About a week ago I had another session with François, this one centring on Elliott Carter’s brilliant solo piano piece of 1980 Night Fantasies. Let’s call it NF, why not. Since then I also had another, but that will have its own post… I might even do that one directly after this. It depends on my physical and mental state. Likewise there will be a new opera or two to comment on.
Having never really learned how to analyse music, and having not yet studied Carter in depth, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for when preparing for the session. I read a little analysis by John Link, which delved into Carter’s sketches and drafts, which helped me get a sense of the general construction of the work. After that I listened a bumload, read through the score repeatingly (which contained François’ markings, often indecipherable) and tried to get my own sense of things. I compiled a bunch of vague questions on the construction of the work, written in my excuse for French.
So I’ll first bash out some of the things François said of Carter during the session, because they’re important for me to remember. Then I’ll deal with the more general issues raised.
As far as François is concerned, Carter doesn’t really do counterpoint, or at least not in NF. This was a little surprising for me who saw constantly two or more voices at work throughout the piece. François’ logic was that without the dynamic or contradiction between a harmonic logic and a polyphonic logic, counterpoint “n’existe pas.” So there is certainly polyphony in NF, but not counterpoint.
Of course there is a harmonic logic in Carter. A very sophisticated one. But it operates in a way that doesn’t have any real impact on the creation of polyphonic lines. This is because, at least in François’ mind, and at least in NF, Carter erects points where a all interval series assert themselves, but then 1) the line is initially a simple instantiation of this harmony, with 2) a very free way of extending or developing that line until the next point of harmonic assertion. Clearly Carter has a manner of privileging certain intervals throughout these extensions in the different parts of his pieces, which create different colours or moods or whatever, and he has an amazing sensibility with regard to this selection, but it doesn’t give harmonic laws to the development of a line. And certainly nothing that contradicts the laws of polyphony in his music.
In fact, on reflection. There doesn’t really appear to be a clear polyphonic logic in Carter (you know parallel or contrary motion, etc). Except a summation of rhythmic logics. All this is totally fabulous in any case. No need to get down on Carter.
Still, what François takes from this is that Carter creates a kind of field of tent poles (rhythmic structure locally and globally, enunciations of interval series) over which is draped relatively freely a marquee. François’ metaphor. That is, outside of a very well structured framework, Carter moves through the work with a certain liberty, or according to much less formalisable logics. A striking balance between freedom and constraint which is definitely the feeling you get when listening to Carter’s music. This has a strong influence on François’ composing, which I’ll talk about in the next post.
For François also, Carter’s global form is in the end not very interesting. Succession of intervallic fields, rhapsody of different moments with tempo relations between them, rhythmic skeleton made of three lines of pulse that meet only in the third bar and right at the end – “d’accord.” What else? You kind of get the picture. In fact so mundane for François is the idea of this rhythmic skeleton (which he nonetheless uses in some of his own works) that he sees them not as global operators but local ones, in that they push and pull material around them, which creates interesting local structures. The global structure is simply a single long polyrhythm that meets up in the end.
What François does after this is take a leap into the murky waters of dialectics. What is the structure of the work that is not this given structure? What is the half-articulated intension in the work that gives us something to work with? For François it is given in the first eruption at bar 15. Here there are two lines of rhythm, one slowing, the other quickening, so they cross over at some point. Yet their arrangement in terms of voices has it so that the lines switch about 3/4 of the way through, so although there is a crossover, you have something more like a two lines heading towards a collision and then rebounding. That is terribly hard to explain without a score, or at least a whiteboard. This might help.
In any case, François goes on to detect this logic, which he calls the “crux,” in different places and layers of the work. For him, then, this is the most interesting part.
This leads to the essential point of the session. The composer’s analysis. François is adamant that there be a difference between the work of a musicologist and the work of a composer (the interpreter has another job also). He talks about the musicologist as looking at a work from a point of ‘objectivising exteriority’ and a composer looking at a work from ‘subjectivising interiority’. This is clearly too neat, and there’d be cross-overs for sure. But in essence I think it stands.
Now, this is shown in the way François looked at NF. He spent some serious time working out the general structural devices of the work, as I said above: global and local rhythmic structures, intervallic structures, and so on. But he after getting it generally, he did not go through and identify every point of rhythmic structuration, every harmonic field. He stopped actually quite early on in the piece. He’s very open about all this.
There is a hint of Stravinsky’s practice with serialism in this. There is a story of Stravinsky, when he decided to take to serialism, looking over the scores of some of Webern’s music (the Concerto?) and identifying the tone rows, there inversions and retrogrades, etc, in the scores. But he stopped after only a couple of pages, one can guess because it got boring after a couple of pages. Having got the gist, he went on to make some music with it. Now, I think François’ practice has more depth… He went to the next level of trying to identify an ‘intension’ at work in the work, something beyond the obvious structural operators (however interesting they are as techniques). Nonetheless, François and Stravinsky still showed the same boredom in the face of true musicological work. This is interesting to think of in relation to my recently confessed desire for history.
Towards the end of the session François dispensed of a couple real truth bombs. His real truth bombs seem to come when he stands up from the table and walks around, or sits down on the flimsy bench that is always half collapsing underneath him.
For a composer, there are two essential things. Says François. Delivering a truth bomb. First, the question “How is it done” (“Comment c’est fait?”), “so there is this rhythmic structure, these harmonies, etc, but how is it done?” “It’s not the same thing you see.” Reading a description of the parts of a machine isn’t a manual on how to make the machine. Simple but deadly important. Second, the desire to “find the music which is lacking” (“trouver la musique qui manque”), or really to make the music that lacks. A sense of dissatisfaction with all the music hitherto written (despite a love of it, sure), and the desire for this unheard music. Of course this always means something really new. François did then, equivocally, add a third thing. To want to create relationships between music and other ‘worlds’ (politics, other arts, philosophy, etc). In passing, there was a reference to how music today was too “turned in on itself.”
After all these truth bombs were dropped, we talked about what to do next. François laid out his grand plans to create a massive musical tetralogy based on May ’68, showing his schedule from now until 2018 – 50 years from the ‘event’. We had fun then creating a similarly rigorous schedule for me over this period. Starting with 11th-16th century music, then Baroque from Monteverdi to Bach, then the Classical period, then Romanticism, and then the two halves of the 20th century. Each of these taking a year of study. “And zis is your job.” François in English. “No, it’s just a joke, but…”