Parisian reflections

I recently had the good fortune of revisiting Paris and meeting up with my friend François Nicolas. We spent quite a bit of time discussing my new piano and tape piece Si el clima, and he was convinced (almost a priori) that my kind of counterpoint (at least as exhibited in this work) is based on a fundamental ‘ecological’ metaphor. Below are some notes I took yesterday about our discussions…

  1. My counterpoint as ‘environmental’: François was pretty adamant about this. The ‘ecological’ metaphor. There is some truth to this. I have for some time now thought of composing as a kind of radical dialectical gardening. You plant a bunch of heterogeneous seeds, see how they grow, see what interrelations you can make between the movements of the plants etc. Move with the plants and against them. My resistance to this idea though is the charge of ‘post-modernism’ that would inevitably come. If I’m putting radically heterogeneous materials side-by-side, what stops that from being a Cageian or post-modern collage or bricolage? The first point, differentiating from Cage, is that I’m not ‘letting sounds be sounds’, but ‘letting lines be lines’, and the second point is that in any case I’m not even quite doing that, since that this simply the point of departure for drawing commonalities (which is why it is counter-point). This latter – drawing commonalities – is permitted by an underlying unity of the ‘points’ that define each line, which is to say that any entity must be (re)constituted by way of parametric data, rendering everything synthesisable – specifically rhythm is at the core of this. (Another dimension of this is the fact that each line is internally riven since its different parameters are constructed with a large degree of autonomy, thus further giving strength to the possibility of partial ‘rapprochements’ between lines.)
  2. What is perhaps most important in this definition (counterpoint as ecology) is that it demonstrates a very real rupture with the ‘conversation’-metaphor of counterpoint, which requires that every voice a) speak the same language (and thus be non-heterogeneous in their basic material), b) speak about the same subject, more or less, and c) allow for a free shifting of focus between voices (if it is to be a ‘good’ conversation, not a mansplainer and some uncomfortable colleagues). Since I hope that my voices are neither united by a common basic material constitution (language), nor by the presence of a ‘theme/motif’ in any clear sense (subject), it is only the last one that I can agree with (anti-hierarchical), and even then only dialectically – perverting hierarchies can only come after the establishment of these hierarchies.
  3. Why ‘counterpoint’ and not ‘polyphony’? The latter is relatively commonly used in contemporary music; the latter practically not at all. My answer is simply because it affords the possibility of the labour of definition, unlike polyphony, which is fairly unambiguous in its meaning: simply multiple (poly), simultaneous sounds (phony).
    1. Counter: What do I mean by ‘negation’ or ‘opposition’ or ‘relation’ between lines. François’ hexagon of oppositions may be useful in this respect (and also the distinction between ‘sum’ and ‘product’ that he draws!). But certainly, in general there are two terms here: ‘hierarchy’ and ‘(parametric) imitation’.
    2. Point: What is the ‘point’ in counterpoint? As I say above, this would likely be the parameter as such, and the rhythmic one as the priority, but I’ll have to think about this some more.
  4. ‘That’s the rub’: François was convinced that my music does not produce tension in the same sense as harmonic counterpoint, and not quite in the sense of modal counterpoint either, since there is neither a harmonic functionality, nor a modal dissonance-treatment. But there is something like tension nonetheless there. For François, he chose the French word ‘frotter’ or ‘frottement’ for this, which is really a matter of things rubbing against each other and producing friction. I think this is a great idea! and I’ll perhaps try to replace my thinking of ‘dissonance’ and ‘tension’ with that of ‘friction’… Even though this latter would be just as super-parametric and emergent (in my approach) as the earlier categories. So I could say that now there are three basic categories of my counterpoint: Heterogeneity (hierarchy), (parametric) imitation, and friction. Importantly there are no 1-to-1 relations between any of these terms and there is no clear (pre-compositional) formula for producing friction of the kind of 3(h)x2(i)=1(f)…
  5. Precedents: François, as is his wont, suggested I try to find precedents for my approach in earlier (pre-‘contemporary’, i.e. pre-WWII) composers. He suggested that Bruckner and Mussorgsky, as well as the futurist Mosolov might be interesting places to look to find these precedents. I suggested that it would be difficult to find earlier precedents than that because the sonic resources available didn’t permit such a degree of heterogeneity. This may well be true to a degree, but it is also very true that I do find some degree of precedence in the Petronian motets (with the clear trifold stratification) as well as in Ockeghem and others. (Closer to now again, Ives and Mahler…)