Accept the heterogeneity of forms again!

It has been a while since I’ve posted here – a good 2 weeks. I’ve been busy with the IRCAM Festival Manifeste, continued work with François, some composing, a bit of intellectual tourism with H (like going to Sartre and de Beauvoir’s favourite café, or Hemingway’s first night in Paris), and of course keeping up-to-date with the immensely significant political changes here in Europe (boo to New Democracy! I obscenity in the milk of thine austerity!).

I’ve also felt I’ve nothing to say. Or too much to say. Or that the good stuff’s already been said and now it would just be repetition and little details.

So be it! I recommence with a short repetition. (Reading over my posts over this last 2 months or so, I’m very glad I wrote them. There are some surprisingly decent points in some of them that I may have forgotten otherwise. So I should keep writing for that reason.)

A few days after writing my slightly drunken little piece on heterogeneity, I had a session with François on the Schoenberg String Trio Op. 45. For François this is a very important work in Schoenberg’s oeuvre. For me it was almost entirely incomprehensible at first.

Schoenberg, coming from the Brahmsian tradition of developing variation, knew how to create an evolving musical discourse – the slow morphing of a little idea inherently unstable set often against an other idea. The quasi-sonata form that the work is set in also indicates that this is the kind of paradigm the work will be set in. But as I tried to listen to it with this frame of reference nothing fit together right at all. So, one has to change their frame of listening.

Aside: There’s a great little talk given by Ferneyhough talking about the form of the string trio throughout history, how it is inherently more difficult and less stable than the quartet.

In his analysis of the piece François does a great job of showing that the reception of the work has been divided between the assertion that it is a constructivist thing inherently held together by its development of the serial technique especially in the harmonic direction, or that it is an expressionist thing held together by either abstract or concrete (narrative: recounting Schoenberg’s cardiac arrest and resuscitation) psychological affect. Elliot Carter wrote in the 60s that he thought it was neither, but something else and François follows this idea that it is something else.

I won’t summarise François’ entire analysis, but just the main points. Essentially he argues that while the work is constructivist in its pitch-work, and expressionist in much of the deployment of its ideas, neither of these nor both together are capable of given a unity proper to the work. For him there is a supplementary aspect that is revealed upon listening that has to do with the movement away and towards the formation of a single instrument out of the three.

It’s not necessary…

The chief point is that of heterogeneity. There is no essential logic, no necessity, to the deployment of one musical object after the other for much of the piece. There are occasionally little developmental moments or derivations/variations of one sort or another, but the train of musical moments is in no way one of implication A → B → C → D. Moreover, the work has a very bricolage type character by way of the many quasi-tonal elements and ‘tristan-esque’ moments inserted into an otherwise serialist discourse and waltzes as well as much more unstable or complex rhythmic structures. More still, all this is set against a rather clunky sonata form, which actually serves to increase the bricolage nature of the work rather than move it back towards something more classically well-formed.

There just a topology of the relations between various aspects of the work and its construction (the serial workings, the rhythms, the gestures, the Wagnerian moments, the sonata type form, the contrapuntal ideas, the developmental moments, etc), no internal necessity to it all. Schoenberg’s Trio is then a veritable paradigm of this kind of work that is a real bricolage and its supplementation.

(A little point here though, I don’t accept that there can be a total bricolage: for me there must be a certain relation at the level of the ‘topological field’ between each element of the work and each other…).

… but it’s con-sistent

This supplement is a kind of a red-thread leading through the work, which is that of a bringing together and dispersing the instruments, revealed most obviously in bar 199 with the unison figure. I asked if that was then a new and different kind of necessity and François got up and walked around and said very ominously, I recount with irony: “Be careful with this word. The necessity of things remains a mystery to me, but it is most of all on the level of the musical intellectuality, not the level of the work. Be careful.”

Be careful because a piece that proceeds just by deduction or implication A → B → C → D is going to be a boring piece. This is a real problem with spectralism. It is also a problem with Boulez who talks about how development is a question of rigorous deduction from an initial idea. (Of course, the good dialectician that he is, François counselled me against disregarding the idea of deduction tout court because it is great exercise for a composer and can be used in a work of music as a local operator – it’s just a matter of avoiding seeing any ‘truth’ in it as such).

François then explained that it is not a matter of necessity in this red-thread, but a matter of consistency and consistency is a matter of con from the Latin cum (as in together) and sist from the Latin something I forget (as in exist)… It is a matter of being together. How things really be together in the work beyond all the hierarchies and differences of the topological structure. It’s because he’s a communist that he thinks like that. Good thing I too am a communist, although I’m not such an ultra-left as he.

Musically though that’s a little meaningless, and we can’t err too much in that direction. What is important is the idea that I have been repeating throughout a number of the latest posts: the idea that the composer shouldn’t work themselves up into an existential crisis over the choice of their material and its local or global structuration. That it is ok to have contingent decisions on musical construction, or in fact for a work to be primarily or initially based on this contingency. Why? Well, according to François, this is because consistency (qua universal) is only ever partial, and traverses a pre-given field of musical ideas. This of course mirror’s Badiou’s philosophical concept of the subject as fragmentary and fleeting rather than totalising. I have some problems with Badiou’s subject, so I feel a little uncomfortable with François’ theory.

But we needn’t go that far for the time being. In order to work as a composer now, I don’t need to affirm the subject as always partial and fleeting yet universal blah blah. I simply need to affirm the (dialectical-)materialist axiom that contingency precedes necessity (why not use the term here?), matter precedes idea, etc. So you work first for a long time at the contingent matter of things (given to you by the pre-given world) to create a proper musical Idea out of them. It’s true.

I’m almost certainly repeating myself now, but it’s all a matter of forming the projects to come. The good thing is that I’m getting pretty sick of these quasi-philosophical rants and I’m itching to get into proper work. It’s just work I don’t feel I can undertake until I finish this séjour in Paris and get back to Oz.

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