Music, Interrupted

I heard a fascinating, short, fixed-media piece the other day by a colleague of mine that made use of granulated samples of KISS guitarist Paul Stanley’s stage banter. (Honestly, though, to call what Stanley does “banter” is an insult to banter, which is kind of the point.) One of the piece’s most striking features, however, was its division into seven or eight movements, each twelve to thirteen seconds long; every movement presented longer and longer snippets of the sample, which assembled itself over the total duration of the piece. Why is it that the breaking-up of this transformation into discrete movements had such a strong perceptual effect on my listening?

Movements constitute a new stratum of formal determination, of course: The markers provided by movement designations are often our biggest pieces of evidence when we reflect on what happened in a piece we’ve just heard. Movements also suggest the possibility of modularity; performers who would never blithely excerpt and play the second minute of a five-minute piece might be more amenable to playing the second movement of a five-movement work for no other reason than the “II.” in front of it. But for me, the most important effect of “movementing” on a piece of music has to do with rhetoric.

The superimposition of movement divisions represents a kind of “overlay” on top of a listening experience: It’s subordinate to the title, which makes the standard gesture of saying “the contents of this phrase are a piece of music,” but after that it’s typically the most direct organizational statement a composer issues to the audience. (I guess program notes exist on the layer below that one, but that’s a distant third, because program notes are usually contextual and rarely ontological to the piece.) In other words, a piece that has movements is not only divided into subsections and thus internally ramified: It conveys more information about the piece from the composer and is therefore also more externally ramified. Movements aren’t just something that exist in a piece—they’re something the composer has said about a piece. Works divided into movements have therefore an inherently more rhetorical, less mimetic character than works that exist in a single stretch. They can lay claim more easily to proposing a genuine statement rather than a process; they’re necessarily showier, or perhaps piecier.

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