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.

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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.