Notes on lessons at Impuls 2015

Readers, if you exist. Most of my posts are really kind of ‘notes to self’ more than anything. It is particularly the case with this post. Nonetheless, perhaps some of you get some weird pleasure out of reading this stuff… And I’m totally cool with that.

Here are some thoughts coming out of lessons I had at Impuls Academy in Graz earlier this month – with Klaus Lang, Isabel Mundry, and Richard Barrett. They were all useful, and I’m glad I made it there…

Lesson with Klaus Lang

I showed Klaus Lang the score of a new day in the desert, and we had a chat about it. He’s a nice fellow. Here’s some things that came up in the discussion:

Every group of instruments has a spontaneous hierarchy. This is to say that certain instruments are more naturally grouped together than others; certain instruments dominate or protrude in certain registers; certain instruments have a greater ability to blend with certain other instruments, etc. For instance in the ‘pierrot’ ensemble the flute and clarinet relate closely, but not as closely as the violin and cello do to each other; the identity of the bass clarinet is not as stable as the bass flute, since its timbre changes dramatically across registers; the piano, when played with pedal, has the potential to negate the individuality of the other instruments; and so on. This kind of complex hierarchy (kind of like a really complicated ‘paper-scissors-rock’ game) should be taken as a starting point of any polyphonic instrumental work.

In this sense the opening texture of desert may have some imbalances. The bass flute, which is consistently in a low register will likely be buried. Of course, I was aware of this, that why I wrote it that way, but perhaps it’s too buried in the sense that it won’t be heard at all, rather than being heard as ‘buried by everything’. We’ll see… The pedalling on the piano as well may be a problem. And in fact it might be best to delete all the pedal markings and leave it up to the pianist to have a dry but legato texture. The clarinet, running across its entire register will have vast changes of timbre, which

The other major thing we discussed was the idea of ‘character’. What came out of the discussion is that there’s a kind of logical inconsistency with regard to my character markings. On the one hand, I’m really keen to have an almost baroque unity of affect for a line across a long period (part of my anti-romantic emphasis on ‘stickin-to-it-ness’) and perhaps even use that as a structural device, a way of differentiating lines and sections from one another; but on the other hand, I also use character indications as spontaneous responses to the material I compose on the micro-level – indications that are much more romantic and subjective. Perhaps I don’t need to choose between these approaches, but instead simply ‘parametrise’ the character aspect further. That is, perhaps I should plan out the rate of change of characters, or even think about how certain characters inhere in other characters, and so there could be networks of characters or affects that could be deployed as one line of the structuration of materials. Would this still leave room for spontaneous gestural characters to emerge across the work? I don’t see why not, but this emergence would be much more conscious.

Lesson with Isabel Mundry

I also showed Mundry my score for desert. She was quite technical to begin with, noticing a bunch of errors of notation, and suggesting some technical issues – things that may not work on these instruments. These are things that I think will in any case come out in rehearsals with Fractales. Anyway, we got into some more interesting discussion shortly thereafter. The main thing we focussed on was the issue of polyphony (or counterpoint in my terminology): that is, the issue of vertical relations between horizontal lines.

To Mundry’s eyes, my desert (at least its opening section) is not really ‘polyphonic’ (in my terms, contrapuntal). That is to say, it is totally stratified, and the individual lines are not in tension with some vertical determination. She has a point: while of course there is always some vertical concerns that the lines have to take account of, nonetheless, in this instance, these are quite few, and more or less emerge from the presence of multiple lines, rather than a regulating overall discourse. “They need a context for their difference.” That is, they need to relate more so that their difference is rendered determinate. By this, really, Mundry was thinking of harmony.

She made the point that harmony can’t really be thought in a totally abstract way. It should be a sensible thing. Just working with all-interval sets, etc can lead to a greying out of the vertical dimension. And, in the case of Boulez, the kind of abstract harmonies he comes up with (and their deployment over long time periods as well as their permutation) means that the polyphony turns into ornament, since it loses internal tension.

She suggested thinking about harmonic progression and harmonic rhythm. Points where harmonies must sound and then the spaces between these points where the lines are more free. This could stand as a replacement for consonance-dissonance relationship. I’ve had similar thoughts in the past, and I think I will attempt something like this soon. Mundry has her own system for harmony: one that she freely chooses from, and one which she deploys in a near-spontaneous way during composing (that is, she doesn’t lay out an entire abstract harmonic ‘frame’ for the work before composing it, and then fill it in). It was based on set-theory permutations, but is highly subjective in its application. To me, Mundry’s is a far too abstract harmonic approach and leads to a kind of conservative aspect to her pitch material.

In general I think it would be a mistake to come up with a single, abstract approach to harmony. I think there would be a danger of regressive systematisation in this. I’m interested in thinking about how harmonic systems might emerge from the concept and materials of the work, whether this be a harmonic system being derived from a particular folk song or performance, or from the specific potentialities of the instruments involved (something that Richard Barrett tends to do). Perhaps rather than the ‘what’ of harmonies, the ‘how’ of harmonies is something I need to think about: the ‘system’ of their derivation and deployment, rather than of their specific constitution, which can come from a variety of original sources, and not just the maths of 12 or 24 tones.

Mundry also mentioned the idea that perhaps there wasn’t enough of a sense of depth and perspective in my writing. It’s perhaps true that there’s a certain ‘flatness’ to my counterpoint, and maybe one of the parameters I could work with in defining lines in a polyphonic discourse is that of space (or the illusion of space). This often requires multiple lines to be seen as a kind of unity, where one line is the ‘shadow’ of another. Mundry gave the simple example in her lecture of a line having ‘depth’ when accompanied by a cymbal.

Lesson with Richard Barrett

With Richard, we started by discussing my piece from July last year, QEM2.

Richard asked if I felt in any way ‘conflicted’ about the material of the piece, and I of course answered yes. We reached the conclusion that essentially there is a linear logic and a linear sensibility trying to express itself in the work, but I was trying to disguise that behind less conventional sounds (as well as a shorter-range gesturality). What this meant was that I was, in a sense, simply overlaying ‘extended techniques’ as ornamentation and as negation, which gave this great feeling of constraint to the overall discourse. Richard suggested that, say a,b,c were more or less conventional sounds, and x,y,z were the more or less noisy extended techniques, what I could aim to do is try to find all the letters in between and have a spectrum from the ‘pure tone’ to the noisy sounds. What this would mean is that I could construct linearities through this spectrum, rather than oscillating between both sides of it. He mentioned Finnissy’s technique of creating whole lines out of nothing but trills, which instead of being mere ornamentation are in fact constitutive of the line. (Perhaps the clearest example of this kind of ‘extended linearity’ or whatever you want to call it is Barrett’s own vale for solo flute).

This in a way contrasts with the approach I have taken in desert, which simply parametrises and rationalises the ornamental approach of QEM2: the ‘extended techniques’ are deployed as interruptions or contortions of the basic line according to processes.

I would be interested to think of how the two approaches could be synthesised. For instance, if one had more of a spectrum from a -> h of ways of producing the sound that went from standard tone to something quite noisy, untempered, etc, a line could be constructed where the material moves between them according to some kind of process, and this process could itself be constitutive of the identity and the directionality of the line. Something to think about.

The basic point though, with regard to materials, was to ‘get rid of the tightrope’ of linearity vs. extended techniques/gesturality whereby each is an attempt to avoid a too positive statement of the other. Gotta get away from the negative determination of material and get to a positive one.

Then we spoke about my more recent piece a new day in the desert. He noted that in the opening texture there was the danger of an entropic effect taking place and the complexity of the stratification potentially getting lost in a merely dense texture.

He noted that in this sort of polyphonic music composing registral relations has to become one of the fundamental structural concerns of the piece. Something that I hadn’t really put so clearly to myself in the past, even if I was aware of this idea. He also added – and this is a fucking cool idea, linking the practice of counterpoint to that of orchestration in a really concrete way – that the overtone structures of instruments should be taken into account. Some overtones on particular instruments are particularly prominent, which means that while you have an instrument playing in a certain low register, it might also be occupying some space, say, an octave and a fifth away from that. Which means if you then go to write a line within that higher space, you will get a kind of conflict or relation between this partial and the new line. For clarity of stratification, one could try to avoid this, but the overlapping can also be exploited as a contrapuntal idea unto itself.

Finally, and this relates to the earlier point about materials, we spoke about the ‘folky’ element in my materials in desert. Evidently I’m aiming for some degree of ‘rawness’ (what I sometimes call ‘folk complexity’) in the playing style of the instruments. It’s not supposed to be ultra-clean. Richard suggested I think about how to make this idea immanent to the notation. A good example of this the bass clarinet part in the last few bars of the piece which are quartertones in the low register of the instrument – for which there are no fingerings. This means that the performer will have to kind of lip them, which will mean that the timbre of the line is constantly in flux. In the score as it stands there is no indication as to what to do about this. Is the timbral fluctuation a problem to overcome, or is it part of the aesthetic constitution of the material? It is of course the latter, but I need to make a note to the performer in that case, to say that this is what I want. Moreover, in future, the question is how to make this apparent in the notation itself, note just in external notes… This would require, from the outset of a composition, going into much more depth about the relationship between the instrumental particularities and possibilities and the linear content.