Setting out to map how I deal with texture in my music, mentally as well as structurally, an important clarifying question would go something like “what do I map when I map texture”.
I realized early on that crucial among the perspectives through which to look at texture would be a dimensional/parametrical position.
The seemingly simple question of “what are the relevant dimensions of music to me” or “what are in my mind the main dimensions of musical texture” could then work as a starting point. In reality it would be articulated as What are the relevant parameters of variation in my music?
Conventional Western understanding consider the dimensions of music to be rhythm, melody and harmony. Most artists that I know to would add dynamics and timbre, though those dimensions were not part of European notation until the classicism era. For some improvisers, melody and harmony could be regarded as both closely related to pitch, leaving us with four, as in this wonderful quote by Sissel Endresen: “Of the musical dimensions pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre, never forget that pitch is the least important” It seemed obvious to me to compare this general position with the nine dimensions that Marilyn Nonken lays out in her PhD thesis, “An ecological approach to music perception: stimulus-driven listening and the Complexity Repertoire", 1999:
Toneness, Amplitude Flux, Rhythm, Horisontal density, Vertical density, Gestural repetition, Pitch salience, Process, Silence.
Among the aims of Nonkens theory is an ambition to propose a paradigm for understanding the possible reactions of our perceptive system to music from the “New Complexity” repertoire. Even though it is coming from another aesthetic than mine, it is highly relevant to my project. Considering Nonken’s list, and how far it is from the “regular” view of music’s four dimensions made a number of things clear to me:
Primarily, that we can understand the parameters of music in many more ways than our habitual thinking patterns normally allow us to do.
Secondly, that the dimensions that Nonken mention all are real and audible, to the degree of being comprehensible and recognizable to even the pre-educated perceptive system, not just within a paradigm of music theory. This means, I believe, that music composed or conceived of through the lens of such a system could potentially show the listener new ways of listening, relating to the concepts of parameter within the compositional process.
Thirdly, that I see no obvious reason why the list has to stop after exactly nine dimensions – depending on which music it aims to describe, that is. For me as an artist, this means that one of the most obvious next things to do after considering Nonken’s list of nine dimensions would be to try to make a longer list that relates to one’s own concept of music. I will return to that in a bit.
Fourthly, having listened to Anthony Braxton’s music and read his writings over several decades, that an extended comment needs to be made right here:
Anthony Braxton has in his ”Language music” defined 12 musical language types. The system is vast in its use and implications, and a full explanation is not the aim of this exposition. Braxton’s language types are named:
Accented Long Sounds
Staccato Line Formings
Comparing Braxton’s list of language types to Nonken’s list of dimensions, and upon having read books by George Lakoff, Paul Ricoeur and George Lewis recently, I could not help to consider the following observations:
The underlying differences and relations in thought systems and aesthetics aside, the main difference between the two lists is obvious: Nonken describes parameters or dimensions, whereas Braxton names positions in his dimensions of choice. If Braxton’s list were to be revisited as a list of dimensions, the dimensions could be, a.o.:
Note length (long – short, staccato – legato),
Degree of accentuation (accented – not accented),
Type of modulation, if any (trills, etc.),
Level of timbral distortion (multiphonics etc.),
Degree of angularity,
(I am painfully aware that this approach does not give full justice to Braxton’s concept, but bear with me, this will soon connect in a way relevant to the project described here. And, moreover, the aim of this text is not to research on Braxton, but to explain the chain of though in the Sonic Complexion project)
If, on the contrary, Nonken’s list of dimensions were to be turned into “language types” or “positions” in those dimensions, we would find positions / language types such as
Sounds with constantly shifting velocities (a high degree of amplitude flux),
Sounds with constant velocities (very little amplitude flux),
Many registers or sounds at once (high degree of vertical density),
Only few sounds at once (low degree of vertical density),
Fast actions (high degree of horizontal density),
Slow actions (low degree of horizontal density),
To weave a number of threads in the above into one rug, consider:
George Lakoff argues that abstract concepts are embodied in our metaphorical cognition through their similarities to our earlier experiences. In this view, we need to be able to understand in an embodied way the abstract concepts that we apply, to allow our embodied intuition to work within these concepts.
The so called “first Darmstadt school” of European post-WW2 composition in the 50’s & 60’s did, in the pursuit of nie erhörte Klänge, to paraphrase Karl Aage Rasmussen, considered any repetition of previously heard music to be off limits to New Music, and thus ended up partly “painting itself into a corner”. By means of the “avoidance of repetition of any known element”, the obvious next step was the “obsession with parameter”, since thinking in terms of parameters would appear on the surface as being less contaminated by earlier practice than thinking in terms of (recognizable) elements or gestalts/gestures.
George Lewis uses the terms afrological and eurological to describe different approaches to music-making in socio-cultural circles drawing on respectively European versus African cultural baggage.
I will question whether our subconscious cognition can deal with parameter in an embodied way, nearly as closely as our cognition can subconsciously deal with elements, gestures and gestalts: Is our embodied metaphorical cognition – which Lakoff as well as Ricoeur argue is the root of all cognition – able to create new artistic material in an intuitive way when thinking in parameter, or do we have to think in elements to activate our embodied intuition?
Is it a coincidence that the “parameter focused” Darmstadt school has brought its believers to a point where the systematics of “New Music” composition educations are at risk of delegitimizing young composer’s intuitive ideas? I notice that Nonken, speaking from a very clearly eurological position, applies a chain of thought that perfectly describes how the music in question operates. However, this tradition of consequently parametrical chain of thought also could be an accomplice in painting the composition departments of the western world into that infamous corner.
I notice that Braxton, who is working from a mixture of afrological and eurological concepts, is a highly productive artist, and is obviously able to continuously create contemporary, radically abstract art without struggling with allowing his intuition to be part of a highly reflected process.
And thus, I ask myself: does the secret ingredient that Braxton has found relate to his concept being focused on elements, not parameters? IF so, would this then be a way of articulating from a cognition perspective some of the general differences between an afrological and an eurological approach to material structuring mental representations? In that case, this could be a cognition-theoretical explanation why afrological art forms have been so successful in providing so much “… latitude for creativity … (across) the field of so called Art” during the 20th century. Or, to ask the same question the opposite way around: Did eurological patterns of thinking place the textural parameters of music in an ivory tower away from the domain of intuition, due to it’s theoretical abstraction into non-embody-able concepts? Or, did the parametrical thinking become the actual building blocks of the ivory tower?
All of the above pointed me clearly towards the next step in my own project: I made the long list of relevant parameters of variation in my music. The perpetually evolving list goes something like this:
Dynamics: loud or soft, ff, mp, sfzp, etc. / Many or few dynamic levels? / vertical dynamic contrast / horisontal dynamic contrast / crescendos & diminuendos / dynamic changes after attacks?
Note- & sound- & sonic qualities: Clean – distorted / harsh – soft / pitch - noise / Short notes - Long notes / accents? / Staccato - legato / Intonation relations / degree of intonation stability
Registers: which registers / high - low / how many registers (density) / width of registers (tessituras)
Densities: registral spacing of events (vertical density) / Wide pitch – narrow pitch (registral density) / Interval sizes - large, small, few, many? / Degree of spaciousness (Horisontal density) / degree of harmonic complexity / degree of tonal or melodic complexity / The density – rhythm continuum.
Rhythmic dimensions: Recurrences & repetitions? / loops vs transitions? / Pulse: how much pulse, how many pulses / tempo of pulse / tempo of actions (speed / density) / slowing down vs speeding up? / degree of polyrhythmic content / Approach to subdivisions / tempo & pulse & meter & rhythm & groove
Form and process: Short phrases vs long phrases / Rests – many vs few, long vs short / linear - scattered / epic - broken / static vs development vs permutation vs change / Expressive vs neutral / motivic vs stokastic
Surface fabric & tactility & texture: degree of harmonic complexity / degree of tonal/melodic complexity / unison vs chordal vs choral vs counterpointal etc. / counterpoint by notes vs by rhythms vs by character / ”more than one kind of music at once” / instrumentation / featured soloists
Effects: playing techniques incl. extended technique (arco – pizz, sticks-mallets-brushes, insidepno-keys, multiphonics-clean, growl-clean, ponticello-normal) / sounding materials: wood/ metal/ air/ skin/ breath/ whistling / Tremolo? / Note repetitions? / Level of distortion? / Spectral disturbance?
… etc. …
Then, at least as important, I made a post-Braxton-translation of each of these parameters into elements/values similar to the translation that I applied to Nonken’s list in the above section. And, after that, I considered each parameter as a possible domain for change in the music.
 I define “relevant parameters of variation” as parameters that could be turned one way in one piece or section, and the other way in another piece, by the same artist.
 In conversation, 2013
 Karl Aage Rasmussen: Musik i det 20. Århundrede – en fortælling.
 George Lewis: “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives”
 ]“No culture or community of people have provided as much latitude for creativity and uplifted as many other cultures as the African experience and input into the field of so called Art.” - statement on the cover of At Ensemble of Chicago: Fanfare for the Warriors.
 In this sentence, and in the ” Card Decks” section to the right, I use the term ”Elements” in the following way: What actually is named on each ”element card”, is a ”value” in a musical parameter or dimension. E.g, in the dimension ”dynamics”, element card values could be e.g. loud, soft, mf, ppp, etc. In the dimension ”degree of distortion”, element card values could be e.g. ”clean”, ”distorted”, ”from pitch to noise”, etc. – and so forth.