SA9: The Monophony issue
Play one note.
Play another note.
Play another note.
This is an exercise I did for years, building melodies one note at a time with or without regard to harmony or rhythm; letting the shape and flow of the melody define itself based only on the consideration of this question: "Does it work?"
It's an exercise that still causes a certain amount of existential angst. "Does it work?" turns into "what does work mean to me?" turns into "how do our definitions of success compare and contrast?" Each new question becomes the analog to a note in the exercise. I follow the spiral until I find myself curled up in front of the television in need of a nap.
Play a note.
I've found myself using monophonic work as a possible entry level into studying new composers. The desire to tackle the one-note-then-another paradigm has become an automatic point of interest for me as I peruse the record store/library/internet aisles. It has become my roast chicken, well-tied bow tie, or perfectly located fastball. It is my musical equivalent of watching a great artist do something simple in a transcendent way.
So, when I decided it was time to do a Sound American issue that would feature a number of writers, beside myself, talking about the music they know and love in terms wholly their own, I naturally gravitated toward what I thought was a musical staple capable of great elegance: monophony. This issue started that simply; what monophonic pieces encapsulate an artist's aesthetic and skill. And, who can speak most eloquently about them?
What lies within is an attempt to answer that question with features by great musicians and writers about great composers and performers: Mark Menzies on Gérard Grisey, Mary Jane Leach on Julius Eastman, Josh Sinton on Steve Lacy, Richard Pinnell on Antoine Beuger, and an interview between Carol Robinson and Tom Johnson.
Play another note.
Regardless of the skill and insight these writers brought to their subject matter, these essays felt like the beginning for this issue of Sound American. There is a specific kind of joy that comes from discovering music. It's a quality that I've tried to portray in every issue of Sound American in one way or another. In these pages, it had been replaced by the joy of understanding music; something that's deep and meaningful in its own right, but needs that spark of spontaneity and unknowing to set it in relief and make it that much stronger. To that end, each essay is paired with the thoughts of a separate musician or artist on hearing the monophonic piece for the first time. It became an interesting exercise to read the interview after the essay; parsing out what is important to different ears and what qualities come to the fore immediately or need immersion to become evident.
And, this line of thought opens up other, broader, ideas about what we need or what we think we need in music. Is harmony necessary? What creates motion to our ears? Do we need motion? Is a single voice more powerful than a choir? Obviously, this line of questioning becomes subjective at best, but as I followed one thread after another, one question kept coming back to me: "How do we use limitation?"
Ultimately, the exercise of one-note-then-another is meant to be about limiting yourself to a rational succession of pitches. The endgame of the exercise is a sense of control when given the freedom to do what you want while improvising. But, doesn't the freedom we're striving for in performance have a need for some sort of limitation to ground or define it? As I listened to the pieces for this issue, I found that sense of limitation or ground in different places: obviously in Tom Johnson's Rational Melodies, but also in the cellular structure of Grisey's Prologue and the maniacal sound shaping of Steve Lacy's New Duck. It reminded me of a passage in a Slavoj Žižek essay on F.W.J. Schelling's work on the beginning of temporal thinking;
...our intellectual creativity can be 'set free' only within the confines of some imposed notional framework in which, precisely, we are able to 'move freely' - the lack of this imposed framework is necessarily experienced as an unbearable burden, since it compels us to focus constantly on how to respond to every particular empirical situation in which we find ourselves.1
Play another note.
So, what does that mean for the monophonic composer? Does the lack of harmonic framework present the possibility of moving "freely" for the composer or does it created an "unbearable burden" to be overcome. If the latter, how does the composer climb that particular mountain successfully?
And so, to address that question, Sound American includes an exercise in limitation; in this case, historical context. Issue 9 features four great tenor players of the moment working through the harmonic, rhythmic and historic limitations of Body and Soul, a song heavily defined by Coleman Hawkins's seminal 1939 recording. These saxophonists each dealt with the limitations of a very well known harmony and melody, as well as Hawkins's towering presence in very different and, ultimately, very musically satisfying ways.
So, in the end (and after including our return of 5 Questions, this time with Kurt Gottschalk), the issue came about like the one note exercise. It started with monophony, which opened the mind to certain composers and their monophonic works, which further opened into the broader ideas of experience and limitation.
And, this leaves us here. Perhaps in an existential crisis. The narrative string of one note after another has been convoluted by choice as you click from page to page. The availability of information can be paralyzing, ending with you in front of the TV, but I admonish you to stay strong! Start where you want, think of that as your first note, then follow it to what makes sense next, even if it's not on this site, then wait, then move, then wait. When you're done, come back and pick another note.
 Žižek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso, 1996