October 16, 2006

Local Languages

Among my classes this semester is a composer-oriented course on the analysis of 20th c. music. Model compositions make up a few of the assignments. After a little Bartók, we were unleashed on the Fibonacci series and told to do what we will with it. Earlier this week we met for a little show-and-tell.

The results were wide-ranging, to say the least. Everyone applied the numbers with varying degrees of rigor to various "compositional parameters": duration (yo), harmony, melody, density, etc. The number of ways in which people wrote music based on such a basic premise was interesting in and of itself, but the show-and-tell ceremony itself had some interesting features.

We all had to introduce our pieces, speaking in as much detail as we wanted. Pretty much everyone acted as a performer as well as composer (alone and in groups with friends from outside the class). Solo piano pieces were popular. One girl performed a choral work by way of a much-overdubbed recording of herself. Everyone clearly worked hard to present their music in the best possible light.

After each reading, the prof gave some feedback and opened the floor to anyone in the class. Some passages were replayed with changes based on this feedback. This made the music feel more like open works than finished pieces. Nothing was sacred, at least for the amount of time it took to see if something sounded better another way.

The prof made an interesting comment at the end of the evening. He noted that at the beginning of the session, most of us would not have been able to pick out the Fibonaccic features of each piece by ear, but by the end, all the little 1,1,2,3,5 semitone series were painfully apparent.

In addition to the rapport we developed through presenting our hard work in such a specific way, we developed a sort of linguistic rapport. The Fibonacci series-in-music is going to be inaudible to your man on the street, and probably to your seasoned concertgoer. However, by making it a common feature of our music, even if it manifested itself in different forms each time, the series became something we were all fluent in. It signified the brief commonality of the reading session just as much as it signified a certain set of proportions.

"Local languages" like this spring up around us all the time. Having a group write and perform Fibonacci music is no different than repeating an in-joke among friends, retelling a favorite story, or saying a prayer before a meal. Each act has a more specific function (fulfilling a school assignment, making people laugh, reinforcing group memory, voicing thanks), but they're united in their power to unite. These languages are often formed by the group who use them, often meaningless to anyone outside this group, but incredibly rich and resonant in meaning to those in it. I don't think their role in establishing group identity should be understated.

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