Meditations on Dian Red Kechil discussions

I’m currently taking part in the Dian Red Kechil young composer’s residency in Singapore with tutors Chaya Czernowin, Peter Edwards, and Steven Tagazuki. This is my first trip to South-East Asia, and perhaps for that reason I am thinking about the problem of European Modernism.

Apologies for the shorthand here. Since the notes are for me, I don’t want to waste time trying to elaborate – at the same time I think elaboration wouldn’t be correct for the state that the thoughts currently are in.

The dialectic of expression and construction. We can read Adorno in Aesthetic Theory suggesting that the course of Modernism was to derive expression by pushing construction to its extreme limit, rather than breaking from construction or ‘balancing’ construction against this other principle of expressiveness. For him the latter is a compromise, not a dialectic. That is to say expression must be fully mediated by construction. Unmediated expression is false. Compromise called ‘balance’ or ‘harmony’ is a classical and false principle.

But there is a limit here, a limit very much known to Adorno himself, and one which forces him to ask the question of heterogeneity – the limit of extreme constructivism is its reification as a simply antinomy incapable of producing expression. Just as there is a limit to the idea of ‘radically darkened art’, you get to a point where things can’t be darkened further since the concept of darkness is itself deeply reified and commodified: as Nigel Tufnel puts it “None, none more black.” (Likewise the extremity of the expressionistic impulse produces results in an indistinction of it with its opposite: extreme constructivism. Either way a limit point gets reached.)

This is our problem, and it is not new. Most would like to just forget about it, but it is something we can’t just wish away. It’s there, given by the set of relations that define art as such. I keep thinking that there must be a music that relates construction and expression in another way that is proper to our time. I keep thinking polyphony is at the heart of this. There is a sense of withdrawness to great polyphony such as The Art of Fugue – the music is withdrawing into itself and construction and expression both are pulled into its withdrawness and its mediatedness.

With this as the background, some ideas from my lessons so far.

Chaya. My music is too crystallised. Too condensed. It is like Webern in its constrictedness. Everything is essential, nothing there by chance. Nothing emerges from what the materials themselves want to say. Everything kept on a short leash. There is no space, no extension. I am afraid of Dr. So-and-so who will come and ask me to defend everything about my music and I have to have an answer for it all. This leads me to a very paranoid state, and I hole myself up in my little room hoping that he doesn’t come. Chaya says “He never will”. The grid is also a problem for my polyphony in that it restricts my capacity to let my voices follow properly their own logics and thus their distinctness is undermined. Need to be more generous with time, need to “open up to the garden”. Now, Chaya is not an idiot and is not suggesting I try to just escape from my constructivism. Instead I should structure the unstructured. I should not lessen my constructivism, but go one step further: add a layer to my formal grids that gives regions of relative strictness of the grid itself. There are regions then where the fog descends on the grid and the music can pursue different dimensions, in a more elastic way. Naturally this creates problems for my polyphonic writing, since the grid gives me my polyphony. Chaya proposed that the fog could descend on some layers of the polyphony but not all, and at different times.

Peter. Again, how to go “Off the grid.” Perhaps the grid is just a vehicle for the development of my polyphonic style before it can become overcome and return to the status of a ‘technique’ rather than a determining principle. Pitch component in my works has a homogeneity due to the prevalence of an equal distribution of pitch classes. Music also lacking timbral extremes. Be freer with what you allow. Write down everything you’ve done, then write down its opposite, and then the latter is the list of things you can do. An interesting exercise in any case. Pitch and harmony, think of them not as independent parameters but bound up with others: register, instrumentation/timbre, duration, etc. That is, an intuitive ‘system’ of harmony might be built by relating the continuum of consonance-dissonance in intervals to various other continua (parameters): high-low, bright timbre-dark timbre, long-short, etc etc.

Steve. Wide leaps in my songs are quite expressionistic. In fact my music has an expressionist aesthetic. Quite like Schoenberg. The polyphonic writing only enhances this since “the muscularity of a properly expressionistic music must be polyphonic” – the depths of the subjective require polyphonic writing for their expression. But you’re then open to the critique from the post-modern that depths are vulgar, and everything is surface. Of course depths must be defended (Adorno’s Bach essay), but depths must be problematised (“the lonely instance of the final analysis never comes”). Serious limitation of materials at the same time, and a use of old form of Lied in its totality (Lied isn’t problematised). He asks with his characteristic LA smile, “What would it mean to you if I told you that your music is conservative?” I say, a step backwards to find a step forward – since all existing contemporary art music is inadequate, and must be negated. The need to go back to find the correct point from which to venture forth. But do I want to reintegrate more contemporary techniques? Or is the limitation a necessary aesthetic principle. Question also of harmony. My music is a torture to compose because I’m unclear on why I select my pitches. Would a system for pitches make it better? Answer is evidently no. Perhaps worse. Still, something must be done. But perhaps says Steve the struggle is a necessary component of the aesthetic – the pitch dimension has to remain intuitive and painfully deliberate in order to activate the otherwise dead ‘grid’. Labour also important in the broader sense that with its historical reference, the music has a certain weakness. Short pieces are easily dismissed. Longer pieces could become self-grounding in their expansiveness. Demand reckoning with. Bach’s Art of Fugue is immensely large and produces its sublime moments as a result of its long often academic labour. How to produce the ‘other’ to the music? Either by interruption or by production from within the rigorous labour. The later is the only option really, the other is non-dialectical, non-materialist. This is a contradiction of Chaya’s (and certainly Peter’s) argument about openness, but not necessarily of Chaya’s idea of structuring the unstructured by way of a fog.