The recent explosion of electronic devices that can be used for reading has provoked some in-depth thinking on how the basic units of print media translate to screen devices and heated debates on the appropriateness of scrolling vs. card/page models have been waged.
In relation to my own search for better ways to present musical compositions on the internet, these re-evaluations have also prompted me to think about the relation of musical structures to the page.
While one can easily draw parallels between novels and symphonies, chapters and movements, when it comes down to the single page the analogy begins to strain. Poetry is in many cases more suited to the boundaries offered by a single page, while prose downplays those edges as it flows from one page to the next. In the case of music notation these transitions are crucial and the layout often needs to be carefully planned in order to avoid page turns interrupting the flow of the music. It is only with the avant-garde works of the last half-century that the page (or card) has consciously been adopted as a model that can be used as a point of departure for shaping musical materials.
From another angle David Hockney’s considerations on perspective and the representation of space in relation the edges of a window/page have long made a resonant impression on me. There is a wonderful video in which he unrolls a Chinese scroll, explaining the narrative possibilities and subtle changes in perspective that the format opens up. Hockney highlights the profound shift in consciousness that followed the development of perspective, a shift that also went hand in hand with the parallel development of the printed book. The shifting edges of the ancient scrolls have of course found a modern counterpart in the present day digital devices that embody both scroll and window/page models at once.
In terms of video and film however we are still very much locked into a view of the world governed by single point perspective. Real progress will have been made when we no longer have to contend with the weird single-eyed sense of space found in otherwise state of the art video games for example, when these virtual worlds can embrace the sense of space that comes from moving through the world with two eyes and the subtleties of peripheral vision.
Digital platforms, especially mobile ones, are otherwise quite at good at blurring edges in their attempt to create immersive experiences. Perhaps this can in part explain the current trend in round pictures in web design. As the cubists discovered nearly a century ago rectangular edges become a problem when attention is focussed on the centre of the space rather than the perspective/ photographic obsession with framing and edges. (They had to find solutions for this when painting on canvasses with very real rectangular edges.) This move from frame to content has in turn brought us to a point at which the vague edges of our digital worlds might be redefined, both physically and psychologically — a topic that Craig Mod investigates in his essay The Digital↔Physical.
Bringing the focus back to text and narrative, the author Robin Sloan has recently embraced the limitations of the (hyper)card model to develop a delightful new form of storytelling. His essay House of Cards sums up the value of this approach: “Stacks allow you to control the rhythm of an argument at the level of the sentence, the phrase, or even the individual word.”
We find ourselves back in the domain in which composers have traditionally felt themselves at home: controlling the unfolding of a dramatic ‘argument’. On the other hand the ‘card-model’ has also opened up for a less linear approach to time even though timing, pacing and duration continue to be as important as ever. DJs and electronic musicians have especially embraced this approach, typically having a huge catalogue of cards (clips) at their disposal, ready to be deployed (‘played’) when the moment is right. The beauty of Robin Sloan’s “Tapestry” is that the user takes part in this timing and becomes a part of the story being told.
Composer Yannis Kyriakides and designer Isabelle Vigier have explored something similar in their QFO, but with the added dimension of sound and music and I, too, have moved down this path with my piece half-life.
Timing, duration and pacing are now recognised as an integral part of web/app-design with designers obsessing over milliseconds and developing a refined sense of how the various transitions and animations they craft affect the overall experience of what it is they are presenting, both on a macro and micro level. “Software is a time based art” as someone noted recently. In this it touches on the domain of music.
Painting and hacking are not as different as one might imagine them to be at first glance, as Paul Graham observed 10 years ago. Now perhaps more than ever the different forms of our culture are bleeding into one another – throwing new light on each other in the process. Musicians are beginning to make use of the advantages offered by screen devices even though paper remains firmly entrenched as the preferred form. This is likely to change as devices continue to improve and become more widespread. What I find more interesting though is the way in which these practical considerations might feed back into the way the music itself is structured.
This post can also be found on Medium.