Documentary Music: Gavin Bryars, Philip Corner, and Others November 27, 1978

Little, if anything, has been said about ‘documentary music,’ but it seems to me that there is a lot of it going around these days. I don’t mean to define a specific school or category, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest any exact parallels between what composers are doing and the activity in documentary films or documentary art. I simply mean that a great deal of recent music is documentary in a general sense. Most music is totally creative, totally a figment of some personal imagination or process, but documentary music merely records some pattern or event found in the real, non-imaginary world. It translates facts into sounds. This is a new idea. The closest 19th-century and early 20th-century composers ever came to actually documenting anything would be those operas or tone poems that claimed to recreate some legend or historical incident.

I’d been familiar with ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’ by Gavin Bryars in its Obscure Records version for some time. And after hearing Bryars’s live presentation at the Kitchen on November 11, which included live piano music and a number of projections related to the Titanic, I decided this would be a good place to begin describing documentary music. Bryars’s work is essentially a sound collage, running about 25 minutes, consisting largely of sustained string music along with fragments of piano and barely audible speaking voices. The piece has a solemn quality and is an effective historical memorial, but it is much more than that. It is actually a detailed reconstruction of the incident. The string music consists of the specific hymns reported to have been played by the Titanic musicians as the ship was sinking, the instrumentation is exactly that of the ship’s orchestra, and the voices are actual statements of observers. The complete score, published in Soundings magazine in 1975, includes 34 pages of other details Bryars took into consideration in composing the work, and even suggests that the piece is to be corrected at the dictate of future research. ‘The piece is an open one,’ the composer explains, ‘and materials subsequently found are included in it and are integral parts.’ A few weeks ago I heard another arresting case of documentary music when I attended a rehearsal of New York’s own gamelan ensemble, Son of Lion. One of the works I heard that evening was a new composition by Philip Corner called ‘The Barcelona Cathedral.’ Corner was conducting in big slow beats that fell heavily once every few seconds. With each beat about 10 mallets fell onto the metallic percussion instruments with a tremendous clang. A variety of pitches resulted, and the general effect was much like a big church bell. The piece went on for nearly half an hour, always with that same relentless beat but with slightly different effects. A church bell never rings exactly the same way twice, and in Corner’s work too the attacks would vary slightly, and my ear would be drawn to different details as the clangs decayed. Later on, some members of the group inserted little upbeats, which sounded almost accidental and clearly reflected the accidental little sounds that clappers often make on bells in between their serious strokes.

Corner had not done any library research in this case, but he had obviously done a good deal of ear research during his recent visit to Barcelona, because this was not simply a fantasy on the sound of church bells. It became quite clear that Corner was actually trying to actually create the actual sound of the actual church bell he had actually heard.

The difference between documentary music and other music often reminds me of the difference between photography and painting, and ‘The Barcelona Cathedral’ is a particularly clear example of the photographic approach. Like a photographer, Corner was basically just trying to capture a perception, get it in focus, and convey it to an audience. Of course, many elements of personal taste ultimately enter in. Why did he choose a bell as subject? Why this particular bell? Why did he decide to recreate the experience with the gamelan ensemble instead of with an orchestra or a synthesizer? But that is like asking why Diane Arbus liked to take pictures of abnormal humans and why she took them in black and white instead of color. Such questions are relevant, of course, and clarify that basic artistic choices are still at stake, but they do not negate the fact that, essentially, both Corner and Arbus were simply documenting perceptions.

The methods used to create ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’ and ‘The Barcelona Cathedral’ are by no means the only ways of composing documentary music. Many other composers have done it in many other ways. One of my favorite examples is Annea Lockwood’s ‘River Archives,’ which consists entirely of recordings she has made of rivers, streams, and creeks around the world. This is basically a kind of catalogue, but unlike Messiaen’s rather freely elaborated ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux,’ for example, this one allows nature to speak without human intervention. Other composers have taken a different approach by writing melodic lines that follow the precise contour of a mountain range, the Manhattan skyline, or other lines found in the nonmusical world. Most of Petr Kotik’s melodic lines are literal translations of patterns taken from graphs that are themselves documents which record the movement of experimental rats. John Cage’s music documents star charts, the flaws in pieces of paper, drawings of Thoreau, tunes from the American Revolutionary period, and numerous other significant and insignificant bits of information that have interested him over the years. The list could go on and on. One might even suggest, without stretching the point too much, that any reasonably strict form of chance composition is a documentation of how the dice fell on a particular occasion.

The methods of writing documentary music vary greatly, as do the results, which is why I would not want to consider this an actual category or school. But they all have something important in common. They all allow the details of a composition to be dictated by something other than the composer’s imagination. They attempt to reflect some truth, some content, some organizational principle that goes beyond the whims of a composer.

There is a certain modesty in the approach, and I like that, just as I always have liked the modesty inherent in photography. Documentary composers do not attempt to do everything by themselves but are content to accept a little outside material and leave a few things as they are. It’s okay to let the sounds of the Barcelona Cathedral just be themselves. It’s okay to simply listen to a river. It’s okay to just express the facts of what happened on the Titanic. Coming on the heels of an era in classical music when composers were expected to express only themselves, I find the idea most refreshing.