Counterpoint, polyphony and space

I’ve been thinking for sometime about space in my music and concluding that there isn’t enough.

Diagnosis of why my music has no space: My commitment to the Adornian idea of autonomous music as ‘generating space from out of itself’ (or whatever the exact quote is… probably somewhere in the counterpoint article). It’s an insistence on a critique of semblance in music. Any declared space (traditional, sonic, etc) within which local materials would redundantly elaborate themselves was held under suspicion as a regressive element in music.

My answer has been to abolish the idea of space-declaring sonorities or musical entities. But this is not a dialectical resolution, but an abstract one that impoverishes the music (semblance is an unavoidable element of all music). Music needs declarations of space, it also needs explorations of beautiful sonorities.

The resolution would have to be to see declarations of space as folded into the overall contrapuntal framework. That they are parts that interact with other parts. A  slow line declares space for a faster line, but the faster line can reciprocally effect the slow line, for instance – and so on. A part that is focused on longer, beautiful sonorities (yes, even ‘chords’ or ‘textures’) can declare space for other parts working at a faster timescales acting at the same time.

This raises the idea of a distinction between polyphony and counterpoint. I have used these two terms interchangeably for some time, but always felt unsatisfied with this. Here’s a lovely clarifying statement from Keith Chapin:

At the most basic level, “counterpoint” applies to the broad array of techniques of setting music “point counter point” (punctum contra punctum) and thus can apply to any music that is more than monophonic. Many musicians have distinguished polyphony (music with more than one part) from counterpoint (music that normatively regulates the intervals between lines or the relationship between thematic entries), though many have used the terms interchangeably as well. (2006, p. 23)

Forgetting all the stuff about regulating intervals for the time being, the main point is that ‘counterpoint’ is a more universal term that can contain polyphony as a particular subset of it, just as much as it can contain heterophony, monody, and so on. So a texture where a slower line declares space for a faster line might be said to be monodic, and thus not polyphonic – but if it is set in a more universal logic of the relationship between parts, etc, it can still be contrapuntal.

To conceive of counterpoint as a logic of the totality, rather than to focus on ‘polyphony’ as such, would open up the doors to more space in my music.

[P.S. this theoretical breakthrough comes after rehearsing Grisey’s Talea with Kupka’s Piano and listening to a lot of Luigi Nono and younger European composers including Nicholas Mondon… The dimension of space in their works is at the foreground. So my ears had answers to questions that the theory couldn’t yet grasp]

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