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.


VISI ASL 2012 Days 1 & 2 (With Prefatory Update)

I sit here posting from the lair of my friend Morgan somewhere near East Hastings in Vancouver. Before I give a recap of my first two days at the VISI Art Song Lab, I should give some very important general updates.

On March 2, I was accepted to the MA program in composition and experimental music at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, home of Anthony Braxton and (until recently) Alvin Lucier.  I’m still working on details relating to my visa, but I will be moving in just over two months. I also placed 1st in the Via Choralis Call for Scores in late April. Additionally I’ve received my first commission (grants allowing) from the Vancouver Clarinet Trio (Shawn Earle, Kate Frobeen and Liam Hockley) for a piece that I will finish this summer.

I arrived in Vancouver Friday night, and ASL started in earnest with a meet and greet Saturday afternoon.  One of the other composers is Ryan Noakes, whom I’ve known for about 10 years from Kamloops and Victoria.  Everyone else was new to me, and though many of them are from Vancouver, some are from Toronto and one is from as far as Cincinnati.  I’ll be posting about some of them and their works before the week is through.

Today we had our first rehearsals in the morning. I’m extremely lucky to have Michael Robert-Broder and Corey Hamm performing the song on which Shannon and I collaborated. We spent 40 minutes going over both broad technical and interpretive issues, made a few changes and discussed strategy for the rest of the week. In the afternoon, we all attended a Composer-Poet Forum, with seven BC composers, a poet and CMC BC Regional Director Bob Baker, who discussed the issues inherent in the collaborative process involved in writing art song, as well as some of the possible directions art song may take in the future.

I was most impressed by what composer Leslie Uyeda said, something to the effect of: “I can only set heightened language. I can’t work with language that can be described as journalistic.” This is also true of me.  All the texts I find myself drawn to set are generally emotionally heightened, but fairly abstract. I find most unemotional texts too boring to set, while direct expression embarrasses me.

Needless to say, the next few days will bring a great deal of collaborative ideas and creative energy, and I hope to post more highlights tomorrow night.

February Updates

Until this month, very little had come of finishing my Bachelor’s degree.  I managed to finish two short pieces last summer: HER&HIS/ZAG&ZIG for solo trombone, premiered by Aubrey Kelly in October, and Self Effacement (Aldo Clementi in Memoriam) for two pianos (which I still plan on revising and expanding).  I had several other compositional goals that I failed to meet.  I entered a few competitions, just to see what would happen. Then, over the past few weeks, three important events have made me much more confident of my abilities:

  1. I was selected to participated in the Vancouver International Song Institute’s Art Song Lab 2012.  I’m paired with poet Shannon Rayne and we’ll be creating an art song  to be performed by a team of professionals on June 8 after a week of workshops.
  2. For the Seven Lakes was one of two entries selected in the Via Choralis call for scores. I was somewhat surprised since I wrote it quite quickly at the end of January (though I’d been mulling some ideas in my head for a few weeks beforehand) and because it’s in no way a typical community choir piece.  Via Choralis, directed by Nicholas Fairbank, will be performing it on April 21 and 22 and the winner and runner-up will be announced at one of the concerts (I won’t know which I am until then).
  3. I was accepted into CalArts’ MFA program in composition at the Herb Alpert School of Music. I’m still waiting to hear back from Wesleyan, and there are important financial considerations to attend to, but I am completely dazed by this news, and hope beyond all hopes that I can go.

All of this adds up to a very exciting next few months musically. Keep posted for updates, whoever actually reads this, and I promise I’ll update more often.

Page One

Welcome to my new blog, I suppose.

In these pages I will be writing about concerts and other events that I’ve been involved with, pieces I’m working on and general ruminations on music, literature, and whatever else I encounter.  I feel that Die Kunst der Funk is a sufficiently audacious title, given my outlook on music; it was going to be a title of a piece or series of pieces, but I think it’s just a bit too obvious for that.