Thursday, 23 April 2015

Living Lines, Tippett's music and the #wearedamo Protest

I find that moments of crisis are often accompanied by a mental soundtrack. I have peculiar musical tastes, I certainly have a crisis at the moment, and my soundtrack is the later music of Michael Tippett. Tippett's music is music of political defiance, of energy, drive, optimism and struggle. There is, it has only recently occurred to me (I have been thinking about this music for over 25 years!), a particular property that creates these qualities: it is a fundamental melodic (usually scalic) line which is punctuated by extraneous elements, twiddles, outlying notes, that give the line life. Tippett's musical line exhibits the same dynamics identified in Terry Deacon's information theory: it has an orthograde tendency in the melody itself (on its own it would lose energy, become dull) - this produces entropy; but working against it is a contragrade tendency, introducing variety, and consequently countering the entropy (feeding information, in fact). Tippett always believed in the connection between music and politics, and I think in this aspect of his language, he makes a connection between the fundamental properties of the human spirit and the content of sound.

I was thinking about this as I chatted to student protesters outside my university who are giving up every lunchtime to wave placards in support of the reinstatement of one of their teachers and his wife who were summarily dismissed with no evidence of wrongdoing (see That's the human spirit! And it is probably the most profound educational act that these students will undertake; the thing they will remember with most passion. Education is, after all, about doing things that matter. You can sign their petition here:

But to come back to the music: I think this kind of passion and determination has a line. What is moving and important about these protests is that despite the fact one can feel quite silly waving banners accusing University managers of things which I won't repeat here, the embarrassment is overridden by a sense of common purpose, humanity, conviviality, justice, coordination and determination. It happens spontaneously when people feel strongly enough about things. Tippett would have been there (he went to prison for his beliefs!).

So what do I mean about 'lines'? Here's a typical Tippett accompaniment from his opera "King Priam":

There are two things to say about this. Firstly, one can identify a scalic line nested within outlying notes. In this particular case, there are one or two possibilities, but basically it could be:
The second point is to ask about what the other notes are doing. One of the things they are doing is providing a regular semiquaver rhythm. This is a kind of rhythmic redundancy which creates the expectation of drive and momentum. But above that regular rhythmic redundancy, there is irregularity in the patterns that are surrounding the scalic notes, and this is a particular feature that is very noticeable in much of Tippett's music from the early (and beautiful) concerto for double string orchestra, and the first string quartet, onwards. What is this irregularity doing? It is introducing surprise, or in other words, it is introducing something which counteracts the otherwise formless regularity of the rhythm and the scales. What would the music be like if it only consisted of the red circled notes played in a regular semiquaver rhythm? Boring! Played without a semiquaver rhythm? Even more boring! What is that boringness? It is entropy. What stops it being boring? The injection of irregularity and surprise. 

Maybe I am stretching things too far to say that this is precisely the same dynamic as the dynamics of protest. But there does appear to be an othograde and a contragrade force. The orthograde force in the regularity and redundancy; the contragrade in the surprises. Put together it takes on life, energy, drive.

More importantly, the experience of the music can instil energy and drive in the listener. Tippett's neglected opera "The Ice Break" received a remarkable revival a couple of weeks ago by Birmingham opera in an abandoned warehouse in Birmingham city centre. (see a fantastic review here: The opera is about political dissent and the human condition, and features race riots and shootings with the kind of Jungian references that one would expect from Tippett. The audience was part of the crowd: we found ourselves marshalled around by police carrying semi-automatic rifles as someone standing next to you would start to sing, whilst you witness somebody else getting mugged. The experience was thrilling because the injustice - although made up - hits you in the face. The human spirit reacts in the only way it knows how. Tippett had a fascination with the Jacobean Masque partly because the audience in the 17th century became part of the drama, and that 17th century spirit was a core part of Birminham opera's production (it couldn't possibly have worked in Covent Garden!)

In the world of Universities, the lines are obscure: it is difficult to tell where the drama is, who the actors are, who the spectators are. Education is fragmented, disparate and confusing: there are orthograde and contragrade forces at work but there is seldom a chance to get a feel for the dynamic of the whole thing. When circumstances arise where everyone comes together and collectively says "NO!" it is a special moment. It's the identification of a line and the determination of purpose.

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