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.

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ELISION, Ferneyhough, “Terrain”, and the performative tradition of complexity

One of the advantages of having my CD player back is that I can listen, over and over again, to this new release from ELISION ensemble of the music of Brian Ferneyhough on Kairos.

Now, the disclaimer here is that Terrain is pretty much a precision-targeted, Soundisgrammar-seeking love bomb. This is some of my favourite music in the world, performed by some of my favourite performers in the world, and there was pretty much no chance at all that I was going to dislike this disc. But that aside:

It’s amazing.

Apart from being a collection of utterly brilliant, lucid, aggressively argued performances, this disc very much heralds the beginning of a new era in the performance of this music. A coming of age, as it were, of the performance tradition of the new complexity.

I’ve alluded before on these pages to the excitement of being at the coalface of developing performance practices for new music, and Ferneyhough himself has spoken often and eloquently on the subject of interpretation and performance practice in his own music. Here is a lengthy, but representative, example from an interview with James Boros:

In previous ages it was never performances which survived, but scores, notated music. If all the information necessary to a correct interpretation is not contained in a score, it is practically impossible to reconstruct original intentions with any degree of certainty. Only tradition can provide some sort of tenuous continuity in this respect. If you play a Beethoven sonata, you’re not interpreting the notes on the page, you’re interpreting many generations of interpretation, an entire corpus of slowly evolving conventions. Contemporary music has little of this sense of self-reflexive tradition, partly for the obvious reason of being new, but also because of the extreme fragmentation of stylistic continuity so characteristic of the present day. This results in a sort of institutionalized deracination where the performer is all too often reduced to putting the right notes in the right place with little sense of the larger perspective which would make it all make sense to him. If one considers interpretation as the art of meaningful deviation from the text, one will be saddened to hear music played (and – mutatis mutandis – composed and listened to) in this reductive manner. In terms of my own work, I employ what some consider to be over-definition of the musical image as a path to suggesting what might come to replace this interpretive overview. Composers who tend to restrict their notational specifications to a bare minimum end up getting one-dimensional representations of a possible sound-world rather than entering into that world’s inner workings.

What I find particularly compelling about this statement generally, and in connection with this recent release in particular, is the subjective, qualitative difference in performance practice Ferneyhough draws between musics with lengthy traditions and those without (in this case, essentially ‘old’ vs ‘new’ musics). But what are the implications of the presence (or absence) or such performative tradition?

The first is the degree to which what is on the page is able to be regarded as intrinsically valid as a prescription of performative or sonic action. The complexity of Ferneyhough’s notation has been the source of much verbiage in journals, interviews (there’s scarcely an interview with BF that doesn’t at some point include a question to the effect of “So… your notation is super tricky. What’s that all about?”), programme notes, liner notes, etc. I think it’s fair to say that Ferneyhough’s notational practices have taken on an almost mythical aura of complexity, a sort of in-built notational polemicism that, for my money, has very little to do with the musical content of his scores.

Related to this is the perception of virtuosity. Now, I don’t believe anyone would go so far as to suggest that the music of Brian Ferneyhough is anything but virtuosic, but once again, the discourse on this music is dominated by this almost polemical aura of virtuosity. One has the sense that for nearly fifty years, now, the battle in performing this music has been solely one of mustering the necessary technique to jump the performative hurdles that Ferneyhough has laid down.

The absence of tradition in both of these instances results in an unnecessary and undesirable foregrounding of these superficial extramusical qualities. The constellation of sundry issues relating to the music’s presentation, appearance, and learning is forced into a position of prominence that effectively obscures the underlying musical and expressive elements. The presence of a tradition, on the other hand, results in the progressive perspectivisation of these sundry elements in relation to the music. By interpreting an existing tradition, the notes on the page are imbued with a de facto underlying validity, empowering performers  to ‘speak’ from the base of, interpret and amplify (for example) a highly charged rhythmic scheme, rather than fight their way through a tangled and impenetrable rhythmic web.

Graeme Jennings, apparently not breaking a sweat...

This is not to say that we’ve made a simple step from an absence of tradition to that tradition’s presence. Rather, tradition is a constantly evolving body of communal knowledge, propagated and augmented by the act of performance, an act which unavoidably takes place in dialogue with tradition, however limited that tradition may be. The present recording is a watershed in the discography not because it heralds the sudden arrival of a meaningful tradition, but rather because it presents us with by far the most cohesive document yet of that tradition’s evolution. Obviously, this is very difficult music, but ELISION’s players chew this up seemingly without breaking a sweat (or, at least, they’re sweating Good Sweat). These revelatory performances amplify the tensions and lines of force embedded in the score without undue focus on the perceived ‘difficulty’ of this music.

It may seem that, due to the nature of the praise I’m heaping on this disc, that I am, by default, rubbishing every previous recording of Ferneyhough. I’m not. Indeed, there are parts of the Ferneyhough discography which have been almost life-altering in their significance for me. But this really is a blindingly amazing CD, and is without a doubt the finest set of performance of Ferneyhough’s music available by quite a large margin. I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s one of the finest discs of new music around.

Period.

New ELISION videos from King’s Place

Stand by for a post on the obsessive, geeky love affair I’ve been having with ELISION’s new disc of the music of Brian Ferneyhough, entitled Terrain.

In the meantime, ELISION has published a series of videos to Youtube of performances from King’s Place in February:

Liza Lim, Invisibility

Just breathtaking.

Richard Barrett, Aurora

I was a bit hard on this piece when I originally posted on the concert. Perhaps I still don’t like it so much as I like much of Barrett’s other work, but I think it’s definitely a piece that rewards repeated listening. Also, rewatching this, I can’t see/hear the sense of ‘unsettledness’ in performance that I alluded to. These guys eat this piece for breakfast. (Obviously, this has far-reaching implications in terms of the validity of any of the opinionated waffle I post here…).

Timothy McCormack, Disfix

What can I say, I love this piece.


“Terrain” – ELISION ensemble at King’s Place

ELISION’s second concert of 2010 takes place at King’s Place as part of their Out Hear series next Monday. Entitled Terrain, this programme features Ferneyhough’s remarkable work for solo violin + ensemble as a kind of centrepiece, tying in nicely with the release of ELISION’s long-awaited disc of Ferneyhough ensemble works on Viennese label KAIROS.

The concert also features Bryn Harrison’s Surface forms (repeating), heard first at last year’s hcmf, Transference – a new work by Mary Bellamy for solo cello, James Dillon’s Once upon a time and Liza Lim’s stunning Songs found in a dream (performed at hcmf by MusikFabrik).

A big highlight of this concert for me, though, is the première of Aaron Cassidy’s And the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth (or, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion). Those familiar with the prior three Studies… (solos and a duo extracted from the larger ensemble piece) will be aware that this is some of the most provocative music around at the moment and I, for one, can’t wait to hear the whole ensemble piece.

Here, irritatingly in two parts, is Being itself a catastrophe, the diagram must not create a catastrophe (or, Third Study for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion)

Invisibility

On 8th of February at King’s Place, London, the ELISION ensemble gave their first concert of 2010. Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s review of this can be found in Musical Pointers.

I wrote last year about Evan Johnson’s Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum) when it was premiered in Melbourne. At that time, I found it highly thought-provoking, but my mental jury was out. The performers were seated so far from the audience as to be almost inaudible in a boomy acoustic that eradicated detail and was unflattering to the larger shapes. Since then, I’d heard both the ABC radio broadcast (electrifying) and the studio recording made at Radio Bremen in September (about fifty times more so). But while these documents represent a fascinating aural experience, there is a live-performance aspect missing that is, I feel, fairly integral to the piece. When such recorded detail is so conveniently presented on a nice silver disc, the sense of cognitive struggle in performance that Johnson’s work embraces is simply absent.

So it was with great delight that I witnessed the extraordinary alchemy of Tristram Williams and Benjamin Marks, in the idiosyncratic acoustic of King’s Place, reveal this work as a masterpiece. Firstly, this performance was a great deal more polished than the Melbourne one. Gone were the deafeningly loud page turns, and gone was the frantic struggle of just trying to get through it. This was replaced with a tight focus, an utterly thrilling sense of danger and, of course, about a truckload of physical effort.

The acoustic of King’s Place does wonderful things to quiet dynamics. The finer degree of detailing in dynamic shapes are retained with great fidelity. The listening experience of Apostrophe 2 this time was one in which the islands of barely audible, barely stable sonorities violating the peripheries of perception was maintained, but with an endlessly fascinating, multifaceted sonic outcome. It’s a shame that the physical demands of such a work mean that it will never be more than niche repertoire, as this is music-making of the first order.

Liza Lim’s Invisibility for solo cello (here lovingly communicated by Séverine Ballon) also benefitted a great deal from the acoustic. The myriad different flavours of sonic fracture accessed through the use of the guiro bow took on an almost larger-than-life character. The semantic import of melodic and textural shapes seemed almost devastatingly potent. I first heard this piece at HCMF in St Paul’s Hall. My recollection is that the performance in Huddersfield seemed more precise, but this performance provided an astonishingly profound inner journey. And I certainly wasn’t the only audience member to think so.

The other really notable piece on this programme was Timothy McCormack’s Disfix. This is an important work by a very important (although still emerging) composer. Again, I heard this work for the first time at HCMF, where the sheer violence and force of this work were nearly overwhelming. Unfortunately this was a case wherein the acoustic of King’s Place was deeply unflattering, with the energy seeming somehow insulated from the sonic force.

Here is a video, available on YouTube, of the HCMF performance of Disfix. Turn your speakers right up.

The ink-still-wet-on-the-page Aurora, by long-time ELISION collaborator Richard Barrett was a bit of a disappointment. While there were some very striking moments, the piece as a whole just seemed to not quite work. However, as TR-J’s review rather diplomatically puts it, this could be for any number of reasons. Sharing an instrumentation with the Johnson, the work was clearly less played-in, and this may also have contributed. I’d really like to hear a second performance of this piece, though. Perhaps more time with this piece will reveal things that were missed the first time around.

The concert also featured the premiere of Roger Redgate’s Tehom, Klaus K. Hübler’s 1983 trombone solo CERCAR, a beautiful performance of James Dillon’s Crossing over by Richard Haynes, and the premiere of the eleventh installment in Richard Barrett’s ongoing Codex series of pieces.

In the coming weeks, I will put up some more in-depth looks at the work of both Evan Johnson and Timothy McCormack, as well as, hopefully (and at the risk of this space becoming little more than a paean to ELISION) some material related to ELISION’s March concert in King’s Place.

The Rambler

My hat goes off to Tim Rutherford-Johnson and The Rambler – easily one of the best new music blogs on the web – for his 2010 initiatives.

Focussed, at this point, around Invisibility, the ELISION concert at King’s Place next Monday (if you’re in London, please go – this is not to be missed), Johnson has initiated a series of composer interviews (read the one with Evan Johnson here) and round-table discussions (involving ELISION director Daryl Buckley, trombonist Ben Marks and composers Evan Johnson, Richard Barrett and Tim McCormack).

This strikes me as the perfect way of blurring the frequently- (and annoyingly-) insurmountable boundaries between the practice of ‘informal’ musical commentary and the engaging in real discourse about the meaning and purpose of what we do. TRJ has succeeded in creating a space where these discussions can take place publicly, rather than being restricted to an ivory tower or (more often) a pub.

How strange that the idea of a bunch of musicians talking to one another about music on the web should seem somehow revolutionary…

HCMF 2009

Since relocating to Europe from Australia, one of the more profound experiences I’ve had (things like Paris weddings and the constellation of transcontinental bureaucratic trivialities notwithstanding) has been the 2009 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I’d say the boat has well and truly sailed in terms of the relevance of doing any kind of blow-by-blow account of what actually happened at the Festival, but I don’t think I can escape without saying something.

This was my first experience of a contemporary music festival that exists in such a concentrated form. All of my previous festival experiences have been of either the two-days-of-frantic-activity variety, or else the one-month-of-sporadic-activity variety. In Huddersfield, though, not only is it ten days of multiple events, but it is situated in a small town with nothing much else going on. Unlike major-city festivals such as Berlin’s Ultraschall, there is nothing else to distract you from the music-making. Additionally, the size of the town lends a social air that is, perhaps, impossible in more ‘accessible’ circumstances. For ten days, there is nothing to do but listen to and discuss the music.

The Festival has a strange physiognomy. Each year, at possibly the most stupidly climatically untoward time of year, a small (although not as small as one might expect) band of deeply committed new-music enthusiasts converges on West Yorkshire to attend it. Started by Richard Steinitz in 1978, the Festival was initially intended as a way to bring ‘culture’ to Yorkshire (and, more generally, the North of England). With little more than a shoestring budget Steinitz managed, in his twenty-three years as Festival director – through a combination of determination, sweet contacts and sheer force of personality – to bring the avant-garde’s most important luminaries (Boulez, Berio, Cage, Ligeti, Messiaen… the list goes on) to Huddersfield, quickly building it into undoubtedly the most important new music festival in the United Kingdom.

One of the more remarkable things about the experience of a Festival such as Huddersfield’s is the degree to which it reinforces the sense of this being a living tradition – a highly instanced series of performances which, by virtue of their context, interrogate a broader cultural tradition, asking questions, rather than declaring answers. Such living tradition – such dialogue – is not something that submits cheerily to ‘over-programming’. Sometimes it’s necessary to simply allow the dialogue to develop on its own, which is precisely the curatorial strategy that HCMF 2009 adopted.

One thing which stood constantly in the background was HCMF’s recently formalised relationship with the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM). While this relationship was occasionally ‘marketed’ (such as through the talk with HCMF director Graeme McKenzie, CeReNeM Director Professor Liza Lim and inaugural recipient of the CeReNeM/HCMF scholarship Lefteris Papadimitriou), generally this manifested through the subtle presence of CeReNeM composers and performers. But the relationship has deeper implications than this. It was never really explicitly stressed, but the HCMF/CeReNeM partnership imparts a sense of potential development, of continuing ramifications beyond the temporal limits of the Festival proper. CeReNeM is able to provide not only a focal point for continuing musical discourse, feeding into the Festival, but is also able to function as a kind of custodian of the HCMF’s history and legacy. This is probably most visible through the newly formed Festival archive – a massive collection of scores, concert programmes, etc donated by Steinitz – housed in the library at the University of Huddersfield.

One criticism that I was surprised to hear people make was that the Festival this year was quite mainstream, that it didn’t focus enough on new works by young composers. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really find this problematic. While Jonathan Harvey is obviously a ‘big name’, the other featured composers sit (at least slightly, and some more than others) apart from the establishment. For me, Musica Elletronica Viva was (by far) the featured item with the least relevance to this context (one concert-goer going so far as to jokingly describe it as being like Last of the summer wine). I actually quite enjoyed it, but it was the almost voyeuristic thrill of staring back through time at a performance practice and aesthetic grounded in another era, rather than the thrill of being a part of something new.

A final thought: Having only arrived recently in the Northern Hemisphere, with my sense of cultural cringe firmly intact, I was very surprised at the impact of Australian musicians at this Festival. ELISION presented three concerts – more than any other individual or ensemble, with the exception of Phillip Tomas’s daily Pisaro performances, and by halfway through the Festival their virtuosity, commitment, and sheer awesomeness was the talk of the town. Similarly, composer Liza Lim had five works performed throughout the course of the week – the same number as ‘featured’ composer James Dillon. Genevieve Lacey presented an almost wholly Australian programme of solo recorder works, and Quatuor Diotima performed the premiere of a new work by Matthew Shlomowitz. Vienna-based Australian Tamara Friebel and I presented works in a symposium with Jonathan Harvey. The stonkingly arse-kicking Köln-based ensemble MusikFabrik contains a number of Australian members. It seemed like, wherever one looked, Australian musicians were prominently placed, in the best of all possible contexts.

This phenomenon was both heart-warming and heart-rending. Most Australian artists realise that, as a nation, we punch above our weight in terms of the quality of what we produce, but it’s tragic that the cream of Australia’s remarkable crop is able to find genuine recognition on a global stage, but unfortunately has trouble paying the bills back home. Even more tragic is that this probably doesn’t come as news to anyone…


Rambler’s best concerts of 2009

Tim Rutherford-Johnson has posted his list of the five best concerts of 2009. Awesome list. Opening of the mouth was certainly about the finest thing I saw all year, too, but it’s a shame TR-J was unable to stay for ELISION’s Braxton excursion a couple of nights later.

Book review: Sounding postmodernism

David Bennett’s Sounding postmodernism (published by the Australian Music Centre) is an attempt to look at Australian composition through the lens of a modern/postmodern dichotomy. Despite the understanding of these particular terms being highly contestable in a musical context (both are very highly politicised, and the claiming of these terms by particular aesthetic/ideological camps renders them almost useless in terms of their actual meaning), this should have been a really interesting contribution to the Australian discussion.

Unfortunately, every time I picked this book up to read it, I started to get really pissed off.

Bennett’s book, rather than surveying a landscape, seems to be an articulate but thinly veiled attempt to propagate the myth that ‘modernism’ is evil and crushes your freedom of expression, while ‘postmodernism’ is free and you can do what you want. I respectfully disagree with this viewpoint (or, rather, I think that talking about a ‘modernist hegemony’ is meaningless, given the extreme variety of different approaches that the book categorises as ‘modernist’ – indeed, it seems to me that the modernists are simply the ones who the ‘postmodernists’ felt were repressing them), that shouldn’t have been a barrier to an interesting publication. As it is, though, Bennett aims to provide a context, rather than an analysis, and to this end quote frequently and selectively from musicians like John Adams and Phillip Glass, without offering much in the way of the countering view. This gives the reader very little option but to accept what Bennett writes wholesale.

I’m too young to remember the ‘modernist hegemony’, and as such am not prepared to challenge the veracity of Bennett’s claims, but he’s done a terribly shabby job of actually proving his point, lending the book a propagandist air, rather than one of scholarly dissection. I’m sure that this is because that is the way that many of Bennett’s interviewees perceived the aesthetico-political status quo at the time they became practitioners, and that’s all well and good, but Bennett’s rhetorical mode gives the sheen of academia to what is essentially a collection of unverified opinion and hearsay.

Furthermore, Bennett seems to take the view (or want his interviewees to take the view) that there is still an institutionalised modernist hegemony, actively repressing freedom of expression.

This is the particular thread of the book that really pissed me off, as it’s laughably inaccurate. One need only point, on one hand, to the chairmanship of Graeme Koehne (and now Matthew Hindson) of the Music Board of the Australia Council, Carl Vine’s directorship of Musica Viva (which has seen a parade of featured composers including Matthew Hindson, Graeme Koehne, Carl Vine, Richard Mills, Ross Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe), and the concentration of major performing and recording opportunities such as the ABC Classics CD series of Australian Orchestral works performed by the TSO with Richard Mills (which has included composers such as Graeme Koehne, Richard Mills, Anne Boyd, Ross Edwards and Brenton Broadstock).

Contrast this with the de-funding of the ELISION ensemble, the exodus of many of the country’s finest contemporary performers and composers (Richard Haynes, Liza Lim, Peter Veale, Carl Rosman, Mark Knoop, the list goes on and on), the rapid growth in Melbourne of a DIY underground contemporary music scene, the continual lack of funding for experimental music (which routinely attracts bigger audiences than many ‘important’ Australian composers) and the sheer impossibility of receiving new-work funding for anything outside the ‘postmodernist hegemony’, and I think the actual picture becomes relatively clear.
For many composers I know, building a career in this country has been a constant struggle absolutely every step of the way against a politically-powerful compositional ‘ruling class’ which is actively antagonistic to anything that might have a dissonance in it (much of this ‘class’ receives a shout-out in the paragraph above, although there are some genuine and remarkable individuals there, too, who I hope won’t be too offended by the proximity).

While obviously well-grounded in twentieth-century critical theory, Bennett doesn’t seem to really know anything about the music he discusses. Any of it. In his discussions of Boulez, for instance, he seems happy to let other people speak for him. I wasn’t left with the impression that he’d heard even a single note of Boulez, and the quoting-from-others approach in this context doesn’t even have the advantage of scholarly rigour, given that no dissenting view is provided, and the quotes are not interrogated.

The interviews that account for a significant portion of the book are rather problematic, too. A series of questions was posed to a wide selection of composers of varying artistic practice across Australia about their relationship with the term ‘postmodernism’ and their attitudes to compositional work. My understanding is that much of this work was undertaken by Dr Linda Kouvaras, to whom props are due, as these are a very interesting series of questions. Transcripts are available on Resonate magazine of the interviews with David Chisholm and David Chesworth.

Unfortunately, many of the interview subjects seem not to really have any idea what ‘postmodernism’ is, or that they’ve even thought about any problems that might relate to mode of musical expression, as related to the nature of the tradition or of audience reception. Frankly, many of these interviews are just embarrassing, and the fact that in most cases the subjects are not aware of the collossal gap between the question being asked and their capacity to respond is even more sad.

With a few notable exceptions, those that write most eloquently on their relationship with postmodernism are those that identify themselves as being more broadly sympathetic to the modernist project, a result that runs the risk of giving the impression that anybody who has actually thought about the issues here doesn’t buy into the postmodern politics.

I’m being, perhaps, overly harsh here, but I can’t help but feel terribly betrayed. This book should have been a great opportunity to further intelligent, articulate discourse on contemporary music in Australia. But, sadly it’s just another propaganda leaflet, aimed at furthering an aesthetic programme of questionable value and taste.

[P.S. Although the praise from the back cover of the book (from Peter Tregear and Susan McClary) is readable on the book’s Amazon page, I can’t find any other reviews of this on the interwebz (yet). If anybody knows of one, or wishes to offer a dissenting view, I’d be very pleased if you could get in touch so that I can either link to or include other views here in the interests of balance.]

[EDIT 18 Jan 2010] I highly, highly recommend that people interested in further reviews of this book make the effort to access Michael Hooper’s excellent review in Cambridge University Press’s TEMPO journal. Unfortunately, this is not available through online databases, but for those not averse to libraries, the bibliographic details for this can be found here, or in Dr Paul Watt’s comment, below. MH draws some rather different conclusions from my own, although I pretty much agree with him point-for-point on the details. He also discusses in more than cursory detail all of the elements of the books that I didn’t.

Sternum = well-pressed

Last week, the incomparable ELISION ensemble performed in Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium.

Richard Haynes has put together a pretty comprehensive précis of what went down on his blog, and I shan’t say too much more about the repertoire itself. A somewhat unsympathetic review can be found on Resonate, too.

[EDIT 11-oct-09: a much more sympathetic review has just appeared on RealTime Arts although, sadly, it doesn’t say anything about the Johnson work.]

Evan Johnson‘s Apostrophe 2: Pressing down on my sternum, for quartertone flugelhorn and alto trombone, though, provoked a few thoughts. The work itself was an extraordinary exercise in suppression. Heavily muted, facing the back wall, as far away from the audience as possible, Tristram Williams and Ben Marks let fly with a blistering performance of some of the quietest music you will ever hear, comprised of instrumental sonorities, vocalisations (the trumpet’s vocal part – terrifyingly – starts on ‘Queen-of-the-night F’) and throat manipulations. Johnson will be familiar to Melbourne audiences from the premiere of his Apostrophe 1: All communication is a form of complaint for two bass clarinets last year, or Hyphen for solo crotales from a performance by Speak Percussion in May.

My first instinct was that the stifling of the performer was so successful that you couldn’t even tell that they were being stifled, and that this might have been mitigated by either losing the mutes or performing facing the audience. But really this depends on where Johnson locates the game – the piece definitely succeeds in creating an atmosphere where the audience itself struggles to relate to the performance (itself a struggle), and it’s perhaps all the more fascinating for that.

From the discussions I’ve had with other audience members (both after the concert and in the intervening weeks), it seems that this work polarised opinion somewhat. Interestingly, the people that seemed to react very well to it tended to be those that are more heavily involved in Melbourne’s experimental music scene, rather than those whose activities are restricted to more conventional new-music concertising. I don’t think this necessarily has any bearing whatsoever on the actual quality of the work, but it certainly does have implications in terms of the development of a context for this music.

This is music which, for better or worse, requires a great deal more from both performer and audience than most, and it’s telling that those audience members that got into it were those with long-standing habits of attempting to engage with foreign musical materials, rather than sitting placidly, passively back and waiting to be ‘wowed’. The strength of Johnson’s music is precisely this – it forces its audience to have a complex reaction (whether positive or negative), rather than simply trying to impress its audience with superficial charms.

But I wonder (and I’m far from the first) if the standard concert format is conducive to this sort of musical engagement? Certainly, I’ve been to concerts where the space and acoustic have permitted an intimate connection with the performance, but most concerts seem to resemble a presentation by a performer to an audience, rather than an interaction between audience and performer.

It’s only natural that, as the repertoire evolves, the concert format needs to evolve in sympathy. This is not necessarily something that needs to be forced, and probably can’t be predetermined. But it’s incredibly exciting to be there, in the front row, as performance practices for the blisteringly new are explored.