Roger Reynolds’ Sanctuary:
Musical Unity, Compositional Cohesion, and Dimensions of Identity
This essay discusses aesthetic qualities connected to those musical experiences that persist in listeners’ memories. The qualities discussed here are not the only aspects of such singular musical experiences. I offer a brief overview of ‘unity’ in music, and discuss some of the ways in which musicians and writers conceive of this quality. I then share an experiential description of some of the casts of mind brought about by musical unity. Then, touching upon some recent texts by contemporary writers on Ethics and deontology, I advance an idea about ‘identity’ transposed from these philosophies onto a single musical composition, and introduce the notion of ‘psychological connectedness’ as it might apply to musical experience. The ultimate concern of this essay is a unique perspective and an analysis of Sanctuary, a percussion quartet composed by Roger Reynolds, and completed in 2005. The concepts of ‘musical unity’ and ‘identity’ are brought to bear upon Reynolds’ work, with a brief conclusion focused on the ‘dimensions of Humanity’ – a purposefully open-ended expression which arises, for me, out of the foregoing considerations.
When a piece of music is described as ‘cohesive’, one thing that is meant is that any single passage of the work sounds convincingly like any other – and this quality does not only refer to a similitude of themes, or to thematic or harmonic repetitions, or to consistent instrumentation, nor does it refer only to motivic, rhythmic, harmonic, or abstract set relationships ; in fact, very often it is those works which seem to achieve the highest musical cohesion by their very ‘suchness’1 which live the longest and fullest in listeners’ ears – attaining “the life of memory and everyday circulation…”, what Eugenio Montale calls “the Second Life of Art” – since these works continually entice not only the ear, but also the intellect and the imagination. If my informal definition of musical ‘cohesion’ evokes the concept of musical ‘unity’, this is not an accident, and the concept of ‘unity’ in music is not new. According to Anton Webern:
Unity is surely the indispensable thing if meaning is to exist. Unity, to be general, is the establishment of the utmost relatedness between all component parts. So in music, as in all other human utterance, the aim is to make as clear as possible the relationships between the parts of the unity; in short, to show how one thing leads to another.
Further, in his essay “Beyond Unity: Toward an Understanding of Musical Postmodernism”, Jonathan D. Kramer, discussing the challenge of differentiating between unity of a composition as studied in a score and unity “heard, understood, and remembered” in music, distinguishes between textual unity and perceptual unity:
Textual unity has a degree of objectivity. It is assumed to be demonstrable, whether or not it is experienced. Perceptual unity also resides in relationships – but not among aspects of the music-out-there but among aspects of music-in-here: music as perceived, as encoded in short- and then long-term memory, and as recalled. (emphasis added)
And also, in “Concepts of Musical Unity”, Fred Everett Maus discusses his dissatisfaction with the current discourse on unity in music, and offers a proliferation of descriptions designed to facilitate a sharper awareness of different conceptions of musical unity. He writes:
Here are some terms, all of which summarize qualities related to unity: ‘coherence’, ‘completeness’, ‘comprehensiveness’, ‘fusion’, ‘integrity’, integration’, ‘logic’, ‘organic unity’, ‘perfection’, ‘self-sufficiency’, ‘synthesis’, ‘totality’, ‘wholeness’. They differ in that some seem to be species of unity (‘coherence’, ‘fusion’, ‘wholeness’), while other do not (‘logic’, ‘self-sufficiency’). But the relation to unity is clear in the latter cases as well: when a sequence of musical events is called logical, the point is that the events go together in a certain way; an ascription of self-sufficiency suggests a unified whole that is separated from some exterior
In the first essay of A Searcher’s Path, Roger Reynolds advances the experience of ‘wholeness’ and ‘coherence’ when he explains impetus, which, along with number, editing, and branching, constitutes a “cardinal factor” of his practice:
Impetus, understood as a component of basic working method, refers to what I consider the necessary kernel, seed, elementary particle of some sort which constitutes the basis of wholeness, of coherence, of the sense one hopes to convey that every sound in the work belongs, is a part of the same world
The most fundamental requirement I place upon the experience of an unfamiliar composition on first hearing is that it shall have no moments that jar because they are incongruous. …I do not exclude the possibility of surprise, naturally, only the visceral and lingering impression that some pitch, some gesture, some sound fails to belong to the music in which it is found.
These differing characterizations1 of an aesthetic consistency share a concern for how music is experienced and remembered, and are by no means restricted to or necessarily based upon underlying formal designs, compositional methods, or stylistic practices. The experience of musical unity may or may not be a gauge of a composition’s success or memorability; however, this experience of ‘completeness’ or ‘cohesion’ in music would seem to be a salient (and not undesirable), aspect of those works which live on in listeners’ memories, and in general is an aspect which is demonstrable or explicable in some way or another. But what is the experience of musical unity, and what might it be like to palpably encounter this quality?
When music engages us so completely in the ways described above, and when the clarity of musical unity becomes subsumed in our listening experience, it is possible we lose sight of ourselves as listeners, becoming sufficiently engrossed in the listening experience that we lose sight of our surroundings, are immune to considerations of perceptions of style or technique in the music, and we ‘forget’ our selves. Joshua B. Mailman draws attention to some of the interiority of this experience in “Seven Metaphors for (Music) Listening” in the section devoted to “Listening as Meditation”, where he observes: “That listening is a kind of meditation derives from the fact that it can be an object of intense focus and prolonged concentration”. In his text, Mailman notes that this experience has been discussed by composers such as Benjamin Boretz:
‘experiencing music [as[ bringing into being a singular time-space identity, received from a singular perspective of location…The psychic time and space and occasion of a music experiencing are fully contingent upon the specific coincident physical times, and physical spaces and real-world occasions within which that music experiencing occurs’
And Robert Morris, on ‘suchness’:
‘Suchness’ is what we perceive when there are no thoughts about perception, before we recognize something as X.’
Elaborating upon Morris’ explication upon ‘suchness’, Mailman writes that: “Beyond listening, he (Morris) also draws parallels between the attention-focusing aspects of musical discipline (such as breath control, bowing, scales, and even counterpoint) and the capacity for pure attention developed to advance on the path to enlightenment as prescribed by various spiritual belief systems such as Buddhism.”
Most pointedly in this section, Mailman invokes the ‘interrelated’ practices pioneered by composer Pauline Oliveros which address exactly this experience of ‘losing oneself’ or becoming immersed in the listening experience: deep listening, sonic meditation, and sonic awareness, which are aptly described as “the basis for a meditatively immersive approach to improvisation”, and which Heidi Von Gunden explains as “a synthesis of the psychology of consciousness, the physiology of the martial arts, and the sociology of the feminist movement”, a synthesis which seeks to access different modalities of concentration (i.e., “focal and global attention”). This experience can be so profound, and so striking, that the indelible attenuation to our listening persists long after the music has ended, and we possibly remain better listeners in our daily life, engaging, reshaping, and investigating our memories of the musical experience in the process. Mailman’s text is particularly concise when he advances the metaphor of Listening as Digestion, writing that :
…what we listen to stays with us, nourishing our consciousness. As we ingest food or drink, we are left with the taste for only an instant, and ingested material passes through us, though the memory and nutrients from them may linger or accumulate for an indefinitely longer time. That is, there are two ways in which what we listen to exceeds the ‘now’ in which we hear it. The first is in that it lingers, being gradually metabolized, fading in intensity and bulk as it recedes into the past. … The second is that it may accumulate in our memories for an indefinite time.
Eugenio Montale seemingly describes his own literary concurrence with this characterization of this type of listening experience when he writes of his own inability to “…see a line of indifferent mourners at a funeral or feel the Triestine bora blow without thinking of Italo Svevo’s Zeno; or look at certain modern merveilleuses without thinking of Modigliani or Matisse…”. Just as memory, and memorability, play an essential role in the perception of and reflection upon musical unity, the perception of musical unity reflexively modulates the ways in which we remember and reflect upon a music-listening experience.
I propose that the music which is most ‘cohesive’ engages the multitude of our perceptual and cognitive faculties in concert, and in different ways at different times (i.e., differently in each successive listen). The conceptual pluralism enabled by such experiences is not without foundation. At the core of these speculations, of my speculations, is Roger Reynolds’ Sanctuary, a multimedia work for percussion quartet, real-time computer sound processing and spatialization. Sanctuary presents a strikingly cohesive musical profile with a malleable ‘depth of surface’ which rewards repeated listenings; I highlight some of the musical ways in which Reynolds’ work achieves such a striking cohesion throughout the piece and between movements of the piece, and by considering some dimensions of this work, I elaborate some of the ways Sanctuary elucidates the surprising subtleties of identity in music. By considering Sanctuary, and particularly Song, in this light, I offer that the music of Sanctuary touches upon the dimensions of Humanity – an expression which refers exactly to what it seems to, but which will also become more refined after detailing how listening to this music might inform a listener’s grasp – my grasp – of what identity might consist in Music.
Sanctuary – Movement III: Song
Concerning Song, the composer writes:
Song is the final movement of the hour-long percussion quartet, Sanctuary (it begins with Chatter/Clatter, and Oracle). In it, aspects of the others return but with the significant addition of specific pitch, a resource previously untapped. This allows the means of excitation first – quite literally – touched upon in Chatter/Clatter to return in the service of increasingly linear and shapely ideals. More importantly, the contours of Oracle‘s exchanges – the “conversational” interrogations and recursions – return, becoming what they had aspired to: fruition as melodic, then harmonic statement.
The structure of Song reprises that of Chatter/Clatter, though its use of underlying framework is quite different. Brief diadic motives, sounded on a set of 27 almglocken, are shown to parallel elements of Oracle‘s interrogations and exchanges. Seeking an ideal sequence, these brief motives draw on the contour “theme” that, in different instantiations, underlay both of the earlier movements.
In short, not only the identity and emerging order of the brief component motives is important here, but also the way they are sounded, and the place (physically) from which they come
The music of Song is strikingly cohesive. This is achieved by progressively privileging, though never entirely suppressing, the salience of perceivable tensions between (though not limited to) the following kinds of relationships :
- non-pitched instrumentation / similitude of timbres.
- closely-related rhythmic gestures / composite rhythmic phrases.
- undulating cumulative densities / isolatable textural protuberances.
An elaboration of this compositional trajectory suggests that identifying an exhaustive diversity of relationships among musical dimensions affords the composer a rich fund of conceptual resources from within which unique tensions may be cast, modulated, attenuated and refined throughout the temporally linear and timbrally vertical spaces of the work. For example, Anton Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24, bolstered by frozen instrumental registers against which usually less-cognizant dimensional tensions may be perceived, shares in some of the compositional designs mustered for Sanctuary. In Webern’s work, highly contoured rhythmic gestures stand in stark relief against the static pitch space in the first five measures:
Non-pitched Instrumentation / Similitude of Timbres (mm. 58-65)
In the absence of precise pitch relationships in this section, Reynolds achieves a smooth sonic profile through the similarity of timbres afforded by the skins; however, a great deal of intra-timbral variation is activated by the performance mode described by Reynolds as “Series”: “This mode…is used for all events that involve changes in speed. Here…the changes in speed should go from very slow and deliberate to the maximal “whir” level. The performers should attempt to imitate the shape of each of the overhead arrow indications….” This ‘performance mode’ facilitates a great deal of variation within the composite timbre of this section, and evokes the notion of the ‘inner life of sound’. Additionally, since the two percussionists are opposite one another, “Series” also helps to afford the reification of the spatial dimension of the work, as the listeners’ attention oscillates between the physical locations of the sound source.
Closely Related Rhythmic Gestures / Composite Rhythmic Phrases (mm. 139-147)
The individual rhythmic gestures of each part in this section occupy a similar metric locus, with the ‘pulse’ of each centered on the quarter-note as minima. The individual rhythmic phrases played by each of the percussionists in this section amplify the individualistic thrust of each part, while the composite rhythmic phrasing of all parts together allows for the emergence of the ‘identity’ of this movement. The phrasing lines notated in the score highlight the intended composite rhythmic gesture of this section, and, as noted before, also help articulate the spatial dimension of the work: while in the example above (measures 58-65), the diadic dynamic established by the two percussionists opposite one another evokes a ‘stereophonic’ spatial orientation, in measures 139-147 the orientation turns ‘quadraphonic’, with each articulation of the composite rhythmic gesture emanating from a different physical location.
The salience of individual rhythmic groupings in each part and the ‘macro-salience’ of the composite rhythmic gestures formed by these offer the listener a similar oscillatory auditioning experience as was presented by the ‘stereophonic’ orientation in the first example. The ability to “zoom in” on the musical intricacy of each part or “zoom out” to the composite sweep of this intricacy not only activates multiple of our faculties at once, but ontologizes a musical dimensionality in this music not often heard contemporary musical works.
Undulating Cumulative Densities / Isolatable Textural Protuberances (mm. 177-185)
In measures 177-185 the cumulative densities of this section are set in motion by the almglocken in Percussion I and skins in Percussion III. The profile between the two percussionists in this section is reminiscent of the section in the first example (measures 58-65), but without the ‘Series’ performance mode which served to characterize that earlier section so distinctly; in measures 177-185 the diadic relationship between undulating densities and textural protuberances provides the palpable tension. Beginning in measure 178, both percussionists establish a continuum through the “Tremol” performance mode, described in the preface of the score as “Very rapid alternation…ideally producing, through various means, a whirring effect.” This ‘tremolo continuum’ is punctuated, by each percussion in tandem, in measure 178 and measure 180, again in measure 181 and in 182, etc., describing a rhythmically cohesive duet between these percussionists throughout the passage. Percussionist II interjects into the ‘conversation’ of the other two percussionists with quicksilver rhythmic gestures performed on the ORACLE. The ORACLE is one of seven ODDITIES outlined in the second movement of Sanctuary. ODDITIES are objects chosen by the quartet and according to performance characters defined by the composer. The ORACLE is the seventh such ODDITY, and is centrally placed in the performance space to provide both ease of access to each of the performers and to visually and physically distinguish the object from the rest of the ensemble; the figure below shows the ORACLE ODDITY placed in the center of the quartet :
The ORACLE facilitates a unique sound color for the ensemble in this section, and in measures 180-184 the rapid rhythmic gesture performed by Percussionist II on this object distinguishes the object from the rhythmically homogenous ‘duet’ established by Percussionists I and III. Further, since the ORACLE is placed in the middle of the ensemble, this object also affords a further palpability to the spatial dimension of the work.
The diadic relationships discussed in this text concerning Song are not the only relationships a listener might hear in Song; the limit to the kinds of relationships, and the salient tensions heard between them, resides only in the imagination of the listener. It is due to the florescence of these relationships and the tensions between them that Song is able to engage the dimensions of Humanity, which include but are not limited to :
- -the sense of ‘Self’ (identity; the persistence of unity in time; partly the domain of Psychology.)
- -Free Will – and if it exists, how we choose to act. This is the province of Ethics.
- -Belief, or not, in life, or existence, after death (not necessarily the same as persistence of
- identity beyond the corporeal world – think Karma, Law of Energy Conservation, etc., in addition to documented monotheist perspectives. Metaphysics deals with this.)
- -Knowledge (the Nature of Reality: what we know, what we can know, what is knowable, and what is not. This is the domain of Epistemology).
- -Compassion (perhaps Love (non-romantic), more appropriately an extension of our ‘sense of self’ to other beings, treating others as we treat ourselves, Empathy, etc.)
These are the kinds of reflections and concerns available to a listener of music of sufficient complexity and cohesion. And these are the kinds of concerns that may (hopefully) never find a final answer. If Music can not free our attention enough to explore concerns such as even these, what importance can Music possibly have for us?
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