My Trio - Part 1 - From Grisey to Carter

As part of the Grisey, Boulez, Brisbane concert, the composers associated with Kupka's Piano, myself included, are writing new works. That's the 'Brisbane' part of the title, evidently. (My piece is in fact part of JUMP Mentorship project that I am undertaking this year with my mentor François Nicolas). I thought I'd write up a little something about my piece as a bit of a teaser, and to encourage myself to continue to write it (it's down to the dots on paper bit, the most painful bit... and it must be completed soon). But what can I say about my piece (currently simply titled 'Trio')? I'm hardly going to give an analysis of it, nor do I have any desire to write a little narrative-style blow-by-blow commentary on the moods the piece is supposed to conjure up.

It's probably best to go back to first principles and then find our way back to the piece. I initially tried to fit all this in one post, but now I'm going to have to split it in two. The next instalment can come in a few days. It will deal with my piece as such, the current post will deal with the conceptual lead-up to it.

What can we do today that is musical, after so much musical exploration over thousands of years, and in particular over the last 150? For a long while I thought that there was nothing left we could do except either 1) subvert what people generally like to think of as 'music' or 'that which is musical', usually by way of irony, or 2) flee the realms of music proper as far as possible in order to have something like a narrative sound-painting - not music, just the movement of sounds or sound masses in an evocative manner. Of course the former represents a kind of childish nihilism insofar as it is entirely negative and really just represents a stone in the shoe of music, nothing more - an annoyance. The latter may be more promising if you wish to make a different artform, something like 'acousmatic' music for instance, but from the perspective of music it tends to come across as rather banal. Sure, such art can be full of clever shaping of local material, and it might also be conceptually interesting for someone wishing to comprehend the allegorical structure of the large-scale form. But for me, as I worked under this latter conception, I became further and further disappointed with the results musically. It made boring music.

Why is this? I can't be sure at the moment, and this is of course the subject of a lot of my thinking, but two things spring to mind.

Firstly, that music must relate to and build upon the categories of its own history (i.e. polyphony, rondo, polyrhythm, harmony, etc). This is not so that it may be chained by them, but so that it develops them and develops from them (as slowly or quickly as necessary). Music of course relates to, and internalises, many other forces that are not music - this much is clear from history. Yet the point is that this is an internal dynamic, or becomes one in the historical process of musical creation. The development of these musical categories, their interrelation and their relation to non-musical categories, the expansion of the domain of music - this multiform process is the subject of music. Simply substituting new categories from other disciplines (or just made up ones) for musical categories usually leads to, as I have suggested, pieces of art that are musically uninteresting or simply unmusical.

Secondly, the levels of the work - the local, the regional and the global (from the small phrase or motif up to the large-scale form of the work) - must interact with one another and have bearing on one another. Much music that is the simple amassing and sculpting of sonic forces often results in a kind of formal shell (derived from intuition, from physiology, from mathematics, etc) that is then filled with content that is more or less neutral with regard to this shell - it is often even neutral with regard to itself (i.e. lacking an internal dynamic)!

For my development as a composer (and more broadly historically too), the movement from the amassing of sonic forces to something that I now see as more properly musical was an internal compositional process that I derived from the trajectory of Gerard Grisey's entire oeuvre. From Grisey's early spectral pieces (in particular Partiels), which were heavily sonic in conception, with very neutral local material, you see a slow development towards construction of local material that has its own dynamic, as well as more complex global forms - signifying for many a rapprochement with traditional Western music. One of the works in this concert, Talea, was a very significant moment in this process. In Grisey, the simple process or sonic block gave way more and more to phrase structures, supple metres, a near-syntactic harmonic logic, and dramatic global forms. All while still remaining within a specific conception of time as proportion, a concept clearly derived from the structure of the harmonic spectrum (by this I simply mean that the general time in the work is divided into different streams of time that only line up every now and then). Each piece in this development was a masterful negotiation of this problem.

For Grisey, time as proportion, pushed in this direction, almost generated local-level non-neutral material as I conceive it, but Grisey's emphasis on stasis and balance (again as a result of the emphasis on the spectrum) usually meant that this newfound musicality was curtailed. By the time of his masterpiece Quatre Chants (his final work before his untimely death) this process has reached a stage of brilliant tension, between dynamic structures and stasis, between musical categories and non-musical ones.

Strangely, for my development and for my ears, American composer Elliott Carter has represented a breaking out of this contradictory stasis into new terrain (even though chronologically speaking Carter is prior to or contemporaneous with Grisey). Proportion is re-interpreted simply as polyrhythm which can function at a long and short range. Whereas for Grisey, time as proportion meant a cycling back onto itself, and any free play of materials generated in one cycle is in a way negated by the conclusion of the cycle and the emergence of the new commencement, for Carter on the other hand, the rhythmic structures and cycles represent something closer to a skeleton over which a continuous flesh can be built, or a fundamental mesh over which can be developed a kind of crochet of actual musical materials. This just means that there are long-range polyrhythms in Carter's work that only meet up once or twice in the whole piece, as well as short range ones that meet up every couple of beats. What is then done with this is often quite free. Theoretically, this allows for a much more complex and musical way of writing.

I'll leave it there for now. I can't even be sure anybody has made it to the end of this rant. But the next one will deal with how I take up these concerns in my piece for the concert.