Friedman on Dialectics, Part 2: Difficulties

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts reflecting on some formative aspects of both myself and my music. Part 1 examined my intellectual development, while this post deals with the effects of the experience of my mother’s death from the same period and my subsequent emergence as both a person and as a composer. I meant to finish this within a few days of the first part, but it has proven quite difficult to write. Part 3 will address more recent changes in my music and ideas.

Here, then, lies the difference: modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter of solace and pleasure. Yet these sentiments do not constitute the real sublime sentiment, which is an intrinsic combination of pleasure and pain: the pleasure that reason should exceed all presentation, the pain that imagination or sensibility should not be equal to the concept.

Jean-François Lyotard, “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?″ translated by Régis Durand in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p. 81.

This past winter marked the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. This is not something I have discussed very much with anyone, and will come as a surprise to most people that know me. Why am I sharing this is in so public a forum? First of all, it has become increasingly obvious to me that I have not come to terms with her death, and I feel as though talking about it (or at least related moments from that time in my life) might help. Secondarily, in light of the previous point, I think that opening up here will give those who know me (and read this blog) some important perspective on how these events have affected who I am and what I do.

My mother, Dorothy Christine Cole, was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2002, when I was 12 years old. After several months of chemotherapy, she successfully went into remission and would remain healthy for more than 2 years. In late October 2004 she fell ill and tests showed that her cancer had returned. She was quickly taken to Vancouver General Hospital, where she spent the next two months before it became clear that the chemotherapy would not prove effective a second time. I was only able to see her a couple times in the hospital before my family ended up spending Christmas in Vancouver to be with her. In early January 2005 she was taken by air ambulance back to Kamloops where she stayed at first the Royal Inland Hospital and then the Kamloops Hospice, before she passed away on January 16.

However, this post is not explicitly about her death—this is not the place for that, and I may not be ready to fully confront it. It is about the circumstances surrounding it and the music that came out of that period, which I believe I am ready to address at this point. I will begin by examining in detail the clarinet sonata I wrote during this time and then trying to make sense of what I was going through before and while composing it.

It was about a month after my mother’s death that I started my first foray into serious composing. I had composed a few things before this point, the most substantial of which was a pseudo-classical piano sonata in D minor, but sometime in the fall of 2004 I started writing a clarinet sonata based on a transitional section  of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. I started work on it in earnest in February 2005 and spent nearly the entire year completing it. What resulted is Sonata Flebile, which is a 35-minute piece for clarinet and piano.  It draws thematically from Liszt, both Piano Concerto No. 1 and Nuages gris, but it is also inspired by a lot of other music I was listening to at the time: late-period Liszt, Beethoven, Mahler, Chopin, Brahms, etc.  You can view the score and play back a horrible MIDI realization here (if you have the Scorch plugin), but I recommend listening instead to the final Chaconne, which is probably the only salvageable part, here played by Liam Hockley and Kevin Thomson:

Looking back at this piece, the most striking aspect for me is its structure, which is partially based on Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, but is considerably more elaborate. It is nominally a distended sonata form, but can be broken down as follows:

  • Fantasia (subtitled contradictory, juxtaposed circumstances) which forms a free introduction to
  • Theme and variations (self-reflection, contemplation of the innumerable facets), which is also the core of the sonata form:
    • Exposition: Theme and Variations 1-3
    • Development: Variations 4-10 of which
      • Variations 4-6 are free development and
      • Variations 7-10 are a double fugue, which is also in sonata form:
        • Exposition: Variations 7 & 8 (each is a full fugue exposition of one of the two themes)
        • Development: Variation 9
        • Recapitulation and Coda: Variation 10 (both themes return simultaneously)
    • Retransition and Recapitulation: Variations 11-14
  • Ciaccona (understanding: finality, loss) as a coda to the work, itself a ground with 7 variations and coda.

At this point, I am quite sure that the structure of the piece was in some way therapeutic. In order to avoid the emotions I was experiencing, I drew on my intellectual experience with math and created something which emphasized structural rigour, while still comfortingly familiar in its musical foundations. A connection to the common-practice tradition via classical forms of sonata-allegro and variation, but combined in a particularly potent nested structure, proved extremely intoxicating to my desire for things to make sense.

Another striking element of the piece, for me, is the subtitles of the sections. The contradictory, juxtaposed circumstances were clearly the raw emotions I felt at the time of its composition—grief, but also intense adolescent infatuation, which was first manifesting in me at around the same time. The subtitles form a sort of idealized process of grieving, where I imagined that self-reflection, contemplation of the innumerable facets would eventually be followed by understanding: finality, loss and some sort of closure.

However, as those who have gone through the grieving process know, things are not so simple. Most of what transpired those few months is a blur. I can remember only a handful of fleeting images: short, disconnected conversations, seeing the Vancouver Opera do Madama Butterfly after a hospital visit, finding The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on a shelf at the house where we were staying and reading its roughly 1200 pages in less than three days. Numbness alternated with an intense sensation of poetry and meaningfulness. It is difficult to chart one’s progress in an idealized process when continuity does not seem to exist at all. The dissonance between the idealism of the piece’s construction and the way I actually felt at the time illustrates its fundamental problems.

Not long after I finished writing it, I began to realize that Sonata Flebile had many major flaws. I was not capable of really handling the grandiosity of the piece’s structure at the time, which I came to realize was itself not really appropriate for the biographical nature of the piece’s inspiration anyhow. On top of that, it is really unnecessarily difficult—neither the pianist nor the clarinettist gets much of a break for the entire 35-minute duration and the piano part has too many simultaneous voices most of the time. None of those things were enough to make me regret writing the piece, but the realization that its construction was diametrically opposed with my actual experience of mourning effectively killed any interest I had in it. This realization had set in fairly strongly by the time that I first performed a portion of the piece in the spring of 2007. It is only after many years of reflection that I have realized its value as an artifact of a particular time in my life, one that I can examine when I am incapable of examining my experience of that time.

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Some passagework.

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From the double fugue.

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Fugue ‘development’.

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Ornamented recapitulation of the theme.

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End of recapitulation/variations.

I still consider myself to have learned how to compose by writing Sonata Flebile, and not just in the mechanical sense; from it, I also somewhat paradoxically learned how not to compose. Not only did my realization about the philosophy of the piece’s structure effectively banish it from my mind, it also radically altered my notion of what composition is. This realization can be seen as the effective end of both naked formalism and any 19th-century influence in my compositions. I started writing some serial pieces not long afterwards, but they always had some sort of subversion of their system. Though there is some nascent polystylism in Sonata Flebile, I started to explore it more in earnest afterwards, but that will be for another post.

Returning to the work’s subtitles, I have come to realize that the most important thing I learned from the whole process has formed the foundation of my philosophical perspective ever since: life is actually made up of continuous contradictory, juxtaposed circumstances, and no amount of self-reflection can resolve them. This post may sound somewhat cold and analytical to some, but that is an ongoing related issue of mine. The emotional and the intellectual have been conflated for me since this time in my life in nearly every way: I have intellectualized my emotional life, seeking to make sense of it (such as in this post), but also have found great joy and sorrow in often esoteric and abstruse music and writing. This may have been detrimental to my personal life, but, as Schoenberg wrote, what is music but a union of “heart and brain?”



Friedman on Dialectics, Part 1: Of Formalist Denial

This is the first in what I hope is a series of fairly serious and personal posts I will write in the coming days, which will also address several issues that arose in my MA thesis, which I completed last spring. Part 1 deals with the intellectual background of a formative period of my life, roughly 2003-2008. Part 2 will deal with emotional and musical aspects of the same period.

 My music sometimes seems mysterious. Part of the mystery comes from the fact that I wait, receptively, then I welcome, I accept … Listen, there are two kinds of people: the type that is only interested in what they understand, and the type that wants at all costs the hermetic mystery, enigmas. The first gets bored when they don’t understand, the second is bored when they do understand. Me, I accept poetry, the inexplicable. Things are born in the waiting.

Morton Feldman, interviewed by Martine Cadieu in “Morton Feldman – Waiting, May 1971” in Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987. Edited by Chris Villars. London: Hyphen Press, 2006, p. 40.

In grade 12, my school counsellor asked me why, when I was definitely going to be doing a degree in music, was I also studying calculus, chemistry and physics.  At some point a few years earlier, I had come across the 17th century polymath Athanasius Kircher’s exhortation that “there is nothing more beautiful than to know all” (where this quote came from I have no memory). This may have been possible at the time he was writing, but is clearly not now, something I obviously knew intuitively but did not really believe until after I started university. For my entire childhood and adolescence I intentionally read books that were far too difficult, culminating in Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, an attempt to explain the physical properties of the universe in 1100 pages. I vaguely remember understanding about the first 200, which deal with the math required to understand the rest of the book; I read the next 900 in a daze, trying to at least absorb the terminology. My reading was not limited to science: I also read books at random from my family’s shelves. My family owned somewhere in the area of 2000-3000 books at this point, skewing heavily towards CanLit and literary theory, thanks to my father. I read experimental novels like Death Kit by Susan Sontag and the highly obscure the telephone pole by Russell Marois (which I know I finished on Oct. 28, 2003 and Jan. 18, 2004, respectively, thanks to a Microsoft Access database [!] I kept of my reading at the time).

The book that most affected me during this period, however, was Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. I read GEB in the fall of 2004, which was otherwise a very difficult part of my life (something I will address in my next post). In both his preface to the 20th anniversary edition of the book and in his later book I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter essentially complains that no one understood the underlying message of GEB, which is an examination of self-reference and its ramifications on the possibility of artificial intelligence. GEB very easily comes off as seeming to be about fanciful connections between its various subjects: not only the titular figures, but also Zen Buddhism, microbiology, computer science and the like. Its highly novel structure helps this misinterpretation: it alternates fairly normal chapters with dialogues between the characters Achilles and the Tortoise (drawn from a dialogue by Lewis Carroll [pdf], who himself got them from one of Zeno‘s paradoxical thought experiments) which are in the form of contrapuntal pieces by J. S. Bach. I do not pretend to have fully understood GEB, but I definitely gathered quite a bit from it, particularly the enormous paradoxes that loom under the surface of logic and therefore underpin nearly every aspect of thought. It’s possible that I took almost the exact opposite message from the average reader of GEB, namely that, while everything is connected, it is connected in such a way that nothing makes sense.

The most important paradox discussed in GEB is Kurt Gödel‘s so-called incompleteness theorem (of which there are actually two). I will attempt a simple explanation of it, which is probably ultimately fallacious, but will give the reader an idea of what it entails. A formal system is a logical construct where one can use certain axioms (statements which are assumed to be true beforehand) and rules (which transform axioms and other statements which are derived from axioms). Gödel leans heavily on the notion of compactness, which can be used to prove that, in a particular formal system, provability by the system is logically equivalent to truth. A compact formal system can have the property of completeness, whereby it can prove every true statement, as well as the property of consistency, whereby no false statement can be proven. Let us examine a statement in a formal system that can be translated as something like “this statement cannot be proven,” which is clearly a paradox: if it is true, then we have no way of proving it, so the formal system is incomplete (since we have found an unprovable truth); if it is false, then it can be proved, so the formal system is inconsistent (since we have found a provable falsehood). The result is that any system must be either incomplete or inconsistent, and that any attempt for a system to describe itself either fails because of incompleteness or yields dangerous results because of inconsistency. In the first case it means that in order to describe a system completely, we must create a meta-system, which must be described via a meta-meta-system, and so on. These statements hold true for even relatively simple systems, like those describing arithmetic. Interpretation of these theorems in other fields is often overblown (much like quantum physics), but it does essentially destroy the positivist perspective of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, which sought to derive all of mathematics from logic.

GEB was my first exposure to dialectical thinking, or at least unresolved dualities: Hofstadter dwells on several of them, particularly holism vs. reductionism. He attempts to resolve them via the Zen notion of mu, which “unasks” the question or at least points out its absurdity. In some questions the answer is both of “both and neither” of the choices, but also neither of those, and so on. The infinite regress of dialectics seemed to be isomorphic to the infinite meta-levels required to completely describe any formal system given Gödel’s incompleteness, while contradictory bare dualities seemed to map onto inconsistency. These notions led me to actively engage with the fundamental dichotomies I encountered in every subject I studied after this point, particularly in my undergraduate philosophy electives. But, in a sense, it was too late for my earlier interests: I believed that any formalist notion of truth was bound to end in an infinite tree of undecidability or a flat-out contradiction. I still tried to take a second major in math during my first year, but found the time demands of a music degree precluded much external commitment, and I realized it was basically impossible, at least at UVic, after two semesters. I was still helping some of my friends in sciences with their homework in second semester classes I would never take when I realized that I had to radically rein in my ambitions, however I did continue to take electives in philosophical logic until my fourth year, which were some of the most creatively stimulating classes I have taken, even if no longer directly relevant to my work.

What does all of this have to do with music? Though I am now unquestionably primarily a composer, I still have serious parallel interests in philosophy, math, science and literature, and these concepts provide some vital underpinning to the way I think about music. My interests have always straddled the art/science divide and I believe that I chose to pursue an academic career in music because, in my opinion, it is located at the nexus of the arts and sciences, and can be produced and interpreted using a plethora of different fields and techniques. Being a composer is my way of intellectually having my cake and eating it too. My next post will address the joint emotional aspects to the intellectual issues raised here, as well as their impact on the music I wrote until fairly recently.

Xenakis on a Dialectic

“At each reproduction of an entity, the entropy of the entity increases according to a certain delta—that is, the information describing the entity degrades partially at each renewal, irretrievably. It becomes the job of the composer to master, with intuition and reason at the same time, the doses of these entropy-deltas circulating through all the macro-micro-intermediate levels of the musical composition. In other words, one establishes an entire range between two polesdeterminism, which corresponds to strict periodicity, and indeterminism, which corresponds to constant renewalthat is, periodicity in the large sense. This is the true keyboard of musical composition. Thus we emerge in a domain of multiple scientific and philosophic resonances. The continuity and discontinuity of the mathematicians and of the time-space of quantum physicists are such resonances.

“The question that arises in all its generality is to know which mathematical construction to specify to the computer so that what is heard will be as interesting as possiblenew and original. Without dwelling too long on this, I will cite an interesting example belonging to a case I was able to discover sometime ago by using the logistic probability distribution. For certain values of its parameters α and β and its elastic barriers, this distribution goes through a sort of stochastic resonance, through a most interesting statistical stability within the sound produced. In fact it is not a sound that is produced, but a whole music in macroscopic form. This form is the result of rhythmic transformations, giving a polyrhythm of events with variable timbre, changing pitches and intensitiesin short, rhythmic strands of meeting and jostling sounds. I have used this procedure in the music of the DIATOPE at the Centre Pompidou.

“To show to what extend this duality (that is, the entity and negation of the entity by varied reproductions at each step) is important, I put forward again and more explicitly the following question in the specific case of sound synthesis by computer and digital-to-analog converter: how can one obtain a rich, living, previously unheard-of sound? Does one start from an entity and its reproductions and inject probabilistic variations, creating greater and greater deviations from the initial entity, which tend toward a stronger negation? Or, on the contrary, should one start from an absolute negationin other words, a Brownian curve containing absolutely no germ whatsoever of an entityand inject more or less varied reproductions of fragments of this curve, so as to engender progressively or explosively, an unheard-of, rich, living sound? In the first case, one would define the entity by strict periodic functions (trigonometric, for example) stacked or adroitly combined, then inject probabilistic perturbations at each reproduction of the entity. For the second case, one would define a set of functions of probability functions describing a specific Brownian movement that would constitute a furthermost negation. Then one would inject reproduction laws for connected or unconnected fragments of the Brownian curve to define the entity corresponding to these laws. These are two pathways, opposite and symmetrical, to rich, living, unheard-of sound. Naturally there is no exclusivity of one pathway over the other, and the results can be extremely interesting and strikingly different in the two paths.

“Here is another expression of this universal duality, this time in philosophy, formed by the entity and its negation: the duality of the conflict opposing the thesis of Parmenides to that of Heraclitus. Parmenides decided that Being must exist always and everywhere, homogeneous without variation. Heraclitus decided that nothing is immutable, that everything changes. Thus expressed, these two positions are not compatible. They become compatible, however, if one decides that the Being of Parmenides is the entity that we invoke at the beginning. But it is an entity that would not lastas if time were formed of strings of cells and the entity inscribed in this bounded set of cells would not be able to avoid disappearance and death, once all the limits were reached in exchange for an imperfect reproduction. Then the perpetual change of Heraclitus is precisely realized by the reproduction of this entity in a chain of renewalsthat is, in periodicity in the large sense. This, in this way, the Being of Parmenides conserves its integrity in the entity but is stained with temporal, spatial and homogeneity limitations. Change, in general, cannot be instantaneous and total but is obtained progressively by a periodicity that is synonymous with varied reproduction, although it can be explosive at times. The universe of genetics is a beautiful and clear incarnation of this marriage between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Music is another.”

Iannis Xenakis, Music Composition Treks in Composers and the Computer ed. Curtis Roads

Notes from meeting with Braxton, November 20

I had my second meeting with Anthony Braxton yesterday, and I showed him Incarnadine as well as the Durrell cycle.  He said all of the following (in somewhat less fragmentary form) about these pieces, as well as about his recollection of my solo performance a few weeks ago, basically getting my entire musical philosophy and goals from the get-go:

change state

amorphous, in a good way

clear conceptual sonic geometry

beautiful, on top of everything else, very sensitive writing

trans-idiomatic obliqueness: modern, a strange familiarity

event spaces “musical as hell”, sensitive

what looks idiomatic, what looks harmonic is not what it seems

summation logics

what you’re hearing is not what the music is

obliqueness as concept space: at first idiomatic, but soundposts are not there

continuum/sonic void

short movements, nothing going on too long to guess primary elements = oblique universe

secondary elements: idiomatic inputs = “tease”, like lights in a long tunnel

conceptual continuity reimposes “what is this?”, rhythmic logics do this too

confuses someone looking at it in a rationalistic way

“Your rigour is not even rigour, because it doesn’t do anything; it gives you one thing, but it’s not that thing.”

psychology that says sonic event in forward space, but interrelationships composed in a way that avoid easy solidification into one identity state

consistencies that don’t produce forward moment

universe with elements, but it’s about hidden elements in the void

obliqueness: known elements recognized; hidden elements also present but not developing, put in void supporting qualities

oblique conceptual and structural unity

continuities/disturbances: idiomatic markers, but not idiomatic

continuum has light of idiomatic elements placed in it (element markers)

oblique logic modelling: “disguise”

scatter logic for rhythm: bouquet (origin rhythm specific elements), logic of disturbances

development of adoptive oblique techniques and materials

oblique palette, oblique logic, oblique layout

geometric vs. non geometric consistencies

abruption, discontinuity, imbalances

image logic obliqueness: “Everyone is wearing a red suit, but the stage lights are red.”

combination logic

oblique agency: distance and trajectory

a different kind of non-obvious continuity, it feeds on itself, establishes activity, then disguises with secondary elements/sequential oblique inputs

aesthetically oblique produces question “what’s going on?”

uncertainty, secrets, distrustful of dogma, poetic obliqueness, Edgar Allen Poe

extraction: “obliquenize”

inherent meaning of origin materials to be transformed. oblique transformations: multiple in same moment

variations of scatter: multiple event eruption

trans-idiomatic, trans-material, not limited to any one state

oblique instance

Incarnadine for Clarinet Trio, or, My Week With Chaya

I had originally intended to write this post several weeks ago, before the Vancouver Clarinet Trio (Shawn Earle, Kate Frobeen and my good friend Liam Hockley) premiered my latest piece, Incarnadine, on October 19 at the CMC in Vancouver.  Life got in the way, so I’m writing about it now.  The exciting part about this piece is that is was technically my first commission, as well as the first performance of a piece of mine to be fairly widely publicized, including in the Georgia Straight.  After the performance, Liam said that he’s “sure the piece will become a staple of the repertoire before long.”

I wrote Incarnadine over this past summer by request of the VCT, but the ideas in it stemmed primarily from Chaya Czernowin’s visit to Victoria this spring.  The UVic Orchestra, along with Ensemble Nikel, performed the North American premiere of Czernowin’s Zohar Iver (Blind Radiance) and she gave a public lecture, a masterclass and lessons with composers (including me).  In her lecture on February 29, she revealed that she shares many of my artistic concerns, especially those of fundamental dialectics inherent in the structure of music.  She sees musical material as being on a continuum of phenomenology to psychology (what I would call ontology).  This is most typified by her piece Anea Crystal for two string quartets, which is made up of two pieces, or “seeds”, which can be played simultaneously. Seed I comprises the psychological ” simple human voice, swimming in time,”  whereas Seed II is a phenomenological “view of stretched rubber bands.”  Czernowin also postulates a similar dialectic at play in composition, namely that Experimentation can be broken down into Innovation and Discovery.  To her, Innovation is an “extended area of action, an expansion into different areas” that seeks to “plant a new flag in the Arctic of the mind.”  This strikes me as very much the Wesleyan Experimental Music department typified in the post-Cageian, Lucier-inpired school of conceptual music (and thus the American avant-garde as a whole).  Czernowin emphasizes that the risk of this branch of Experimentation is one of posturing and excessive ego.  On the other hand, Discovery is marked by a more organic approach: “listening to what the new material wants to do, discovering what is immanent in the material.”  The risks inherent in this approach are developing a semi-religious, mystical personality.  Discovery seems to me to be a more European (especially Russian) approach, and it’s what I seem to tend towards more frequently.  Czernowin notes, however, that the compositional ideal is a balance of both aspects of Experimentation.

Czernowin also had a great deal to say about the composition more generally and what end up being the upper levels of Schnittke’s picture of the artistic process.  She stated that pitch material (and the other constituent parts of a piece) is not an end in itself; it must serve the fundamental concept/inquiry of the piece, and that the composer must invent a new technical device for each piece to fit its concept.  This something I’ve suspected for several years now: that one doesn’t really ever know how to compose, that one must relearn/construct a new method with each piece.  Czernowin also said: “something must be at stake in a piece, you must work towards something and be aware of it,” which I think is highly typified by my inability to start anything until I have an extremely clear idea of the concept and structure of what I’m going to write.  As for more traditional elements of music, she said: “[letting pitch material into my music] is like when a little doggie is allowed in the theatre. Everybody just looks at the doggie.” The dominance of genre markers such as clear harmonic and rhythmic material when they are introduced into a piece is pretty inescapable, which is why I only use them in my pieces when I am playing with those sorts of associations (and practically never in improvisation, but that’s another issue).  I am working, however, on ways of disassociating familiar material (especially harmonic material) from its traditional contexts and functions, inspired especially by late Schnittke, using, for instance, a minor triad as a neutral sound object that has no role besides occurring between what comes before and what comes after.  My idea is to create structure from the manipulation of juxtaposed elements for purely psychological effect.  This comes into play in Incarnadine, but mostly as a textural device, because of the nature of the material (as I will show below).  I will definitely be writing more about this nascent compositional philosophy in the future.

My lesson with Chaya on February 28 was also fantastic.  She is one of the most perceptive teachers I’ve ever met, noticing basically all of the problem I’ve had over the past five years while only looking at the first movement of my grad piece.  She correctly pointed out (within less than five minutes of seeing it) that the beginning was considerably more detailed (and therefore better), since I spent two months on the first minute and then another two months on the next 18 minutes.  I told her that I thought there was too much material and too many ideas in it, and that I should break it up into several pieces, to which she replied that it wasn’t necessarily true: it wasn’t that there was too much, just that the multifarious elements didn’t have enough depth in and of themselves to make the piece good enough, unlike, say, Berio’s Sinfonia.   She recommended that I try to write a longish piece (10-20 minutes) using only two ideas, exploring them fully in the manner of Scelsi or Feldman, as well as exploring all their possible interrelationships.  Several months later, I stumbled onto Rzewski’s structural scheme (discussed in my previous post), and the rest is history.

Incarnadine is based on two pieces of preexisting material: a quiet, high, clear, smooth idea that originally came from an exercise I wrote for viola and trombone for MUS562 at UVic in around November of 2009 and a loud, low, obscure, rough one that came from Fun Fat Meat Bullet for trumpet and tuba for The Workshop from April of this year, a 12 hour day of composition when we started writing pieces at 9AM, performers arrived at 2PM and we gave a concert at 8PM.  The first piece of material consists of a high C# (my favourite note on the clarinet since I was about 14) repeated in clarinet 2 while clarinet 1 alternates between repeating a smooth cell of pitch material (Eb – D – B – G – F#) and a repeated high E.  The second piece of material is mostly fluttertongued clusters at the bottom of the clarinet’s range separated by rests, but also has some multiphonics, of the harmonic, artificial and vocal varieties and timbral trills.  Ok, I confess that Incarnadine is basically in sonata form with two thematic groups, but they’re not used as such, the development is much more abstract and the recapitulation is highly irregular (as I will explain below).

I won’t give an exhaustive analysis, since there isn’t much to say about the piece on a micro-level.  Most of the pitches are either clusters or iterations of the cell from the first bit of material and any rhythmic and textural ideas are basically just juxtaposition of extremes.  Structurally, the piece is divided into 120 four-second segments, which are grouped into 18 irregular sections.  These sections employ the six relationships codified by Rzewski, with each type occurring three times.  For the “exposition” (three sections), the two “themes” are stated in Rzewski Type I, separated by a transition of Type II.  There then follows a “development” (14 sections) that gradually fragments the material and brings the two ideas closer together, cycling through all of the Rzewski types.  Most of the material in this section is long notes separated by rests, but the techniques involved make the texture continuously variable, giving a sound much more complex than the notation would suggest.  Finally, in the “recapitulation” (one section of Type VI) the two ideas are combined: the harmonics of the notes in the second theme in effect become the high notes from the first theme.  The very ending is this transformation in miniature, all three performers play fast figures at the bottom of their ranges while changing their embouchures/throat positions to gradually move up through Xenakis’ régions to VI (teeth on the reed), where the notes being fingered become only slightly differentiated squeaks.  After this climax, clarinet 1 plays a very long tone with copious amounts of saliva in the reed, creating a sort of “radio static” effect that contains snippets of harmonics, low fuzz, pops, whistles, etc., in effect containing the entire seed of the piece in one gesture.

Due to technical issues, there was no recording made of Incarnadine‘s debut, but the VCT has assured me that they will be making a studio recording sometime in the near future, which I will hopefully be able to post for your enjoyment, and they will be performing it in Victoria sometime in the new year.

Reading, Structure and the Creative Process

Needless to say, I didn’t have the time or energy to finish my report from the VISI Art Song Lab. But the results of the week’s collaborative process can be found here.  Since then I’ve mostly been doing a great deal of reading while battling my own lethargy and uncertainties.  The fact that I’m leaving the country in 10 days is slowly becoming more and more daunting, and the many tasks I have yet to do before I leave are on the verge of becoming overwhelming.  Despite all of these sources of anxiety, I find great solace in reading; I’ve consumed about 8000 pages since the beginning of June, and I invariably feel more confidant and inspired while in the thick of relevant reading material.

Two sources I’ve read recently have made obvious to me the importance of structural concepts in the music I write (and even more so in the music I want to write).  First there is an exhaustive summary by Robert Wason of a structural scheme devised by Frederic Rzewski:

According to Rzewski (in personal conversation), these six “textures” grew out of a scheme which he had developed as a plan for improvisation while working with Musica Elettronica Viva. In essence, the scheme is based upon six relationships which two musical events may assume in time: in the first, the two events are completely separated and distant from one another (no relationship); in the second, they begin to move closer and to influence one another; in the third, they are contiguous (Rzewski draws an analogy to the traditional texture of “melody”); in the fourth, they overlap (Rzewski’s idea here is “counterpoint”); in the fifth they are coincident, or nearly so (here Rzewski’s thinks of “harmony”), while in the sixth, they pass one another in time, and bring the whole nature of temporal succession into question.

Robert W. Wason, “Tonality and Atonality in Frederic Rzewski’s Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’ ” in Perspectives of New Music , Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter, 1988), pp. 108-143

This scheme has been particularly important to the composition of my clarinet trio, and so has Chapter Two of Victoria Adamenko’s Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, “The Prime Structuring ‘Molds’ of Myth and Music.”  Here, Adamenko gives an exhaustive treatment of two important structural concepts that I embrace in my work: binary opposition, including the use of synthesis or a “mediator” (this was the main concept of Neither/Nor and continues to be basis of much of my personal philosophy, musical or otherwise); as well as variability and combinatoriality, which manifest most obviously in my music as thematic variation (in Six Popular Songs After Lawrence Durrell) and the creation of a contiguous structure from small combinatorially arranged cells (in Loops from Broken Lies and the shuffled file card pieces).  This chapter from the Adamenko definitely deserves a fuller summary and a closer critique, which I hope to accomplish in the near future.

In the midst of  what was, to me, a much less convincing chapter from Neo-Mythologism in Music, “Perception and Critique: Myth as a Figure of Speech in Musicological Discourse,” Adamenko shares a gem with us on the subject of Schnittke’s creative process:

Schnittke’s notes and sketches reveal that in his picture of the creative process, the composer placed the collective above everything.  Schnittke’s archive in London contains a little handwritten diagram, which represents a layered structure.  The top layer Schnittke marks as “super-music” (nadmuzyka), from where one descends through the layers of “hyper-idea” (giperzamysel), “the idea of a work” (zamysel proizvedeniya), to a “rational concept” (razionalnaya konzepziya) and, finally, to the musical text using notation (notnyi tekst).  “The collective” (kollekt[ivnoe]) occupies the highest level in this diagram, while Schnittke separates the stages that lead to the musical text with a line marking all of the lower  categories as “individual” (indiv[idual’noe]).

Victoria Adamenko, Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, p. 249

My own conception of music and composition, which I’d largely developed before I was familiar with any of Schnittke’s work, is remarkably similar.  I also think of music in the highly abstract, hierarchical way that Schnittke does, which in some ways has been a barrier of sorts: I often have to spend months thinking about “the idea of a work” and the “rational concept” before I can commit anything to paper, and I think it will be years, if not decades, before I’ve learned nearly enough about music to have an even somewhat complete notion of “super-music,” which I interpret as being the composer’s philosophical outlook on music, sort of a meta-generalization of the ideological trends in their oeuvre (which I would suppose would be the “hyper-idea”).  Not only that, but I also share Schnittke’s Platonic conception of composition, and, like him, I feel as though I am merely the medium through which compositions, which are inherent from the structure of music as we conceive it and exist in an abstract plane, flow.  I will definitely be discussing that topic in the near future as well.

The ideas I’ve been exposed to through reading in the past few months have raised more questions for me than they’ve answered, but that is undoubtedly a good thing. Merely considering these topics on a day-to-day basis has me feeling closer to my work, despite being in a fairly artistically sterile environment until I move to the US.  Also, since Wesleyan’s MA program uses a portfolio-style thesis, and since I want all the compositions and essays I produce over the next two years to be relevant, I feel as though I need to come up with a plan for the topics I’ll be working on now, instead of a year from now, when I would be beginning a traditional thesis.  The readings I’ve been doing have cemented my desire to further develop my ideas in the areas of style, structure and morphology, and to continue to study the works of Alfred Schnittke, especially those from the end of his life.


Posting from Svalbard

Picture music as a map, and musical genres as continents–classical music as Europe, jazz as America, rock as Asia. Each genre has its distinct culture of playing and listening. Between the genres are the cold oceans of taste, which can be cruel to musicians who try to cross over.

There is another route between genres. It’s the avant-garde path–a kind of icy Northern Passage that you can traverse on foot. Practitioners of free jazz, underground rock, and avant-garde classical music are, in fact, closer to one another than they are to their less radical colleagues. Listeners, too, can make unexpected connections in this territory. As I discovered in my college years, it is easy to go from the orchestral hurly burly of Xenakis and Penderecki to the free-jazz piano of Cecil Taylor and the dissonant rock of Sonic Youth. For lack of a better term, call it the art of noise.

Alex Ross, “Edges of Pop” in Listen to This