Music, emotion and modernism

In an interview in El Pais of June 19, 2013 the french composer, conductor and organizer Pierre Boulez speaks about how new emotions are being transmitted by contemporary music. This is very questionable statement and Boulez is not able to explain what these new emotions are, nor substantiate that they are at all present in his music. In fact it seems that, to the contrary, no emotion at all is being expressed in contemporary music of the strict, modernistic tradition that he has formulated himself within.

The problem is that emotions detection is a central element in human evolution and therefore develops extremely slowly and over many generations. Suggesting that within less than a century music has developed new emotions in people is to neither understand the nature of emotion nor the meaning, purpose and appreciation of music.

What contemporary music can do – and indeed should do – is shroud those emotions we are capable of discerning, and complex emotions of subjective nature in novel sonic surfaces. This casts new understanding into our emotional apparatus and reach for new insights by means of our present capacity. This is the hallmark of music and may even be used systematically in the composition process (and even applied in the performance step). In my composition Three Places from 2011 I have attempted to do just that.

The composition is distributed in three parts and the musical material undergoes slow transformations, which in turn is delimited by a systematic approach to score and performance features as they correlate to identifiable emotion labels. The narrative and compositional levels are hereby addressed simultaneously, with the resultant exchange between structure (composition) and surface (emotion).

The first and second sections constantly jump between ‘potent’ and ‘tense’ respectively ‘heavy’ and ‘tense’, while the third and last section is dominated by a tender feeling, albeit with a momentary flashback to aspects of the first section. Present throughout the two first sections is that edgy character of a charged anxiety which is the work’s dominant feature, articulated by extreme staccato and large skips. This accentuates the harmonic and rhythmic complexity, as irregular formal properties and absence of melody dominate.

The contrast which the second section’s darker sonorities and heavy articulation provide is pronounced, and very important for the work’s overall profile. This is where the bass clarinet and alto flute are introduced, in a writing which points towards the last section’s use of eased harmonic relations. When the last section finally materializes, the music takes on moments of tenderness and warmth, emphasized by the dovetailed voicing in strings and woodwind. The mood has become contained and very intimate: a slow pace of predominant legato in a playing style of steady, soft loudness and round attacks. Combined with large yet relaxed duration contrast, it sets of a gentle and somewhat dark sonority where each player is independent in phrasing though coordinated in aim.

The work makes use of a compositional software tool I developed that frames musical material in named emotions and continuous un-named transitory states. Why give attention to emotion in music, and can it – quite unemotionally – be used to inform the compositional process? Well, apart from a subjective motivation, we are told that music is ‘…the art or science of combining vocal, instrumental or electronic sounds (or all) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.’ If ‘beauty’ is subjective, then several general things can be said about emotion (just as of form and harmony and their infinite derived disciplines in composition) and models for that role and effect which score and performance features have on emotion qualities can be made.

Using empirical research I began in 2009 to develop a software model on score and performance features’ correlation to listeners’ identification of emotions in music. This has some obvious limitations because the nature of the music used for the listening experiments is much less experimental (if at all) than the one I seek to create. But with sufficient care the advantages has been clear from the beginning, as consistent narratives could be constructed that still could contain the compositional methods of my choice.

An interesting observation that is taking prominence is that music’s capacity to form gestalts as units of meaning seem inherent to contemporary music’s at times unwillingness to form expressions, that is, to express its content on an emotional level. Such absence of emotion expression is of course only a problem if one considers it to be the case. But this tendency towards gestaltness is a real attribute to human perception and could possibly be seen as that third dimension of depth or intensity of emotion which is sometimes added to the common two-dimensional arousal-valence model of affect, which lies behind my model. Since gestaltness is a compound category it is less readily handled in score features, and some effort will go into its implementation into the model.

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I have over the years released a considerable amount of music as composer, flute and laptop performer and producer on digital and physical media – vinyl, cassette, CD, DVD. You will find all this material including listening links on the recordings page.

The programming I am doing for my own electronica and interactive music performance purposes has let me into research topics that have spun off a few snippets of generally useful software. This is available in the toolbox page.

Finally, the 3D Sound Object is a sound diffusion concept that holds very interesting artistic promises, and I am discussing the concept and pieces I have made on the 3D Sound Object page.