Thursday, November 22, 2007

Complex Sources

I mentioned that my small item for String Quartet, November the Twentieth, was an hommage, and was then reasonably asked "to whom?". Well, it's a hommage to Sibelius, with the intervention of Douglas Leedy's remarkable String Quartet (1965-75), which bears its own dedication: I.S.I.M., and again, Sibelius is meant. Leedy's Quartet (a pdf (141KB) of the score is online here -- I'm responsible for any errors in the typesetting), is very much a part of the west coast radical tradition, with its diatonicism, just intonation, extremely long tones, and the interlocking rhythmic patterns (in this case, relatively of prime lengths) that only come out together after long cycles. The element of Sibelius's technique that Leedy and I have zeroed-in on here is his achievement of complex texture through the use of canons (especially those canons in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies) and patterns that don't readily coincide. But such techniques are, of course, old hat: whether in early music, or in Brahms, Webern, Stravinsky, or Sibelius, good ideas are always good ideas.

The ever-alert Tim Rutherford Johnson has a brief and wise item on the performance and reception of complex music. He comes close to a point that I've long pondered, and that is the shared agenda in the experimental and new complexity communities, and the shared shut-out from mainstream performance environments. While both communities have had their own forms of détente with segments of the mainstream -- experimentalists via an openness to tonality in one form or another, and complexites via an intellectual stance that buys academic cred, the natural alliance between the two has seldom been made. The exceptions, for example in the work of the remarkable English composer Christopher Fox, are rare but illustrative of the potential for musical invention here. In many ways, Leedy's score is one of the most difficult to perform quartets in the repertoire. This is especially because of his use of extremely long and slow portamenti in the just intonation environment, a combination which creates beating phenomena both vivid and temporally disorienting, or, as one would have said a west coast generation ago, hallucinogenic.

I've decided that November the Twentieth is interesting and attractive enough that it needs to be expanded into a real string quartet (think Pinocchio becoming a real boy). Like my sixth quartet, it's part of my secret battle with the forces-that-shall-not-be-named who really don't want the words classical or minimal or experimental to have any currency beyond their negation or obsolescence. Well, bully.


Peter T. said...

West coast radical tradition - would you elaborate some day?

Daniel Wolf said...

peter t.:

I've written at length about this topic. See, for example:

Tim Rutherford-Johnson said...

I hadn't thought of it in terms of a shared 'exclusionist' agenda, but I certainly feel that there is a lot of common ground between experimental and complexist traditions. Maybe this is something particularly apparent in the British scene, but there are a few composers - including Fox, but also Finnissy - who can be happily programmed alongside either crowd. Bryn Harrison is a younger example who I would strongly recommend (the first example in my post is from a piece of his); he sits somewhere between Ferneyhough and Feldman I guess.