What’s the point? – The composer’s view

Posted by on Apr 27, 2012 in Blog | No Comments

Aaron Cassidy writes:

James has kindly invited me to make a few contributions to his blog series. Let me say, first and foremost, how thoroughly I have enjoyed reading the posts so far. Even as someone very much on the inside of this project (!), I have found them incredibly interesting, engaging, and most importantly, wonderfully honest and candid. I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of the documentation of the process as we move towards the premiere in mid-July.

Since James has focused so far primarily on the what and how of the project, I thought I might chime in briefly to talk a bit about the why. That is, why have I chosen to work this way, why does the notation look like it does, why have I approached the voice in such an analytical, physiological, stratified manner … Or, to put it another way (to match the candor found in James’s posts), what’s the point?

As James has indicated, the roots of this project go back to much earlier pieces from the late 90s/early 2000s which engaged with ideas of ‘instrumental decoupling’ (very much influenced by the work of Klaus K. Hübler, among others), but more specifically to my work with tablature notation, starting in 2004. I haven’t written notes since 2003 – instead, my focus has been on developing an approach to composing and to music-making that prioritizes the physical act of sound-production. I have attempted to make the argument that the way in which a sound is made is intrinsic to the sound itself. To take a simple example, a trill isn’t a rapid alternation between two adjacent pitches; instead, it is the musculature, the energy, the physical, bodily movement involved in making that gesture. Its identity, its fundamental ‘trill-ness’, comes principally from the interface between human physiology, the instrumental mechanism, and gesture: the movement of the wrist, the tension of the muscles, the specific fingerings, the resistance from the keys of the keyboard (or buttons or valves or slides or rapid changes in lip tension…). In my tablature work, I have sought to generate something of a vocabulary/grammar of musically meaningful action – the aim has been to construct ways of making sound that are, in a sense, already musical, rather than seeing those actions as merely physical means to a sonic end. Crucially, in each of those works there is a high degree of indeterminacy and unpredictability – I have been interested in setting up scenarios in which identical, repeatable physical actions might generate varied sounding results (sometimes quite widely so), but (and this is key) even within that variety the resulting sounds are all still fundamentally, identifiably connected to the producing action. It’s not that the difference in resulting sounds is immaterial, but instead that the physical, gestural movement used to make those varied sounds is so clearly defined that it supersedes that difference.

More recently, I have been working to more carefully integrate the many-layeredness of my notational approach. In the earlier works, each of the various strata of sound production (embouchure, fingers, bow, valves, etc.) were notationally stratified (often on somewhat obscene stacks of independent staves), but since my Second String Quartet I have been working to combine all of these various layers of physical activity onto a single, unified notational image. The level of specificity is the same, but there is, for me, something much more immediate and plausible about this integrated approach. The notation for A painter of figures in rooms continues this effort.

This still doesn’t quite answer the question of why, though. The answer to that question is more personal and much less technical/practical. First, somewhere along the way I came to a realization that I didn’t particularly care about pitch … or at least it was quite a long way down on my list of musical priorities as a listener. My connection to music has always been quite visceral, physical, bodily, connected almost more to dance and movement than to sound. It’s playing music that I love, making music, generating sound. It’s almost certainly why I love being a conductor. I’m not particularly interested in sound as an abstract phenomenon – it’s the muscle and sinew and sweat that interests me, the particular energy of, say, playing very softly, or generating a massive crescendo, or playing very high or singing very low, or indeed the massive effort and concentration and muscular resistance required to create a perfectly pure, stable, sustained tone. Those sounds are interesting, to be sure, but on an emotional level, it’s the human part of making the sounds that I find exciting, risky, and rewarding.

In the case of A painter of figures in rooms, this loops us back to the issue of indeterminacy and unpredictability. In my earlier tablature work, the notation primarily specifies the interaction between the player and the instrument; in the case of the voice the player and the instrument are of course one and the same. What I have found most exciting in this piece is not only the extent of variability and indeterminacy emerging out of the unique ‘instruments’ of each singer in the ensemble – that is, different singers can follow exactly the same set of notational instructions and generate quite different sounding results, and indeed in many cases the same singer could follow the same set of instructions three times in a row and get three different sounds – but even more that the unpredictability seems to magnify the unique characteristics of each singer’s voice. In the 1-to-1 sessions in particular, I found that the personality of each voice emerged most clearly in the passages that are the most challenging and unpredictable. In the passages that are reasonably ‘singerly’, they tend to sound, well, like singers. But in the passages in which breath and mouth and glottis and tongue are in some tangled battle, they sound like Amy, or Tom, or Simon, or Stephen … I find that very exciting indeed.

It’s worth saying as well that this has been at the heart of the tablature project from the beginning. The project has been, at its core, about inventing new sounds, new modes of expressivity, new ways of playing, but it’s always been filtered through a fascination with the accidental, the personal, the unpredictable. My favorite bits are the bits that I really could have never predicted, could have never actually imagined left to my own devices. Armed with a blank bit of manuscript paper and a pen, I think I’d probably mostly write the music that I already know. I could do that, and frankly I think I could probably do it pretty well, but that approach doesn’t excite me, and, for whatever reason, that approach seems somehow self-indulgent. My effort to turn the process on its head has been mostly about setting up scenarios in which composing and performing is a constant state of mystery, discovery, befuddlement, and adventure. My approach has mostly been about: “what happens if …” It’s a very risky approach, particularly in pieces such as this one where the stakes are high and where failure would be quite public – the experiment is happening right there, on stage. The experiment is the piece, even given all of the research and development work that went in along the way. And indeed it could fail … but that fact is exactly why I do what I do. It’s the only way to push further and to make something legitimately new, and potentially something legitimately special. I’d much rather fail in that effort than succeed in making something that I already know will work. I’m extremely lucky to have partners like EXAUDI who are willing to take this risk alongside me.

Since I have this public forum, let me just express my gratitude to the funders and organizers of the PRSF New Music 20×12 scheme and also to the very generous grant provided by the University Research Fund at the University of Huddersfield. As James outlined in his post below, we have had opportunities for R&D sessions, extensive 1-to-1 sessions with each singer, and, starting on Sunday, a multi-day residency of rehearsals and workshops at Huddersfield (many of which, incidentally, are open to the public). It has been a relatively luxurious rehearsal setup, and I am enormously grateful for the financial support that has made it possible.

Somewhere further down the line (probably closer to the date of the premiere), I’ll add an additional post about the title of the piece, the connections to Francis Bacon, and the difficulties of fighting against the tendency of viewing projects like these through a kind of pseudo-scientific lens, pulling the project back from an atmosphere of reasonably abstract research into something more deeply human, expressive, and artistic.

Until then, back to you, James …