Listening to a new day in the desert

On Tuesday night Kupka’s Piano premiered my piece from last year a new day in the desert as part of the ‘Harrison’s Axe’ concert at the Judith Wright Centre. The musicians did a really great job and I’m quite happy with the result.

I’ve just uploaded a recording and the score if you’re interested.

I’ll try to post a couple basic reflections about what I heard in the piece and how it related to my intentions in composing it, and my concerns about the work after looking at the score upon completion.

Stratification. One thing that is evident from the listening to the piece, but of which I was only partially aware while writing it, is that since the cello has harmonics embedded in its line (and therefore jumps several octaves several times per phrase), and because the clarinet splits its time between very low ascending lines and very high descending lines, and because the piano jumps register very much – because of all of this, the textures within the work that we conceived of as highly stratified are in fact highly unified, since they have a kind of mosaic structure of interlocking linear fragments. And yet, I think there is still preserved a degree of independence between them, however relative.

Density/texture. Not long after I finished writing the piece, I became quite concerned that I had gone overboard in the density of the polyphonic textures. A huge percentage of the work is made up of the full quintet playing, often each with very complex and busy material in each line. As it turns out I think the work is actually mostly very transparent and things aren’t at all too cluttered. I think this has a lot to do with the specific parametric characterisation I gave the instruments and the relative registral separation I gave them. Certainly switching the clarinet part from Bass to Bb (and thus up a whole octave) helped. Had we stuck with the bass clarinet I think the whole effect might have been much murkier.

Opening texture, complexity and simplicity. One thing that really strikes me about the piece is the real feeling of a kind of overall ensemble effect in the opening section (0′ to 1’26”) and in other sections of the work. A unity, a cohesion, despite the independent trajectory of each line. There are short breaks within this opening cohesion, particularly the few moments of louder clarinet and piano flourishes, but these are contained within a feeling of a kind of united intent of the ensemble. I guess this is because the dynamics are all very soft, the swells are slow, and the material type stays more or less the same in each instrument. Klaus Lang once said to me in a lesson that in really complex music simple parameters like dynamics ironically become perhaps the most important. This is most obvious in this opening texture where any little crescendi or dynamic shifts that are in common between instruments really draw the ear to the connections between these lines in their other parametric dimensions. Which is really cool. Another very simple aspect that I really like is the fact that every 3rd phrase in the flute is played up in its high register and becomes very audible, as opposed to the rest, which are all in the low register and is quite buried in the texture. This gives the section a kind of Feldman-esque repetitive kaleidoscope-type feeling. In retrospect, this opening texture should last at least three or four minutes, or even much longer. It’s a waste that the piece moves on from it so quickly.

Clarinet and piano first intervention. In retrospect this first intervention at around 1’26” by the piano and clarinet is too crude. Perhaps it is simply that I wrote it for bass clarinet originally, and it would have started in a very extreme register of that instrument, rather than a very comfortable one for the Bb clarinet, but I tend to think it’s something to do with the rhythmic construction itself. While its contrast with the preceding material is one of the most affirmative aspects of the work, it comes across kind of tacky. The other problem is that the other instruments don’t respond. This was, of course the idea, but I think the sonic result is a very unclear one. If the three other instruments somehow unified in opposition to the clarinet and piano, the latter’s material perhaps wouldn’t sound so poor.

Overlayering. Another possible problem with the clarinet and piano intervention is that I structured it as an overlayering of the previous, ongoing process. It is not an interruption. It was structured so that the previous process continued so-to-speak ‘behind’ this material. It didn’t pause the process and pick it up again after the new material finished. When the piano and clarinet wind up their little intervention, the main rhythmic processes of the opening section have considerably progressed. At the heart of these processes is the slow contraction of phrase lengths in each instrument so that increasingly instrument entries are much closer (stretto, in old counterpoint terms), and so that the overall discourse becomes fragmentary. The problem is that, since this process is not made explicit, once the clarinet and piano finish, the material that follows sounds somewhat lacking in purpose – by which I mean, a kind of ‘counterpoint’ is lost since there isn’t a clear dialectic of part and whole.

Clarity/unclarity of ensemble shape. I likewise get the feeling that the section following the short violin solo at 2’40” until the ‘climax’ at 4’00” is lacking in clarity of ensemble shape, although I’m not entirely sure about whether I think this is a major issue, or just part of the overall nature of the piece. Nor am I sure what the solution should be. There’s a sense that for part of it the violin becomes the dominant instrument and the others are accompanimental voices, but that’s not hard-and-fast. And then there’s a bunch of detail I put in for the bars 90-105 (about 3’30” to 4’00”) such as the near-rhythmic unison clarinet and violin-triple-stops that is sort of lost. I wonder if just some adjustments to dynamics in this section would be all that’s needed to give it a bit more cohesion. I suppose what I’m getting at is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear contrapuntal logic to this section. A clearer logic in the dynamic structure (something that’s easy to change at this stage) might be the easiest way to inject a bit more clarity to the roles of each line in the texture.

Folk materials. One genuine ‘failure’ from the standpoint of the original conception of the work is the near-total inaudibility of the folk-derived elements of the piece. One major aspect of the work was the alternation between sections where the lines are very stratified and the pitch material ‘abstract’ and sections where the lines are more ‘organically’ related (which is to say, their phrase structures are planned to coincide in various ways) and the pitch material is derived from the Irish folk song ‘Limerick’s Lamentation’. The idea is that this distinction should become more and more obvious across the course of the work. That simply doesn’t happen. (The major structural features are instead: the interventions of the descending material, the violin solo moments, the breaking up into smaller formations of duos and trios as the piece progresses, and the neutralising of the high degree of individuation of each line towards more shared materials as the work progresses). Why? It’s because I was far too tentative in my deployment of the folk harmonies. Essentially they acted too much as a skeleton upon which I grafted far too many non-chord-tones, and in a very dense and complex environment it becomes indistinguishable from the more abstract type of pitch material. The other part of the folk materials is the quotation of the melody of the ‘Limerick’s Lamentation’ in the piano part. I cannot recognise the tune! Again I was much too hesitant in its deployment. I distort it in too many ways for too long, and so it never really reveals itself. What does happen is the slow emergence of a ‘modal’ or ‘quasi-tonal’ sounding piano line in that section. But it is by no means a ‘folk’ material or a quotation. The effect isn’t actually bad. I think it sounds nice. But it was not the intention!

Click-track. One interesting last point. The whole thing was performed with a click-track. The KP gang found the experience a bit strange I think, but I thought it had a really cool effect. It allowed them all to line up at the front of the stage and not face each other as in a more traditional chamber group, and instead just focus on their parts. There was a degree of precision that came from this, and the interconnections between parts were quite palpable because of this accuracy and this commitment, but they had this effect of occurring randomly, rather than in the intention of the performers. I like this effect.