Riddle Me This

During a run-of-the-mill 10-floor descent in an elevator, I noticed a small flying insect hovering around eye-level. The situation piqued my curiosity: Is this bug flying down in order to keep more or less level with my sightline? I’m still rather stumped about this, leaning towards the conclusion that, no, the insect doesn’t need to alter its flight pattern downward—but who knows I could be wrong. Anyway, this morning a similar riddle popped into my head: If you play James Tenney’s For Ann (rising) backwards, does it sound as if the sine tones are falling? I’m putting the CD in my computer right now. I’ll meet you back here in a minute…

Ah, just as I suspected, the rising turns into falling—no ambiguity here. Tenney’s piece is so straightforward, following all the laws of physics to a tee. Contemporary music doesn’t always seem to adhere to such real-world logic, whether you listen to it forward or backwards. These ambiguities, I imagine, are part of the attraction. Even if composer X attempts to wrap up everything she wants to say into a neat and clean little package, her message always runs the risk of going astray in the listener’s ear. This is the beautiful challenge for composers—or maybe it’s not a challenge, rather than a fact of life to be addressed or ignored. I would imagine that most people prefer their whodunits to confound them more like a fly in an elevator, rather than an inverted Tenney composition. The difficult answers are sometimes more rewarding.

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