Process and freedom

For the past two weeks I’ve been working reasonably intensively on a short piece for six female voices and harp. Today’s tutorial threw up a few interesting themes, some of which seem to have been circulating around for a little while now via one medium or another. Initially, our conversation had been about Per Nørgard’s Voyage Into the Golden Screen and the idea of the ‘infinity series’ – a set of reasonably intuitive procedures which combine to quickly generate an almost ‘fractal’ sense of expansion. We also chatted about Pérotin, who I confess I was completely unfamiliar with – listening to his ‘Viderunt omnes‘, I was struck by how incredibly modern it sounds to 21st-century ears. Breaking down the Latin phrase into its parts as spoken, Pérotin composes modal variations on each syllable until each has been sounded – at which point, the piece ends. But pieces based on processes need not unfold in this way – rather, the process itself might force the music to stand still. Lachenmann:

I like to distinguish between music as a kind of discursive text on the one hand, and, on the other, music as a kind of situation, be it a static or dynamic one. A fugue by Bach is somehow a text, and so is the Wind Quintet by Schoenberg, whereas the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its pulsating fifth or the Fourth Symphony of Bruckner with its mysterious tremolo on all strings is more like a situation […] a Bach fugue, as a polyphonic game, is also a sort of situation, and each situation, be it dynamic or static, is somehow eloquent.Quoted in Heathcote (2006) ‘Sound Structures, Transformations and Broken Magic’

What Lachenmann describes as a ‘static’ situation is really a way of turning the focus on the material, rather than the structure. For me the compositional tenor of Viderunt omnes shares a real kinship with the music of Cassandra Miller, a composer whose work has grabbed my attention recently. The very modern stance that leads to the ‘breaking up’ of texts (whether musical or literary) in Miller’s work is akin to the way material might be treated in an electronic studio, and surfaces in her use of other kinds of simple processes (notably looping). In Bel Canto, the repeated focus on the same short fragment of aria is lent incredible expressive poignance by the finely-wrought variations & subtle developments she coaxes from it.

The exact mechanics of sound production in Bel Canto, however, are far less strict: whilst the ‘framing’ of material is often governed by an audible process, control of the exact performance may be left to the performer’s discretion. Certain factors (often pitch & dynamic) are governed with precision, but players perform with great rhythmic (& hence expressive) freedom. In her own words:

“I have to admit that what I dislike most about much of the music I hear these days is the feeling that everything is strictly coordinated and is (why, God?) in 4/4. You can try to write all sorts of beautifully complex rhythms, but stick it in 4/4 and put a conductor in front of it, and it’s ruined. Take a butter- fly and stick a pin through it.”Quoted in Weeks (2014) ‘Along the Grain: The Music of Cassandra Miller’, Tempo Vol. 68:269 pp.50-64.

This chimed with my experience of working on strange calligraphy for the Dr K Sextet (at the Cheltenham Festival Composers’ Academy). After several failed attempts at a draft in strict notation, I decided to rewrite the piece using a mixture of stopwatch timings & ‘fuzzy’, loose, cues to guide the players’ entries. Hints at the character of a potential realisation are offered – for instance, “colour the clarinet line”, “gradually displace alto flute”, etc., but exact points of co-ordination are never specified. I think it was a successful performance, in some part due to this looseness: it lent the work a sense of organic spontaneity that fit well with the material.

Recording: Roger Long.

strange calligraphy - Alto flute part

Interesting to note that, as ever, freedom of one sort seems to require balance by something more restrictive. In scatter, the aforementioned work for choir & harp, I’ve been generating the material (variations on a descending scale) and its development by means of a simple rhythmic series & its compression/expansion. As a result the piece has taken on a process-orientated form, but oddly I again feel like this strict sketch-work is really just the precursor to a loosening up, a relaxing of the performing version.