Some initial thoughts on Lachenmann and counterpoint

Whereas Ferneyhough complexifies and internally divides the line, and Grisey gives it an overdetermined function with regard to the whole, Lachenmann fundamentally undermines it. At least in the other two preserve the line, and in fact bring to it new resources.

By deconstructing sound production as such, by reflecting back onto the source of sound production, by therefore dereifying the instrument, Lachenmann fundamentally undermines the ‘line’.

Lachenmann undermines the line in two senses: firstly the instrument becomes incapable of stitching together anything that would have traditionally functioned as a ‘line’ because it is being explored for all those aspects of its being that were repressed by the line, secondly, the kind of materials then liberated and used are incapable of forming lines across instruments. Sure, similar sounds and shapes – and production techniques – can be passed around an ensemble (between instruments), but is this really a ‘line’ as such?

This forces me to confront the question “A counterpoint of what?” on a deeper level than before. Hitherto I’ve considered this as a question of the material each line takes up and how the lines relate to each other on account of that material.

By dereifying the instrument, Lachenmann focuses on the ‘energetic’ components of sound to give his music a dynamism (a dynamism lost by the absence of functional harmony and by the absence of polyphony). These energetic components become translated as gesture, nude gesture, stripped of musical pretence. The gesture becomes a totality that in non-solo pieces tends to be a composite one where all the parts diligently contribute to create the effect. Lachenmann’s music tends to be in a sense monophonic or heterophonic.

But could there be a counterpoint of gestures? Or a counterpoint of sonic types?

My music is perhaps therefore irremediably traditional insofar as I am convinced that there must be a perceivable tension within the whole, and that this tension is really only possible by way of lines – not gestures or sounds as such (this of course isn’t to disregard the fact that all lines have a crucial gestural and sonic component). There may be ways of delineating different simultaneous streams of sound families (airy sounds in the one stream, brittle sounds in another) that don’t fully synthesise into a sonic whole, but I’m not convinced that the effect of this would be particularly worthwhile or satisfy what I would see as a fundamental presupposition of counterpoint.

In this case it seems impossible to develop a counterpoint from within Lachenmann’s thought. What remains then? For me it is out of the question to simply ignore Lachenmann and the resources he let loose. This is inconsistent with my historical perspective. On the other hand, just chucking in a few Lachenmann-type techniques to an otherwise traditional polyphony (or say a polyphony of Carter’s type) is also not consistent with my dialectical materialist perspective: it would contravene the tendencies implied in the materials themselves.

What remains to be salvaged then? Perhaps to be properly materialist about it, a composite gesture must be converted into a polyphony. Starting with a gestalt that is simply one of sonic energies, is it possible, by way of a series of transformations, to arrive at a polyphonic gestalt (in a similar way to the one in which I, in my second piece, moved from a spectral gestalt to a renewed kind of line)? Even more interestingly, is it possible to do this and keep the traces of the original sonic gestalt perceptible, or even to have the resulting figure sitting somewhere between the the genesis and its telos? Is it possible to do this precompositionally and then remove the working out, so that the listener is confronted with a result that bears traces of its production but doesn’t make them explicit?