Sunday, 11 August 2013

Symmetry in Music

Here's a question, "What characteristics are appropriate for a contemporary piece of music?" I know that anything goes, depending on time and circumstance, but I want to think through and identify what, in the context of today, can rightfully go into a new piece of music. For someone listening to a piece that I've written for the first time, I'd like them first to recognise it as new, that is, realise that it couldn't have been written in any earlier time, but also be responsive to what is in the music and feel comfortable with it.

Having thought about this, the conclusion that I've reached, in answer to this question, is "symmetry". If a piece of music is built on the principle of containing and expressing symmetry then that potentially could meet my two criteria of modernism and listenability. There is another, secondary answer and that is to do with layering in music, stratification, addition and subtraction. This particular blog is the beginning of my exploration into these two compositional principles, symmetry and layering. I'll try and expand what I mean by each just a little so that they might become more concrete rather than only conceptual.

To put symmetry into a piece of music can be done in many ways. The whole piece can be symmetrical or sections can be symmetrical, or elements and phrases can be symmetrical. On the most simple level, for example, treating dynamics symmetrically, a piece or a section can begin quietly, crescendo to its loudest point half way through and then diminuendo again to its conclusion.

One effect of this approach is to create something that has a relationship with nature, particularly the matter of the natural world, rocks, crystals, water, etc., which express a symmetry of diversity. I suppose an obvious example would be the snowflake, individual flakes possessing symmetry, none the same. Fractals can create some great images of this infinitely variable, even chaotic symmetry.

The end result of writing a composition based on symmetry will be more akin to a sound sculpture than a musical journey.

My second suggestion, "layering", accounts for modern electronic composition and recording using sampling and samplers. Traditional musical notation is unnecessary in this field, the music being written using small, sampled chunks of sound, combined then into "tracks" which become the layers of a piece of music, which can be independently manipulated by the composer.

Of course, orchestral music has its layers of strings, wind, brass and percussion which are used in different combinations or on their own, so the idea of layering has a root in the traditional as well as a firm involvement with the new.

So, what I want to begin exploring is a combination of traditional written notation for traditional orchestral instruments and electronically sampled timbres, held together, given form by an internal and holistic symmetry. Neither of these approaches is new, both have for along time been important in music. It's just a shift in emphasis hopefully in tune with shifting modern times.

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