How it is done

It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way. – Hemingway

These reflections are taking a real bumload of time. But I think they’re worth it. Forcing me to remember and to clarify what I have learned, and then sticking around for me to mull over in future.

Yesterday I spent an afternoon with François discussing first his project Égalité ’68 (the tetralogy based on a ‘musicalisation’ of May-June ’68 in Paris), then the creation of his trio of pieces Pourtant si proche, Des infinis subtils, and Trio “Transfiguration”.

Égalité ’68

At this stage François is testing out conceptual ways of approaching the ’68 project. This will take him all year, then he launches into the writing stages, first a prelude and a ‘vocal symphony’, then a cantata, then dramatic madrigal, and an opera in one act and a postlude. It’s mad. Each of these are based on an event and a scene from ’68, a demonstration, a strike (in factories and in universities), a meeting of militants, etc. The starting point is his political theory which is that of producing liberty from an axiom of equality. I won’t talk about that aspect because it doesn’t really interest me. What does is that he believes that although there is the same movement from equality to liberty in each of the situations, it is done differently in each situation and produces a ‘different liberty’. What he is trying to do is to work out what exactly the relationships between these movements are politically, formalise it, and find a general formal equivalent in music. In order to do this he has drawn up numerous logical hexagons and assigned each of the four situations to different places, as well as equality and liberty on either side, with a kind of absent centre which he names ‘political organisation’. Then he set about finding relationships. Then made musically equivalent hexagons. There is thus an indirect relationship between music and politics by way of abstract formalisation. I might not agree theoretically, but it all looks rather swell.

Still, that’s his ‘job’, not mine and for the moment I’m less interested in the work of resurrection (or mourning) for ’68 than he is (him being a young militant at the time; me being almost 20 years before birth). Several things do interest me though: 1) he is choosing for each of the four major sections, a classical form that he thinks best represents the objectivity of the political situation (a rondo for the two strikes (workers, students) that don’t meet, a fugue for the march, etc); 2) this might sound naive or facile but it drives home the point that I mentioned in the last post, which was that François has a kind of dismissiveness towards objective large forms, but clearly a recognition of their necessity, that is for François to create a novel form, it happens through another more obvious form; 3) the novel form of this vast work will be a single movement through the works but also a movement specific to each of them (what is politically equality – liberty); 4) I said that I imagined the postlude would be the most difficult to write, but François didn’t give a shit, saying that the logics would work themselves out during the individual works, and all there would be to do in the postlude is to just let things taper off – militants then went on to fight the Red Decade in France, ’68 was a beginning, etc. I’m sure there are other things which interested me, but that’ll do for now.

Point number 2 is the real one. It’s something I shouldn’t forget. The idea here is that real musical thinking happens despite an objective (architectonic) global form, but such an objective global form is necessary. And this doesn’t mean that the specific choice of such a form should be made flippantly, but it should not have the heaviness of an existential crisis. That’s the thought there.

PSP, DIS, Trio

This set of works could almost be called versions of the one. Almost. DIS is a reduction for one piano of the two piano PSP, the Trio is an addition of a violin and a clarinet onto the piano of DIS, with very little material changed. A bizarre way of working, sure, but I’m getting used to that in my studies with François.

We spent a lot of time discussing his harmonic method. It is a very good method. Inspired by Carter, he has produced a vast reservoir of 2,000 chords by taking all the non-retrogradible and non-invertible all-note all-interval chords within a certain range (say the piano…). Then he deducts all those which contain tonal triads. For a given piece he will choose one that he thinks has got it. He then creates a sequence of diads out of this main chord which in sum represent, in a different way to the chord itself, the twelve intervals. Now what he does is go to his reservoir and fish out all the harmonies that contain, say, the first diad. Then he decides, depending on context, to create a selection and sequence of these chords based on a desire more stability (in which case the sequence progresses by the most amount of common notes), or a certain line of change (a particular movement from chord to chord is privileged), or a rapid movement around the ‘pivot’ diad. This has the wonderful ability to create cohesion and variety on both the local and global level. Very good. If none of that makes sense, that’s because I can’t quite be bothered putting up images of François chord sequences for reference. Matthew Lorenzon has everything though, if it is desired.

Ok, so, in a way this is an advance on Carter’s harmony. François still draws on Carter’s way of creating global polyrhythms which ‘skeleton’ the work, and derives much of his rhythmic logic, at least for these works, from the idea of the “crux” as I described in the previous post. In sum what you have is something similar to Carter, with a very well constructed field, harmonically, rhythmically, gesturally, instrumentally, etc, which the composer traverses when writing, with a certain amount of liberty (François certainly is proud to talk about where he deletes chords or adds nots, or whatever, for reasons of his sensibility). For François, this is “comme une vie” where an individual makes their way through a well-structured field. I’m not so sure of the metaphor, because in life, at least in late capitalism, this well structured field is not so stable, but the overall idea is good.

Additionally there was the idea of the four different gesture-moments in these works. They are repeated and rearranged throughout the work as it develops: ABCD, ACDB, ADBC, etc. The idea is, and it was explained clearly to me with squiggly lines, that each could be seen as a single line of development: AA1A2A3A4A5A6, where you get a progressive change across the A’s; likewise with B, C, and D, but with different logics of development from each other. Then, they’re all chopped up and rearranged so you get a mix of different lines of force that all sum up to create a single yet rather complex development or morphological process. Note that all this chopping etc is a bit metaphorical, because François always writes from begin to end of the whole piece, after a considerable pre-compositional period. He insists on this. Still, the result is the same.

So, the trio? The trio is a reorganisation of the major idea of the two other works. It keeps much of the material the same (although the violin and clarinet add a hell of a lot of new material) but subjects it to a different global idea. Whereas in PSP the global idea was that of the relation or non-relation of the two pianos, in the trio it is the slow ‘becoming indifferent’ of the three specific instruments. How this relates to the former talk of four different lines of development I don’t know. Still this becoming indifferent idea explains why François practically stole a huge chunk of the violin part of Moses and Aaron, because for him it is the expression of the specificity of the violin; likewise with the ‘registered’ clarinet, which François gets from Mozart, which is a figure of the clarinet as such. These figures then have to be brought into indifference with regard to their individuality by way of descending further and further into DIS.

Over dinner we then discussed more abstract philosophical questions, and his wife Geneviève joined us. The recurrent themes were the lack of an Idea of Australia (which would be counterposed to an Australian identity), one that might have to be created, the role of ecology and nature in this, the linking of different worlds, the problem Badiou has with linking worlds, how François is looking forward to Badiou’s next book because it is supposed to clarify this problem, the problem Badiou has with thinking nature, how François doesn’t like French music, Australian politics. Gave a lot to think about.

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