I did a music degree as an undergrad, mostly history, musicology and analysis of European art music (“classical”). I remember being assigned a paper on a Bach mass, possibly the B minor. Bach was straddling the Catholic and Protestant worlds at that time in terms of his patronage and personal beliefs, and the assignment was to look at the structure of the text of the two liturgies and the way they were treated musically to determine if it was intended as a Catholic mass or a Protestant one.
I think I spent 7 pages making the case for first one and then the other, since you really could slice it either way, as it turned out. I then spent 3 pages ranting about how this didn’t necessarily have to matter, and to be honest we should be playing the B minor mass on kazoos if it sounded good to us.
I did not witness this, but fellow students told me they saw this professor, normally really stuffy and reserved, come out of his office waving my paper, saying to his colleagues, ‘This one is thinking!’ I was flattered to hear that, but in retrospect I wonder why they didn’t teach us a more balanced view. We spent our whole studies reducing music to equations, flow charts, textual analyses, historical contexts. None of which is bad! And I know academic careers are not built on ‘wow, that sounds really cool and makes my neck hairs stand up’. But I still wonder if they could have modeled that sort of thought in conjunction with the more analytic point of view.
I don’t know the current status of trends in the classical world, but in the mid 90s the ‘authenticity’ movement was in full swing. Meaning, in order to have a legitimate performance, you needed to research the structure of the instruments of the time of composition, and the playing styles, and the location that the piece was played in, and the people playing it, and only then would you understand the piece and have an authentic performance of it. I was railing against that. They were searching for a specific sound, but the sound only mattered because it was historically ‘authentic’, not for any aesthetic reasons.
As an adult now, I can see that that itself was a reaction to big institutional classical - Bach being played by 200 musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic say - and this sort of research can definitely reveal things about pieces. At the time, though, authenticity felt like dogma and it was stifling.
I graduated in '96, when house/techno/“ambient”/breakbeat/“IDM”/rave-derived electronic music was in full bloom, and I dove into it. To me this music was about direct experience of sound and emotion. The structures were regular enough to get oriented to quickly (intentionally) and so the interest lay in tension / release cycles, and in small slow gestures, say a filter slowly opening on a breakbeat loop over 64 bars. I felt like I was listening to music for the first time, and it felt fantastic.
Like others, I can sort of move back and forth on the continuum of these modes, but I definitely bias towards what I’ll call direct experience of sound rather than the analytical side. When I’m making sounds myself, I try to put myself in non-thinking mind and allow myself to be impulsive and more instinctual, and I’m a little suspicious of coming to the table with a plan already set. I don’t think this is better per se and don’t judge people who compose that way, but I really prefer to engage with music almost with my thinking mind turned off, previously with alcohol and pot, but these days thankfully I can quiet it down on my own. If I’m going to a symphony or such to hear a piece, I try to learn as little about it as possible beforehand before showing up, so that I can just listen and not impose a structure on it before the fact.
One thing I love about modular is that, if you want, you can completely sidestep the musical structures we’ve inherited, and in fact it’s really a lot of work to make a well-structured pop song or ‘classical’ piece on a modular system. It almost forces you to think outside that system. I remember reading that DJ Shadow would program piano samples onto his MPC pads to construct melodies, and that at least partly that was because he said if he played samples on his piano he inevitably would play piano-sounding lines. Modular feels like that, to me. It almost requires you to engage directly with the sound of things.
Woo tangent! But not really. Thanks for these discussions, Lines.