Thoughts after listening to ‘Didon et Énée’

Some very quick thoughts after listening to François’ new work ‘Didon & Énée’.

Have a listen!


I think it reveals the blindspot in my own ‘turn to materials’. Something that I have begun to identify lately. This overemphasis on immanence has led to a degree of hopeless fetishism of materials, when what really needs to be conveyed is a *fighting spirit*. This is what François’ music conveys, which very little modern music conveys. A fighting spirit.

In this sense I think Luigi Nono’s earlier music is better than his later music, *not* because it is anymore politically *effective*, but because by way of trying to capture political struggle, it becomes far more hard-edged and affirmative and the materials are leant a kind of internal dynamic, a pushing-onwardness, a tension. Whereas the later works are – in fact – the sounds of a demoralised utopian communism. However beautiful and worthwhile they are.

This reminds me of Adorno’s note about Brecht in the ‘society’ chapter in AT, where he says that, while Brecht’s political intention was not realised in his art, in nonetheless had important *aesthetic consequences*: the art became anti-illusory. This is very important.

The sense of illusion, of ‘Schein’, in music is always a threat, and even in those musics that profess to be de-reifying. For instance, spectralism, Lachenmannism. These movements dereified certain components of the music but the end the effect often (especially in the lesser practitioners of the styles) one of mere beautiful sonorities. Semblance. This is the dialectic of abstraction and fetishism as outlined by Stewart Martin.

François’ affirmative approach on the one hand has the limitation of avoiding all of the progressive developments embedded in these dereifying movements. On the other hand, it gives his materials a sense of purposefulness that most spectralism, Sciarrino-Lachenmann, etc, music doesn’t reach. This is despite (or because of) the *desperate* attempts by these musics to have a sense of purposeful directionality to their materials: ‘physical’ gestures in Lachenmannism, process in spectralism.

The thing about the ‘fighting spirit’ is that it’s fighting ‘for’ something, therefore there is an end beyond the means. The materials are not totally ends in themselves (even if their inner logic must be respected): they are tools. Of course from the standpoint of the alienation of the work of art in the age of generalised commodity production, this ‘something’ for which the work fights, is a fiction. But a fiction with *internal* artistic consequences that are very important.

On the subject of ‘counterpoint’, it is increasingly clear that what I’m most unhappy about in my writing is the lack of tension. Without tension there can be no real counterpoint because everything is too easily absorbed by the whole. Everything becomes ornamental. The material is neutralised in the name of materiality!

How to produce tension, then? You gotta insist on the internal integrity of the line, and its ‘long range gesturality’. All lines have a direction and a gestural nature to them, but if the line and the gesture only extends for a few bars it is so easily synthesised with the other lines (especially if they too have short range logics).

Both François’ piece, and some things by Richard Barrett seem to point towards this tension that I’m looking after. Both seem to brutalise their lines. They are not afraid of ungainliness, like I am currently afraid of ungainliness. Their music has a fighting spirit and the individual components are both means and ends in themselves.

Longer lines with more ‘meandering’, lines unconcerned with their immediate ‘effect’, lines whose ‘modern techniques’ serve to make them *more* individual, not less. Lines with more simplicity. Instruments that are less synthesise-able.

There’s also something really powerful about the way lines just begin in François’ music. They don’t faff about. They just start, and if a few start in a row you get a real feeling of tension and struggle. It’s a little overwhelming. The other thing is the terraced dynamics. There’s a a lot of just sticking to a dynamic level, whereas I’m always jumping around.

This is not to make a music that is a ‘pure polyphony’ of ‘pure difference’. There will always be a whole, but the whole must be tension-filled.

So, while I will try to make some attacks on my current piece to brutalise (or brutal-ify) it a little, the main thing is to start thinking of what the next work will be like. The idea of writing for double bass and three other instruments appeals to me. I want them to be more different from each other and in general lower register than my current ones (flute, piano, vibes). Also calling it ‘Kampflieder’ after the struggle songs that Conlon Nancarrow had in his time in Spain – this appeals to me.