What can be learned from my ‘Material Fantasies’?

My ‘Material Fantasies’ were premiered last Friday night (29 November) by saxophonist Sam Mason and musicians of Kupka’s Piano.

The rehearsal process was somewhat rushed (partly my fault, partly circumstantial), and so the performance had a number of departures from what was written in the score. Of course this means that you have to be careful in drawing conclusions about the compositions based on the sounding results. Nonetheless, I do feel a number of provisional conclusions can be drawn, or issues identified.


In a comment in a facebook discussion I recently said this:

The point is that all materials are always already relations. And it is absolutely a question of topology and space, and the generation of space (relations) out of the local structure itself rather than a declaration of a global space, and more or less neutral materials unfolding in that space – ornamentation on a mystic space: that’s what I’m against. It’s undialectical.

This relates to the Ferneyhough article ‘Il Tempo’, where he says: “The figure delivers momentary perceptual frames – stage sets – capable of projecting particular hypothetical evaluational categories into the still-to-be perceived future of the discourse.” (p. 14)

What I feel in the second of the MF is precisely this feeling that the music elaborates itself in a more or less harmless fashion within a kind of space that is guaranteed (the opposite of what Ferneyhough is talking about). There is an overall feeling of ornamentation within stasis. This stasis is also one of repetition of basic constituent components, and the quartertonal diads create a feeling of spectral space (even though the work is not based on harmonic spectra). Much of the material is substitutable since the repetition of the basic components is guaranteed. Hence ornamentation. The overall harmonic homogeneity only strengthens this. For me what ends up happening is the reduction of the counterpoint to two lines elaborating themselves ‘freely’ but without any tension. Or if there is ‘tension’ (for instance minor 9ths or 2nds between voice) it is a meaningless and contingent one: it does not point anywhere, or suggest that it point somewhere. It’s not even polyvalent, it’s non-valent. In terms of the idea of counterpoint as Adorno puts forward, and as I am currently taking up, that counterpoint has an ‘analytic’ function (“a dissection of the complex into distinct parts”), I think this is a failure. The music doesn’t dissect itself.

Having said all this, none of this is an absolute determination. Only a relative one. And the conquest of this kind of material is an important one for my overall contrapuntal approach. The problem with the second MF is not so much that it entirely lacks tension – it does contain a modicum of tension and differentiation – but that it is not set in a context where it must confront its opposite, and that these opposites should interpenetrate. That is to say, in a larger-scale work, such a more static counterpoint could play an important role vis-a-vis a more dynamic one, and that the one could slide into the other in such a way that the shift becomes recognisable only retroactively.

So there is little to repudiate in the work, or in the method. The question is how to push the method further. How to increase the ornamentation and push it in such a direction so as to make the ornamentation meaningful, and to make this commensurable with a more authoritative counterpoint.


It is a similar situation in the gestalt gestures in the first, and to a lesser degree third, MF. While this piece doesn’t have quite the sense of taking place in a guaranteed space – and I like this about the piece – it does base itself (or at least half of the material) on composite gestures between the sax and the vibraphone. This means that the counterpoint is a weak one insofar as the piece is uni-directional in an almost naturalistic sense (much of the sense of motion is generated by imitation of gravity or propulsion: dynamics and register). Of course this single direction is always breaking apart and hinting at a counterpoint, but it is not really there. This is, of course, what I mentioned with regard to Lachenmann in a previous post.

What I find compelling in the first MF are the moments when the counterpoint emerges from the gestural into the kind of hocket-counterpoint that I have inherited from Carter via François Nicolas. It seems that in the context of more extended techniques (in particular in the vibraphone) and emerging from more unified gestures, this kind of writing is more convincing and satisfying. I see this Carter-esque writing quite affirmative, and so the emergence of affirmation from the more negative fragmentary gestures is dialectical and good.

However, the problem with this is the question of continuation. Part of the reason of introducing the style of construction (highly ornamented cells) I used in the 2nd and 3rd of these pieces was that this first one was painful to write: it was purely intuitive and each bar was composed with little reference to what preceded it and to what would follow. Hence we have the combination and recombination of very short gestures. Which is fine, but when you try to elaborate it, it becomes difficult – likewise the short ‘carter-esque’ moments, which were similarly intuitively composed. Some development of process is required, not just to aid with developing longer musical structures, but also to gain more control over the delivery of the materials, and in particular to make this approach commensurable with the approach in the second two MFs.

(I haven’t dealt with the third MF here and I’m running out of time. I might come back to it in a later post. Suffice to say that the questions it raises are similar to both of the previous two, but it also raises the question of the substitutability of the two lines for each other…)

Next steps

All in all, for what they are, the three short pieces are a successful step forward. What to follow up on in the next piece/s?

  1. Continued development and radicalisation of the ‘ornamental’ approach to counterpoint of the second and third pieces, to force it to deliver more meaningful lines and more flexibility between stasis and change.
  2. Development of an approach to gestural writing that allows its control (degree of autonomy between lines) and continuation.
  3. Development of an approach to carter-esque writing that maintains more fluidity, control over differentiation of lines (their individual strength and directionality) and importantly capacity for continuation.
  4. Find ways to bring these three different styles of writing together in a coherent discourse… In a sense they should all tend towards the same product generated by different means, and the mark of their process of production should be their (relative, not total) differentiation.

Appendix: The pieces

MF1 (score)

MF2 (score)

MF3 (score)