a new day in the desert: music in complex motion

I haven’t written a blog post in almost a month now. Too much composing, etc. But there’s a lot I need to get my head around, so I should fire up this blog again…

What I want to do today is quickly write down some thoughts about the piece I’m currently composing. It’s called ‘a new day in the desert’ (referencing Badiou and Beckett, or is it Mallarmé…?) and is the first in a book of compositions called Labour Power Figments for the Pierrot+percussion instrumentation that I intend to write over the coming year. The titles and conceptual stuff of the works I will deal with in a future post, but for now I just want to look at some of technical aspects of my developing contrapuntal approach.

The first thing I want to say is that the piece tries to respond to my previous few works in a really head-on way.

In QEM2 I feel that I went much too far (perhaps out of necessity) in the direction of intuitive and surface-level gestural composing. I had made this move for two reasons: firstly, I was unhappy with the lack of dynamism and ‘fresh-sounding-ness’ in some of my pieces in early 2013, and secondly, I became interested in Adorno’s idea of musique informelle understood as ‘listening to the tendency inherent in the materials’ (that is to say, more or less, intuitive composition).

At the time I actually thought counterpoint more or less impossible in the 21st century (despite doing a PhD on it!) and I had decided that the best strategy was to write a kind of ‘impossible’ or ‘marginal’ counterpoint where it really only emerges intuitively from time to time in the texture, only to be submerged again in the gestalt gestural flow of the total ensemble.

But I realised this was leading to a style of music that I didn’t agree with.

I then realised two things: 1) that I needed to insist on longer-range thinking and longer-range lines so as to not get caught up in the pretty flitterings of short-range gestures; and 2) that in order to do that I needed to adopt less of an intuitive approach and more of a constructivist one. The ‘tendency inherent in the materials’ was pleasant if you have a short attention span, but it lacked both the kind of grit that I appreciate in, say, good folk music, and it lacked a sense of long-range purposiveness. At Darmstadt I had a few lessons that made clear that I need to confront my intuition with systems that I construct (this doesn’t mean to dispense with intuition, which would be a silly thing to do).

From this it became clear that, in fact, counterpoint today is quite possible. Since longer range lines can be defined by parametric processes that they realise over time, it stands to reason that you could have multiple lines superimposed simultaneously, each of which realising different parametric processes (I’ll come to the defence of the historical relevance of parametric composition in another post). So, at least, polyphony is possible, and if polyphony is possible, it seems likely that counterpoint, too, is possible, depending on what we take counterpoint to mean today.

So, that’s the starting point. A couple of points about ‘a new day in the desert’:

Contradictory processes

A principle of the contrapuntal approach I am trying to develop is that no line is a simple unity. Rather than counterpoint being a superimposition of relatively stable musical identities, I want it to be a counterpoint of counterpoints. In fact, this isn’t a new idea, Bach most certainly wrote lines in his counterpoint that were composite or divided against themselves and yet maintained enough identity to function as a line in the texture.

In my music at the moment I’m borrowing from Ferneyhough’s idea of parametric polyphony in order to give lines a degree of internal contradiction and motion, equivalent perhaps to that of J.S.

The thing about processes is that they’re boring once you realise what they are. That’s what I really detest about the simplistic spectral and minimalist works. Yet processes are needed today—in the absence of prerational, culturally accepted modes of continuation—to give a sense of directionality and development to materials. So, the my answer isn’t to get rid of processes, but to stack a couple processes on top of each other so that no process is ever totally obvious. Often one process can be masked by other processes or countervailing forces and only reveal itself after it’s already done its work.

In my violin part in the first few bars there are a number of processes taking place: 1) a slow speeding up of the subdivision (which is itself split into two processes: every first bar speeds up faster than every second, and this is mediated by the shifting metric structure); 2) a very slow moving shortening of ‘sub-phrase’ lengths which in this context means the amount of time in-between the entrance of an upward arpeggio; 3) a fluctuating shortening of the number of repeated notes before a change in pitch; 4) gradually ascending intervals (with occasional downward moments); 5) a slowly more frequent deletion of a note in the line.

All these processes come together, jostle with one another, to give the specific shape of the line.

A number of parameters (such as dynamics and articulation/playing technique) are left open, which allows me to make the line relate to other events taking place in the texture once I’ve begun to write them all in and seeing what possible relations emerge. (At this stage this is one of the primary means by which I’m creating some form of ‘drama’ in the work…).

Most of these processes themselves are not simple consecutive or additive processes (1, 2, 3, 4, etc): each number series that defines their process is the result of a number of interacting series.

‘Music in complex motion’

I remember from a lesson I had with Peter Edwards in Singapore him saying, “the funny thing about pitch is that ultimately you have to either go up or down, and you often spend time thinking ‘has it gone up enough already? should it come down now?’ or vice versa.”

One of the sheer joys of classical counterpoint is the manipulation of relations of motion: similar motion, contrary motion, oblique motion, parallel motion. Any approach to modern composition that could meaningfully call itself contrapuntal would have to preserve something of this joy.

I was struck when reading Fitch’s book on Ferneyhough by a quote in one of the footnotes where Ferneyhough says that the multiplicative approach of Boulez is too simplistic for him, he wants something with more depth: “Boulez’s systems (for instance) strike me as being rather tautological, because they base themselves on the multiplication of a basic number of elements, multiplied in various ways.”

It was this and the general approach to sculpting gestures that Ferneyhough outlines in ‘Il Tempo’ that lead me to my current approach to coming up with ‘wonky processes’ (or whatever you’d like to call them).

So as I said above, the processes I layer within a line to give it its specific trajectory and shape are themselves the result of at least two (often three) processes. To give an example, here is the interval skeleton of the cello part (where 1 = semitone; 0.5 = quartertone):

Interval skeleton
Ascending 3 3 3.5 3.5 4 4 4.5 4.5 5 5 5.5 5.5 6 6 6.5
Descending 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5 5.5 6 6.5 7 7.5
Aux descending 1 4 1 0 1 4 1 0 1 4 1 0 1 4 1
Result 1.5 -2 1 1.5 0.5 -3 0 0.5 -0.5 -4 -1 -0.5 -1.5 -5 -2

There are two processes taking place: a slowly increasing process in the ascending camp, and a doubly quick process of augmentation in the descending camp. Since the ascending camp begins bigger than the descending one, the line will go upwards at first, but eventually the descending one will take over and the overall line will descend. The addition of an ‘auxiliary’ descending layer, which in this cases is a repetitive sequence (1,4,1,0,1,4,1,0,etc), filters or inflects this initial resultant process and gives it a more unpredictable and interesting shape.

For me at the moment this is very important. Of course the final result seems quite random, and at a local level one could just intuitively make this up. But for defining long-range gestures and linear directions, rhythmic processes, etc, it is immensely useful. It ensures that you’re heading somewhere, but doesn’t make that totally obvious to the listener.

If this kind of approach is repeated in the various lines of a texture, you end up with a really interesting set of ever-shifting relations between linear directions.

One important question I have for the moment is how to make this ‘complex motion’ something composed rather than the unforeseeable result of a number of linear processes that have been determined in advance and with little awareness of how they will interact at a local level. Certain sections of ‘a new day in the desert’ attempt to forge this type of more ‘endogenous’ relation between lines, but I’m not sure how successful I’ll be at this point. Much work to be done… In traditional counterpoint often one line gets written (a cantus firmus or fugal subject) and then others are composed in response to that line. This is, in a sense, already my approach, but it’s something to think about. In any case one part of the aesthetic I’m aiming for is the irreverance some lines have towards each other.

Another very important question I feel is that, in traditional counterpoint the question of harmony (or at least dissonance treatment) was always tied directly to this question of motion… There was a dialectic of relative linear motion and harmony that was part of the joy of counterpoint. In fact, it’s what made counterpoint feel really meaningful. Is there a way to integrate the harmonic dimension into this or is there a substitute countervailing principle or parameter (or method of simple ‘tension and release’) that could rub against this ‘complex motion’ and render it more meaningful?