braneworlds: unanticipated dimensions

Perhaps if you really restricted your materials in a severely minimalist way you could compose in such a way that there would be no unforeseeable gap between your abstract pre-compositional structure, and the structure of the work as it is written into the score.

I say ‘perhaps’, because, in fact, that’s only an asymptotic ideal. Since at least the post-structuralist revolution in thought, we know that it could never in fact happen that when an ‘idea’ is translated from one medium (say, precompositional notes, sketches, diagrams) to another (the score), there would be no gap, no subtraction, and no addition. There could never be an immediate re-presentation.

Ok, nothing special there, that should be obvious to anyone who has done at least one semester of a humanities degree.

The issue becomes hugely amplified, though, when conceiving of musical compositions as ‘worlds’ as I currently do. What that means is that, since exploring the world in question is the goal of the form, there is an overabundance of parameters to structure, and it is impossible to structure all (or even most) possible identity relations that may appear in a work (not least of all since the work itself is open to different performances in different venues with different audiences, which all have an impact on what relations are manifest).

A pre-compositional structure, therefore, will always be something of a hypothesis about the most significant relations that the composer wishes to instantiate.

In braneworlds, I suppose you could say there are three basic relational structures that I hope are audible to the listener:

  1. The relative durations of sections (or ‘moments’) which range from 5.5 seconds through to 130 seconds;
  2. The various combinatorial possibilities of which groups are present in a texture (from solos, duos, trios, and quartets);
  3. The identity determinations of each group against each other along 4 axes, where each group is ‘braned’ on one end of two different axes (as partially explained in this earlier post):
    1. Event density (or tempo) relations: dividing moments according to different prime numbers;
    2. Register relations: from 4th register of the flute, to the low cello C;
    3. Pitch/harmony relations: on one end, the isofingering structure of the flute to a consonant-atonal chord sequence in Group III;
    4. Dynamic contour relations: from repetitive crescendi to repetitive decrescendi.

I’ve tried to pre-compositionally (though I’m often constructing the pre-compositional side as I go along…) sketch out these relations in the abstract. This is what it looks like at this point in the compositional process (still a fair bit to fill in):

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.21.36 PM

That mightn’t make any sense to anyone reading this – and I don’t really have time to go into it in depth now – but I suppose the important point is that it is primarily aimed at giving formal shape to those three major structural dimensions that I’ve just spoken about.

But of course what I’ve found as I’ve been going along is that I’ve had to make all sorts of ad hoc decisions about things not specified in this abstract structure.

For example, general dynamics of each section, surface-level speed (or ‘horizontal density’), whether in general the time is structured in a regular pulsations or is uniform in accelerating or decelerating, or is not uniform across groups, and so on (these are being slowly noted in the ‘other notes’ row in the spreadsheet). Many of these will no doubt play very important roles for the listener in understanding the relations of the work, so it is dangerous that I’m having to structure them in a relatively intuitive way. I hope the fact that I have become conscious of them fairly early in the writing process means that the decisions I make around these parameters will have a musical significance.

There are two aspects in particular I’d like to talk about.

Firstly, there’s that of the ‘memory’ dimension of global form. I wanted the form to be ‘comprehensive’ in the sense of trying to have a section for each possible textural combination, all significant sectional durations between 5.5 seconds to 130 seconds, and as many inter-group identity structures as I could fit. I also wanted it to have a certain rhapsodic quality when it came to the deployment of these over time. So I constructed the framework as it is above. However, once I started composing, I began to realise that nothing in this abstract structure really allows for a significant sense of repetition, recapitulation, call-back. While I’m not interested in accepting any a priori valid forms, I also accept that the music that I enjoy listening to has clever ways of dealing with return of material and formal markers.

So I’ve set about chiseling in some sequences that recur. For instance moments 4-5-6, 12-13-14, and 19-20-21, despite being vastly different in their temporal expansion, each share the characteristic of expanding across the three. They also all move from a three-group texture to a two group texture and finally duo between the flute and one other instrument, not a group. I decided to add that a) they will all diminuendo from one to the next (the first is forte the last piano), b) they will all have an expanding/contracting motion in their respective 2nd and 3rd moments, and c) they will all begin with some common chord (which I haven’t yet written or decided on), which will ‘signal’ that this sequence is commencing. By the final iteration, hopefully all these elements combined have accrued some experiential meaning.

The other recurring element will be a kind of ‘suspended’ texture where the temporal structures are all stratified but all regular, so that a large-scale polyrhythm takes place, with a more pointillist-type material.

The question of whether these elements, within the rhapsodic and complex fabric of the work, become perceptually meaningful. That’s one of the experiments of the work, I suppose.

Moving from the macro-scale to the micro-scale, there are a lot of decisions that I simply need to ‘improvise’ when composing any section, and new relations emerge that I did not anticipate. For instance, in section 8, which I’m currently composing, while it should be a structure in which the characteristics of Group IV dominate, another structural element is emerging, in which groups I and III relate in terms of arpeggiated material, and groups II and IV relate through glissando-material. I felt I had to write this, because the idea popped into my head and I really like its possible sonic result. The hope is that the precompositional structure guarantees a coherence that continues despite the local-level fantasies such as this one.

But one element that I’m finding particularly interesting is the compositional approach of having a click-track written in advance of me composing the materials for each group (in the absence of a full score!). One thing about my earlier piece a new day in the desert that I really enjoyed was the ‘collisions’ of otherwise stratified lines by way of sudden gestural unity (usually to do with dynamics and/or melodic motion). I wanted to develop on that aspect in this piece. What I’ve found is that the graphic representation of the click-tracks in Logic Pro gives my all I need to work out where these gestural collisions will take place, so that I can sculpt the concrete materials in such a way as to highlight this points of coincidence (or near coincidence). Here’s an example of the kind of ‘time plot’ that I make before composing the material for each group:

Moment 14 time plot

This is groups I and III in moment 14 of the work. Each large spike is the start of a bar, which corresponds to a change in ‘event’ (whether that be a change of pitch, as it is in these groups, or dynamic contour, as it is in groups II and IV). The red arrows indicate where bars change in extremely close proximity (sometimes practically rhythmic unison), which I then try to bring out in the score through accents, melodic high-points, crescendi, and so on.

When I began the precompositional structuring of this work, I really did not anticipate the extent to which this aspect would play a fundamental role shaping local material. It means that rather than fully independent strata existing with only abstract, logical identity relations, there is a concrete, local-level moving back-and-forth between proximity and distance. While this points to the ‘gap’ I referred to in my opening paragraph, I don’t feel this undermines the abstract, pre-compositional plan, but complements it, and renders it a living thing.