Form and Process
In last week’s post I wrote briefly about musical form, which in that context I had been discussing in terms of static “forms”: sonata-allegro movements and some short songlike pieces of my own devising. However, musical structure isn’t best understood merely as a parade of “forms” or hollow molds that notes and rhythms may be poured into; above all, musical structure is dramatic, propulsive, dynamic-properties that many blueprint-style formal analyses have a hard time adequately expressing.
Since all music occupies time, it is certainly fair and useful to regard that block of time post facto, in its entirety, and consider the ways in which that duration is divided and proportioned. At the same time, there are certain musical experiences—pieces like Steve Reich’s Four Organs, for example—in which the musical structure might be better understood in terms of process rather than form.
True, there is a form associated with Four Organs, but it is not the main event, structurally speaking—it is the result of a certain way Reich goes about expanding the central 11th chord in sequential fashion. The difference between form and process might be likened to that between harmony and counterpoint, in that nothing is ever purely contrapuntal or purely homophonic. Bach’s supreme contrapuntal creations don’t cease to exude a harmonic dimension, after all; it’s just that Bach manipulates the texture in such a way as to make us focus more closely on the horizontal axis.
By the same token, musical form can sometimes be made to take a backseat to a musical process, as I believe is the case with Four Organs, or much of Conlon Nancarrow’s work, or Bach fugues for that matter (glorious examples of process over form if there ever were any). Just as it might be missing the point to obsess over a roman-numeral analysis of The Well-Tempered Clavier, so too do we acquire an incomplete understanding of musical structure when we focus on its static form to the exclusion of the dynamic processes that gave that form its shape.