We have all heard pieces that, upon first hearing them, change the way we interact with and listen to music. Ordinarily, this is a response to a kind of impressive hardcore-itude. We are faced with something which, through the sheer force of its existence, its facticity, changes everything we hear after it. I remember hearing Xenakis’ Eonta for the first time, for instance. Or Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth. Or Machaut’s Lai de la fonteinne. All works that, essentially through force of personality, resulted in my no longer being the same listener as I had been before. This process of cognitive alteration may be superficially, but perhaps adequately, described as fitting a kind of dialectical model: we are presented with something currently lying outside our assumed expressive norms. We reconcile that outlying stimulus with our existing cognitive apparatus, and move on, our musical and cognitive world having been embiggened by the experience.
Hearing Ben Isaacs‘ allone for the first time was pretty important for me. This experience was, however, unique in that the process of alteration occurred within the piece itself. allone calmly, nonchalantly, set about refiguring my frame of musical cognition in the course of listening to it. It was not simply a case of ‘before the piece’ and ‘after the piece’, but rather a constantly modulating ‘during the piece’.
Let me (try to) explain.
The structure of allone is almost mindlessly simple. The piece is a kind of triptych, with each panel lasting approximately 90 seconds. Each panel is based around a high pedal point – the first and last panels feature a (concert) Bb in the clarinet, the middle panel a top D in the cello. The first and final sections elaborate this pedal through a multitude of delicate, flickering filigree (the first more than the final section, in which the pedal is continually present).
The first section is parse-able as, well, ‘normal’ music. It has pitches and rhythms. It has a relationship with musical time that is not particularly foreign to new music of what might be thought of as the Western Classical Tradition via European modernism. Sure, it never really coalesces into a language of primarily gestural coherence, but anybody who has listened to Ligeti or Xenakis (or Tallis or Ockeghem, for that matter) will not find the lack of gesturality, or clear motive-style relationships problematic in itself. The first section presents as music of a notable ephemeral, shimmering gorgeousness, but not music that in any way stands in a problematic relationship with what we understand its context to be.
This context is important. It is not so much a question of genre quibbles, or teleological lineage, so much as the manner in which a piece of music informs the conditions of its own perception; the cognitive mechanics (or software) that the musical morphology implies we are to use in order to process its ‘discursive logic’*. In the case of allone‘s first section, the manner in which pitch, rhythm, sonority and texture operate suggests to us that, like most music, its materials are to be interpreted as viable ‘objects’ in their own right; that the definition of a given parameter is a concrete and definable condition. That a given notated pitch or rhythm has that specific identity, and that identity is meaningful both as a unit and in its various relationships with surrounding material. That the relationships between these finite, definable entities are of primary validity in determining the expressive character of the music. More simply stated, what material is in the first section is basically what we expect ‘material’ to do in new music.
The central panel is something rather different. The entire section is a single note of 60-90″ duration, played within a single up-bow on the cello. The absurdly slow bow-speed results in a sound that is mostly noise, with occasional, infinitesimally small windows of pitch. It is a highly unstable sonority. Furthermore, it’s sheer duration is perceptually provocative. The semiological terms under which we have hitherto been operating disintegrate within the course of this single note.
But this doesn’t happen immediately, of course. For a time, we attempt to continue with the previously-applicable cognitive mechanism. The first section imposes its character upon the second section, which subsequently becomes starkly characterised by its non-eventfulness. For me, on first hearing, this lasted about 20 seconds. 20 seconds of an exhilarating/painful nothing, that defied all previously implied relationships between material and time in the piece. But for this 20 seconds I was still hearing this single pitch in terms of it being a viable ‘material’. That is, a single, extremely long, only occasionally pitched, entity. And then a noticeable shift happened. As if the ties holding me to a normative idea of material suddenly broke free and latched onto the minuscule variations within this single tone. The tone suddenly exploded into a welter of activity, the constituent parts of a fragile, unstable sonority suddenly atomised, becoming sensually meaningful. Like gradually walking towards a Cézanne, the external coherence of what the ‘object’ purportedly is (according to the notation, at least) evaporated in the play of microevents, the complex ecology existing within the sound itself foregrounded.
What is significant is that a discursive logic that was hitherto found in ‘material’ is relocated. The variations in the sustained cello note become material, although not a material that operates in a grammatical way.
As already mentioned, the first and final sections are very similar, and yet the imposition of this central panel renders the two not at all alike in terms of their signification. The sustained D in the cello completely reconditions the manner in which we cognitively interpret – construct music out of – the musical cues with which the performance provides us. Despite having returned to a more ‘typical’ use of material, that material is no longer the same. The notion of coherent material is essentially a communally agreed-upon fiction, or rather, material coheres only because we all agree that it can, and having borne witness to the total disintegration of that fiction, when the piece asks us once again to believe in the validity of material, there is an almost melancholy hollowness to it. It’s like watching Bruce Banner remaining totally chill when we’ve already seen the Hulk: the character has been redefined in terms of its capacity, and becomes irrelevant, or incomplete, or outright specious other than in direct reference to that extended, defining, capacity.
Musical conditions that rob the music of traditionally semantic function are an enduring feature of Ben’s work. His recent work with pieces of extended duration – notably the piano + CD work too expanding (2011) – are perhaps superficially more similar to the opening and closing sections of allone than to its more polemical central panel. But this is where the aforementioned failure/refusal to coalesce into a primarily gestural language comes in. We may be comfortable with non-gestural music when it has a clear structural logic. Or a trajectory. Or something, anything, that contextualises and provides reason for things being the way they are. In other words, a form. But what if it doesn’t? Or what if that form is repressed to the point of non-presence? What if the first section of allone, for instance, continued, unbroken, for one hour?
What results is a musical language not of logic, or material, or grammar, but rather of sensation, of tactility.
This post was prompted by allone‘s being on the programme of the some recent silences concert in King’s Place, and I wanted to briefly divert into a consideration of the role of silence in the music of Ben Isaacs in general (not just in allone).
In his interview with Tim Rutherford-Johnson in the lead-up to that concert, Ben has the following to say about the role that silence plays in his music:
Almost no role at all! Or at least it’s not really an aspect I explicitly consider whilst composing. However, over the last five years I have focused on writing extremely quiet and fragile music, so for an audience it does quite possibly draw attention to the act of listening in a similar way to music which does deal with silence (however the word is understood) more overtly. For me, this is a wholly welcome outcome of the work as I’m very much attracted to the sense of ‘live-ness’ musical performance can engender, though I tend to avoid pauses of any substantial length in order to maintain a continual fragility of sound. I often write in my performance instructions that the sound should be ‘barely there’, with the implication that it is ‘there’ nonetheless.
I sort of take issue with this. While it may be true in the the sense that there is very little in the way of actual, notated Silence, on a purely personal level I find this somehow perceptually or phenomenologically disingenuous.
Because I think that the music of Ben Isaacs has everything to do with silence.
Further, I think it has more to do with silence than a lot of other music that is very quiet, or features a great deal of explicit silence. When listening to Ben’s music, I am aware not only of the sounds produced by the instruments, but also acutely aware of the silence (both literal and conceptual) that lies behind them. It’s like one hears through the sounds to the terrifyingly eternal, cosmic silence beyond. It is a silence that the sounds seems always to be in some kind struggle to hold at bay, to drown out.
This music often makes me think of the work of Agnes Martin. Of the way a ‘static’ distribution of colour lies translucent upon the canvas or paper. The presence of empty/visible paper within the frame of the painting (i.e. within its field of operation), through the colour, carries a very different significance from visible paper clearly intended to lies outside that frame. The latter is an emptiness defined through its not belonging to the painting. In fact, it is not really correct to say that it is empty – it is rather external. In the former case, however, this emptiness exists in a potent and profound manner – the image is literally unable to obscure it, and the image is defined by its inability to do so. When we look at the work of Agnes Martin, we are looking at colour trying and failing to assert itself against the constant risk of being drowned out by the emptiness behind it.
* Square-quotes here because of the dubious universal applicability of either “discursive” or “logic”. Although I’d maintain that nonsense is also a logic, and that discursivity is something imposed upon, rather than immanent of, musical stimuli.