Defining groups in Kampflieder

I had a great lesson with Richard Barrett a few days ago up in The Hague. As always, it was very stimulating, and I came out with renewed energy and a bunch of stuff to work on. As always, he encouraged me to push further my basic ideas, rather than allow my natural desire for compromise to get the better of me.

On that point, Richard suggested that my thinking of counterpoint qua stratification-imitation could be in danger of losing its coherence and intensity if I try to find a classical ‘balance’ between these two elements. The point, in his eyes, at least at this moment, would be to radicalise the contradiction and present it – quite clearly – as a contradiction, which could be formally expressed as a rupture. As with our discussion of ‘tension’ in our last lesson, he firmly suggested I not try to fit my new ideas into old, Romantic poetics such as formal closure. New music is free to pursue whatever thought experiments it wishes, and does not have any historical or heteronomous authority to answer to.

We spoke primarily about my new piece Kampflieder that I began working on earlier this month.

I had already done a bunch of thinking about the basic conception of Kampflieder: there would be 5 groups each with a different number of instrumentalists (that is, groups of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 instrumentalists); these would be heavily stratified and characterised differently; the work would be woven out of transformations of songs from the Spanish Civil War. Beyond that, I had begun characterising these groups and setting up the metric and temporal/formal structure of the work.

Yet Richard impressed upon me the need to deepen and clarify my basic propositions. In particular, what he suggested was to really think through the basic characteristics of the groups and then decide on the instrumentation that could best carry this out. This is not entirely different to what I had already done, but I had gone about it in an unsystematic way, which means I missed opportunities for making the ideas really clear, and for having maximum possible manipulations of these ideas throughout the work.

What Richard suggested was to come up with a list of parameters that could give unity to a group of instrumentalists, then to outline for each one a continuum from 1-5 where 1 is least unified and 5 is most unified. For example, for register, we could say that all instruments in the group would play:

  1. at opposite extremes of entire ensemble range, 6+ octaves (minimum identity)
  2. across 4-5 octaves
  3. across 3 octaves
  4. within 2 octaves
  5. within 1 octave or less (maximum identity)

Now, if a group had a register identity value of 1 (that is, the instruments play across, or at a distance of, 6+ octaves), it would be in need of an identity value of 5 in another parameter to allow for that group to really be perceived as a single ‘group’ – perhaps complete rhythmic identity (rhythmic unison) would be the way to go. If, on the other hand, a group had a register identity value of 5 (that is, all instruments play within the one octave or less), it would be able to have a much lower identity in other parameters and nonetheless retain its cohesion as a group – for example, it could be entirely timbrally heterogeneous.

So, I went about rethinking my basic groups with this in mind. I chose 5 fairly basic parameters that seemed pertinent to what I wanted to focus on. I decided that each group would require both a 1 in just one parameter and a in one other. The other three parameters would be assigned numbers from 2-4 (that is, neither maximal nor minimal identity). Eventually, after much juggling things, I came up with this table:

No. members Register Rhythm Timbre Harmony Melodic contour Instruments
1 3 1 4 5 4 Hn
2 1 5 2 4 3 Vln1, CBsn
3 4 4 1 3 5 Perc, Cl(+bscl), Tbn.
4 2 2 5 3 1 Vln1, Vln2, Vla, Vc
5 5 3 2 1 3 A.Fl, Cor A., Tpt, Cb, Tba

Naturally, there wasn’t a simple linear process from deciding on number to deciding on instrumentation. Possible instrumental combinations arrived in my imagination as I laid out numbers, and when I put in possible instrumentations, I had to rejig the numbers, and so on.

So, for example, group 2 is maximally rhythmically unified but minimally registrally unified – with a high degree of harmonic unity, a low degree of timbral unity, and a medium degree of unity of melodic contour. This is expressed by a contrabassoon playing in its low register, and a violin playing in its absolute upper register.

Or another example, group 5 is maximally registrally unified, which allows it to have a minimal degree of harmonic unity (which is to say it will be very polytonal within itself) and to have a very low degree of timbral unity. This is expressed by an alto flute, cor anglais, and trumpet all playing in their lowest register, and a contrabass and a tuba playing in their uppermost register.

What I like is how this process has lead me to find ways of uniting, for instance, a contrabassoon and a shrieking-high violin, or finding ways of making a timbrally homogeneous bloc (group 4: a string quartet) have enough internal heterogeneity to make it interesting.

Groups 1 (solo) and 3 (with percussion) have their own peculiarities and would perhaps need their own blog post each, but the basic thinking behind the constitution of the groups should be clear.

From here there is also the question of how each group will develop, and how the overall work will develop. Logically, this will involve manipulations (or complete inversions!) of the identity-degrees of the various parameters in each group, imitation of various parameters across groups, and then of course degrees of self-identity of the songs that form the basic materials of the work. Hopefully I’ll have time to write all this up too.

Lest anyone think this is all academic, it’s worth confessing that indeed none of this formal thinking is self-justifying. The use of thinking in these terms is to provoke me to go beyond my intuitions, beyond what one is ‘supposed’ to do in a composition, and to stop me from compromising (too much) on this vision. The goal is a maximum possible friction in the work, maximum intensity of expression of each group, maximum expression of their possible interrelation, and a maximum impact for the Spanish war songs. More on this too, at some point…