Some thoughts on counterpoint after a meeting with Johannes Schöllhorn

Just had a very interesting and stimulating meeting with Johannes Schöllhorn, professor at the Institute for New Music at Cologne Hochschule, and fortunately for me, an external supervisor for my PhD. It was the first time I had spoken with him since I met him briefly back in 2011.

The discussion was wide-ranging and we didn’t look at any of my scores, Johannes really just wanted to get a feel for what I was about.

Polyphony ∈ counterpointFirstly, he asked whether for me there was a distinction between counterpoint and polyphony. I replied that I’m beginning to make the distinction that counterpoint is an overarching approach to composition and polyphony simply one texture amongst others that counterpoint can realise. He was in absolute agreement with this, and insisted that it was a vital distinction to make. He suggested that I’m not interested in polyphony as such, but in counterpoint.

Why counterpoint? Then he asked why counterpoint? He said, since it’s not a very usual thing for a composer today to study, either I’m doing as something academic (in the most pejorative sense), or I’m confused, or there’s some other, non-musical reason behind it. He immediately dismissed that it must be something academic – which I appreciated – and, without my telling him, went on to suggest that there must be a social or perhaps even political dimension to the choice of counterpoint as a theme. This latter, he suggested, is implied by counterpoint because it is entirely about relations – moreover, relations between actual human beings. He was visibly pleased, or both pleased and bemused, it’s hard to tell with Schöllhorn, when I told him I’m a far left activist and that counterpoint for me is an attempt to bring about in music Marx’s famous dictum ‘where the free development of each is bound up with the free development of all’.

Then we just ranted about things and lots of great stuff came out. Really affirming the direction I’m on.

Heteronomy? One central point that came back a lot was Schöllhorn’s insistence that I look outside of music for my understanding of counterpoint. He said you won’t find a modern understanding of counterpoint in music (and it’s true, I’ve spent hours searching through major periodicals over the last few decades and found practically nothing on counterpoint or polyphony). Moreover, if you look down this path, you’ll end up having an academic approach, or just get very confused. So you have to look outside. You have to not ask what a modern counterpoint is, but simply invent a modern counterpoint. My initial response is a bit wary – but am I not aiming to derive a counterpoint from the musical materials themselves? BUT, he clarified, you have to forget all this and compose, when you go to compose – otherwise you’ll end up forming some arbitrary system and forgetting that the musical materials themselves have rules. So you have to do both, and not force a pure identity between the two. Perfect!

Subjects. One big thing for him was the question of musical subjects. In a relationship between individual and collective, the identity of the individual in itself is not clear and stable. This is very important! (Mirrors what I’ve been saying about the deconstruction of the single line). So no clear musical subject is there for the composing, it’s split and fragmented. Moreover, it’s relationship to the social whole is not clear and vice versa. Things change. He spoke of a recent trip to Ukraine where shit is hitting the fan, and how at the composition course he was teaching there, everything was politicised, and not just that, the feeling was of the ground moving beneath you, and nothing was clear or self-evident. You were not sure who stood on what side, etc. He said that if you experience this, you then come back to Germany and start to see those same systems in this situation, so it’s a more essential instability and confusion, covered over by an appearance of stability in the West.

I mentioned that I’m thinking both musically and politically more and more in terms of ‘demi-subjects’, where various social groupings, for instance, have a complex relationship to each other and each, in different ways, drive a revolutionary process forward, and the tensions between them also become a motor force. And each of them rise and fall temporally and change shape, etc.

Schöllhorn suggested that thinking about counterpoint in terms of actual voices would be fruitful. He suggested reading Rancière, and the idea of people in society, who have voice but are silenced, are able to air their voice. This idea can be immediately used in music. An interesting thought for counterpoint.

(Incidentally, Schöllhorn insisted that ‘you can’t compose Badiou’, he’s too abstract. Us composers, we are craftsmen, we need something more practical. Rancière is a practical man.)

Schöllhorn also suggested that Rancière’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster is a lesson in composition: materials need to be met where they are at, and through hard work the connections in the materials themselves will come out.

Sound fetishism. We also discussed a lot the non- or anti-contrapuntal nature of a lot of European music. He said that the fact that I could find no reference to counterpoint in the major music periodicals indicates that there is something dangerous about the idea today. Why is it not discussed? One could do a little psychoanalysis of why this repression, he suggested.

He noted that with the prevalence of sound fetishism and the repression of counterpoint, we have our own ‘tonality’ today. Not in a harmonic sense, but in the sense that people feel at home in the musical sounds and structures that are put forward. Spectralism is exemplary of this, even the ‘unexpected’ bits are expected.

Schöllhorn made the point that sounds do not pose the question of temporality or form, since they are quite happy and at home with their own form. They have a very clearly implied form and temporality, it’s bound up in their own properties.

The thing about counterpoint is that it both implies and does not imply a temporality. Counterpoint needs to unfold over time, or else the relations of part to whole will not be brought forth, but it gives only very partial principles for how this should be done. Even the Fugue is not a form – it requires extension and continuation, but you never know where it is going to end up, since there’s no necessary recapitulation.

I think this last point is particularly interesting, and mirrors my interest in writing longer works, because there’s a sense that the struggle for long contrapuntal forms determines in part the success of the counterpoint itself.