“Transfiguration” trio – First thoughts

While millions around the world occupy and protest, I am thinking again about abstract art music. I promise I will make it down to Occupy Brisbane again this afternoon.

I am currently obsessing over François Nicolas’ work from 1997 “Transfiguration” Trio. This kind of obsession with a single work I have not experienced since my extreme infatuation with Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil late last year. In this time I have had extended investigations into whole Oeuvres – Brahms, notably, and Messiaen at the moment – but not a specific work as such.

One can only be struck by this work. The immediate response is an undecidability over whether it is sheer anachronism (it is so pitch- and phrase-based, not sound- or texture- or instrumental technique- or concept-), or whether it is saying something extraordinarily relevant for music today. After listening again and again, the excitement that the work brings leads me to affirm (I can’t prove) that it is the latter and not the former.

The next thing confronting myself as listener is that it is nigh-on impossible to comprehend from my normal listening habit: it runs by a different logic. I have sat there and tried to understand, and yes, I have heard recurring ideas, yes I have been able to detect some common pitch or motivic movement, but of its local or global structuration I can say very little.

Fortunately, François has provided us with a guide to analysis of this piece (I had to translate it before I could understand it…). It is nice and short (not self-obsession at all), but gives one all they need to get on and do some good work in understand its structuration.

Following on from my previous post about unceremonious continuity, these are the things I find most striking about Nicolas’ explanations:

  1. Against the “garland of gesture moments” that structure the most obvious level of the work, there runs a set of four different “trains of pulse” at 27, 64, 42 and 75 beats each (these coincide at certain points in the piece). Despite subterraneously ‘skeletoning’ the work, these seem to have a level of indifference towards the deployment of the moments-gestes on the surface level. While this seems to create a deep ontology (the rythmic scansions are the more ‘essential’ aspect of the work), I don’t really feel this is so. More importantly, they act to liberate the individual moments from their isolation, but not in any simple and friendly way: it is an awkward and violent liberation.
  2. The discrete nature of the moments-gestes is not only counteracted by this skeletal structure, but also by the fact that they a) seemingly share other properties in common (there is never anything that seems to rupture with the logic of the piece), and b) they are more often than not linked via various tactics of continuation on the surface level (I’ll have to get down to work on a characterisation of these…).
  3. Nicolas notes that “a number of intervals give a particular colour to different moments.” So, while his music is goes against the grain of most (worthwhile) contemporary art music in Europe, it does so not in a simple ‘return to pitches’. Pitches are, if not subordinate to, than at least not a priori superior in importance to other aspects (especially not ‘gestallt’ gestures…).
  4. The approach to the interrelation of the instrumentation in particular is intensely suggestive: Neither a Schumannian ‘piano with friends’, nor a contrapuntal logic à la J.S. Bach, nor a simple stratification into three different worlds, nor a classical dramatic deployment of conflicts, interruptions and unifications. The work seems to take from each of these, but yet remain irreducible to any one in particular at any moment, or to a simple compromise between them. Nicolas talks about an again violent liberation of the instruments from the nature as singularities via a creative effort of ‘instrumental indifference’, without effacing their nature as singularities. By this he means to win, through hard struggle, the ‘glory of the Impersonal’. This is not just metaphorical speculation, but a profound musical construction. You can clearly here it in play in the work: a different, perhaps new, relation between instruments. (He attributes it to Schoenberg…). I’m not sure yet what it amounts to, but it sets certain coordinates for composition to think in these terms.

This is all helping me to conceive of the form of my upcoming choral work (with vibraphone, glock and two horns). No doubt I’ll be posting more on this again soon.

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