Remarks on workshopping my ‘Etudes’

All aesthetic questions terminate in those of the truth content of artworks: Is the spirit that a work objectively bears in its specific form true? (Adorno, AT, p. 426)

My latest four pieces, four short expressionistic miniatures, two-part ‘etudes’ (or perhaps anti-etudes), have now all been workshopped at least a little with members of both Kupka’s Piano and Ensemble Interface. I will have another crack at workshopping them over the next few days, and perhaps they will be performed by our group later on, but for now I have a couple observations.

A really large realisation during this period was spurred on in a way that could not have come about had the rehearsals just been with our own group. The fact that the Europeans were working on these pieces – in between rehearsals of Mauro Lanza and Clara Iannotta – made some things come to light.

There are two interlocking issues here. Firstly there is


While for these works I decided to really let the material shape itself, with the idea of the ‘tendency inherent in the material’ as the guiding idea, and thus to break with the very abstract way of conceiving counterpoint, hearing my pieces back there is still a level of abstraction in the conception of the works that I think is problematic.

Symptomatic of this is my flute and marimba piece, which, while in some ways successful and clever, in a very real sense it feels stillborn, meaningless.

Firstly, and most strikingly in this piece the problem of how the lines relate is posed since the instrument qualities are so different. The marimba is so dry and much less capable of creating ‘lines’ than the flute, so the counterpoint does not sound as such (this same problem happens in my marimba and piano piece, particularly in bars 6-8, which I ended up deleting). While during the workshop the diffuseness of the marimba attack is resolved by using harder mallets, this does not resolve issue of the more percussive nature of the marimba compared to the lyrical nature of the flute. This distinction between the instruments was not itself thematised in the work, not consciously exploited as a device of the composition. (Note to self, try to reorchestrate sections such as 10-12 for clarinet or even bass clarinet and see how the counterpoint is altered). This for instance makes the marimba line at bar 4 beats 3-4 very weak and sound like a poorly executed doubling of the flute. This might be able to be corrected by stronger dynamics or grace notes for each marimba note, but the general issue still stands.

In truth I thought of the marimba much too much as an abstract keyboard instrument, and the result is a lot of real slips – for instance, the high A at bar 10 which hardly speaks for more than a semiquaver when it should really ring out and likewise the fluid gesture at 8 which cannot have the resonance it needs – as well as a general pallor in the every phrase (except perhaps the opening two or three, which I am quite happy with).

Hence, on the level of my compositional process and on the level of my ears, I conceived of the materials still too abstractly, despite my intention to feel the ‘tendency inherent in the material’. The necessary correlate of this is the historicisation of the concrete/abstract binary – or


While I could of course always try to hear better this kind of material, and for instance write a marimba line that emphasises a little more its short decay, etc, but more or less keep the general gist of the piece the same, the issue goes a little deeper I think. To put it bluntly, the materials feel dead or meaningless because they are outmoded. This goes for the flute part as much as the marimba.

(Adorno says somewhere in AT that art tries to distance itself from fashion but can never complete the separation. He also says: “Thus material is not natural material even if it appears so to artists; rather, it is thoroughly historical.” (p. 195) And again: “Stripping the material of any qualitative dimension, which superficially connotes its dehistoricization, is itself the material’s historical propensity to subjective reason. What defines its limits are that it leaves its historical determinations behind in the material” (pp. 195-196). Post-moderns would disagree with this linear sense of history, but it I would object – anyway, this is not the time nor the place for this debate. Later).

The kinds of phrases I have written sound abstractly conceived because they haven’t pushed into the depths of the materials liberated since the kinds of experiments of Lachenmann and Sciarrino (for example) or even Ferneyhough et al – not to mention a host of performer-experimenters themselves. The nuances of sounds that have been found and can now be notated negate the simple note (or even note-based gestalt) that was the centre of the Western tradition until a few decades ago (even with increasing mastery over the technology of its deployment).

Ok. It is true that the Lachenmann moment is over and anyone writing in Europe today who simply recapitulates his approach is going to write bad music (likewise for simple spectralism, etc). Yet, to argue that because we have moved on therefore we should forget the newly liberated materials would be the argument of a philistine or a luddite (I have been guilty of both), and certainly not a materialist (the fact that I live in Australia and not Europe is a big factor here, but again this is not the place to discuss). No. Once the materials have been let out of the bottle there’s no putting them back in, they must be worked through. To write a counterpoint that is genuinely a counterpoint of the 21st century it must be based in the most advanced materials (of course this doesn’t mean uncritical usage of sounds for their own sake, but that’s where the question of counterpoint itself comes in).

More than this the composer must always be looking for new sounds and new materials, and the sounds should lead them on.

But the general issue here is the critique of the single line conceived as a melody – which is concurrent with the critique of the note as such – and which forms one of


As much as Adorno’s concept of total counterpoint, and its genesis in rhythmic differentiation of lines (leading towards a composite single line since if no notes coincide between lines then they become totally integrated), it is the critique of the single line – whether by complexification, fragmentation, or subordination to sound synthesis – that undermines any simple uptake of the concept of counterpoint today. Both of these tendencies lead towards a collapse from polyphony into monophony (even if this monophony is a very beautiful one and the synthesis of sounds that comprise it very skilful).

Under these conditions, is counterpoint even possible today or is it simply a relic of a bygone era? Do we not have now a kind of generalised consensus around composition by zones of intensity or a similar concept – is everything texture or sound synthesis? Does writing counterpoint today mean you have to forget one or the other of these conditions and thus lapse into ahistorical fantasy? Is Elliott Carter our last true polyphonist whose time has long since past?

In a future post I’ll take up the issue of the sonic gestalt and its contrapuntalisation…