Enchanted Musics

One fall night in the 1980s I went to the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson opera Einstein on the Beach. After taking a seat in the balcony a part of me began fighting Michel Riseman’s relentless ostinatos. Over and over and over they went while I contorted at the shoulders and hips. Scolding myself, “Calm down, this is good medicine, it’ll be over soon,” I stopped noticing the contortions only after Lucinda Child’s dancers began walking across the stage — slow subdivisions to the pulse, dancers and music repeating the same rhythmic patterns over and over and over. I fixed on one dancer who somehow seemed to be both moving and standing still at the same time. Hypnotized by the dancer, I became physically paralyzed and my mind began to wander. I came back to myself when the dancer abruptly materialized at another spot several yards away. The movements on stage became starts and stops, disappearances and reappearances, challenging the omniscience of metronomic time. I grew more and more disoriented and scanned my limbs and surroundings to anchor the performance back into the linear frame of normal time. This effort worked only slightly and I found myself surrendering to what I increasingly regarded as ceremony — visual and aural unfoldings in such unexpected and physically defying ways that later I could only describe them as magical, triggered seemingly by the manipulation of time expanding and contracting around me.

The History of Magic

composition by Mark Howell

The Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, with Fred Frith, Mark Howell, Nick Didkovsky, and René Lussier, as performed at The Saalfelden Festival, Saalfelden, Switzerland, 1992.

About Einstein on the Beach, Glass confessed to Rolling Stone that he had been studying the music of Gothic Cathedrals, 12th-Century Ars Antiqua and the early multivoiced polyphony of the Notre Dame School: Leonin, Perotin, and Anonymous IV. Glass compared this ancient Western religious music to the trance music of Africa and Indonesia, and mentioned that he had become disillusioned with modern Western music’s impersonal, intellectual, and ineffectual games. He and other minimalists sought the soul of Western music, and in Einstein on the Beach he employs dismissed and maligned composition methods to tap into that lost source of musical energy.

photograph of mzcamilamontoya by Carson Culpepper
photograph of mzcamilamontoya by Carson Culpepper

The idea of an instrumental magic in ancient music intrigued me. I attributed the apparent realness of my experience to medieval compositional methods meant to invoke the voice of God, and as a composer I claim such music-magic for myself by bloodright of Western European traditions. Claiming the traditions makes them easier for me to define, and defining Ars Antiqua helped me to locate its magical realness.

Chants passed down orally over centuries throughout Europe have helped mold Christianity into a theocratic hegemony. Originally derived from old Jewish music forms, such chants, sung in unison by choirs of clerics, were inserted into key points of the Catholic Mass. Church legend held that between the 6th and 7th Century, Pope Gregory I composed all the chants, or that through him God dictated the divine music. For much of its early history the only music sanctioned by the Catholic church was monophonic chant, and medieval composers composed and arranged around the restraint of pre-existing melodies in order to write new music. Probably the first usurpation of the restraint was Mellisma, a linear embellishment of existing chant where newly-composed melody replaced solitary chant tones. Polyphony (many voices) was another solution to the restrictions of monophony. However, for both polyphony and mellisma our reconstruction of their beginning is impeded by unknowns, particularly regarding the function of rhythm.

By the 12th Century, certain composers were stretching the notes of old chant (now called Cantus Firmus) to such exaggerated lengths that their original melodic function became altered. With note lengths of 45 seconds or more, the notes of cantus firmus are comparable to drones, sustained pitches supporting newly composed melodic material. Medieval chant melodies developed into bass notes and were used to hold up a verticality of voices, the composite called organum. Surviving notation is unclear regarding exact note lengths, and the theories describing the distribution of short and long-pitched pulsations and rests, and the recreation of pitch/duration relationships are very controversial. We can perhaps get a sense of what organum might have sounded like from traditional Corsican polyphony, which doesn’t have a beat, just an arrival of verticalities — chords. When the energy of the chord starts to diffuse, the performers move on. In Corsician polyphony the durations are not divided arithmetically, any chord might be two or three times longer than the previous one, and there is no way to predetermine the length of a chord by measuring the duration of the previous chord.

Probably our best direct knowledge of 12th-Century rhythm comes from Jacques de Liege, who in Speculum Musica (written between 1323-25) criticized 14th-Century compositional techniques, contrasting them to the ideals of the 12th-Century art whose virtue he saw as the dependability of the old rhythmic modes. To paraphrase Liege: The modems divided semibreves into minims and semiminims, whereas the ancients held that these were indivisible. Accordingly, Ars Antiqua’s durational values had a finite length — they could not be further halved, quartered, or subjected to any other divisibility. Such indivisibility is a hallmark of such additive rhythmic patterns as are found in the tala of Indian raga, Balinese Gamelan, and most African drum music. These non-Western rhythmic systems are built around the repetition of fixed patterns that can be changed only by adding to or subtracting from the patterns themselves. This process accepts that rhythm is independent of other musical components and does not exist merely to emphasize the notes of a melodic phrase. A 12th-Century rhythmic mode in repetition, with repetitions independent of other inter-music concerns — like melody or harmony — seems capable of altering perception (although some musicologists, like John Blacking, believe this is possible only when one develops an intimate awareness of a culture’s psycho-socio systems).

Compared to rhythmic cycle systems commonly found in non-Western musics, the six rhythmic modes supposedly exclusive to Ars Antiqua constitute a uniquely small repository of rhythmic combinatorial possibilities. They are also uncharacteristically, and suspiciously, symmetrical. The historical accuracy of such a limited repertoire seems particularly suspect because the reputed source for the six rhythmic modes is St. Augustine. At its foundation, the Augustinian rhythmic system is based on two units of measurement: the brevis (a pitch of short duration), and the Tonga, both of which are combined.into phonetic units. The total number of possible combinations of long and short patterns in the Augustinian system is twenty-eight.

In modem transcriptions and performances of medieval music the longa is converted into a quarter note and the brevis into an eighth. Though seeming logical, this is at best presumptuous, particularly when 6/8 or 6/4 are also typically assigned as meters. (We don’t know what the tempo of the original music was.) The imposition of post 14th-Century metrical barring, with its implicit “naturally occurring” accents on odd-numbered beats within measures, invariably influences rhythmic interpretation. However, it is probable that a vertical play of tonal consonance and dissonance similar to the energy flow of 20th-Century Corsican polyphony was somehow accounted for as the ancient music progressed. Post-14th-Century barlines emphasize very different verticalities.

Western musical history extols Guillaume Machaut as the messiah of Ars Nova, a new art that rushed forward to anticipate the greatness of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. For music historians Ars Nova seems to signal a break with a provincial past. Machaut’s rhythmic innovations, his syncopations, are offered as symbols of progress. They are presented as the beginning of a mensural system that will culminate in the sequestering logic of barlines, divisibility, and subservience to melody. It is ironic that Machaut’s emblematic rhythmic complexity is said to herald an era marked by increasing rhythmic simplicity, a future where progress tends toward barring rhythms in duple and triple time. Personally I think that the genius of Machaut is a response to older practices, an attempt at reconciliation with them. His syncopated excesses are more a trope on a past that he is familiar with than an institution of the trajectory musicologists have defined as Western music’s history.

If the rhythmic complexity of Machaut is based on past music, what is his precedent? Is it the twenty-eight modes of St. Augustine? Is it a modification of the six ascribed to 12th-Century polyphony? Or is it to be found in some other tradition? In the 9th/lOth-Century, an Islamic philosopher, musician, and theorist named Al Farabi wrote three volumes comprising the Kitab al Musiqi al Kabir (The Great Book of Music). His theories concerning rhythm are among the most sophisticated of their day. Like St. Augustine’s they claim derivation from the Greeks, but Al Farabi clarified the nature of rhythmic durations (lqas) as a series of utterances followed by comparable silences. These utterances have sound quality: light, medium, and heavy — descriptions that are rhythmical and timbral — and Al Farabi’s system expands on an earlier one by Al Kindi by adding modifiers called ornaments. Ornaments are mechanisms that transform Iqas in ways homologous to the modem rhythmic modulations that the West has termed additive, subtractive, diminutive, and augmentative. These are rhythmic processes found in the music of other cultures, in Jazz, and in the music of Glass and the minimalists. Al Farabi’s work was known to medieval Europeans, and his role as a wandering musician in the Islamic East may have been a precursor to the troubadours of 12th-Century France (whose secular music I suspect had some influence on the art music of its day).

Shortly after I saw Einstein on the Beach, Fred Frith called and asked me to join an electric guitar quartet he was forming. He suggested I write for the group and I began composing using some of the ideas that I have been describing. My first piece was The History of Magic (the title was taken from a 19th-Century survey of magical practices by Joseph Ennemoser). I liked the idea of God’s power needing to be diluted, of it passing through the body to ricochet up into a softened and primed mind, so the form of this composition was based on the Sefirot of the Jewish Kabala. It had ten movements, each successively longer and more weighted but less complex. The History of Magic used the six medieval rhythmic modes and Greek scales for melody and was successful enough as a piece of music; but as for its magical influence, you be the judge.

Built within Notre Dame cathedral during the heyday of organurn was a small stone-faced inner sanctum, off limits to the general public. Medieval Notre Dame had a full enclosure around this sanctuary, and the Parisian clergy furnished their church, especially in the area of the choir, with curtains, tapestries, tents, rugs, banners, and paintings. All these sound-absorbing materials affected the quality of the music made there. Notre Dame’s acoustical conditions at any given time were directly related to the liturgical rank of the day. The more solemn the feast, the less resonant the environment.

Concerning issues of sound perception, the following story may help illustrate some of the misperceptions, generated by music history. During the latter half of the 19th Century, monks at Solesmis, France discovered original scores for Gregorian chant. Shortly thereafter they began singing these chants. In 1903, Pope Pius X threw his authority behind their vocal interpretations, and by 1910 those versions were officially recognized and sanctioned by the Catholic church. The Solesmis monks’ interpretations or the medieval chants, performed in a richly reverberating sound environment, have become the characteristic sound of medieval church music — present and past — and they are clearly wrong.

I have concluded that the magic attributed to rhythm—to time — is contained in the presence or absence of sound. Time contains sound but the music of a historical time like the music of an environment (Notre Dame, for example) is not genre-specific. As with Gamelan, Gagaku, or Blues, all music finds its place in the quality of sound — the timbre and the tessitura — the tone. As Al Farabi knew, the source of music’s magic lies in its sound quality. German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has pointed out that all the components of music: harmony, melody, rhythm, and form, distill into tone — into sound quality. To paraphrase Stockhausen: If you were able to compress an entire Beethoven symphony into half a second, then you would have a new sound. And then, too, you might begin to tap into some of sound’s true potentiality: music magic.

-Mark Howell