A trio named “Quite Early Morning”

I have just finished the hand-written score of a piece for flute, piano and percussion (vibes and woodblocks) that I’m calling “Quite Early Morning” in honour of Pete Seeger. Kupka’s Piano will record it over the next few weeks and then we’ll have the premiere performance of it and potentially a second movement in July.

Now, in terms of the method of my PhD, and my composing and development in general, I think the real lessons don’t get learned until I workshop the piece with the musicians and then hear it performed. At least the concrete stuff is not clear until then. Nonetheless, I wanted to make some general preliminary remarks about it, if for no other reason than to measure my current thoughts and impressions about it with those I have when it is performed.

So here goes:

The method. While the method of composition is not necessarily something I want to directly explore through this PhD, since it is the immanent logic of the work I’m interested in – not the logic of the process of production – I tried some different things in composing this piece that I thought were very successful and that have a bearing on the logic of the work itself.

For this I was inspired by Elliott Carter’s method in composing Night Fantasies (see John Link’s excellent article), where he sketched out, in a rather improvisatory fashion, a host of fragments, creating a pool of local materials from which he could then put together (com-pose) a piece of music. With this pool available, he selected an order he liked, found ways to stitch the materials together on a local level and than ran a long-range structural polyrhythm through the whole thing to (at least from his point of view, it’s not audible for the listener) make the whole structure more coherent.

I essentially did the same, though without the structural polyrhythms, and without the magnitude of Carter’s approach (it took him 2 years and he wrote a 20+ minute piece). For much of the period of composing I was simply sketching out materials without any thought to their arrangement in the overall form. I tried to write quickly and relatively freely, and produce more than I needed. (On a very personal note I did things like have 10-minute composition ‘sprints’ where I tried to write as much as possible. This was balanced against half-hour blocks that allowed for more patient work). This meant that some fragments didn’t make the cut, and others needed a bit of revising, but all in all, I was happy with the materials produced. They were not totally improvisatory though, I composed my fragments according to a couple different logics.

From dependence to independence and back again. So what are these different logics by which I composed the various fragments?

Firstly, there is an approach that starts from a small cell of two or three notes (more or less derived from Grisey’s style). I then vary the relative durations within the cell (short-long-shorter, shorter-longer-shorter, shorter-long-short, etc), the absolute duration of the whole cell (is it over 3, 4, 5 or 6 semiquavers? etc), and the kind of subdivision (triplet, quartuplet, quintuplet, sextuplet? etc). I then write this all out parsing out the notes within each cell between the different instruments, creating an integrated hocket with a ‘fuzzy periodicity’ (again à la Grisey). This forms the foundation upon which I then: alter pitches, add ornamentation and different instrumental techniques, etc. I also delete notes to avoid monotony and to undermine the simple presentation of the periodicity. This method is largely indebted to Ferneyhough’s approach, which he outlines in ‘Il Tempo della Figura’ (Perspectives of New Music, 1993).

Secondly, I use an approach that my supervisor Gerardo Dirié suggested to me early last year when we first were talking about counterpoint. He said: why don’t you just compose one line over here, and then another line over there and another somewhere else, without looking at the others while you write each, and then put them together? My uptake of this was prompted in part by receiving feedback from my old mentor François Nicolas, who after listening to my Material Fantasies said “Je ne suis pas sûr que ce soit elle qui rende le mieux compte de ce travail.” Now I won’t go into why part of my project hinges on drawing polyphony out of unpolyphonic materials, but just to say that it inspired me to give a whack at really crafting lines independently of each other, trying to create internal coherence to each of them, and then putting them back together and seeing what kind of whole they created. Of course I cheated in two ways: firstly, I thought about which subdivision of the basic pulse each line would primarily utilise (in order to enhance independence); and secondly, when I put the lines together, I made adjustments to each of them to avoid grotesque harmonies (octave doubles, too much tonal stuff, etc), and in order to create nicer overall shapes, etc. (This reminds me of point that Adorno makes somewhere in AT, that the totality includes the divergence – totality is not to be equated with the ‘overall shape’ or form, but also with what diverges from that. So by setting in relation, even differentiation is a function of the totality).

Thirdly, there is an approach which is essentially free writing of all voices simultaneously, often stratified by way of different subdivisions of the basic pulse à la Carter. This often tends towards a hocket-like or gestural result.

The third approach not included (which plays something of a mediating role), the first two represent opposing approaches to counterpoint. In fact these have resonances with approaches to traditional counterpoint. There are those counterpoint method books that get you to write out a 4-part harmonic sequence and then develop the voice-leading of each of the parts until they have a high level of autonomy from each other (source?), and those, such as Kent Kennan’s, that get you to start from the single line and then add more lines. Of course what I’m doing is different, but the essential point remains the same: do you start from an integrated whole and push it towards dis-integration, or do you start from a non-integrated bunch of autonomous parts and then push them towards a kind of integration?

Fragmentary form. What I think is interesting about my new piece is that it has this dynamic of being both a form composed from fragments, and a form that is (at least in its intention) composed of parts that, while produced in very different ways, tend towards similar (or ‘minimally different’) sounding results. The idea is that the structure will lead to an experience whereby the recognition of a shift from one idea to another and from one mode of listening to another is only retroactive. That is to say, you don’t know that something new is underway until its been going on for a while.

This is something of the feeling I get from listening to some of Carter’s music, or Pauset’s, or Nicolas’, or Ferneyhough’s. It is for me a very compelling experience. My guess is that the short length of the piece I have just written (only 3’20” or so), will essentially undermine this effect, which I feel requires the labour of time to make properly effective.

Of course, what François always insists on is having a ‘diagonal’ (or I would call ‘allegorical’) dimension (not to be confused with Steffen-Mahkopf’s ‘diagonal listening’) to the work that happens through this fragmentary form. My concern with this view is that it can become formulaic and contrived. Instead I would prefer to think of works as force-fields, and that the truth of the work is not the partial ‘diagonal’ process, but instead it is the contradictions of the whole as such: “The truth is the whole” (Hegel, Philosophy of Spirit, §384) and “The truth is always concrete” (Lenin paraphrasing Hegel in ‘One step forward, two steps back“). Of course, I think these force-fields should not be static things, pure assemblages, and there’s a very important and interesting question about how musical time is created (will post about François’ article on Serialism soon), but this method of compiling fragments does not inherently lead to a static logic at the immanent level of the work – it simply recognises that an unproblematised logic of development through a work is not feasible today (for both musical and social reasons).

Fragmentary form and counterpoint. More interestingly, though, how does this fragmentary and minimally different form relate to my thinking on counterpoint as such? I think it comes down to the fact that, since I have need of weakening the whole in favour of the parts, I am tending more and more towards ‘sections’ that are in a sense deprived of their identity so that they don’t dominate the lines, so the lines are not subordinate. This is to do with dereifying things and allowing lines of force and continuation. There’s the ‘musique informelle’ dimension as well: that the tendency in the materials themselves should be primary, not externally imposed concepts. But it’s also a matter of having the relationship between the horizontal formal parts and whole as complex, supple and dialectical as the vertical polyphonic relations. Just as in counterpoint, the totality on the formal level is one of opposing or contradictory forces and is a mediated unity, not a simple and immediate one.

Of course, depriving sections of their identity or guiding concepts is, while necessary in a respect, also a problem, insofar as the overall effect of each section can tend towards a weakness of articulation – can fall flat and sound lifeless. The question, then, is how to write sections that are effective, articulated and compelling, and yet do not have a clear identity or concept to which the components would be subordinate. Then the question is how to construct longer forms that allow this overall strategy of minimal difference to have the overwhelming effect it seems to imply.