Elements of QEM, no. 2 – part 1

I intend to write a few posts about my new work ‘Quite Early Morning, no. 2’ as I near its completion.

Firstly, I want to draw up a overview of the ‘things’ in my piece. I say ‘things’ because I don’t want to start with categories, just with whatever exists. (Of course, this is strictly impossible, but it is more possible than the idealists believe, and it’s a useful exercise). So, ‘elements’ is perhaps a better word. I want to attempt to just identify what it is that I’m doing, and then where possible to see the usefulness and disadvantages of these elements with regard to the concept of counterpoint. After that, I’ll draw up a battle plan for how to approach the next piece based on my perceived limitations of the current one, and how best to resolve them (naturally, by way of increased counterpoint). Navel gazing? Possibly. Necessary? Perhaps not. Useful? I think so.

I also want to write one on the formal aspect of my new piece and reflect on how the formal question relates to the question of counterpoint.

Ok, so here’s a non-exhaustive list of the things that I’m doing in my piece.

– Vibraphone has all sorts of techniques in order to avoid presenting itself as an ‘abstract keyboard instrument’ (also to avoid sounding too ‘french’ or ‘Gary Burton’). This undermines its capacity for line.

– Hocket. I use the hocket in many ways throughout – either as part of a ‘pre-compositional’ figure, or in a freely unfolding discourse. In a sense most of the piece is a hocket, struggling to become a polyphony. There’s a whole essay to write on the problem of the hocket!

– Accel/Rit ornamentation. These give sense of short range directionality and stops things from becoming too boring. But if used only in very short range (i.e. 1-4 beats) the cost is twofold: it can on the one hand come across as too concerned to please immediately, too concerned about its own cleverness; and on the other hand, it undermines polyphony insofar as voices coagulate into short range gestures.

– Muting on piano. As with vibes, this is to avoid the ‘abstract keyboard instrument’, it also help integrate the instrument with the expanded sound palette of the other instruments.

– Registral leaps within lines. All the instruments do it. There’s something ‘expressionist’ and typically ‘Modernist’ in this. It comes from fear of writing boring lines. But it undermines the cohesion of lines, and also can give off a false character – something ‘prima donna’ and showy. As Xenakis pointed out,

– Flute techniques: Attempt to avoid the traditional lyrical flute (while preserving it). Some attempt made (in sections written later on) to bring a degree of resistance and instability into the flute part (for instance the low soft line with the flute rolled all the way in). An attempt to get the flute dirty a little bit (and not fake dirty, there’s plenty enough of that).

– Polyrhythmic ‘mesh’: carry over from Carter. Purpose it serves is purely negative in most cases, not unlike harmony. It’s a question of *avoiding* a common feeling of pulse and coincidence in the lines. In a sense this strengthens the polyphony, but at the same time, used in the negative way in which I do, it makes a kind of abstract ‘space’ palpable in which refracted gestures come and go. This is the danger.

– Register! The work is almost entirely in the upper register. This is of course largely because of the instrument choice, but it’s also true that it is the spontaneous choice for my ears. It has the tendency to blend things into a kind of perfume…

– Punchy piano bits: a few moments where I try to ‘break out’ with the piano and do something with some guts. The basic model is the piano solo in Grisey’s Vortex. On paper I like these bits, we’ll see how they sound. I think they play a positive role for polyphony.

– Signals. There are some formal ‘signals’ in the work that are brief moments of less mediated materials that hopefully will stand out in some relief (though not absolute) from the rest of the materials and keep the listener thinking – aid the listener’s memory.

– Emergence. In some polyphonic textures one buried part emerges to take over for a brief moment, before being resubmerged.

– Divided lines. In one way or another, all of my lines are already mediated and internally ‘polyphonic’. Some more than others. This is, I think, a condition of modern counterpoint (or any counterpoint!), but it has to be balanced against the cohesion of the line and it’s need to hold its own in the texture.

– Atonality. I have a fairly negative and intuitive approach to harmony. It is most of the time an attempt to avoid sonorities with too much association to tonality or modality or jazz, etc. Of course there’s a subtle intuition of which interval should follow which at each point and which sounds I actually do want, but it is mostly a logic of avoidance. Nonetheless, occasionally I want to have moments where the harmony actually does something, which usually means I introduce a greater proportion of perfect 4ths and 5ths, and major 2nds and 9ths, in order to create a more ‘open’ sound. It can sometimes mean that I introduce a passage where there are more repeated notes (as for instance in my ‘ornamental’ passages where figures swirl around some underlying pitches). Recently, as a way to break the homogeneity of the harmonic world, I’ve started to sparingly reintroduce octaves. I’m not yet sure how all of this influences my polyphony. It’s possible that the relative homogeneity undermines differentiation of the lines… I think I’ve got to do some more work in breaking this homogeneity, but I’m really not sure how this will influence the idea of counterpoint.

– Microtones. I currently use these in two ways. Firstly, I use them as inflections within a line (in this case, the flute line). For me this add an expressive, declamatory dimension to the line. Secondly, I use them as pseudo-spectra: that is to say, I place them in runs and sonorities in such a way as to imitate ‘spectralness’ and create nice and weird sonorities. I think this latter needs refinement, but it’s fine for now – the alternative of just basing all sonorities and runs on the 12 tones does not appeal to me. The former (inflections), I think will be of increasing importance. What it allows, if done well, is to keep a line interesting while operating within a restricted compass, meaning that the integrity of the line is enhanced while not shedding its interest – this should help to create compelling polyphonic passages.

– Quick succession/alternation. This piece has quite rapid changes between materials. It’s evident in the opening bars, where the complex texture alternates with relative repose (this came about from merging two different sections from my original ‘QEM’). It becomes particularly obvious in the middle sections where there are fairly rapid alternations between different duos and solos.

– Short- to Medium-length sections. I think this is a short-coming. I have maybe only one or two ideas throughout this new piece that are longer than a minute. Apart from that they stay within the 10-40 second mark. I hope the references between the materials and the way they are structured across the work are enough to make this compelling, but I think I need to learn how to approach longer forms without lapsing into totally sectional forms.

– Transitions between sections. Since my sections are all written out in advance, I tend to only either jump from one to the next or write a short transitional moment which is a kind of a process introducing elements of the new section into the end of the previous one. I get the feeling that this is not good enough, and is too obvious. The goal on a formal level would be to have sections where it is totally unclear where they have begun (and those in relation to sections that just begin!).

– Descending/ascending lines. One thing about lines is that they ultimately have to either go up or down. Drawing upon traditional contrapuntal practices I often (almost always…) try to have a fundamental ascending or descending line within a voice, but mediated by other countervailing forces occurring at short-range. Sometimes the direction is more or less obvious, sometimes not. I suppose the ideal situation would be where a tension between fundamental directions operating in different voices can be perceived or at least felt, but it can’t be too ‘essential’, it has to be on the surface to a degree…

To be continued…