“I want to write a book like a cloud that changes as it goes he said”

English composer Ben Isaacs has just added a recording of his new string quartet I want to write a book like a cloud that changes as it goes he said to his website. The piece was premiered in July by Quatuor Diotima at Acanthes. A score is available from this page.

I think Ben’s music is remarkable. Whenever I look at his scores, I need to suppress the urge to start cackling hysterically at the sheer extremity of his material limitations. Subsequently, on hearing his work, though, this limitation catapults the listener into a vast macrocosm of sounds both heard and imagined. You only hears the tip of the iceberg in this music. It’s like wandering, lost and blindfolded, through a forest, the myriad textures experienced through your fingertips presenting a rarefied world that only alludes to vastly more numerous, vastly bigger trees.

I also heartily recommend allone, for Bb clarinet, cello and piano (score and recording available on his website). The work is structured as a kind of triptych, the second panel of which is just… amazing.

An interview with Ben Isaacs by Ray Evanoff appeared in the inaugural issue of the CeReNeM Journal, and can be accessed here.

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  1. Interesting. Tell me more about the ‘tip of the iceberg’ metaphor. How much of a sense of the ‘ice under the sea’ can one get from music of such ‘material limitations’?

    It’s a metaphor that reminds me of my holiday reading about (not exclusively…) Robert Frost’s The Mountain:

    ‘What did he say?’

    ‘He said there was a lake
    Somewhere in Ireland on a mountain top.”

    And the analysis pointed to the reference: ‘that embedded in the word ‘Ireland’ is the word ‘elan’, which might refer us to the elan vital central to the 1907 work ‘L’evolution creatrice’ published in 1911 as ‘Creative Evolution’, of Henri Bergson (1959-1941), the philosopher within whose name the aforementioned ‘berg’ is itself embedded. (Paul Muldoon)

    I am wondering if you might care to comment/speculate as to the meaning of Isaacs’s austerity?

    • SoundisGrammar

       /  August 11, 2010

      I guess creating metaphors for music a highly subjective thing. Isaacs’ music takes extremely small musical objects and sort of breaks them apart, often through the physicality of instrumental playing itself (for instance, a bow-stroke so slow that the emergence of audible pitch is only ever sporadic and unpredictable). This in itself is nothing particularly new or exciting, though. The thrilling tip-of-the-iceberg-ness, for me, comes precisely through the extreme limitation of material. The auditory scrutiny of such tiny objects, in what is often a large (physical) space draws attention to the lacunae around those objects. The spaces around the sounds in Isaacs’ music is, for me, a highly charged and pregnant one. In a sense the audible is something that has managed to break through from these invisible (inaudible?) spaces, into a present actuality, with the ‘failed sounds’ (e.g., where the bow moves too slowly to provide anything more than a whisper) forging a bridge between what is tangible and what is not. Or something.

      In this sense, Tim’s fog metaphor works nicely, too. I like the idea of things coalescing and becoming present out of an intangible, but presumably populated, absence.

      Either way, any allusion to ‘something further’ that I’m reading into this music is in a highly general sense, instead of the rather more specific sense of the Robert Frost/Paul Muldoon thing. There aren’t any clues here as to the specific nature of what might be lying unheard.

      As to the ‘meaning’ of this austerity, it’s really hard for me to say and, again, any meaning here is pretty subjective. I’ve said before that I like music that asks more questions than it provides answers, and I think this music definitely fits that criterion. Perhaps for Ben the austerity is simply about creating a space where an extreme focus on such tiny disintegrations is possible. Or maybe it’s the iceberg thing. Or maybe it’s something completely different. Certainly, this is a radically ambiguous sonic world, and I’m willing to hazard a guess that this ambiguity might have something to do with it.

      • Thanks for that Robert. Very interesting.
        More broadly, what I am finding increasingly is an interest in these ‘small’ moment ideas. I find them extremely hard to listen to. And I think the reason has to do with ‘pregnancy’, since it’s much about expectation.
        I often find myself (and I am not sure whether or not I would find this in Ben’s music, since I scarcely know it) wondering why one sound and not another? That is to say that I too like music that asks more questions than it answers, but I also like music that asks its questions in response to answers. Does that make sense?
        I like music that delineates its questions just a little better than I expect at every point (that shows how facile my question-asking is, but that also leads me on)… I raise this not to try to criticise music I don’t really know, but as a general comment on an ongoing trend (as I see it, for at least 30 years – which is what is making Elision’s early Dillon pieces seem so extraordinary) away from striking materials and certainly away from shared expectations.
        I look forward to hearing some Isaacs live (hopefully in Huddersfield this year!).

  2. While we’re using nature-metaphors, can I suggest that Ben’s music is less like an iceberg’s tip and more like some object seen through a dense layer of fog?

    I just heard this piece yesterday after a few months of anticipation, and I think it’s just fantastic. Ben has been slowly chiselling away at his music; the past year has been a slow but fascinating move towards something ever more succinct and unique. I feel like this quartet is a sort of summit-point for his ever-(slowly)-developing music(al aesthetic). I can’t wait to hear more from him…

    Further listening to supplement Rob’s suggestion: “and darkness sweeps in like a hand” for the Nieuw Ensemble.

  3. Pat Allison

     /  August 13, 2010

    bigger trees. nice one rob.

  4. SoundisGrammar

     /  August 18, 2010


    That’s an interesting observation about your own desire to hear music that more thoroughly delineates its questions. Do I recall you once saying that you weren’t so fond of Feldman for similar reasons? (sorry if I’m misrepresenting you, here – I think this was a while ago).

    Personally, I suspect that delineation of “questions” as it relates to material is becoming increasingly problematic in an atmosphere where a ubiquitous/obligatory musical syntax has all but disappeared, and you’re perhaps right to flag this as a thing of the last thirty years or so. I’m not necessarily sure this is a bad thing. This is highly present for me at the moment in relation to my own work, where the relationship between what constitutes compositional “materials” and what constitutes “ornament”, “distortion” or “elaboration” becomes highly blurred. If the fundamental roles and functions of “material” are fluid, how are musical questions concretised at all, let alone delineated to any intelligible degree? I have the sense that what remains is the production of some sort of labyrinth, or cipher, that requires active interpretation.

    (Incidentally, one of the things I find compelling about the music of Evan Johnson is the degree to which, despite what I regard as a high degree of cipher-ness, the hierarchy and function of the elements is so subtly rendered that such delineation is still present, even if it’s positively subterranean).

    In the case of a composer like Isaacs, I most certainly do find myself asking “why one sound and not another?”, but I don’t think this is the most constructive thing to be asking.

    More interesting, perhaps, is to trust the composer’s choice of sounds at face value, and from there consider the constellation of forces implied (or not) by those sounds.

    Isaacs’ music alters the way I think about pitch, texture and sonority, and the cognitive force such things exert when placed in musical time.

    In a broader sense, I’m very interested in the different ways in which we listen to music, how this affects our perception of quality, and how this in turn affects the dissemination of new music, which is – let’s face it – already a pretty niche interest. For instance, at HCMF 2009, I was one a tiny minority who found the new Dillon Triptych quite provocatively interesting in terms of new directions for him (although I agree with pretty much everyone else that the performance was totally dogger). Is this because I was listening for something different from others, or is it just indicative of my bad taste in music? [/idle musing]

    I believe a new Ben Isaacs work for piano is being premiered by Kate Ledger at HCMF 2010. Can’t wait.

    Nicely spotted. I try to keep the punters happy 🙂


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