The Sound of In-Between

IMG_1285aAs you could probably surmise by lack of posts of late, it’s been busy; the UWS honours submission date has been looming and it’s been all go, go go. Thankfully, I’m almost across the finish line, and the investigation into liminality in music is all but complete, for now anyway. It’s been an interesting journey, and one that continues, as music tends to do – I’m fortunate to have a chosen a pursuit that never ceases to surprise me, there’s always something new about music to discover, and this project has been no exception.

If you haven’t been following my posts so far, I’d invite you to go back a few and see where I’ve been coming from – and for those who have and are curious to hear the results of all this liminal investigation, I’ve posted the final mix on Soundcloud. If you like music that’s a little ambient, uses space, repetition, drone and alternate forms of harmony, this may be right up your alley.

Once I’ve submitted, I’ll post a summary of what I’ve discovered – better let the examiners have a look first. But for now, enjoy some explorations of liminality – happy listening.

Liminality: a state of ‘in-between’

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I’ve recently been floating around a new concept that may very well tie all of my creative work together, and in the scheme of things makes a whole lot of sense in relation to the music I’ve been trying to create, the ‘spectral’ quality that I’ve been seeking

The concept of liminality (drawing from Greek work limin, meaning ‘a threshold’) describes a state of being that is between things, inter-medial, in transition, suspended… and in many respects, this is very good fit for the quality I’ve been looking for. Although the term itself is drawn from anthropology and refers to a transitional state in rituals and rites of passage, between casting off a previous identity and adopting a new one, it has applications in many areas, and for myself this applies especially to the time-based aspects of my work. Whereas I had been preoccupied with the methods used to produce the ‘spectral’ quality I was observing, namely the use of timbre, drone, repetition, quartal harmony approaches etc., what I’d been after all along was a suspension of time in music; being in ‘a moment’ so speak, and trying to make that last as long as feasibly possible. Liminality perhaps defines this, as an overarching concept or idea, which up until now I didn’t have a name for. It makes a lot of sense – quartal harmony is really an in-between approach to composition, in comparison to more conventional tertial harmony approaches, as I’d been searching for an suspended quality in harmony that didn’t feel a need for resolution. Emphasising timbral aspects in composition over harmonising a melody is perhaps another example of liminality, looking at composition with a more ‘vertical’ approach to sound. Using repetition to focus upon the phenomena of sound (a phenomenological approach) I believe also emphasises this quality, and my recent use of polyrhythms to further disrupt a sense of absolute metre in a piece also contributes to a sense of being ‘in-between’, the potential in what may be, a kind of ‘becoming’… the moment between sleep and waking, the nexus between day and night (twilight), the midpoint between conscious thought and daydreaming…. well, that’s pretty much what I’ve been after all along, really.

IMG_1256What I’ve created thus far has been, in a way, meditative, but not in the conventional sense that ‘meditation music’ usually is, replete with washy synthesisers, distant vocals and pan pipes. I’ve avoided using synthesisers up until this point, which I suspect is something to do with not using ‘real’ instruments, it feels a little like cheating. But really, I’ve been disguising the nature of the instruments or sounds that I’ve been using all along, so in this sense I seem to be striving for a state of unreality. I’ve been unsure up until this point whether to take this all into the realm of the fantastic or surreal, which is what synths seem to do, but working with natural sounds and timbres and seeing what I can do to enhance, or perhaps extend, the normal listening experience of these instruments seems to be my primary working method, so…? Perhaps this project is more about creating a mood, or ambience, or perhaps a state of listening – a place in-between the real and the unreal aspects of sound, taking something that you already recognise and then bending or twisting it, taking it into another realm or world. It seem there’s no point in starting with a sound that’s fantastic to begin with, because there’s no semiotic meaning or reference one can ascribe to it – it appears one has to take an existing, recognisable sound first, establish its significance and then take it on a journey elsewhere. Which is what I seem to have been doing, perhaps inadvertently…

I believe this is it, the quality I’ve been looking for – it’s the nexus, the liminal state between the everyday and the other… and I suspect it’s something I’ve been looking for in music for quite a long time.

The joys of looping

IMG_0151aAs I’ve noted in previous posts, a core aspect of my honours year project is based upon the idea of extending ‘vertical’ aspects of sound (borrowing from Eric Tamm’s observations of Brian Eno’s approach to music creation), insofar as using timbre and texture as a source for music creation, rather than a linear, time-based approach. Although our perception of music in the broadest sense is usually based upon a series of sound events occurring over a given period, I believe it’s entirely possible to create the impression of time being ‘suspended’ – as I’ve previously suggested, the use of quartal harmony, drone and the use of repetition all go some way to creating a feeling of suspension in music. What I haven’t discussed in great detail up until this point is my working methodology, which is integral to this process and which I have only arrived at through through a degree of trial and error, from trying out several different compositional approaches and software applications.

What was impressed upon me early in this investigation was that in exploring timbral qualities, the use of notation was perhaps not advisable, insofar as detailing musical ideas – it would be difficult for example, to notate a guitar with a number of audio effects applied, such as reverb, reverse echo and phasing. As I’m looking equally at the quality of sound as well as pitch material in music composition, or more specifically a phenomenological approach to sound, using conventional notation seems cumbersome and limited. What became apparent in adopting this approach to sound, that not only would a recording technology necessarily be my prime compositional tool, but preferably also one that somehow negated, or at least relegated a sense of time passing. As readers would be aware, most modern recording software such as Avid Pro Tools and Apple’s Logic and Garageband employ a window-based interface with a time line, usually scrolling from left to right – it’s aimed principally at recording engineers, and although simplified for the domestic market (as in Garageband) these interfaces are both visibly crowded and make the user constantly aware of a time-based approach, in keeping with conventional recording practices. There are numerous editing tools, controllers, menus and plug-ins competing for your attention, and what I often found was once an idea was recorded (after the rigmarole of plugging in iLoks, connecting an audio interface and booting up the software), there was a tendency to try to make the recording ‘sound better’, by using effects plug-ins, or editing a sound with various tools, or employing time-stretching or pitch-correction – the sound could not be accepted for its own intrinsic quality and had to ‘fixed’ somehow. This tendency to ‘fiddle’ also tended to kill off any creativity fairly quickly and I found myself mostly frustrated and irritated by the process. Although an experienced Pro Tools user for the last ten years, I was finding that a different approach to composition required a different type of technology, and I was in a way yearning for the simplicity of the tape-based recording methods I had use back in my art-school days. Enter Loopy…

The Loopy interface

The Loopy interface

Loopy is an iPad and iPhone based app that employs a simple interface consisting of a series of circular ‘loops’ – to record a sound, you simply tap one of the circles, and when you’re finished, simply tap again – the waveform of the sound appears in the circle as it records, with each loop ending up looking somewhat like a peppermint Life Saver. Being loop-based, the recorded sound simply cycles around and around – it can be as short or as long as you wish. Many musicians use loop stations to lay down repetitive elements in music, such as rhythm tracks and simple harmonic structures that exploit the synchronised features of the application, usually so users can improvise a performance over the top, and the loop station effectively operates as a self-made backing track for performance. However, the most attractive element to me of Loopy apart from its visual interface and simplicity, is that it can also record unsynchronised – this feature alone is worth its weight in gold. You may wonder at this point why on earth I would wish to unsynchronise each track – surely I would wish each track to be in time with each other? Well, no…

Part of the attraction of the Brian Eno approach to music creation is allowing for music elements to evolve gradually, almost imperceptibly over time. Eno uses a number of methods to bring this about, but principle among these is the tape-based approach that he employed with Robert Fripp in the making of No Pussyfooting (1973), developed further on Discreet Music (1975), his initial foray into ‘ambient’ music. Utilising two tape recorders, Eno created a tape delay system that repeated elements at varied lengths of time, continuously overlapping and reconfiguring in myriad combinations to create random generations of the original source material. Although repetitive in nature, no one point in a piece is exactly like another; musical interest is generated by placing emphasis on both the repeated sound itself and upon the phenomena it arouses, holding the listener in a kind of suspension: the effect can be mesmerising. This ‘generative’ approach would be developed by Eno in the ensuing years in a number of forms, but I have have used this as both a source of inspiration and a method to use in conjunction with Loopy, which in many ways is already set up for this purpose.

As Loopy is inherently designed to repeat elements over and over, and by de-synchronising its tracks, it allows me to create music in a way that approaches Eno’s methodology. By using a combination of short and longer loops, and by using quartal harmony as a template, I’m finally beginning to bring about some of the ideas that have existed only in my head up until this point. Using a combination of ‘found’ environmental sounds, mixed with instrumental improvisations based on quartal motifs, I’m beginning to find the ephemeral, timeless and ‘spectral’ quality that I’ve been looking for. Using Loopy in conjunction with Audiobus, which allows you to ‘chain’ sound generating devices and effects together, I can introduce audio effects such as reverberation, echo and phasing to introduce new textural possibilities and further remove sounds from their original context, building on a phenomenological approach. The simplified interface allows me to start recording virtually straight away – I can use the internal microphone or plug into an audio interface via the lightning connector, and be ready to go within seconds, without all the visual clutter and myriad buttons and choices of Pro Tools or Logic.

For sheer spontaneity, it’s a magical application to have, and for this particular project, improvisation and spontaneity are paramount to the creative process. This is not a project of contemplation, though the process itself has been: this is a project born of creating a mood or feeling on a particular morning or afternoon and working with the materials I have available to me at any given time. And all this on an iPad, with very little external equipment  – it can be done with as little as the iPad itself and a pair of headphones.

I’ll be posting a number of my efforts as I go, but you can hear some of the initial experiments here: these are all works in progress, but I’m pleasantly surprised by what I’ve come up with so far. All are based on quartal four note clusters, hence the titles:

Enjoy… more discoveries as they come to hand.

 

Quartal harmony… or the search for the grail

Debussy's opening to 'The Sunken Cathedral' (La Cathedral Engloutie) employing the use of parallel fourths, also known as 'planing'.

Debussy’s opening to ‘The Sunken Cathedral’ (La cathédrale engloutie) employing the use of parallel fourths, a technique also known as ‘planing’.

I’m following on from a previous post, Harmonics, Fourths and Fifths, where I had discovered that I was inadvertently drawn to a particular type of harmony based on intervals of perfect fourths and fifths, especially when these intervals are ‘stacked’ and become the basic unit for constructing harmony. In the Western tradition, our sense of harmony is usually based upon stacked intervals of a third, which gives western music its particular ‘colour’ or sound characteristic, and leads us to label chords as having either a ‘major’ or ‘minor’ tonality. Over many years of playing and listening to music, I’ve found that as well as the Western harmony that I’d grown up with, I was also often drawn to what I perceived as a more intriguing and interesting sound, that of the open and more ambiguous harmony of fourths and fifths. I found this in the most diverse of places – in medieval music, sometimes in British pop music from the 1960s, sometimes in Scottish bagpipe music and Irish traditional music, in Georgian and Bulgarian vocal music, and more recently in some of the music of Debussy, Bartok and Copland. Quite often this music would be underpinned by a drone or continuous tone, against which these intervals would be stacked to form odd sounding but rather compelling harmony. I enjoyed the sound of these chords, which in conventional western harmony usually had exotic names like C7sus4 or Gadd69. But of course, these are seen as aberrations in harmony based on the principle of thirds, and it’s been only recently that I’ve discovered that this type of harmony indeed has a name, and is a perfectly legitimate (and alternate) method of writing music.

Known as quartal or quintal harmony (as opposed to the Western tertian harmony approach), as a writing system, quartal harmony has been around in various forms since the Middle Ages (though in traditional musics throughout the world it appears much longer) and interestingly, a fourth was considered a consonant interval up until the common practice period (from Baroque through until late romanticism in western European music) when it became to be considered as dissonant, as a suspension that necessarily need to resolve to the third degree of a scale, unless it was the interval between the fifth degree and the octave. I’d actually like to believe that the fourth can be recognised as an interval worthy of constructing a system of harmony upon (and the fifth, being inverse intervals of each other) in it’s own right – it has a purer tonal characteristic and of course is more naturally related to the natural harmonic series and just intonation, as opposed to the thirds and sixths of 12 tone equal temperament which have had to be adjusted (albeit notionally) to accommodate changes in key. It also has an ambiguous quality that seems to hang indeterminably in air, like sunlight or activity, life itself – the opening to Stravinsky’s Petrushka is a good example of this, but other composers such as Bartok and Copland have also exploited this quality.

It was quite a revelation to discover all this only recently: after 30-plus years of playing and listening to music, it was almost a holy grail moment to discover what I thought I was imagining actually did exist, and indeed had a name. I’d been hearing snatches of quartal harmony for years, darting fleetingly in and out of the various musics I thought possessed  the quality I was looking for – I almost stumbled across it last year through my research into the harmonic approach of the Beatles (see my essay “The Harmonic Series in the Music of the Beatles“) where I thought this phenomena had to do with relating tones back to natural tones within the harmonic series – as it turned out, I wasn’t that far off the mark. But now I have a name for this, and it makes sense in so many ways in relation to what I’m investigating, the idea of composing a ‘vertical’ music that negates the sense of time passing

The sound of quartal harmony is very different to tertian, or thirds-based harmony – without the notion of a third, there is a very open quality, conveying almost a bell-like ‘ring’ to chords built upon this interval. It also makes for some interesting chords: dominant7 suspended4 chords are the most obvious example (for example, C, F, G, Bb, low to high) but by logical extension using fifths, you also get add 6/9 chords (C, G, D, A, low to high) and the various inversions of these. Of course, by using this kind of terminology (suspensions, ‘add’ chords), it implies that these are chords that would normally fall outside standard Western harmony standards, and herein lies a problem: what do we call these chords if we aren’t relating them back to a western system based upon thirds? Musicologist Phillip Tagg has very recently addressed this problematic in an entire chapter devoted to quartal harmony for an upcoming book, Everyday Tonality 2. He suggests that if we are to use quartal harmony as our approach, that we need to think of chord names in particular in quite a different way. As he puts it:

“if there’s nothing suspended, added or omitted about a chord, it’s perverse to designate it as if there were” (Tagg, 2014, p. 259).

He suggests ‘sus’ and ‘add’ are clumsy and should not even be used in a quartal harmony context, instead labelling chords simply ‘C4’, ‘C2’ and using up or down arrows to indicate the direction of stacked fourths, i.e. G4↑ would indicate G, C and F, with G the lowest note of the triad: F5↑ would indicate F, C and G, with F the lowest. (p. 260).

The most interesting aspect of quartal harmony from a compositional perspective for me however, is that modulating, or changing key, dictates a completely different, and quite subtle approach. Being based on fourths, it naturally relates closely to the circle of fourths or fifths, and allows for quite understated, sideways movement into a new ‘key’ (for want of a better word) by altering only one note. Moving this way in western harmony would dictate that two notes would need to change, and the shift is far more obvious. There’s nothing of course in standard harmony that would stop one from changing key by changing only one note of course (i.e. from C major to A minor, or perhaps C Major to C minor) but this is usually fairly obvious – there is a distinct mood change. In quartal harmony, this change is quite subtle, and given the ambiguous quality of this harmony, it becomes almost imperceptible – there is a sense that something has changed, but you’re not quite sure what it is.

Of course, if we include five notes of stacked fourths, we now have the notes of a pentatonic scale, and we can hear the relation back to many traditional folk musics throughout the world, which, given the harmonic materials we’re working with here, makes a lot of sense – this relates back to Pythagorean theory on the construction of early musical scales. But if we limit ourselves to only four notes in a chord, the sense of ambiguity and suspension is retained – and for a project that centres on a ‘timeless’ approach to composition, I believe I’ve stumbled upon a very useful and appealing system of harmony to use, at least to my ears. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, it’s been staring at me for many years, enticing me with an enigmatic quality that I never entirely recognised or understood, and now it’s been handed to me like a gift. A holy grail indeed…

More musical developments as they come to hand. Until next…

References

Tagg, Philip (2014). Everyday Tonality II; provisional text, 2014-05-07; http://tagg.org/bookxtrax/FFabBk08/FFabBk08.zip [accessed May 21, 2014]