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Three places at once (tips for teens, part one)

April 16, 2008

If you are serious about finding time to listen to all the music in the world before we die, it might be a good idea to train ourselves to listen to several pieces of music at once.

In Charles Ives’s composition Three Places in New England, the composer plays with the idea of dissonance.  The piece shows Ives using dissonant tone clusters in the manner of European modernists like Schoenberg.  This very type of dissonance, guaranteeing as it does the composition’s avant-garde credentials, sits rumly next to the passages that Ives freely borrows from Yankee military marches and Stephen Foster tunes — creating, in fact, a more meta kind of dissonance.  This kind of motliness isn’t exactly untypical of modernism; the modernist aesthetic, you could say, is sounded in a dissonance between progressivism and populist nostalgia.  But listen:

In The Rest is Noise, his recent book on twentieth century composition, Alex Ross reckons that Ives might just have got his taste for dissonance from his father, a Connecticut band leader who reportedly “once marched two bands past each other for the simple joy of hearing them in cacophonous simultaneity.”  This little bit of story-telling — and who really knows? — would suggest that Ives’s dissonances, whether at the level of the single chord or the entire composition, are less to do with devil-may-care juxtaposition and more to do with a genuine will to hear several things at once. This will be all very familiar to anyone with the slightest interest in sound collage, sampling / electroquotation, layering, mixing; I’d like to side-step all the expertise and craftsmanship involved in these practices, though, and reintroduce aleatoric, maybe organic encounters between musics. I want the musics to negotiate space, in a way that DJ mixes aren’t really concered with.

The protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man expresses the very sensible desire to hear the same record — Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blue — five times at once, in his hyper-lit basement home; and that’s fine too, like some kind of audio / spatial riddle: how many Louis Armstrongs can you fit in a basement?

Hearing a lot at once doesn’t have to be an exercise in cacophony, though. Brian Eno discovered ambient music from a hospital bed, when the record of harp music a friend had brought was played too quietly to drown out the sound of hospital lighting.

This week’s homework assigment involves finding Youtube videos with suitable soundtracks and opening a couple of them at the same time. Then fall asleep.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2009 4:51 am

    You’d think with all of the multi-tasking in a teen’s world (texting, while talking, while watching a movie) this would be right up their alley. Great assignment!

    Ralph Kendrick, Iowa Composers Forum


  1. Music to Fall Asleep to, Part Four « The OPINION

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