Mp3 Blog #33: Music as Entropy

Music as Entropy:

Iannis Xenakis:
”Herma” (1961)
Performed by Aki Takahashi
For solo piano
Available on this compact disc featuring some piano works by Xenakis

Yo La Tengo:
”Green Arrow”
Available on ”I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One”

Gérard Grisey:
”Partiels” (1975)
For 18 musicians
Performers unknown
Another performance by Ensemble Court-Circuit and the Frankfurter Museumorchestra available on Grisey’s “Les Espace Acoustiques”

Joanna Newsom:
”En Gallop”
Available on charming album ”The Milk-Eyed Mender”

* * * * *

As a result of the impasse in serial music, as well as other causes, I originated in 1954 a music constructed from the principle of indeterminism [or entropy]. …other paths also led to the same crossroads first of all, natural events such as the collision of hail or rain with hard surfaces, or the song of cicadas in a summer field. These sonic events are made out of thousands of isolated sounds; this multitude of sounds, seen as totality, is a new sonic event. This mass event is articulated and forms a plastic mold of time, which itself follows aleatory and stochastic laws. If one then wishes to form a large mass of point-notes, such as string pizzicati, one must know these mathematical laws, which, in any case, are no more than a tight and concise expression of chains of logical reasoning. Everyone has observed the sonic phenomena of a political crowd of dozens of hundred of thousands of people. The human river shouts a slogan in a uniform rhythm. Then another slogan springs from the head of the demonstration; it spreads toward the tail, replacing the first. A wave of transition thus passes from the head to the tail … The statistical laws of these events, separated from their political or moral context, are the same as those of the cicadas or the rain. They are the laws of the passage from complete order to total disorder in a continuous or explosive manner. They are stochastic laws.

-Iannis Xenakis, ”Formalized Music; thought and mathematics in composition”

In a former life, I studied Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona. What drew me to the subject the most were the explanations and discoveries of the beautiful entropic reactions that kept us alive. Although I’ve never been a religious person, every time I would learn about something like a simple internal cellular reaction it seemed like I gained some, however slight, insight into an internal perfection present in all things.

The nature of laboratory work and the politics of scientific research turned me off of ever completing my Bachelor’s of Science, but fortunately I think I found a place for a more sublime form of dignity through expression in music.

Recently, I discovered Xenakis’ remarkably lucid description (quoted above) of how through the movement of disorder, or entropy, music can display the exact same naturalism that one finds in organic life forms. Since early this the summer I’ve made a concerted effort to see this entropy beauty, not only in so-called “stochastic music,” but all forms of music that I love. So, this is my first attempt at finding a logical link (albeit a rather experimental one) for posting more popular song-form music at the same time as more abstract contemporary music.

Although Xenakis called “Herma” symbolic music – writing the piece as one his many early self-pedagogical experiments – I find that the piece beautifully contains the winds pelting from a storm that carries both varying intensities of rain and countless swells of electrically ricocheting balls of crystalline hail.

In contrast, the more conventional foreground in Yo La Tengo’s (who I saw put on one thoroughly ass-kicking show on Saturday) “Green Arrow” follows the pace of one walking through a field whereas the background is the slowly transforming sound-mass of cicadas (or grasshoppers or locusts) that Xenakis explains above.

In Grisey’s “Partiels” (which I just couldn’t resist posting twice), one primarily hears the movement of crowds from order towards disorder, from disorder to order, and crossing over each other.

Joanna Newsom’s “En Gallop” begins with a slow and almost tentative harp introduction before the long first verse paints a haunting portrait of the transience in our existence. Afterwards, in the second verse, a disordered and increasing emptiness surreal-y pulls the meaning from the lyrics almost representing the foreboding final dissipation that the first verse hints at. Over the summer, after taking a year to understand this song, I had a dream where I tried to help a ghost dissipate only to realize that almost everybody I saw was a ghost.

* * *

Outside of the general topic of this post, I’d like to mention that I saw Joanna Newsom put on an amazing show last night to a silently rapt and sold-out audience at the Ukraine Federation as part of Pop Montréal. In the concert she alternated five songs from her last charmingly sloppy album ”The Milk-Eyed Mender” with four breathtaking epic songs from her forthcoming album ”Ys” (which was produced by Van Dyke Parks, Jim O’Rourke, and Steve Albini). Last night and on “Ys” Joanna Newson’s playing and singing have advanced light-years and her new songs inhabit such a unique and grandiose emotional universe that it is almost hard to recognize the transformation she has gone through. In a way, it is a hard album to take, but when it comes out on November 14th, it is definitely not one too be missed.

If you’d like to read a more detailed description of “Ys,” I recommend reading Jordan’s posting on it over at a favorite mp3 blog Said the Gramophone. I personally think I may still be a little too shaken up after last night and other things going on in my life right now to trust myself in being able to make that much sense.

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