New thoughts, next steps

Settling into Brussels where I will spend the next 12-18 months of my PhD working hard composing, thinking, meeting with my European supervisor, other teachers, academics, and working on pieces with groups over here.

I have a number of fairly large-scale works I want to compose during this time, so I don’t have much time to lose (except that I currently have to rest my hand since it’s showing signs of RSI…). Here’s the plan:

  • Labour Power Figments: a cycle of 6 works for the Pierrot+Percussion sextet totalling 30 mins
  • “Si el clima fuera un banco”: a work for solo piano and tape totalling 15 mins
  • Kampflieder: a work for mixed quartet (violin, clarinet, e-guitar, and double bass) totalling 13 mins

Getting all that done within 12 or so months will be a challenge, but I’ll give it a go!

Anyway, these works will each have their own particular concerns, which I will deal with in future blog posts, but for now I want to go over the general concerns for these works and for the rest of my PhD. It marks a fairly fundamental turn in my research, but it largely preserves many of the insights that have come up so far.

The three main areas I want to look at are: counterpoint, complexity, and politics.

Counterpoint. I’m convinced now that, while my exercise in ‘informal music’ (QEM) was useful in giving me the facility to spontaneously conceive of gestures, it’s run its course in terms of my development. In general, it led me away from counterpoint towards ensemble-gestalt gestures in which I tried to create a ‘counterpoint of the margins’ or something like that. I felt that counterpoint was no longer possible (after the spectral and lachenmannian revolutions), and so today we had to make a kind of liminal impossible-counterpoint. I now see this as really very negative, post-modern and something of a dead-end. I no longer think that parametric composition is historically dead. In fact, I feel it – defined broadly – remains an historical necessity.

What I want now to do is to (parametrically) define linear identities and then define their interrelations between each other, and then to be able to manipulate these identity-relations across time. This emphasis on relations differentiates such an idea of counterpoint from mere ‘polyphony’, which is a statement of fact that there is more than one line happening at the same time. Yet the identities of the lines within the kind of counterpoint I want to write should be composed of multiple conflicting processes, leading to a resultant structure, which, while clear and strong in its surface identity, nonetheless is audibly not at home with itself and perhaps even carries the seeds of its destruction. Hence:

Complexity. Really all this means to me at the moment is a thoroughly dialectical and realist music. Or a ‘dialectical materialist’ music. This is the definition that I am currently advancing:

Complexity essentially means the irreducibility of a work. It arises from the overdetermination of processual musical layers interacting in a mutually mediating or conflicting way, such that, at no point in a composition, is any musical figure presented as a simple unity. It’s not simply about surface level complexity. The work as a whole cannot be reduced to the exposition of a single concept or process (and nor to some non-conceptual unilinear flow). It consists of layers without an absolute core. With this in mind, experience of the work becomes necessary, since the complexity of the work means that analysis generates so much content that it loses sight of the totality of the work – which can only be experienced, not thought. One must always plunge back into the work.

Why I don’t feel that the concept of complexity is quite enough, though, is that counterpoint forces us to think directly about relations between (sound) producers, or if you like: relations between human beings. Complexity, taken by itself, doesn’t demand that from us. Ferneyhough, for instance, occasionally composes thorough-going polyphonic textures, but more often than not the surface effect of all his subterranean processes is that of short-range fragments (in fact his more recent works have taken the fragment to be an aesthetic principle, something I disagree with), and I rarely get the feeling of the dialectic of the individual and the collective that I think autonomous musical creation should aspire to present. A complex substructure of many dialectically contradictory processes that leads to a non-polyphonic result is to me not good enough.

Politics. Of course, this is all formalistic so far. It doesn’t deal with music’s ‘outside’ (except insofar as music’s inside is an alienated condensation of its outside). More and more I feel that music has to be driven by something otherwise the fetishisation of its materials has no resistance and the music becomes harmless – like abstract painting becomes wall-paper design (Adorno says something like that in AT, I’ll have to chase up the quote). I mean, Ferneyhough always has a more or less literary concept or one borrowed from the visual arts. Yet the Marxist that I am thinks that these concepts are all pale reflections of politics; and in any case that’s the sphere that I’m most invested in. So I prefer to deal with politics. Thinking out loud: You could say, in a sense, that the artwork deals formally with the social, but in content it must take up politics (the boundary between these two is problematic, of course). And politics must be about organisation and confrontation. It’s not about critiquing the problems but pointing to (however impossibly) and setting itself in solidarity with the solution (i.e. ‘the working class and its allies’). In any case, from an artistic viewpoint, politics represents the greatest danger to music, and perhaps could present the greatest tension, which, at the end of the day, is what I’m after.


Presented differently, here’s a little conceptual flow:

  1. Music as total dialectical system: all elements relate in contradiction to each other and to themselves. No simple unities. Each unity is a composite of multiple contradictory forces, a ‘dynamic equilibrium’. This is the most advanced thinking of music, the most developed human experience, and the most realistic.
    1. Yet this is all formal. No actual force or content inheres in the work. Only a re-presentation of dialectics is being carried out. Danger of becoming ‘academic’, ‘formalist’, etc. Hence:
  2. Identification of performers as primary, and more specifically relations between them. Utopian social relations represented by the most alienated social relations. Performers as the point of transfusion between form and content. Hence the importance of counterpoint as relations between embodied lines, not just complexity of compositional elements.
    1. Yet of course these performers, while concretising the abstract formalism by making it become ‘about’ social relations, nonetheless do not necessarily ‘give life’ to the work. This is because the performers are at present alienated from the community (the price for their being able to present these complex dialectics in the first place). So the problem is simply displaced, not solved. Hence:
  3. An idea must come to music from the outside. While it will function as a fiction (and a fragmented and cubist one at that) in the work, the tension this idea sets off with the formal dialectics of the work will bring the whole closer to something alive. The idea, as what is outside, must be constituted as music’s very separation, and thus the ‘condition of possibility of the form of music’. That is to say, the idea comes from the outside as the presence of the outside as such. But it must make this separation and non-relation conscious and self-transparent. Thus, in the end, it will have to be political.

Need to clarify this last point a little… It contains a good many logical leaps.