“Significant scores” (2008)
Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Napolitano
Translated by Joseph Sannicandro
“The musical instrument is a machine useful to man. But not only useful for producing notes, and not at all neutral; with its techniques, it is the concrete custodian of the choices made in continuity and, like buildings, has a memory. The sounds produced by keyboards, strings, and pipes are tools of knowledge and contribute to the making of the idea itself.” The words of the composer Luciano Berio, one of the fathers of that musical research which is oriented toward the exploration of the sound quality of sonic matter, are for us first of all a hermeneutic instrument useful for the consideration of new music, we might say dangerous music, but that for some decades it has established itself in an increasingly unequivocal way. What we are referring to is precisely an epochal shift, which involves Western culture in all its aspects, and which we could associate with the imposition, starting from the middle of the last century, of a thought of difference which is clearly opposed to the thought of dominant identity in classical and romantic culture.
“The primacy of identity, however conceived, defines the world of representation. But modern thought is born of the failure of representation, of the loss of identities, and of the discovery of all the forces that act under the representation of the identical.” (Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, New York: Continuum,1994. p. xix) If we go in search of the traces of identity thinking, we will not only find ourselves in front of books on philosophy, we will find ourselves, rather, a whole world, made up of social relationships, ways of living and working, mechanisms of power, and, naturally, art work. However, each of these traces should not be considered in itself, but should be evaluated precisely in the light of the epistemological horizon that the thought of identity constitutes. In short, we must discover behind them a way of manifesting this thought.
And here we will discover that “the musical instrument is not at all neutral”, instead everything in it speaks to us: its mechanics, its musical and timbral possibilities, the materials with which it is built tell us a lot about the culture that produced it. The same can be said for musical notation: not only the way in which music was written in history, but the very fact that it was done opens us to understanding.
The musical sign has the function of indicating which notes are to be played and with which rhythmic scanning. It is significant, in the same way as the written word is significant. But “the sign, [with] its enigmatic reference, inscribes an unbridgeable difference in the heart of the original.” (Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena: and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1979. p. 17.) In order to be a vehicle of meanings, the sign presupposes the identity of what it refers to, its being equal to itself in time, and this formal equality. And in fact the musical sign refers, and cannot be otherwise, only to the note; the pause sign is equivalent to an unknown note. What the note guarantees is its constant repeatability, its perennial equality in itself. The note is always notable.
At the same time as the development of musical notation, western music developed the instruments that formed the backbone of its full-bodied musical production: piano, strings, brass. These instruments were designed and built on the basis of the diatonic system and western musical notation: all have a temperate tuning and are built in such a way as to be able to produce only the twelve notes of the scale.
Now, what is the unbridgeable difference that inevitably eludes the musical sign (but also the verbal sign)? The elusive element, the great repressed of classical music, is sound. “If this term music is sacred, if it is reserved for the instruments of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, we can replace it with a more significant one: organization of sound, as affirmed by John Cage. Around the mid-1900s, John Cage, Edgard Varèse and other musicians began to conceive music in a new way, questioning what is “musical” about music itself. For Cage, sounds are a full part of music, the organization of sound welcomes all kinds of noises, alienating themselves from their daily dimension. If in written music the point of dissent is located between consonance and dissonance (of notes), now it is between noise and so-called musical sounds.
The consideration of sounds necessarily breaks with notation. The sound is not noticeable, but not for technical reasons. It is a choice, a change of perspective, a refusal of the identity principle. The score is the work par excellence in the classical world: in the score the music is always the same as it renounces the sound to make a sign, it is permanently fixed in the writing and remains there regardless of whether it is listened to or performed. The score doesn’t need the listener. It is the true musical space of the classical world, the place that welcomes music and preserves it. The case of the Art of the Fugue is emblematic, a work composed by J.S. Bach in the last years of his life (1749-50), which was not conceived for any instrument or group of instruments in particular, which therefore is totally entrusted to writing, leaving a glimpse of the paradox of music that is constantly “to be made,” to complete, to play.
Sound, on the other hand, is inseparable from its materiality. Sound matter, music as matter, exists only through listening. In the world that thinks the difference, the real musical space is not the score, but the sound material, always changing, radically other, subjected. Precisely because sound has being-listened-to by someone as a condition of existence, sound matter can be considered endowed with its own life. This is what Varèse means when it says: “My aim has always been the liberation of sound and the maximum openness to music of the entire sonic universe.” (Varèse, Il suono organizzato. Unicopoli, Milano 1985, p. 164.) The new music, therefore, renounces notation and with it the classical melody-accompaniment form, to be configured as pure sound exploration, attributing to sounds a value not only aesthetic, but in a certain ontological sense. Classical instruments are now used in a “non-cultural,” unorthodox way, trying to discover all their hidden sonic possibilities: the piano is “prepared,” the winds are made to “unlock,” the strings are made to screech, objects of every sorts become an integral part of percussion sets.
But the real emblem of the new music is the synthesizer, the instrument capable of generating sounds and manipulating them in every way. This instrument produces a continuous sound wave which is controlled by electric voltage, in order to allow modulations on the intensity and frequency of the sound. The synthesizer is not a tempered instrument as through its knobs it allows you to adjust the pitch [l’altezza] of the sound in a practically free way, without the need to respect the note, with the possibility of obtaining microtonal effects incalculated both by tonal and by dodecaphonic music. Furthermore, the synthesizer is not a coded instrument but a coordinated set of interconnectable modules (oscillators, filters, envelope generators, etc.), of which the number and order can be varied as desired, thus extending the possibilities of the instrument in an indeterminate way .
An artist like Aphex Twin, an electronic musician hovering between techno, trance and ambient music, not only uses synthesizers to create every kind of sound, from long and soft sounds (pads) to percussive sounds and rhythmic bases, but he builds himself even their own to interface with existing ones. Through a retriggering function the synthesizer can automatically and continuously attach and detach the sound, generating a pulsation that the musician can modify in real time by contracting it, speeding it up, modifying its sound and depth. In the music of Aphex Twin there is nothing “natural,” everything is clearly synthetic as it is “synthesized”; the beats, the ticks, the crackles, remind us that the repeated pulsation is not an accommodating background, but it is itself sound matter, composed of the same material that is distributed on it: everything is at the same time rhythm and tibro.
Similarly, electronic musicians such as Thomas Koner and Keith Fullerton Whitman use the synthesizer as a vehicle to release the sound, not through the beat, but through the drone [ronzio], that is, through long sound blocks composed of myriads of micro-particles. The instrument is used at the same time as a sound wave generator and as a noise generator, the sound is made to evolve slowly through light microtonal detonations which give a suspension and flattening effect. “Rather than discrete tones organized according to the background / foreground opposition and marked by formal markers, [the drone] releases swarms of vibrant granules that immerse the listener dragging her into a world populated only by a sound flow that permeates the body and makes it a field of sound forces.” (AA.VV., Millesuoni, Cronopio Napoli 2006, p. 95.)
The synthesizer, with its flexibility and modularity, is configured, more than as a musical instrument, as a true and proper generator of possibilities. The synthesizer makes the sound process itself audible, frees the sound from any significant form and makes it travel in any direction. It is the symbol of an era that tries to renounce categories, domestications, uniqueness, to turn to the new. With it we no longer follow the traces of the subject of a narrative, but we are drawn into the impersonal and a-subjective life of sounds.
“The synthesizer, with its operation of consistency, has taken the place of the ground in a priori synthetic judgment: its synthesis is of the molecular and the cosmic, material and force, not form and matter, Grund and territory.” (Deleuze-Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota press, 1987. p. 343.)
Work Cited (Italian)
[where possible, I’ve defaulted to existing English translations]
Gilles Deleuz, Differenza e repetizione. Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milano 1997, p. 1
Jacques Derrida, La voca e il fenomeno, Jaca Book, Milano 2001, p. 17
Varèse, Il suono organizzato. Unicopoli, Milano 1985, p. 164.
AA.VV., Millesuoni, Cronopio Napoli 2006, p. 95.
Deleuze-Guattari, Millepiani, Castelvecchi, Roma 2006, p. 501.