Elements of QEM, no. 2 – Part 2

Last week I finished the full score of Quite Early Morning, no. 2 for flute, percussion and piano. It should be around 10 minutes. Perhaps more. I’ll probably write out a nicer version of the score at some point, with the inevitable revisions, but for now, it’s done. Looking forward to working on it with Kupka’s Piano.

While I planned to continue writing up a full taxonomy or list of all the techniques in the piece as I did in ‘Part 1‘, I found that very uninspiring and not particularly useful. Instead, I now want to just go through some of the essential aspects relating to my idea of counterpoint and hint at some things I’ll attempt in my next piece.

A-tonality. As per previous blog post. Largely speaking my pitch language does not reinforce counterpoint but it mightn’t necessarily weaken it either. It does not subordinate the lines to vertical sonorities, but nor does each line have its own intervallic logic, as in Carter for instance. Instead there’s a sense that each line is pursuing its own trajectory, but in a similar way to each other line. So this is a problem, perhaps. The strategy of avoidance leads to a dulling out of the pitch parameter, a feeling of tensionlessness, meaningless or homogeneous ‘soup-y-ness’ – and an indistinct counterpoint. How to fix this is not entirely clear, but putting more thought into the sound and feeling of different intervals and sonorities would be a good start.

Rhythmic grid. My aim of having a polyrhythmic grid – à la Carter – is (or was) to ‘ensure’ the independence of the individual lines. Over the last few pieces since 2012 I’ve been eroding the formalism of this technique since I found it quite restrictive and did not allow fluidity of the lines, but it remains the spontaneous approach of my composing. That is, I no longer begin with a fully formed polyrhythmic grid and then fill it up with notes, and other parameters. I instead write ‘freely’ but as I am writing the lines I almost automatically end up adopting a general schema of lines of pulse in each instrument. I still find this a little problematic, not fundamentally, but my reliance on it and inability to have more complex rhythms within lines leads me to think I should continue to try to expand or explode this approach.

What I feel I should investigate before the next piece is what rhythmic techniques someone like Richard Barrett manages to help create very distinct instrumental parts and a polyphonic texture (but also the sense of cohesion he often creates). I’m still not keen for going into the realms of crazy nested tuplets, since I’m not convinced that they’re necessary as a function of the counterpoint, but perhaps to a degree they are.

A-metrical writing. Coupled with the rhythmic grid is my avoidance of metre throughout QEM2. The concern about establishing a metre is that it will undermine the kind of freedom and distinctness that I want for the individual lines within the texture. Of course there are a number of sections in QEM2 where I attempt to establish a gestalt metre (if a complex one), which is parsed out amongst the instruments in a hocket-like fashion hopefully trending towards a polyphonic texture. But my problem with this is that it is not integrated with my other ways of writing which are essentially a-metric, and as yet I haven’t been able to create a metre that a) allows for independence of the lines or b) that goes beyond articulation as a hocket towards something with more guts. The usefulness of metre is twofold. Firstly that it provides something against which the independence of lines can be measured, and secondly it gives the potential for a grit that total freedom of lines lacks. A sense of the fighting spirit. I know Ferneyhough had a focus on metre for a while there (maybe still does), so perhaps it would be worth investigating what he does with metre, while allowing space for linear independence.

Gesture and hocket. I have spent a fair bit of time talking about the gesture and the hocket on my blog already, so I won’t go into too much. Certainly my ability to coordinate materials in intricate hocket forms and clear gestures was I feel a step forward since it was an expansion of my capacity to hear what the materials themselves wanted to do, and it gave life to my materials that I had found wanting in my pieces in late 2012 and early 2013. Nonetheless, my concern is now twofold (different aspects of the same problem): a) I have undermined the capacity for a thoroughgoing polyphony because of my emphasis on short range gesturality, and b) I have created structures without long-range tension or meaning because they’re too worried about sounding ‘convincing’ and ‘correct’ at each point. In some senses the instruments are still too closely tied to each other and the overall ‘effect’, and yet they don’t work together in an impactful way. In my next piece I want to aim at long-range gesturality (whatever that means), and a subordination of the hocket to other textural approaches.

Instrumental dereification. Through a lot of thought and listening, I’ve realised now that dereifying the instrument can lead in two directions: either towards a decomposition of the instrument in favour of a sound synthesis and gestalt effects, or towards a deepening of the identity of the instrument.

Naturally the two are not mutually exclusive across the course of a work, but for me the bedrock must be the latter. Or at least, from where I am now, that’s what I need to work on most, having trended a fair bit in the other direction. In QEM2, many of the attempts at ‘instrumental dereification’ that I wrote earlier tended towards a decomposition in favour of gestalt effects. This decomposition is supported by my emphasis on the hocket, short-range gesturality in each instrument, my avoidance of harmonic articulation, my avoidance of metre, etc.

However, some of the later sections that I wrote, particularly the flute line in the last section (from bar 130), for me aims at the opposite direction, hinting at what I want to explore in my next piece, namely: A ‘recovery’of a non-commodified identity of the individual instruments through a destabilising idiomatic writing. What do I mean by that? I mean that the instrument’s independence in a texture is strengthened by finding techniques that push it beyond its capacity to have full control or to maintain its refined sound.

This shares a lot in common with the discourse I often hear surrounding new complexity – although I’m not sure how widespread the ideas are. The idea there is that the instrumentalist is supposed to be forced into situations where they cannot physically achieve the ‘perfect’ performance of the work, because it is simply too complex and difficult, but apparently in a Kantian sort of way this failure is supposed to reveal something essential about our humanity or whatever. I thoroughly reject this idea. To me it is too negative. My aim at this stage with instrumental dereification is twofold: firstly, a critique of commodified music and its tendency to reduce the instrument to a means to the end of a commodified effect, and ultimately to the market; secondly, a rejection of fetishising the means as ends in themselves and a desire to put the instrument ‘to work’ as an instrument for a greater cause. This could be summed up as such: ‘the instrument doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to win.’ Of course for me there is a dialectic of means and ends. Means have to be cared for as ends in themselves, but at the same time subordinated to an end beyond themselves. There’s always a dialectical push and pull, but the one pole should in fact reinforce the other.

So importantly, to pull this off, for it not to be reduced solely to another cheap technique, it must be tied to a needing to say something. The technique can’t be an end in itself without contradicting its own intended effect.

This is probably the hardest aspect.

That’ll do for now. I will write some more reflections on the piece as we rehearse it, and once it’s performed/recorded. I’ll also write some programmatic ideas for my next piece.