Notes for my confirmation, Part one: structure and method

I have to submit a confirmation paper before February 1. That gives me a maximum of 3 months, although I would want it in before then (and during this time there is much on: in particular a political conference and Christmas in December, and planning ensemble projects for 2014-15).

I want to use the opportunity to sum up the research so far – obviously – get a handle on it, really clarify the direction it is suggesting, etc. To me there is a very logical structure to the development of my thinking about counterpoint over the last year and it will be useful to try to articulate that.

So here’s what I think the general form of the paper should take (it’s something like a sonata form I suppose):

SECTION I. Introduction
1a. Initial research question and my practice
1b. Methodology: Dialectical materialist method (and APaR)
1c. Aesthetic and ideological issues: Why counterpoint?

SECTION II. The development of my thinking and practice of counterpoint so far 
2a. From ‘What kind of counterpoint?’ to ‘A counterpoint of what?’ or: Abstract versus concrete counterpoint
2b. The horrors of abstract counterpoint: My two trios

3a. ‘The tendency inherent in the material’ or ‘Contrepoint informelle’
3b. The poverty of (ahistorical) material: The four sketches

4a. Conditions of counterpoint today
4b. First attempts at ‘concrete counterpoint’: My ‘Material Fantasies’

SECTION III. Conclusion

5a. Preliminary conclusions – if such a thing could exist
5b. Research plan for next 2 years

Ok. So let’s break that down a little bit and try to begin to spell out what each section will try to achieve.

Section I. Introduction

1a. Initial research question and my practice

My initial research proposal was to “develop a consistent contrapuntal approach to counterpoint in the 21st century.” My practice had been – with the influence of the music of Elliott Carter and François Nicolas – developing away from what I saw was an overly simplistic approach to form which was essentially that of a unilinear process (quite mechanically) evolving over time, reaching a kind of denouement and then beginning again. The question then posed was that if I felt unsatisfied with the monophonic, monodic, homophonic, and even the heterophonic, was there an approach to counterpoint today that was satisfying artistically?

1b. Methodology: Dialectical materialist method (and APaR)

This raises the question of methodology: how does one go about ascertaining if there is an artistically satisfying counterpoint for today? For me this can only happen one way: through a dialectic of theory and practice. A dialectical materialist method. The central claim of this is that there is always an excess of materiality over thinking that only practice can resolve or bring to light. This is clearly articulated in the second of the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ written by Karl Marx in 1845:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

So there is a real element of ‘auto-limiting’ the theoretical work that tries to understand the composition in order to allow composition itself to take place. As Lenin ascribed to Napoleon “On s’engage et puis on voit” or as Helmut Lachenmann so often says: “Whatever composers cannot speak of they should work on” (p. 68, 2004 – from the book Identity and Difference). Of course, the complex thing is that composition itself is not a purely material act, but one that is self-reflective. 

This means that the compositions are always doing something a little different to what they’ve been set up to do in the context of the research. The process of practice and reflection is a complex one that is potentially endless and all results are always preliminary.

I will have to find sources and juicy quotes for this: both from the dialectical materialist theoretical tradition and the artistic practice as research discourse. Shouldn’t be hard.

This importantly raises the question of what qualifies as ‘artistically satisfying’. There are a couple of aspects to this:

– Intuition/theory: Firstly, as a composer I intuit whether I feel a work has been successful or not, even before the establishment of the criteria for success (in fact this gap is an important one). At the same time the intuition is informed by a whole theoretical apparatus that may or may not be explicit but is nonetheless there. Clarifying the basic coordinates of my intuition on a theoretical level is an important part of the compositional process itself in any case.

– Individual/universal (historical): Tied into this is the question of whether both my intuition and theory are products simply of my (irreducibly) individual taste as a composer or whether they could claim broader relevance both in the field of modern composition, and human art-making (or humanity) in general. Quite explicit in the opening research question was the historical dimension to the research: can I develop a consistent contrapuntal approach to composition in the 21st century. This historical dimension has become increasingly important in my research as it has developed. While it is true that my research (as artistic research) would be useless if it were not at least in part an expression of myself as particular, at the same time it would likewise be useless if it did not make a claim to universal relevance. Without both – the singular and the universal – and their contradiction, art research fails to live up to its task.

It should also be made clear that the intuitive is not purely individual and the theoretical not purely universal: in fact, according to Adorno the intuitive (in the sense of “mimetic comportment”) has a closer access to the historical situation of music than does the conceptual.

1c. Aesthetic and ideological issues: ‘Why counterpoint?’

These to a degree answer the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions, but not the ‘why?’

This is the question of what indeed qualifies as ‘artistically satisfying’ – what the criteria for judgement are. The first point that has to be made is that, based on the above methodology, the criteria for evaluation will itself emerge across the course of the research. At no point could the criteria for judgement of my counterpoint be fully fixed, since the whole process is a dialectical one where the intuitive leaps that often take place in the composition come to clarify (and alter) the framework in which they operate.

So, the ‘why’ question will probably have to go hand in hand with the reflections on the compositions and be part of the main body of the paper, rather than everything being spelled out at the start. Yet, I feel like something should be said up front.

In terms of why, beyond the initial point that ‘my ears lead me to counterpoint’, there are two basic points that have become clear to me and will likely remain the basic outline of the ethics of my contrapuntal work for the rest of the project. Firstly, the representation of an resolved and harmonious relation between part and whole (a la Marx’s dictum “where the free development of each is bound up with the free development of all). Secondly, the recognition of the reification of these relations under all previously existing music (and in fact current) and the necessity for counterpoint to play a critical role, de-reifying the false unities that are the basic materials of music today. This interplay of the constructive (and somewhat classical) and the critical (and modern) will be an important part of the framework of the project. This can largely all be found in Adorno’s article on counterpoint, but the question is how is his general framework translated into our times, with new materials and new problems.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there for now and come back for the middle section soon.

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