Friday, August 7, 2009

Delia Derbyshire

Every once and a while, I come across a piece of musical history that peaks my interest as speaking to a particular aspect of music that is often neglected. At the moment, I have a collection of books on music that deal specifically with emotion in music. From the time I was young I have always been impressed by the ability of music to speak to our heart in a way that words can't seem to do at times. Even the musical intervals expressed in mere mathematical ratios can elicit responses. The mournful flatted 3rd, the more ethereal 6th and the queasy and unresolved 7th.

So what does this have to do with Delia Derbyshire. From what I have read, which is from what I can see rather limited which is a shame, Delia wanted to express emotion in music and wanted to know how to use electronics to do that. Certainly we have examples from classical music. The power and fear expressed by the Dies Irae, a Mass part. The Mass being an almost obligatory right of passage for composers such as Bach's "Mass in B Minor", Verdi's "Requiem", Mozart's "Requiem" and then in modern times composers such as Ligeti with his "Requiem" and Barber's "Agnus Dei" or more commonly known as the "Adagio for Strings".

For those who know Barber's adagio, they will think of the sadness it expresses which is why it was so effective in the movie Platoon or Ligeti's requiem that seemed to fit so well with the sense of awe of the monolith of Kubrick's 2001.

Even instruments seem to fit into emotional categories. Strings for example can bring about a feeling of sadness but also fear. Think of the famous shrill stabs of the violin used in the movie Psycho. The human voice of course able to express a wide variety of emotions. Or the sound of brass which seems to call us to attention as its higher order partials cut though the rest of the orchestra. Or the bell that calls the faithful to worship. What is it then that creates this emotion? Is it mere cultural conditioning or perhaps something else.

Now that we live in a world of synthesizers, our musical pallet no longer resides with the wonderful expressive but none the less limited capabilities of musical instruments. Derbyshire asked the question, can these synthetic sounds bring us that same emotion that musical instrument have done so effectively in the past?

Derbyshire had a degree in both mathematics and music from Girton College, Cambridge. Despite here use and understanding of the relationship of music and mathematics, she always placed the importance of human perception over a purely mathematical understanding of music. One of my personal beliefs about music is that the very concept of a sonic spectrum, while it has enhanced our understanding of sound, has also limited it because it leaves our human perception. One can ask the question: "If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound". The real answer is no in my opinion. A phenomena occurs by which the air particles vibrate but a sound as we commonly associate it in our mind, is a perception. Pitch for example must have a listener but frequency does not.

I believe that synthesis has been handcuffed when it follows the model of believing that the sound of something can be express by its harmonics. Derbyshire knew that a true understanding of music has to lie in its perception, in more modern terms, in psycho acoustics. I believe it also lies in psychology and perhaps even our belief systems. We don't play music as much as it plays us. But how?

John Cage looked for this answer in formulas. He believed that music, once watered down to its essential parameters, was simply a matter of pushing the play button. Others, like Luigi Russolo and Karlheintz Stockhausen, understood that to understand sound we must group it not into categories defined by harmonics but in perceptual categories. This is of the school that I am part of.

So for me, when I write music, I no longer look to some formula from which I expect music to come but to my own perception of it and emotions which I know that I share with all human persons. And perhaps, somewhere in the beautiful sounds of music, we find something not only subjective but objective, a sense of objective beauty so often denies but somehow lurking in those magical responses that we get when we hear good music than not only appeals to our mind but to our emotions and to our soul.

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