In search of living materials: Matthew Lorenzon interviews Liam Flenady

liamMatthew Lorenzon of Partial Durations caught up with Kupka's Piano composer Liam Flenady recently to discuss his new piece Material Fantasies, receiving its world premiere this Friday in The American Dream-song: New music in the USA. Matthew Lorenzon: The concerts by your ensemble Kupka’s Piano have been surveys of music from different countries in Asia and Europe. What have you discovered through this process as a composer?

Liam Flenady: Kupka’s Piano is a process of discovery for all the ensemble members. It has allowed me to have practical engagement with lots of different music from new and established composers. Whether any of that work has had a direct impact on my own is less clear. It’s more a matter of confidence. If you try and write modernist music in Brisbane—and as I’ve realised recently, I write “high” modernist music—you don’t have a lot of confidence in what you are doing because the “first principles” stuff is not in high circulation. But when your ensemble starts playing it and people are actually coming to the concerts you think “well fuck it, I’ll write like this and I’ll push these boundaries, whichever remain.”

ML: But how do you see your compositions in regards to those you have been playing?

LF: You have to put two hats on: That of the curator and that of the composer. As a composer, I like so little music. I can gain technical insights from various pieces, but I wouldn’t say “That’s it! That’s where it’s happening and I want to emulate that!” about many of the pieces we’ve been playing. I maintain a relatively antagonistic relationship to much of the music we play, even though I am very excited to create the opportunity to present this music in its diversity.

ML: In your upcoming concert of contemporary music in America you will play your own piece called Material Fantasies. What is the “material” in Material Fantasies?

LF: Of course, as my teacher Gerardo Dirié remarked to me recently about this, one’s concept of what material is will influence what one looks for in a piece. It’s not a self-evident duality between material and form or anything like that. The idea behind Material Fantasies is to take stock of some of the post-serial innovations in terms of “local material,” like pitches and phrase-length constructions, which I see as mainly attempts to de-reify these parameters. That’s the “material” part. I try to see where this new material itself wants to go. That’s the “fantasy” part. It was a largely intuitive compositional process, which is unlike my previous attempts, which have been more formal and which I have found limitations in. But there always has to be a countervailing force. For me the subjective intervention of the composer is not just listening and being totally passive, it’s about drawing out the inherent counterpoint in these newly-liberated (over the past thirty or forty years!) materials which are, largely speaking, anti-contrapuntal, anti-polyphonic.

ML: What are your newly-liberated materials in particular and which movements liberated them?

LF: At the moment I’m looking at three main movements. Spectralism liberates not just sonic, but also local and global formal possibilities. It de-reifies the pitch or note as such, calling into question the abstraction of the “pitch”. This produces a whole bunch of materials that are now available and which can’t be put back in the bag now. At the same time, I’m critical of the larger-form constructions that come out of the spectral world. There’s a tendency towards very banal structures and cheap effects. Helmut Lachenmann and others de-instrumentalised the instrument, taking it from a filter of pitches in orchestration and liberating its internal possibilities. The third is less clear. I say it’s New Complexity, but at this stage my hypothesis is that New Complexity de-reifies the line. Which is funny, because it was already destroyed by Webern. But there’s a sense in which Ferneyhough both preserves and undermines the line by layering contradictory processes within a single line.

ML: You also have three different sites of liberation, namely sound, the instrument and writing, which you are bringing together in your piece. You say you have composed this piece in fairly intuitive way, but I feel there is often more process at work than people are letting on when they say this. Do you mean you are being intuitive in your choice of processes and your use of those processes?

LF: There are layers of intuition. It is unavoidable regardless. There are parts where I have just sat down and said “Here’s my very basic framework: I want to start working with these sorts of materials. I’m just going to sit down and listen internally and start writing.” That’s a pretty unsustainable way of approaching music from my experience. After a few bars you say “Why am I doing any of this?” and you have to keep telling yourself “No, it’s important to listen to where the materials themselves want to go,” but I increasingly recognise that there has to be more of an intervention. So even across these pieces I’ve been coming up with strategies for the development of even local-level content.

ML: In our fetishisation of materials in the sense you’ve outlined we forget about global form, which has seen huge innovations over the past century-and-a-half. Can you intuit large-scale form or do you have to fill it in from the outside?

LF: I think of Adorno’s article on Alban Berg where the latter says the twelve-tone method was necessary because free atonality could not develop along a large-scale form. You needed another constructive principle in order to have large-scale forms. Adorno basically retorts “nobody really tried, so how can you say that?” I think form is incredibly important and maybe there’s an individual aspect to this, which has to do with my own development. I’ve had to emphasise local-level material because two or three pieces ago I was composing “from the outside in.” I’d draw up a structural polyrhythm and lay out the harmonies. These are things I got from composers François Nicolas and Elliott Carter, where you have a rhythmic grid and fill in the detail. Hopefully some magic happens along the way. I found that while the form was convincing, the materials that I filled it in with sounded dead. They didn’t sound alive and there didn’t seem to be enough of a dialectic between the local and the global. So at the moment I’m writing short pieces. I’m writing one- or two-minute pieces. They are tiny experiments in the local-level material. Of course you look back and say “oh, that was a formal strategy, I alternate between these two types of material,” but it’s not so conscious at the time. In the future I imagine drawing formal conclusions from local material rather than the other way around.

ML: Do you ever try to think about material in a non-musical fashion? We’re often encouraged, if not forced, to think of the political or social materiality of music. Is that a concern for you?

LF: There is a sedimentation of the social in musical materials. But that’s all it is to me at the moment. You choose a style—or it chooses you—that comes with a set of assumptions, and according to the prevailing postmodern orthodoxy none are better than any other. Particularly the high modernist stuff comes with this criticism of being ivory tower and perhaps even having blood on its hands. But for me the category of experience, or the de-reification of experience is the material that you try to work with. This has a social dimension. But then I wonder: Why haven’t I tried to de-reify the concert? Why do we still present our music in a chamber music context? I guess the answer is that the music must be abstracted from the real world in order to contain sediment from the real world. So the de-reification of the line is fine, it doesn’t challenge the absolute boundaries of music as such. Once you start challenging the boundaries of music as such you can be creating all sorts of things, but certain things are lost. Does that answer your question?

ML: Well I suppose the de-reification of music as such would threaten your idea of musical material in the way you have outlined. Not that I’m arguing for that! The wonderful thing about our generation is that we are able to rediscover this material after it was wilfully forgotten by much of the previous generation and discover that there is a lot of fun in it, that it doesn’t immediately alienate you from the rest of society, who are just about as curious as you or I.

LF: Yes. And also growing up in Australia. I grew up in the ‘burbs and had no real relation to this music, but then you take it up consciously after exploring a lot of other music and you go “No, this is it” without a lot of the burdens others have. But there’s also a matter of defence, of defending a lost cause. I’m one to do that as both a socialist and ivory-tower high modernist. For the last few decades we’ve just been shitting on this music, saying that it is so unethical to pursue this music in the modern world. I think we have to be a bit more sophisticated than the post-war enthusiasm for New Music and realise that the New Music that came after the war was pop music! That was what changed society and our relationship to music, not Boulez. However, we should defend the idea of the constructive de-reification of experience. Art music is, if not the site, then one of the principal sites of that de-reification, much more than clever pop music or contemporary jazz.