What I learned about composing yesterday

Yesterday I had a session with François Nicolas, I won’t call it a ‘composition lesson’ because François thinks that such a thing doesn’t really exist.

The central theme of the whole session, it became apparent, was how to compose non-neutral material. It revealed to me that I still have a long way to go to create material that is genuinely non-neutral. The material in my recent sketch for flute and piano is really only approaching the shores of non-neutrality, after plunging into the depths of neutrality in my spectrally influenced period. This I already knew to a certain extent, but the session provided me with considerably increased clarity on this.

The idea is that to create non-neutral material, a local object needs to have an internal life, an interiority. It can’t be internally homogeneous. This might fundamentally be a matter of contradiction, although it also might not be. If it were the idea would be to have each musical object maintain two lines of force that are not reconciled (e.g. tonal harmony and contrapuntal laws chez Bach).

Why non-neutrality? Because only with this sort of non-neutrality does a work have any reason to continue past the object. Thus it is a matter of continuation.

The contradiction is the motor of continuation; the specificity of the interiority provides the particular mode of this continuation. That’s a thought. This also implies that an interiority of an object has to be linked with other interiorities.

Of course interiority and contradiction work on scales beyond just the very local, but the local is primary.

In the case of harmony, François criticised all my efforts as being non-harmonic – as being sonorities or timbres, but not harmonies. A harmony begins when there is a meaningful pitch relationship between two sonorities. The spectrum is not a harmony, it is a sonority or in certain cases perhaps a scale. It is a topological relationship between formants, whereas harmony is an algebraic relationship between pitches. I don’t know what this means, but it made sense when François drew little pictures for me. The spectrum is too stable. I suggested that it doesn’t permit contradictions. He said he didn’t know. For him, harmony is the most difficult question today. It is the most intuitive.

When we were discussing pitch relationships that might globally structure a work, I began to think the old thought that I have always thought: “but they’re all arbitrary! Why choose a D and an E to structure a work?” Then I realised that I need to be more dialectical. Yes, the choices of pitches are arbitrary and contingent today, that’s just an aspect of the music-world. If you wish to take part in this world, you have to accept this arbitrariness at least initially. Not doing so – insisting on an a priori necessary – is a fatal idealist error and will, at best, cause you to write the most arbitrary music, or at worst, stop writing music. The idea is to pry the necessary from the jaws of the contingent, or to work through the arbitrary in such a way as to begin to reveal something necessary. This is a process.

Another great realisation during the session was that rhythm is an envelope, or gestalt. It forms a unity from a multiplicity and defines the interior space of a musical object. Various elements can have this rhythmic function beyond simple duration – dynamics and articulation to be sure. Something like a crescendo also creates an envelope over its objects, forming a unity. In terms of creating a rhythmic interiority of a musical object, François proposed the idea of arranging in ascending order subdivisions of the beat (quavers, triplets, semiquavers, quintuplets, etc…) and then finding ways to rearrange them that produces a rhythmic phrase with a genuine interiority: a point of natural closure, but a form which implies continuation.

Is it that a well-formed object is one that by its nature requires continuation? I like that idea. Put another way: a well-formed object is both satisfactorily unified and yet contains a contradiction or internal life that opens it out towards new ideas. You have to be able to pull both functions off: unification and contradiction.

For François music could be considered a dialectic. He prefers to think of it as a discourse, but in no way in the sense of a narrative or a meaningful utterance. A discourse in the sense that there is a continuing drive for the expression of an idea and the materials of that expression. Call me old-fashioned, but I like that.

Anyway. I have a number of little exercises to do based on my little sketch. Developing non-neutral harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint, out of what I have written. What’s great is that it is not a matter of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I have made significant gains in my writing recently, particularly with regard to rhythmic integration, but also just in terms of handling lines. This is to be extended, and re-oriented perhaps.

François suggested that a composer only ever has one thought, like a philosopher, and their oeuvre is the pass of that thought.

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