Further meditations on DRK discussions

Or, how I learned how to stop worrying and smash classicism.

In a very fruitful discussion last night after my presentation of a few works, a collective process of thinking led to the conclusion that what my music is suffering from is an overemphasis on classical harmony. Not in the tonal sense, of course, but in the sense of proportion, of balance.

In all the preceding discussions around my music it was raised that my music is too strict on itself, too self-identical, too limited. The guiding question was “where does something other come from in this music?” Chaya put it nicely when she said that the relationship of something to the other is always a blindspot.

The problem with that discussion was that everything remained abstract and it was an impossible question to answer: “where does something other come from?” – from the same? but how? from the other? but what is that? It led the thinking down the path of relinquishing much of what I have tried to develop – tight control over material, overfullness, inexorability in development, rejection of sound fetishisation – in favour of something more palatable to the modern ear.

It was grounded in a misunderstanding of my music. The critique was that my music suffers from too much self-identity, when in fact it suffers from the exact opposite: a lack of clarity over its purpose and a lack of distinctiveness in the basic disposition of the ideas.

The basis of this is a classical conception of harmony of the elements in the work. This is represented in the balance of register that I write in (low, middle, high), the balance of the length of phrases, the balance of the rhythmic distribution of lines, the balance in the harmonic world (to the point of greyness). I semi-consciously took on this idea of classical harmony in my music in a rejection of psychologism and vulgar expressionism. But the problem is the two are antinomic: neither the classical nor the unmediated expression have anything ‘true’ about them. Through it’s classicism, my music at once gained more of a sense of identity, but also undermined that identity through balance, which made this identity diffuse and indistinct, or simply musically weak.

The Art of Fugue represents something particular in relation to this. The clarity of what it is doing is undeniable, yet at the same time the development of the clear logic of the work drags the listener under at many points and produces a disorienting sensation. The point is not that the fugues are directionless and you descend into their fog, or that they simply represent the concept of ‘disorientation’, nor is it as in Ligeti’s micropolyphony where compounding information reduces to a single if decidedly intricate texture. The point is that the logic of the fugues operate in an overdetermined way that draws you into a space in-between comprehensibility and incomprehensibility. It is a thoroughly mediated disorientation, an overcoming of clarity by means of clarity. So the increased self-identity at a point tips over into non-identity. This goes against the idea of classical ‘balance’ and in this sense Bach is no classical composer. In developing a non-classical, non-Romantic counterpoint, Bach is a good place to start.

So it is clear that what is other to my music must be produced by radicalising its own propositions – pushing for more definition of ideas, through the use of more information in the lines and their development, a greater extremity of the logics at play, and the ability for the logic to integrate more elements.

The philosophic-political dimension of this – its relation to the harmony of the one and the many, and the question of critique – will have to be explored at a future point.

After the session I jotted down the following points:

– Smash classicism – Smash balance – Submerge in logics – More information – Produce irrationality from overdetermined rationality – Extend phrases to the point of incoherence – Not contrast, but clarity – Clarity through extremity – Determinate negation of listening through density – Liminal point between comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, a production of the logical work of lines.

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Meditations on Dian Red Kechil discussions

I’m currently taking part in the Dian Red Kechil young composer’s residency in Singapore with tutors Chaya Czernowin, Peter Edwards, and Steven Tagazuki. This is my first trip to South-East Asia, and perhaps for that reason I am thinking about the problem of European Modernism.

Apologies for the shorthand here. Since the notes are for me, I don’t want to waste time trying to elaborate – at the same time I think elaboration wouldn’t be correct for the state that the thoughts currently are in.

The dialectic of expression and construction. We can read Adorno in Aesthetic Theory suggesting that the course of Modernism was to derive expression by pushing construction to its extreme limit, rather than breaking from construction or ‘balancing’ construction against this other principle of expressiveness. For him the latter is a compromise, not a dialectic. That is to say expression must be fully mediated by construction. Unmediated expression is false. Compromise called ‘balance’ or ‘harmony’ is a classical and false principle.

But there is a limit here, a limit very much known to Adorno himself, and one which forces him to ask the question of heterogeneity – the limit of extreme constructivism is its reification as a simply antinomy incapable of producing expression. Just as there is a limit to the idea of ‘radically darkened art’, you get to a point where things can’t be darkened further since the concept of darkness is itself deeply reified and commodified: as Nigel Tufnel puts it “None, none more black.” (Likewise the extremity of the expressionistic impulse produces results in an indistinction of it with its opposite: extreme constructivism. Either way a limit point gets reached.)

This is our problem, and it is not new. Most would like to just forget about it, but it is something we can’t just wish away. It’s there, given by the set of relations that define art as such. I keep thinking that there must be a music that relates construction and expression in another way that is proper to our time. I keep thinking polyphony is at the heart of this. There is a sense of withdrawness to great polyphony such as The Art of Fugue – the music is withdrawing into itself and construction and expression both are pulled into its withdrawness and its mediatedness.

With this as the background, some ideas from my lessons so far.

Chaya. My music is too crystallised. Too condensed. It is like Webern in its constrictedness. Everything is essential, nothing there by chance. Nothing emerges from what the materials themselves want to say. Everything kept on a short leash. There is no space, no extension. I am afraid of Dr. So-and-so who will come and ask me to defend everything about my music and I have to have an answer for it all. This leads me to a very paranoid state, and I hole myself up in my little room hoping that he doesn’t come. Chaya says “He never will”. The grid is also a problem for my polyphony in that it restricts my capacity to let my voices follow properly their own logics and thus their distinctness is undermined. Need to be more generous with time, need to “open up to the garden”. Now, Chaya is not an idiot and is not suggesting I try to just escape from my constructivism. Instead I should structure the unstructured. I should not lessen my constructivism, but go one step further: add a layer to my formal grids that gives regions of relative strictness of the grid itself. There are regions then where the fog descends on the grid and the music can pursue different dimensions, in a more elastic way. Naturally this creates problems for my polyphonic writing, since the grid gives me my polyphony. Chaya proposed that the fog could descend on some layers of the polyphony but not all, and at different times.

Peter. Again, how to go “Off the grid.” Perhaps the grid is just a vehicle for the development of my polyphonic style before it can become overcome and return to the status of a ‘technique’ rather than a determining principle. Pitch component in my works has a homogeneity due to the prevalence of an equal distribution of pitch classes. Music also lacking timbral extremes. Be freer with what you allow. Write down everything you’ve done, then write down its opposite, and then the latter is the list of things you can do. An interesting exercise in any case. Pitch and harmony, think of them not as independent parameters but bound up with others: register, instrumentation/timbre, duration, etc. That is, an intuitive ‘system’ of harmony might be built by relating the continuum of consonance-dissonance in intervals to various other continua (parameters): high-low, bright timbre-dark timbre, long-short, etc etc.

Steve. Wide leaps in my songs are quite expressionistic. In fact my music has an expressionist aesthetic. Quite like Schoenberg. The polyphonic writing only enhances this since “the muscularity of a properly expressionistic music must be polyphonic” – the depths of the subjective require polyphonic writing for their expression. But you’re then open to the critique from the post-modern that depths are vulgar, and everything is surface. Of course depths must be defended (Adorno’s Bach essay), but depths must be problematised (“the lonely instance of the final analysis never comes”). Serious limitation of materials at the same time, and a use of old form of Lied in its totality (Lied isn’t problematised). He asks with his characteristic LA smile, “What would it mean to you if I told you that your music is conservative?” I say, a step backwards to find a step forward – since all existing contemporary art music is inadequate, and must be negated. The need to go back to find the correct point from which to venture forth. But do I want to reintegrate more contemporary techniques? Or is the limitation a necessary aesthetic principle. Question also of harmony. My music is a torture to compose because I’m unclear on why I select my pitches. Would a system for pitches make it better? Answer is evidently no. Perhaps worse. Still, something must be done. But perhaps says Steve the struggle is a necessary component of the aesthetic – the pitch dimension has to remain intuitive and painfully deliberate in order to activate the otherwise dead ‘grid’. Labour also important in the broader sense that with its historical reference, the music has a certain weakness. Short pieces are easily dismissed. Longer pieces could become self-grounding in their expansiveness. Demand reckoning with. Bach’s Art of Fugue is immensely large and produces its sublime moments as a result of its long often academic labour. How to produce the ‘other’ to the music? Either by interruption or by production from within the rigorous labour. The later is the only option really, the other is non-dialectical, non-materialist. This is a contradiction of Chaya’s (and certainly Peter’s) argument about openness, but not necessarily of Chaya’s idea of structuring the unstructured by way of a fog.