How to write a study that is not a study

Or, better, the study is how to write a study that is more than a study. This is the object of the next set of pieces that I plan to write: 2-part investigations for members of Kupka’s Piano and ensemble interface.

What is a compositional study? We could say that a study is the technical working out or realisation of a set of musical propositions or concepts. “In this piece I seek to do x, y and z things.” And then setting about achieving it. This means that the study is tautological – “Nothing takes place but the place” as Badiou says. The piece presents what it claims to present, and nothing further. (Of course, no piece would achieve this absolutely, since there’s always something else going on in the composers’ subconscious and in the sound itself, but there is a certain threshold under which things function as studies).

It is true that in some respects my latest pieces have functioned as studies. I have created a certain set of relationships, a certain arrangement, and then just filled in what are essentially redundant materials. This is fine so far as it goes – insofar as this labour yields results in terms of increased technical facility. What it doesn’t necessarily do is create worthwhile music – either in terms of listening experience or for compositional follow up. Now of course, sometimes, in spite of myself, I have written interested and good things…

So, in opposition to the study is the work. The work is something that in its unfolding goes beyond its basic concept. Something happens that is not just the originally posited x, y and/or z. This something else has to have extension in the work – it can’t just be a moment in itself. It has to function as if there is a consequence to its appearance. A work is something that presents something of consequence within it that is more than the concept of the piece. This consequence may be purely that of the semblance of consequence – or a consequence that is only in the work – or it can be of real consequence for future composing. In the latter case this ‘something of consequence’ it is akin to Nicolas’ conception of the moment-faveur.

Ok. Sure, the composer can’t know in advance what this ‘something of consequence’ is for the work. I think this brings up the question of the labour of composing: something has to happen in the process of writing that changes the dynamic of the initial arrangement. (For François the composer can’t know the moment-faveur of the work qua moment-faveur).

All this is to say that in order for something worthwhile in a composition to take place, you have to provide the space for this and test out possibilities for its appearance – in the act of composing. A certain expressionism has to enter the formalism of a work. The subconscious has to be given room to speak.

(Of course this always runs the risk that what results from the freedom you grant is nothing but the repetition of an ideologically constructed concept of ‘musicality’ or ‘expressiveness’, because that is in you too. Your subconscious isn’t always right. But it’s a risk you have to take if something worthwhile is to take place).

So, for me therefore, counterpoint that is a pure presentation of the given rules or concepts of a contrapuntal system is no good. You can match all the right rules in strict counterpoint and still make crap strict counterpoint. Counterpoint must mediate something else, or something else must mediate counterpoint – and this something else must be somehow internal to the idea of counterpoint itself.

So, basically, these next pieces will be studies in how to have a contrapuntally conceived arrangement in place for a work, and then how to go beyond this and not just leave the work as the communication of the starting concept. So, there is a double challenge: firstly, to make strong and inventive contrapuntal arrangements that give the general frame of the pieces, and secondly, to compose freely within this to the point of introducing elements that are unaccounted for in the initial setup. That is to say there will be a significant improvisatory element to this – but how to guide the improvisation so that it goes beyond its pre-given limits? That’s the challenge.