Music as Objective Truth - 2

Re: Sound (AF: ‘Why do you think music is mainly about sound? Instead of, for example, about construction or about other music?’)

PA: Of course, music is about all sorts of things, from purely technical aspects to the unification of human feelings, from provocation to solace and from misuse for therapeutic purposes to the building of multicultural bridges because this is convenient for politicians.

As far as I am concerned however, music is about Sound; or rather, about ‘listening’.

I should say straight away though that to me ‘construction’ and ‘sound’ are essentially the same (in my case, sound is literally an outcome of formal construction). Together with ‘notation’ and ‘research’ it more or less amounts to my Holy Trinity.
Although I have been a pretty turgid constructivist for most of my life, sound has only started to play an essential part in the last six years or so, largely alongside my development from a purely instrumental composer to a mostly electro-acoustic composer. From that moment on, my development also suddenly became evolutionary. Until then, I was more of a Fox, to borrow Stravinsky’s analogy.

But the real issue here is ‘listening’. I use the word in a literal sense; using your ears and not some kind of inbuilt gramophone record (which has more to do with referencing, i.e. to derive meaning based on a shared linguistic model; ‘if ‘A’ is this and ‘B’ refers to ‘A’ the meaning will likely be ‘C’’… and then guess whether the intention is ironic, sardonic or cynical, and so on). This latter form of listening, which I really do consider to be a second-hand form of listening, is the one we most commonly tend to base our sense of interpretation on. (In the Netherlands, we even have a special variety hereof, codified in the concept of Het Grote Luisteren (The Big Listening). When hearing that term I always find myself thinking, “what do you mean, listen ‘big’, if the ears are already completely filled’? A strange misconception, but that aside). In any case: not this variety.

In my case I think that everything can eventually be explained from a quest that has occupied me for as long as I can remember. Namely: the desire to really understand how music ‘works’. In this pursuit, my own stupidity is my most important advisor. I want to understand what it is all about. In a fundamental way. What is music? How does it work? What are the universal characteristics of music? And when I say ‘fundamental’, I mean “that from which all superfluity and inherited culture has been stripped” (but more about this later).

At that ‘fundamental level’, not much remains I can tell you. But that which you are left with, is truly crucial. On top of this, a strange logic comes into play. As the scope appears to narrow, the potential increases exponentially. Suddenly, new and substantial riches open up. No sobriety or meagreness. At the basis, you find an infinite universe that is infinitely abundant.

Of course, one of those fundamental elements is Sound. The fact that music exists by the grace of vibration.1 I am strongly convinced that at a certain level these vibrations affect people more deeply than all inherited ‘language’. Not least because they automatically and without any constraints evoke a natural kind of beauty. It is one of the first things that speak to us. Once I finally found a way to turn ‘sound’ into a truly composable element, through the use of microtonality, there was no stopping the floodgates from opening. From that moment on sound was no longer ‘orchestration’, ‘tone colour’ or ‘timbre’ but the simple outcome of a very large number of infinitely small intervals.

Although in reality, these processes are not really that ‘simple’.

Therefore it is at this level that the compositional argument really takes place. A level where, to my opinion, only ‘free’ ears really work.

1 Incidentally, there remain still quite a few misconceptions regarding the definition of Sound, and what it actually means ‘to compose with sound’. Misconceptions which sometimes lead to people being accredited as ‘sound specialists’ when they are in fact occupying themselves with forms of refined instrumentation. There is however a huge difference between ‘composing with sound’ – and the tradition it arises from – and the act of devising sophisticated instrumental combinations. Just as there is a fundamental difference between ‘instrumentation’ and ‘orchestration’ in purely instrumental music. On a scale of increasing abstraction, the correct order in my opinion is as follows. Instrumentation (the distribution of notes over instruments, be it idiomatic or non-idiomatic) -> orchestration (the translation of timbre on to instruments; essentially non-idiomatic) -> composing with sound (composing with the intrinsic characteristics of sound, be they acoustics, micro-acoustics, or psycho-acoustics etc; almost by definition non-idiomatic, while not by definition instrumental; equally tied up with other parameters, such as duration). For me, this is also the correct hierarchy. Obviously, I am not under the illusion that the above will solve everything once and for all, but there is no harm in trying.