Saturday, June 20, 2009

On Musical Gesture

I read the most fascinating article you can find here:

I have often commented on bulletin boards about how music has indeed been chained by the pitch bend and mod wheel. What do I mean by that? When synthesizers first came out, it was not clear that a keyboard would be the principle controller. For practical reasons musicians did not put modulars on stage save Keith Emerson and perhaps a few others. The Minimoog, the ARP 2600 and the latter Prophet and others would bring practical performance instruments to the stage. The keyboard, pitch bend and mod wheels became the standard controllers while other controllers like the ribbon controller were around.

Buchla has always favored alternative controllers since their inception. There new 200e music box (modular) offers the Buchla Thunder (or as they now call it, the kinistetic imput device). Buchla also has their lightening wands and Marimba controller, Roland has their D-Beam controller on some of their synths and Korg has their Chaos pad and the touch screen of some synths that function as controllers as well. Moog has a touch pad on the Voyager. In fact, more and more these alternatives to the keyboard, which seemed almost banished to by the dominance of the pitch bend and mod wheels have now come back in various forms.

But even before Buchla and Moog existed there was one of my personal favorites the Ondes Martenot, a very underestimated early electronic instrument for which Olivier Messiaen championed. Messiaen being a composer I have the utmost respect for and who found a way to bridge the gap between the post modern classical music, sacred music and Catholicism, a devout Catholic himself as am I (perhaps a surprise to some, I know, us musical types tend more toward the agnostic but what am I to do, deny who gave me musical gifts). In fact, my own music in many ways is at least influenced my my Catholicism if not a direct expression of it and a retelling of biblical themes in electronic form albeit in a subtle way that I hope can speak to the musical intelligentsia and to the younger crowd seeking an alternative to popular music end endless drum machines.

But as not to move beyond the topic at hand, gesture is how we experience not only music but he world. The brain expedience the world not in terms of formula, for example the cold lifeless formula of the Fourier transformed misused in the frequency domain of the FFT made concrete in additive synthesis (synthetic slight of hand and like all magic, an illusion). Life is gesture. We experience things as a whole. A tree is not defined by white noise and filters but by whoosh, the totality of the sound it makes as it falls. In the same way, a musician does not learn by complex formula of how to play a not but by the experience of how to express emotion in music and to move beyond the trapping of the notes on paper, the Cartesian universe of duration and pitch. Pitch itself being one of those trappings of scientific extensions into the world of art where it really finds no place. Real pitch is dynamic, flowing and emotive.

Both Karlheintz Stockhausen and Luigi Russo saw sound in terms not of scientific models of vibrating molecules but gesture, a gestalt whole that can't be broken up in time or especially in the illusury and murky frequency domain.

The theremin, which is what I have been getting to, is also a modern expression of this idea. Theremins are played by gesture. Notes are not fixed but gestural and dynamic which is so very musical and beautiful.

It is my hope that the musical world can free itself from cliched ways of thinking and making music and find new avenues to express the dynamic and gesture nature of music. If a tree falls in a forest, it may vibrate molecules if no one is there to hear it, it does not sing.

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