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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


On Borrowed Time

by Noah Creshevsky


When times are good and many of us have more of almost anything than we really need, borrowing becomes a possibility, and lending a joy.

"Borrowed Time" (released on Centaur 2194) is an electroacoustic composition composed of minute fragments of vocal music dating from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries. Each sample consists of a solitary musical event, the duration of which is generally shorter than one second. I generated melodies, phrases, and harmonic progres-sions by arranging and rearranging tiny bits of embryonic musical matter. Allusions to Middle Eastern, Asian, and Western sacred and secular music (including opera) seek to integrate a vast spectrum of sources to form a unified musical fabric.

For many years, I have sought to expand the palette from which music is made. While my constant goal has been the creation of a series of compositions, my ongoing work to expand the musical palette has also been a conscious tribute to social and political models that embrace the many as opposed to the few.

New York City, my longtime home, has become home to so many nationalities that a walk through its neighborhoods resembles a world tour. Movement in support of a more comprehensive "politics of inclusion" reflects a multicultural society that has not previously existed at the current level. (Former New York mayor David Dinkins called the cityís ethnic mix a "gorgeous mosaic.") Happily, it is in no sense possible to select and characterize todayís "typical" New Yorker. The evolving (if fragile) co-existence among the cityís diverse cultures suggests to me that a harmonious co-existence of widely disparate musical elements is also a viable possibility.

Ethnomusicology, formerly a relatively rare specialty despite the work of a few pioneers, is a hot topic today, a growth industry among scholars in an academic arena without many fertile options. Soon, perhaps, the fundamentally patronizing prefix "ethno" will be elimi-nated. The dictionary has it right, even now: "musicology, n. The historical and scientific study of music" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

World music is more homogenous today than it used to be. Mass international distribution of recordings and films has largely blurred distinctions between regional styles. Laypeople do not make many conscious judgments regarding the music they hear. Movie audiences do not wonder if soundtracks use real orchestras or synthesizers (or mixtures of both). They do not know or care enough about musical particulars to realize that scores can be assembled from widely divergent periods and styles. Musical syncretism abounds as traditions of various cultures combine with the pervasive "international" film to form a quirky blend at once local and global.

We cannot blink to close our ears the way we blink to shut our eyes. Nonetheless, we make great efforts to "improve" ourselves by become "discriminating" listeners. One legitimate aim of education is the development of faculties of discrimination. A baby who puts everything in his mouth must learn that some things cannot be eaten. Fire is hot in fact, not by cultural fiat.

I have no quarrel with discrimination (though it sometimes has its quarrels with me); discrimination has its place, but it often does not know its place. Discrimination comes at the price of a loss of openness to the new, the different, the "other." Like everyone, I love those twelve notes, but whatís wrong with all the other sounds? I canít eat them, but if I could they wouldnít hurt me any more or less than pitches played on standard instruments. Sounds donít burn like fire, but some are shunned and excluded from our musical vocabulary. I think that is a loss and a shame. They ought to be put back into our ears, where they once entered freely, all together.

In good times, when lenders and borrowers co-exist in relative harmony, the notion that a "penny saved is a penny earned" becomes dubious, even as improbable metaphor. Routinely mandatory celebrations of "economy of means" that accompany lectures on, say, a Bach invention or a Beethoven symphony, should not be affirmed without question. The dogma that less is more is stubbornly rooted in a tradition built on shortage, hunger, deprivation, and denial. In many instances bigger is better and more is, in fact, more. There is no inalienable merit in economy. Parsimony in the absence of famine is neither prudent nor appropriate. Stinginess is not a virtue, even in Western society, even during bad times.

A musical palette or a composition can be small, but it can also be big. It can be economical, but it can also not be economical. Music can, in fact, be extravagant. Bounty invites jubilation. Enjoy! Save pennies, if you must, but there are rainforests--and lives-- that really need saving. We are no richer for erecting a brick wall around the material with which we make music. We have saved nothing when we save a note.

Listening to music, after all, is a passive activity. While television is customarily cited as the principal nonactivity of our time, listening to music--both at home and in public--is a highly passive event. Like going to the movies, the most active part of attending concerts is the physical act of getting to the hall. Listening to music at home, like watching televi-sion, allows some small degree of participation, since home settings permit verbal and physical action and reaction beyond what is appropriate in public theaters. At home, we can at least talk back. Whether we talk to each other or to ourselves, any activity is more animated than what takes place at the movies or in concert halls.

Despite its reputation as an antidote to intellectual and spiritual decline, reading can be no less passive than its arch rival, television. How rigorously we were taught to make no marks in the books we read--and this meant not only library books, but also personal books. All books (except coloring books and game books) were to be read, usually to our-selves, and occasionally in small groups. They were to be left (like protected national parks) in the same pristine state in which they were found.

Much has changed: Cinemas have nearly succumbed to televisions. Televisions have been connected to video recorders, and both of these home appliances have been adjoined to a remote control that has been all but surgically attached to our hands. Channel surfing has transformed watching from a passive to an active enterprise.

Felt-tipped highlighting pens have turned every book into a coloring book. Like photographs that lie unseen in albums and boxes, highlights are rarely meant to be looked at. Their purpose is to intensify the initial experience and to personalize it. Public property (or someone elseís private property) becomes a part of us as we stake our claim and add a tenuous personal mark by taking a photograph or highlighting key words or entire paragraphs.

Before compact discs, a good deal of my time was spent in an ongoing hunt for high-quality sound sources. Loosely influenced by Pop Artís celebration of everyday objects, and encouraged by the beauty and aesthetic success of visual collages by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg (among others), I sought out master tapes of concerts. I connected tape machines to radios in the hope of finding strong signals and strong performances from which I could "borrow" tiny fragments of fundamental musical matter.

The revolution in technology and accessibility created by the compact disc was, for me, a great liberation, and a cause for the most exuberant celebration. At last I had obtained boundless access to a nearly inexhaustible source of musical manna: a huge and flawless archive containing recorded music of all the world.

The technological media revolution was completed in the mid 1980ís by the perfection and marketing of powerful and affordable samplers and computers. Used in conjunction with assorted hardware and software applications, samplers provide a means of recording and altering any sound, including the sounds of pre-existing music.

A sampler is, in many ways, an audio camera (taking "soundprints" instead of photographs), and a musical equivalent of the highlighting pen. A sampler allows the composer to form new relationships with the past by transforming passive listening into "active listening," a participatory procedure in which one ear focuses on the possibility that some moments may be "usefully appropriated" to create something new.

In contrast to the physically arduous and technically unforgiving tasks presented by splicing tape in an analog studio, the digital format is easy on both body and mind. In other words, I can sit down in a chair at the computer instead of standing hunched over a tape machine. In a digital world, Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again. Splices can be undone. Everything can be done and undone and redone ad infinitum.

The new-found ease of a digital environment had an unexpected effect on my work: durations of borrowed musical fragments could be decreased to a point where I believe no one can identify their origins. Recorded music can be deconstructed into minute fragments that can then be modified in a number of ways, and ultimately reassembled in ways that have little or no discernible relationships to the original sources.

I begin each of my compositions by creating a comprehensive palette containing all of the sounds that I can use in the piece. I select typical samples for their intrinsic beauty, character, transposibility, and potential anonymity. Leporello cannot be allowed to sing "Bravo! due im-prese-se leg-gia-dire! Sfor-zar la fi-glia, ed am-maz-zar il pa-dre!" ("Bravo! Pretty good for one evening. To rape the daughter and then skewer the father!") (Don Giovanni, No.1, Introduction). That is a quotation and it belongs to Mozart, daPonte, and Don Giovanni. But, the "o" at the end of "Bravo!" is tempting, not only for the clarity of the vowel itself, but also for the energy that comes from the performance of the exclamation point.

"Padre" is riddled with connotations beginning with the Deity and continuing on through any number of country-western ballads. "Padre" is problematic as a complete word, but the final "e" (pronounced "ay"), isolated from the rest of the word, provides a useful neutral vowel. When Leporello asks "E cosa devo dirle?" ("And what should I tell her?"), (Don Giovanni, No.4), the "e" of "dirle" will have a hint of a question mark, different from the "e" of "padre."

Hundreds of such excerpts are sampled and edited to eliminate the tiny telltale signs that mark their origins. Samples may be normalized to improve their signal-to-noise ratio; other processes and "special effects" such as reverberation, time expansion or compression, and equalization can be applied to single fragments or even to parts of fragments. In short, samples are distilled and polished to a fine point.

From that point, samples are assigned ranges. How high and low can a sung note go before it becomes a chipmunk or a sea lion? These are subjective questions, more personal than the straightforward removal of an unwanted syllable at the beginning or end of a word. One composerís Caballe may be another composerís chipmunk.

Whatever oneís individual taste, sample range assignment is a critical issue. Any multiple sample range is generally preferable to samples that sound at constant levels. A single stationary sample is like a still photograph, existing as something potentially beautiful, but eternally frozen in a permanent instant. Film strips and slide shows are linear successions of still images, but neither format is widely used anymore. A series of photographs showing successive stages of a cycle of action can produce the effect of visual movement. Similarly, sample transposition can create the effect of musical movement within the boundaries of a technique characterized by a flow of conjoined fragments.

Sample fragments frequently arrive with excess baggage. Vocal soloists can have organs or orchestras accompanying them. Baroque orchestral timbres sound very different from their Romantic counterparts. Even the tiniest scrap taken from a Bach cantata has a differ-ent sound from a similar scrap from a Puccini opera. For example, no matter how limited the borrowing, the presence of harpsichords in Baroque ensembles provides an instant flash of something "old." An instant, that is, of itself--together with all of the nuances and remembrances that accompany even the most miniature musical event.

Since the musical fragments that I choose frequently consist of traditional units such as major and minor triads and an assortment of everyday vocal and instrumental patterns, the music I write comes out sounding like something from a time and place at once old and new, familiar and alien.

My intention is to integrate archetypal sonic elements to produce a natural and expressive musical language. This is a language whose vocabulary is an inclusive, limitless sonic compendium, free of ethnic and national particularity. The broad availability of recorded sources finally allows me to realize a lifelong dream of creating a Klangfarbenmelodie of unprecedented diversity. My conscious effort continues to be the expansion of the musical palette, but the unanticipated byproduct of that effort has been my entry into the aesthetics of postmodern historicism.

Klangfarbenmelodie elevates orchestration from its frequent position as a minor player to a co-equal. Klangfarbenmelodie is essential to the composition itself. In many ways, the orchestration is the most conspicuous distinguishing characteristic of my work. The overall sound of my music is predominantly made by the linear and harmonic ordering of found objects. The consecutive linear juxtaposition of sample fragments produces melodies (I call this process "integration"). The simultaneous striking of two or more sample fragments produces harmonies (I call this process "fusion"). Together, these techniques create an environment with indefinite but abundant historical and emotional links.

Are solitary major or minor chords protected by legal or ethical precepts? Are scales and arpeggios private property or public assets? Ultimately, the borrower comes up against ethical dilemmas pertaining to ownership of single notes. Are these fundamental sounds the musical icons that embody a common language? Can they be honorably borrowed if they are transposed and otherwise altered so that their origins remain anonymous?

It seems to me that a number of basic musical elements have become the collective property of everyone. Among these articles of community property are single notes; single notes with ornaments; major, minor, diminished, and augmented triads; seventh chords; ascending and descending scales; glissandi; arpeggios; drum strokes; drum rolls; cries; sighs; and single vowels and consonants.

Mechanical generation and manipulation of electronic sounds have never been significant elements in my work. What has the potential to move me is the inhuman manipulation of natural sounds. Voice is the most natural of subjects, since anyone, musician or not, recognizes a voice for what it is. There is pathos and a unique humanity in a situation in which a voice is first displaced from its original and intended context, and ultimately reas-sembled in ways that violate human intentions and anatomy. What emerges are singers without bodies, yet menís and womenís voices still and all, and no less expressive for having been uprooted, violated, and resettled.

Singers without bodies are surely singers without countries. "Borrowed Time" aims to create an environment without national boundaries. Its opening sounds "Eastern" or "Asian" to me, although, as I recall, it was made of single-note samples of Gregorian chant. The ending seems about as Protestant as a thing can be. Probably it is relevant that I am neither Eastern, Asian, nor Protestant.

Lending can be unmitigated joy, but borrowing comes with a measure of uncertainty, and the absolute knowledge that musical debts cannot be repaid. When I "borrow" a single note from a compact disc recording, I have no more intention of repaying the loan than the person in the street who asks to "borrow" a quarter or a cigarette. Borrowed notes can never be returned; they are, in fact, stolen notes. Still, I hadnít wanted to call my piece "Stolen Time." When there is, in fact, so very much to go around, and when, truly, the music taken is so terribly tiny as to defy identification even by the original composers and performers (the real owners and my unwitting collaborators), a loan can be reasonably (although perhaps not legally) taken without the lenderís consent.

I set out to expand the palette from which music is made and came away richer than I had any reason to expect. My early works with appropriated material reflect formerly prevalent musical values that precluded the use of pulse, conjunct melody, and tertian harmony. It had not occurred to me that sampled fragments would eventually lead to notes, chords, instrumentations, and gestures that conveyed much more than neutral pitch. Hardly any borrowed sound comes without some strings attached in the form of emotional and historical nuance and association.

Looking back, I now understand that an openness to new sounds initially had not also included an openness to old sounds or to anything recognizably traditional. Discrimination has a long and often disreputable history in our culture and consciousness; it took practice and a collision of accidents to produce circumstances in which I was able to recognize the aesthetic viability of a broad fusion of remarkably disparate musical elements. While hunting solely for more sounds I came upon a door, and through that door were treasures beyond my wildest dreams.

Here, for anyone to use, was a boundless pool of our sonic past and present from every corner of the world. I believe that the manipulation of this pool can form the basis of a new and versatile language. Surely the same samples in the hands of different composers can produce results as varied as those well-worn twelve notes have produced over all these many centuries.

In any case, we should not scrimp just now, whether times are good or bad. Letís not save on sounds! There are more than enough to go around. We have a world of music, past and present, Eastern and Western, up and down and all around. Instead of cataloging it, we can use it to make new music. Donít just listen. Weíre rich. Borrow something.

Originally published in Contemporary Music Review 2001, Vol. 30, Part 4, pp. 91-98.