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Salons 1 & 2 • Saturday morning, 9:00–10:30

Form and Sound Quality

Seth Monahan (Eastman School of Music), Chair

Frank Lehman (Tufts University)

Form and Ignorability in Ambient Music

Blair Johnston (Indiana University)

Sound-Quality Modulation in Sibelius's Orchestral Works

Abstracts

Form and Ignorability in Ambient Music

Frank Lehman (Tufts University)

Brian Eno's famous dictum concerning ambient music, that “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting,” presents a curious challenge to analysts. To the extent that analysis reflects listener responses to music, then interpretations of ambient compositions should reckon with the ebb and flow of attention. The ambient style is often framed as non-hierarchical, non-teleological, and sometimes even non-intentional. If these qualities are true, and ambient music floats in a vaporous “vertical time” with no figure/ground distinction, then traditional formal analysis—the study of how events and sections are coordinated to shape musical wholes—would seem a tenuous prospect.

In this talk, I present a case for investigating ambient music in terms of larger formal structures than normally acknowledged by either fans or creators. To ensure I do not neglect the “ignorability” contingency, I invert two established analytical paradigms. First, I devise a set of analytical un-salience conditions: gestures and attitudes that permit tuning out the music. Second, I flip Fink's (2005) notion of recombinant teleology, arguing that ambient music often exhibits overlapping strategies for masking or subverting goal-directedness.

Following illustrative examples from various artists, I offer a large-scale case-study, The Magnificent Void (1996) by composer Steve Roach. Using spectrographic visualizations, I isolate a number of structures that give Void a foggy but persistent sense of internal memory. My case for “symphonic” architecture is bolstered by a reduction that traces timbral and tonal design over the course of the album, focusing especially on relative spectral/timbral brightness and toneness/noisiness.

Sound-Quality Modulation in Sibelius's Orchestral Works

Blair Johnston (Indiana University)

In this paper, I analyze timbral and dynamic characteristics in five passages by Sibelius and I consider how these dimensions of sound interact with form and harmony in post-Romantic orchestral music. Sibelius offers vivid case studies. His is music in which complex musical structures are orchestrated in highly individual ways; in which form, material, and sounds themselves sometimes blur.

My idea here is “modulation”—not in the usual musical sense, but in a sense borrowed from acoustics and electronics: varying the envelope of one signal according to the envelope of another signal. I mean this as metaphor, as a way to evoke expressive experiences I have had with this music and radiate outward toward general observations. Information about form and harmony suggests certain experiential envelopes—genre- and style-sensitive carriers, so to speak. Sound-quality curves shape and reshape these envelopes, resulting in modulated analytical hearings that can reflect listening experience, where sound qualities, formal understanding, and harmonic-melodic apperceptions affect each other deeply.

One goal is to fold measurable sonic dimensions into interpretive accounts based on time-tested music-analytical methodologies. At the same time, I want to suggest some ways that the study of orchestral music might draw upon spectromorphological and audio-analytic approaches. In the five Sibelius passages, intensifications and relaxations in timbral/dynamic envelopes do not line up neatly with formal/harmonic intensifications and relaxations. These sound-quality modulations thus involve complex processes of amplification and attenuation across different dimensions. I find such situations to be of special expressive interest in post-Romantic music.