(Stephen Smoliar )

From:    Stephen Smoliar  <smoliar(at)ISS.NUS.SG>
Date:    Wed, 15 Sep 1993 18:51:21 -0400

Pierre Divenyi writes: > The >Mussorgsky example of Steve Smoliar only raises the question >whether the smallest played units should be considered >the REAL units (in a musico-perceptuo-cognitive sense). That was one of my intentions. >Thus, the problem to be solved is to establish units of >t i m i n g -- for the sake of musical meaning and perceptual >organization. Grouping rules cannot (and should not) ever be >drawn up in disregard of such timing units. Furthermore, the ability of the metrical structure rules to capture those units in any perceptually relevant way is also questionable. Part of the problem is that we tend to succumb to the urge to focus only on short examples which are relatively neat. Another interesting element of Mussorgsky's "Gnome" is that the whole movement proceeds in fits and starts. Taken as a whole, there are NO units of timing which really encompass the entire "picture." In this case the most salient cue to segmentation at the highest level is SILENCE. Pauses break the whole into fragments. Furthermore (and this may be the most interesting part), some of those fragments are too brief to establish units of timing within their own local scope. I think the primary lesson here is that while (or perhaps because) most music has a beat, there are acts of music behavior which seem deliberately calculated to escape that beat (just as there can be calculated efforts to escape conventions of consonance and dissonance). We even find performances of jazz which are often aimed at getting away from the beat, despite any assumptions that you cannot have jazz WITHOUT a beat! So I suppose the key question we face is whether or not, in such situations, silence is all we have. I am not sure this is the case. The metrical modulations of Elliott Carter are also quite disruptive of beat conventions, and he often implements them in rather think instrumental textures which eschew silence. This may be quite a sticky problem which would provide an excellent opportunity to survey the literature of music. > Yes, the >Mussorgsky notes in the last measures of Gnome are audible >only to the very best trained ears (I used to be capable of such tricks >thirty some years ago...) and, therefore, we can assume that the >timing units are quite a bit larger than the eight-note element. It helps if you know in advance what the notes are (say, from having practiced the passage). >Larger chunks would also work for music with uncertain unit >onsets, such as the Schoenberg piece cited, or the "composed >harmonic structures" (harmonics of a complex played by different >instruments) in pieces of composers like Gerard Grisey. > What is interesting about the Schoenberg example is that it does not abandon the beat. While he tries to conceal the onset, the overall quality of timbre is modulated by dynamic swells. Thus, through more gradual controls of dynamics than you would find in attack curves, he sets up a pulse which, in this case, DOES pervade the entire movement. >The 64,000-dollar question is: what are those larger timing units >and how to determine them experimentally. The hunch is yours! > I would think that, before designing experiments, one might do well to interview people who actually make music. How do pianists (or conductors) organize the passage of time through Mussorgsky's "Gnome?" What sorts of channels of communication are set up within a jazz combo which is pushing the limits of its beat? How does a conductor maintain control of Carter's "Variations for Orchestra?" How does he know what to listen to in or to establish whether or not he is IN control? I would recommend that any search for an answer to that question should begin in the concert hall before it moves to the laboratory! Stephen W. Smoliar; Institute of Systems Science National University of Singapore; Heng Mui Keng Terrace Kent Ridge, SINGAPORE 0511 Internet: smoliar(at)iss.nus.sg FAX: +65-473-9897

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Electrical Engineering Dept., Columbia University