Daniel McKemie: Maximalism – Volume 2

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.

Engaging with multiple instances of grouped axes, or sound blocks, can be likened to that of gazing into an aquarium. The tank of water itself has an x, y, and z axis, and within these boundaries is a space in which many other objects may or may not exist, each having their own physical properties. For instance, picture a cube floating within the aquarium tank. That cube has its own respective x, y, and z axes, and in this context, could be considered as a representation of some sound within space-time, with its own length, frequency spectrum, and timbral characteristics denoted by the properties of its shape. This shape is then located within a veritable universe (the tank) of like and unlike objects that exist in similar fashion.

A cube can be present in the tank and drift behind a much larger cube in the space, a masking of sorts, yet both cubes still exist, although one may have a more magnified presence. The cubes may also vary in size over time, representing changes to a sound’s respective duration, frequency range, and timbral depth. These axes are not fixed, and can change over time as they drift throughout the space (the fourth dimension). A piece of music that is fixed in some medium, a recording for example, is said to be the same every time it is played. Listening environment and amplification technologies aside, this is likely the case. However, slowing down the playback speed by half will immediately produce a different compositional reality while retaining certain identifiable characteristics as the original, just as Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 can be played at half tempo. The composition is the same, but the cubes, as it were, have been relocated within the dimensional axes of the aquarium. If the intent is instead to simply change the dimensions of the sound through brute force means such as a change to playback speed, then the composition remains wholly intact. The cubes remain in intact, and while their appearance may have changed, these changes are consistent, relatively speaking, to each and every other cube.

The perception of time is a widely studied field across multiple disciplines. Time can be considered as absolute, relative, observable, perceived, and any variety of permutations of these elements. It is impossible for one person to observe time in the exact same way as any other and the perception of passing time increases with age. This is plainly seen in the classroom, workplace, and concert hall on a regular basis; activities that may seem boring cause us to perceive the passing of time as much slower than those that are engaging and exciting.

Performance is the creation of music in time, composition is the creation of music in space, and sound art is the suspension or removal of musical time. While the time element for all three can, and often are, represented by the x-axis, each one is treated differently. Performance, be it live or recorded, is the complement to composition, a physical and time-based act required to bring the piece into existence. The composition itself may exist as a score, graphics, theories, philosophies, or the media itself in which it exists (ie. the magnetic tape), but they all still have a performative complement whether it be potential or kinetic.

I have little to no interest in upending the entire western musical system or the laws of physics, but do see value in considering the perception of the performative complement of musical compositions. Is it required, or even necessary, that the listener experience a piece of music as the composer intended, regardless of its existence as a written score, recording, or something else? Clearly the answer is no, otherwise the orchestras of the world could have stopped their incessant reimaginings of the classics after the first recording of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony was made available. Each recording and/or performance brings new and interesting perspectives, and if performers and conductors are afforded these interpretive liberties with how, and how often, compositions are presented, listeners should be afforded, at minimum, those very same liberties.

Historically, a composer writes a piece of music, a performer plays it, and an audience listens. A composition belongs to the composer and once it is handed over to the performer(s), ownership is spread amongst all involved members; the performer(s) play the composition and the audience listens, gaining partial ownership of the experience.

Like time, timbre is an equally useful, and experientially diverse, candidate for defining musical form. One way is by pairing time and timbre together and using textural mechanisms to define the boundaries of a composition, much in the same way time and pitch are often paired. For the classically-trained, it may be difficult to completely pull away from pitch structures when discussing musical form, but percussionists have been doing this for years. It should be noted that rhythm is in fact, time itself musically personified.

The exploration of depth along the z-axis is an exciting avenue when conceiving new forms and new modes of listening. This exploration of depth follows in the spirit of John Cage’s consideration of space and perception: You are walking on the sidewalk and you see your friend on the other side of the street, you wave to your friend and make eye contact, a truck drives down the road and obstructs the view of seeing your friend, does this mean that your friend is no longer there? Of course not. The z-axis can be treated the same way. The perception of sound does not need to be directly tied to its presence or the ability to hear it as a distinct entity within a larger collection of sounds.

It has been my intention to illustrate here that sound as it exists in this fourth dimension, including the x/y/z axes, are not fixed but dynamic. This is the same mental space that one enters when pondering time, the universe, the infinite and infinitesimal, and multidimensional shapes (such as the tesseract) in a three-dimensional world.