Copyright ©2004 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz
The very small form is an increasingly modern one. With early music, the form was text-driven, with melody alone or dominating, or dance-shaped. Abstract and especially composer-centric music gave artistic virtuosity as composer and improviser an important role, and from Bach's variations onward, the malleable motivic figure offered an opportunity for show, consideration, and even genius. Beethoven's "three G's and an E-flat," as Bernstein liked to call them, hardly made up a motive at all--just a raw, sonic source shape.
What's interesting about the Beethoven figure is that it is a rare classical example of sonic iconography. Latter-day icons include the sounds that accompany, say, the startup of Windows or Mac, or the "Intel Inside" audio logo, the AT&T identification, and Rush Limbaugh's two-note commercial break ID.
But sonic icons go back much further, some to the bells and signals of religious ceremony. Particularly with the era of the mechanical devices and timepiece fascination of the Renaissance came the Westminster chimes, the cuckoo clock, and other regular audible signals. Peter Maxwell-Davies creates artistic tension with these references in his Eight Songs for a Mad King.
By Beethoven's time it was possible to shorten the melodic motives to near-iconic brevity, but it was Richard Wagner who created the leitmotif, fully formed micro-references built with melody & harmony, and used as threads for the warp and weft of his operatic loom-or rather his loom of "music drama."
The 20th century brought together some unusual circumstances. Casting aside the lengthy verse-chorus tradition and the story and parlor songs, the 3-minute popular song arose as an artifact of the 78rpm record (and albums of them), later driven into the consciousness of every composer living today by the mass-marketed mid-century 45rpm single, with LP "albums" (the name preserved) built of singles, sounding into the inevitable future with CDs as "albums"--and retro-styling into CD singles.
By itself, this phenomenon would have been limited. But combined with the soap operas on radio and later television (before contracts required new music for every episode), the shortened and memorable element gained strength. The Wagnerian-style leitmotif was crucial to these soap operas ('soap music dramas'), too, and later as such memorable (and oft-repeated) motives as the 8-note one for Star Trek and the repeated 4-note motive for The Twilight Zone.
In the nascent film world, there was nothing so micro-motivic as cartoon music. An artifact of montage, the marriage of image and sound first appeared in small bits and vamps for the silent film pianist or organist, was adopted into early cartoons that had no dialog (such as the "Farmer Gray" cartoon series), and was brought to its height in Tex Avery's cartoons using the brilliant music of Carl Stalling.
In a similar tip of the acoustic hat to clocks as Maxwell Davies made with Eight Songs, John Zorn bowed to Stalling with his Cat O'Nine Tails (Tex Avery Directs the Marquis de Sade), incorporating sub-second-long compositional material in an exhausting performance experience.
Pluderphonics, John Oswald's contribution to the division of musical composition into small elements, uses samples too short for conscious labeling (as the Turner networks do visually with a montage of upcoming films for broadcast) yet clearly identifiable to the musical memory. Consider Oswald's Grateful Dead variations called Grey Folded. How small is small? And, with this long piece of endless cue sheets, how long is long for a piece made of sample granules?
But are any of these granules or modules or motives in fact compositions? In thinking of a musical composition, we lean toward the recognizably complete. Yet sonic icons are complete-there is no more after they've been heard. Likewise it is with Stalling/Zorn ... but not Oswald.
The electronic studio lends itself especially well to short forms and granularization--which is to be expected, as the art world parallels, overlaps, leads and follows the technological world, a point that forms the basis of Leonard Schlain's popular study, Art and Physics. And the electronic studio in particular favors the large forms of soundscape and the self-contained short forms that are nominally experimental.
Nearly a decade ago, Larry Polansky initiated "The Frog Peak Collaborations Project" with sound poet Chris Mann. A one-minute Mann poem was used as the basis for composers' creation, and ultimately 115 of them appeared on the two-CD set. The one-minute composition is clearly complete, final, "valid" in the judgment of the Western music listener's ear.
And smaller forms, shorter creations? Is 30 seconds too short? 20 seconds? Ten?
In 1993, predating Frog Peak's project by a few years and Vox Novus's 60x60 concert by a decade, came the Ohm/Avatar compact disc Ding Dong Deluxe, an anthology of 99 compositions--the longest a staggering 50 seconds (longer by half than the second opus of 33 seconds) and the shortest (Jocelyn Robert's Pianock #2) a mere 6 seconds--as brief as a CD will allow.
In not long we may look forward to the successful three-way marriage of icon, composition, and grain.
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