Ben Isaacs – allone

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).


Section 1 – Pedallin’

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.


Section 2 – Witchcraft!

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.

Section 3

Section 3

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.

Agnes Martin - Stars (1963)

Agnes Martin – Stars (1963)

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.

I hear a similar relationship between sound and silence in Ben’s music. The silence is not one defined by the framing qualities of the sound itself, but rather one that sits behind it, one that is imperfectly disguised by the presence of sound. Perhaps this has something to do with the intrinsic qualities of fragility: the word fragility implies the risk of breaking, of disintegration. And in Ben’s music, when that object breaks, we are not left only with the constituent parts of the object, but rather the remnant shards of sound itself, sparkling in the void.

* 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.


some recent silences

Londonites! On Sunday, King’s Place is hosting a concert entitled some recent silences. Curated by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, the concert features the wonderful Apartment House performing a number of recent-ish works that engage in some way with the notion of silence, a theme with which Tim demonstrates a fascinating and ongoing engagement.

Complete details (and tickets!) are available here, but the complete programme is as follows:

G. Douglas Barrett     A Few Silence
Gregory Emfietzis       DIY 1
Mathias Spahlinger   128 erfüllte augenblicke
Ben Isaacs                      allone
György Kurtág              Dumb Show
Charlie Sdraulig          close
Michael Pisaro             Fade

Tim has already posted some interviews on his blog with Gregory Emfietzis, Ben Isaacs and Charlie Sdraulig about their work, and they make for pretty fascinating reading.

Additionally, between now and the concert, I’ll be posting some reflections on the work of Ben Isaacs and Charlie Sdraulig. I’ve known both Ben and Charlie for a number of years, now, and have a pretty intensely personal relationship with their music, which has inspired and informed not only my own music, but also my identity as a listener, in ways too numerous and fundamental to adequately trace.

Wish I was in London to hear this.

“It’s a gigantic, anti-intellectual, anti-craft circle-jerk and I will have none of it.”

A potty-mouthed Elliott Carter responds from beyond the grave to that Dan Asia article that everyone got pissy about. Hits nail on head.

Dan Asia strikes again

In January, the Tim Rutherford-Johnson of the Rambler took to task some guy called Daniel Asia for writing a completely idiotic article on John Cage for the Huffington Post (well, the Rambler referred to it “frankly embarrassing”, but let’s call a spade a spade).

Asia is back, and this time he’s written an article called “Carter is Dead”, in which he breaks down exactly why he thinks Elliott Carter is an objectively bad composer. 

It’s not worth taking this apart line-by-line, because it’s basically all wrong. It seems to me, at least, patently absurd that Asia’s primary criticism of Carter’s work boils down to the accusation that it is “chaotic”. To my ears, at least, (most of) Carter’s music is (in a sonorous sense, not just a “precompositional” sense) immaculately planned. In fact, the amount of sense that Carter’s music makes is the main reason that I, personally, can’t quite love this music in general (as important as a handful of individual pieces may be to me).

In fact, I actually wanted to use this article as an excuse for a brief meditation on ‘relative listening’ in Carter, which Asia brings up as a way of criticising the final movement of the Cello Sonata, but seems to have forgotten about completely by, like, two paragraphs later when he wants to criticise, like, the exact same thing in other pieces, but from the polar opposite direction. But Asia’s point is too self-contradictory, too riddled with false analogy, even to use it as a springboard to write about something else.

The article has, however, spawned #DanAsiaArticleIdeas on Twitter, so it’s not a total loss.


Cage: Overpopulation and Art

Alerted by Renewable Music, I just finished listening to Cage’s lecture at Stanford, titled Overpopulation and Art, from 1992, just a few months before his death. It’s available to stream online here.

Cage’s lecture, characteristically witty and optimistically utopian, is underscored, somewhat belied by, a melancholy arising from the nearness, the graspability of such utopia and its simultaneous unattainability. Distance from a goal is rendered meaningful by, and is a function of, the ability to traverse that distance. Never has Utopia seemed so far.

It’s beautiful.

ExplorEnsemble. Sdraulig. Hush.

The debut concert of ExplorEnsemble is happening tomorrow night in the Parry Room at the Royal College of Music (details at bottom). They’re playing what looks like a fairly killer trans-generational programme. I’m not familiar – yet – with some of the younger names on the programme, but Charlie Sdraulig‘s Hush for cello and harp (featured as the first entry in The Rambler’s Contemporary Notation Project) will be receiving its premiere.

The musical implications of Hush took a dump in my brain (in the good way) have been turning over in my mind fairly constantly since I first read through the score several months ago. It promises to be a genuinely striking musical experience, and at the advertised price, it’s one that you, dear reader, have no excuse to pass up. Unless you’re not in London. Like me:




Details here.

Get involved.

Events calendars

Hey all, it’s been a while, but here we are with a new theme, and a new Events Calendar!

All the usual disclaimers and so forth about work-in-progress and feeling-my-way-through-the-technology apply. But mainly this is something that will continue to take shape over time, as my sources of information diversify, and I get my head around how to deal with the volumes of information. We’ll see where this goes.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!

This blog has been a little bit dormant for the last little while, largely to do with study and work commitments.  The plan is to keep it a bit more active in 2011, though.  As part of this, I’m signing up to the Post a Week 2011 project.  I often find myself writing things, and then just not getting around to hitting “publish” (a quick scan of my “drafts” folder has something about my experiences at Royaumont, an unpublishable rant about Lady Gaga, a consideration of combining genre resonance in performance, a couple of planned interviews, and a piece pretty much flaming Norman Lebrecht, most of which will never see the light of day).  I’m hoping that planning to do a post each week will help me get over this.

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would never post unless I felt like I had something I actually wanted to share.  Sometimes I wish more people would avoid producing crap just for the sake of producing something.  So we’ll see how this plays out against a nominal obligation to post a certain amount.  I totally reserve the right to cop out of the post a week thing at any time (I hear the disappointed cries of literally tens of readers, already…).

Anyway, best wishes to everybody for the coming year – I’m looking forward to the best and most productive one yet.

“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.

Forcing the catastrophe. An interview with Timothy McCormack.

Tim McCormack is a bad-ass. I’d like to come up with something articulate to say about his music, but nothing quite tops Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s introduction to his 10 for ’10 interview with McCormack:

Timothy McCormack (b. 1984) writes high resolution music. Music of razor sharp detail, printed on aluminium. No: not that. It is music magnified too far, so that the spaces between every RGB pixel on the screen are visible. Still no: it is both these, both micro and macro. Timothy McCormack writes music that occupies a fractal world of multiple, conflicting geometries.It has a monolithic quality, certainly, there is no narrative pull, but it nevertheless inhabits and participates in the passage of time. The monolith is neither static in space, nor within itself. Like a body whose cells replace themselves entirely every seven years, standing on a ball of fire and shifting continents, exploding to the edge of the universe at the speed of light. It’s all a question of where you look from. And yet in all locations there are still the same universals, the same forces acting in the same ways. Hyper-activity, completely caged.

I’ve raved here before about how much I like McCormack’s music, so a couple of months ago I sent off a quick batch of questions to Tim, focussing on the two of his pieces that I’m most familiar with, Disfix (for bass clarinet, piccolo trumpet and trombone) and The restoration of objects (for solo viola, two violins and cello). Here’s what came back:

McCormack vs Gerhard Richter's "November"

SoundisGrammar: Initially, I was going to ask you about the relationship your music has to ‘sounds’ and ‘gestures’, in contradistinction to its relationship to things like ‘notes’ and ‘rhythms’. But in the case of both Disfix and The restoration of objects, it seems relatively obvious that the focus of your work is on ‘force’. These scores articulate a space within which it’s possible for these forces to collide with catastrophic effect. ‘Force’ is an interesting word, here. How would you define it in the context of your work?

Timothy McCormack: To address your aborted question first: I think your distinction between notes/rhythms and sounds/gestures in my music is entirely apt. One could say that there are no notes in my music, nor are there rhythms, at least not in any discrete sense of the words. My music sets up situations in which the notes and rhythms are ‘lost in translation’ when actuated by the performer and their instrument, and again when they are received by the listener. Furthermore, it is clear that ‘notes’ and ‘rhythms’ certainly are not the carriers of content in my music. My music requires the performer to engage in specific physical operations with their instrument, the results of which almost always yield both different pitches than those that are specified in the score, and, in fact, more pitches than are apparent. The same goes for rhythm. (I suppose, then, it is not so much a process of being “lost” in translation – perhaps “gained” in translation is more fitting!) In Disfix and The restoration of objects, one way in which this is achieved is through the palimpsestic stratification of multiple layers of rhythmic and pitch-related information within a single instrument. In recent pieces, I have been able to get the same result without having to use discrete multiple layers, as well as with simplified (written) pitch and rhythmic languages. In either case, pitch and rhythm become unquantifiable, composite, and indistinct. At which point, the focus is more on ‘sounds’ and ‘gestures.’ Notes are pulverized into sounds; rhythms are smeared into gestures. What we hear, really, is the performer’s attempt at making notes and rhythms, and the very act of trying to do so prevents it from actually happening.

I suppose one of the main reasons why the focus moved from notes/rhythms to sounds/gestures is because the intent moved from wanting the performer to execute specific notes/rhythms to wanting the performer to actuate personal, brutal and specific physical operations upon their instrument. I say ‘operations’ rather than simply ‘actions’ because the physicality informing my music is always directed towards the sonic consequences of that physicality. That is, the actions themselves, as choreographic, purely athletic displays, do not entirely comprise the ontological identity of any of my pieces. The physical and the aural mutually exert an influence over each other: the physical operations used are chosen because of their sonic result and their ability to mediate that result, while the aural product is always pointing back to its physical means of production. I want the bodily actions to yield compelling aural results, and I want the aural results to sound as if they are the very actions that activated them. The music bears the scars of the body’s violence.

In the context of my work, the word ‘force’ is only fitting as long as it is clear that force is produced through physical effort, or that physical effort in and of itself becomes a force. I will refer to the body and the instrument as forces, but one only becomes a force once acting and reacting against the force of the other. They form an apparatus. They activate each other. Their relationship is confrontational, and in their collision, they produce another force: sound. Thus, sound as a ‘force,’ both physical and spatial, is very real to me. It is palpable and tactile, and can be seen in the very effort exerted in its creation, just as that effort can be heard in its soundwaves. If sound is tactile, then, through organizing it into a musical structure, the piece becomes corporeal. In composition, I seek to find structures and forms that augment the already catastrophic sound and the physical forces behind it. Structure, form and development become forces in their own right once they begin reacting against the force of the music. There is a sense of the piece’s own physical discomfort with itself, as if it is a space too small to contain that which is bubbling inside of it. At times in my pieces, I feel like the very musical/structural fabric tears open under its own violent internal pressure. This happens in Disfix, more than once, I think. The restoration of objects is a bit different. It is either a massive, unwieldy, violent density that is successfully, though just barely, being contained, or it is, from the first attack, a lacerated body, the contents of which are just pouring out in uncontrollable ecstasy.

Are there certain (types of) forces that your working process privileges over others?

As I said, sound is only a force in my music if it is realized as such by the collision of other physical forces. I hear organized sound as a density occupying a space defined by the forces at work before the sound has fully come into being. In my working process, ‘force’ relates most immediately to the two very real forces that converge to make sound: the performer and the instrument. My music – its identity, its behavior, its textures – issues from the relationship between these two forces, and is the consequence of their collision. The sound is always pointing back to the circumstances of its own creation, even while asserting its own identity. It is very hard for me to divorce the sound from how it is created, which then implores me to explore the circumstances of its creation.

"The restoration of objects", solo viola part, mm.1–3

Approaching sound as a physical phenomenon which is actuated, manipulated and maintained by the union of the instrument and the performer allows me to understand not only what sounds I will use in a piece, but also how they will behave and why they are significant. By exploring so thoroughly the physicality behind sound production, I am more clearly able to understand and harness the possibilities that lie therein. What I mean is this: sound, any sound, is extremely complex, with multiple properties and behaviors. How we create sound is just as complex, with just as many properties and behaviors. I am speaking here of the actual corporeal organs used to activate, articulate, sustain and manipulate sound through an instrument, as well as the multiple mechanical components we connect to on an instrument when playing one. All of these have their own unique function in the production of sound, which means that they also have their own autonomous and unique means of manipulating that sound, and thus each organ, each component of the mechanism, is a force unto itself. I have stated that there are two forces at work – the instrument and the performer. When I say that I explore the relationship between these forces, I mean that I attempt to delve into them and activate the forces within forces.

If this approach does not already suggest a working process, it becomes one once my investigation into these forces and their behavior suggest ways to proceed through the composing of a piece. Typically, after working with the instruments and the sounds for a while, elements of the piece – its structure, form, texture, development, etc. – become clear to me, though these things often alter in the course of, and because of, composition, or they take on roles of their own which function in counterpoint to that of the behavior of the sound (for example, structure). The only thing that really remains focused from start to finish is the exploration of the relationship between instrument and performer, and how that effects sound.

Of course, the very act of composition always changes my original impulse.
Is ‘force’ a universal method of conceiving all aspects of your work, or are there elements that fall outside the boundaries of ‘force’?

Thinking in terms of force, how I’ve explained it above, certainly is an overriding concern that has connected many pieces which have explored this idea in different ways. It is something that I think was very present even in early pieces, before my music was conscious enough to articulate its presence and before I was able to understand exactly what interested me about sound. Force as a unifying aesthetic and organizational concept is something that has developed and slowly solidified as such over the course of years in my approach to composition, but it is certainly not the only thing informing my work. Issues of perception have also been an important influence upon my music, and constitute another large area of investigation. I am interested in how we listen to and perceive music, and how or if one’s perception of it actually, in turn, effects it. When I write, I write with the intention that the piece will engage in a private dialogue with a listener’s faculty of perception, and that in that dialogue, they both have the power to exert their influence on one another. This is not unlike the physical relationship I’ve identified as existing between a performer and an instrument. Perception as force, I suppose (so, no, perhaps nothing does fall outside of the conceptual umbrella of ‘force’!).

I am also interested in how we listen to music that is as frenetically active yet as monolithic as mine tends to be. The restoration of objects presents such music. There is no repetition throughout the piece; it spins itself into a highly complicated texture that seems to have far more layers than it does instruments. At the same time, it is insistent upon its own circulatory proliferation of this complex texture, and far before the end has been reached we realize that we are going nowhere. The texture is so distinct that it undermines itself, and becomes utterly indistinct. How do we listen to a sound situation which presents both too much to listen to and essentially nothing our ears can grab hold of? More importantly, how do we retain this music? How do we remember it, and what form does it assume when called upon in our memory? That Restoration‘s texture and density is uniform throughout, that it renders itself indistinct through its local- and global-level circulatory insistence, allows the piece to imprint itself upon a listener’s memory as more defined of an object. Since any moment can effectively stand in for any other, the experience of the piece may be remembered as one compressed moment; a single, discrete object. I’m not sure if this is achievable in music that is more structurally and timbrally defined and teleological. Take Disfix, for example, which actually has a lot of variation, both structural and textural. I can remember Disfix, but only as a montage of individual moments which for one reason or another were retained in my memory. I don’t think the piece is able to unify itself into a physical presence in my mind the way that Restoration can. What I mean here is that Disfix is remembered as its parts – individual musical moments, phrases, gestures, etc – whereas Restoration is able to be remembered as something other than actual events that happen in the piece. One’s memory of it is an object in its own right, distinct from the piece itself. Where the performer and the instrument collide to yield sound, the piece and the listener’s perception collide to yield a unique memory-object. Though this approach of perceiving perception may only be useful to myself, I certainly don’t think it is specific to my music. I find that certain works of art solidify themselves in me as memory-objects, distinct from the work itself. Kenneth Goldsmith’s No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96, many of Gerhard Richter’s abstracts from 1989 and on (such as the four Eis paintings, the six Cage paintings, and the Januar, Dezember, November collection), Robert Smithson’s Map of broken glass, and William Forsythe’s One flat thing, reproduced all have this effect on me. It is important to note that they all are rather monolithic works which assert their uniform presence through continuous, multi-directional, and non-teleological change, development or differentiation, much like Restoration. In all of these works, the parts are infinitely divisible and distinguishable, but the whole is a unified, dense, monolithic, indivisible object which imprints itself into my memory such that I am not simply remembering a selection, a sample, a photograph of the piece; instead I remember something absolutely true to, though unique from, the entirety of the piece. Perhaps it is a psycho-solidification of the ‘experience’ or ‘sensation’ of actively confronting the work of art. This simply does not happen to me in the same way with art that employs discrete figures, gestures, deliberate structural variation or otherwise teleological behaviors, even if I love that art. It is art that shows us what it’s doing rather than art that does what it’s doing, and my mind ends up focusing on its display of itself rather than on the sensational intensity of its forces.

The thing that links issues of force and issues of perception in my music is the concept of density. My music is dense, yes, but I am not simply speaking of a music that can be characterized as displaying denseness. I try to create my music such that it actually becomes a density in and of itself – something with weight and mass, something that is, again, palpable, tactile, and corporeal. A density is three-dimensional – it has depth; a density has a complex and varying interior – it has densities within densities. Despite its complexity and its variation, it remains one thing that does not develop or morph, nor is it juxtaposed to something for the sake of differentiation. This brings us back to what I was saying about The restoration of objects: though it is constantly moving, and frenetically so, it does not go anywhere. It is movement and action without the need for a destination or a reason; it presents the raw forces at work without subjugating those forces to an external and unrelated goal. Thus, while on the local-level (the interior), its multiple forces have multiple trajectories (densities within densities), the piece as a whole (the monolith) is rendered as unmoving, indistinct and unvariegated (a density) through the proliferation of its own interior forces – it is dynamically static. (This is why notes are “pulverized” into sounds and rhythms are “smeared” into gestures – notes and rhythms are too defined to proliferate themselves into a density.) And it is this quality of compiled undifferentiation that allows it to confront a listener’s perception such that it imprints itself as a memory-object distinct of but necessarily related to the piece itself.

Your music makes highly present the reality that musical ‘objects’ maintain validity only in the context of their surroundings. In the case of Disfix, the identity of any particular materials is constantly destabilised through their collision with/refraction through other materials. Would you be able to say something more about the role of mediation in your work? Does mediation play something akin to a structural/semantic role?

I don’t know if I can answer this without repeating much of what I’ve already stated in other contexts. A few questions back, when I was discussing “forces within forces,” it was very difficult to discuss this in the context of my working process and not discuss the idea of mediation. Simply put, the relationship between forces at work in my music is mediatory when both forces have a mutual ability to influence the other. The sound that results in such a situation is thus a mediated sound as it is issued from the collision/refraction of multiple physical forces. I tend to work exclusively with materials/forces which have this ability, and thus what I am exploring is not simply those forces, but the relationships between multiple mediating forces. Again, the most important materials in my music are the body/performer and the instrument. “The Performer” and “The Instrument” are both extremely complex constructions, essentially amalgamations of smaller, specialized complex constructions. The tongue is its own complex body, as are the lips, the jaw, the fingers, and the lungs. The same is true of instruments: a wind instrument’s mechanism (which is itself made of “smaller, specialized complex constructions”), a reed, a string, a bow, a mouth piece, a mute, etc… are all individual forces operating among one another and within the larger force of the instrument itself. Each of these things have their own modes of operation and are each individually able to cast their influence upon a sound. In my music, all of these forces are activated at once in a brutal counterpoint against one another.

This is to say that, in composition, I am hyper-aware that an instrument will be played by a human being. Thus I am not writing simply “for the oboe,” for example, but for an oboe and an oboist. This becomes the basis for all musical material I use. The concept of mediation is born from the fact that, though two forces are being composed for, only one sound will result (“one sound” as distinct from “one note” – a single sound event may very well be multiphonic and multivalent, especially in my music). Thus, the sound that results is a composite force of the instrument’s and the performer’s mutual influence upon one another. Exactly how the body and the instrument are able to influence each other is a virtue of the body’s organs and the instrument’s mechanism. The tongue can articulate while the voice glisses while the lips adjust pressure while the lungs overexert while multiple keys are depressed at different rates from each other while the reed is repositioned, etc…; all of these things happening at the same time, all the time, independently of one another, and thus mediating each other’s influence over the final, resultant sound. Thus, for me, materials colliding with/refracting through other materials is not simply a conceptual approach to the behavior of materials in my music. It is a very real, tactile, corporeal, physical ongoing event: the tongue is actually colliding with the reed which is actually refracting against the lips, for example. These are the materials, which, in simultaneously operating among other materials, shape, influence, limit and otherwise mediate the behavior of all other materials. This catastrophe is evidenced by the sound produced.

We were talking the other week about Gerhard Richter and Cy Twombly. Do you perceive parallels between the work of either of these artists and your own work?

Visual art has been in my life longer than music has, and has absolutely influenced how I approach composition and how I think about my music. It was through examination of the act of painting – the relationship between the canvas and the brush, as well as the function of the paint between them – that I first came to understand the mediative relationship between the performer and the instrument, with sound serving a similar, though elevated, role as paint does. I identified the act of painting as a collision of forces, one active (the brush) and one passive (the canvas), with the paint documenting and solidifying the violent and microscopic space between them. I have come to identify this “violent, microscopic space” as the catastrophe. Once I applied this scenario to music, or, rather, to the act of producing sound on an instrument, it was a sort of “ah-hah!” moment. The musical situation is more complex, as the confrontation is not between an active and a passive force, but between two active forces (the body and the instrument), each having the ability to mediate and influence the other, and each having internal active forces which can operate autonomously of the others (as described above). Sound is the catastrophe, which traces the collision between these forces, and which assumes its textures and timbres from the violent confrontation. This is perhaps why my sounds seem battered, bruised and torn apart – because sound is already all of these things at its inception. It is born of an extremely violent collision between forces; the space between a tongue and reed, a finger and string may be extremely small and localized, but it is also brutal and heavy with intensities.

Angela Guyton's "D"

Painting continues to provide significant insights into music and my work. The painting I am most drawn to is that which displays the violence of this collision in a raw and direct way. The best examples of this, I find, would be Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures from 1989 on, particularly the series I mentioned earlier (the four Eis paintings, the six Cage paintings, and the Januar, Dezember, November triptych). I feel less of a direct connection with Twombly’s work than I do with Richter’s, though much of Twombly’s work of the last decade (such as III Notes from Salalah and Untitled (Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos)) certainly explores the raw and pure act of painting in a unique way, setting up a situation in which the paint itself, succumbing to gravity, is allowed to continue its own collision against the canvas even after it has been applied by the brush. Angela Guyton’s triptych Interfacing with the carcass, as well as an exceptional fourth painting related to but not included in the triptych (titled simply D, of which, if I may add, I am the very proud owner) are other pieces to which I feel my work is particularly related, specifically through their mutual exploration of how the concern with physicality alone can lead to its projection onto a larger form. To quote Guyton on Interfacing with the carcass (from her website): “I only concerned myself completely with the quality of marks and gestures made on each individual canvas–those I did micromanage. By not managing the overall composition of the tryptic [sic], I discovered the image instead of inventing it.” Obviously, Jackson Pollock and Frank Auerbach are also of particular interest to me. Though I am moving beyond painting here, the early work of Richard Serra, particularly his Casting pieces, in which he hurled molten lead at the corner of a wall and floor and the rugged, brutal formation created therein became the piece, is another favorite of mine.

The sounding result of the collision of forces in Disfix is highly unpredictable. What do you regard as the ontological identity of such ‘resultant’ (‘mediated’?) sounds? Are these sounds ‘the piece’, or are they a result of ‘the piece’?

I’m not sure if the result is really all that unpredictable. I’ve never been “surprised” at the sounds performers create when playing my music. I know what I’m working with, physically and aurally, when I compose. You don’t walk into a concert of my music not having some idea of what you are going to hear. The performers do not walk on stage not knowing what sounds they are about to make. We know what Disfix sounds like; we know when it sounds wrong. In a less obvious way, the same goes for The restoration of objects. Though the two ensembles who have done Restoration perform it very differently, both performances are clearly of the same piece. The ontological identity is entirely preserved. The piece “does” the same thing regardless of who is performing it. Though the performances are clearly different, the piece is clearly the same. As far as I am concerned, it is no different than listening to two different recorded interpretations of a Mahler symphony. My pieces simply amplify the differences in interpretation more drastically than other music might. My music is extremely malleable, though resilient enough that it always retains its shape. But, most importantly here, it is entirely repeatable, as ELISION has shown with Disfix, and as Ensemble SurPlus has shown with The restoration of objects. Perhaps the reason why elements in my music cannot be exactly reproduced from performance to performance (aside from the fact that really no acoustic music truly allows for this) is that those same elements cannot be exactly reproduced (or, at times, controlled) even within one performance!

If the sounds themselves are “the piece,” I suppose that suggests that physicality is subservient to sound; necessary actions which the performer merely executes. If the sounds are the result of “the piece,” that means that the physical actions exist for the sake of their own athleticism, and the sounds are in fact supposed to be wildly unpredictable and indeterminate. However, I hope I’ve made it clear that physicality and the sounds that result are inseperable from each other, and cyclically point towards one another in mediation. Sound is issued from physical actions, but those physical actions are specified and circumscribed by the desired sound outcome. For me, ‘the piece’ is an assemblage of other factors, not all of which are purely aural or purely physical, and most of which are outlined elsewhere in this interview. But perhaps most importantly, ‘the piece’ is in the performer’s competent attempt at performance.

[Two different performances of Disfix by ELISION]

What role does notation play in your music? Is there any such thing as a notatable sound? How much of your compositional process stems from the notational strategies you employ?

I suppose whether there is such a thing as a notatable sound or not is a moot point in my music, as I am indicating physical movements rather than describing a sound. Even when I am using pitches on a five-lined staff, those pitches are indicating a fingering or a hand position more than the pitch itself (as we’ve established, more often than not, the pitches/sounds produced and heard are often not the ones, or at least not the only ones, written on the page). Most notation, whether descriptive or prescriptive, seems to me a crude representation of the sounds or actions to which it relates. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, so long as a composer does not expect to construct a one-to-one relationship between score and music. Notation should stand apart from the music it engenders, because they are different things. It is more interesting to develop a notation that enters into a dialogue with the music than one that simply yields music. More importantly, I want my notation to create a dialogue between itself and the performer engaging with it. In many ways, the notation that I develop and the score on which it is solidified is just as much a mediator of the piece as is the performer or the listener!

Notation is a delicate balance: it must provide the performer with the information necessary to perform the piece, but it cannot simply tell them what to do, just as it cannot pose a problem and then immediately provide an answer. There must be ambiguity, but it cannot be a riddle; there must be clarity of intent, but it cannot be a set of instructions. The most interesting and effective notation, for me, aspires to be a dynamic force in its own right, apart from the music it prompts, yet is developed and arrived at by way of sound and structure. If I may, I think that a particularly good example of a notation that embodies that which I have been discussing is that of Evan Johnson. Evan’s notation (to say nothing of his music!) is in my view one of the more interesting, advanced and important notations that I have come across. Particularly in works such as Apostrophe 1 (All communication is a form of complaint) and Apostrophe 2 (Pressing down on my sternum), I feel that Evan has developed something that expresses itself with what Erick Hawkins might describe as a “violent clarity” while also confronting the performer with a slew of seemingly incompatible ambiguities; yet, at no point is the intelligence of his notation actually contradictory, at no point does the artifice crumble or does the integrity of the concept buckle. His notation is inseparable from his music and his convictions, while seemingly problematizing both in an entirely constructive way. If I believe in anything in this world, it is Evan Johnson’s notation.

My notation is always developing and changing, though I believe all of its developments and changes occur organically out of a focused exploration into notation, instrumental mechanism and my own musical preoccupations. Currently, I have developed a notation for the piece I am working on that is somewhere between prescriptive and descriptive in function. For example, the staff used for the violin part in this piece has become a dynamic, expressive force unto itself, on top of all of the other dynamic and expressive symbols and note heads put onto it. It has become a multidirectional indicator of actual parametric information, rather than simply being the static area in which this information would otherwise be notated. This has been an exciting and important development for me as it actually suggests new approaches to the instrument itself. Which begins to answer your question regarding the relationship between my compositional process and my notational strategies. As stated before, everything begins with an investigation into the relationship between performer and instrument, and the sounds possible therein. My conception of this relationship, or at least what I believe its role and presence in a given piece will be, absolutely shapes and develops the notation I use to impart that information. However, once the notation has been established, I find it impossible for it not to introduce or at least suggest musical possibilities that may not have occurred to me before. This is, perhaps, a reason why I believe that a piece is absolutely inseparable from its notation (that is, a piece that utilizes a unique, personal notational strategy). For example, I believe that The restoration of objects cannot be re-notated using another strategy; it is inexplicably bound to its notational model. It would become another piece. One might be able to approximate its sound, or even re-create it, but it could never actually be exactly The restoration of objects.

One of the striking things about the scores of both Disfix and The restoration of objects is the neutrality of the space within each section. Your metric schemes, to take just one example, seem less geared towards shaping lines of ‘narrative’ force, and more geared towards providing a bare stage (or canvas) on which physical forces can collide. Is this a fair assessment?

If I am understanding your question correctly, this ‘neutrality of the space’ in my scores is largely a product of my nonhierarchical treatment of most material strata. My music typically refrains from hierarchies in many of its parameters, from instrumental behavior to sound/silence ratios. Or, if there are clear hierarchical structures, as there are at times in Disfix among the ensemble, the hierarchies are constantly shifting and changing, effectively subverting the function of such structures. I am uninterested in building structure and prescribing perception through hierarchical means – it’s just too easy. In my musical language, this might be achieved through clearly focusing on one particular operation, like mouthpiece-position, as a means through which to define a section. The sudden increased importance of a parameter, technique or operation is a classic means of creating sectional differentiation and structural relevance. Though there are some pieces that can do this to great effect (the simple ‘arco-pizzicato-arco’ form of Lachenmann’s II. Streichquartett “Reigen seliger Geister” comes to mind, as does the music of Pierluigi Billone, in which sectional/textural differentiation seems to result from the frictive stress created between the material and its own laborious, lugubrious progression through time), I find that in general, once a piece employs such obvious means of differentiating structure, that is when I stop listening. Like I said, there are definitely moments, measures or entire sections in Disfix that do this – silences used as dramatic punctuation to the end of a section, the trio becoming solo + accompaniment for a section, the deliberate use and structural function of the voice, etc… – and those are the parts that I regret the most. Thus, we have The restoration of objects, which is so uninterested in presenting clear structural delineations, and therefore prescribing a listener’s perceptive experience, that all local-level structure is instrument-specific (as opposed to ensemble-wide) and, even at that, has barely any aural consequence. The piece is so uninterested in creating hierarchies that, despite having been written for viola and string trio, there is almost no perceivable distinction between the viola and the rest of the ensemble. There is no use of silence throughout the piece, as that already would shape the material in an artificial way. Thus, what results is a completely ‘neutral’ space in which everything is happening all of the time. Even if this ‘everything’ is occasionally structurally dissected or stratified vertically among the ensemble, it is done so in an undifferentiated smooth space which simply presents the material, rather than prescribes how it should be listened to. Effectively, using nonhierarchical structures to create a neutral (listening) space manifests itself materially in Restoration in its presentation of a dense, complex sound-mass, and letting the form organize itself organically from the “phenomenology of [its] making,” to quote Robert Morris. This is clearly related Morris’s concept of anti-form, wherein a piece’s form is found in the organic organization of its own materials. Rather than prescribing a form upon materials, they have been placed in a context in which their natural, inherent form can become evident.

"Disfix" mm. 126–128

How do you conceive of the interaction between the mediatory local relationships and medium- and large-scale architecture?

Recently I find myself mostly concerned with small-scale architectures, meticulously shaping and layering forces upon fleeting moments of a piece, and letting those accumulate to the point that they themselves suggest or compile into medium-scale architectures, which in turn suggest or compile into large-scale architectures. Though this is very hard to actually do when composing music, I am trying to only concern myself with the actual materials with which I am working, and letting the piece’s forms reveal themselves through that process, whether in composition, performance or audition. This is absolutely the opposite of how I used to compose. There was a time when I could not get into the space of a piece before fully mapping out all small-, medium- and large-scale architecture, from metric progressions to all pitch material to all rhythmic material, etc. But, as I’ve articulated here, my focus has shifted so dramatically to concrete physical and aural forces that they have become the very materials with which I work, and things like meter, rhythm and pitch are necessary consequences of the material’s proliferation and projection of itself into a form. I suppose this goes back to your first question regarding rhythm/pitch versus gesture/sound. In Restoration, we are not listening in terms of pitch. Nor do we listen in terms of rhythm or meter, though, unlike pitches, there are rhythms and meters in the score. The material itself is what is heard, and that material has necessarily formed itself into things like raw sounds and gestures. This has led to changes in my notation, some of which I have already articulated here. The piece I’m working on now, for example, actually does have pitches there in the score (whether those are the same pitches we will hear is a different story), though meter and discrete rhythms have been abolished. In performance and audition, the piece will have rhythm, obviously. And, if meter is simply a device with which to frame the space in which gestures take place (or to, as you put it, provide a bare canvas on which physical forces can collide), then the listener may also hear meter. But these things are absent until they are created in real time; they are a product of the confrontation between a person and an instrument. The performer is no longer simply executing these materials; they are actually creating them.

How do you understand your music’s relationship with musical ‘history’/’tradition’?

In all honesty, I try not to.