What is Gesture?

I'm assuming that you, the reader, are already familiar with the word Gesture. The definition provided by wiktionary refers to gesture as:

A motion of the limbs or body, especially one to made to emphasize speech.

This is a good start, though my thoughts on Gesture in music. So, building on that definition, I would describe Gesture as:

An implied continuous motion in music, especially one made to emphasize structure or meaning.

In the context of computer generated music, gestures can be constructed from line generators, that can be used to modulate other parameters.

An automation curve is a pretty common means to generate gestures. An envelope generator modulating the timbre or amplitude envelope of a sound can be thought of as a gesture. Even discrete notes from an arpeggiating step sequencer are in their own ways, Gesture.

Gestures can be many things, but the main thing is that it is a continuous action with some sort of intent. A sonic gestalt of sorts.

An imperfect mental model is to think of all music as being a collection of gestures, working together to construct the lowest level perceptual units of music such as the "note", to higher-level musical considerations like phrasing and form.

Why Do We Need to Think about Gesture

I think about Gesture in the context of computer generated music. The current way computer-based is typically thought about is limiting and often has a distinct flatness associated with computer music. Computer generated lyrical music in particular fails quite spectacularly.

By rethinking things in terms of Gesture, the hope is the outcome will yield computer-generated music that ties back to music traditionals in a more organic and profound way.

The Status Quo Of Computer Generated Music

The way musical performance is represented on a computer is MIDI. It's been the core way of thinking about music.

The elephant in the room is that it is highly pianocentric protocol, invented by keyboardists, for keyboardists. Not only does this influence instrument design, but it warps our entire view of what music is. Anything that does fall with the standard conventions of a keyboard (the human voice, bowed instruments like violins, theremin), is going to struggle getting MIDI to work to control it, if it can at all.

MIDI, using the piano as the core instrument, strongly implies a few falsehoods about music and musical performance:

1. Music is a discrete medium. Note events strongly imply that music is nothing more than a sequence of patterns. In practice, music is a continuous medium, that often gets perceived in discrete chunks known as "notes". Humans can interpret notes on a score and implicitely add the necessary conversion and interpretations to make it a continuous action. Computers do not have this ability, and must be told how to perform these notes. Otherwise, you are left with lackluster stiff musical performances.

2. Notes in music have a distinct start and end. Lyrical and monophonic instruments like the voice or the thermin or the pedalsteel guitar can be ambiguous about where notes explicitely start and end.

3. Instruments have arbitrary polyphony. Keyboard instruments like the Piano, Organ, and Harpischord are exceptionally polyphonic, to an almost unnatural extent. Most instruments in the world are monophonic. Building monophonic instruments using MIDI is challenging. Implementing polyphony on a synthesizer can also be quite challenging.

As a result of this, many computer music efforts focus on things that MIDI lends itself well towards: generating pitch sequences and homophonic chord progressions. With piano-mind, it is hard to think of anything else.

With Gesture, more emphasis would be put into the underlying phrasing of pitch sequences, rather than a fixation on the sequences themselves. In other words: howsomething is said instead of what is being said. Gesture also lends itself better to monophonic instruments rather than polyphony instruments. This would lead to more emphasis in ensembles of multi-monophonic instruments playing harmony that is more contrapuntal in nature.

Western Music Theory in Terms of Gesture

This is a work in progress. But the gist of it is: can we rethink classical western music theory in terms of gesture? And if so, how does it affect the way we relate and think about musical structure?

Goes like this:

Gesture is an abstraction, inspired by the human singing voice.

The human singing voice is the foundation of Western Tonal Music.

From the voice, we have speech and language. We have inflection and prosody. This eventual gives us melody. By magic, we have the major scale, which is kind of based on the overtone series, but kind of not.

Melody generation comes next. How does one make a good melody? Stepwise motion, intervals, etc. Gesture brings in an aspect of performance and phrasing. Bring in the voice again. Breathing and prosody shape phrasing and melody construction.

When two or more voices sing together, it is counterpoint. Counterpoint existed before Species Counterpoint. How do you get lines to sing well together?

From counterpoint, you derive Tonal Harmony. Melody considers the horizontal for a voice. Counterpoint considers melody for simultaneous voices. Harmony considers the vertical relationship of those voices and measures how they sound together. Gesture?

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