Michael Beil: Material Shift

I have been reading Michael Beil’s article ‘Material Shift‘, which can be found in Musical Material Today edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and Wolfram Schurig. The following is by no means an exhaustive review of Beil’s text, but a collection of points which resonate with my current research.  I highly recommend reading the whole book, details of which can be found here.

The article is interesting in that it presents a particular perspective on defining ‘material’ in musical composition (something which is not straightforward in general). According to Beil, it is the meaning of ‘material’ which takes precedence over the actual ‘material’ (which is defined as ‘building elements’ in this instance). Beil writes:

‘I can no longer consider material primarily a reservoir of building elements within an organized structure of sounds. In my view, its important properties for composition lie in the medial domain; this makes the material a means, not an end in itself.’ [1]

As such, Beil’s compositional approach focuses on strategies, communication, meanings and sonic effects. For instance, he writes that he does not ‘consider a quotation to be material […], but rather the act of quotation.’ [2] As such, the actual quotation itself plays a secondary role to a strategy. According to Beil, one has worked in the right way if the quotation is quickly forgotten after it has been recognized (without wanting to quote too much of Beil’s article, pages 9-10 explain this in more detail).

To illustrate his perspective,  Beil refers to three examples of his own work: Doppel (two pianos, live audio, live video); Die Zwei (flute, piano, tape, video); BLACKJACK (17 players, live audio, live video) which can be found on his website (links provided).

Beil makes several more interesting points about the reception of his music. He writes that:

‘A second honest colleague found the material in Doppel traditional; while listening, he concentrated on the material as a building element […] [,] as belonging to conservative or deliberately pleasant music. His reaction, however, highlights another important point: it is very difficult for trained listeners to react to music outside of their customary routines. This means that New Music, a music that was originally meant to stimulate reflection on music, is now preventing that very reflection among some of its specialists.’ [3]

I think this last quote provides an interesting point. Having experimented with traditional idioms in my own compositions, I find that they are difficult to be ignored as such within the context of ‘New Music’.  Rather than being viewed as an open space of sounds and frequencies, such compositions are typically interpreted as containing quotation and/or alluding to other musical idioms. This isn’t necessarily always restrictive to the compositional process; however, it is often a talking point amidst the reception.

 


 

[1] Michael Beil, ‘Material Shift’ in Musical Material Today, ed. by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and Wolfram Schurig (Hofheim: Wolke, 2012), pp. 9-20 (p. 9)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 12

Advertisements

‘Social History and Music History’

I have been reading Trevor Herbert’s chapter ‘Social History and Music History’, which can be found in The Cultural Study of Music. It has been encouraging thoughts about the notion of ‘History’ and how to define it. This can be done in relation to a number of methodologies. Nevertheless, as Herbert’s chapter demonstrates, the conglomerate of these methodologies does not produce a definitive classification of what ‘History’ is. However, I think this is a good thing. It suggests that ‘History’ is potentially a dynamic social organism in itself.

Herbert’s chapter explains that the development of an overall body of historical methodology has produced a dichotomy between two main historical methods: those that fall under the term ‘history’ and are based more on artefacts and autonomy, and those that fall under a ‘social history’ description and consider social and cultural influences during a construction of historical events. Further methodologies fall under these two main methods:  ‘Positivist’ perspectives, ‘Music History’, ‘Postmodernism’, and ‘Microhistory’. After reading the text, I think it is clear that an acknowledgement of the socio-cultural cannot be avoided when assembling a body of ‘History’ from data, and that the historian’s interpretative ‘baggage’ has to be taken into consideration. Herbert states that ‘all history is “contemporary history” because it inevitably interprets the past in light of prevailing conditions.’ [1] I think this is an important point to consider during any musicological research. This not only includes interpreting artefacts, but interpreting the research of others.

The following is a general explanation of several branches of historical methodology and how they relate to each other. It is discussed in further detail in Herbert’s chapter ‘Social History and Music History’.

Social History: Herbert writes that ‘social history developed uneasily and relatively recently as a subdiscipline of history.’ The methods of ‘History’ changed from those of a ‘Great Men’ tradition to a consideration of social and cultural aspects. This was potentially influenced further by a presence of Marxist perspectives and those imposed by the French Annales School. [2]

Positivist: the Positivist tradition entails a neutral, distanced engagement with historical subject matter, and ‘historical’ rhetoric of the modern era. [3] According to Herbert:

[a] denial of imaginative engagement between the music historian and the historical material implies a denial of what is already embryonic in much musicological writing. [4]

Music History: according to Herbert, both ‘History’ and ‘Music History’ share similarities in their constituent disciplines. [5] This is indeed apparent from his text. As with ‘History’, ‘Music History’ involves a relationship between the somewhat distanced matter-of-fact attitudes within ‘History’ and the cultural considerations of ‘Social History’.

Postmodernism: postmodernism does not prioritize a facet of ‘History’ above another, and it concerns itself with developing ‘Social History’ methodology. In Herbert’s words:

postmodernism offers ways of building upon the methods and concerns of social historians in dealing with those whom music history has often overlooked. Social histories of music must as a matter of course expose the interactions between the widest spheres of society and musical practices. [6]

It is not unproblematic, however: ‘at its most extreme, postmodernism relativizes knowledge to the point where it is hardly possible to conceive of any knowledge history at all.’ [7]

Microhistory: the methodological approaches of ‘Microhistories’ deal with the micro-level detail that make up an overarching macro-level historical era. As Herbert writes:

Microhistories take the opposite tack to the large-scale, “grand narrative” approach that deals with major themes running over several centuries: “they build on the obscure and unknown rather than on the great and the famous. [8]


 

For more information, read: Trevor Herbert, ‘Social History and Music History’, in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. by Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 146 – 156


 

[1] Trevor Herbert, ‘Social History and Music History’, in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. by Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 146 – 156 (p. 147)

[2] Ibid., pp. 147 – 148

[3] Ibid., pp. 150 – 151

[4] Ibid., p. 151

[5] Ibid., p. 150

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 152

Foucault, Michel, ‘A Preface to Transgression’, in Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), pp. 24-40

Although not about music, Foucault’s ‘A Preface to Transgression’ is discussed in musicology and has inspired compositions such as James Dillon’s Blitzschlag. [1] On first engagement, frequent rhetorical questions, and sentences with multiple clauses add an ambiguous quality to the overall message, but this is waylaid on each re-read when the questions begin to facilitate engagement with each concept. As such, Foucault teaches his point rather than dictates it. Through examples of Bataille’s work, and reference to the thoughts of other philosophers, for example Kant and Nietzsche, Foucault explains how transgression is neither negative nor positive, and because transgression is the act of crossing a limit-line, it confirms the existence of a limit. The total space of the limit-line is probably the total space of transgression because, once the limit-line is transgressed, the act of transgression ceases to exist. Foucault’s description of the limit-line as a ‘space’ is pertinent to exploring the interaction of the component spaces of the overall compositional space in the research topic of this bibliography.

 

[1] For example, see : Dillon, James, Blitzschlag (London: Peters Edition, 2001); Spencer, Michael, ‘Re-placing the Dialectic: Notions of Compositional Procedure in James Dillon’s German Tryptych’ in British Postgraduate Musicology On-line, 5 (2002) <http://www.bpmonline.org.uk/bpm5-replacing.html> [accessed 22nd October 2012]; this is not an exhaustive list of examples.

Camilleri, Lelio, ‘Shaping Sounds, Shaping Spaces’, Popular Music, 29.2 (2010), 199-211

A relatively new article referenced in pop and rock music literature, Camilleri portrays how ‘sonic space’ can only be fully explored through the techniques of acousmatic music. With diagrams and references of popular music, this article provides an understandable explanation of ‘sonic space’ being a multidimensional world comprising the interaction of, what Camilleri terms, ‘localised space’, spectral space’, and ‘ morphological space’. The distinction between time-dependent and time-independent ‘sonic space’, a pertinent perspective within the scope of this bibliography’s topic, is made when Camilleri explains that ‘localised space’ focuses on a sound’s situation and movement; ‘spectral space’ focuses on timbre, providing a sense of density and volume to the sound; ‘morphological space’ focuses on the unfolding of a sound shape over time. However, this article is not completely unproblematic. By restricting his style of musical references to the genres of rock, [1] Camilleri contradicts his point that, in order to explore ‘sonic space’ fully, an original awareness of recorded space’s capabilities is required.

 

[1] As Camilleri acknowledges, this is restricted to rock of the 1960s and 1970s, and progressive rock.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz, ‘Music in Space’, Die Reihe, 5 (1961), 67-82

Despite being a widely referenced article in the field of spatialised and electronic music, [1] Stockhausen’s contribution to Die Reihe has received mixed reactions: the language being described as needlessly complex, Stockhausen has been accused of not understanding his topic as well as he portrays. [2] Contrastingly, a more positive review suggests that Stockhausen’s contribution to Die Reihe is the most sophisticated out of the journal’s seemingly random content. [3]

‘Music in Space’ is generally understandable and only ventures into ambiguity with the inclusion of diagrams that, on first glance, require more explaining. Although deep focus and several reads lessen this initially apparent complexity, some background knowledge in acoustics is beneficial. [4] Nevertheless, the overall message is clear: Stockhausen explains how acoustic space can be used to explore ‘sonic space’ by describing the different dimensions of sound as pitch, duration, timbre, dynamics, and location, and explaining how dynamics and location are the most affected by acoustic space. In an epoch of electronically spatialised music, new performance sites are architected according to the realisation of ‘sonic spaces’ within desired acoustic spaces.

With regard to Horațiu Rădulescu’s streichquartett nr. 4 opus 33 (which I write about here), I feel ‘Music in Space’ offers a varied perspective on the construction of its sound-world.


[1] For example, see: Bosi, Marina, ‘An Interactive Real-Time System for the Control of Sound Localization’, Computer Music Journal, 14.4 (1990), 59-64; Emmerson, Simon, Living Electronic Music (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2007); Fedorkow, Guy, William Buxton, and K.C. Smith, ‘A Computer-Controlled Sound Distribution System for the Performance of Electroacoustic Music’, Computer Music Journal, 2.3 (1978), 33-42; this is not an exhaustive list of examples.

[2] John Backus, ‘Die Reihe – A Scientific Evaluation’, Perspectives of New Music, 1.1 (1962), 160-171 (pp. 164-169)

[3] P.A.E, ‘Die Reihe, No.5: Reports Analyses by Herbert Eimert; Karlheinz Stockhausen’, Music & Letters, 43.2 (1962), 144-146 (p.145)

[4] I recommend Campbell, Murray, and Clive Greated, The Musician’s Guide to Acoustics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)