On Musical Stasis And Directionality

In some of my favorite musics there’s a tension between a sense of stasis and directionality. Stasis describes a music that “stays in one place” through repetition of one sort or another, while directionality describes a music that “goes somewhere”, usually through melody and harmony. A vamp or a repeating breakbeat is an example of a staying in place through repetition, while a I-IV-V chord progression is an example of going somewhere through pitched changed. I’m using quotation marks to describe stasis and directionality because music never stays in place or goes anywhere—except in our imaginations and insofar as sound is oscillation over time. And different musics unfold by different means. Sometimes rhythmic variation creates a sense of going somewhere, while static harmony enacts stasis.

The other day I looped a few measures from a track and tried making a new something out this shard of music. You could say I was remixing a musical moment. I muted a few parts and highlighted some others to create a texture with space. I liked the loop, so I copied it three times to make room for some small variations. But after listening for a while and then returning to the original track to see where such a loop might fit in, I realized that its stasis had no place in my music’s directionality. On its own the loop was cool, but it lacked a broader musical purpose: it felt like an ad hoc, playing around with carefully crafted elements (which it probably was), or surfing upon a laboriously generated wave (which it definitely was). Perhaps someone with more inclination, imagination, and skill would derive more interesting loops from my track, but at the moment I’m not feeling it.

Writing about it now, examples of stasis and directionality in the musics that have influenced me come to mind. Here are a few.  

I thought about the sound of Indian classical music, where you hear the stasis of a drone backdrop and a single raga through which the melodic soloist weaves directional melodies that take you on a journey of moods and intensities: 

I thought about West African drumming, where you here the stasis of the repeating bell timeline and interlocking drum parts through which the master (lead) drummer weaves rhythmic patterns and directional phrases that highlight and syncopate against composite rhythms inherent in the ensemble: 

I thought about ambient music where melodies and harmonies happen, but they don’t go anywhere far, because they repeat and/or because they make use of a very limited palette of pitches: 

I thought about four-on-the-floor music that extracts subtle directionality from deep rhythmic stasis: 

I thought about electronic music so layered with micro-change that the boundaries between stasis and directionality are dissolved: 

And I thought about music that keeps its rhythmic element static while surging towards a harmonic end goal, one semitone at a time:

Maybe that’s what I’m getting at: a music that finds a balance between being in its moment and heading towards its end goal.

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