My main music hang-ups right about now

Tuesday 15 October 2013

My last few posts here have been going on about the vice and virtue in giving either too much or not enough. These posts were ostensible concert reviews, but they reflect concepts that have been bugging me in the music I’ve been making lately. That last post started contrasting excess against abundance in art. I’ve been trying to understand the distinction between the two in my own work. What is it about the use of multiples that I find so seductive, yet so difficult to justify? This problem becomes the source material for yet more new work. These are the sorts of things I consider most when I write music. Issues around harmony, pitch, instrumentation are simply not a concern.

Last weekend I went to see the London Sinfonietta play Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen, and two contemporaneous works by Luigi Nono. As mentioned before, Gruppen is a work of abundance but not excess. Like its source of inspiration, its effect is like that of a dramatic landscape: a complex but immediate image containing almost inexhaustible detail. Stockhausen wanted to put himself on the cutting edge of musical thinking at the time: a vast expansion of the use of the series and pitch-rows to coordinate harmonic, rhythmic, dynamic, timbral and spatial relationships. This intricate focus on the manipulation of pitch, and its extrapolation to corresponding aspects of sound, create music in which pitch has little immediately obvious effect on the listener. The audience was blown away by the contrasts and shifts in texture, space, colouring and weight.

All of these latter attributes are the sort of stuff I want to handle in my music; directly, not mediated through traditional compositional technique. Did Stockhausen accidentally create music with implications far beyond what he intended? I’m back to thinking about John Cage and Morton Feldman again. They both worked hard on putting compositional method, the matter of getting from one sound to the next, outside of their conscious concern, favouring problems of art over those of craft.

In between the two performances of Gruppen the Sinfonietta played Nono’s Canti per 13 and Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica. The punters generally though the Nono suffered in comparison, hidden between the dazzling peaks of Stockhausen – particularly Canti per 13. I found Canti per 13 intriguing perhaps as much for its unfortunate context as for its own merits. Its apparent drabness became an obstinate rebuke to the tour-de-force that preceded it. Cage and Feldman also shared an admiration of music that was determinedly plain, undifferentiated, blank, undemonstrative, anonymous (with Satie’s Vexations as perhaps it’s ultimate expression). Again, I share this same fascination. It was interesting to notice how Nono, steeped in the same musical teachings as Stockhausen, could produce music so unvaried and homogeneous, and how it presaged the bleak expanses of his extraordinary late works. I also liked the way Canti per 13 is played fairly loud throughout, at a time when so many composers these days would write music like this to be as soft as possible, thanks to an unfortunate confluence of Feldman and the holy minimalists. That’s another one of my compositional hang-ups right now.