Saturday, June 02, 2012

Extra Musical Expression

Medieval Musicians
If we accept the notion that a melodic hook or motif and musical meme are synonymous with one another, we must also accept that a meme is not simply a unit of cultural transmission, as Richard Dawkins initially posited when he coined the word, but the smallest possible unit of cultural transmission, as others have since suggested. And once we do this we will also realize, like physicists parsing the atom, that still smaller units of symbolic data play upon the ear drum with each resonant beat or note.


Certainly, both musicians and audiences know that a successful musical performance requires more than simply the dry execution of composed notes from a page or memory. That whether one puts it in these terms or not, it also requires the deliberate production of interstitial noise by the performer, not to mention other substrates of sonic data, which we might call Nuance or Quantum Audio, and whose production allows for a more efficient transmission of a given meme.

For instance, the play of bow placement relative to an instrument's bridge; the weight and pressure employed by the performer's arm on the bow; and add to this, a  sufficient use of rosin, and  all these variables and more can be used by a violinist to shape the ratio of generally noisy artifacts caused by the friction of the bow upon the string, and the tone produced by the vibrating string itself.

Similarly, singers and those who play brass, reed and woodwinds can also shape tone simply by changing the balance of air to pitched sound.

In either case, while the meme is capably notated, the scale of these synchronous and sometimes very nearly transparent expressions often inhibits our notation of them. This may not be true for all forms of notation, but it is generally true for traditional scoring, which despite the capacity to indicate general dynamics, is primarily a shorthand for transcribing pitches than it is a system for communicating extra musical expression, –not to mention non musical collateral.

Nor does a term such as nuance, which implies a set of actions singularly controlled by the performer, capture every facet within the 'performance framework' that might serve to fulfill and satisfy listener expectation. Architecture, for instance, is generally beyond a performer's control, but no doubt the resulting acoustics of a given environment contribute to the perception and reception of a work.


Take for example, the liturgical chant. Based on prior experience of liturgical chants, any subsequent liturgical chant requires delivery within a cavernous space, if one's intention is to deliver an equivalent experience as that provided by the genre in question. Otherwise such a work may fail or fall short as a carrier of the intended set of symbolic data.

It is certainly possible to make a recording sans extra musical sound, interstitial noise and sub memetic data. And in fact, this actually appears to be the prevalent trend. Indeed, noiseless recording has long been and continues to be a measure of perfection for many musicians, engineers and audio enthusiasts. And presumably, there will always be those who believe the very definition of a recording suggests any captured material should serve as the optimal document of a given work. Further, the concept of 'optimal' will suggest a precise performance (whether man made or machine modified) that features purity of tone, accuracy of pitch, consistent timing and intelligible signification.

And yet, no doubt, it is also just the opposite of all those things, employed with great artistry and captured on the recording medium by a discerning engineer, that makes the transmission of music more than just the sum of its notes, but an expression of the soul.

No comments: