Reflections after completing ‘desert’

A few days ago I finished a short piece for quintet called a new day in the desert. (Have a look at the score here if you like). Ensemble Fractales here in Belgium will begin rehearsing it here soon, and so I’ll no doubt have more reflections on it as that process get underway. But for now, just some thoughts looking at the completed score (ok, it needs a little bit of editing, and proofreading…).

Line and gesture. I feel like this new work does well to begin resolving the problem that I found in QEM2, that of a meaningless play of short-range gesture. The long-range processes I set up have given lines in desert a feeling of their own unfolding, not caught up in attempts to immediately please the audience. This allows for a far great polyphony. It makes me realise that the Ivesian ‘poly-temporality’ idea is more important to me now than before. It was funny, when completing the piece, I had a lot of dynamic shaping left to fill in, which took a bloody long time (in complete contrast to my method in QEM2, where I wrote dynamics as I wrote the notes). As I went through, I realised there were large passages where I didn’t want much dynamic shaping, or the whole section was shaped by a continuous crescendo, for instance, and I felt really uncomfortable about this (and I probably put too much dynamic information in to make the score ‘look right’). Perhaps I was looking at too many Ferneyhough scores and thinking that that’s how it should be done. Maybe I should have been looking at Finnissy scores instead, who seems quite comfortable to have minimal dynamic information (which goes hand in hand with his approach to lines). I think this is an important shift towards counterpoint, insofar as it strengthens linear identities which, having been separated (the polyphonic aspect), can consciously be relinked (the contrapuntal aspect).

Metre and rhythm. One thing that I think I’m happy with (at least at what it points to) is the approach I have to meter and rhythm in the work. In this there are 3 basic functions that different lines can take up (within which there can be of course a lot of different approaches and results). Firstly is the ‘metre-defining’ function (played by the cello for much of this piece), which in general outlines the basic groupings of the bar (e.g. 8/8 is 3, 3, 2, or 3,2,3 or whatever). Secondly is the ‘metre-determined’ function, in which the speed of the material is always in reference to the length of the measure (so the whole bar could be a tuplet, as in the violin at the start, or the bar could be broken into to more or less equal parts which are then subject to tuplets). This could also apply to density of material, although that’s not something I worked on in this piece (see Ferneyhough collected writing, p. 278). The third basic function is the ‘cross-metre’ function, where the line is grouped in basic pulses (16ths or 32nd notes) in a way that disregards the bar lengths and cuts across them (e.g. the flute at the start of the piece). (This could have tuplets itself and tuplets, in particular, which cross bars, yet I avoided this in this latest piece because I was worried that this might subtract from playability. I’ll probably explore this in the next pieces). One could think of other variants, for instance lines that take their structuration from set of two or three bars at a time (having one tuplet across that time).

In general what this should allow for is that a work could be unconducted, despite the complexity and intricacy of the rhythmic information, since the metre is always present – yet nonetheless, it also allows for a high degree of independence between lines.

What I feel needs to be developed is the thinking through of bar lengths as a structural device and how this will impact both the material and the psychology of the performers, not to mention the counterpoint. All my bars are within about 3 and 10 16ths (in a certain pattern that I dreamed up), and it’s rare that there is, for instance, a relatively stable metre which gets disrupted by super short bar lengths, or a really noticeable movement from short to long bar lengths and so on. These strategies will be worth looking at in future pieces – a foregrounding of metre (which can be then undermined to a greater or lesser extent by privileging different approaches to metre). I’m also keen to try more extremes of regularity and irregularity of basic pulse in the different lines.

Tempo-wise, I’m not sure what to say at this point. I think I’ll have to listen to the piece. The structural use of the two tempos as a ‘filter’ of material might be effective in a sense, although there’s a sense in which I may have been a little too indifferent towards the effect that tempo has on the materials. This may mean that in some places the tempo won’t feel right… We’ll see. The other issue is then that without more shifts in tempo, the work might be boring, and too ‘samey’. This latter I’m less concerned about, since the goal with this piece was to break with the overly fluttery approach in my last piece.

Parametric counterpoint/identity/DOL. This aspect of the work is I think a little underdeveloped and in my next piece I’ll aim to be more systematic and thorough in thinking through how this will be deployed across the work. In the =75 sections, the parametric identity sharing/swapping really was either intuitively imposed on previously undetermined parameters (a technique that I enjoy quite a lot), or it came about by chance due to the internal development of the individual line (e.g. as the durations of the flute part begin to shrink, it begins to resemble other lines). In the =120 sections, the sharing of identities often comes as a simple swapping of voices (e.g. flute takes the previous cello material), or (in the clarinet part at the end) an intuitive mixing of a variety of elements from different lines so as to create a rather generic line.

In general as well, I think that the initial identities of the individual lines could have been more thoroughly thought through. On the other hand I’m increasingly clear on my character markings, and happy with the sorts of characters that I’m portraying. It’s probably worth going much much further in this direction in the next piece to see how important character indications are to my aesthetic.

Finally, Abstract and concrete material. This piece contains for the first time in my composing for quite a while, references to styles outside of Modernism. There are a couple ways that such materials enter: the use of I-IV-V chords in the =120 (increasingly apparent across the work), the quotation of particular songs (Limerick’s Lament, Joe Hill, Solidarity Forever) and the use of the basic rhythms of political chants (“What’s outrageous? Sweatshop wages!” and “The workers, united, will never be defeated!”). Of course none are intended to be treated as ‘found objects’, but rather as processes and ‘lines of force’ unto themselves, strengthening the polyphony in the case of the melodies, and providing a different way of relating lines, in the case of the tonal harmonies. There’s much too much to say about this with regard to abstraction, commodification, form, content, social relations and political consciousness, ‘folk’ and so on. It needs another post. My key interest is in thinking how these different materials which appear as ‘content’ in the ‘form’ of my contrapuntal approach themselves function as form, and how their functioning as form and content is closely related…

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