Crrritic II – distance and dialogue

I’d been meaning for a while to write something about music criticism, and the increasing role of bloggers and online communities in its changing face.  Completely fortuitously, a bunch of stuff has popped up in the last couple of weeks:

Firstly, a chatter post on NewMusicBox by Alexandra Gardner on the merits of newspaper reviews in light of two reviews in the same paper of the same concert (scroll down for some interesting responses in the comments).

Secondly, an interesting-ish fifteen-minute-ish video on blogging and music journalism (via Rouge’s Foam) here, in which I was really struck by this comment from Dr Grant Black (professor and author):

When you associate […] too closely with the product that you review, it becomes very hard to maintain an independent perspective.  […] One of the cardinal rules about criticism is maintaining some sense of distance.   That you have to maintain a sense of distance to have some perspective on the music.

I sorta think that one of the bigger problems evident in classical- and new-music criticism is just this distance of association.  Everywhere in the printed press we see lack of engagement with the material masquerading as independent and impartial perspective.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a review of a live performance that has done little more than list the programme, describe the playing as competent (or not), and perhaps mention whether the rest of the audience liked it or not.
On the other hand, one very seldom reads reviews – even of new music – where one gets the sense that the critic has actually really listened to the piece.

Now, to be fair, critics writing for newspapers are under some pretty dire restrictions in terms of things like word count – Charles T. Downey spells some of these out in his response to Alexandra Gardner’s post – and I do believe it does critics a disservice to overlook these limitations of the medium.  But the question remains as to what the actual value of a review written under these conditions actually serves.

And perhaps this is also partly a side-effect of money being involved.  Black suggests that, as a rule, when you take money out of the equation, the quality drops.  And maybe it’s partially true – if you’re paying somebody, you’re probably going to decide to pay somebody that can string a good sentence together.  Contrariwise, I’d like to suggest that when you remove money, the people still involved in musical criticism are the ones that really care about contributing to the discourse.  While Schumann and Berlioz’s activities as musical critics were certainly lucrative for them, they were fundamentally motivated by a love of and investment in a field in which they were themselves practitioners – the validity of the perspective they brought to their criticism was manifest in the nuance and subtlety of their (at times highly impassioned) commentary, rather than by pretending that there’s some kind of distance.

Ultimately, is there really a sensible criterion of ‘distance’?  Doesn’t that suggest some sort of objectivity?  I don’t really believe in objectivity, and I don’t think that criticism is something where objective distance is a meaningful thing to talk about.  I do believe in authority, and readers can make their own decisions about whom they trust to talk about the music that they love.

Black seems to assume that criticism is the same sort of reporting as news reporting.  It’s not.  If it were, it would be difficult to put a review together that consists of anything more than a list of factual information about the pieces themselves.  Music is a cultural artefact arising from, and produced for the consumption of, communities of listeners who share similar tastes and auditory interests.  It stands in dialogue with other music produced under similar (and different!) conditions.  There is no such thing as ‘The’ audience, just as there is no such thing as a set of objectively justified/justifiable criteria for what makes a piece ‘great’.  As such, criticism should ideally constitute an engagement with the material that reflects the subcultural priorities to which the critic subscribes.

The medium of blogging permits this.  There’s plenty of dross, to be sure, and the kind of soapboxing that I’m indulging in right now (the downside of internet democracy is internet democracy, it turns out…), but the open-ness of the interwebz permits highly engaged listeners to offer an individual, nuanced and informed view that responds to these priorities, without the limitations imposed by the print media.  They are better able to serve the needs of their potential readership, and, perhaps more importantly, better placed to enact this in the spirit of cultural dialogue, rather than cultural catalogue.

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.

New Music Scrapbook

A recent initiative of people associated with the University of Minnesota, New Music Scrapbook provides a series of fascinating composer interviews and accompanying audio of their work.

In the words of the Scrappers themselves:

Born of desperation and raised by wolves, NEW MUSIC SCRAPBOOK congeals the musical detritus and burnt offerings of the composers beneath, above, and within the University of Minnesota. Dig here for music and interviews. And we mean deep.

One thing I love about the interviews, particularly, is that they are long. These are not cursory two-minute things that effectively blot out any context from them, these are big, rambling (yet focused) conversations that succeed in presenting a detailed image of the composer’s outlook.

This is a valuable resource, and I wish more people were doing stuff like this.

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.

Hardcore 2: the hardening

Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop performing "Dialoge 09" at the Neues Museum, Berlin. Still hardcore.

The subtitle is my own, of course, but Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop’s performance last Friday of Hardcore 2 was, well, pretty hardcore.

The first thing you notice about Hardcore 2 is that it features what, on paper, just looks like a hardcore weird programme. It went like this:

Enno Poppe: 17 Etüden für die Violine (1993) 2. Heft
Ludwig van Beethoven: Große Fuge, op. 133 (1825/26) (arr. for string orchestra)
George Brecht: Symphony No 2 (1962)
Georg Philipp Telemann: Fantasie für Viola solo (1735)
James Tenney: For 12 Strings (rising) (1971)
Henry Purcell: Fantasia Nr 2 für 3 Streicher (1680)
Marc Sabat: Everlasting sweet peas für 3 Violinen (1998) Tarantella – Saraband – Menuet – Ricercar – Anglaise – Courante
George Brecht: Solo for Violin, Viola or Contrabass (1962)
Iannis Xenakis: ST/4-1,080262 (1962)
György Ligeti: Ramifications für 12 Solostreicher (1967–69)

The second thing you notice is that this is framed within a choreography by Aliénor Dauchez. This choreography was non-intrusive and non-illustrative, remaining more in the spirit of providing connections in space between the works, as a kind of breathing installation. For the most part this was extremely successful, although there were one or two moments that jolted me out of the immersion a bit. The most problematic of these, for me, was during Xenakis’s ST/4-1,080262, where the entire ensemble (other than the quartet) was engaged in what appeared to be arbitrary/abstract arm gestures vaguely reminiscent of ballet (or the Village People) unfolding very slowly over time. I’m sure there must have been more to it than that, but for me this unfortunately detracted from the music, appearing, simply through proximity and juxtaposition in space, to forcibly locate therein a context for the music that simply isn’t there. One of the great strengths of Xenakis’s music is precisely the fact that it outright refuses to submit to its context, and it was a shame to see this boldly uncompromising music somehow pacified here.

But this is really a terribly minor gripe. On the whole the dramaturgy worked extremely well. Furthermore, such devices invite the audience to focus more closely on the pieces themselves by presenting them as essentially a single, unbroken, span of music. This prompts the audience to consider the links between different pieces on the programme, and subtly foregrounds the art of programming itself in a way that a more typical ‘stand-and-play’ approach does not.

And the programming here, for all it’s apparent weirdness, was shockingly good.

As an example, the juxtaposition of Poppe and Beethoven, as the first two pieces, was to pretty much set the scene for what was going to unfold for the rest of the night. The jarring, self-correcting, self-analytical language of Poppe’s work, trying as it does to almost learn itself, to feel its way through and create meaning out of its own syntax, amplifies the almost schizophrenic thematic discourse of Beethoven’s late masterpiece, while the historically-informed-practice-meets-Sex-Pistols-bravura performance of LvB rewrought it into something exhilaratingly new, something capable of contextualising (and even combatting) the twentieth century.

Also from "Dialoge 09"

Works often balanced and reinterpreted one another in surprising and remarkable ways. James Tenney’s Music for 12 strings (rising) seemed a slightly bold departure from the sound world of the rest of the programme, only to be lovingly drawn into the fold conceptually, cognitively and aurally by the final work, Ligeti’s Ramifications.

But such prodgious programming comes at a cost. The most recent work on the programme was Sabat’s, written in 1998, and it’s difficult to imagine such a perfect balance arising from a concert featuring multiple world premières, where the unknowability of the precise qualities of the works involved beforehand is such a factor in programming balance.

And so onto the playing itself. These guys played the shit out of this repertoire. The playing was an utterly bewitching combination of passion, precision, energy, wit, daring and, perhaps most importantly, a deep love for the music. Kaleidoskop, as ensemble and as a collection of soloists, displays a deep sensitivity and commitment to this music that was an utter pleasure to behold.

It’s hard to pinpoint with precision exactly what was hardcore about this concert. Maybe it was the bold combination of old and new, and its subsequent transformation into the Very New. Maybe it was level of player commitment, which rolled over the audience in palpable waves. Maybe it was the dramaturgical installation-ness of it. But I suspect that hardcoritude is something a bit more indefinable. Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop are hardcore in the Jarvis Cocker sense – you may not be able to tell exactly why it’s hardcore, but you’re 100% certain that it is.

Videos of previous Kaleidoskop performances (including the original Hardcore) are available on Kaleidoskop TV.

EDIT: Just stumbled across this interesting, if brief, interview with the Kaleidoskop’s artistc director Michael Rauter, and managing director Volker Hormann (in German).

Neither wholes nor parts

Composer Scott McLaughlin has finally started a blog. This comes as awesome news to those of us who’ve been wishing he would for (in my case, at least) as long as we’ve known him.


It’s not my custom to indulge in shameless self promotion here, but I was rather touched by Gordon Kerry’s lovely article about my work in issue 3 of Salt Magazine. Gordon’s is one of startlingly few voices writing intelligently, articulately and meaningfully about notated music in Australia, and I’m genuinely honoured at his generosity towards my work in this piece.

The article can be read here, and is accompanied by audio of my Piano trio performed by the awesome Freshwater Trio in Melba Hall on the 11 November 2008.

[EDIT] Just for you, Scott, the score can be downloaded below.
Piano trio full score.

“It is necessary to insist”

In late March, Klang ist Grammatik had the good fortune to be able to attend a bunch of stuff at Berlin’s Märzmusik festival.

One of the most inspiring events, however, was the pair of remarkable artist talks. The second was with Salvatore Sciarrino (whose German is pretty basic, which was great for me because it meant that I could understand him…) and Beat Furrer (who’s German is understandably a lot better, and he’s a bit of a mumbler, really. He said something about Tristan, and narrative, and  a boat). The first, and by far the most interesting, though, was with Lucia Ronchetti, whose Musiktheater work Der Sonne entgegen was premiered at the festival, and Nicola Sani, an Italian composer and (until very recently) the artistic director of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.

Sani described a paradoxical situation in Italy whereby, despite there being a network of 42 major opera houses, one must travel to Berlin, or to Salzburg, Vienna or Paris, in order to hear new opera by important Italian composers such as Ronchetti or Sciarrino. Which means, he suggests, that the system doesn’t work.

Now, in reality, of course things are much more complicated than this. There are a wide range of different considerations and factors at play. But the more one focuses on the myriad complications, and on tweaks to existing systems aimed at mitigating liabilities, the more one is distracted from the fundamental fact that the system doesn’t work. The system of live operatic (and, by extention, musical) dissemination is manifestly unsuited to bringing new work to it’s target audiences.

I found the black-and-whiteness of this view refreshing, and utterly beguiling.

The statement that I was most taken by, however, was Sani’s declaration that “it is necessary to insist”, effectively calling for a restoration of faith by practitioners in the value and validity, indeed the necessity of contemporary art. An end to the almost apologetic stance contemporary art so frequently takes in relation to broader cultural activity. This is an inspirationally positivist call-to-arms that is impossible to resist.

Ideally, these two strands will meet in the middle somewhere. A fully reconsidered system of artistic dissemination that intrinsically values the media it is charged with disseminating and speaks to relevant audiences. It’s possible, even necessary that such changes occur. I insist.

RIP Yvonne Loriod

Yvonne Loriod has died, aged 86.

There is really not much more to say, beyond the fact that the shadow she casts as performer and pedagogue over the second half of the twentieth century is utterly unique, be it in the music of Messiaen (with which she is understandably so intimately connected) or the music of other composers such as Jean Barraqué.


Loriod with Padromos Symeonidis