Beginning ‘Mirror Motets’: An initial mission statement

So, I’ve begun writing three short pieces for violin, flute, and clarinet (to be performed, if we can work out the logistics, by the great Sarah Saviet, Hannah Reardon-Smith, and Heather Roche). They’ll be called Mirror Motets: Songs for almost everyone, after the late Eduardo Galeano’s book Mirrors: Stories of almost everyone (which is so excellent I can’t even tell you… read it for yourself).

I will be taking inspiration from various approaches to the motet form (particularly of the late-13th and 14th centuries), which will have an impact both on the form and the method of construction of the pieces. I will talk more about that aspect in a later post, after a little more research into these historical examples. Certainly it will not be a matter of ‘translating’ or ‘updating’ the approach of the earlier styles into more contemporary language, but simply abstracting from these earlier approaches general concerns that might have an impact on our construction of a counterpoint for today.

For this post, I just want to write down a general set of aims for the work. A kind of ‘mission statement’ or ‘manifesto’, or, in the research world, these could if rephrased function as ‘research questions’.

The reflections on (anti-)motivicism and complexity come from engaging with Ferneyhough, via Courtot’s book. However, this is set against a renewed interest in the idea of periodicity, which I’m getting back into by looking at Enno Poppe’s Gelöschte Lieder with Hannah (and through this, remembering Grisey’s contributions). In addition, I’m now beginning to explore the idea of ‘dissonantial relationships’. In all this, one may begin to detect the begins of an influence of OpenMusic software on my thinking and general approach. More on that in future posts, for sure.

So here’s some points for a possible mission statement for Mirror Motets:

  • I want to thoroughly depose the motivic function. Rather than starting out from a basic object and moving to its variations, I want to move from variational techniques, without a discernible primary object, to the emergence of various objects, produced by particular local conditions. Polyphonic imitation should be, in the first place, the imitation of (parametric) development, and only secondarily the imitation of stable musical objects.
  • In this sense, on the level of the temporal flow of the work, I do not want to move, as the sonata or fugue does, from simplicity to complexity, nor its simple reverse, but to start in the middle of a state of complexity, in which realms of simplicity emerge, either with continuity or discontinuity. This formal level will be mirrored on the pre-compositional level: I intend that the process of pre-composition won’t, in general, be the derivation of variations from an initial material, but the planning of various parametric processes and structures that will define the constraints of each line at each section of the work.
  • (This is not to say that I won’t sometimes use a standard variational process, moving from simple to complex, or from original to varied or permuted – it just means that these aspects will not be the basic compositional logic, nor the prime ‘narrative’ aspect, of the work.)
  • A related issue is the contradiction between heterogeneity and homogeneity of the polyphonic relations. On the one hand, placing parametric process rather than parametric structure at the base of the compositional logic tends to suggest unstable linear identities and undermine the possibility of a strong heterogeneity and distinctness of lines in a texture.
  • On the other hand, the flipside of this is that to perceive lines as highly heterogeneous often means that the lines themselves has to be simplified. By this I mean that in order to be perceived as distinct, each line has to have a strongly formed identity, and thus must not have too much internal development or variation. In a three-voice texture, this degree of heterogeneity will likely be heard as a ‘simple’ texture.
  • So here’s the double-bind: complex and changing linear identities will deliver a ‘simple’ texture insofar as they will jumble into a gestural non-polyphony, whereas the most distinct and (in a certain sense) ‘complex’ texture (maximally distinct), will rely on relatively stabilised and simplified identities in the individual lines and will itself end up as a simple texture. It’s a classic case of identity of opposites.
  • My solution to this will be to spend most time in the in-between of these extremes, and structure the work according to the relative weighting of the two poles.
  • Yet this relative identity relations between lines, their parametric distinctness or closeness, their parametric imitation, is only part of the story. This could be achieved in a way that is purely abstract and contemplative. What is required, to achieve a total ‘contrapuntal feeling’ for the listener (at least from my experience as a listener), is the creation of dissonantial relations – ones which can be felt. I’m new to thinking in these terms, but what I imagine is required for this is two or more fairly well recognisable musical structures (processes or objects), which exhibit not maximum difference but certain similarities, a certain relation, set in close proximity to each other. What is important is a sense of ‘subversion’ of the one by the other. This requires the coordination of several parameters, for instance a certain ‘dissonant’ polyrhythm (or rhythmic structure like acceleration vs. stable rhythm) will only be felt if there are enough other similarities between the lines – for instance, though not necessarily, similar register, timbre, dynamic level, etc etc.
  • I don’t think that this type of dissonantial relationship is something that can (or that I would want to) be sustained for a whole work, but it should certainly form a part of it, and I aim to control relative degrees of dissonance in this sense.
  • One thing I do feel is necessary to bring about more dissonant relations between lines is the audibility of periodicity of lines. In recent pieces, I have created fairly elaborate metric structures, which, while having an impact on the construction of the work, do not necessarily deliver the feeling of metre to the listener. In this new piece I want to explore how to move in and out of a genuinely perceptible periodicity, which will help create local frames against which things can be heard as dissonant.
  • On the harmonic level I want to layer, juxtapose and link the following contradictory determinations:
    • Harmonic operators for the whole ensemble (perhaps even multiple, contradictory ensemble harmonic layers) vs. harmonic (or simply intervallic) structures for individual lines
    • Heterogeneous harmonic systems: spectrally-derived vs. intervallic (à la Carter) vs. referentially derived (e.g. Irish folk, etc) vs. instrumentally-derived (e.g. fingerings, etc)

In all of this the thought that comes increasingly to mind is that of ‘liminal’ composition, as Grisey was talking about in the last period of his composing. On a global scale, I’m interested in exploring the following (interpenetrating, though logically separate) contradictions in the work, by way of moving around the limits between each side of the binary (but reversing in priority of conception, the terms, so that what is normally seen as the negative, is placed first):

  • Aperiodicity <-> Periodicity
  • Parametric development <-> parametric stasis
  • Indistinction of lines (by way of information transfer or overload) <-> distinction of lines
  • Non-dissonantial relations (negative consonance, consonance as absence of dissonance) <-> dissonantial relations
    • Lines as independently conceived and then brought into relation <-> lines originally conceived together, in a complimentary manner (on one or more parametric levels)
  • Abstract materials <-> referent/socially concrete materials
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