Melody determining form, III

In the previous installment of this series, a series I consider central to discussing postmodern composition, I dwelled specifically on the idea of vocally motivated phrasing and articulation. This is indeed a crucial factor in my appraisal of medieval & Renaissance music, as well as a significant pole of "melody determining form" as a concept. However, the idea of non-compact "melody", i.e. melody not articulated sequentially, is also significant and unapproachable by these means. As a brief reminder of the first article, my basic contention remains that phrasing of some kind, or more generally context, is critical to establishing a melodic entity, and consequently to examining the formal implications of pitch-class sequences. The viewpoint here will again be that of a pitch-class series driving formal implications, and not the reverse. For a converse example, a formally-driven scheme such as rolling dice to select pitches is not directly amenable to melodic determination. The later twentieth century has certainly had its share of similar schemes, but it has had its share of extensions to the "melody determining form" idea as well. The latter is my priority, and while it is true that such music is frequently unapproachable (to borrow a phrase) with speech-based paradigms, it is still amenable to a "melody"-first analysis.

The first implication of any generalized melody definition is that there may be such a thing as a "pre-melody" which exists outside of context but is contextualized during the course of a piece. In some form, this idea has been central to melodic development in the Western tradition, as can be seen easily in e.g. restatements of "the same" melody in different keys in the classical style. If one posits that melody per se must be contextualized, the context being harmonic implication according to the classical style, then one is looking at "different" melodies based on key, and consequently a pre-melody when abstracted. It is a trivial abstraction to make. In the case of serial composition, the bare note series likewise functions as a pre-melody which is contextualized differently throughout the piece, with the act of varying contexts serving as development and the abstraction somewhat less evident. The key distinction is of course that the series is not generally contextualized itself as a melody, as would be the case by adding a harmonic accompaniment in the classical style. There is a frequent, and I would say justified, implication that this sort of dissociation (meaning that the underlying pre-melody is not represented so directly in the resulting music) is a natural consequence of equal temperament and its lack of built-in key hierarchy. Once one reaches total serialism, with the result that the elements which "normally" contextualize a melody (rhythm etc.) are part of the pre-melody and themselves re-contextualized, there is no continuity for the listener in the ordinary sense. This is an example of what I have called the pointillist style, as the underlying "melody complex" is articulated only point by point and with differing implications which are not part of the underlying complex itself.

Of course, the primary motivation for this style has been its greater abstraction, and consequently its ability to articulate more complicated musical ideas within a shorter span of time. A pointillistic style of this sort undoubtedly serves to cast the moment in sharper relief, since each note takes on a greater significance and entire phrases need not be repeated for effect. In this case there is another implication to make, namely that the earlier glorification of textless music leads naturally to an abstraction into non-semantic structure. In the present context, the implication is clear: The entire idea is an extension of "melody determining form" as these pre-melodic complexes expand to condition every aspect of a piece. Among postmodern styles, minimalism is likewise a conspicuous extension of this idea, as not only does one melody or snippet of melody determine a piece, but the context varies only slowly if at all. Abstraction remains inherent, nonetheless, as saturating music with a melody in this way makes it possible to illustrate symmetries which are only amenable to such extensive repetitions. A similar remark on exploring new symmetries applies to the pointillist style for the opposite reason, and so there is some unity of purpose between the two.

The idea of musical purpose must enter this discussion directly, especially as rhetoric abounds concerning whether such abstract structures serve any mutual purpose between composer and listener. Maybe it is elitist to attempt to express more complicated musical ideas, but then what is really the purpose of only expressing the same things? One implication is that the expressions are not "human" at all, especially given their non-semantic structure. However, as is only too clear, they are created by humans. Anyway, the present discussion has made the underlying suggestion that musical innovation in modernist and even postmodern composition is working toward a goal. In the modernist case, it was a tangible goal: Total serialism was supposed to achieve the complete independence of one sound from another and consequently allow full freedom for combining them. Postmodernism though, of its essence, eschews goals. That is always its basic contradiction, as its deconstructed actions paint a goal. In this case, divesting musical structures of formal determinism has given them a behind-the-scenes determinism which is there nonetheless. So, yes, I think that there is absolutely an overarching goal at present, namely internalizing and integrating the massive quantity of new cognitive material which has been churned out in our era, and some of that cognitive material is inhuman. The entire process has served to bring the concept of one musical element determining another more to the forefront. It may be more abstract & convoluted in its expression today, but it has never been a more central concept.

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Todd M. McComb