Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Peter Gore-Symes: "Classical" music, the Universe, and Everything

I've spent a good deal of my life spending energy on other people's music - teaching about it, compereing it, broadcasting it, performing it, being a crit... so now that I have more leisure time in retirement at Chiangmai (in the north of Thailand), it's gonna be more about my own works. So there. 
UPDATE: As of May 2014 I'm now back in Straya.
Notes About Music is a space where I doodle in a shamelessly self-indulgent way about the nature of my recent "Classical" Music Compositions, the Universe and Kitchen Sinks... but mainly about my music. 
If you like the look of one of my pieces, and would like for courtesy's sake to ask me for performance rights, contact me at Obviously, both the recordings and the scores are technically copyright, but I'd in all likelihood I'd be happy to approve performance of either provided the normal notification protocols and courtesies are observed and acknowledgement made on announcements, printed programs etc. I do not seek to become the wealthiest de-composer in the graveyard. I am rich enough already because I have a good life, a good wife, and Lovely Free Time (yee-HAH! at last!) to indulge in creative pursuits.
So - what music do I write? For starters, it's not "Classical", as MySpace once rigidly tried to label me. Did I have a choice? Maybe Ska-Punk or Death Metal could have been better alternatives if indeed I sought to solicit more hits. Nope, Classical means Telemann, Haydn, CPE Bach, Mozart. My stuff's not "Classical". Period. For a start, it is composed and synthesized on a computer. Here's a poke in the eye with a quill, Herr Ludwig. But it is an inevitable cultural reference point for everyone, and anything new is always heard against Classical music as a 'departure'.
What else isn't it? It isn't Baroque, Romantic, Rococo, Renaissance, Mediaeval or 20th-century either, yet it eclectically draws a great deal from all of these periods. My music has all been composed in the 21st century, so I suppose that has to be its "label". But labels are dangerously slippery. We are all fragile snowflakes and tough individuals. Maybe I'm the Charles Ives of Thailand ;-) The concept of distinct musico-historical 'periods' is, I feel, a necessary fiction to make generalisations about the chaos and stylistic variability that was the reality of History. It's all about the need to artificially systematize historiography, reduce it to distinct dumb-down chapters, and thus make it 'packaged and teachable' in schools and conservatories. I prefer a more longitudinal approach which is free to recognize the potential symbiosis between Jazz and 13th century Motets, Raga and Gregorian Chant... and sometimes finding new environments and tasks for old instruments...
Each piece can be heard via a link to the SoundCloud website, accessible via the orange 'PLAY' button. There you'll find free downloadable mp3s of my music which I cobbled together using Sibelius software.  Pleeeease be sure to use quality earphones pressed in close to your ear to capture enough bass, because computer speakers are usually hopelessly tinny. Scores are available in pdf format as per the links offered to  and they are downloadable and free too.  You can see them all together here at scribd (the link opens in a new window).

Here's my take on the classic “I-don’t-know-anything-about-music-but-I-like-it” Syndrome...
I get this all the time. On hearing that I compose music, people often look slightly uneasy and hasten to comment “I don’t know anything about music, but I do enjoy it”.  Upon hearing some of my compositions, these people tend to comment “That’s interesting” (Read: I don’t like it much... bit weird for me”).

I don’t mind in the least.  It’s just fine. I think I have some insight into the dynamics at play here, so I'll claim right now that everyone (repeat: everyone) within western culture “understands” music.  Perhaps not the printed version or formal music theory, but I insist that people’s ears intuit much more than they give themselves credit for. Much more.

From the day we’re born – and some would argue from before birth – we are relentlessly bombarded with musics.  Many types. Wander through any shopping mall or dental surgery to confirm this. As we grow through our toddler years our ears are saturated in music every day. We become so desensitized that sometimes we no longer even focus on the fact that music is there.

In this environment, it should come as no surprise that some of it sticks, despite our lazy inattention. In fact, a large amount sticks. Just as children accumulate a largely untutored understanding of the conventions of spoken language, we all similarly absorb the conventions of musical language. We can’t help it. The human brain works that way, seeking as it does to find order and consistency in the world around us.

Music is indeed a form of language, defined as a system of sounds which have their own meanings and interactions. Music has its own complex grammar and syntax which conceptually parallel those of spoken language.  Musical nouns, verbs, sentences.  If it didn’t have these things, music theory courses couldn’t exist. Those of us who became musicians all diligently learned the ‘rules’ of music (handed down on Stone Tablets from Bach) during endless tutorial exercises.

And, paralleling spoken language, music has similarly developed its own written notation.   Interestingly, we are all carefully taught how to write words and to spell them correctly – indeed it is a priority in schools – but precious little importance is attached to how to write music or spell chords and scales. It's no wonder people can't do it - and therefore develop a morbid fear of it.

Despite this, toddlers from an early age unconsciously detect this grammar and syntax which make up the fabric of most conventional music. However, just like spoken language, musical language is inconsistent and subject to variation in dialect. So the commonly used term ‘the rules of music’ might be better replaced by ‘the norms of music’.

Very young children can be observed to respond to the simpler elements of beat and rhythm in the same way that their first spoken words are likely to be concrete nouns... mama, puppy, car. They can be seen to attempt to clap in time to a beat even if their motor skills don’t yet permit accuracy. But behind the scenes, the child’s amazing brain is busy sucking up wordless information about other elements of music as well. Chords, harmonic structure, scales, counterpoint, chromaticism, tonality. Yes, you too already have all these concepts stored between your ears, even if you have no idea at all what the words mean.

As with language acquisition, this certainly doesn’t happen in any organized or set sequential way. As the child acquires more and more experiences of music, she is increasingly able to distill what is statistically ‘normal’, even though unable to verbalize it. Each new piece of music heard is subconsciously compared to the child’s memory bank of musical experiences, and assessed as familiar or new – or somewhere in-between. A chord of C during a nursery rhyme is highly likely to be followed by a chord of F or G7... and children quickly learn to hear it as ‘normal’ (ie ‘good’). If that chord of C were to be followed by F#minor, the child’s ear might register slight alarm/discomfort to the extent that the chord sequence didn’t match any previous experiences (ie, 'bad').

Statistical predictability such as this certainly applies at an early age to simple elements like rhythm and beat. For example, most of our music is grouped in 2 or 4 beats, sometimes 3 or 6, but rarely 5 or 7.  However, children in Africa grow up accepting 5 beat patterns as entirely normal. Dave Brubeck’s piece ‘Take Five’ (1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5) is an example from our end of the planet, but it is a relatively rare beast. There is a mere handful of English folksongs in 5 beats, but the list virtually stops there.  Children grow into adults not ‘understanding’ (= not liking) such music simply because it doesn’t conform to their unconsciously acquired norms. If a child could verbalize her feelings, she might say: This song feels a bit strange... I don’t seem to be able to clap along to it like I can in other songs’.  However, it would come far more easily to an African child. And to me as a western composer it offers a wonderful and refreshingly asymmetric rhythmic option, in conscious contradiction of the norms I absorbed as a child.

Our informal musical 'education' can be regarded as lifelong indoctrination or passive brain-washing.  By constantly drip-feeding conventional music into our ears, the boundaries of what music ‘should’ be are slowly and effectively laid down in stone.  Musical tastes are established and solidified from a surprisingly tender age.  Proof?  Japanese children imbibe the subtleties of the bent notes of Japanese koto music. Indian children absorb ragas and microtones into their very essence. And all of us in the West can tell immediately when someone has played a ‘wrong note’ in their piano piece.* 

So, by adulthood, we have all developed a pretty keen sense of what is ‘normal’ in music, what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, appropriate or inappropriate, and therefore (by extension) what we evaluate as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Unsurprisingly – and unfortunately – radio programs of new music are mostly scheduled in late night time-slots, well away from prime time when innocent vulnerable children might get to benefit from them.

Most conventional music we hear has a high degree of predictability from moment to moment. Press the ‘stop’ button at any random point during a piece of music, and ask the average adult ‘non-musician’ to try to imagine what will happen next. Most times, after you play through the passage again, they will indicate “Yep, that’s pretty much what I thought might happen”.  They are invoking their subconsciously acquired understandings of the rules/norms of expectation. As Winston Churchill quipped: ‘Commonsense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen’.

So when a visitor trots out the usual ‘I-don’t-know-anything-about-music’ comment, I smile inside and assure them that the only real difference between them and me is the fact that I have learned the skill of writing down the sounds which both of us already understand.
This principle applies equally well to composers and musicians. Ned Rorem wrote:  Composition is notation of distortion of what composers think they've heard before [...] Masterpieces are marvellous misquotations. And Howard Dietz quipped: Composers shouldn't think too much - it interferes with their plagiarism.  These apparently frivolous comments in fact reflect the basis upon which a lot of my own music is predicated.  Yep, where there's smoke, there's fire. I like to inhabit that dangerous, murky and ambiguous zone between the Conventional and the Different, between the Expected and the Unexpected. 

When chewing my pencil and staring at a scarily blank page of music manuscript, my compositional starting point is the culturally-acquired musical expectations all my listeners have. Like all of us, I too have learned what is ‘normal’ in music. Then, like a cat plays with a mouse, I lull my unsuspecting listener into subconsciously predicting what might come next, then mischievously swerve sideways into something quite different. After all, why bother writing something if someone else has already written it?  Yadda yadda...
 * Ultimately, it can be argued that there is no such thing as a ‘wrong note’ – it actually depends on intention and on what happens immediately following the ‘wrong’ note in order to 'resolve' it. Context is everything. As Alhaji Ibrahim Abdulai said, half-jokingly, Every mistake is a new style’.
So, be very careful when approaching my music. It's dangerous. It can suddenly turn on you when you least expect it :) In particular, I have a fondness for taking irreconcilable opposites and watching what happens when they're mixed together...

1 comment:

  1. that is the most awsome thing i've ever seen in my whole intire life!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D