Saturday, August 16, 2008


While writing a piece for four instruments (Neglected Topiary is the provisional title: any objections?), I noticed that I keep coming 'round to a relatively equal distribution of labor between the instruments, even though the instruments themselves are decidedly unequal by a number of measures. Without exactly planning to do so I ended up, for example, with each of the 15 sections of the piece assigned to one of the 15 possible combinations of the four instruments. This egalitarian default setting is, I suppose, a habit from the mid-to-late 20th century, in which, through whichever determinative strategy, distributions of pitches, registers, instruments, icti, dynamics etc. tend to be flat rather than biased. Now, in the second-go-round* at the score, I've started introducing processes for upsetting this balance: erasing here, adding there, chopping up something, overlapping or interrupting this with that. It's beginning to turn into something more like music.
* I'm following (once again) Jasper John's recipe: ''Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.''


Office of the Cultural Liaisons said...

Reminds me of that passage in Lou Harrison's primer talking about Cage's square root method. He mentions a Korean composer who said they did such things but would leave a part off. So you are in fine company

Stefan Kac said...

Being a tuba player, when I finish a piece and then realize that I've left some of the typically busier instruments with little to do, I feel guilty for about half a second, then decide I'm actually looking forward to making those players count all those rests, possibly for the first time in quite a while in some cases.

Samuel Vriezen said...

A great subject. In my own work, I've often liked to introduce techniques where structurally everything would start from total equality, but which would lead to imbalance. A simple example could be something like: if you have an equal distribution of the number of short and long sections, then most of the piece will consist of long sections. If you assign instruments to sections and durations to sections independently from one another, some instrument may end up dominating mostly long sections and others end up dominating mostly short sections. Etc. Deriving asymmetry from symmetry.

Ben.H said...

Now that Cage has been mentioned, it's interesting to look at how his "egalitarian" approach to chance developed into working with chance-produced biases to shape his compositions. One of the least interesting performances of his indeterminate music that I've heard was from an ensemble trying to impose a uniform overall interpretation on the work.