Sonic Origami

Since reading Frank J. Oteri’s most recent post on these pages, I had been contemplating music composition’s analogies to painting, sculpture, and other forms of creation when an old book of origami designs literally fell out of the modified wardrobe I use for storing scores and paper. Hardly miraculous, given how disorganized my storage system is right now, but as I flipped through the book I began to wonder if origami might also present some interesting parallels to composing.

Origami seems at first much like sculpture, yet nothing is subtracted as the paper is only creased and folded, never cut. But adding these creases isn’t really analogous to “adding something” to a blank canvas in painting, as these creases are rather a way of modifying a blank piece of paper—and for me a lot of the interest in a piece of intricately-folded origami lies in the knowledge that the finished piece is that blank piece of paper.

I mention this because it succeeds in representing at least one aspect of music composition that both the painting and sculpting analogies fail to capture: a sense that our materials by and large are already there, hovering in the ether of both history and current cultural zeitgeist, ready to be received by the composer and modified into a (not entirely) new work that might find itself raw material for more new works down the road. The way I envision this whole of music is that it is constantly changing and reacting as we composers enrich it. In my own work, I am always acutely aware of these raw materials, and even make a particular effort to uncover to uncover the catalysts that often spark my musical thinking.

In my mind, one of the happiest conclusions an aspiring composer could hope to draw from Frank’[s characterization of “pieces” of music is that a “piece” of music, by definition, doesn’t have to be all things to all people. Not every new orchestral curtain-raiser has to have a bracing rhythmic opening and aleatoric passages and the semi-obligatory slow section, but it’s astonishing how many works attempt this and similar feats of compositional laundry-listing. I have always half-jokingly thought that pieces like Ravel’s Bolero or Barber’s Adagio for Strings might have been icily received had they been written today and submitted to some grant panel or tenure committee, because these pieces do just one thing, and do it extremely well. These are by no means the most profound pieces of the musical universe yet explored, yet they each stake out entirely distinctive territory with such detailed imagination that fans and detractors alike are inclined to agree that the pieces push their material about as far as it could be taken. Accepting our inability to cram everything we want into just once piece of music might be a necessary prerequisite to figuring out that one thing that will sustain our interest through months of challenging work.

One thought on “Sonic Origami

  1. RBH

    Considering a musical work as a “piece,” a fragment of something larger and/or more encompassing, only holds when one looks at a “piece of music” as something created or to be created, such as a composition. But a composition is not an artifact. A composition is a set of directions to be followed. The actual artifact is created by the performer. In this sense, music becomes like dance, except that the medium conveying the message is not light, it is (usually) air. What we hear is the motion of air on our bodies. So music IS actually more like a sculpture, since the medium stands alone and is, hopefully, meaningful and satisfying to the audience–and, since the medium cannot be whittled, the origami analogy is entirely appropriate, but made of flash-tissue over an open flame–but the listener is part of the artifact.

    Oteri’s point, amplified by Visconti, that the musician’s entire palette can never be accessed goes, I believe, straight to the heart of the matter. Both acknowledge the truth of this in terms of aesthetic choice when composing directives for future interpretation. This is also true of the improvising musician who makes on-the-spot decisions guided by training and intuition. I would point out that this is merely a reflection of our inability to tactilely comprehend the entire overtone series of a single note. We limit–not only in our making of music, but also in our perception of it. To not understand the limits of our perception is to tacitly admit a basic lack hindering creativity.

    Yet, if all reality is naught but vibration, then music is our little moment of creating reality anew; although, the “universe” inside a piece of music is fleeting and takes on the appearance of illusion, which then allows a piece of music to represent the illusory quality of the world we perceive. In this sense, ALL music does only one thing: offer an alternate, temporary and limited environment for the listener to make sense of. Therein lies the challenge for musicians of all stripes, whether composing to score paper or improvising according to social protocol … creating sonic realities agreeable to their audiences.

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