Daniel McKemie: Maximalism – Volume 1

Maximalism is a series of recordings and essays that deal with the multidimensional properties of recorded sound within the context of modern compositional aesthetics. It is the author's attempt to make sense of the current state of things, to speculate upon where we may be heading next, and to consider why this aesthetic direction may be of some inherent value.

The aspect of time in music has been well-considered and explored, and like all things experiential, is necessarily time-based. Still, music as a time-based art often prioritizes the importance of the x-axis (ie. the past, present and future of a musical work), when at minimum two other planes exist.

In keeping with the Cartesian model, the y-axis generally represents the frequency domain while the z-axis can express timbral depth. Columns are constructed across the spectral range, and layers are weaved together in order to mask, support, and contrast the others on top of and behind each other. If the x-axis is not prioritized or even considered at all, the evolution of a piece can then be focused on these other axes and their compelling relationship.

While the y-axis represents frequency, in this context it is not treated the same as pitch. Pitch implies a relation to other pitches, generally located at fixed positions, and often in some functional relationship with what precedes and follows. Yet this is not in defense of supposedly non-functional pitch relationships nor microtonal possibilities. Rather, this approach to the y-axis is meant to highlight that the location within the frequency range in which a sound exists is directly tied to its timbre. For instance, the lowest note of a violin sounds much different than its highest. A raised awareness, if not prioritization, of an instrument’s spectral range can assist in the production of sounds that occupy a unique place in a musical work to exist on their own, as opposed to being relegated to filler voices, passing tones, functional harmony, and other support roles. Additionally, having an understanding of the spectra an instrument is capable of can allow for greater coloration when met with other instruments or electronics.

The z-axis can be approached in a similar vein as space. It is not a matter of texture, but rather, our perception of the depth or physicality of sound. When a single pulse is traveling from left to right and back in our earphones, what is really happening? Is the sound traveling through space? No. It is simply a coordinated and opposing change in amplitude in each respective speaker in such a way that it is perceived to be traveling through space. Depth construction is an aesthetic technique, not a mechanical one, despite the use of devices of a mechanical nature that enhance one’s ability to perceive depth. Since we are experiencing time no matter what, there is no need to focus on it even more than already needed. We can reconsider what value it brings to one’s perception of music. The value placed on measured time is a compositional choice, but as listeners we can adjust our focus toward certain sounds in our physical space, with or without reference to the temporal relationships created by the performer. This happens all the time as performers, we shift our listening focus in order to stay synchronized with other players (especially in larger groups), while also considering how one’s sonic contribution impacts the overall depth. This approach can just as well be applied to a composer’s practice of compositional aesthetic.

By shifting one’s focus toward the prioritization of the y and z axes over the x-axis, one emphasizes an exploration into sounds versus of sounds. Be they acoustic or electronic. y influences z (and vice versa), while x operates either independently or dependently of the others.

Multiple instances of these grouped axes exist in a dimension all its own, a fourth axis such as that of a tesseract; where frequency, timbre, and time take on new meanings and assignments with each iteration.