Musical Idea 6: Entitative Ken

11.09.2013 § 1 Comment

I was driving my lovely girlfriend and myself home from the East Bay recently when I initiated an unusual clapping session: with my left hand on the wheel, I tried to clap together with her right hand. This might’ve been elementary were we simply keeping a steady pulse, but music is rarely that simple with her and me. We instead attempted to improvise permutations of sixteenth note fills amongst that pulse, as well as hiccups and altogether skips, variations with tuplets, etc.

Where this game got interesting was in considering that not only could I not predict exactly when my partner intended to clap (to match or play off of it), but also her hand was a moving target, so if I even wanted to produce sounds as close as possible to my own intent I needed to adjust my speed, timing, and aim to achieve that! Fail to account for that, and I’ll be off-rhythm, off-velocity, or outright miss!

Let me illustrate to get us clear on this matter. Let’s start from the beginning, with that steady pulse. To simplify, assume that our hands move as mirror images: imagine in slow motion as we move away from each other at the same speed, accelerate and decelerate at the same rate, come to a stop at the same distance apart from the previous clap, then come together again, meeting in that same exact spot right in the middle at the same velocity. Clap, repeat.

Now what if I wanted to do something as simple as spice things up by clapping twice evenly in the span where she and I have been clapping only once? Well, I have to shoot to meet her not in the middle, but at the absolute farthest point away her hand ever gets from me. Not only do I have to go for a different distance, if I want the clap to sound the same volume as the others, then I have to hit there with twice the power, since she won’t be contributing any force to it.

What would happen if my girlfriend tried to do the same thing at the same time, though? Assuming symmetry for simplicity again, we’d clap smack dab in the middle as usual, but with twice the power, and too early! How sad, considering that she and I both wanted the same variation, but since we didn’t expect that the other wanted it in the same moment, neither of us got it.

There are a number of factors to look it in this situation before we’re ready to abstract it. First, my girlfriend and I can see each other (I should probably have my eyes on the road, though). Second, she and I have decent reflexes; we might even be able to avert a crisis such as the one described in the previous paragraph by slowing and softening down in the nick of bullet time. Third, she and I love each other and pay attention to each other, discerning patterns in each other’s behavior and minding them. Fourth, while we generally respect and accommodate each other’s wishes, part of what excites us about being together is unpredictability — especially when playing games like this, we delight each other with surprises, even if they screw up each other’s plans.

Any of these things might not be the case, however, in other more purely musical situations. Suppose our two hands are blind, only exchanging info upon contact; what a pleasure it would be to watch them just strive to find their initial tempo together, let alone move into more complex rhythms! Suppose the hands can still see and watch each other before launching at each other but have no ability to react after committing to a launch. Suppose our hands are fairly coordinated but just dumb, or have never done this before, and it takes a hella long time for them either to learn each others’ specific grooves or grasp the live calculus to maneuver the game general. Or suppose our hands just don’t respect each other at all and are maliciously deceiving each other, layering jests and misinformation upon jests and misinformation, each attempting to drive home their solitary vision of what the beat should be; maybe one succeeds, maybe one is thwarted.

These are all musical aspects to play with. They are all related to improvisation, but abstractedly. We speak here of our musical entities’ perception and knowledge of each other, as well as their capability to acquire and act upon those, and finally their interests and manners in thus acting. Certainly, in a real life performance setting, improvisers do react to each other, respond to style, find they can’t work with certain of each other, etc. But what I speak of here is untapped potential of the concepts of improvisation when freed of the restraints of reality.

We could stick with the simplistic two-mind clapping example and explore it some more. Let’s experiment with all sorts of combinations of settings on the hands and see what kinds of rhythms result. Maybe the hands can only see so far, so they can see each other when close but not when maximally apart. Maybe they can change speeds and direction quickly but have slow reaction time. Maybe the opposite. Maybe they can only change speed quickly in one direction. Maybe that’s relative to the other or maybe for both hands it’s the same absolute direction. Maybe the hands can see but not so well so that they take guesses occasionally about what they’re seeing. Maybe there are three hands in a circle and they can choose which one they’re going to try to clap with. Maybe different hands make different clap sounds. Maybe they can’t change speeds at all. Maybe one hand can only bounce like a pong ball and can’t make decision of its own. The possibilities go on and on.

But why stop there when we can approach the broad, thorough complexity of organic human performed improvisation while maintaining the limitlessness of musical abstraction (or at least technology). Two entities can only hear each other when they play in the same key? Check. Two entities can only move stepwise in pitch and never cross each other (one always higher than the other)? Pitches are like musical chairs and the different entities struggle to grab them up with their timbre before the others do? Check, check. And that’s just pitch stuff. There’s plenty more checks where those came from, back in rhythm, or in spatiality, diegeticity, or some of the other advanced musical aspects I’ll get into later in this series.

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