Explaining all about String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta)

Monday 23 July 2007

(A live performance of String Quartet No.2 (Yada Yada Yada) coming up at Le Placard in Paris this weekend. Streaming audio of the whole event at Radio WNE, it seems.)
In a discussion of his theory of radical amateurism, the composer Warren Burt describes his practice of studied incompetence as part of “the tradition of taking objects from the past and putting them through the distorting lens of our technique and producing new objects”. I’ve previously touched on the subject of how technology can be used as an extension of – or a poor substitute for – an idea, so it’s interesting to see Burt quote his sometime collaborator Ron Nagorcka: “the very essence of electronic media is distortion.” I would go further and argue that all creativity is in fact a distortion of a pre-existing model, whether intentional or not. There are small, obvious examples of such distortion through raw incompetence (the sea-coast in Shakespeare’s Bohemia) and a knowing, studied incompetence (the sword held aloft by Kafka’s Statue of Liberty), as there are artworks whose large-scale form is patterned upon those of previous works (your Shakespeare or Austen updated as a high-school comedy, for instance).
Rather than try to be original, I have worked for some time with the idea that each of my works should be consciously modelled on another composer’s works or techniques, and so instead of attempting an original work that unwittingly imitates an older one, I might create an imitative work which, in its divergences from the model, allows some genuine originality to emerge.
The technique of conscious copying of a work seems much rarer in music composition than in the visual arts. This may be because the limited range of compositional methods available in traditional western music has forced a self-conscious emphasis on the need for the unique, for subjective individuality. I can immediately pick from the top of my head more than one artist who works by creatively copying the work of other artists (Sherrie Levine and Imants Tillers, there’s two) or by copying their own work (Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, there’s another two), but I don’t know any composers who work in these ways. Why have so many ideas about art over the past century bypassed music completely? I can hear the ghost of Morton Feldman muttering, “Is music an artform at all? Or is it just a type of showbiz?”
Although String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) was consciously written as an imitation of Phill Niblock‘s music – based on a description of his music without having heard it – its compositional concerns are completely different. A score for a Niblock composition, Five More String Quartets for example, carefully specifies exact frequencies to be played by the instruments, to produce definite harmonic results. My piece is not designed in this way, or with these specific musical intentions: it is composed purely to adhere as closely as possible to an incomplete understanding of Niblock’s techniques, without regard for harmonic complexity (or lack of it). It exists to be a cheap imitation, reminiscent of something else yet unmistakably itself.