Monday, December 31, 2012

Composing Under Constraints & Musical Escapology

In one way or another, I've always composed under some set of constraints. I do so because the musical results have reliably both surprised and satisfied me, and have taken me through both comfort zones and previously unimagined places.  Many of these are tricks of the trade, widely shared in the community of composers; others may be uniquely mine.  Some are open and obvious, others are under the surface, some secrets, some puzzles, some cast away and irretrievably lost.  Working with a pre-compositional gamut of tones (sometimes a tuning) or noises is pretty common, as are using drones, ground basses (I'm very fond of ostinato basses but not so fond of repeated harmonic sequences), and hockets.  I like to take both random, constrained, and freely composed walks on pitch lattices, a practice related to an early, deep study of musical intonation.  I've used Hauer's harmonic band technique, through which any sequence of tones can be wrestled into a sequence of harmonies with smooth voice leading and often surprising local suggestions of globally a-functional tonalities. Formally, I like to use Gray Codes, Beckett Gray codes specifically, for example to control scoring patterns; this is an area where I'm probably a genuine pioneer.  I like borrowing forms from poetry, both in terms of metres and rhyme schemes (I would like to do more of the same with dance forms, perhaps especially because they're so out of favor.) I also like to use Square Root forms, following John Cage's model, but sometimes broken square root forms, in which some chunk of the pattern is missing, whether lost or intentional erased, as suggested by Lou Harrison. Harrison's phrase systems (described in his Music Primer, a beautiful small book rich in potent ideas (I received a copy as a 16th birthday present from the composer Douglas Leedy*))  are extremely useful, as are his interval and rhythm controls, the former of which anticipate Elliott Carter's methods. I like to cycle a rhythm within and through a sequence of measures and I also like increasing and decreasing series of icti over such sequences, and sometime I combine the two. I like logical sequences of numbers (here's my contribution to mathematics.)  I am also very fond of using perfect shuffles — yes, just like card shuffles — to order and reorder sequences of musical material; they are usefully rich in both familiarity and variety. And that's just from the top of my bag of tricks...

The question of whether a player or listener can or should dis- or recover these constraints and methods is unresolved, and usefully so, I think.  Not least because music works best when it works at several levels of entrance or retention: at the surface, for those just passing by, and deeper, ever deeper, for those with the time, skills, patience, imagination to go deep.  There is some music, like much of that of early Steve Reich or almost all of Tom Johnson's remarkable catalog, in which the methods are either immediately present or easy to puzzle out, but this does not make either the music or the method any less mysterious or profound for the accessibility. In such cases, knowing the local system simply makes the occasion more engaging, and ultimately removes distractions from attending intimately to either or both the underlying ideas and their physical expression in sequences of acoustic events. The flip of the coin comes with work like that of Milton Babbitt, in which aural recovery of the underlying array and the immediate rules for its projection into a score is really not on the agenda. The array itself insures a maximally even (or, by Jim Tenney's terms, ergodic**) distribution of event classes such that, statistically seen, any given sample of the surface should be more or less like any other, so that the extemporaneous process of composing out form the array is one of largely creating atypical events that defeat that evenness, emphasizing, for example, near similarities at the surface created by accident-like conjunctures found deep in the array. I would characterize this more as composing against the array rather than with it, and playing or listening to such pieces is definitely less about recovering the structure than enjoying the emergence of such playful anomalies.

I happen to find constraints like these advantageous; other composers disagree, and sometimes with something approaching anger.  Some advance the argument that composing with constraints is unnecessarily accepting unnecessary constraints on the musical results.  I would counter simply that this is mistakenly assuming that the imposition of constraints leads to a severely limited range of musical results.  In fact, in the huge vector space of possible musics, a reduction to a manageably smaller but still very large number (as with the 10^14 possible combinations that lead to my recent clarinet pieces***) is more than useful and with the huge variety of parameters, values, and contexts that can come into play for any given constraint, we are inevitably dealing in realms of finite, but still ridiculously large fields of possibilities. In any case, most anyone who claims to be composing without constraints is most likely doing exactly that — using a modality or tonality or a metre is a constraint, row tables and other pre-compositional means and tactics are constraints.  Hell, using five line-staved manuscript paper or just using a particular set of instruments and sticking with them is a constraint: be honest, how many times have you been listening to a string quartet when suddenly a Wagner tuba, a drum machine, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir enter in?

ALL THAT SAID, the ultimate utility of recognizing a constraint is that a situation or scenario is created with authentic opportunites, among them tensions or conflicts, built into it.  And once you begin working with such a situation or scenario, the possibility or option to resolve the tensions or conflicts, and take or refuse opportunites becomes a lively presence in the work, whether tantalizingly left unaccomplished or relievedly resolved, by escaping, whether gently or through brute force, whatever limits one imagined the constraints to have set. And the question of whether this escape act is, ultimately, compositional or in the hands/mouths and ears of performers is also — and usefully so — open.

And of course, this:  My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit.  — Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music

* About those phrase systems: I recall Brian Ferneyhough, at the chalkboard in Darmstadt, appearing to dazzle his audience with a series of transformations to a series of measures. He was practicing notihing more or less than a species of Lou's system.
** It one of those paradoxes that John Cage seemed to have understood remarkably well: maximum variety leads to maximum maximum leveling.
*** That piece is indebted to a collections of poems coming out of the Oulipo, that famous cabal of writers exploring techniques for potential literature.(1) I'm a long-time admirer of the group, and not only the technical output, but the actual literary output of several of its members, first Harry Mathews, then Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, most recently Jacques Roubaud whose novel Mathematics: is a wonderful thing, very close to my own sympathies, full of amplifications and interpolations and built of a linear expression of a branching structure (parentheses, dots) which is so flexible that it seems obviously the ideal one for an intellectual autobiography. 
(1) I concur with Charles Shere about Daniel Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels: Im Praise of Potential Literature; it should sit on everyone's little Intros-to-Oulipo shelf next to Mathews and Brotchie's The Oulipo Compendium and Motte's Oulipo: a Primer of Potential Literature).  As long as I'm at it, this year has been good for accounts of experimental literature in general, and I've enjoyed Charles Bernstein's Attack of the Difficult Poems, and really admire David Antin's  Radical Coherency.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

All The Music A Clarinetist Will Ever Need.

I've written a new set of pieces for solo clarinet, 100,000,000,000,000 of them, to be exact. It's an homage to Raymond Queneau and his Cent mille milliards de poèmes, with which my set of character pieces shares the same combinatorial flip-book structure, although Queneau's poems are French sonnets (abab abab cce dde in alexandrines) and mine are English sonnets (abab cdcd efef gg in a pentameter.)  The provisional score (provisional meaning I reserve the right to make changes) is available online and it's free to download, here.  The music is diverse — from ambiguously modal to not-quite-tonal to the ornithologically a-tonal to none-of-the-above — yet should have enough connecting features to render a useful percentage of the combinations sensibly unified, another useful percentage with satisfyingly broken continuities and the remaining pieces everywhere in-between.  While these pieces are intended for concert performance, either en-bloc or scattered through a program, played by any size or combination of clarinets, there is also a degree of progressive increases in technical challenges through the collection, so they may be useful for teaching as well.  A complete performance of 100,000,000,000,000 Pieces for Clarinet would take, non-stop at the given tempo with a few seconds in-between pieces, more than 285 million years, and as such now constitutes the vast bulk of the solo clarinet repertoire, which is an audacious little factoid.  I don't expect to hear all of them, but would enjoy hearing from any player who plays some selection of them!  Thanks to Taylan Susam for asking for the pieces and to Danyel Franque for advice on matters clarinetic.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Leonardo Music Journal CD

Just a note: I curated the CD accompanying the current issue of the Leonardo Music Journal, with the theme "Acoustics."   To be honest, when editor Nicolas Collins corralled me into this project, I had major reservations (which shouldn't be surprising, given my personal differences with sound recording as a medium for transmitting music), but in this instance these were overcome by a wide ranging suite of strong exploratory pieces by the composers Judy Dunaway, Miguel Frasconi, Hauke Harder, Chris Molla, Kiyomitsu Odai, and Ann Warde, all of whom I thank profusely for their music.  Leonardo Music Journal's web site is here

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Same and Different, again

ONE MORE THING about this fluid dynamic between identity and difference and the whole space of resemblance in-between those poles:  This can often depend upon a confusion of identities and I'm not altogether certain it's usually an honest confusion, instead it is often a voluntary entry into a contract to agree to mistake A for B.  One the one hand, this is just playing the game, agreeing, in musical terms, to hear a little more or a little less into the music so that two stretches of music fit into the same memory cache. On the other hand, this could be a little more ethically suspect, nefarious even, a suspension of honest estimation and judgment in favor of bending the evidence to suit the purpose of musical continuity or even unity, an act of some misplaced generosity, or even worse when a confusion of the kind is simply due to not listening and/or not remembering, which certainly happens much more than composers or performers ought be comfortable.

And this, too: Isn't this confusion often really, truly implausible?  There is a huge tradition in myth and literature of assumed and mistaken identities: think of Twelfth Night, or the Martin Guerre story, or any of those Hollywood films in which a thin layer of shiny latex turns person M into person N, or that classic hard-boiled detective formula in which person X mistakes person Y for person Z.   Of course the purpose of these mistaken identities is to set a target for the story which follows, and that target is the removal of the disguise, the restoration of proper identities. In some of these cases, one can well imagine that the mistaken identity is accepted knowingly (i.e maybe Martin Guerre was a creep and a lousy provider, so if this guy was affable enough and able to do the job well, well then Mrs Guerre was happy to play along) but in others, it can't really work unless there's some form of mass hysteria about (which might well be the case in Twelfth Night.) The frequency of these stories does make one wonder, however, if there wasn't once some time in which people regularly slipped into other identities and got away with it, people just accepting that you were who you said you were, even if you looked and sounded somewhat or even substantially different from how you used to look and sound (modern identity theft, which is an almost exclusively electronic information-based phenomena, is something altogether different, without any need for physical resemblance, indeed any physical presence, at all.)

So, in that space between a theme and its last variation or an exposition and its recapitulation, or along the hiccuping returns of a rondo, what is the nature of our confusion?  Do we enter in playfully, voluntary participant in a game with evolving rules, parameters, and other constraints?  Will identities be satisfactorily resolved in the end, like the denouement in a mystery, or can we satisfyingly be left without resolution?  Or do we simply all go a little bit mad when listening closely to music?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Same and Different

One of the qualities I value most in music is that it works for us as wholes which are marked by continuities and contrasts, and this despite the fact that we have such a weak and fluid notion of identity and difference in musical materials. The "same" audible stuff can be heard completely differently in alternative contexts; even fa plain & simple vanilla repetition, made by just shoving a bit of music a little further along in time, creates contrast by both the experience of that time shift and through the formation of a connection to the original statement.  At the same time, musical coherence depends upon being able to connect or hear relatedness between stretches of music although they many vary in detail or in substance. (All of this depends upon the related faculties of memory and forgetting, but that's a topic for another day, another day.)

I've been finishing up two pieces in which everything depends upon this fluidity between the musically same and different.  The first, a series of divisions or variations over a ground bass, is more straightforward due to the historical precedents, although my belatedness in working to a familiar ostinato (La Follia) places perhaps special pressures on the side of making differences, if not innovation altogether.  The second, 100,000,000,000,000 Pieces for Clarinet is more ambitious.  It also has a historical model, but the model, indeed its very form, is not a piece of music but rather a collection of sonnets of the same size and similar name by Raymond Queneau.  The unique problem here is that I have to write pieces with some certainly as to their balance between coherence and contrast, although I will never be able to hear the vast majority of the pieces in their entirety (indeed, at the given tempo, if played non-stop, a performance of all of the pieces would last more than 285 million years) composing only the pool of 140 ordered segments from which all of the pieces are assembled.