A Universe in Music

Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony brings us to a fundamental concern of Western classical music: the relationship between an idea, its written form and its performance. Over time the importance of each of these have changed relative to the others. In the last couple of centuries scores have become increasingly meticulous, more instruction than guide. Once, performers had liberties ranging from ornamental to instrumental choices. No dynamics were listed, instruments might not be specified, cadenzas were not scored, repeats allowed for improvisation, and so on.

As scores became less ambiguous performers had to suppress their personality. This led some composers in the nineteenth and, moreover, the twentieth century to believe that music could exist in its purist state outside performance — that is, transmitted straight from score to mind.

But Charles Ives went even further. He found purity in the musical idea not yet written or performed. In Essays before a Sonata he wrote:

The instrument! — there is the perennial difficulty — there is music’s limitation. . . . Is it the composer’s fault that man only has ten fingers? Why can’t a musical thought be presented as it is born — perchance a ‘bastard of the slums,’ or a ‘daughter of a bishop’ — and if it happens to go better later on a bass drum than upon a harp, get a good bass drummer. That music must be heard is not essential — what it sounds like may not be what it is

‘That music must be heard is not essential’. This would be true if music were a language. Language describes things, so voice or sign language can be equally effective. But music doesn’t describe anything. A tree exists before I use the word ‘tree’ to describe it, but music doesn’t exist until it is played. Or rather, music only exists as we play it, either on an instrument or by simulating those sounds in our mind. A language describes things which exists independently of whether or not they are communicated, while music cannot exist unless it is expressed. If we must think of it as a language, it is one that describes itself.

Ives wanted the Universe Symphony to portray all the vastness of creation. He ideally wanted it performed by two enormous orchestras ‘across from each other on mountaintops overlooking a valley’. (Whether he meant this literally or not is unclear.) He never did complete the symphony, and many argue (including me) that it would have been impossible to do so. He had an idea so ambitious he could never properly articulate it. Biographer Jan Swafford observed that this problem only got worse: ‘Over the years, the less able he was actually to work on it, the grander the Universe became in his imagination’.

The incompleteness of the work was not altogether exceptional. Ives wrote of the ‘Emerson’ movement from his mammoth Concord Sonata, that ‘I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it’. He enjoyed the ‘daily pleasure’ of playing the music and seeing it grow. But the distinction between Concord and the Universe Symphony, besides one being less ambitious than the other — Concord’s movements represent different transcendentalist thinkers — is that Ives actually allowed the idea to be born. He played the sonata regularly and recorded it both on score and on tape. To the extent that he left it unfinished, it is because he delighted in the fluidity of the performance. One can almost view this nostalgically: a return to the primacy of the performance rather than the inviolability of the score.

Mendelssohn, in a conversation with a friend, once said that ‘When you first start a composition you have a lofty idea of what you can and will create this time! The ideas for which you search always appear more beautiful in their vague presentiment than they are later on paper. I have experienced similar things, but I soon got a grip on myself.’ Is this where Ives ultimately went wrong with the Universe Symphony?

Two ‘completions’ of the symphony exist, and I would say Johnny Reinhard’s is the superior, in that it sounds a bit more Ivesian. Though it’s still not at all like anything else Ives wrote. Even if I knew nothing about the history of the symphony, just listening to this I would get the impression that it was an impossible idea. The slow chaos of it is quite unconvincing:

Ives’ best ‘universe’ piece is The Unanswered Question. The appropriate reaction when faced with the question of the universe is humility. The Universe Symphony is one of the most ambitious musical ideas, an unwieldy monster that shows little restraint or ambiguity. The Unanswered Question is brief but challenging, simple but complex. It evokes the universe but doesn’t try to depict it.


Black is the night

The darkness is encroaching into the day as the clocks move back and winter comes. To celebrate this unfortunate fact, we end the month of October with bands of children in absurd costumes who set out to frighten nice suburban residents.

So what better time to talk about black metal?

Black metal is a proudly grotesque form of music. The black metal fan enjoys highly-distorted, poorly-produced music that is simple and repetitive and over which one band member screams demonically. None of this is in fact an insult; many black metal fans would embrace this description wholly.

The traditional black metal performer dresses something like this:


Newer bands, and those who belong to strange sub-genres, often forgo the traditional attire, or at least tone it down. The chap pictured above, nicknamed Ghaal, is somewhat old school — now heading into his middle-age. (Does that explain his slight stoop in the picture?) There is sort of ‘early music movement’, as it were, within black metal. It consists of those even more ‘traditional’ than Ghaal. They like the themes to be unabashedly satanic and Norse-inspired, the recording quality to be primitive, the music to be at best skeletal — as it was in the early days of black metal.

It would be a mistake to think that these ridiculous chaps in their satanic garbs are all mere poseurs. Some were genuinely violent, even murderous. The dozens of church burnings in Norway were no small matter. Ghaal tortured a man and was later imprisoned. Varg Vikenes, one of the earliest and most influential performers, murdered the guitarist of a rival band, aided in several church burnings and kept explosives in his home. For all this, the lenient Norweigian system gave him only twenty-one years in prison. And still he was released six years early. He now spends much of his time making National Socialist YouTube videos for his nearly 150,000 subscribers.

This is all very sensational and grimly fascinating, but what about the music? Let’s listen to some, ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ by Darkthrone, recorded in 1994 (and no, it’s not YouTube’s fault: the music is supposed to sound that tinny):

This seems to me to be self-evidently bad music. But its problems aren’t actually unique to the genre. Like most rock and metal, the emphasis is on (and this is not an exhaustive list):

  • extra-musical qualities (theatre, image etc.)
  • an interest in sound as much as music (the ‘sound’ that characterises not only the genre but each band, and the use of non-musical — some might say anti-musical — sound effects, e.g. the low-fi production)
  • a very limited use of harmony
  • a repetition of simple riffs
  • escalating the volume and thus limiting the dynamic range

What’s worse is that black metal is even simpler and more primitive than most metal. In its original form, it was basically punk music but slower and more miserable. And like punk, the fashion mattered far more than the music.

Nevertheless, these dank underbellies of the metal world often do attract some good musicians. Many of them have ignored the proscription against complexity, disavow some of the nastiness, but like the dark, lonely feel — the emphasis on ‘atmosphere’ and the like.

Okay, here is where this embarrassed blogger fesses up: I was once a black metal fan — well, ‘fan’ might be a bit strong. I never, ever dressed like that pillock above, to start with! But there were a few bands I was obsessed with. One was a French band with a German name, Blut Aus Nord. It only really consists of one chap who goes by the name Vindsval. He never performs live and never has revealed his real name. So I assume he continues this project out of a love of music, not vanity and image. It’s been a few years, so I wondered, given my radical musical transformation towards classical music, what I make of it now. First, a listen:

It does have a certain perverse majesty. Still, listening again I find many problems with this music that I would have missed a few years ago. Melodies that seldom last longer than two bars — and when they do, it is far from seamless. Ideas that are never really developed. Repetition ad nauseam. The piece consists of a succession of ideas, the kind of thing most young aspiring composers do when they start out: they have so many ideas that they put them all down one after another, rather than extracting from each idea all that they can.

But Vindsval obviously does take care to craft these ideas. They don’t follow standard rock/metal chord progression; he experiments with metres, modality, modulations, chromaticism. This leads to some jerky transitions, but also some genuinely interesting music.

A bit over two years ago I released a black metal EP. It’s still available online, for free, and as I’ve long since forgotten both my username and password it will doubtless remain there. The music was not traditional black metal. It belonged to a tiny subgenre, namely ‘industrial black metal’. I made a whopping $2 from it (before tax…) and amazingly got two reviews. Rock and metal reviews are invariably silly, and extreme metal reviews are among the most amusing. My little EP was given this flattering description:

The force of the pounding beats is enough to convert skyscrapers into craters and the discordant guitar excretions, grinding bass tones, and surrounding shroud of distortion are eerie enough to suggest an alien presence behind the decimation.

Here it is:

I have mixed feelings about that whole period. But anyway, soon after that EP I found classical music and it’s been nothing but sunlit uplands since then. To cleanse both palate and mind, here’s some genuinely good, though nonetheless frightening music, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8:


Locrian Mode

The locrian (or hyperaeolian) is the most useless of all the modes. The second and fifth intervals are flattened, allowing for neither a stable tonic chord nor a perfect cadence. Musical possibility itself seems to collapse when you lose these twin pillars. Without them, it becomes almost impossible to establish a tonal centre about which the music can organise.

Let me demonstrate with some music. Below is the first four bars of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16, K545 (you’ll recognise it when you hear it). The original is in C major and will play first, after four bars which give the harmonic outline. Then the extract is repeated using the intervals of the locrian scale (2, 3, 5, 6, & 7 are flattened). Notice how harmonically unstable it has become, how the music seems to want to modulate, with no firm cadences to maintain a sense of the key.

Lorian examples_0001

Now, if I adapt it to the phrygian mode, perhaps the second weirdest mode, it still makes harmonic sense. Unlike the locrian the phrygian has a perfect fifth, allowing for a sense of resolution.

Lorian examples_0002

There are many examples of the phrygian mode. One can find it in Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas owing to the Iberian influence (think Spanish guitar music), and also in Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia thanks to his interest in English folk music — to take but two examples.

But are there any pieces based on the locrian mode? I can’t think of any. Hindemith uses it quite a bit in the second movement of Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, but he circumvents its harmonic problems by alternating between mixolydian (major scale with flattened seventh) and locrian.

The locrian, therefore, is more a theoretical invention than a practical one. Nevertheless, I thought I’d try to write a little piece in B locrian. It sounds pleasant enough — but that’s only because the piece keeps trying, against my will, to modulate away from B locrian towards a more satisfying key. Whenever I tried to reign it in, to bring the piece back to its supposed tonal centre, the result is completely inelegant. Music has preferences of its own, and it’s no use trying to overcome them.

Here is my ‘Fantasie’ in B locrian. I could think of no suitable titles. It was meant to be a galliard, but as well as losing track of the tonal centre, I also lost track of the metre! Still, all that aside, and excusing the audio quality, I rather like it. The locrian mode forces one to make some unusual harmonic choices, resulting in a kind of unsettled melancholy.

Locrian (notation)