Andrew Raffo Dewar on Form

Andrew Raffo Dewar

In Umberto Eco’s seminal meditation on “open works,” he states that “the comprehension and interpretation of a form can be achieved only by retracing its formative process, [and] by repossessing the form in movement.”[1]

In my own musical work, I am lately most interested in setting processes in motion, both social and musical, not in creating discrete, fixed objects. Musical recordings function, for me, as snapshots of moments within longer temporal processes.

I am drawn to, and happily confused by, the possibilities of form suggested by chaos theory (of which I admittedly have only a novice’s understanding – though I take solace in the fact that Richard Feynman himself once noted that he thought “no one understands quantum mechanics”). Chaos theory suggests forms that may be unrecognizable due to their complexity, durational arc, or lack of perceivable periodicity or behavior.[2] In addition to Eco’s expositions on the aesthetics of open form, historian and theorist Hayden White’s classic critical engagement with the broader questions surrounding the “content of the form”[3] is another conceptual departure point for my own work, in the sense that I attempt to be persistently cognizant that every form or narrative one might invent is wrought within a long chain of interconnected histories, influences, biases, etc., whether one is aware of that network or not.

In music, perceivable periodicity and/or repetition is often a determining factor in identifying “form,” but, in fact, any time a sound is brought into being it has a form that can be explored on many levels, from the micro-level, physical components of the sound (e.g. its frequency, amplitude, and color/timbre/spectral signature), to the macro levels of how that sound co-exists in a space, or broader yet, how it inhabits the culture(s) within which it is produced (or reproduced). In such macro-level cultural formations we have a vast network of styles, genres, histories, canons, and traditions that many musicians learn to navigate or inhabit. There are, however, also outlier artists who align themselves with the attempt to expand or step outside these bounds, employing an approach most of us call “experimentalism” – which is also (of course) its own label/genre/tradition and set of conventions, albeit one arguably founded on aesthetic exploration and flux.

It is this latter approach to form that I am most interested in as composer, musician, and scholar.[4] “Why?” is often the question I am asked (usually by students) when I describe my allegiance to experimental forms. One example I often use to explain this abiding (but unprofitable and unpopular) interest in unconventional forms is describing the wonder I experience listening to rainfall or cicadas singing – unpredictable, ever-shifting symphonies of sound around which I choose to emplace the listening frames of “form” and “music.” Tied to this is my interpretation of John Cage’s ever-challenging 4’33” , which I hear as a generous and welcoming koan, encouraging us to understand music as a way of listening, not a prescribed set of rules for the organization of sounds.

All this is not to say I do not appreciate or make recognizable forms, but simply that of late I feel most fulfilled as both a listener and a maker when something presents me with a shape, sound, or process I don’t quite grasp and can’t predict where it might lead, nor if, or when, it might end.

Like rain.

[1] Umberto Eco, The Open Work (1962; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 163.

[2] See Borgo 2006 for musical applications of some of these theories. David Borgo, Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age. New York: Continuum, 2005.

[3] Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987.

[4] Readers interested in my scholarly take on the possibilities and implications of other artists’ experimental musical forms may want to consult my essays “Searching for the Center of a Sound: Bill Dixon’s Webern, the Unaccompanied Solo, and Compositional Ontology in Post-Songform Jazz,” in Jazz Perspectives 4: 1 (April 2010): 59-87.; Introductory essay to accompany “Notation Beyond/Beyond Notation” CD curated by Andrew Raffo Dewar, Leonardo Music Journal Vol.21 (December 2011); “Reframing Sounds: Recontextualization as Compositional Process in the Work of Alvin Lucier,” LMJ22 (2012); “Hot & Cool from Buenos Aires to Chicago: Guillermo Gregorio’s Jazz Cosmopolitanism” JRJ 6.2 (2012): 151-169. In my own musical practice, I am omnivorous in both my consumption and production of forms – from the fixity of “through-composed” music and songforms (which are still, ultimately, largely indeterminate – cf. Behrman 1965), to the flux of open improvisation.

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Andrew Raffo Dewar is composer, soprano saxophonist, ethnomusicologist, educator, and arts organizer. He is an Associate Professor in New College and the School of Music at the University of Alabama. As a scholar, he writes about experimentalism, jazz and improvisation, music technologies, and 1960s intermedia arts. As a composer and musician, he regularly performs his work internationally and appears on more than a dozen commercially-released albums. For more info: <www.freemovementarts.com>