Sunday 25 August 2013

Four Climaxes and a Theory (a musical question about information)

I've written before about musical climaxes - particularly the Liebestod at the end of Tristan and Isolde (see and What's interesting is that at these extraordinary moments, there is a feeling (in me at least - and I don't think I'm alone) of realisation - I say to myself "now this is what the last 3 hours or so has been all about..". It's the 'aboutness' of the moment that's interesting. Because 'aboutness' is a fundamental aspect of how we make sense of the world more generally. It is fundamental to information, it is fundamental to our concepts of education, curriculum, competency and the dreaded 'learning outcomes' (if only they were in the slightest bit 'climactic'!!) as well underpinning human relationships. "What is this really about?" is a powerful question.

There are other climaxes to consider in music. It is largely a 'romantic period' thing. Although, I would count Purcell's "Hear my prayer" as containing a wonderful pre-romantic example. The classical style doesn't really lend itself to climaxes, being more dialectical with contrast and balance providing the structural force. In the romantic and modern period, I've been thinking about the end of Mahler's 2nd Symphony as another example, and  a bit  later, the 'Libera Me' from Britten's War Requiem. These four examples share some common features.

The first feature is an increase in redundancies: motifs pile on motifs, often becoming shorter and shorter (a process sometimes referred to as 'liquidation'). In the Britten (and in the Purcell) this motivic 'piling on' is done contrapuntally - different voices echo the motifs after one another. In Wagner, the liquidation is done in one voice (the lyrical accompaniment to Isolde), gradually reducing to the 3-note rising chromatic, with occasional rhythmic variations. What is also important for Wagner is, of course, the harmonic background, which gradually winds itself up the cycle of 5ths. For Vincent D'Indy (see, this winding up is a means of increasing tension - for D'Indy, it sets up the inevitable release of tension through falling back (moving down, going flat) along the upward tonal path. The tonality plays an even more fundamental role in the Mahler, where the initially soft prayer-like homophonic chorus subtly transforms the tonal landcape of the last movement, leading to the most 'scrunchy' and ecstatic dominant chord in music for the moment of resolution (and revelation).

Music analysts, like information analysts, tend to overlook the redundancies. But I think this is the most important thing. As Loet Leydesdorff is saying very clearly now (see redundancies have an autocatalytic effect, which work on both the manifestation and expectation of information. But the question is, in music, what is autocatalysed? How does this autocatalysis lead to the experience of climax? In what way is the impression "this is what it's about" created?

There are two things to say here. First, the motivic redundancy and the tonal movements are both varieties of redundancy. Understanding tonal shifts as redundancy is perhaps not obvious. However, tonal shifts are accompanied by motivic repetition. There is a shifting ground of expectation which causes increased redundancy and expanded expectations. Secondly, there is a point beyond which expectation cannot be managed. I think this is because expectations depend on a form of double-contingency (after Parsons). Behind this double-contingency is the principle of engagement with music that Boris Asafiev calls 'intonation'. At some point we might wish to 'sing' (at least in our head), and this is the expression of our expectation. But might this expression of expectation be dependent on what we might expect others to intone to the music? I think it might. The expression of the 'universal' in music underpins its fundamental character, and this universality is not an individual experience.

The climax builds around expectations which are created through double-contingencies in an imagined environment of ourselves and others. As the redundancies pile on, autocatalysis increases the complexity of this environment. It becomes harder and harder to hold on to the double-contingencies. Notionally, it becomes  harder and harder to hold on to the things which maintain the identity which we made for ourselves (through listening to the piece until this point). At some point, it has to fall apart. In everyday life, we might say "sod it!"; in music, we climax. I think what might then happen is that the structure of our expectations atomises. All we are left with is redundancy, and gradually we begin to build something new.

This process is clearly what happens in the Britten. In Wagner, the liquidation is simply the end of the piece. In Mahler, there is a kind of apotheosis. In Purcell, the thing is a bit more controlled, and determined by the logic of the vocal lines, but there is little doubt that the 'cry' in Purcell has brought us to a different place by the end.

Why this is important is another question. By musical climaxes are 'playful' in the sense of not being real. Yet the transformation they effect can carry over into 'normal life', even if it is merely down to the value of the catharsis.

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