Parametric counterpoint

This Darmstadt was full of pieces loosely grouped within what could be called ‘New Conceptualism’. This movement seems to think music can be rescued by spectacle (going by the name, here, of ‘concept’ or even ‘Gehalt’). In general I found these pieces devoid of much musical interest or political worth. Where ‘politics’ has entered it has been negative and simplistic and centred on what could be called ‘middle class alienation’ (usually via technology). I won’t go into this more here.

Where the music wasn’t of the ‘conceptualist’ bent, it was by and large sound composition – unilinear and either dramatic or mystical or both.

Often it’s a mix of both conceptualism and sound composition, which is a natural alliance.

In any case there are two things that I have come to hold more firmly after being tested by the brutal self-doubt that was caused by the saturation of these musics. Firstly, while I agree with Small that the essence of music is performance (and therefore participation), and that music needs to go beyond its alienated concert-hall-existence to deal with politics and to set bodies in motion, the essence of modern art music as alienated cannot be wished away. Moreover, Adorno was quite right, music must subtract itself as far as possible to gain some degree of truth. Attempts to go beyond art music’s abstraction in the modern context will more often than not lapse into semblance and spectacle – all the more insidious in that it feigns to be reappropriating its outside.

So I’m further convinced of the necessity of abstract chamber music. Having said that, it must be concrete in its abstraction, in the sense that it must draw the audience into a listening experience of its immanent structure (which is sedimented expressive content already). The practice in many of the concerts at Darmstadt of amplifying all of the instruments (along with the kinds of stage and seating arrangements, etc) has only tended to augment the semblance aspect of the works and reduce the possibility of listening as such. The listener is patronised and berated into enjoyment of facile structures masquerading as ‘advanced’ by way of their ‘up-to-date’ materials. Real chamber music to me represents the opposite of this: a ritual condensation and intensification of idealised relationships. The greater the subtraction, the more profound the ritual. It’s not projected out at a passive listener but inwardly woven for an active listener. Of course there’s a dialectical tension here, and total subtraction also means neutralisation of tension (and that’s where counterpoint and politics comes in, but that doesn’t undo the subtraction).

The second, and corollary, part of this is that very few pieces so far could have been called contrapuntal, or polyphonic. You could count them on one hand. In fact, at this stage I can think of perhaps two pieces, neither of which really has lived up to the ideal. Evan Johnson’s piece Ground is the only exception, since it is a wonderfully rich and complex piece that could be called contrapuntal even if it’s only a solo piece.

But yes, I’m once again very confident in my belief that counterpoint represents something absent or repressed – perhaps the absent or repressed term in modern music.

My only concern over the first week or so of Darmstadt was that perhaps it was absent because it had become impossible, and that if I were to try to reclaim it I would have to write music that is fundamentally dated.

But I don’t think so now. Or at least I have some ideas about how to take my counterpoint forward, which means it may be possible to make genuinely 21st century counterpoint.

In my next piece – a quartet for violin, clarinet, e-guitar, and double bass – I want to more thoroughly control my materials through parametric means [for the record I wrote the draft of this before my lesson with Gadenstätter]. Why?

  1. So that each line has more integrity and a sense of direction and a feeling of weight a “non-neutrality”;
  2. So that form (local, regional and global) can be more clearly differentiated and articulated;
  3. So that relations between lines can be defined and controlled.

The intuitive approach of QEM2 (and the few pieces that preceded it) was very useful in developing my sense of phrase and giving my materials a feeling of ‘life’. But it came at the expense of the lines having a feeling of weight and meaning, my form having distinction and development, and my lines having enough self-identity to create genuinely polyphonic structures.

As far as counterpoint is concerned, for my next piece I feel I need to develop a system of parametric identity relations between lines. That is to say I want to be able to increase or decrease the degree of identity between lines along a number of axes across the course of a work. Through this I should be able to create more or less independence or interdependence between lines. (Perhaps I can draw upon Badiou’s category theory-inspired LoW for the id-relations).

(This approach also solves the question asked of me by Erik Griswold in my confirmation seminar: how, in a concrete musical sense, does my philosophy of counterpoint relate to my practice of composition).

Potential parameters, a) to control in constructing each line, b) to control in establishing relations between lines:

  • (Similarity of) Instrumental techniques
  • (Similarity of) Articulations
  • (Similarity of) Subdivision of beat
  • (…) Time scale of line
  • Rhythmic process
  • Phrase structure/shape
  • Direction of line
  • Pitches of line
  • Intervallic logic of line
  • Compass of line (wide/narrow)
  • Tessitura (high/low)
  • Dynamics/dynamic range
  • Character
  • etc

(All of these parameters are more or less mathematisable (e.g. rhythm) or “fuzzy” (e.g. character). The fuzzy ones could be seen as secondary or resultant parameters, but I feel they have a relative autonomy and should be thought of in themselves.)

In a very simple sense, this could mean that two lines could be similar in terms of pitches and compass of line (a high id-level) yet be quite dissimilar in terms of subdivision of beat (Line 1 in triplets, Line 2 in quintuplets), time scale of line (Line 1 fast, Line 2 slow), tessitura and dynamics (Line 1 loud and high, Line 2 low and soft).

In many cases maximum tension will be found when the identity level (id) between the lines is somewhere in the middle between minimum and maximum (that is to say either in close to maximum identity but not quite, or approaching half-way). Id(m) and Id(M) often both tend towards neutralisation of tension (identity of opposites). For example two equally fast lines will not have much tension (unless another parameter generates it), but one very fast line and one extremely slow line will tend to not have too much tension, insofar as the slow line will be perceived as something of a qualitatively different order to the fast one (again, unless there are other parameters which bring their relation closer).

(This brings up the question of third-tier relationships between two id-parameters, e.g. does high-id in one parameter help another id-parameter generate tension?). (Likewise, is it not that tension only really emerges under the coordination of several parameters, which in a sense cannot be entirely dissociated?).

The character of sections will in large part emerge from the specific configuration of identity levels and their specific alterations across time. (Supplemented by intuitive dramatic shaping).

The goal of the form, then, will not be to aim always at maximum tension but instead to create a dramatised unfolding of a broad scope of identity levels within a variety of sets of parameters.

As alluded to above, part of this process will be to find a fecund relationship between the intuitive and the constructivist approaches. For instance, in some cases, perhaps it will be that some of the parameters and how they can be controlled will only be identified after they emerge intuitively in more ‘spontaneous’ writing.

Ultimately the parametric constructivism must aim at a certain end (which, in terms of compositional process, should have been at least partly conscious at the beginning).

Interestingly this approach is partly that of Carter, in the sense of defining lines as characters (and thus their ‘characteristics’), and partly a serialist approach (in the sense of parametric writing), with elements of Ferneyhough perhaps as well (need to better understand Ferneyhough’s particular approach…). Although I hope there’s also something novel about it, insofar as it is entirely geared towards counterpoint.