Musical Chaos

Musical representation is a woolly topic. We all know that music can move us, both emotionally and physically; it can also stimulate our intellects. But how are specific images encoded, sans words, in the language of sound? How can music imitate physical movement, abstract concepts, places?

On the level of bodily experience, certain sounds translate into certain images on account of the metaphoric systems we unconsciously use to make sense of them. For instance, when soundwaves gets narrower, we perceive that the pitch is going “up”; when the waves get wider, we hear them as going “down.” These designations, of course, are culturally and historically based (and may have a lot to do with notation) – not everyone maps sounds onto vertical space (up/down). For example, the Suyá of Brazil conceptualize pitches in terms of the metaphors of “young” (high) and “old” (low); others around the world think of pitch as “light” and “heavy,” etc. In the West, the metaphor of up/down is so reified in our musical thinking that it can be put to service in the construction of musical representations.* Moving “up” in range, then, can be equated to a host of experiences and concepts, such as spiritual transcendence.

Similarly, “madrigalisms” work on the level of bodily experience by imitating emotional and physical sensations. For instance, the word “trembling” might be set to a trill, which sonically conjures the act of physically trembling; weeping (“piangendo,” a common madrigal trope) would find its analog in vocal gestures that mimic the sighing, deflated spasms of crying. Sound-body mapping is central to the musical embodiment of these physical states.

But when you get beyond bodily experience, musical representation becomes a bit trickier. If music is “organized sound,” then how does one go about representing chaos, the very opposite of order and organization? A host of composers have tackled this question over the years and, unsurprisingly, the translations vary widely according to aesthetic sensibility and time. Haydn’s Creation features a particularly well-known instantiation of musical chaos: it begins with a forceful unison, then gradually the threads wind their way through different key areas, often chromatically, in search of a home key and the stability of tonal procedures. As Tovey observed, “tonality is Haydn’s musical Cosmos” (II, 634). Indeed, this opening passage still packs a wildly expressive punch. The defiance of tonal expectations and subversion of the “natural” magnetism of leading tones provides Haydn with a potent musical strategy for representing chaos.

As a counterpoint to Haydn’s point, I’ll close with a very different musical portrayal of elementary formlessness. Wayne Shorter’s “Chaos,” from his underrated 1965 album The All Seeing Eye, uses jagged, dissonant phrases and – fittingly enough – free improvisation to reference inchoate cosmological states. Shorter’s chaos does not implicate tonality per se, but rather goes against the regular, periodic harmonic structures of traditional jazz. Both Haydn and Shorter, then, sought a portrait of disorder in the subversion of the musical systems that served as the syntactical baseline for their respective styles.

* A couple of good books on this: Lakoff/Johnson – Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh; Mark Johnson – Body in the Mind; Lawrence Zbikowski – Conceptualizing Music; Thomas Clifton – Music as Heard; Peter Kivy – Introduction to a Philosophy of Music

4 Comments

  1. The highly original fifth symphony by the great Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) ,which dates from the early 1920s, was conceived by the composer as a representation of the struggle between chaos and order and good evil.
    It’s in two movements, and as usual with Nielsen,is not rooted to one key. It begins in a kind of musical void, in no particular key ,and proceeds in a chaotic manner until a snare drum begins playing a kind of relentless rat-tat-tat, proceeding from a general tonal center of F,moving up a fifth to C.
    Finally., a kind of stability of tonality in clear cut G major is reached, and finally a beautiful,clear-cut theme apppears.
    But the relentless snare drum resumes its rat-tat-tat, and a colossal struggle breaks out in which the snare drum player is directed to start improvising his part, blasting away chaotically as if he had gone berserk,with no regard for what the rest of the orchestra is doing! The orchestra is in 3/4, and the snare drum plays in 4/4!
    But the snare drum is overcome, and the battle is over.
    A solo clarinet meditates on the strange procedings, and the snare drummer is directed to move offstage playing in the distance.
    The second and last movement is an attempt to rise above the ashes of the first movement, proceding from B major with great energy, and then a panicky fugue in F minor which soon becomes a kind of musical hurricane , then going to a calm slow fugue based on the theme of the opening of the movement in F major.
    This leads to a return of the opening in B major and the music shifts into overdrive,generating white heat, seemingly hurtling into total chaos. But there is an allargando, and the movement ends in fiercely defiant triumph, having reached they key of E flat major !
    This is one of the strangest symphonies ever written, but a fascinating masterpiece.

    1. Thanks for letting us know about this fascinating musical portrayal of chaos. I’ve always meant to check out Nielson’s 5th but never have; you’ve sold me though!

  2. I recommend the excelent book “Carl Nielsen-Symphonist”,by the late English composer and Nielsen admirer Robert Simpson. I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but it’s worth looking for.

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