Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Mechanical Efficiency" in Music

One of my favorite discussion threads by Schillinger in The System is the series of instances in which he speaks of "mechanical efficiency": The mechanical efficiency of a melodic trajectory, for example.

A basic dichotomy of levels of mechanical effeciency can be illustrated by taking ancient modes of transportation and comparing them to modern examples: Say, and ox drawn cart and a Ford F-150 pickup truck. It's positively laughable to compare these two modes of transportation because the truck is an entire universe of mechanical efficiency beyond the oxcart. That is not to say that seeing an oxcart wouldn't fill us with some sense of nostalgic melancholy, or that we wouldn't find it charming in some way, but the chances of you deciding to trade in your automobile or motorcycle to drive an oxcart to work in the morning are less than absolute zero.

This same phenomenon can be demonstrated with traditional music: I personally enjoy listening to plainchant sung in the traditional way and recorded in historic cathedrals. However, comparing a Gregorian melody to, say, an Aria by Verdi is a cruel joke if you are looking at it in terms of the respective mechanical efficiencies of the melodic trajectories. The plodding pace and limited range of the chant melody cannot hope to compare to Verdi's soaring arches and spinning lines. It truely is an absurd comparison.

Basically, during the evolution of western traditional music, the mechanical efficiency of all of it's aspects advanced as a reflection of the technological advances throughout society (And in some cases, music drove those advances).

I don't see the amazing technology of today reflected in post common practice music when I look at it in terms of the mechanical efficiency of the actual music. Sure, we get some modern electronic instruments and stuff like that, but the technological approaches to the actual music, while they may be filled with intracacies and mathmatical exactitude, don't exactly compare well - for me - to, say...

A Lamborghini Gallardo.

If our automobiles are becoming more elegant and mechanically efficient (In an absolute sense, not necessarily in a "miles per gallon" sense), why is the music as ugly as an oxcart?


"A Shieldmaiden of Rohan finds nothing ugly about an oxcart!"


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