Lessons from hearing ‘Si el clima’ live

Almost two weeks ago now, Alex Raineri gave a recital of works for solo piano and ‘fixed media’. As part of that he premiered a new version of my Si el clima fuera un banco that we collaborated on, with Alex pre-recording the tape piano parts, rather than them being samples. The tape part was also spatialised. Alex obviously did a wonderful job, and I thought the piece came across relatively well, but there are a number of things that I think require some reflection. Despite the fact that Alex had performed this a number of times already, this was actually the first time I heard it live. Unfortunately I had an extremely brutal cold, and was on the verge of coughing or sneezing the whole time. Hopefully that didn’t affect my perception too much.

The first aspect that struck me about the work was the essential negativity of the materials and the approach to counterpoint. Particularly the materials in the opening section and the penultimate section – these are quite haphazard and lacking clear purpose. This is of course a symptom of my undeveloped thinking at the time of the piece, where ‘character’ of each group was quite intuitively determined (which is not to say that it wasn’t determined in the precompositional period), rather than thought through clearly in terms of shared or private parameters.

But the most important issue concerns the relationship between the tape and the live piano. The actual form that the work took on this front was the result of a number of practical decisions that had to be taken due to an error on my part regarding the degree of possible complexity of the live part. Originally, four separate lines were to be performed by the live pianist, while another musical element (temporally, timbrally, and intonationally different from the live component) was to take place. This was not possible for two reasons: firstly, I realised that the 4-line counterpoint (plus the spoken text I intended to write in) was going to become far too aurally complex to preserve any meaningful contrapuntal dimension, and secondly, a human performer would need 3 months alone with a piano, a masseur, and a meditation guru in a cabin in the woods to be able to perform all 4 lines themselves. So, the four lines were split between the performer and the tape part.

This contributed to the essentially ‘haphazard’ and ‘negative’ (I’m using that term to mean essentially ‘aconceptual’) nature of the counterpoint. In this case it was that there was no essential logic in the deployment of lines between the live and the tape spheres (likewise for the tape spatialisation, which was done quite intuitively and rudimentarily). But this might be acceptable within a certain more ‘local’ and less ‘global’ focus of counterpoint (and a paradigm that sees the global dimension more as ‘drama’ than as ‘logic’) – what remains problematic is a fundamental mistake in the thought of the piece: the essential indeterminacy of the timbral relationship between the live and recorded piano. My supervisor Gerardo pointed this out to me after the performance, and it was quite obvious from the performance. In this instance, the live piano had a very bright and almost brittle sound, whereas the piano we recorded the tape part on was very mellow and dark. What this meant was that the counterpoint felt weak, since it was originally conceived as taking place on the same piano, the counterpoint in this piece really relied on close timbral proximity to intensify the feeling of difference in the other aspects of the lines. The tension embedded in the lines was largely lost because there was no feeling of timbral/spatial contact between them. This would not have been a problem had this non-contact been taken into the founding conception of the work, and there was a much clearer differentiation between the type of material in the live and that in the tape (where, for example, two quite independent sonic discourses unfolded largely independently, or where there was a more obvious ‘foreground’ and ‘background’, and so on).

The other major lesson regarded the use of spoken texts. In the original conception of the work, the idea that the four voices would speak simultaneously was an attempt to create an analogous structure to that of the 4-line counterpoint of the piano part. In retrospect this was a poorly thought through idea. I’m not unhappy with the presence of the voices, with their enigmatic content, in the work. The simultaneous moments, however, are not particularly effective. My hope in this case was that the spatialisation of the four voices would allow a greater degree of intelligibility of each one in the sea of information. While this might be true (the setup at the concert was not exactly ideal, but was enough to give something of a picture of what it would be like), it was not enough differentiation to cover the extreme information overload, which collapses a counterpoint of independent parts into a general texture. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: firstly, whereas the musical elements on the piano can be clearly distinguished in register, rhythm, pitch and so on, the voices are all far too similar in these parameters. This means that their tendency to merge into a sonic block is greater. Additionally, the fact that they were all complex in terms of their syntax and their signification further enhances this tendency towards the dissolution of their individual identities (to make an obvious point: if each of the voices only had three words unique to itself that it repeated over and over again, the stratification of the overall texture would be far greater).

None of this means that I’m not still happy with the piece for what it is, or that I would change anything – the piece is what it is – but these are definite lessons for me in terms of thinking counterpoint with spatial, electronic, and textual resources.