Back to Stockhausen
Half a year ago, as a result of playing and talking about compositional software with bass player Stefan Lievestro, I started studying SuperCollider. Last week I visited Stefan again and we had a great evening together. Discussing topics like planning a composition (activity based, product based and result based), ways of looking at musical parameters, ways to sketch aspects of a composition, etc.
It became so clear to me that the vocabulary which Stockhausen had been using over the years is so much more powerful than the traditional musical analysis vocabulary since it helps to create instead of re-create. So I started studying again the lectures and interviews as compiled and published by Robin Maconie. I hope this post will be able to ‘serve’ as a sketchbook to clarify Stockhausen’s terminology and musical concepts over the next couple of years or so 🙂
There was similar thinking everywhere: reduction of the process of forming to the smallest possible element. When I use the word ‘forming’, I mean it in the sense of the crystallized result of the creative act, the form being just an instant in a process, and that what was happening among scientists as well as artists in the early fifties was that attention was increasingly focussing on the process.
According to Viktor van Weisacker, a German medical specialist and biologist, things are not in time, but time is in things. That is very important, in leading away from objective astronomical time to a consideration of organic, biological time.
Points, Groups and Masses
I use the words ‘point’, ‘group’ and ‘mass’ in order to generalize what is happening in music, and to make it clear that each is a particular manifestation of a larger trend.
Punctualism (commonly also called “pointillism” or “point music“) is a style of musical composition prevalent in Europe between 1949 and 1955 “whose structures are predominantly effected from tone to tone, without superordinate formal conceptions coming to bear”. In simpler terms: “music that consists of separately formed particles—however complexly these may be composed—[is called] punctual music, as opposed to linear, or group-formed, or mass-formed music” (Stockhausen 1998, 452, bolding in the source). This was accomplished by assigning to each note in a composition values drawn from scales of pitch, duration, dynamics, and attack characteristics, resulting in a “stronger individualizing of separate tones”. Another important factor was maintaining discrete values in all parameters of the music.
With group I mean the number of notes that can be separately distinghuished at any one time, which is up to seven or eight. And they have to have at least one characteristic in common. A group with only one characteristic in common would have a fairly weak group character. It could be the timbre, it could be the dynamic.
When we cannot count the individual notes in a group any more, they surpass the group. When a group has or exceeds the number seven, the mass begins. Because then completely different relationships begin to act. E.g. when you perceive the swarm as a shape, it becomes a single entity. If we see a tree, we don’t count the leaves, but are still able to tell a pine tree from a beech. It is an effect of the elements, but there is something else, the shape, the overall form, that characterizes the mass.
Determinate, Variable and Statistical
We come now to a the second set of terms, the terms determinate, variable and statistical. Points, groups, masses — all can be composed in any one of these ways.
Determinate: it means that one can hear very clearly the intervals which make the proportions, the durations of the individual pints, the shapes of the individual groups and masses.
There is a continuum between complete determination and extreme variability. And when we listen, we can feel when the music is very determinate because we know exactly where we are: on a certain beat, in a certain rhythm, but when we are in a region of high variability, the music is floating.
Statistical means that you can permutate or change the order of events without it really making any difference, whereas if I were to change the order of the words and syllables I have just spoken, then there would be no direction or determinations anymore to what I am saying: it would just be an irregular distribution of phonemes. Statistical methods are introduced into musical composition in terms of bands and bandwidths. By band I mean that every aspect is considered as occupying a position between a minimum and a maximum value: in pitch, a highest and a loest pitch; in rhythm, a shortest and a longest duration; in timbre, it may be between dark and bright. What is in between such limits is called a band and the band has a certain width. When the width of the band is zero, then we have a highly determinate situation: there is no choice. At the other extreme, when the band extends over the whole range of possibilities and I can choose, for example, any pitch, then the bandwidth is maximum. So between extreme determinacy and extreme relativity, indeterminacy, in a given composition, there is an entire range of degrees composed in terms of different bandwidths.