Initial thoughts on ‘Kampflieder’

I’m beginning planning of a work for the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta, run by composer Michael Bakrnchev. The piece will be called Kampflieder and it will be based on songs from the book of that name given to the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil war. There’s also a Nancarrow dimension, since the scanned copy I have is in fact Nancarrow’s own book from when he was part of the Abraham Lincoln brigade – so I’ll try to work in some sort of homage to him…

At this stage I’m just working through some basic considerations. The most essential of these is: how do I maintain the complex contrapuntal approach that I have had in my smaller works with an ensemble of bigger forces? And a subsidiary question: how do I maintain the complex contrapuntal (and specifically: rhythmic) aesthetic while taking into account the fact that the performers (while all very good players) are not specialists of highly complex new music? Another (perhaps more exciting) question, is what contrapuntal opportunities are opened up by working with such large forces?

For the latter question I’m tossing around various thoughts: building a much greater sense (or illusion) of ‘space’ and ‘depth’ in the counterpoint; thinking of sub-groups of instruments in place of single lines as in my smaller chamber works; creating a much greater drama and ‘world-creating’ dimension.

(On that final note, I’m interested in thinking the Mahlerian ‘world-creating’ dimension in relation to this quote from Badiou’s ‘Scholium’ in Logics of Worlds: “In the context of a becoming-subject, the event (whose entire being lies in disappearing) is represented by a trace; the world (which as such does not allow for any subject) is represented by a body” (p. 80, my emphasis). But I’ll come back to this later).

With regard to the other basic considerations, I’m keen to keep both the fluidity and the stratification of my current rhythmic approach, but I want to make sure that the notational approach I choose for this doesn’t create any unnecessary barriers to realisation of the basic spirit of the work, nor gives the musicians too much pain. Some notational strategies I’m considering at the moment are:

  • Common absolute bar-lengths, but different metres for each instrumental subgroup (essentially giving distinct but related tempi to each group) – this is a technique used by Enno Poppe in his Gelöschte Lieder
  • Common metres but different sub-divisions within for the different groups
  • Common metres but some parts written across these metres in a kind of spatial notation with an ‘a-metric’ intention – Finnissy uses this at times, particularly in Alongside
  • No common metre or even tempo, but relying on various cues to make sure the groups come together when required – something that I’m doing in the second Mirror Motet…
  • Groups written initially with different metric structures and then compiled into a score at the end, finding new, common metric compromises so that the whole ensemble has the one metre (this would probably mean writing the groups with small metres first, and then having the full score with large metres encompassing the original smaller ones).

There would no doubt be more, but that’s some to begin with. Perhaps some of them are unworkable. The final score will no doubt be a mix of different approaches. The larger forces certainly causes one to think more logistically than normal!

Beyond the question of the scale of forces and the notational strategies, a couple other big questions come up regarding my choice of material:

  • Are the songs the only raw material of the work? If not, what other types of material should be part of the piece?
  • What are the ways of manipulating the songs in order to render them at times indiscernible and to make them commensurable with the spirit of militancy, of dignity and of adventure of the concert hall (that is to say how to ‘translate’ them into the materiality of the concert hall)?
  • Are the songs assigned to different sub-group and belong to only these sub-groups, or are they used across these subgroups and break down these divisions? (The answer is almost certainly ‘both’, but then the more difficult question is asked: what is the relations between these two functions?)
  • Similarly are the harmonic layers tied to the songs or the lines, or are they separate strata as in my first motet from Mirror Motets?
  • Should the ensemble be set up in the traditional way, or should it be set-up in its various instrumental subgroups?
  • What should the relationship between the instrumental subgroups and ‘natural’ relations or affinities be (considering that the latter cannot not be there in the work)? The latter include: register (e.g. violin and flute), instrumental choir/timbre (e.g. trombone and trumpet), historical associations (e.g. piccolo and drum, or clarinet and tuba).

Anyway, that’s enough to give a sense of where I’m at in commencing the planning of this work. We’ll see how much the thinking changes as I write it…