Research Outline November 2014

Here is a short outline of my research that I wrote up to introduce myself and what I do to researchers at Orpheus Institute now that I’m based over in Belgium for the time being. It will probably change a little bit from here until submission in 2016, but I think it’s getting closer to something solid. I’m putting it here for posterity, so I can see it in the context of the pieces I was writing at the time, as an expression of those concerns.


Radical counterpoint for the 21st Century

Research question

This research project attempts, through compositional practice and aesthetic theory, to construct a radical theory and practice of counterpoint for today. While it is common for people to associate dry, academic and historicist research with the idea of counterpoint, this project starts from an alternative standpoint: counterpoint should be conceived, in contradistinction to ‘polyphony’ (which designates the mere fact of the presence of simultaneous musical lines) as simply music where relations as considered as primary, and is therefore an ever-relevant and changing approach to composition. This research also contends that such a view of counterpoint immediately has deep philosophical implications, and a clear political dimension, since it foregrounds the question of social relations.

Research sub-questions

This primary research question is therefore broken down into three sub-questions, each of which containing theoretical and practical components: Firstly, how should we conceive of relations in a 21st century counterpoint? Secondly, what are the ideological and social stakes of contemporary counterpoint? And finally, what are the compositional techniques and issues in composing counterpoint today? Or in other words:

  • Counterpoint as complex dialectics. This sub-question deals largely with the formal issue of relations in counterpoint from a philosophical perspective. It treats questions such as: Whole and part, identity and difference, homogeneity and heterogeneity, system and spontaneity, relations in historical counterpoint, relations in New Complexity.
  • Counterpoint as politics. This sub-question deals with relations in music seen through the lens of the Marxist concept of social relations. It treats questions such as: External and internal social relations, alienation and commodification, abstract and concrete materials, political content and political form, critique and affirmation.
  • Counterpoint as craft. This sub-question relates to the concrete techniques and compositional decisions that relate to the construction of contrapuntal works submitted in the folio. It treats issues such as: Line and linear identities, melodic motion, parametrism, harmony, form (local, regional, global), structure and intuition, electronics, orchestration.

Methodology

The practical aspect of the research involves the composition of a series of chamber works. Rather than seeing these works as simple instantiations or demonstrations of prior philosophical or political concepts, these works are fundamental to the methodology of the research. The compositional, rehearsal and performance stages of each work are accompanied by reflections gathered on my blog (usageandcontinuation.com), which then provides resources for reflection and analysis at later stages of the research. The research therefore takes up an Artistic Research methodology, allowing for emergent research questions and issues embedded in the practical component and potentially inaccessible through theoretical labour alone.

Works

Pieces composed in the first half of the period of PhD research will be included as appendices to help clarify this process of knowledge production, and to show where previous research directions led to unsatisfactory (in my view) compositional results.

The pieces in the second half of the period of PhD research will form the final folio. This is the outline of works planned for this submission:

  1. Labour Power Figments: a book of 6 pieces for various instrumental combinations within the ‘Pierrot plus percussion’ instrumentation (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion), dealing with the different contradictions of the capitalist economy, and different approaches to counterpoint. Total duration: 30 minutes.
  2. Si el clima: a work for solo piano and tape, dealing with the question of the alienation of the social from the ecological. Total duration: 15 minutes.
  3. Kampflieder: a work for clarinet, violin, electric guitar, double bass, taking up materials from the songbooks of brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Total duration 15 minutes.

Provisional conclusions

At this point in the research, a provisional theory and practice of counterpoint is emerging. This counterpoint is athematic, heterogeneous, multi-processual, and overdetermined. In such a counterpoint, each line has a parametrically determined identity, yet this identity is divided against itself and heavily mediated, yielding a rich and untotalisable set of relations in the overall contrapuntal texture. At the same time, this counterpoint is both implicitly political, in its formal manifestation of social relations, and explicitly political in its engagement with particular materials.

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