braneworlds reflections, part 2

On the whole, I’m very happy with how braneworlds turned out, especially considering I didn’t have a score for the piece and so couldn’t be sure how everything would sound together. It’s certainly my best constructed and most self-defining piece to date. I won’t go through blow-by-blow about all the minutiae that needs changing, but instead draw some broad brushstrokes about my fairly immediate response from having heard the recording of a rehearsal.

Firstly, the scope of the work. I found the various dimension of the work pretty effective. I feel that the space between the 24-tone series and its microtonal underblown variations and the sequence of major and minor triads was well explored. On first listening, I feel it gave the work a drama and saved it from the danger of a modernist homogeneity of the harmonic plane. I also feel that despite how cinematic and potentially kitch the section where the guitar and piano lock into the chord-sequence could be seen, it is quite compositionally justified (since it is present in a lesser degree in almost all sections) and is not some kind of post-modern ironic gesture.

Similarly the rhythmic stratification was quite effective, I feel. The work had passages of total rhythmic independence between the four groups, passages where one group was pitted against three, and sections where two groups unified against two. I think this ensured that the work pushed itself to imaginative leaps and the textures were often quite novel and rarely felt dull or monotonous.

One thing that could be said is that the work could have done with foregrounding the different tempos a little more. When each group is playing different pitch, registral, and gestural material, and they all have fairly complex rhythms, the fact that they are all playing in different tempos is somewhat less perceptible. Instead it sounds like a lot of difficult new music – an effect that could be achieved with everyone in the same tempo. So a few more Nancarrow-esque moments, where material with a high-level of self-identity (fairly simple and repetitive) is stacked upon itself in different groups and different tempos, would be good in future pieces that try this approach.

One thing I meticulously did in this piece was to make sure almost every possible solo, duo, trio and quartet had a section in the work, and that aspect was planned out in advance. I felt previous works, such as a new day in the desert and Kampflieder, dealt with this very basic aspect of textural density in an inadequate way. While I was worried that braneworlds would be too all over the place with all the different combinations taking a turn, upon listening it doesn’t seem to me to be particularly incoherent, in fact I think it again pushes the work to a more imaginative space and a constant reinvention of itself.

In terms of pacing… In the Kupkacast before the gig, I said I was worried that it would appear that the work is just bashing through 23 different ideas, and in a previous post I said I was worried that the sections weren’t long enough. Firstly, it’s true that in general sections abruptly begin and end, but I’m not actually too worried – I feel there’s enough transitional moments worked in to make it not seem too much like a montage. And secondly, while it’s true the sections could all easily be longer, I feel in the recording that they are sufficiently differentiated in length that it doesn’t sound flat and monotonous. The middle section where the long section of Group II and III transitions into an even longer duet between Group I and the piano contrasts really nicely with the final minute or two, where a sequence of distinct and short sections kind of keep interrupting each other.

Perhaps the elements that might tend towards overkill are balanced out by the strictness of the constraints placed upon the materials of each of the groups. For instance, the piano and clarinet only play notes from a sequence of triads, the guitar and cello only play crescendos and are only ever located in the low register. Perhaps this is what my friend Peter Clark meant when he said after the gig that braneworlds is actually quite restrained.

In general I think the clarity of the textures themselves is pretty well handled. There are passages where the groups blur into each other, and others where they are more stratified. I’ll have to listen to this aspect a little more, and decide how I feel about it, but my feeling listening to this is not so much being in two places at once, but of being in a single incongruent place, a place which feels fractured and requires thinking about how these different things belong in the same place. There are definitely sections (I’m thinking the duo between Group II and III) where timbral, registral, and spatial similarity cancel out the independent rhythmic and harmonic logics, rendering the result somewhat awkward: it feels like a harmonic unity of sorts, and a near gestural unity, but with a lack of unison. I’m not sure if this feeling of ambiguity in the counterpoint of this particular section is such a bad thing in the context of the work, where there are sections of much clearer relationships between parts in the texture. However, it might be made more compelling by aiming for much clearer and more exaggerated dynamic contours in performance, for example. (A similar problem emerges in the flute duo section, which I’ll have to return to to see how to make it have a stronger idea).

In general, probably more could be done to reach extremes of textural stratification. Something to attempt in the next piece of this kind.

There were a couple of compositional elements that were quite fraught. In particular the flute writing, dealing mostly with underblowing from a sequence of quite high quartertones, is problematic. The difficulties are several: 1) the passages are often too fast for the fragile underblown notes to speak properly in time; 2) the fingering sequence itself is a bit clunky and often requires a bit of ‘cheating’ to make work; 3) the underblown notes are often too soft and get lost in the texture; and 4) the dynamics I want for the 4th register stuff is just not possible. All of these have solutions, and I’m already working to change some of these passages, sacrificing pitch for dynamics and speed for sounding result…

One thing that came up as a problem is that the really trilly passages requiring rhythmic accuracy (mostly group III) are difficult to deliver. It seems like either the quality of the trill or the rhythmic accuracy needs to be sacrificed. While it’s not really in need of correcting in this work, it’s something that is worth bearing in mind in the future, because it has an impact on the ability to really deliver lines with clarity.

There were a number of balance issues both within and between groups. Some of these are will be easily resolved through rehearsal, but others are failures of orchestration, and might need a bit of a rethink in the score.

Group II’s property of constantly decrescendoing doesn’t really register aurally as much as it should, and perhaps needs to be made a little more explicit, although it is naturally there regardless, due to the decay of the percussion.

Another element that comes across only very weakly is my attempt at forging gestural interconnections between groups in different tempos. In a previous post I explained how I used graphic read-outs of the waveforms in Logic of the clicktracks to give me a sequence of points where different groups almost have a downbeat together. I tried to highlight these points of the work by dynamic, articulation, or pitch correspondences. So far this has not really come across in the work, instead the micro-level interactions between groups seem largely random and without significance, or with an ambiguity as to whether they are significant. Again this is not bad in principle, but it would be great to be able to control it further. We will have to try to make these moments more prominent in rehearsals, by better articulation and dynamic contour, but for future pieces, having a clearer idea about how micro-level interactions are structured (or not structured) will be important. Having attended Ben Marks’ The Circular Ruins 3 yesterday, it’s entirely possible to not worry at all about micro-level interactions between groups with distinct material, and simply leave them up to chance. But I personally want at least to be able to control this dimension in a work. This would probably require a more nuanced approach to dividing up the time of a section for each group. Whereas in this composition each group divided a section by a different prime number (thus ensuring no points of coincidence at the start of any bars), and similarity on the temporal plane meant arithmetic proximity of tempo (for example, division by 13 is closer to by 11 than to by 23), a future work could explore density of temporal coincidences, where similarity on the temporal plane would meant proportional proximity (for example, division by 6 is closer to division by 18 than to division by 11).

Anyway, there’s probably much more I could think about, and no doubt more will come up as we go to record the piece, but that’s enough for some initial reflections.