Obsolescence and Redundens

Tuesday 22 January 2013

During a five-year slough of depression Conlon Nancarrow occupied himself by doggedly copying out his Studies for player piano in conventional music notation. He did this not only to secure copyright for his compositions, but in the hope that his son would one day grow up to understand that he hadn’t wasted his life.

I don’t have any kids but I am staying with my parents for the first time in years, so maybe this is why I am passing the time in the heat and the damp of the Queensland countryside by writing some of my pieces out as musician-readable scores. This may have not been such a good idea. Luckily I don’t have to prove anything to my parents, but we’ve been looking through old photographs and stuff which is still embarrassing, albeit for slightly different reasons than in the past. So much of what I’m doing now seems so similar to kid’s play way back then.

Anyway, I’ve prepared four pieces from Redundens so far, all for piano. The Redundens web page is still a bit of a mess, but at least it’s now a bit more up to date.

The series of works collectively titled Redundens was begun in 2001. All the pieces take Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, Op.11 as their starting point: only the top line in Schoenberg’s pieces is retained as an unaccompanied melody. Each set of pieces uses a different method of encoding this melody; by pitch, register, timbre, duration, dynamics, or other means. Redundens 1b keeps each pitch class in the same register and duration throughout the piece, determined by the nature of their initial appearances in the original. Dynamics are unspecified.

Redundens 4 plays the sequence of pitch-classes with durations and rhythms removed, always making the smallest leap possible from one note to the next.

Redundens 7 plays the sequence of pitch-classes with durations and rhythms removed, always making the smallest leap possible from one note to the next. The resulting melody is then split between two voices, alternating from one note to the next. The second voice is then shifted back one beat to produce a series of intervals. Unisons are played as a single note at half duration.

Redundens 11a removes durations and rhythmic articulation but preserves pitch class. Each pitch class is progressively transposed upwards by an octave to produce series of rising intervals, in repeatedly ascending figures of four notes each.

This Is The New Music: The Slips (complete)

Tuesday 8 January 2013

The last post was my fancy way of saying that I’ve finally edited together a complete recording of The Slips, two hour-long pieces I wrote, gosh, ten years ago.

Each piece is written for two speaking voices, with an added tape component. The two speakers are given almost identical chance-determined texts to read aloud, with variable time-frames in which each passage may be spoken. Each voice may speak in either English, German, or a mixture of both. For this recording I’ve overdubbed myself, speaking in English only.

I’m not sure if it’s better appreciated lying in the dark with headphones on, or just letting it drone away in the background while getting stuff done. Anyway, full details about the piece, along with mp3s for streaming or downloading are on the main website which definitely needs freshening up soon.

How I make my work

Tuesday 8 January 2013

I was going to say ‘disinterestedly’ but that’s too self-aggrandising. ‘Distractedly’ is probably more apt. Write a sentence, pace around the house. Look up a reference, end up rereading half of Vainglory. As I think I’ve mentioned before, figuring out all the details is OK, but the execution is where I start to lose interest. Once I see it’s going to do what I hoped for, I get sidetracked again and start working on something else.

After that, work progresses in infrequent dribs and drabs. Even trivial pieces can have a longer gestation period than Ulysses. There’s no sense of anticipation when a piece is nearing completion, either to hasten or delay the end. The work continues indifferently, in small increments until, quite unexpectedly, there’s no more to do. Like absent-mindedly munching on crisps until you dip your hand in one more time and realise you’ve finished the bag. You weren’t even all that hungry.

Too late, too soon

Tuesday 1 January 2013

A whole bunch of composer deaths at the end of the year, including Jonathan Harvey (73) and Elliott Carter (not quite 104). I’ve only just started to familiarise myself with and appreciate Harvey’s music in the past year or so, and I’m trying to explain this twinge of regret that I didn’t see any of the concerts dedicated to him earlier in 2012. It’s not as though I would have seen him in person, as he was too ill to attend, but it seems sort of churlish now that I didn’t support him with my presence while he was still alive.

Why is it so galling to come to a person’s work at the end of their career, after ignoring it for so long? Discovering an artist after they’re dead is another matter: by then their art is a given, a received object over which they have no further input. Everything may be dealt with in retrospect. When the artist is still alive and creating, the audience is engaged in a process of learning how to respond to the artist’s work – an understanding that develops with each new piece. Coming in late to this process frustrates you by breaking it off while your own, personal response is unformed an incomplete. I guess my regret is for passing up the chance to have a less mediated response before it’s all in the hands of the critics and historians.

It’s nearly seven years since I happened to see Elliott Carter himself, at a series of concerts. Re-reading what I wrote about it at the time, I’m surprised at how snarky I was. Most of the cynicism is directed at the reputation Carter had accumulated, which makes it all the more surprising as by the time of Carter’s death this received wisdom was already out of date. Nearing a century, Carter’s “late period” of more transparent, freely written works had been in flow for about twenty years, yet critics persisted in portraying his music as some sort of cross between Stephen Hawking and Dostoyevsky. In my snarky blog post I noted his neo-baroque tendencies and predilection for concertos, while deriding writers who wished to big him up as a “Beethoven-like hero”.

Six years later, that received opinion seems as distant and old-fashioned as me using the term “Beethoven-like hero” (of course I should have said “Mahler-like hero”.) In April, The Guardian kicked off its “Guide to contemporary classical music” with Tom Service extolling Carter’s “profoundly joyful, or youthful, music” and summarising him, quite neatly, as “the closest any of us will probably ever experience to new music’s Haydn.” Later, this was also the general tone of eulogies for Carter’s passing. In my snarky little blog post I write that Carter “has the rare privilege of attending his own funeral obsequies.” With the luxury of extending his late period by a further decade, it turns out that he hung around long enough to see the historical revisionists at work, too.