computer-generated sounds

Robert Morris

Program Notes

While the differences between musical cultures around the world are great indeed, sometimes we find surprising relations among them--relations due to polygenesis, not dispersion. One of these unsuspected correspondences involves musical time. In Western twentieth century art music, Webern and Varese (and later, Stockhausen and Cage) constructed new types of time experiences for music: stillness and silence were explored as positive aspects of musical form. As is well known now, a good deal of Asian music has also dipped into the same temporal reservoir; however the music in question is traditional, not experimental or avant-garde. I was once again struck by this correspondence while listing to an interesting lecture on the role of time in modern music by composer/theorist Thomas DeLio in April of 1991. Some ideas for a new piece came to me then, and when DeLio invited me to submit a piece for a concert in College Park, I decided to put these ideas to work in a new electronic piece.

"Ma" is a term used in the traditional arts of Japan--especially music. Its denotation is roughly equivalent to the Western "rest," but it has many more important connotations. Ma refers to artistically placed intervals in time or space creating a pause that stops the flow of time altogether, one that arrests motion to highlight a special moment. The effect of stillness can paradoxically intensify the transience of experience. In my piece, the flow of sound and gesture is interrupted by silences or moments of repose. Sometimes these caesuras contain echoes of the surrounding music. As the piece goes on, the stops become less frequent, and therefore more dramatic. The last pause is punctuated by a pair of loud chords.

Ma can also refer to the intervals among the notes of chords and melodies. In modern music theory, it is the configuration of intervals (spaces between pitches) that defines the harmonic character of simultaneous notes. Certain spacings of pitches can also stop temporal motion in the same way a resonant bell or gong can capture one's attention. I try to invoke ma in the choice of especially wide-spaced registers of pitch and timbre.

The overall form of MA can be heard as a kind of spiral, slowing unwinding itself into wider and broader (yet no less diverse) musical tapestries. In other words, the moment to moment flow remains more or less constant, while the change of more global musical dimensions slows up. This experience is akin to various kinds of meditation, where one's breathing remains at a constant rate, but one's perception of time slows down considerably.

MA is about 15 minutes long. It was written from November of 1991 to February, 1992. It was realized in my MIDI computer-controlled electronic studio in March and April of 1992.

Click here to see the "MA matrix"