“Here comes success”

In my confirmation seminar, one of my assessors Erik Griswold asked, “how would you know if you were successful in writing contrapuntal music? What would the criteria for success be?” He made the point that while I elaborate a very solid philosophical framework for counterpoint today, when I actually assess my own pieces, I largely base my judgement on things other than how contrapuntal they are.

Firstly, some points in defence of my recalcitrance.

  1. For me, counterpoint must be concrete and rooted in the materials – not an abstract system. In our day such a new system of counterpoint is simply impossible (and undesirable). This already makes it more difficult to elaborate a definite set of criteria for how ‘contrapuntal’ my music is, separate from criteria of the success of the materials. The two are so deeply bound up.
  2. I’m increasingly seeing counterpoint as a totality that includes all multi-part textures (from homophony through to polyphony). Counterpoint is the general ‘idea’ (in the sense of ‘constellation’ that Benjamin talks about) that is never articulated as such but only as mediated through the different textures.
  3. Last year I realised how much work on concrete local materials I had to do in order to be able to compose effective music, so I turned from asking ‘what kind of counterpoint?’ to ‘a counterpoint of what?’ since, if I didn’t develop a stronger control over local materials as such, any polyphony I wrote would by greatly impoverished
  4. My framework for assessing the success or failure of my counterpoint is therefore constantly in motion, and often by the time I am listening back to the performance of a new work, my framework for determining its success is different to when I started out. To me this is not a bad thing, but in fact a necessary upshot of the kind of dialectical process that artistic production is.

Nonetheless, Erik has a point. While I don’t feel this can be rectified in a single blog post, I thought it would be worth trying a little declaration of what I currently think would constitute successful counterpoint.

As a concrete approach, 21st century counterpoint would:

  1. be rooted in the materials emerging from the movements of liberation in contemporary music. The dereification of the note, the instrument, the line. The dereification of the concert space would also be important to tackle.
  2. have a sense of propulsion and physicality to it.
  3. integrate compelling and distinctive sonorities.
  4. not impose an abstract system over these materials, but draw a counterpoint out of them.
  5. have a great deal of space for intuition in the composition of the music itself.

As a totality and as a constellation, 21st century counterpoint would:

  1. be able to link different textures (monody, heterophony, polyphony) in a way that articulates a fundamental unity between them, although a unity that is not asserted in itself. Genuine polyphony should be always emerging from homophony. Polyphony should also always be at risk of collapsing back into other textures.
  2. be able to to reconcile different time scales
  3. alternate articulation of parts as ‘space’ and as ‘lines’, with neither two being totally distinct from the other
  4. shift hierarchies within voices, not get bogged down in one soloist within a group of supporting parts
  5. take textures to their extremes without destroying the sense of unity

All this understood, as a polyphonic texture, 21st century counterpoint would:

  1. have lines that have a feeling of genuine independence – that is, lines audibly pursuing logics of their own, not being fulling subsumed into integrated vertical sonorities, nor into unified gestures. A basic principle of old contrapuntal systems is that the lines have integrity in themselves: “Melodies in all voices should follow the principles for single melodies described earlier.” Realising the principles in each line is perhaps the most fundamental and challenging aspect of counterpoint. Perhaps this is the key thing that needs to be developed: what are the principles for the construction of a strong line today (understanding that the line itself has been critiqued).
  2. have lines and that are in a relation of tension to each other. This tension could not be produced by the same harmonic methods as in the common practice period, but could be produced by a series of parameters: supple harmonic work, polyrhythmic stratification, density of texture and directionality of lines, gestural intensity, spatial placement…
  3. be more than a hocket (or ‘total counterpoint’): This is to say, that lines should have points of rhythmic unison, since if there is always difference in placement in the bar the tendency is towards a unified hocket-gestalt (much like constant contrary motion in old counterpoint begins to undermine the integrity and independence of the lines). Would be interesting to see if this idea holds… There are some pieces by Elliott Carter where the lines never coincide. Do these sound too hocket-like?

Ok… That’s enough for now. Clearly this needs a lot of developing.