Thursday, February 02, 2006

Marimba Fusion

After my music theory lesson this evening (I'm getting some extra instruction in "counterpoint," the interplay of voices in a composition), my teacher invited me to stick around for a masterclass with his fellow music composition graduate students. The event: composer Steven Mackey would be discussing and playing a recording of his piece "Time Release," a concerto for the marimba. I'm glad I took my tutor up on the offer to attend — it was just like a book reading at Barnes and Noble, but with a bunch of grad students and professors (and me) crowded around two large scores doing nothing but listening. I thought for a minute that maybe I had found the most perfect circumstances in which to listen to music. It was like a Zaireeka listening party, only without the intense audience interaction and the recreational drugs.

As interesting as the virtuosic lines for the marimba was the composer's discussion of how he wrote them. Mackey chose sets of four notes from a page that listed groups of "pitch-class sets," a page more or less randomly chosen from a stack of papers all with these lists. Committed to using some of the "sets" on only that one page, Mackey decided to make much of the composition depend on manipulations of these simple sets. Explaining this new composing style, he referred to one of the greatest movies of all time — in particular, the scene in Back to the Future in which Doc Brown powers his time machine with whatever garbage (banana peels, etc.) he can get into the Mr. Fusion fuel tank. Mackey called his pitch-class sets his own "banana peels," whereas his older use of groups of tones — one that may well have yielded similar results to his new methods — was a much more convoluted and painstaking process. I couldn't explain it if I tried, but it supposedly resembed Doc's need to get and use Plutonium nabbed from Libyan terrorists. Is music "better" just because you work harder to get the same sounds? If you might get the same result because you thought about it real hard, does that mean you make better music? Those questions are oversimplified, but Mackey made a compelling case that the answer to both is no.

I also learned tonight that the marimba can sound a hell of a lot like the cowbell. Expect to hear more cowbell in upcoming posts.

My music theory homework: compose canons in two and three voices. I'm in the dark as much as you are. I'll never have the patience to be a composer — but I hope my work for next week's lesson sounds better than a few banana peels thrown into a time machine.


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