Tension: parameter, arbiter, emergent?

In a recent post, or posts, I spoke a little about my interest in re-introducing the conscious composition of tension in my counterpoint as one among several ways of conceiving of relations between lines.

But as I was planning out the various parametric processes for the first of my Mirror Motets ‘Sappho/Matilde/Flora’, I came across a pretty unresolvable problem with regard to planning tension. Since I was considering ensemble tension as a parameter amongst others, I was plotting them all in as more or less equivalently important and relatively autonomous from each other. The problem was that if I plotted out ensemble tension, I had to very thoroughly subordinate a large number of other parameters to this effect. But since my approach is to construct lines as sums of autonomous (or even contradictory) parametric processes, subordinating many of these to some higher level structure creates a haze of confusion about how things get structured at any point.

I was struggling to make sense of this until I had a really interesting lesson with Richard Barrett two days ago. He mentioned that Gottfried Michael Koenig once wrote an article (which I’ll have to find) in which he argues that timbre shouldn’t be considered as a parameter alongside others (like pitch, duration, intensity, etc). Apparently Koenig’s point was that, while of course one could find various ways to parametrise timbre (that is, define a discrete and ordered set of timbres moving from one quality to another), doing so would drastically limit the scope of the compositional thinking and reduce the potential for new and interesting relations, including timbres themselves. That is because, for him (apparently), timbre is an emergent phenomenon. It is something that comes about from the interaction of a number of other more primordial parameters (I’m assuming he’s talking about attack, sustain, decay, formants, inharmonicity, etc etc). In a sense, you could say that timbre (and in fact a whole set of relations along with it) is reified by considering it as a parameter.

Richard suggested that perhaps tension should be considered in this sense. Ensemble tension in new music is the result of the interplay of a vast array of parametric structures (both rationally planned, and intuitively written) that are more or less autonomous. What is missing in this approach is a clear 1-to-1 relationship between compositional structure, and the experience of tension for the listener. What is gained on the other hand, is a far more supple discourse that can produce structures (of tension as much as anything else) that are completely impossible in earlier music.

So my problem was essentially a category error: tension is not a parameter like others, it is either a higher-order structure that determines parametric structures, or it is an emergent structure, determined by prior parametric structures.

This raises a more general point with regard to what we want out of new music. One thing Richard has consistently said in our few lessons is that it is very problematic to think in terms of what is missing in new music. Of these there are many: “New music lacks the theme as a way to lead the listener through the work,” “New music lacks a harmonic system that allows for an easy manipulation of tension and release,” “New music lacks formal paradigms that allow for affective interruption of expectations,” and importantly for me and my study of counterpoint “New music lacks rules of dissonance treatment and voice-leading that provide imitative procedures with their dialectical negation.” And so on. Trying to think of new music as finding equivalents, or surrogates, for these lost worlds, means drastically limiting your imagination and often writing either a compromise-music that is not very interesting, or a negative music that has a nostalgic subjective comportment.

Instead Richard argues that new music should emphasise and explore what is gained by being liberated from the old bonds. What new structures and ways of structuring become available? Why not rejoice at this freedom and pursue its implications? Why not see composing as a matter of freeing the imagination? (Richard said he takes it as axiomatic that new music can produce its own immanent syntax that can be listened to).

(On a side note, and a complex one at that, this would seemingly come into contradiction with my critique of modernism which could be summarised as: “not all that is solid melts into air.” Yet I’m convinced that the two are compatible in an equivalent sense to the fact that the indigenous struggles are not incompatible with the communist movement: the question is not of nostalgia but of common construction of something new based on what is resistant to capitalist hegemony today, on what has the potential for universal liberation).

Does this mean that I should jettison the idea of tension? I don’t think so. I’m just as keen as ever to write a kind of music that is tension-filled, and not fall into the trap of a lot of music that is too ‘consonant’ in a sense (I’m thinking of a lot of music from IRCAM, as well as much post-Lachenmannian German and Austrian music, which often puts me to sleep). My current thinking, after all this, is to push ideas both on the level of the individual line and the level of ensemble relations, further to their extremes (in keeping with my dignity-militancy dialectic), keeping in mind a general sense of the overall feeling I’m after and how things add up. From that there will no doubt emerge a complex field of tension, but not one that is a simple stand-in for the tension-release structures found in tonal music.

Similarly, I’m realising that you can’t turn on or off ‘dissonantial relations’, or neatly differentiate them from any other kind of relation: tension is always present, even if in a minimal way. You either compose with tension as your main structural arbiter (or one of the main ones), or you let it emerge from other ideas. I have to agree with Richard that the latter has more possibility of producing exciting new music, and a liberated musical imagination.