The Role of the Idea

November 27, 2010

By Kyle Gann

I have an article on John Luther Adams's orchestral music coming out soon in a book about him. In it I describe a condition of his music that is not exclusive to him, and that I think could be profitably expanded upon. And since Carson Cooman and I are currently engaged in a thought-provoking correspondence on the role of the idea in experimental music, I'm moved to try to unfold the concept further here.

My premise is that there are left-brain aspects of music, and right-brain aspects, that can occur independently. My beginning here owes much to the late Jonathan Kramer's awesome book The Time of Music. The left brain, generally speaking, is verbal, and works by means of logic and analysis and categorization, and also keeps track of time. The right brain, timeless and intuitive, perceives expressive nuance and qualities that are more difficult to put into words. In conventional classical music, or perhaps conventional any music, the LB and RB aspects tend to support each other, though divergenges can be used to create tension. For instance, a tapered decrescendo (RB) at the end of a movement will support a coda's role of being the end of the piece (LB, since time sequencing is processed by the left brain); or a crescendo can serve the same function, but one or the other tends to happen. (A mezzoforte ending without ritardando is perceived as an interruption.) The transitional theme in a sonata has the logical role, which we perceive (LB) in the harmonic syntax, of creating the tonal ambiguity needed to move to a new key; this is normally accompanied by RB qualities of greater rhythmic restlessness and increased momentum, so that the music's expressive quality mirrors its logical function. Frequently the composer's ability to match the expressive feel to the syntactic role is what makes a sonata form more or less compelling. For instance, what seems a little Biedermeier-ish and self-indulgent about Hummel at times is that his transitional themes can be languid and unhurried, and without the razor-sharp harmonic directedness that makes Beethoven's transitional areas so taut and gripping. There is a slight mismatch between mood and logical function.

Of course, classical composers very often intentionally mismatch expression and meaning, as Haydn likes to do by beginning a string quartet with what the right brain clearly recognizes as a closing gesture:

This (from the Op. 50/6 String Quartet, and it's one of Kramer's examples) sets up a cognitive dissonance because the left brain knows that the piece is only beginning and that this theme has to fulfill an opening role, while the right brain feels it as a finalizing gesture. I think Beethoven does something similar in the harmonic rhythm of his late piano sonatas: the left brain expects the phrase structure to be defined by the harmonic syntax, but the unpredictability in the timing of his chord changes creates an expressive dissonance, harmony refusing to support the phrase rhythm. In any case, we can posit a kind of musical normalcy in which expressive (RB) and logical (LB) qualities are closely associated in time, with here and there a momentary disjunction to tease the brain and create tension.

There is a branch of (let's call it for now) experimental music, however, in which LB and RB qualities are radically separated out. The classic paradigm for it is Reich's Come Out, or perhaps equally Piano Phase. Most people who listen to Come Out, probably even for the first time, know that the phrase "Come out to show them" is going to go out of phase with itself. Since the left brain can grasp this at once and anticipate it, from a logical point of view there ought to be no point in listening to the piece. But what happens is that the texture of that process is completely surprising, and that rhythmic and timbral illusions happen as microbits of the phrase start to perceptually associate with each other. It's fascinating because you know (LB) that the process is a simple linear one, yet you hear (RB) unexpected patterns that you couldn't have anticipated. The dissonance between cognition and perception is not just momentary, but globalized across the duration of the piece.

Examples are easily multiplied. JLA's Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing follows a linear progression from minor seconds in the first section to major seconds, then minor thirds, mixed minor and major thirds, and so on up to major sevenths at the end. (I kid John that when I start hearing tritones I know his pieces are half over, though it's only true of a handful of them.) If you know what's going on (and you can figure it out by ear if you listen a certain way), you can keep mental track of the form of the piece. But the sections are so long, and so vaguely textural, that more commonly the mind gives up trying to keep track and can only lose itself in the sensuous surface. And there are other complications: the textures and orchestrations move back and forth among different phases in a huge palindrome that your left brain could track if you were intent enough on it. But again, what's more interesting is knowing that the music has some kind of order, but losing yourself in the vast color fields of tremolo and arpeggio. There is a left-brain aspect to the piece and a right-brain one, each intriguing, but they operate separately, and not in tandem.

This is not merely a Downtown or post-Cage phenomenon, either; I think (and Carson and I were noting the resemblance) the same principle underlies Babbitt's and much serial music. For instance, All Set runs through every permutation of the groupings of the six solo instruments. If you have the kind of brain trained to count cards in blackjack, you could conceivably keep track of the groupings as they go by and predict the timing of the piece's ending. Of course, probably nobody listens to All Set this way. The piece is a riot of wildly changing lines and textures, but one thing that adds to the enjoyment of it is that we know it's not just a crazy random improvisation, that there's really a fanatically rigorous symmetry to it of which we're hearing the results that are too complex to track mentally. Right-brain aspects of the piece are virtually random, but our left brain tries to get us to squeeze the phenomena somehow into the order we know (if only by reputation) is in there somewhere.

Now, I think it's safe to say that there are listeners for whom this mode of listening is just never going to be enjoyable. They're used to tons of music in which the expressive and the logical go hand in hand, and if you grab those elements and hold them apart at maximum distance, their brains just won't derive any pleasure from it. As a non-musician friend once said to me about such a piece, "I'd call it art, but I wouldn't call it music." The bit of fun that Haydn had opening a string quartet with a closing gesture has been expanded into a joke whereby the entire piece is not what it seems. Clouds of Forgetting sounds like undifferentiated sheets of arpeggios: it is actually a linear interval progression superimposed over a textural palindrome. All Set sounds like rowdy chaos: it is actually a fanatical symmetry carried out on every possible level. Come Out sounds like a series of complexly related rhythmic patterns: it is actually a mechanically linear phase relationship. One could take examples from Niblock, Glass, Ashley, Xenakis, Tenney, Polansky, Michael Byron, and much other serial or process-oriented (post)minimalist music. Lief Inge's 9 Beet Stretch is a prime example: it's just ambient noise until someone tells you it's Beethoven's 9th slowed waaaaay down.

One way pieces in this category differ greatly is the extent to which we are tuned into the left-brain idea; it's much more obvious in Come Out than in All Set. But the idea can influence the way we listen even if we're only vaguely aware of it. I listen to Music of Changes differently than I do to the Boulez Third Sonata; I know Cage's notes are the results of a gobal chance process, and that on some level Boulez chose, or somehow placed, each note individually. The distance between sound and idea can also vary infinitely. At some point, perhaps, the sound and idea grow too unrelated so that creative tension is dispelled, and that point may differ for various appreciative listeners. An argument can be made that Clouds of Forgetting can be enjoyed merely sensuously without one even intuiting the underlying organization, but while some are willing to simply "experience" without understanding, I think in general there's something in us that makes us want our music to make sense, no matter how "meta-" and oblique that sense might be. In any case, I'm not drawing any distinct lines between genres, but using sonata form and process pieces as two extremes that can be clearly differentiated. I can't even guess where my own music lies along this continuum.

"It's only as good as it sounds" is a favorite motto of mine, but I am too much a new-music insider to be immune to the pleasure of feeling the cognitive dissonance between how a piece sounds and how I know it was written, trying to hear through the notes the structure that I've been led to believe is there. If we don't recognize the final-cadence gesture of Haydn's opening, we miss his endearing witticism, but if we don't know that All Set is an elaborately precise structure, we miss the joke of the entire piece. And, to venture back into an old and allegedly discredited terminology for a moment, it seems to me (as I wrote in Music Downtown) that the willingness to separate the sound and the idea of a piece and let them complete each other in the listener's mind is something that Uptown and Downtown composers shared in common, opposed by the neo-Romantic Midtowners in-between who clung to a more "intuitive" (that Midtown word par excellence) union of expression and meaning. 

I don't think I'm saying anything particularly new, nor introducting concepts not in vernacular use. But I do think that a lot of music lovers and a lot of composers think this "boring" brand of music in which the underlying idea is so far from the surface is kind of insane, and that we need a vocabulary for clarifying what those of us who enjoy it hear in it. I also think we need to understand how it works in order to compose it better. Both sides of our brains clamor for fulfillment from music, and Haydn and Adams (and Niblock and Young and Glass) both grant it, even if the difference in scale is so vast as to constitute a difference in kind. Perhaps some people's brains are simply not wired to enjoy such music: we have no reason to be convinced physiology doesn't play a role. When we fail to make the distinction explicit, though, I think we set up an undifferentiated new-music world in which Clouds of Forgetting seems obviously more boring next to, say, the Christopher Rouse Trombone Concerto - whereas, in fact, I think its pleasures are greater, though they lie across a different, and perhaps non-obvious, mental plane. [UPDATE: And why does it seem boring? Because the left brain, which keeps track of time, can't find anything to latch onto - though not necessarily because there's nothing there.]


john says: Thanks, Kyle, for the nice account of the matching of mood and logical function (what I think of as rhetoric). Your discussion of how the listener's knowledge of a composer's method may influence one's reception/perception of the piece illustrates how we experience music as part of a narrative: the composer thought about *this*, and from those thoughts made this music. A preference for intuitive music could be a preference for emotional narratives: the composer had these feelings and from those feelings made this music. Nothing wrong with that.
The complexities of the interplay between ratiocination, emotion, and rhetoric -- well, it can take a lifetime and more than a lifetime to fathom! Here's to the journey.

Paul A. Epstein says: This is a cogent and very useful formulation, Kyle. And it may provide a way of talking about something else that distinguishes both serialists and minimalists from the neo-Romantics: whether the initial germ of a piece is idea or feeling. I often get strange looks when I say that I started a piece with an abstract - soundless - structural idea for a melodic pattern, but that the end result has "emotional content." I try to avoid "expressive" because it suggests a one-way movement from composer to composition, while for me the opposite is just as possible and often more satisfying.
KG replies: Paul, except that my initial idea is usually harmonic or rhythmic instead of melodic, you and are exactly parallel.

Juhani Nuorvala says: Kyle, just curious - how would you place Feldman in this continuum from LB-oriented to RB-oriented?
KG replies: Man, I didn't want to touch that one with a ten-foot pole. But I suspect that recognition of motivic transformation is a left-brain function, and that therefore all those little four-note repeating motives (so often permutations of continguous half-steps with octave displacements) provide a kind of left-brain throughline in certain Feldman works.

David Wolfson says: This is good stuff to chew on, and I say that as (probably) (mostly) one of those "midtown" composers. I wonder, though, whether it's always true that knowing that there is structure behind a piece changes one's perception of it. I've been enjoying Elliott Carter's music, for instance, since I first encountered it as a student; it wasn't until years later that I had any inkling that there was a method behind the madness. To me, it does not seem as if knowing that Carter uses pitch sets and stratification to write his music changes the experience of listening to it one whit.
KG replies: Well, you can't be influenced by what you're not aware of. And a lot of people say that you can't hear the analytical constructs underlying Carter's music anyway, nor their influence, which is perhaps what I don't like about it.

peter says: Complicating all this, of course, is where in the brain musical input is processed, which we now know from experimental neurobiology (at least for western musicians).
In most right-handed people, the left hemisphere of the brain processes language and text, while the right hemisphere processes images. In right-handed people without musical training, musical input is processed mostly in the right-hemisphere. (In other words, running MRI scans on non-musical right-handed people one sees the right sides of their brains light up as they listen.) But in musicians, musical inputs are mostly processed in the left-hemisphere.
Perhaps very good (right-handed) musicians and composers are somehow able to keep their right brains involved in the composing, playing of and listening to music at the same time as their left brains are also active.

Richard says: Gee,Kyle, I'm ambidextrous (I'm left-handed dominant, but I played baseball right-handed and could switch hit). Oddly, I'm a "visual" composer. Certain "image/ideas" have aural counterparts. Where would you put me on the LB-RB continuum?
KG replies: I think that logic and expressiveness in music operate pretty much the same way for most people, regardless of their actual brain function, though I also imagine that in extreme cases that could play an enhancing or inhibiting part as well.

mclaren says: Excellent discussion about an underrepresented schism in contemporary music. The Haydn example, however, depends more on cultural signposts which have nothing to do with modes of brain processing: that stuff is learned, like Javanese gamelan patets or Turkish taksim ornamentation. You'll "get it" if you're immersed in that musical culture, otherwise not.
Complicating all this remains the fact that we now know that the human brain isn't actually modular: different parts of the brain share operations. For example, tracking root movements of chords typically involves left-brain processing, but tracking timbre changes usually involves right-brain processing. This gets tricky when you stack up so many notes in a chord that you get, in effect, timbre. So if you've got, say Henry Cowell's tone clusters or Ives' orchestral clusters, are you dealing with left-brain or right-brain processing? There's a continuum, and you slide from one to the other depending on how many notes you've got in the cluster and so on.
Likewise, while the right brain hemisphere primarily processes the overall shape of a melody, individual key notes that stand out get tracked by the left brain. So once again you've got a mix of functionality.
Most spectacularly, regions like V19, Brodmann's Area 19 AKA one the two extrastriate cortical areas, the so-called "visual theater" of the brain, gets pressed into service to process pitch. So you have an area of the visual cortex processing sound. This explains why all cultures worldwide speak about pitch as being "high" or "low." There are duplicate Broadmann's Areas for both the right and left hemispheres,to make things even more complicated.
The auditory cortex roughly overlaps with Brodmann's Areas 41 and 42, so current research confirms that a lot of the visual and motor cortex overlaps with the auditory cortex in processing music. This explains why musical rhythm has traditionally been so closely connected with dance and movement: our motor cortex processes music along with our auditory cortex, in a form of cognitive time-sharing.
Of particular interest remains the salient fact that the right brain hemisphere is mainly responsible for emotion, while the left brain hemisphere primarily does the logical analytic stuff. Whenever we talk about music as "well-constructed but cold" we're really laying bare a left hemisphere/right hemisphere imbalance -- too much left hemisphere, too little right brain. Ditto when people say that a piece of music "sounds passionate but unfocused." That's the inverse kind of right/left hemisphere imabalance -- too much right hemisphere, too little left hemisphere architecture.
However, we have to be careful about advocating balance, because some compositions work superbly well as almost pure-left-hemisphere architectures: the excellent electronic music of Herbert Eimert comes to mind. While other music works great as entirely right-hemisphere percepts: Eliane Radigue's electornic music proves this point, I think. So it really depends on how the composer does it. The devil's in the details.
You really hit the nail on the head when you point out that we have to listen to some of these pieces in a completely different way than others. When preparing to listen to Phill Niblock's or Eliane Radigue's or LaMonte Young's music, I find myself going through a process like a deep sea diver breathing a helium-nitrogen mixture: I have to stop listening to certain types of music with lots of left-brain structure before hearing the Niblock or Radigue. Otherwise the transition is too much of a shock. Moreover, I don't listen to Phill's or Eliane's or LaMonte's music all the time -- it's like eating a tremendously rich dessert, I can only experience so much of it, and then have to listen to something else.
Maybe for some listeners to transition twixt listening modes is just too much of a shock, period.

Casey says: This is great! I'm in the midst of writing an analysis paper on Charlemagne Palestine's "Strumming Music"(just finished transcribing it, phew!) and this framework will be incredibly useful in describing the disconnect between the relatively simple sounding logical process at work and the unexpectedly stunning result of that process. Any leads where I can read more about these ideas? Is your correspondence with Carson Cooman posted anywhere? If not, your blog post alone offers me more than enough to go on!
KG replies: Had to reply privately to this one.

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