Dynamics, register, techniques

While I’ve been focussing a lot on parameters of interval and rhythm in my latest piece, I’m also recognising the importance of other parameters in giving perceptible qualities to the polyphony. Here’s a couple of quick thoughts:

Dynamic envelope: Seemingly the most vulgar of the parameters, dynamics are really important for giving a sense of unified direction to a line, a ‘long-range gesturality’ as I’ve been calling it. It’s kind of an obvious point, but it’s something that I’ve often forgotten. One of the problems of QEM was that even when I tried to write longish lines, they were made up of a succession of dynamic envelopes of little more than 2 or so beats. So, while creating longer-range trajectories in terms of pitch, at a totally micro-level, the line must have longer units of dynamic stability (either constant dynamic, or consistent crescendo or decrescendo). This, of course, interacts with the layers of rhythmic, pitch-intervallic and registral phrase structuring, as well as articulation and modes of performance. At this stage I’m leaving the parameter of dynamic unplanned so that I can dramatically shape the results of the precompositional planning which often need a bit of help. From the standpoint of counterpoint (or polyphony…), the work of this approach to dynamics is to seize upon latent relations that emerged (more or less) contingently in the working out of the precompositional planning and render them explicit.

Register: Firstly, in general I’m approaching register with more restraint in this work than in previous ones. In QEM2 there was lots of jumping between registers within each phrase. In this piece, the register that an instrument occupies is part of the line’s identity (which of course is a changing one). A line’s identity could for that matter be one of swiftly changing registers as much as weaving within a very small compass. But the relative registral position of two or more lines can have a significant impact on highlighting or masking the relations or nonrelations of their other parameters. Again, it’s a pretty obvious point, but the tension generated by a complex rhythmic or harmonic relation between lines is generally significantly amplified when they are in close proximity than when they are farther apart. There’s a further aspect to the use of register: part of the joy of counterpoint in Bach, for instance, is lines getting tangled to the extent that the listener is not sure which line is which and which line is heading in which direction.

Extended techniques: The point about ‘extended techniques’ is that they’re a means to an end. They’re neither simply a matter of keeping up to date with the materials of the day, having an ‘extended sound palette’, nor of simply dereifying the instrument as such (which is more complicated than it was). Extended techniques (a term which collects a whole bunch of different elements of sound production often fitting within ‘timbre’ and ‘articulation’ or ‘expression’) are parameters that help define the self-relation and other-relations of the individual line. This just means that it’s another way to bring instruments closer together in a texture or to make them more separate.  As I’ve said in previous posts (such as this one) the other point about extended techniques is that they should in a sense liberate the true idiomatic instrument from its simple identity in the concert setting. To me the idiomatic instrument is not a stable, fixed identity but a point where multiple historical forces intersect. The danger therefore is to reify the techniques and deploy them cheaply: “here’s the over-pressure bit,” “here’s the ricochet bit,” etc. How to avoid this kind of cheapness while deploying them parametrically appears to be the main challenge. What this contradiction means for counterpoint I can only guess at at this stage.

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