Friends, the final New Creations Festival concert was by far the weirdest.
On Saturday the 11th we were treated to a whole array of compositions, including a selection for harp and strings performed by The Madawaska Ensemble (inspired by both East Coast folk songs and contemporary pop music), a really hypnotic piece called Round by composer Cassandra Miller (which took a simple melody line and repeated and layered it throughout the different sections of the orchestra), a piece by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason called Emergence that sounds like nothing short of a force of nature, and a performance by the Cris Derksen Trio that ended the entire festival on a very high and vibrant note. (I had the pleasure of talking to the Anishinaabe hoop dancer, Nimkii Osawamick, for half an hour after the show ended!)
All of these were experimental in their own ways, and some were more outlandish than others–but nothing tops the featured composition of the night, Nicole Lizée’s Black MIDI.
Where do I even start?
Black MIDI is a music genre consisting of compositions that uses MIDI files to create a song remix containing a large number of notes, typically in the thousands or millions. […] Large numbers of notes are layered in close proximity to one another, meaning that a traditional musical score appears almost completely black – hence the name “Black MIDI”.
Here’s what it looks like:
It sounds pretty much exactly how it looks.
But Nicole Lizée didn’t stop at that. Instead, she turned Black MIDI into a multimedia experience, in an attempt to really explore “what the genre could become”. There were members of the orchestra doing everything from ripping pieces of paper on stage to whirling around plastic tubes–and up on two giant screens a video was projected, a sort of “television series” documenting characters as they fell down the rabbit hole of Black MIDI. It was, in short, a trip.
But this whole festival is a bit of a trip–in both senses of the word. It’s a mind-altering experience as well as an adventure to something new and exciting. I wrote a couple weeks ago about the kinds of thoughts these concerts were inspiring, about showcasing innovation and experimentation, about breaking the established traditions, about the requirement that living things must change and grow and shapeshift. But I think I’ve finally figured out what the heart and soul of the New Creations Fest remind me so strongly of.
Prescriptivism & Descriptivism
It was only a matter of time until I linked all of this back to linguistics. Music, after all, is a sort of language–or else, language is a sort of music.
When you study linguistics, one of the first things you learn is that there is a battle happening. It’s a battle between rigidity and fluidity, between stagnation and movement. It’s a battle between two camps: the prescriptivists and the descriptivists.
Prescriptive linguistics (and prescriptive linguists) are preoccupied with deciding how language should be used. “Standard English” is a result of prescriptive linguistics–as is every uptight grammarian who tells you that you can’t split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition or use “y’all” to express the second person plural. Prescriptivism’s aim is to tell you what you are and aren’t allowed to do with language.
But descriptive linguistics is preoccupied with describing how a language is used, regardless of whether it’s “correct” or not. Descriptive linguistics isn’t concerned with setting down a rulebook–it just wants to understand how people are speaking, and why they’re speaking that way. Descriptivists observe new phenomena in language use and get excited rather than affronted.
Here’s the major difference: a prescriptivist thinks of language as a fixed form, something that was perfected at some point in the past and ought not to be changed ever again. A descriptivist acknowledges language as a living, breathing entity that grows and changes alongside its users. For the descriptivist, the only languages that stay the same are the dead ones.
What does all this have to do with orchestra music?
Peter Oundjian et al. Are Musical Descriptivists
This concept of prescribing VS describing can be applied far outside of linguistics. It can be applied to popular culture, to social norms, to science, to high art. It can certainly be applied to music. Too often our assumption of what music should be gets stuck on one setting, one set of parameters. (Whether your mental model for what music should sound like looks like a four-chord song or a concerto, the point is that, somewhere in your mind, there are Rules That Should Not Be Broken.)
There are so many great artists who die before the general public catches on to what they’re trying to say. Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Vincent van Gogh. These artists suffered because they were “ahead of their time”–that is, they were creating something new and unexpected, and their prescriptivist societies refused to see the merit of that. Everybody had too much of an idea of what art should be that they had no space left in their minds and hearts for what art could be.
I think Peter Oundjian, Owen Pallett, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra are trying their absolute best to change the way our society views art. I think they’re attempting to convince us all to abandon our prescriptive prejudices, to be a little more open to simply exploring and describing what is. And as a descriptive linguist myself, I can say I really, really appreciate the effort. The more we challenge the notion of a fixed and unchangeable structure in one area of our lives, the more able we are to challenge that notion in other areas. If we see that something as rigid and rulebound as orchestra music can morph into such fantastical forms, surely that’s encouragement to experiment and play with all parts of life.
After all, almost every convention we live by–the economy, the education system, art, technology, everything–was made up by humans at some point. And that means we can make it up all over again.
Check out the artists above for some delicious descriptive music, and let me know what you think!