Arik Shapira: instrumentalists linked by earphones to an electronic soundtrack
November 28, 2005 9:17 AM   Subscribe

"It doesn't even need a conductor, and there is not even any need for rehearsals together. Each instrumentalist receives sheet music and a disc with the sound track to which he will be linked during the concert, and that way he can practice at home, by himself; and then they come straight to the concert and play freely, whatever they want. A sound that is random as opposed to planned, a precise pitch for a note, as opposed to a false note, that's what leads the work. And here, toward the end, order gradually prevails".
Arik Shapira talks about his new concerto for piano and orchestra.
posted by matteo (16 comments total)
For him, one must not go back to the Old World, to the aesthetic ideals of Europe that in the end brought about its destruction.

Is it possible to enjoy music like this?

"Enjoyment is a historical experience. People enjoy Mozart, Dvorak, Berlioz. If I want to enjoy a melody, I go to Schubert. This is a cultural experience. But of a work that was written the day before yesterday, I am critical. The enjoyment is only a part of my listening, a niche. Art is too serious a matter to limit it to the concept of enjoyment. That's primitive. When a work appeals to taste, it is appealing to a low level: This is the same taste that chooses the color of a car, or upholstery, or a table. This is the same taste that chooses what ice cream to lick. Taste is base artistic judgment."
posted by matteo at 9:20 AM on November 28, 2005

thanks, matteo

When I was younger, I had a really profound ambivalence about aleatory and self-organizing art. I found the ideas, frankly, frightening. How could someone give up that much control? How could you tell when you were really seeing something creative, and not just a pile of bullshit someone dashed off in ten minutes to make a pile of dough?

At the same time, I often found myself really enjoying a lot of aleatory and self-organizing work. (I don't know if anyone actually uses the latter term -- it's what i use.) Even in my early teens, I found asynchrony and dissonance fascinating, and devoured avant garde fiction even as I was dubious of it. The stories in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies played a powerful formative role in my prose aesthetic.

So the idea that the experience is "cultural' -- that it's placed in a historic or cultural context -- makes sense to me. Dissonance is important in the modern world.

But terms like "base artistic judgement" still annoy me...
posted by lodurr at 9:47 AM on November 28, 2005

Hasn't Howard Shore been "writing" this kind of music for decades?
posted by clevershark at 10:06 AM on November 28, 2005

The enjoyment is only a part of my listening, a niche.
Huh. I wonder what he thinks the rest of it is.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:38 AM on November 28, 2005

So, in essence, what Mateo's quote really seems to be saying is that the TRUE important of art is to allow a tiny handful to turn up their noses at the masses who don't "get it."

Since, pretty much by definition, if it's not for people to enjoy, then it's a selfish act aimed at self-aggrandizement.

(unless you harbor some delusion that artistic value is somehow a fixed, objective thing)
posted by InnocentBystander at 11:06 AM on November 28, 2005

Does anyone know what he means when he talks about "false notes?" Or this:

"I have found, for example, that a third-tone is a new sound: A quarter or an eighth is a false note, but a third is new. And it can be achieved only with a computer. An instrumentalist will never achieve such precision."

In general I have trouble accepting the views he's putting forth here. I don't buy that the only valid way one could come to write music in the style of Mahler is to have lived Mahler's life exactly. And a lack of interest in his music is equivalent to a lack of interest in truth? That's a little much.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:07 AM on November 28, 2005

Since, pretty much by definition, if it's not for people to enjoy, then it's a selfish act aimed at self-aggrandizement.

I disagree with that entirely, though. I don't think it's terribly snobbish or even controversial to say that there's more to art than enjoyment. Are Schindler's List, or Guernica, or A Survivor from Warsaw solely about enjoyment? Are they selfish acts aimed for self-aggrandizement? I don't think so.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:10 AM on November 28, 2005

It depends on what you mean by enjoyment. You seem to take it as basic animal pleasure, as does Shapira, but one can say they enjoy something as complex or emotional as the works you mentioned on a level above base pleasure. It thus seems odd to aim to make something that people don't like.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:26 AM on November 28, 2005

It depends on what you mean by enjoyment. You seem to take it as basic animal pleasure, as does Shapira

Not necessarily; I'm just responding to his quote, so I'm trying to take it the way I think he meant it.

It thus seems odd to aim to make something that people don't like.

I don't think that's what he was saying. It sounds like we agree about what he was trying to communicate.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:47 AM on November 28, 2005

To me, the function of art-making is to resolve conflict. The conflicts resolve may not be large or profound, but they are there.

That's what I think he's referring to with the "enjoy" comment. I believe he's conflating enjoyment with entertainment.
posted by lodurr at 11:50 AM on November 28, 2005


In reply to the first half of your question (re 'false notes'). I think he's talking about quarter (and eighth) tones, i.e. half (and quarter) semi-tones, which don't occur in diatonic music.

What he calls a 'third-note' would therefore be a third (or two-thirds) of a tone - equally exotic, and arguably indistinguishable to most listeners...
posted by dogsbody at 12:24 PM on November 28, 2005

The "false note" thing almost certainly has to do with how in-tune the interval sounds. That's somewhat subjective, but - it's a complicated story.

The extent to which an interval will sound in-tune depends on the overtone series of the instrument that's playing the music. Most instruments used in Western music have pretty much the same overtone series, though variation in the strength of particular overtones is what gives an instrument its characteristic timbre. The scales and intervals we ordinarily use evolved to sound good with that overtone series, as much as possible. (I know, that's a big oversimplification).

If you want to experiment with exotic scales and tunings, you should remember that there are two things you can tinker with: First, the intervals that make up your scales, and second, the overtones that make up "a single note."

If you adjust them independently, you get something that sounds dissonant. In other words, if you take a nice Mozart piece, and keep all the intervals between notes the same but play it on a synthesizer that is able to use a nonstandard overtone series, it will sound dissonant, even though the intervals are the same as ever.

If you keep the usual overtones and tinker with the intervals, you'll find most intervals just don't sound good - this is what he's alluding to, I'm sure; quarter-tones or eighth-tones seem to be quite dissonant intervals with our usual overtone series but this guy claims that a third-tone sounds consonant or at least usable to him.

You can, however, tinker with the overtone series and then choose new intervals that will sound good with it - and get an exotic, but consonant sound. I have not perfect, but good relative pitch, and I can tell you I have seldom been so disturbed as hearing a Bach chorale performed in an exotic tuning with a consonant overtone series - it sounds "right" and consonant but also you don't recognize any of the intervals and arrggh!

Incidentally, anything that's based on a vibrating membrane (like many percussion instruments) has a rather different overtone series from instruments based on vibrating strings or vibrating columns of air. You can think of it as boiling down to Bessel analysis instead of Fourier analysis, if you're inclined to think of things like that at all.
posted by Wolfdog at 12:32 PM on November 28, 2005

Aha. Thanks for clarifying.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:42 PM on November 28, 2005

Although, perhaps you could provide more info about the overtone series of membranophones? What's different about it? I'm familiar with the standard overtone series, but not Bessel or Fourier analyses.

Besides that, is using a synthesizer the only way to create a pitch with a non-standard overtone series? It seems like it would be.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:57 PM on November 28, 2005

Here are a couple of good articles - Physics of Percussion and Synthesizing Percussion - and a chart of vibrational modes for circular membranes. If you look at the relative frequencies there you will see... weirdness. There's something that's very close to two octaves about the fundamental, but not much else that's familiar; where's the octave? the twelfth? That (1,1) mode would sound roughly like an augmented fifth above the fundamental. There's even something in there distressingly in between a minor and major ninth over the fundamental. And just to complicate things, the lowest tone in the series may not be the one you hear as principal (this is why percussion and bells are sometimes said to have undertones).

The diagrams are pictures of the stable (unmoving) points of a vibration pattern on the membrane. On a string, they'd be called nodes and they would just be a few isolated points on the string. On the membrane, the stable sets are combinations of radial lines and circles. Here's a page with animations and qualitative descriptions of some of these vibration patterns.)

The analysis comes in when you want to try to synthesize these sounds. For strings, a vibration is represented by a sum of ordinary trig functions at different frequencies, and there's a way to pick out the components of a given wave so that you can reproduce it - conceptually not much different than resolving a vector into its component parts in physics 101. That's Fourier analysis in a nutshell. For a circular membrane, the familiar trig functions get replaced by Bessel functions and the decomposition is no longer so simple.

Javanese gamelan music is an example (that I am admittedly not terribly familiar with) of a set of scales and intervals evolving to be consonant with the overtone patterns of percussion instruments. You could make all kinds of odd overtone series by modifying ordinary instruments - I'm sure this happens in certain prepared piano pieces, for example, and you can put holes in membranes or detach pieces of the boundary, or just start whacking oddly-shaped objects. But if you want to be systematic about it, really, the synthesizer is seems to be the experimental playground of choice.

And I apologize for derailing matteo's original topic so much.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:05 PM on November 28, 2005

First of all, this guy's Adorno-esque hi-lo art divide is gross; how is the "appreciation" one feels for, say, a metrically-modulated Elliot Carter solo for 4 tympani not "enjoyment"?

But on a more personal note, I play "membranophones" as a big part of my music, I do so by blowing on them with a variety of tools, particularly: my trumpet on a floor tom or upturned kick drum, and my trumpet's mouthpiece inverted on a baloon stretched over a rice bowl. The overtone series' that emerge from these activities keep me fully engaged, and have, for years. Very hard to control (not my desire anyway, beyond a few basic parameters), but very rich and full of possibilities. On a tympani it would be even more exciting, because the foot pedal allows you to vary the tightness of the drum's head.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:23 PM on November 28, 2005

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