Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Serial Satie (Gymnopédie No. 12)

This blog has taken me many places I didn't expect, which is what creating is all about, which is what this blog is all about. Sometimes it seems to me that creating is basically about nothing more than a + b and variations thereof. You put two things together and, voilà, something new - which may or may not be worth further exploration, but eventually, interesting things just seem to happen, and a significant part of creativity is simply recognizing the interesting when it comes along. Mashups, a particular fascination of mine, are obviously based on this principle in a very literal way, but as I've said many times before, just about any kind of creation can be thought of as a mashup at some level or another.

I guess I'm trying to make a case that my latest mashup is quite creative, though clearly derivative on the surface. ("Creative" and "derivative" are often treated as opposites, but they're closely related.*) This new creation is actually a mashup on a couple of levels. First, it combines the subjects of my two previous blog posts/projects into something new, borrowing quite equally from each. Second, it combines musical ideas of two musical opposites, Satie and Schoenberg, born only eight years apart but at opposite poles of the French/German aesthetic divide. (Yes, I know Boulez and others made serialism a French thing as well, but Boulez's name doesn't begin with an S.)

So, what do we have here? Well, having used MIT's Scratch programming language to create a site that randomizes Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1, and then having created a 12-tone Sandbox that enables easy exploration of Schoenbergian 12-tone rows, the next logical step (a + b) was to put these ideas together: A + B = 12-tone Satie. My point in randomizing Satie was that his music has a lovely directionless quality that can survive and even thrive (?) when its events are dis-ordered. This project takes that to another level by disordering the pitches as well - all that's really left of Satie is the basic rhythmic and textural gestures, while 12-tone rows take over both hands.

You can (and should!) try it out by going here. If the idea sounds complicated, understand that I put a lot (lot) of time into making it pretty simple to use. You can certainly take the time to input the row of your choosing and then decide which permutations of the row to use for each phrase of the melody and the accompaniment while considering matters of pitch cells and interval content - but, you can also click one button to generate a random row, one more button to choose the phrases for you, and you'll be making music in no time. Click!

As with my measure-for-measure randomizing of Satie's Gymnopédie, I didn't really know what to expect when I set out, and I was skeptical that this would amount to anything. Among other things, I'd assumed it would be important to keep the basic shape of Satie's melodies intact to make this work, going up and down at the same times, but that turned out to be unnecessary and even counterproductive. I did build a script which determined whether each successive note in a given row went up or down based on Satie's model, but that actually made things sound more random and disjointed for reasons I won't go into here. (They're easy enough to imagine.)

I think the point here is that Satie's melodies have a basic ambling quality built into them (in much the same way that Stravinsky's famous off-kilter accents feature a kind of encoded meta-unpredictability) that can fortuitously be found in many 12-tone rows. Thus, the "shapes," though quite different on the local level, can still suggest the same ambling idea at a higher level. They sound Gymnopédie-esque. Or so I would have you believe.

The bottom line is, I believe this little mashup of gestures and ideas does amount to something new and interesting. An advantage, at least for someone like me who's admittedly not a devoted fan of much 12-tone music, is that this mashup emphasizes the gentler, hazier side of serialism and atonality, as opposed to the brutal soundworld with which it's often associated. The association with Satie's archetypal mellowness helps to frame the pitches as distant cousins of something familiar and tonal. True devotees of 12-tone technique may take some offense at this, or even more at the notion that 12-tone music often ends up sounding kind of random. But that quality is turned to some advantage here: every performance outputted from this program has a kinship with others that makes each random set of notes seem related. Still, there's enough variety that it's well worth exploring different combinations.

This brings up a question that has fascinated me as I've worked on this project. To what degree can the result be thought of as a composition? I don't mean each of the countless separate outcomes, I mean the program itself as a coherent compositional concept that happens to allow for a range of indeterminate possibilities, each of which I might plausibly label "Gymnopédie No. 12." Indeterminacy is, after all, a part of just about any kind of music at some scale - in typical classical performance, the indeterminacy has to do with subtleties of timing and color and occasional bits of improvisation (and wrong notes); in jazz, indeterminacy is expected/demanded on a much broader scale, and then there's that whole world of radically indeterminate works.

Here we have a composition that performs itself (though I LOVE the idea of performing this live some day, reading the pages as they're generated on the spot) and that (I think) remains recognizably "the same," even through all the different possible row combinations. It's all held together by a few basic but distinctive concepts. Satie's three Gymnopédies already accomplish this kind of thing on some level, which is what first inspired my idea of a randomized Gymnopédie segueing seamlessly back and forth among all three. (Haven't made that version...yet.)

The other question that kept bugging me as I chipped away at this program is whether this is just frittering away time, since the result is, at best, a loop of about 90 seconds worth of music. (Well, technically, if you choose 4 R.H. rows and 3 L.H. rows, it would take about five minutes to get through all the combinations; and the program can generate an almost infinite array of 90-second pieces.) What made this question especially interesting to me is that I've been (poorly) balancing my time working on this against time re-learning Schumann's Kreisleriana, 30 minutes of the most inspired music ever written for the piano. Few in the musical world would think it frittering to spend countless hours learning a "masterpiece" like this, but I can always sense that people think these little musical experiments are just fluff.

And they may be right. No version of this Gymnopédodécaphonie** is going to come close to matching Schumann in inspiration. On the other hand, the Schumann will be played and heard countless times whether I get around to it or not, whereas this "piece" apparently needed me (like Charlie Brown's tree) to come into being. I think one of the confounding factors here is that we (especially we in the "serious music" world) tend to underestimate the degree to which music is about "play." More and more, it seems to me that making games "about" music is a really great way to "think" about music. I'm not saying it's better or worse than composing, performing, listening, or analyzing - just that it's useful and substantive. Having worked my way through this strange meeting of Satie and 12-tone technique, I feel I understand each a bit more. Perhaps you will as well...

Here's one example of a nice-sounding piece that I randomed upon...

[sorry, the audio is a little buzzy; working on it...UPDATE: Improved, along with video quality]

* The line between "Bach was influenced by Vivaldi" and "David Cope taught a computer to write like Bach" is thinner than many would like to believe.

** Note that the absurd word Gymnopédodécaphonie, while trying to be French, has a LongGermanicCompoundWord thing going on. More mashing up....

DISCLAIMER: It's worth noting that this is still a work-in-progress in some ways, though I think everything is working correctly. Because I keep building on top of things in ways I hadn't originally intended (and because I'm such a novice at this), the program's architecture is pretty unwieldy, like some ancient church that's been gradually rebuilt on top of itself; changes that should be simple involve re-setting multiple variables and the like. It's definitely possible that strange things will happen every now and then, but that's part of the fun, right? You can always just hit the re-set button.

SPECIAL EXTRA BONUS: I really like that randomly-generated piece in the YouTube video. (Technically, there was a glitch when that was generated so the fact that a couple of rows appear multiple times was a happy accident.) Anyway, here's a screen-captured score if you, like me, want to play it. SCORE


dfan said...

Nice! I did (almost) exactly this in a composition about 20 years back that took Bach's famous C major prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier and remapped the piano keyboard randomly (e.g., every middle C became an Ab an octave and a half higher). The idea was pretty much the same as yours - what of the structure remains when we remove tonality? I remember being pretty pleased with how it came out.


Thanks for the comment, Dan. Yes, my first idea had been to do this with a Bach invention, and I still might - I got stuck a bit trying to group the phrasing into sets of 12 pitches, although it wouldn't have to be done that way. I think it could work well, though. The Satie, though less contrapuntally oriented, seemed like a more forgiving container.