oriented approach perhaps goes without saying; certainly, no previous era in music ever displayed the kind of ‘melodic fracturing’ present in the works of Schoenberg and his contemporaries:
Fig. 11 (c.f. recording)
Fig. 12 (c.f. video performance)

Few composers have digressed as far from the ideal of linear melody as Schoenberg's remarkable student, Anton von Webern. While fig. 11 is by no means the least ‘vocal’ music ever written (even by Webern[6]), it is a remarkable example of how exactly how far from linear melody some 20th century music had come. It is virtually inconceivable that forms as disjunct and fragmentary as these would be regarded as anything like melody by other musical cultures; only through the centuries-long process of transformation that we have been describing could such a music come to pass. 

The Prestige of System

Although it lies outside of the scope of this essay to consider the music of the mid-to-late 20th century (and of the current century), some fallout of the previous centuries should be discussed. The early part of the last century found composers obsessed with motivic integration (the musical Idea of Schoenberg and Strauss) on all levels of a composition. This obsession metastasized in the generation of composers that followed into a love of organizational systems; while some (e.g. Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Milton Babbitt) championed the serial methods introduced by Schoenberg, others (John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti, to name just a few) argued effusively for a very different set of musical processes. Regardless of their differences, the vast majority of composers of the mid 20th century had some form of unifying musical theory that dictated the content of their music. To propose to musicians of this era and mindset the view that a beautiful, balanced melody justifies itself without reference to any theoretical construct would have been—and still is, to some extent—regarded as a mild heresy. The origin of this bias toward system and idea must be sought in the past: namely, in the historical events that led to the renunciation of melody as the prime musical substance, and to the corresponding exaltation of the idea.

Admittedly, we are only touching upon a small corner of the musical happenings of the past century; vast numbers of European and American musicians were never consciously involved in ‘ideas’ or ‘systems’. The doings described in the last two paragraphs could be classed as somewhat extreme ventures into the depths of idea-music. But the crucial point is that the majority of musicians of our time and culture accept, to some degree, the distorted sense of melody—or the exaggerated reverence for the Idea—that is the fruit of almost a millennium of transformation. No system of musical art has enjoyed the worldwide success of the Western tonal system that reached its stable form in the mid 19th century; therefore, no system has been more successful in foisting its entailed propositions on a world of musicians. We see examples of these assumptions in the language and music of the less venturesome musicians of our era: chords are treated as immutable forms, governing bodies to which melodies owe perfect allegiance—and the interrelationship and basic sameness of the two phenomena is ignored. Harmony is taught as a discipline entirely separate from counterpoint; melodic composition is never taught at all. In the dry circles of academic music, motivic structure is hallowed as the essence of music, and a multivalent compositional system is the most revered approach of all. In the experimental world, too, concept and process reign supreme. All these attitudes owe much to the unique history of Western music.

All score examples used in this article are, to the best of my knowledge, in the public domain.

  1. Quoted in Knud Jeppesen, Counterpoint, p. 52 (1992, Dover Publications)

  2. This was not wholly the case in French and Italian music, and even the German and Austrian composers of the time frequently emphasized a linear melody in their homophonic compositions. The important thing to note, however, is that the foundations of polyphony—i.e. polymelody, the perspective that the weaving together of independent vocal melodies as the substance of music—had by this time vanished from virtually all European music, replaced by the melody/accompaniment formula of homphonic composition. Even the lyrical, linear melodies of Rossini, Berlioz, and Schubert were inevitably accompanied by chordal/rhythmic backgrounds; actual polyphony, again, was used primarily as a style or effect.

  3. c.f. Beethoven's Symphony no. 3, movement II. Very much a homophonic piece throughout its A section, the B section sees a sudden division of the orchestra into individual voices of a fugue. These voices emerge essentially out of thin air, and disappear with equal suddenness at the conclusion of the B section.

  4. This technique of using motivic rhythms in the accompaniment was developed primarily by Beethoven, although it was used by earlier composers, notably Bach (surprise, surprise). By its use, the rhythmically bland ‘background’ of homophonic music could be enlivened, and, for a composer as obsessed with the motivic technique as was Beethoven, legitimated. I suggest that this approach and its popularity in the mid 19th century sowed the seeds of the “polyphonic Renaissance” that began with Richard Wagner: as composers became more concerned with motivically integrating all of the voices of a composition, the independent potential of each of those voices likely became more obvious.

  5. Ernst Toch, The Shaping Forces in Music, p. 141-145 (1977, Dover Publications)

  6. c.f. Webern's later works, op. 21 and above (Unfortunately, I am unable to include selections from these works due to copyright issues). In these works, Webern's sophisticated application of the 12-tone technique and other serial processes generates melodic lines of astonishing non-linearity; some ‘lines’, for example, are composed entirely of leaps, while others frequently alternate linear progressions in seconds and thirds with leaps of ninths, tenths, and larger intervals.

    It is frequently asserted that the music of Webern and Schoenberg is ‘difficult’, and that this difficulty stems from their chromatic tonal language, or perhaps from the irregularity of their rhythms. In opposition to this opinion, I would argue that the non-linearity of this music is the main barrier to the listener, and not the lack of key or regular pulse. Schoenberg and Webern scorn the necessity of linear cohesion in their melodies, and the angularity of their linear structures generally has the effect of formlessness on the unfamiliar—and, perhaps, even the familiar—ear. Having listened to both composers for several years, I confess that I am unable to sing more than a few bars of any of their works from memory, so uncongenial are their melodies to the human voice. But enough of this.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

Scene, 1 Follen St.
By Brendan Owen Keenan

For Christina

Old joints creak as the floorboards do

When hollow bones, animate, push
Yellowed ivory keys, surface split on some,
Smooth on others;

Every hit from a hammer awakens them anew, 

Long copper bells lurch and groan
Out of rest, first into a howl,
Then into resonance in sympathy with each other;

Hands, tools of the dread Artist,

Are no more just bone, but flesh;
Cold dust becomes warm perfume,
And an audience hears pedals click;

Allegretto in A-flat major, it quickly changes

To F minor, and every bar in three
Calls a new figure to life;
Summoned by delicate, careful strikes.

The piano keys are skeleton keys in her hands;

They unlock hearts as she plays them,
The hearts long dead from oblivion
But remembered now;

The Artist’s youthful, flushed face

Never lifts from the keyboard,
But she sees and she knows the listeners

That she conjured by melody;

Unlife, but not so, the atmosphere is
Convivial and solemn attendant to
The Artist’s lead, herself following the

Composer’s word, unforgotten, unlike the Artist.

But Dominants and Tonics are the only chords now,

And the spectators know the coda; they know
The arrival of the penultimate bar
And the final cadence.

Her youthful face lifts, then darkens into bone;
The revenants applaud then depart,
The air chills, and snow falls
Outside the frosted windows.

Cracked keyboard, creaking floor, and dusty air,

The love given by the Artist is gone;
An unobserved occurrence, occult, it happened

And no one noticed; the scene remains unknown.

For now. 

© Brendan Owen Keenan, 2012. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Staring from Her Hood of Bone

Death and Ceremony in Sylvia Plath's Edge
Brendan Owen Keenan
by Sylvia Plath

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

One of Sylvia Plath’s final two poems, the other named Balloons, tells of the end of a journey, an end free of sadness and darkness, instead calm and neutral, almost content.
The Defiance
It is also defiant. At a time of tremendous medical advances, to be perfected in death, and not in life, is anathema. Feared and hated, death is to our culture the final failure, the moment when the natural world has defeated our wisdom won across the ages.  We work tirelessly against it, unwilling to embrace finality but unwilling to despair, and evermore we find ways to slow its relentless advance.

And we hate with equal fervor those do embrace it, those who take it for themselves, unsympathetic as we are to the questions of why. We need the answer, of course, objectively, but we only resent the act; perhaps it is in envy, “taking the easy way out;”  perhaps it is in vengeance that we feel wronged, as is the case with the common Abrahamic beliefs that a person who takes her own life commits herself to Hell; still further perhaps in pity, mourning the life that might have been with a little help and protection; maybe simply in surprise. We title her "Victim." We are fighters.

Here we find a darkness not to be scorned or feared; rather, it is the apotheosis of the traveller’s journey.

The Perfection
Perfected, without flaw in death. The possibility for errors is past. Ancient and civilized as the Greeks, Christian-pure in her white toga, a body smiling to invoke a grinning skull. The age grants authority and gravity to the eternity of quiescence; on the scrolls of her toga are written the last chapter of the woman’s life.

Lifeless, the imagined room is soulless, for nothing lives there. The body is here but not the person; the life is spent, not only in the woman but in the children; perhaps in literal terms these are hers: one at each breast, but dead for the lack of milk in them. It might be a horror were it not for the white serpents, dead evils of a dying Garden of Eden, by death free of the sin it birthed. Life was the horror, not death. Back into her she reclaims them, and like a dying garden that once flowered and bore fruit, the body offers no more gifts.

She smiles defiantly that these gifts, her dead children, are at her dead breasts; she of course should be smiling only at the birth of her children, the true demanded accomplishment of a woman. The reclamation of them into her as dead, white serpents furthermore tells that the woman’s Death is feminine: the asp at Cleopatra’s breast is the perished one here, undulating as it does with her curves. Slain by Woman, head uncrushed under the heel of Man; instead dead by the lack of sin to nourish it in the way these pitchers of milk once nourished her children. Passionate, corrupt Woman is gone, and in Her place is a pure, amoral statue barren of temptation, unrisen and unfallen.

Even the statuesque, stone burial, in dispassionate repose, suits itself. Bare footed, white robed, but without ascension; no rebirths need follow. She is passionless and devoid of sadness, like the moon made from bone. And why should the moon be sad? She is the light in the night sky, in turns accepting and rejecting the dark but always predictably; on time, we can set our calendar by it, and we do. She is, like death, a watcher who always arrives to dispel the surrounding black of emptiness; a white comfort, the moon together with the stars dresses the somber earth like the toga the perfect woman wears on her funerary bed.

Here lies neither a glorification of death nor a condemnation of it. Here lies the total neutrality of existence. Here lies the body hardened in rigor mortis but draped under a soft robe; she is the stiff, dead stem of a still-beautiful flower whose soft petals follow her. And when bare feet, callused skin worn away in empathy with a weary, heavy heart, finish a sojourn forced upon them, the rest is welcome, dolce far niente after the pain and horror of life.
The Cold Embrace
Would that the rest of us envisioned such an end in concord with the inevitable future, one with no soul to cheat a harvester, no carving of a name in stone to cheat oblivion. To live without the terror of the end or even the simple anxiety of failure is enviable in its way, and simple ceremony, kind respect, and a warm regard of the beauty that always is and was suffices.

Special thanks to Nicole K. Miller.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


The composer of modern times is taught from the first that his art exists on an ideal plane. He is the creator of invisible cities that are destined to be but imperfectly modeled. The collection of symbols that fill a score are poor empirical markers in a grand scheme of idealized cartography; pencil marks symbolize conceptual tethers across the fabric of virtual time, a frame presented as spatial metaphor by sheets of paper, inscribed left-to-right in perpetual extension. The modern composer, though, does not wish to see this play of symbolism, the masquerade of denotation and connotation that exposes the shadowy nature of his work. He is adamant: he works with concepts, with virtual sound, not with the objects he uses to symbolize them—he is the seer-through of metaphors, the surpasser of the physical symbol. He would prefer to eliminate the intrusion of the empirical into his work entirely; and thus, today, he reduces its physical underpinnings to a minimum.

It is the score, the composer feels, that expresses the form and materials of a work most perfectly, usually in a language of inexorable certitude: but it is here that he appears as a strangely careless worker. The language of his score is perfect, determinate, it conveys his creation in symbols more crystalline in their significance than those of any other century, but the calligraphy of this language is flat and inelegant, the ink poor, and the paper cheap and indifferent. Fixed on the perfection of content and seduced by the dignity of his language, the composer is shockingly unconcerned with his materials. Like some anguished Augustinian who, reflecting upon the impossibility of realizing the perfect Form in an imperfect world, regards all but the rudest works as insulting in their pretension, the composer hacks out models of his creations in the cheapest stuff available—if the Form is sublime and immaterial, what matter if the model is of finely-worked gold or of refuse tin?

But the 21st century composer is no latter-day Neo-Platonist. The high regard in which he holds the products of his slipshod craftmanship owes nothing to “the Sublime”, but to their “functional efficiency” as “communicative media”. “Functional efficiency” might well be the credo inscribed above the modern composer's desk—the phrase captures the spirit and ideal (dissonant words, surely) of everything he does, down to the sawdusty clunk with which it drops off the tongue. The modern composer fetishizes efficiency down deep. His scores are written quickly and with the most convenient means available, they are efficient with regard to both time and material—and if their performance results in something like what he expects, they “work”. Let the symbol be functional, let the minimum in time and resources be expended, let the desired effect be achieved; any additional effort is superfluous, “ornamental”, inefficient.

What has given rise to this obsession? An over-weening belief in the truth of the first proposition of this essay: that the composer's materials, tools, and creations are concepts, processes, and relationships in virtual time and space. And it is true that the composer works with the immaterial, with “music”, let us say; but he works with it through the physical tools and materials of his craft. If we exclude, for a moment, the cocoon of sybolism that envelops the composer's work table, he is a person whose work involves drawing shapes and lines of various forms, sizes, and contours, on a piece of paper with a certain texture and weight, with a pencil, pen, or marker that produces so much of a mark with so much pressure, etc. Or perhaps he clicks or types these shapes into place on a laptop, using a piece of software that inscribes them upon a liquid crystal field with algorithmic precision. Regardless of its symbolic essence, the act of composing, in short, involves constant, minutely modulated interaction with the physical world.

Elementary, says our composer—what of it? Just this: the physical world—especially that postage-stamp corner of it that the composer transforms into a score—has a way of talking back to the one shaping it. The composer's fancy not only acts on the score, but is acted upon, first (and most importantly) in the feedback-like process of composition, then in the interpretive creation of performance. As embryonic music is written out, as its shadowier reaches are tied down to specific, notated events, the emerging shape of the score and its every physical detail begins to influence the conception of the piece being written. A powerful sound in the idealized composition is now a B-flat in cello; not just B-flat, but that B-flat, the quarter with the smudged notehead and slightly crooked stem. The composer is confronted, whether he knows it or not, with his concepts in physical form, and the beauty or ungainliness of that form speaks to its creator, reveals (or creates) aspects of his work—moods, assumptions, implications, flaws—that he could never have discovered in its mental blueprint. His symbols are not silent messengers of creation, but physical objects that carry with them a host of connotations and metamessages.

Score-writing is a craft, for this very reason. The score as object may be graceful or clumsy, beautiful or indifferent, confident or timid; ipso facto, the piece represented will bear with it overtones of gracefulness or clumsiness, beauty or indifference, etc. To have an awareness of the significance of physical detail and to possess the skills necessary to mold the object to suit both its material and conceptual goals—this is the essence of craftsmanship. The modern composer, however, is no craftsman—his final product reveals an awkward, tangential relationship with the physical materials of his art, reveals the indiscipline that makes his work a coaxing of these objects into rudimentary form. One finds that great music (with exceptions) goes hand-in-hand with beautiful manuscript and attention to physical detail; there is something in this craftmanship that is integral to the compositional process[1] and which, in the final product, speaks volumes about the creator in its perfection or absence.

1. An anecdote of Morton Feldman's gives an example of what I have in mind. Toward the end of his life, Feldman's publisher encouraged the composer to send his just-finished manuscript to them, and to skip his habitual step of re-copying his music in calligraphic score. The effect of this time-saving idea was dramatic: “my music deteriorated”, Feldman relates, without “the opportunity for extra thought while copying”. (from this interview).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Porcupine Tree's "Anesthetize"

This post assumes a familiarity with the principles and language of music analysis, and a basic level of fluency in reading standard notation.

In the past few months I've become acquainted with the music of Porcupine Tree, a remarkable quartet whose work is generally described as “alternative” or “progressive rock”. Regardless of genre, I find their music quite beautiful and demonstrative of an impressive sense of form and attention to detail. I'm aware that few musicians attempt to apply traditional motivic analysis to music of this sort, but Porcupine Tree's sophisticated songs amply repay the effort; in this post, I shall examine “Anesthetize”, the longest and probably most substantial track on the group's 2007 album, Fear of a Blank Planet.

As with any analysis, it is very important that I clarify both what I mean to say and what I do not mean say. My hope is that certain compositional techniques, which, for the most part, are not discussed in connection with “rock”, will prove to be as important to this music as they are to that of Bach or Schoenberg. I do not want to suggest that the elements analyzed here fully describe the piece of music in question, or even that they constitute its most important aspects. The experience of the piece itself is the final word, and without that experience all analysis is worse than useless; analysis can only hope to elucidate elements of the performance that the listener might otherwise miss.

Porcupine Tree Anesthetize from Micas on Vimeo.

All musical examples were transcribed from the recording by myself, except where noted. All transcriptions sound as written. The timestamps refer to the Vimeo video embedded with this post, and are all approximately 3 seconds later than the track on Fear of a Blank Planet.

“Anesthetize” is a multi-movement composition with three distinct sections, each of which is a self-contained song form. The relationship between these forms is not evolutionary, but continuous: while each section deals with a distinct textural, thematic and lyrical content, these diverse elements have been carefully linked; they are distinct, interconnected structures within the overall architecture of the composition. The first section (I) begins with the opening of the piece, and ends at 04:59, when the second movement (II) begins without transition. This, the longest section of the piece, extends until 12:13; a transitional section then introduces the third and final movement (III), which begins at 12:56 and closes the piece.

In this analysis, I shall be mostly concerned with the formal, motivic, textural, and lyrical construction of the piece. “Anesthetize”, like the majority of Porcupine Tree's music, is linearly constructed, with harmonies arising from the intersection of multiple instrumental voices. As such, I believe that a tonal harmonic analysis would require a great deal of creativity—in the worst possible sense—on my part, and would not be particularly fruitful.

I. “I simply am not here”

The first movement of “Anesthetize” opens with the striking juxtaposition of Harrison's turbulent drum line, tremolo guitar, and a crystalline glockenspiel that delineates the melody of the movement as an unornamented line, almost childlike in its simplicity. At 00:38, Wilson's vocal line enters, legato and suggestive of a narcotic calm that contrasts almost disturbingly with the constant unrest of the accompaniment. The lyrics convey a sense of the stifling banality of sedation; it is tempting to see in the tension of the ensemble a dark, ironic commentary on the superficial calm of lines like these:
A good impression
Of myself
Not much to conceal
I'm sayin' nothing,
But I'm saying
Nothing with feel...
The melody introduces two important structural elements: the half-step motive α and a stepwise ascending figure, A (Fig. 1). As we shall see, α and its inversion, αi will become the central motivic structure of the piece.
Fig. 1: Movement I, main vocal melody (verse)

The chorus (Fig. 2) continues the sense of narcotic ennui, both musically and lyrically:
I simply am not here
No way, I...
Shut up, be happy...
Stop whining, please
The miasmic dreaminess of the vocal line, augmented by other voices, seems to have deepened, but the drums and guitar continue their tense, disruptive counterpoint. The motives begin to intertwine: the main thematic structure underlying this passage is B (fig. 2), a stepwise descending motive which is, in its barest form, A in retrograde (See Fig. 3).
Fig. 2: Movement I, main vocal melody (chorus)
Fig. 3: Relationship between A and B motives

After a repetition of the verse/chorus structure, the music assumes (at 02:57) a dark, distorted timbre, with high-register electric guitar repeating an ornamented variation of B; the tense drum pattern morphs into a more definite, aggressive gesture, with a tumbling anacrusis in 16ths driving home thunderous accents on the first and third beats. The darkness lifts at 03:33 with a return to the opening of the movement; here, though, Mellotron-like synths replace the glockenspiel line. At 03:50 a metallic electric guitar ostinato—a chromatic and rhythmic modification of B—enters (Fig. 4) and repeats once:

This is followed (at 04:07) by a dual guitar passage (Fig. 5) that lightens the texture and closes the movement. Its careful motivic construction is apparent from the very first phrase:
Fig. 4: Movement I, guitar ostinato

Fig. 5: Movement I, dual guitar passage
After 4 measures, the second guitar rests, leaving the first to continue solo for nearly a minute. At 04:59, this solo ends and Movement II begins attacca.

II. “Only apathy”

The opening dual-guitar ostinato of the second movement of “Anesthetize” (Fig. 6) immediately asserts the most pronounced characteristic of this movement: the subversion of meter. The offset, seemingly out-of-sync rhythms of riffs like this suggest heterogeneous time signatures, although a closer look reveals them to be carefully aligned with the prevailing 4/4 of the drums and bass. This subversion also serves a very distinct lyrical goal as well, namely, to illustrate the drugged disassociation and fragmented mental processes of the lyrics' protagonist.
Fig. 6: Movement II, ostinato 1 (transcription by Brendan Keenan)

This sophisticated ostinato introduces the rhythmic motive C, a defining element of this movement. The construction of this ostinato deserves special attention: it is a cyclical passage that aligns with the drums and bass only every 5 bars, passing in and out of phase throughout the opening of the movement. At 05:28, a new melodic motive is introduced by high-register electric guitar (Fig. 7):
Fig. 7: Movement II, opening guitar melody

The transparent texture of this opening is interrupted at 06:19 by a guitar passage (Fig. 8) that combines the melodic material of the ostinato from 03:50 (Fig. 4) with the syncopated rhythms (including the motive C) typical of the second movement. Like the ostinato in Fig. 6, this line cuts against the prevailing metric structure and returns to phase every 5 measures.

This passage, in turn, leads into another syncopated ostinato (Fig. 9) in mid-register tremolo guitar, which contains a variation of D. Unlike the previous ostinati, this passage aligns with the meter every 4 bars:
Fig. 8: Movement II, ostinato 2
Fig. 9: Movement II, ostinato 3

After one repetition, it is undercut by the menacing (and strictly metrical) low guitar/bass ostinato of Fig. 10:
Fig. 10: Movement II, ostinato 4

This succession of four ostinati—most of which are metrically perverted in some way or another—serves the psychological purpose of keeping the listener off-balance, and of gradually heightening the agitated mood of the movement. The section's main vocal melody is the ultimate result of this progressive increase in tension: Wilson's memorable vocal line (Fig. 11) drifts over the continuing undercurrent of the ostinato from Fig. 10 with a sense of restrained menace.
Fig. 11: Movement II, vocal melody (verse)

The melody derives much of its character from the variation of D first introduced (in rhythmicized form) by the guitar ostinato at 06:40, but α remains a strong presence. The lyrics are now more introspective than those of the first movement; there is the sense that the protagonist's clouded attempts to process the external world and its expectations (“I simply am not here/No way, I.../Shut up, be happy...” etc.) have given way to a clearer apperception of his/her broken internal state:
The dust in my soul
Makes me feel the weight
In my legs
My head in the clouds
And I'm zonin' out

I'm watching TV
But I find it hard to stay
I'm totally bored
But I can't switch off
The chorus emphasizes the chemical nature of this debilitation and the sterility of the protagonist's existence:
Only apathy, from the pills in me
It's all in me, all in you
Electricity from the pills in me
It's all in me, all in you
Only MTV, cod philosophy
The ostinato from 06:19 (Fig. 8) repeats, ritornello-like, at the end of the refrain, before the repetition of the entire strophic form. A long transitional passage, beginning at 09:19, includes variations on the melodic motives of the vocal melody (with continued emphasis on α), before the return (at 11:00) of the accompanying ostinato from the verse (Fig. 10), now presented as a primary element. This ostinato is developed in an unusually dense passage at 11:09, with blast-beating from Harrison and Wilson's low-register tremolo guitar; this ends quickly, with a return to the chorus above.
A repeat of some of the earlier transitional material (from 09:19) follows at 11:48, and segues into a long, atmospheric section at 12:13 that closes the second movement.

III. “Water so warm”

The passage that introduces the third movement is almost purely textural, relying on washes of wordless vocals and pulsing, mechanical-sounding synths to shift the mood of the music from the active density of the past 7 minutes to a more static, glassy atmosphere. At 12:59, a guitar ostinato (Fig. 12) enters. Here, Wilson employs a bell-like, chorused guitar tone, unlike any other tone previously heard in the piece; the motivic content of the line, too, bears little resemblance to any of the earlier motives:
Fig. 12: Movement III, guitar ostinato

This ostinato is soon accompanied by chiming synths, long tones in the bass, and a relaxed drum pulse in 4/4. At 13:33, the main vocal theme of the movement enters, in canon (Fig. 13); the effect is hypnotic, with a quality like that of time-lapse photography.
Fig. 13: Movement III, vocal melody

It is immediately apparent that the primary descending motive of these overlapping lines is not new, but B, one of the two main motives of movement I. This is, I believe, a crucial link between these two movements, which might otherwise seem too disparate in their musical characters.

The lyrics of this section possess a very different tone from that of the earlier movements:
Water so warm that day
I counted out the waves
As the broke into the surf
I smiled into the sun
The entirety of this passage is sung in canon at the unison, the voices constantly crossing in densely-layered counterpoint. Wilson's soft, dark-toned solo vocal line (Fig. 14) is significantly lower than his earlier vocal parts; as with the movement's ostinato, however, little connection with earlier motivic elements can be discerned:
Fig. 14: Movement III, solo vocal melody

I confess that the lyrics of this movement remain somewhat obscure to me. In contrast to the first-person perspective of the writing of the first and second movements, these passages seem distant, almost retrospective. Has the narrative shifted to another perspective? What, exactly, is the significance of the scene described, and what is its connection to the protagonist of the earlier movements of the song?
The water so warm that day
I was counting out the waves
And I followed their short life
As they broke on the shoreline
I could see you
But I couldn't hear you

You were holding your hat in the breeze
Turning away from me
In this moment
You were stolen
There's black across the sun.
After the short solo verse, the canonic voices return (at 15:26) with a repetition of their earlier material; they fade out gradually and cease at 16:20. A chorused passage in guitar, accompanied by a distorted synth wash provides a brief coda, and the movement closes on a short reiteration of the same vocal drones with which it opened.
  *          *          *

The first two movements of “Anesthetize” display remarkable continuity and a propulsive sense of development. Motivically, the primary motives of the first movement are transmuted and developed by the second; lyrically, the two movements also possess are strong sense of development and growing depth. Perhaps the most powerful section of the entire piece is the piling-up of ostinati that occurs at the beginning of the second movement; the dramatic subversion of meter in this section—perfectly suited to the lyrical material at hand—is a masterful touch, the impact of which is somewhat weakened by the repetitive transitional material that takes up the latter half of the movement.

Taking into account the unity of these movements, it is difficult to understand the role of the third: it evinces no clear connection to the rest of the piece. Furthermore, it shows a very different side of Porcupine Tree's musical personality—viz. the preference for long, atmospheric passages, built around an ostinato and sound effects, that dominates their early albums—from the tightly-structured, rhythmically assertive earlier movements. Lyrically, as I've noted above, this movement is also a maddeningly enigmatic conclusion to the propulsive narrative of the first and second movements.