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"Eye Music." This post will eventually get around to techno music, but let's start with Claude Debussy. It's almost a cliche of criticism to compare the French composer's shimmery tone clusters to Impressionist painting. Daniel Albright's book of comparative aesthetics, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and the Other Arts, takes a 180 degree tack, disagreeing with an assertion by Ezra Pound back in the day that Debussy's music is "suggestive of colors, suggestive of visions." According to Albright,
[...] Debussy's music is typically an art of slight temporal adjustments, discursive, an artful series of instabilities; it seems visual only because of the peculiar evolution of the visual arts in Europe, from the notion that the primary act of drawing is the recognizable depiction of a finite object--as it is in most cultures--to the notion that the primary act of drawing is the recognizable depiction of the eyeball's whole visual field. In Western art, the space in which objects appear is often more vivid than the objects themselves: perspective drawing carefully poses and graduates the objects that it treats, to create the illusion that the artist is presenting everything that a certain angle of vision makes available. Debussy's works are like French impressionist painting--or like Renaissance chiaroscuro, for that matter--in that the mind tries to grasp fleeting visual phenomena from a puzzling density of events. But it is not Debussy who is visual, but Monet and Leonardo who are discursive, in that they require the spectator to apprehend slowly and work out over time the possibilities inherent in the painted surface.
The above paragraph is bang-on, but now it starts to get confusing:
Truly visual music, it seems to me, is epigrammatic: music that operates by means of instantaneously grasped units, pieced together not according to progressive tonalities, not according to some standard template of evolution (the sonata-allegro, the fugue, the rondo, the three-part song), but according to any principle that can not be understood as discursive development. Music becomes visual simply by lacking musically comprehensible connections between its parts, and by having parts that permit rapid apprehension as elementary units. Certain older procedures of form, such as the rondo (a repetitive piece with a pattern of symmetrical digressions, according to a scheme such a ABACABA), can approach the condition of eye music, in that the listener is conscious of the phonic equivalent of charms tallied on a bracelet; and as A and B get shorter and shorter, and as the musical links between A and B grow more unsettled and hard to understand, the composition will increasingly lose any sense of temporal progression and flatten into eye music. [...]
These paragraphs sum up an earlier discussion of the "hieroglyph" or the "epigram" in music, a self-contained sonic event usually but not necessarily paired with words or some onstage deed. Albright describes these melodies or moments as having visual-like properties within the larger continuum of the piece. He gives several examples: the "oracle tune" in The Magic Flute, musical cues for specific emotions in silent film, and the motifs of the medieval master songs in Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Regarding the latter, he writes: "The rules [of the master songs] are discursive, but the discourse is chopped into tough leathery chunks, so predictable that the ear stops straining to understand, simply waits for the next bit to fall in place. A musical composition that consists of stringing-together of cadences has no possibility of moving toward a goal, no possibility of genuine discursive development at all." So in the rondo example above, the development of self-contained, multi-note motifs over time remains musical until the ear can no longer sort out their "narrative" structure, at which point they become visual--mere blocks of notes being absorbed and compared. Later, in describing the collage of musical motifs in Stravinsky's Renard, he concludes:
[T]he Modernist taste for ocularity in music, for easily-apprehended pattern-units juxtaposed rather than developed, brought the principle of scissors construction [collage] to its highest level. It is remarkable how strongly this procedure in sound appeals to the visual imagination: when I hear Stravinsky, I often feel exactly as Pound felt hearing Stravinsky's Capriccio in 1935--that a kind of slide projection of the score starts to hover in front of the music: "I had the mirage of seeing the unknown score from the aural stimulae offered."
I still have questions, though. How can you envision a score without hearing a relationship between its parts? How is it that charms on a bracelet are "apprehended" musically but not as an image? Earlier in the book, Albright observes that Gotthold Lessing's analysis of the Laoco÷n problem---a consideration of ways emotions are expressed in different media, specifically sculpture and literature--has limited use to us now because it is so embedded in the conventions and decorum of the 18th Century. Perhaps Albright chafes against similar limitations, by restricting his discussion to classical music, which is so form- and history-ridden. One yearns to see his analysis applied to more contemporary, fluid, amorphous arts, such as jazz, rock/blues, or (finally getting to the point) Detroit techno, with its simple but elusive sequences of notes announcing themselves and dropping out in a dense, continuous mosaic. Without reference to words or stage pictures, one can easily "see" techno's unknown score; if anything, the genre is all about that--rhythm provides the sensual pleasure and structure the intellectual lift. As with many of Albright's examples, electronic dance loops lack the discursive complexity of a sonata or symphony; they switch on and off or change texture, conjuring a score like a Mondrian checkerboard, something Albright also invokes in his consideration of Stravinsky.

- tom moody 11-08-2004 11:43 am [link]