Initial thoughts on a future quartet

The beginnings of a program of action for my next piece, based on reflections on my previous piece.

More will no doubt come in time, and I’ll get more concrete as I go along.

The piece I intend to write will be 15 minutes long, and its instrumentation will be double bass, (bass) clarinet, guitar (steel string? electric?), and violin. It may or may not be based on Conlon Nancarrow’s songbook from the Spanish Civil War.

Here’s some thoughts:

Reclaim specificity of the vertical. In Adorno’s words (re Berg). But more generally regain some control over the flow of intervals to create a greater sense (perceptible!) of harmonic-melodic differentiation.

How to do this? 1) Amplify my current spontaneous practice of having harmonic ‘signals’. I.e. Keep the atonal soupy-ness as is, but inject isolated moments of individuated harmonic materials; 2) In general open myself up to intervallic structures that I’m currently avoiding, for instance those that resemble tonality, modality, jazz, ‘orientalism’, etc; 3) Set up intervallic or harmonic ‘fields’, or basic ‘recitation tones’; 4) Set up intervallic procedures; 5) Have Carter-esque intervallic collections for each line.

The first two seem fairly reasonable and I can see myself doing them, but do they go far enough? I have no desire for pre-compositional frameworks for their own sake, but perhaps I need something a little more in this piece to force me into different territory and away from the comfortable blandness of post-serialist atonality.

One thing I could aim to do is to sit down and come up with a pool of vertical harmonic structures that have something identifiable (or even semi-referential) about them. (Perhaps I could write a harmonic etude for the quartet, alongside the folk arrangements.) I could then just use them as a reservoir from which I select the relevant chords as needed, and use them as needed: as chord-signals, as static intervallic fields (elaborate ‘broken chords’), as bases for intervallic processes (augmentation, diminution, inversion, ‘distortion’, etc), as loose basis for free elaboration of pitch materials, etc.

Integrate the ‘free’ writing and the ornamental grid. I want to go beyond both. I want to preserve the gestalt flexibility and potential for linear independence that comes with the free style, but I also want to preserve the rhythmic complexity and subtle metricality of the ornamental approach. How to have both linear independence and rhythmic complexity? This is the question. On the surface there seems to be a contradiction between the two.

What is to be done? 1) Create complex bars that can be divided up in different ways and these different divisions are assigned to different lines; 2) Amplify my current approach involving the stratification of lines via different subdivisions, but with sub-subdivisions (ornamentation/nested tuplets); 3) …

The answer has to have something to do with interaction of multiple different temporal dimensions or processes. That means one mediates the other so that the conflict produces a ‘resultant’ structure.

3) Set in tension the stratification approach with a longer-range temporal process; 4) …

If there are other ways of maintaining linear independence, then regularity of subdivisions within each line can be loosened and seen as one possible manifestation of the rhythmic aspect of the line.

On the other hand, the rhythmic parameter should nonetheless play some role in heightening the independence of the lines.

4) Set in tension a number of resultant rhythmic structures, to which lines are assigned. Bar lines could alternate between simple matters of convenience and representations of a further rhythmic structure that cuts against the others. This latter could simply be one of the original rhythmic structures assuming, for a time, a global determining aspect. If long-range this could mean a lot of independence of the various lines, if short range, this would force a perceptible common metre to emerge between the lines.

I think this is good. Particularly in the sense that the resulting structure will be a polyphony of polyphonies. With no simple unities. The challenge will be to make structures that actually sound good and communicate the kind of thing I want to communicate. I retain the right to ‘fuck with the tendency’ and break pre-compositional plans in the process of writing the concrete material.

A ‘fighting’ metre. In the sense of a unified metre whose execution is rough around the edges. Having a sense of the fighting spirit and folk complexity. How to integrate this into the previous approach? This is already suggested in the above answer to the rhythm question.

Long-range gesturality. To strengthen independence of lines and achieve a genuine polyphony, they must have a fairly large degree of self-cohesion and identity, and this must be across time. The overly gestural and hocket-based approach of my last few pieces certainly undermined polyphony and all in all created a structure that while on the surface level was replete with fireworks, at a deeper level (across longer time-frames) it lacked tension, lacked guts.

I’ll come back to this when I have some strong thoughts formed (and perhaps after some experimentation), but the fundamental question is whether I just intuit longer lines, or whether, in conjunction with the rhythmic processes, I develop process that force me to develop longer phrases.

Instrumental dereification. I’ve already discussed this in a previous post. But what I essentially want to do is get behind the instruments in this piece to reveal more of their gnarly individuality, and thereby strengthen the polyphony. I intend to sit down and learn some basics on each of the instruments. Then I want to find ways to release their idiomatic powers to create both a counterpoint and a fighting spirit, not to simply employ ‘extended techniques’ in a way that absorbs them into a futile gestural collective. Of course, my idea of counterpoint includes homophony, so ‘synthesis’ will be a necessary technique. But synthesis must be approached after individuality, not before.

Form. Some basic reminders to myself: No slow bits. More strongly defined characters, but better, more organic transitions between them (at least as a resource). Long form. Non-narrative. Form as elaboration of contrapuntal space (degrees of polyphony, etc).

Do I still go about my piece by writing out sections without a pre-compositional plan and then assemble them in a form that I like? Or do I create some degree of pre-compositional plan?

How’s this: the rhythmic framework of at least one line is pre-compositionally laid out, but instead of a single passacaglia-type line running through the entire work, the hierarchy shifts between different lines, lines that were secondary and contingent become primary and necessary. Expanding and contracting the durations of these lines will give some characteristics to different formal sections, e.g. longer durations will potentially allow for more independence, shorter durations will tend towards totalising metres.

There’s also the possibility then of sections that are merely inserted and disruptive, etc. I certainly don’t have the intension to create a totally closed and watertight structure incapable of accepting heterogeneity.

How I get ‘beyond the crisis of materials’ is still a big question. Where do I get the ideas for my sections from? Partly they have to come from the materials themselves (which is to say from the techniques that I have been developing), but I think increasingly they have to also come from explicit political considerations. Already in my last piece I was naming sections after political figures and historical events as a way of sharpening up their identity in my head. As ‘naïve’ as this is, I think it should in some way be pursued.

More to come!

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