‘Theory is a Recipe for Style’ (James Tenney) – entry 01

TenneyJames Tenney – Cellogram (1972)

James Tenney used to say that “theory is a recipe for style”.

This idea has led me to many fascinating musical spaces.

To think outside of the conventions of style, which represent evolutions of cultural preferences that define how musical materials are to be organized. Just as no two people experience music in the same way, no two cultures share exactly the same values, preferences, ways of listening, consumption, function, attention…

Technology is one key factor in the shaping of musical style.

Here’s a rough list of human innovations that influence the way we hear, make, and feel music. Chronology is rough and somewhat speculative. New innovations rely on previous innovations.

  • auditory system (no, not a human invention, but an invention of our gene pool)
  • speech/dance/calls/
  • stone tools
  • bone flutes
  • drums
  • guitars
  • keyboards
  • notation
  • phonograph
  • synthesis
  • sampling

Our attempt is to understand how we respond to technological, environmental, political, religious, moral, wealth, well-being… through music.

As we measure and analyze musical activity, we rarify, simplify, quantify. We draw lines through nature, and break it into little parts and larger parts, decide what elements are most important and how to represent them in two-dimensional forms.

The moment of listening is the first imposition where we preference our attention, or respond to, particular elements of the music. Many people listen to songs and hear the words foremost. Some listen holistically (never completely), some listen for melodic invention, rhythmic intensity, spectral interferences, contrasts in timbre, texture, bass line, some just move, work, play, unaware of where their attention lies.

The ear (body, ear, brain, eyes (?), are always hearing, but we don’t always listen. Perhaps that should be the other way around. Our ears are always on. The input is continually monitored for meaningful information (like a soldier on night patrol (who may be asleep or attentive), or wired to be triggered by a sensor).

Theory is useful in some ways.

  1. It gives us labels for specific musical events we wish to draw attention to, and develop our ears for. A ‘C major’ chord is a category of pitch interactions of certain qualia. We could describe it in a number of ways, but we’ll just tell you that it is any arrangement of the notes C, E and G shown here on this 5-line staff or on this keyboard.
  2. We could describe chords more specifically, as in figured bass which is more precise in describing the voicing of the chord (which note is lowest: C, E or G?).
    1. Figured bass is more specific. it differentiates more finely the difference between root position and inversions (which may not have been thought of as inversions, merely chord types). And admit it, they sound distinct from each other…
  3. Measuring things can help us develop awareness for types of events.

[more to add here]

A visual artist sees the world and ‘reflects it in their art’ (Neil Peart). The artist inflects what they see with their imagination: their psyche, their perspective, their unique life circumstances, their taste, their exposure and appreciation of cultural styles. They inflect the work of art with their experience, which is set against all which has come before that led to the moment of the artistic creation. This is the case in any field of (human) activity. Each work becomes the special case, though not usually ‘special’ in relation to all art work through time and place. Just pretty much a fact of nature and evolution Continue reading “‘Theory is a Recipe for Style’ (James Tenney) – entry 01”

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