I had a nice first performance this weekend in Saarbrücken of a quartet for flute, clarinet, guitar & percussion, Neglected Topiary, a commission by Saarländischer Rundfunk for the Ensemble L'Art Pour L'Art.
How does a listener make sense of a new piece of music? In traditional repertoires of music, "making sense" of a piece in specific or general terms is highly dependent upon a broader familiarity with the repertoire. But The New Music doesn't necessarily come to us embedded in a repertoire of conventional forms, styles, or figures, and if it does, the relationship to existing repertoire is often more of negation than affirmation.
Neglected Topiary is a book of music including 17 pieces played without pause for flute, clarinet, guitar and percussion, each about a minute long and each sharing the same rhythmic structure, which is often articulated by the percussion in the manner of Asian ensemble musics, but here using a battery mostly North American in character. The pieces includes one quartet, four trios, six duets, four solos and two "other" arrangements, the sequence of which was determined by chance operations. Each of the individual pieces connects immediately to two other pieces, each solo, for example, is derived from the individual voices of the quartet, and each trio is derived, in turn, from a solo, and duos, in their turn, from the trios. Thus, every piece is connected, if at some distance, to every other and, to a significant degree, the pieces can be described as pseudo-repetitions of one another.
Through this near-repetition, the pieces may allow listeners to gradually form the impressions of a repertoire of music, in turns ceremonious, mannered, sentimental, and whimsical, with all of the internal consistancies and differences encountered in "real" repertoires, not like Pinnochio trying to be a "real boy" by learning to behave well, but like a topiary animal in a forgotten garden, which is ultimately no more real than the observer wants it to be.
Something like a serenade, Neglected Topiary may be played inside or out-of-doors in a garden of appropriate size. The title was suggested by a line from Edward Gorey and refers either to the fact that the piece gathers together a group of materials (snare drum rim shots), images (burst bubbles and torn pages) or lines of work (non-parsimonious voice leading) that I had been neglecting or to the fact that our tired world has, literally, all-but-abandoned too many pieces of once well-sculpted plant matter. Either way, the piece sometimes verges on the sentimental and nostalgic, the neo-classical revision of a unknown — and fictional — repertoire.