Hi-fi and low-fi counterpoint

Reading this interesting new book by Melbourne sound artist Jordan Lacey – which I’ll write about a bit more soon. I came across the concept of ‘hi-fi’ and ‘low-fi’ soundscapes as conceived of in the field of acoustic ecology. Here’s the definition of the distinction by Barry Truax:

Situations where signal detection is difficult or impossible may be termed ‘lo-fi’ environments, by analogy to electroacoustic signals of poor quality, high noise, and distortion. The complementary situation, the ‘hi-fi’ environment, is one in which all sounds may be heard clearly, with whatever detail and spatial orientation they may have. Such an environment  is, by definition, balanced and well ‘designed’. (Truax, quoted in Lacey, 2016, p. 36)

I think this is a nice distinction for thinking about contrapuntal construction even in traditional concert music settings. Certain parameters affect this dimension more than others: spatial separation on stage, register, and timbre in particular, but just about all other parameters can contribute to whether the counterpoint is ‘hi-fi’ or ‘low-fi’ (that is, whether you can neatly distinguish sonic ‘lines’ or whether they are confused and blurred). The opening of my a new day in the desert is definitely more of a ‘low-fi’ kind of construction, as are the rapid sections of Si el clima, whereas the ‘feudal’ sections of that work, and most of braneworlds, are considerably more ‘hi-fi’. These days I lean towards hi-fi constructions, and I feel they are the basis of contrapuntal thinking, because (as a rational method of construction) they distinguish between sonic objects and therefore a clear logic of interrelation can be established. On the other hand, low-fi situations are also very relevant to contrapuntal logic, insofar as they may result from a bringing closer together (in the topological sense) of musical objects and rendering indistinct previously established (in the logical, and not necessarily temporal/formal, sense) musical identities. It’s an important textural dimension to explore, with strong affective implications.

This also points to the fact that while all parameters are relevant to the determination of identity and difference in a work (and therefore its counterpoint), and all can be structured in this way, parameters are not all equal in their effects and weighting in perception: parameters have different functions on the musical discourse. Parameters are not abstract mathematical quanta, but particular material relations, and as real material things, they different from each other in a qualitative sense. They are also interrelated and mutually interdependent in different ways. This is part of what composing contrapuntally – as I understand it – is about exploring.


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.

Some technical aspects of my quintet ‘a new day in the desert’

I’m having to submit a bunch of stuff for my mid-candidature review for my PhD. Lots of fun, I can assure you. At the very least it forced me to write the piece below, which will be useful to me looking back in a couple of years and thinking to myself “oh god, I was an idiot back then!” More pragmatically, I currently still remember what I did in the piece, and when I have to talk about it in my final submission for my PhD, and my brain is foggy, it’s all here!

Anyway, here’s the draft score, if you like. It hasn’t been performed yet, but Ensemble Fractales plans to perform it in Belgium later this year.


This work is the first piece that I wrote following Quite Early Morning, no. 2. This new piece inaugurates an approach to counterpoint the elaboration of which will be the subject of my final folio and thesis. The change in approach is marked. Where Quite Early Morning, no. 2 was aiming at a marginal polyphony emerging from gestalt ensemble gestures, and was almost entirely intuitively composed (i.e. no pre-compositional planning), this new approach aims at a far more thoroughgoing polyphonic texture, with a high degree of independence between lines, within which relations between lines can be drawn. The latter approach has a heavy degree of pre-compositional planning and a greater degree of complexity at many levels, in order to ensure: the independence of lines over time, their own self-development and internal contradiction, and their interrelation with each other.

Characters/vertical layout of voices

This work deals primarily with the vertical stratification of lines and, once this is established, its progressive easing across the course of the work. To achieve this stratification it attempts to distinctly define each line according to a ‘character’: essentially a bundle of parametric information forming a particular expressive identity. Obviously, in a mixed ensemble such as this, the instrument itself helps give this identity a long-range coherence by maintaining a relatively stable timbral identity over time. But beyond this initial identity, the registral placement of each instrument-line is very important for keeping each line perceptually distinct. In the opening of this work, the violin sits well above the rest of the ensemble, the cello is in the middle register, shadowed partly by the flute. On the other hand, the piano and the bass clarinet play across their entire registers, destabilising any simple vertical stratification.

Metric functions

One particular way to help define the different characters of the lines is to give each of them a different relationship to the global metre. I discuss this approach in my recent conference papers, so I won’t describe it in detail here. This is the basic arrangement at the beginning of the work:

Bass flute: Extra-metrically determined. Additive structures based on demi-semi-quaver durations.

Bass clarinet: Metrically determined. Measures are cut into unequal halves (generally ‘short-long’) that are then turned into the basis of a sequence of tuplets.

Violin: Metrically determined. Sequence of tuplets using entire bars as denominators

Cello: Outlining metre. Articulating a series of groupings (of 3 or 2 semiquavers) within each metre.

Piano line 1: Extra-metrically determined. In part it is a rhythmic diminution of the cello line.

Piano line 2: Metrically determined. Measures are divided into one or two parts, which form the denominator for a sequence of tuplets.

This is the opening relationship. These different metric functions, along with other characteristics, are increasingly shared between voices as the work progresses.

The global metric construction is based on repeating sequence of three different metric progressions, each of which begins by alternating between long and short bar-lengths and ends with repeated bar-lengths of 4 or 6 semiquavers. The idea, as outlined in my conference paper ‘The ideology of polyphonic time’, is to have a global metric structure that has its own trajectory and has an impact on the individual lines themselves. This is something I am developing in current pieces, and is somewhat undeveloped in this work.

Rhythmic processes

On top of the relationship of the individual lines to the metre, each line is given a particular set of rhythmic processes, potentially including phrase lengths, tuplet numerators (e.g. violin), number of notes in a gesture (e.g. clarinet), a deletion filter (e.g. violin), additive sequences in equal subdivisions (e.g. bass flute).

These give the basic rhythmic ‘tendency’ of the line: e.g. whether it is speeding up or slowing down, whether it is becoming more or less sparse, whether the gestures are growing shorter or longing.

Globally, the phrase lengths of each of the lines are slowly contracting across the course of the first major formal section, until there is a rapid staggering of entries from bar 51.

Interval structures/processes

For each line, I construct a particular process of melodic descent/ascent. Each process tends to have at its core a general descent or a general ascent, but over the top of this is added other numeric processes to give the line more shape on the local level:

Intervals: repeated notes
Ascending 3 0.5 2.5 1 2 1.5 2 1 2.5 0.5 3 0.5
Descending 0.5 0.5 1 0.5 1 1.5 0.5 1 1.5 2 0.5 1
Aux addition 0 0.5 1 0 0.5 1 0 0.5 1 0 0.5 1
Result 2.5 0.5 2.5 0.5 1.5 1 1.5 0.5 2 -1.5 3 0.5

(Where ‘1’ equals an ascending semitone, ‘0.5’ an ascending quartertone, ‘-1’ a descending semitone, and ‘-0.5’ a descending quartertone)

In this example (taken from the precomposition of the violon part), there is a repeated sequence of ten numbers in palindrome 3,0.5,2.5,1,2,1,2.5,0.5. Added to this is a repeated sequence of three numbers: 0,0.5,1. Set against this, a process of growing subtraction 0.5 – 0.5,1 – 0.5,1,1.5 – 0.5,1,1.5,2 – etc. This produces a long-range interval sequence that begins by ascending, and gradually turns into a descending line. Yet due to the layers in the formation of this sequence, this basic logic (ascending/descending) is partially obscured by local level twists and turns.

I discuss this idea in a blog post of October 14, 2015.[1] In this post I called it ‘complex motion’, since each line of the polyphonic discourse itself moves in a variety of directions almost simultaneously, adding up to an “interesting set of ever-shifting relations between linear directions”.

As opposed to earlier, more intuitive, works, this approach allows for the control of the long-range trajectory of a line, without resorting to a simple uni-directionality.

In the highly stratified section of ‘desert’, there is no precompositionally conceived global harmonic framework guiding the voices, as one would find in traditional counterpoint. This question of harmony is something that I am exploring in current and future pieces, and is treated in only a very rudimentary way in this piece (see below: ‘Global form’).

Other parametric processes

Each line also tends to have further parameters that are turned into processes in order to strengthen each line’s identity as well as to provide a greater sense of trajectory and development within each character. These other parametric processes usually concern the overlayering or intervention of particular playing techniques on the various instruments: left-hand tapping, harmonics, pizzicato, trills, piano clusters, and so on. Each of these is layered in according to its own complex process akin to the one above for violin pitches.

Unanticipated connections

With this heavily stratified discourse set up, it is inevitable that, in the compositional process, I will begin to perceive ‘emergent’ connections between lines that were unanticipated during the precompositional phase. These could be, for example, rhythmic unisons, phrases beginning or ending at the same time, obvious pitch relations (unisons or octaves being the most obvious), or similar melodic motion (both lines ascending or descending).

As I mentioned in my October 14 blog post, many parameters in the composition are left undetermined so that they can be used to highlight or disguise these emergent links between voices:

A number of parameters (such as dynamics and articulation/playing technique) are left open, which allows me to make the line relate to other events taking place in the texture once I’ve begun to write them all in and seeing what possible relations emerge. (At this stage this is one of the primary means by which I’m creating some form of ‘drama’ in the work…).

Similarly, I was willing also to ignore the precompositional processes if they were leading to undesired outcomes, or if I wanted to create new links between parts: e.g. create rhythmic unisons where precompositionally there were none.

Global form (as contrapuntal function)

Apart from the spontaneous, unanticipated connections between lines, I decided on global formal processes that cut against this stratification and put common constraints on the direction of the lines. In this sense, global form is not something separate from contrapuntal or polyphonic ‘material’ that could be just as well filled by some other kind of material, but instead is a function of counterpoint, one way in which the independence of the lines is mediated by a global common concern.

As part of its fundamental conception, the work alternates between total stratification (tempo quaver=75) and more integrated texture with a looser division of material, more rhythmic unification, and a harmonic structure of I-V7-I-IV-I inspired by the Irish folk song Limerick Lament (tempo quaver=120). This latter is initially indistinct from the other material, but across the course of the work, it slowly becomes more and more itself, increasingly revealing the harmonic progression and slowly undoing the rigid stratification between lines, allowing more sharing of materials between them.

To further shape this across time, I group these alternating sections, of which there are 21 total, into 3 major divisions. These provide points of relative climax and change of general deployment of materials: the first, ending at bar 63, brings to a close the overall development of the highly stratified first section; this is followed by a section that alternates between different groupings of the quintet, accompanied by sustained notes, building up to a climax at bar 105, with sustained notes in all instruments. After an insertion of quite different material, this section is characterised by an extreme difference between the two tempo sections, alternating highly stratified full ensemble textures with more fluid textures comprising smaller groupings of instruments.

The insertion occurs twice. Initially it enters between bars 35-56 (within the first major formal section) and is taken up only by piano and bass clarinet, while the flute, violin and cello continue their prior materials; the next time it returns, beginning in bar 109, all the instruments of the ensemble join in this material, slowly transforming and generally slowing down until the earlier materials returns at bar 145.

Navigating these three, non-synchronised precompositional structures (and their concomitant processes) gives the developing polyphonic discourse its particular global shape, which is not fully identifiable with any one of these layers, but with their interaction.

The non-synchronisation of these formal points gives passages unexpected directions. For instance, the second intervention finishes at bar 144 and the original material of the work returns at bar 145, but since there is a tempo change three bars later, this ‘restatement’ of materials is (from the listeners’ standpoint) unexpectedly cut off, moving immediately into smaller groupings of voices.

The compositional process in this sense is not unlike an elaborate obstacle course for five lines. I set up several (moving) obstacles, and then the concrete compositional process is getting through them in relation to the developmental logic of each individual line.

[1] https://usageandcontinuation.com/2014/10/14/a-new-day-in-the-desert-music-in-complex-motion/

Notes on lessons at Impuls 2015

Readers, if you exist. Most of my posts are really kind of ‘notes to self’ more than anything. It is particularly the case with this post. Nonetheless, perhaps some of you get some weird pleasure out of reading this stuff… And I’m totally cool with that.

Here are some thoughts coming out of lessons I had at Impuls Academy in Graz earlier this month – with Klaus Lang, Isabel Mundry, and Richard Barrett. They were all useful, and I’m glad I made it there…

Lesson with Klaus Lang

I showed Klaus Lang the score of a new day in the desert, and we had a chat about it. He’s a nice fellow. Here’s some things that came up in the discussion:

Every group of instruments has a spontaneous hierarchy. This is to say that certain instruments are more naturally grouped together than others; certain instruments dominate or protrude in certain registers; certain instruments have a greater ability to blend with certain other instruments, etc. For instance in the ‘pierrot’ ensemble the flute and clarinet relate closely, but not as closely as the violin and cello do to each other; the identity of the bass clarinet is not as stable as the bass flute, since its timbre changes dramatically across registers; the piano, when played with pedal, has the potential to negate the individuality of the other instruments; and so on. This kind of complex hierarchy (kind of like a really complicated ‘paper-scissors-rock’ game) should be taken as a starting point of any polyphonic instrumental work.

In this sense the opening texture of desert may have some imbalances. The bass flute, which is consistently in a low register will likely be buried. Of course, I was aware of this, that why I wrote it that way, but perhaps it’s too buried in the sense that it won’t be heard at all, rather than being heard as ‘buried by everything’. We’ll see… The pedalling on the piano as well may be a problem. And in fact it might be best to delete all the pedal markings and leave it up to the pianist to have a dry but legato texture. The clarinet, running across its entire register will have vast changes of timbre, which

The other major thing we discussed was the idea of ‘character’. What came out of the discussion is that there’s a kind of logical inconsistency with regard to my character markings. On the one hand, I’m really keen to have an almost baroque unity of affect for a line across a long period (part of my anti-romantic emphasis on ‘stickin-to-it-ness’) and perhaps even use that as a structural device, a way of differentiating lines and sections from one another; but on the other hand, I also use character indications as spontaneous responses to the material I compose on the micro-level – indications that are much more romantic and subjective. Perhaps I don’t need to choose between these approaches, but instead simply ‘parametrise’ the character aspect further. That is, perhaps I should plan out the rate of change of characters, or even think about how certain characters inhere in other characters, and so there could be networks of characters or affects that could be deployed as one line of the structuration of materials. Would this still leave room for spontaneous gestural characters to emerge across the work? I don’t see why not, but this emergence would be much more conscious.

Lesson with Isabel Mundry

I also showed Mundry my score for desert. She was quite technical to begin with, noticing a bunch of errors of notation, and suggesting some technical issues – things that may not work on these instruments. These are things that I think will in any case come out in rehearsals with Fractales. Anyway, we got into some more interesting discussion shortly thereafter. The main thing we focussed on was the issue of polyphony (or counterpoint in my terminology): that is, the issue of vertical relations between horizontal lines.

To Mundry’s eyes, my desert (at least its opening section) is not really ‘polyphonic’ (in my terms, contrapuntal). That is to say, it is totally stratified, and the individual lines are not in tension with some vertical determination. She has a point: while of course there is always some vertical concerns that the lines have to take account of, nonetheless, in this instance, these are quite few, and more or less emerge from the presence of multiple lines, rather than a regulating overall discourse. “They need a context for their difference.” That is, they need to relate more so that their difference is rendered determinate. By this, really, Mundry was thinking of harmony.

She made the point that harmony can’t really be thought in a totally abstract way. It should be a sensible thing. Just working with all-interval sets, etc can lead to a greying out of the vertical dimension. And, in the case of Boulez, the kind of abstract harmonies he comes up with (and their deployment over long time periods as well as their permutation) means that the polyphony turns into ornament, since it loses internal tension.

She suggested thinking about harmonic progression and harmonic rhythm. Points where harmonies must sound and then the spaces between these points where the lines are more free. This could stand as a replacement for consonance-dissonance relationship. I’ve had similar thoughts in the past, and I think I will attempt something like this soon. Mundry has her own system for harmony: one that she freely chooses from, and one which she deploys in a near-spontaneous way during composing (that is, she doesn’t lay out an entire abstract harmonic ‘frame’ for the work before composing it, and then fill it in). It was based on set-theory permutations, but is highly subjective in its application. To me, Mundry’s is a far too abstract harmonic approach and leads to a kind of conservative aspect to her pitch material.

In general I think it would be a mistake to come up with a single, abstract approach to harmony. I think there would be a danger of regressive systematisation in this. I’m interested in thinking about how harmonic systems might emerge from the concept and materials of the work, whether this be a harmonic system being derived from a particular folk song or performance, or from the specific potentialities of the instruments involved (something that Richard Barrett tends to do). Perhaps rather than the ‘what’ of harmonies, the ‘how’ of harmonies is something I need to think about: the ‘system’ of their derivation and deployment, rather than of their specific constitution, which can come from a variety of original sources, and not just the maths of 12 or 24 tones.

Mundry also mentioned the idea that perhaps there wasn’t enough of a sense of depth and perspective in my writing. It’s perhaps true that there’s a certain ‘flatness’ to my counterpoint, and maybe one of the parameters I could work with in defining lines in a polyphonic discourse is that of space (or the illusion of space). This often requires multiple lines to be seen as a kind of unity, where one line is the ‘shadow’ of another. Mundry gave the simple example in her lecture of a line having ‘depth’ when accompanied by a cymbal.

Lesson with Richard Barrett

With Richard, we started by discussing my piece from July last year, QEM2.

Richard asked if I felt in any way ‘conflicted’ about the material of the piece, and I of course answered yes. We reached the conclusion that essentially there is a linear logic and a linear sensibility trying to express itself in the work, but I was trying to disguise that behind less conventional sounds (as well as a shorter-range gesturality). What this meant was that I was, in a sense, simply overlaying ‘extended techniques’ as ornamentation and as negation, which gave this great feeling of constraint to the overall discourse. Richard suggested that, say a,b,c were more or less conventional sounds, and x,y,z were the more or less noisy extended techniques, what I could aim to do is try to find all the letters in between and have a spectrum from the ‘pure tone’ to the noisy sounds. What this would mean is that I could construct linearities through this spectrum, rather than oscillating between both sides of it. He mentioned Finnissy’s technique of creating whole lines out of nothing but trills, which instead of being mere ornamentation are in fact constitutive of the line. (Perhaps the clearest example of this kind of ‘extended linearity’ or whatever you want to call it is Barrett’s own vale for solo flute).

This in a way contrasts with the approach I have taken in desert, which simply parametrises and rationalises the ornamental approach of QEM2: the ‘extended techniques’ are deployed as interruptions or contortions of the basic line according to processes.

I would be interested to think of how the two approaches could be synthesised. For instance, if one had more of a spectrum from a -> h of ways of producing the sound that went from standard tone to something quite noisy, untempered, etc, a line could be constructed where the material moves between them according to some kind of process, and this process could itself be constitutive of the identity and the directionality of the line. Something to think about.

The basic point though, with regard to materials, was to ‘get rid of the tightrope’ of linearity vs. extended techniques/gesturality whereby each is an attempt to avoid a too positive statement of the other. Gotta get away from the negative determination of material and get to a positive one.

Then we spoke about my more recent piece a new day in the desert. He noted that in the opening texture there was the danger of an entropic effect taking place and the complexity of the stratification potentially getting lost in a merely dense texture.

He noted that in this sort of polyphonic music composing registral relations has to become one of the fundamental structural concerns of the piece. Something that I hadn’t really put so clearly to myself in the past, even if I was aware of this idea. He also added – and this is a fucking cool idea, linking the practice of counterpoint to that of orchestration in a really concrete way – that the overtone structures of instruments should be taken into account. Some overtones on particular instruments are particularly prominent, which means that while you have an instrument playing in a certain low register, it might also be occupying some space, say, an octave and a fifth away from that. Which means if you then go to write a line within that higher space, you will get a kind of conflict or relation between this partial and the new line. For clarity of stratification, one could try to avoid this, but the overlapping can also be exploited as a contrapuntal idea unto itself.

Finally, and this relates to the earlier point about materials, we spoke about the ‘folky’ element in my materials in desert. Evidently I’m aiming for some degree of ‘rawness’ (what I sometimes call ‘folk complexity’) in the playing style of the instruments. It’s not supposed to be ultra-clean. Richard suggested I think about how to make this idea immanent to the notation. A good example of this the bass clarinet part in the last few bars of the piece which are quartertones in the low register of the instrument – for which there are no fingerings. This means that the performer will have to kind of lip them, which will mean that the timbre of the line is constantly in flux. In the score as it stands there is no indication as to what to do about this. Is the timbral fluctuation a problem to overcome, or is it part of the aesthetic constitution of the material? It is of course the latter, but I need to make a note to the performer in that case, to say that this is what I want. Moreover, in future, the question is how to make this apparent in the notation itself, note just in external notes… This would require, from the outset of a composition, going into much more depth about the relationship between the instrumental particularities and possibilities and the linear content.

Reflections after completing ‘desert’

A few days ago I finished a short piece for quintet called a new day in the desert. (Have a look at the score here if you like). Ensemble Fractales here in Belgium will begin rehearsing it here soon, and so I’ll no doubt have more reflections on it as that process get underway. But for now, just some thoughts looking at the completed score (ok, it needs a little bit of editing, and proofreading…).

Line and gesture. I feel like this new work does well to begin resolving the problem that I found in QEM2, that of a meaningless play of short-range gesture. The long-range processes I set up have given lines in desert a feeling of their own unfolding, not caught up in attempts to immediately please the audience. This allows for a far great polyphony. It makes me realise that the Ivesian ‘poly-temporality’ idea is more important to me now than before. It was funny, when completing the piece, I had a lot of dynamic shaping left to fill in, which took a bloody long time (in complete contrast to my method in QEM2, where I wrote dynamics as I wrote the notes). As I went through, I realised there were large passages where I didn’t want much dynamic shaping, or the whole section was shaped by a continuous crescendo, for instance, and I felt really uncomfortable about this (and I probably put too much dynamic information in to make the score ‘look right’). Perhaps I was looking at too many Ferneyhough scores and thinking that that’s how it should be done. Maybe I should have been looking at Finnissy scores instead, who seems quite comfortable to have minimal dynamic information (which goes hand in hand with his approach to lines). I think this is an important shift towards counterpoint, insofar as it strengthens linear identities which, having been separated (the polyphonic aspect), can consciously be relinked (the contrapuntal aspect).

Metre and rhythm. One thing that I think I’m happy with (at least at what it points to) is the approach I have to meter and rhythm in the work. In this there are 3 basic functions that different lines can take up (within which there can be of course a lot of different approaches and results). Firstly is the ‘metre-defining’ function (played by the cello for much of this piece), which in general outlines the basic groupings of the bar (e.g. 8/8 is 3, 3, 2, or 3,2,3 or whatever). Secondly is the ‘metre-determined’ function, in which the speed of the material is always in reference to the length of the measure (so the whole bar could be a tuplet, as in the violin at the start, or the bar could be broken into to more or less equal parts which are then subject to tuplets). This could also apply to density of material, although that’s not something I worked on in this piece (see Ferneyhough collected writing, p. 278). The third basic function is the ‘cross-metre’ function, where the line is grouped in basic pulses (16ths or 32nd notes) in a way that disregards the bar lengths and cuts across them (e.g. the flute at the start of the piece). (This could have tuplets itself and tuplets, in particular, which cross bars, yet I avoided this in this latest piece because I was worried that this might subtract from playability. I’ll probably explore this in the next pieces). One could think of other variants, for instance lines that take their structuration from set of two or three bars at a time (having one tuplet across that time).

In general what this should allow for is that a work could be unconducted, despite the complexity and intricacy of the rhythmic information, since the metre is always present – yet nonetheless, it also allows for a high degree of independence between lines.

What I feel needs to be developed is the thinking through of bar lengths as a structural device and how this will impact both the material and the psychology of the performers, not to mention the counterpoint. All my bars are within about 3 and 10 16ths (in a certain pattern that I dreamed up), and it’s rare that there is, for instance, a relatively stable metre which gets disrupted by super short bar lengths, or a really noticeable movement from short to long bar lengths and so on. These strategies will be worth looking at in future pieces – a foregrounding of metre (which can be then undermined to a greater or lesser extent by privileging different approaches to metre). I’m also keen to try more extremes of regularity and irregularity of basic pulse in the different lines.

Tempo-wise, I’m not sure what to say at this point. I think I’ll have to listen to the piece. The structural use of the two tempos as a ‘filter’ of material might be effective in a sense, although there’s a sense in which I may have been a little too indifferent towards the effect that tempo has on the materials. This may mean that in some places the tempo won’t feel right… We’ll see. The other issue is then that without more shifts in tempo, the work might be boring, and too ‘samey’. This latter I’m less concerned about, since the goal with this piece was to break with the overly fluttery approach in my last piece.

Parametric counterpoint/identity/DOL. This aspect of the work is I think a little underdeveloped and in my next piece I’ll aim to be more systematic and thorough in thinking through how this will be deployed across the work. In the =75 sections, the parametric identity sharing/swapping really was either intuitively imposed on previously undetermined parameters (a technique that I enjoy quite a lot), or it came about by chance due to the internal development of the individual line (e.g. as the durations of the flute part begin to shrink, it begins to resemble other lines). In the =120 sections, the sharing of identities often comes as a simple swapping of voices (e.g. flute takes the previous cello material), or (in the clarinet part at the end) an intuitive mixing of a variety of elements from different lines so as to create a rather generic line.

In general as well, I think that the initial identities of the individual lines could have been more thoroughly thought through. On the other hand I’m increasingly clear on my character markings, and happy with the sorts of characters that I’m portraying. It’s probably worth going much much further in this direction in the next piece to see how important character indications are to my aesthetic.

Finally, Abstract and concrete material. This piece contains for the first time in my composing for quite a while, references to styles outside of Modernism. There are a couple ways that such materials enter: the use of I-IV-V chords in the =120 (increasingly apparent across the work), the quotation of particular songs (Limerick’s Lament, Joe Hill, Solidarity Forever) and the use of the basic rhythms of political chants (“What’s outrageous? Sweatshop wages!” and “The workers, united, will never be defeated!”). Of course none are intended to be treated as ‘found objects’, but rather as processes and ‘lines of force’ unto themselves, strengthening the polyphony in the case of the melodies, and providing a different way of relating lines, in the case of the tonal harmonies. There’s much too much to say about this with regard to abstraction, commodification, form, content, social relations and political consciousness, ‘folk’ and so on. It needs another post. My key interest is in thinking how these different materials which appear as ‘content’ in the ‘form’ of my contrapuntal approach themselves function as form, and how their functioning as form and content is closely related…