Principles of Human Systems Composing

Surprise Me With Beauty: the Music of Human Systems
Surprise Me With Beauty: the Music of Human Systems

from Surprise Me With Beauty: the Music of Human Systems

by Joseph Zitt

These principles provide an ideal set of parameters for Human Systems pieces. I doubt, however, that any single piece of mine has fulfilled all of these criteria.

Is the Music Clear?

The score describes and explains the materials and processes that are used in the piece and defines unusual terms.

Jargon and specialized notation can be useful: among members of a profession or other groups of people, they enable efficient communication of information that would otherwise take much more effort to describe. They can also serve as a bond among the people who share the vocabularies.

However, I have tried to avoid musical jargon and notation in these scores, so that people without conventional musical training can learn and perform them.

Is it Enjoyable?

The piece is fun for the performers and for the audience.

As arcane as some of this material might seem, I still find it important to create music that people like. While this is harder outside of the areas of popular music with which people are familiar, they still can enjoy other musics if performed and presented effectively. In Question Authority, the, this spread into broad comedy as part of the performances (though always within the constraints of the scores that we performed); in Gray Code this has developed within the pursuit of surprise (some, though not all, of it comedic) and unusual beauty.

Is it Performable?

Performers of the piece do not have to be virtuosi. Each piece benefits from skillful performance, but anyone who understands how the piece works can perform it.

Is it Accessible?

While knowing how a piece works enhances a person’s enjoyment of it, an audience with no knowledge of the piece can also enjoy it.

Is it Memorable?

Performers can remember the piece easily. Processes are simple and consistent. Texts are brief. If the piece requires an aid to memory, such as a printed handout, the performance intentionally includes its distribution, use, and collection.

I am continually amazed by some people’s ability to memorize long musical scores or performance scripts. It’s not one of my strengths. Thus, most of my scores are constructed, in a sense, as “state machines”: at any point, you can tell where you are in a piece by listening to the sounds around you, and can tell from that information what you may do next.

The emphasis on incorporating the handling of printed materials was more important in Question Authority, the, where we moved around a lot, than in the later, more “musical” ensembles, where music stands suffice. (Though I find that that printing the score in large print and putting it on the floor works even better when we only have to glance at the floor occasionally.)

Is it Identifiable?

Someone familiar with the pieces can tell which piece is being performed by hearing a small part of it.

Since I’ve started listening to partially improvised or indeterminate music, I’ve been curious about how a piece maintains its identity. While, say, traditional jazz pieces maintain somewhat of an identity though recurring harmonic structures, I find it hard to tell which Ornette Coleman piece I’m hearing if I tune into it midstream, unless I’m already familiar with the recording. Different recordings of “Lonely Woman” in the area between the head and its recapitulation at the end seem, to my ears, to share only tenuous melodic relationships; it’s quite possible that a performance of “Lonely Woman” and a performance of “Peace” might have more in common than a pair of performances of either one. Similarly, it would be hard to tell by listening that one was hearing a performance of John Cage’s “Variations II” or “Theater Piece”.

Stephen Drury mentions in his liner notes to the Mode recording of Cage’s “Two4 for violin and piano or sho” (Mode 88) that this issue of musical identity also became “one of Cage’s preoccupations in his later years”.

Is it Variable?

Performances of the piece can vary widely, spontaneously developing elements that surprise the audience and performers.

Is it Recoverable?

If a performer accidentally departs from the score, a performance of the piece can survive and continue, incorporating the accidental material as if it were intentional.

I enjoy Frederic Rzewski’s instruction in his score Les Moutons de Panurge: “If you get lost, stay lost”. However, I prefer that people be able to find their way back in to where they should be. In some of the later scores, I’ve included guidelines for how to proceed if people in a performance disagree on where they are in the score. The most important factors in recovering from errors are trusting in the good intentions of all parties, believing that errors were due to the humanity of the performer rather than sabotage, and cooperating with the performer to pull the performance seamlessly back together.

Is it Multi-faceted?

The piece incorporates syllables, words or word-like sounds, rhythm, structure, dynamics, gesture, movement, and the handling of the performance space and timing as aspects of a whole, each element complementing the others.

This was also more important in Question Authority, the than in the later ensembles, though I would like to return to working in ways that incorporate physical gestures, movement, and the use of space.

Is it Portable?

The piece requires little, if any, equipment or props. The performers can launch into any piece easily without the need for setup

I have been in bands that have spent much more time setting up and breaking down equipment than in actual performing. This has often focused the musicians’ attention less on the sounds than on the gear.

Is it Open to Silence?

At any point, a performer may silently listen to what the others are doing, then reenter the piece.

Performing silence (or, as Robert Fripp has put it, “contributing attention”) can be as important and effective as performing sound. (Otherwise, in improvisations, everyone tends to play all the time.) If silence is permitted, you are free to ask yourself whether the next sound that you are about to make would enhance the other sounds being made or if it would only crowd them. If it would not improve the soundscape, you are free to refrain from sounding until the situation changes or you are again inspired to sound.

This discipline is difficult to achieve. In listening back to recordings of my performances, I usually find at least one instance in which I should have remained silent than sounding.

Performing silence is also very different from just stopping: you need to continue to maintain the same degree and quality of attention when performing silence that you do when sounding, Gray Code performances often include moments of total silence. The audience, however, can usually tell that the piece is continuing, and continue to contribute the same quality of listening that they do when we are sounding.

The silent moments are among my favorites in performance, especially those in which we develop the consensus that a performance is, indeed, over, and make the transition in attention that signals the completion of a performance.