“The beauty of canon(s)…lay in its simplicity of means. All it took was just a single line of music… The first voice…began, then, at a given point, the second entered with the same melody, and so on – enough to reveal independence of voice lines and, through their combination, the ability to create polyphony. A fully fledged piece of harmony, formed by the layering and spacing out of melodic entries, emerged miraculously…”
John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven
A canon is built upon the idea of a copy. The keyboard takes that single line and churns it out in various places depending on the score. Through the context of a canon, an instrument is transformed. It becomes a copying machine.
Artist Pati Hill made her own kind of canons in the 20th century on an IBM photocopier. Her single line of music were everyday objects. Through copying, these trinkets took on forms unforeseen. She describes such results:
“It repeats my words perfectly as many times as I ask it to, but when I show it a hair curler it hands me back a space ship, and when I show it the inside of a straw hat it describes the eerie joys of a descent into a volcano.”
Hair curler and space ship draw power from their uncanny relationship. In the act of copying, a counterpoint of a single line occurs. It is the juxtaposition and staggering of this line with its copy that creates the effect of each object acting independently yet existing together. This is the magic of the canon that Gardiner describes.
A couple years before Hill’s photocopy experiments, similar approaches in music were brewing. In 1967, Terry Riley was commissioned to write a piece for a night club in New York. The result was “You’re No Good” (here). Amid the noise there is a soul tune which Riley has taken the liberty to copy. In using multiple tape loops, Riley is able to let one tape play while he then plays the other off-centered to the original.
Much like a canon, the intrigue of the piece resides in how Riley offsets the copies. While that principle stays the same, we are not dealing with the single lines of a canon anymore. Riley’s copying is similar to Hill’s. He is taking an object, a song, and running sections through the copier to be displaced with the original.
Because Riley is dealing with an entire ensemble instead of one musical line, the staggering of the copy truly feels staggering. Its weight sets the listener off balance as opposed to the copy being a feathery line. This all comes out of Riley beginning the sample as is, romping through the groove. But all of a sudden there is are a transformation.
Transformation was the specialty of Ovid, the Roman poet of the Metamorphoses. “If Lucretius’ world is composed of unalterable atoms,” writes Italo Calvino, “Ovid’s is composed of the qualities, attributes, and forms that reveal the distinctiveness of every object and plant and animal and person but that are merely thin sheaths over a common substance which – when stirred by profound emotion – can change itself into radically different forms.”
When a musical idea runs through the forest and finds its copy, we are treated to a metamorphosis out of Ovid. The common substance of each is stirred by Terry Riley, Bach, or whomever and in the canon we see a radically different form. Original and copy take on their own roles intertwined. The pedestrian single line of music turns into a full fledged piece of music, the danceable soul song becomes a gnawing yet transcendent delirium, .
In our age of digital copying and remixing and juxtaposing, music lives in Ovid’s world now and forever.