Infinites of infinites

I finished reading Adam Harper’s book Infinite Music around Christmas time, but I haven’t had time to post anything about it until now (see previous post for an explanation why).

It’s really an exceptional book and all aspiring musicians should read it (certainly those musicians who like to call themselves ‘composers’). If I wind up teaching composition, I think this will be my recommended textbook.

I’m just jotting down a summary for myself here for future reference.


Firstly, what is wonderful is Harper’s general stance. Instead of rejecting the serialist legacy, he argues, we need to stay true to its spirit of exploration and construction, and try to uncover and structure ever more aspects of music. But Harper isn’t coming from within the Western classical compositional tradition. Instead, he personally favours more sophisticated electronica. (He makes some bold claims about this music taking over from the classical avant-garde which I don’t think are fully justified, but his distance from the latter tradition is welcome).

Parameters, degrees of freedom, phase space.

Basically what serialism bequeaths to the music of the 21st century, according to Harper, is parametric thinking – that is, thinking in terms of constituent layers of sound which can be varied (in fact, Harper calls them ‘variables’ not ‘parameters’) along a continuum, or, if they are merely binary (on/off), the distribution between on and off can be varied. These are called ‘degrees of freedom’ insofar as they provide axes along which a musical object (which could be a section in a work, a work in its entirety, up to a record company, a style and so on) can be determined within a multi-dimensional phase space.

These parameters can be anything from the more traditional pitch, duration, intensity, to composite parameters such as texture, timbre, harmony, all the way to the space of the performance, the time of the performance, what the performers are wearing and so on. Anything that is involved in the production and reception of the music could be a parameter and could therefore be structured. Of course, it would be impossible to structure every parameter, since reality is complex and dynamic (even fixed media pieces on CDs don’t structure the speakers you listen to them on, or the time of day, etc). But the point is, theoretically anything can be structured. Obviously not all combinations of structures will produce interesting or meaningful results (in fact the vast majority of conceivable combinations would be completely unintelligible), but many combinations will be interesting to us.

Quantisation, range of parameters

The thing is we often unconsciously assume a certain partitioning and extension of these parameters, and miss out on hidden dimensions within a parameter. Pitch is an easy example: a scale ‘quantises’ the infinite pitch continuum into discrete steps, and then the range of this is fixed often by instruments. But such a scale can be dequantised, and then requantised, that is, one could form microtonal scales, etc etc. The range of such a parameter could be vastly expanded (not really in the case of pitch, but in many other parameters their range is highly circumscribed by conventions and could be greatly expanded). This process, this search, is part of the orientation that Harper prescribes for composers.


For Harper a composer is anyone who makes music – anyone who fixes some musical variables, and by doing so opens up space for other variables to be fixed by someone else. The classical idea of the composer-performer-audience relationship is really just an inheritance that, if not itself submitted to conscious thought, limits the possibilities open to musical creation. In a sense, this relationship is itself a ‘musical object’.

There is not enough reflection on the social relations, economics, and politics of musical creation in Harper’s book, the issue of the commodity, of modes of production, ideology and fetishism, art and revolution, and so on. But I think that reflections on these aspects would only deepen the picture that Harper paints, not undermine it.


One thing that Harper does well is to argue that musical listening is not disinterested contemplation. But nor does he argue that all listening is mere projection from the listener to the musical object. What he argues instead is that the listener relates to an object by way of what the object affords to listening. Certain objects will have aspects, parameters, that they give to listening. A listener will come with their own interests, and filter through what a work affords to select those aspects that more or less directly relate to these interests. In this way the listener is less a projector than a filter, and the object less a blank canvas and more an overly-complex entity. A listener’s interest is a practical question, it’s a question of what they will do with what a work affords them. Will it stimulate them to go make their own art in a different, or clarified way, will it stimulate them to approach their work or relationships somehow differently, or will it confirm their day-to-day practice of performing their identity? This is all a practical question, as much musical as political.

Outer space, inner space?

One last thing I think is a curious aspect of the book is Harper’s attempts to overcome a serialist legacy that he seems to treat as something of a bogey-man in the same way that the liberal caricature goes these days: serial music wasn’t accessible enough. While Harper makes some interesting observations about style and how composers can construct styles as collective projects, and how not all works need to go all the way out to new planets, but can explore ‘inner space’ between regions that have already been discovered, he often seems to be making an apology for not pushing music as far as possible, but instead meeting listeners where they are at today and merely extending the listening – a noble cause, but somewhat conservative. I don’t think this is actually Harper’s position, but there is this tension in his book: between, on the one hand, a music of maximal emancipation, and on the other hand, a music that pleases listeners and takes them just a little further.