Comments by a Composer:
The "Micro" and the "Macro" in Twentieth-Century Music
by Dr. Jody Nagel
(This article first appeared in the high school magazine, Junior Keynotes, Spring issue, 1998, Vol. 70, No. 4.)
Gaea, the Earth, came out of darkness so long ago that nobody knows when or how. Earth was young and lonesome, for nothing lived on her yet. Above her rose Uranus, the Sky, dark and blue, set all over with sparkling stars. He was magnificent to behold, and young Earth looked up at him and fell in love with him. Sky smiled down at Earth, twinkling with his countless stars, and they were joined in love. Soon young Earth became Mother Earth, the mother of all things living. All her children loved their warm and bountiful mother and feared their mighty father, Uranus, lord of the universe.
(Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths. p.12. Bantam Double Dell Books. © 1962.)
Greek philosophy and mythology has always had a profound influence on Western culture. The past several centuries have seen many masterpieces of art and music that owe their inspiration to the wondrous Greek stories of gods and heroes. Indeed, the sheer brilliance and intellectual creativity of these ancient people is quite extraordinary and worthy of scrutiny by contemporary musicians.
This essay will not single out any particular work for analysis, but rather will briefly consider two of the major trends within 20th-century art-music: atonal "avant-garde" music and "minimalism." These musics will be viewed in relationship to certain areas of 20th-century thought and to mythological symbolism.
In the epigraph above, concerning Gaea and Uranus, the reader is immediately made aware that all life grew out of an interaction between earth and the universe. The images are poetically beautiful and "humanized," but they reveal the ancient comprehension that all things of a human dimension exist because of this interaction. Nowadays, we have scientific grounds for realizing that the sun's energy interacting with the earth's atmosphere gives rise to the weather patterns which control basic aspects of global ecology. The ecosphere - the thin surface layer of Earth containing life - separates thousands of miles of dead rock from the millions of light-years of vacuum above. Only where Earth and Universe meet does man's existence have its origins - and most of its meaning.
The 20th century has become fascinated with the microscopic and the macroscopic worlds. While particle physicists continue searching for the ever smaller, the cosmologists seek out the ever larger. In a certain sense, the particle physicists are studying Gaea, the Earth, "up close," while the cosmologists concentrate on Uranus, the universe. Many interesting things are being learned from these pursuits, but it is also evident that these areas quickly elude the human perspective. Humans simply can not grasp, cognitively or emotionally, the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small scales that are required by these disciplines. Once we concentrate on either Gaea or Uranus, rather than the interaction between the two, we quickly lose our ability truly to know. We leave the natural human-scale realm. We end up only understanding equations and abstractions of reality rather than reality itself.
During the 20th century, writers, artists and composers have (just as in all centuries) reflected the ideas of contemporary science and philosophy within their work. In 1900, physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) said that energy is radiated in small, discreet units called "quanta," and quantum physics was born. By 1923, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) had completed his formulation of a 12-tone "serial" method of composition, and in 1925 his first fully serial piece, Suite für Klavier, Op. 25, was published. In 12-tone music, each of the twelve notes within an octave must be organized into a "row" or "series," and every pitch must be used before any one may be repeated. When creating this kind of music, the composer's concentration generally centers on the manipulation of individual pitches and notes - musical "quanta" - and the listener is expected to perceive the details of this "micro" world within the music.
By 1950, composers such as Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), Milton Babbitt (b.1916) and Pierre Boulez (b.1925) had applied serialization to all parameters of musical composition. Duration, articulation, dynamics, registration, and instrumentation were all subjected to the composer's minutest control. Babbitt's Composition for Twelve Instruments (1948) and Messiaen's Mode de valeurs et d'intensités (1949-50) for piano are but two works representative of this period. With a little time, many musicians can learn the abstractions of the systems employed, but few listeners seem capable of hearing accurately enough actually to perceive all the postulated relationships.
In 1927, Werner Heisenburg (1901-76) formulated the famous Uncertainty Principle: one can not know simultaneously with precision the position and momentum of a particle. This led to probability-based calculations rather than the exact calculations found in classical mechanics. In the musical world during the middle of the 20th century, "aleatoric," "indeterminate" and "stochastic" music entered the stage. John Cage (1912-92) included chance operations in his 26' 1 1499'' (1954-56) for any four-stringed instrument as well as in many other works. Iannis Xenakis (b.1922) employed probability-based stochastic techniques within his orchestral work, Pithoprakta (1955-6).
Strangely, "total control" music and "chance" music are often perceived as sounding quite similar on the surface. In terms of human perception, the "statistical" make-up of a complex musical gesture probably reflects our actual comprehension of it better than does a "total control" approach where every single note is accounted for. Yet both approaches to composition can orient the composer towards a "micro" world view. Much of this music is fascinating for musical connoisseurs and curious listeners, but perhaps, like particle physics, it leans a little too close to Gaea for the needs of humanity in general. The single-minded attention to "Gaea" within music can leave listeners feeling alienated, and the surface of the music might seem to contain too much of the density of Earth's dead rock.
Now consider the opposite approach, the emphasis on Uranus. In 1924, astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) proved that the spiral and elliptical nebulas observed in the heavens were actually galaxies in their own right, external to the Milky Way. The universe was suddenly known to be immensely larger than previously thought. Theoretical physicist Steven Hawkings (b.1942) has contributed to the knowledge of black holes, the big bang theory, and the expansion of the universe. Starting from a singularity, the universe, says Hawkings, has expanded to its current state, and, depending on its average density, either will expand for a few more billion years before beginning to contract, or will expand forever. The fantastically large universe is impossible to comprehend; the scales and magnitudes in which our senses have evolved to comprehend the world do not include such vastness. Again, we are forced to substitute mathematical expressions and graphic abstractions for actual reality when we attempt to contemplate the universe.
By the 1960's, a trend in music known as "minimalism" appeared that had much influence. Early minimalist composers include La Monte Young (b.1935), Steve Reich (b.1936), and Philip Glass (b.1937). Reich's Come Out (1966) and Glass's Music in Similar Motion (1969) are good examples. The music includes much repetition and is reduced to the simplest means, while some slowly unfolding process steers the music through its course. If one were to listen to any given short section within these compositions, it would seem that nothing in particular was happening. But if one listens to the entire work, the underlying process becomes clear. Usually large amounts of time are required for these processes to unfold completely. This grand cosmological perspective introduces a single-minded focus on "Uranus" within music. It is quite possible for many listeners to grow bored or restless when faced with minimalist music, and the surface of the music might seem to contain too much of the vacuum of outer space.
Throughout much of the last millennium, western art music was governed by structures that revealed a distinctive human scale. We can know, truly know, the cycles of the day and year, and the cycles of respiration and the beating heart. We can not really experience the "Big Bang - Big Crunch" cycle or quark-antiquark annihilation time tables. We know how long we can more or less hold our breath while speaking or singing some phrase, and durational units relating to our walking and running are common in much music.
It seems to this writer that the musical phrase is, as it has long been, a good barometer for gauging the connecting of music to the human condition. In the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Classical and the Romantic eras, a well-shaped phrase was worth much. Of course, a significant amount of 20th-century art-music does also retain the use of the importance of phrase structure. In putting together a fine musical phrase, the composer must balance "Gaia" and "Uranus." Each individual note must be carefully selected, just as it is in "total control" music. The combination of all selected notes must contribute to the holistic effect of the phrase, and each phrase must contribute to the formal flow of the whole composition. The entirety of the work must produce a sense of completion, just as do the processes of a minimalist work. Excessive attention given to note relationships at the expense of formal direction will usually result in a kind of information overload, while too much attention given to large issues of formal flow at the expense of interesting local relationships produces boredom. But a balance of musical interest at the surface notes, the middleground phrase structure, and the background form will tend to produce humanly interesting results for our feelings and our minds.
It is easy to see that some music of the 20th century has reflected its own contemporary science and philosophy. This science confronts us with scales that we can not truly comprehend. As musicians, will we embrace musical abstractions in place of real musical knowledge? Will we realize that our human right to continue creating meaning in our lives through our music and art has not suddenly disappeared just because the cosmos is larger than we once thought. The curious will always explore, of course, but one should not assume that the act of exploring automatically results in a greater obtaining of the interaction of Gaea and Uranus, which is our humanity.
Dr. Jody Nagel
February 25-26, 1998