Lessons at Darmstadt 2014

I had four lessons while at Darmstadt, all of which were very useful and inspiring sessions: Brian Ferneyhough, Jorge Sanchez-Chiong, Oliver Scheller, and Clemens Gadenstätter. At each I showed the tutor the score and recording of QEM2. Here are some notes on these lessons for my memory…

Ferneyhough.

Ferneyhough made a number of excellent points that really resonated with me, insofar as I had already identified similar things – but when Ferneyhough speaks, you listen!

Meter: The meter of the work falls in this space between totally abstract general guide (e.g. 4/4 at crotchet = 60) and actual musical operator, actually being a tangible component of the music. It is neither as it stands. Which is a problem.

(My current thinking is that my solution for the next piece will be to root the meter in the counterpoint, make it immanent to the counterpoint, insofar as different individual lines at different points, by exploring their inner logic give a meter to the rest of the texture, which then has a constraining effect on the other lines (of course the goal then will be to have reciprocal influence…).

Tempo: Make sure tempo changes are logical and calculated (ratio…) so that they mean something less vague and the performers have something to latch on to. He was quite emphatic about the importance of tempo and that it can and should have an effect on the feeling of the piece. It very much changes the context and the sense of relations between parts, etc.

(An aside, he said to another student in the group lesson: “One of my main tenets is: don’t write something that doesn’t need to be done” – notation is instructions, not a description of sounds).

Formally: According to Ferneyhough QEM2 in fact has a relatively convincing structure, beginning with pushing the listener to the point of confusion over what is going on, before slowly clarifying textures and giving clearer formal signals. He didn’t like the very end. Too romantic. He would have been more abrupt – cutting the last few bars of flute solo. I probably agree.

Gesture: Ferneyhough said that my writing was “too constrained by the beat.” I’m not entirely sure what he meant by that. But in general he was in agreement with me that the real problem is that the short-range nature of the gestures and the information overload that they represent means that they end up sounding like ornamentation on nothing, which is not very good. He agreed that having a longer-range gesturality is part of the solution, but he also suggested thinking quite clearly about ‘filtering’ so that not all techniques are present at once and so that you can shape a section by the entry and exit of different modes of playing etc. In this way, and by other means (restricting the compass or tessitura, etc), I could strengthen the identity of my individual lines in order to create stronger counterpoint… more tension and a greater sense of purpose. He also said my material sounded very much like it was 40 or more years old in many respects… He mentioned Jean Barraqué, which I was both pleased and displeased about.

(Another good thing he said. I paraphrase: You have to think about how much of the past and of the future you need to put into the present. If you have none of the past or future in any present, then you do not have a meaningful form).

(And another thing: “You cannot just let the materials do what they want. You must take a step back and make them serve your purposes.”)

(And one last thing: “Notation thinks you, you don’t think it.”)

Sanchez-Chiong.

My lesson with Jorge was naturally quite different to the one with Ferneyhough.

Having recently read Christopher Small’s book Musicking (about which I’ll write a post soon), I was full of questions about how to practically expand my idea of counterpoint beyond just the traditional performers on stage. Could it include electronics? Spatialisation? Improv? My concern was (and in a sense still is) that there’s a performative contradiction between the freedom and equality of internal relations that I’m trying to make in the notated score, and the unfreedom and hierarchy of external ‘relations of production and consumption’ between composer and performer, performer and audience, audience and ticket collectors, ticket collectors and venue cleaners, etc.

Could I not compose a counterpoint of all these things, or at least move in this direction? I’ll come back to this with a fuller answer, but suffice to say that in my lesson with Sanchez-Chiong he quite firmly said: If you simply add electronics, spatialisation, or improv to your materials as they stand, you’ve got “a ticket back to 1964.” Adding these dimensions to my work (or consciously working with them, since in a way they’re already there in primitive form) would require me to quite seriously alter the materials with which I work.

This was a very important moment. It made me realise that you can’t work on all the parameters of a piece of music – especially all the ‘large scale’ parameters such as space – without it impacting on other parameters. You have to know what parameters or aspects of music you want to work on, and how other parameters impact them. If the impact of working on one parameter is to reduce the complexity or nuance of another, you have to make a decision whether you’re ok with that. I’ll come back to this.

In any case, what Jorge suggested was that I can work on different things at different times. I might have a broader scope with certain materials at one point, and a more narrow scope with certain other materials at another.

A point that Jorge made, which struck me, was that notation can be just about sharing. Or further, the composer can simply make a contribution to the creation of a musical situation.

This latter perspective means the creation of a counterpoint of sorts between the producers. It means collaboration and a breakdown of the sheer hierarchy between composer and performer (and potentially other participants), and opens up many more and different resources in the music.

It’s worth considering how to do such a thing, while parallel to that, still working away on my condensed chamber music.

Jorge also cautioned against just doing ‘improv’. He said that over the last few decades an international language of improv has emerged and it has become more or less stagnant. So, if you’re going to work with improvisation, make sure you do something different with it, collaborate with people who have their own and distinct language and approach, etc.

Schneller.

Oliver Schneller is an immensely lovely guy. He does a lot of work trying to support young Arab composers, since he recognises that in general they simply don’t have the infrastructure of their Western counterparts. He seems pretty deeply committed to politics, and ecology came up a couple of times. I found this really very encouraging.

On the question of politics and music, which we talked about for much of the lesson, he made the point that one needs to have a fairly realistic approach to this. He said that you should feel the need to do everything in the one piece, but new pieces can present different approaches to how politics can be combined with music. This of course resonates with what Jorge was saying.

And in general he made the point that music can’t in itself do much in the way of effecting political or social change, but it can be part of a broader movement, comprised of many other small parts, that can lead to a real change. This is just realism, but it’s good to say, and to derive artistic consequences from.

On the strictly musical level, we spoke about time and form mostly. He suggested that I don’t allow my interruptive passages in QEM2 enough time to actually take effect and have musical weight. He suggested that it’s much more common for us to make things too short than too long. For Schneller there’s a kind of perceptual lag in the listener, insofar as we’re always computing what has just happened while something else is being played in the present. This means our consciousness is always a bit divided, and in a way we need double the time you’d think to process something, especially if it’s a short moment. He also suggested that interruptions should not just be left by the wayside once they’ve had their moment, they should be forced to confront the other material and interact in a concrete way.

In the end, Oliver suggested that there should be longer periods of a different kind of energy in my music, so that the listener has time to synthesise what has come before and recalibrate in a way for what is coming next. This way listening is a game of trying to comprehend the form as it emerges.

Gadenstätter.

Gadenstätter basically had one simple point to put forward, which was a good one.

He said: your music doesn’t identify enough the parameters that you’re really interested in working with. It’s all too much of a jumble of heaps of stuff, and things start cancelling each other out (Ferneyhough said roughly the same thing, and suggested I work with filtering techniques). Having an intuitive approach to composition is fine, but there should be some way of forcing yourself beyond the intuition, which is essentially letting the materials just do their natural thing, which is boring.

He suggested: write a short section intuitively, but then do an analysis as though you’re not the composer and identify all the elements that are there (or, as many as isn’t absurd). Then choose the one or more of these elements or parameters that you really feel are the most important at this stage (e.g. pitches, repetitions, rhythms, range, a specific technique or techniques, dynamics, etc). When you then go to write more materials in an intuitive way, focus on intuitively extending the already written material along that particular axis. Push the limits of its extension and see how far you can go and see what new questions this then poses. This way it becomes clear to your audience what you want them to focus on, and what you think is important.

How this will then work in terms of the overall form is another question, since it’s boring to just show a simple linear progression from original state to its development, but that’s obvious.

Gadenstätter suggested that this attentiveness and this analysis would help also with some technical issues in QEM2 – for instance the percussion writing. If I had identified earlier on that this particular parameter required sonic space to be audible and effective, I might have chosen to find ways to develop the material along this axis, giving more room for the vibraphone effects.

While I think the way Gadenstätter put all of this was a bit too formalistic, and doesn’t deal with the question of musical content, nonetheless, I think he’s absolutely right about my need to identify and differentiate my materials to a much greater degree. His technique for doing this seems pretty solid.

Which reminds me. He said that he thought the juxtaposition of solo and duo material in the second half of the piece was lacking in depth, and that I should have thought of ways of ‘shadowing’ the percussion solos with the flute and piano.

Anyway, there’s a real shitload to think about coming out of all these lessons. I have quite specific thoughts about how I want to take up some of these issues, but I’ll put that in another post.

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