a creative report
In December last year, Leipzig-based timpanist Felix Anton Lehnert contacted me regarding the possibility of an unpaid commission for the rare combination of string quartet and timpani. This was part of a new collaboration between Lehnert and Ensemble01 and it resulted in a Backstage concert at Die Theater, Chemnitz, on 25 June, a concert for school students the following morning in the same venue, and a weekend performance at the Grieg Begegnungstätte in Leipzig which had to be postponed due to one of the performers falling ill.
The existing repertoire for the ensemble of string quartet and timpani is decidedly thin: Richard Rodney Bennett’s Suite of 2006 and Marta Ptaszyńska’s Classical Variations of 1976. These two works were featured in the concert, alongside my own composition and another new commission, juxtapose transitions, by Leipzig composer Knut Müller, plus Hanns Eisler’s 1937 String Quartet and two movements from Elliott Carter’s timpani suite.
I have been living in Leipzig since April and my main project for the residency is a new work for Steffen Schleiermacher and Ensemble Avant Garde which will be premiered in the Mendelssohn Saal of the Gewandhaus on 16 October this year. Nonetheless, I was very happy to have an interim project to occupy me for my final months in Scotland and during the transition to the Hanns Eisler Geburtswohnung where I am now staying. The composition I wrote, A Spacious Room, turned out to be a perfect stepping stone for what I am now working on.
I started A Spacious Room at home in Edinburgh. I spent February sketching ideas while listening and reading a lot. I was listening to music by Chiyoko Szlavnics, Catherine Lamb, Ben Johnston, La Monte Young and Marc Sabat and I was reading Harry Partch, Marc Sabat, and James Tenney. Since at least 2016, I had wanted to write music informed by the just intonation approach to tuning but I found it so theoretically dense and so idealistic to implement with the (mostly student and a few professional) performers available where I was studying in Glasgow, that I left it aside for the time being. Since then, the possibility of working with just intonation reappeared intermittently but it was not until February that I felt I had sufficiently internalised the JI sound-world and made enough headway through the theory to feel like it was a genuine path for me to take, and not just a passing attraction to something trendy and esoteric.
Using just intonation has completely refreshed my sense for harmony, intervallic contour, melody, and sonority, these aspects all being connected of course. I sat for long times with my brother’s microkorg, alternating between equal temperament and various adjustments in cents, gradually exploring the ‘closer’ reaches of harmonic pitch space: Pythagorean tunings, 5-limit and 7-limit just intonation. Take the simplest imaginable sonority: a second-inversion dominant 7th chord. This is the kind of material that Laurence Crane uses in his work and it is a rather bold risk to focus on something so apparently simple in the context of overwrought self-proving contemporary classical music. Crane’s music has had a huge influence on me ever since Laurie Kent introduced me to his work to me back in 2012. When this chord is tuned in just intonation with a 5/4 major third (-14c flatter than equal temperament) and a 7/4 septimal minor seventh (-31c flatter than equal temperament), the sound is much more alive: the sympathetic partials resonating beautifully together such that the chord appears to buzz through the air, taught and clear, unlike the comparatively wobbly and indistinct equally tempered version. This adjustment is so small in theory, simply according with the intervals that arise from the 5th and 7th partials harmonic series but the sonic difference is huge. The difference was enough to convince me to pursue a just intonation approach throughout this new work.
Much of February’s work involved thinking through the implications of just intonation in relation to my other ideas. I settled upon a chromatic scale tuning of fifteen discrete pitches including ‘enharmonic’ variations derived from 3-, 5-, and 7-limit just intonation. I require the string instruments to simply tune their open strings in Pythagorean 5ths from the fundamental G. The timpani part uses four drums (23”, 26”, 29” and 32”) which are tuned in 4ths. I walked around for a day with a very specific opening sonority in mind, only to realise that evening that it was nearly identical to the opening of Lawrence Dunn’s string quartet Carrying, which I had listened to a week or so earlier. This is certainly not the first time I have unwittingly stolen an idea from Lawrence’s music because I have found his work consistently intriguing for years. So, I scrapped that and let my other ideas flow: levels of looseness or taughtness (I’ve often thought that Wandelweiser pieces tend to fall into being either ‘high air pressure’ or ‘low air pressure’ pieces, or alternate between these states); moods and atmospheres; proximity and spaciousness; how closely to feel time passing.
One of my common starting points is the ability of performers to make real-time decisions. I have been interested in this since around 2015 when I first discovered the work of James Saunders and I started connecting his developments with the music of Christian Wolff (with which I was already familiar), and to a lesser extent with Cage’s number pieces. If just intonation is a recent evolution in my work which excites and compels me, performer agency was an earlier such significant step. It started for me in a very limited way with ‘stretchable’ elements in the score (in my Infinite Avenues of 2016 and Terraces and Boulevards of 2017), and moved to textural and interactive options determined by time-bracket principles which have noticeable knock-on effects for other performers and the trajectory of the piece (in my Colour Fields and Canvases of 2017-18). Why are these ‘live’ qualities so important to me? I became tired of standard new music concerts with performers eyes’ glued to their parts, trying desperately to execute highly demanding actions, all the time replicating a hierarchy of composer to performer that I find distasteful much of the time. I wanted to find the thrill of the live moment, to make the live situation open and intriguing, to allow the performers space to explore and to require them to look at each other, cue each other, provoke each other. I refined these aspects in my composition Allotments for eight pianists on two pianos, which is notated using Venn diagrams.
Now that I am feeling increasingly confident in exploring performer agency, I am thinking more about its implications. To summarise my current thoughts on the matter: a musical performance is a situation which involves the activity of people producing something that is intended to be experienced aesthetically (currently my favoured definition of ‘music’ is “the framing of the activation of sound”). In classical music, we typically have a division between composer and performer(s), one which is distinctly hierarchical because the composer imagines in advance a unique concatenation of sounds which the performers must deliver to (usually) an audience. I, as composer, imagine and propose the limits of aesthetic situations and I indicate ways that performers can engage with these situations. I like to think of it as though the composer suggests the topic of conversation and the performers explore it. Currently, I either write through-composed passages, or sections which are (more or less) open, often involving a variety of cue types. I want the situations I create to give enough time and flexibility to performers so that they can find their own way into and through them. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I would say that a ‘new complexity’ composition is itself an aesthetic situation through which the performer can find their way, but this style relishes more the ‘thrownness’ and maybe the existential desperation of the situation with the absolute need to parse a line through an overload of information, albeit with musical-interpretative choices which I would say are on a smaller scale than the larger-scale effects of choices in my work.
This is to say that a musical work contains a subjectivity. Or maybe more than one subjectivity: to parallel Jacques Lacan’s ‘subject of the statement’ and ‘subject of the enunciation’, we could talk about the subject of the work’s statement (probably a projected identity, such as the dialectical heroism of a Beethoven symphony) and the subject of the work’s enunciation (that which emerges at the level of performance, for instance the limited agency of an orchestral musician within a specific cultural/economic milieu who do their job, eliciting a joyous sense of being part of something bigger but maybe also reminiscent of industrial division of labour). A major part of my compulsion to write music is about this exploration: what kind subjectivity emerges among performers (and, perhaps, by identification and absorption, among the audience) and what process of subjectivication is produced in a composition; how might performers push the limits of their own agency within the situation and how does that contribute to the behaviour of the group? How can being present in an aesthetic situation develop a specific subjectivity? Because my scores often present the available sound materials in a simple and efficient way, usually without the safety net of metrical time, the group must work to find a shared habitus (thanks to Jolon Dixon for introducing me to this concept of Bourdieu’s) yet all the while make choices in the moment which (I hope) create a certain tension. The dialectical tension is not between two or so musical themes (it is all too common to read programme notes which explain, ‘this theme represents x and this theme represents y and the piece is their conflict and final resolution’) but between the performers as individuals and as a group, mediated by the score. I am aiming for tension to arise because of performers’ engagement with each other rather than literally writing tension into the complexity of the score, although it is necessary for the score to present the kernel of that inter-subjective engagement and, after all, any score will present demands and challenges of one kind or another.
Felix Anton Lehnert told me that any length of composition would be useful for the concert, but I wanted to make the most of the opportunity and work on something big. I intended to write a single-movement composition of around 20 minutes. In the end, I wrote four movements with a total time of 28 minutes in the premiere, which will be more like 24 minutes after my changes to the score have been incorporated. This is the first time ever that I have completed a multi-movement composition and I felt a lot of self-inflicted pressure at the outset to write a single 20-minute movement. However, I struggled to find a way to connect the ideas that excited me in my sketches without falling into a rather dramatic narrative that I was not interested in pursuing.
Some of my first sketches were used with extreme simplicity in the third movement: a series of second-inversion dominant 7th chords moving in parallel within short distances (no further than a 3rd at most). The first half follows what I am calling an ‘Ordered asynchronous cue’: following the initial cue of the Timpani, the Viola cues Violin II, which cues the Cello, which cues Violin I, all distinct from each other but close enough to form a single event. There are twenty such cues until the half-way point is reached, whereafter the ‘Ordered asynchronous cue’ is replaced with the ‘Unordered asynchronous cue’, in which the fixed order is removed but the staggered note-change is retained. Half way through this section, the string instruments start circular bowing at various relative speeds and the sound gradually disintegrates until the end. I don’t think the simplicity of this process and form would be possible as a section within a larger movement. As a ‘third movement’, I intend it to present a very simple process which echoes the techniques of the other movements but provides some light-relief from the more serious tone elsewhere. But what does it achieve? It having been performed twice so far, I have only provisional and biased answers: even without recognising the change from Unordered to Ordered cues, I suspect a subtle change in atmosphere could be noticed due to the performers’ uncertainty after the fixed order cue is abandoned. And if that is not noticed, at least the sound disintegration towards the end is a clear formal marker which might invite a retroactive reading of the wide-eyed naïve tone of the first three quarters. I felt the audience patience waning somewhat during this movement (admittedly, it is soft and sustained and extremely simple and follows a lengthy and icily quiet movement); a fresh character must be found in performance and the tone quality must be maintained evenly throughout, not loud but not too soft, just present and bright. This movement is also especially demanding with regard to tuning these floating chords, especially in the viola part which plays the -31c septimal minor 7ths all the way. Furthermore, I can’t expect other listeners to share my excitement around subtly changing atmospheres and the slight, unpredictable games of performer interaction. I can only persuade and seduce them into listening and hope that they are curious about what they hear.
The first movement required a lot more pruning. It involves only two chords, which I gradually settled on in my initial work in February during the process of tuning the intervals of the composition’s harmonic-space. I had to make sure these intervals (mostly double-stopped except in the cello part) are not a challenge to tune by ear: in the first chord Violin I tunes its C sharp (+18c) in relation to its open E string; Violin II plays only open strings D and A; the Viola plays only open strings C and G; and the cello has to place a high F (-31c) in the middle of this, probably by hearing the open D and A of Violin II who is seated adjacent. I put together a tuning guide video for the performers to help them hear the intervals they are aiming for. Without knowing what to listen for, and using only cent deviations, the performers can feel like automatons. Marc Sabat and Wolfgang von Schweinitz’ Extended Helmholtz-Ellis JI Pitch Notation is a brilliant step towards this ideal of theory and listening but is so elaborate that it already poses a considerable epistemological challenge to any JI-inexperienced performers. However, the vivid colour of the JI harmony is not the only focal point in this movement. Above all, it is a simple exploration of performers adjusting to their shared habitus. It is worth quoting fully Bourdieu’s definition of habitus as it appears in ‘The Logic of Practice’:
“The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor.” (p53)
The score present the musicians with a simple set of materials which they slowly progress through and, using ‘stack’ notation, can go back and forth between. Although a metronome mark is given and the notation involves rhythmic values, the sense of time and placement is extremely flexible: individual sounds can be longer or shorter, can be repeated any number of times, can be used chosen within certain limits at any time and used for any textural purpose. Individual judgement and choice is required but is never fetishized and its effect is always audible (which can’t be said for so many modernist classics that involve aleatoric and decision-making structures). The sense of rhythmic time and temporal progression and textural density is the result of individual actions which are themselves informed by the group situation. This movement is an act of finding, with expanding and contracting fields of choice. The performers discover what results from their own choices and they relate their personal agency to the behaviour of the group. This all has sociological overtones, but I am not using this to collect experimental data on group behaviour. I want the aesthetic experience which is the product of this subtle interaction and enhanced liveness. After the opening chords, which are played together, moving from one chord to the other becomes an important act: it creates a harmonic bleeding like the border between two pigments of paint and a dissonant tension between them. When one performer moves to the next chord, the other performers soon move as well, and so on, back and forth, until the closing gestures which tie this heterogeneous activity back together.
The second and fourth movements are more elaborate than the third and first so I may return to write about them another time. My experience with performers is always a vital part of the process for me, above all because my work involves open elements which are typically unfamiliar to classically trained musicians (and even some new-music performers) and because it refines certain notions of musicianship, including the classical musicianship preoccupation with tone and balance and intonation alongside a more improvisatory and experimental, sometimes almost jazz, focus on engaging with the live moment and on what I usually describe as ‘playful antagonism’ – that group interplay revolves around challenging as well as supporting each other.
The string quartet for this project, Chemnitz-based Ensemble01, have been playing together for around ten years and specialise in new music. As they are music teachers and play in the Chemnitz opera orchestra, they are not full-time in new music but they were friendly, enthusiastic and open-minded. This was their first time using just-intonation but they were receptive to it. Similarly, for the open elements of my score. I have learned a lot since my first attempts at open-form writing. I had an eye-opening workshop in 2016 with Bozzini Quartet at the Sound Scotland Festival in Aberdeen and an exciting but challenging experience early in 2017 with my composition Colour Fields, written for 840 concert series in London. Since then, and having worked more with student colleagues (in Allotments and Canvases) and performers in Glasgow Experimental Music Series (in At Cross-Purposes), I have realised the importance of developing approaches to rehearsing open-form music. I prepared carefully in advance before working in rehearsal with Ensemble01 and Felix Anton Lehnert: preparing to hear the precise tunings I wanted, to break down the myriad options in the score and make them manageable, and to convey a clear sense of how the music should feel and with what spirit to engage in it. As usual, it is difficult to know exactly how an open-form composition will be interpreted and how effectively it will work and as usual I had to make several changes to the score in the week before the premiere. My only moment of real stress was when I requested that we use the stage layout I showed in the score, changing from the ‘string quartet plus percussion’ layout being used for the other pieces to the central timpani and perspectivally redistributed strings, a kind of expanded box shape with Violin I and Viola stage right and Cello and Violin II stage left. This request caused a lot of groaning among the theatre staff but so much of my music was written to reflect this spatial distribution and the more ‘orchestral’ layout would have seemed anachronistic. Luckily, it was changed and the benefits were huge.
So much of being a composer is about enthusing performers and listeners about musical ideas, getting people on board and hopefully inspiring their curiosity and imagination. Jolon Dixon, composer/artist and all-round great human being based in Berlin, likes to talk about ‘adventure music’ rather than ‘contemporary classical’ or ‘new music’. The grim paradigm of ‘genius’ composers tends to persist, wherein the composer pens something clever and brilliant and the performers put in the dirty work of practising and performing it to the composer’s satisfaction. But I am excited much more by Jolon’s ‘adventure music’ conception: composers think adventurous ideas and they work with others to make those adventures come to life. With A Spacious Room, I was looking for a certain quality of aesthetic experience, for certain ideas about individuals and groups to emerge from limited contexts of musical situations, for a collaborative process that would feel fresh at each performance and surprise me as much as anyone else. This composition hopefully has a longer life ahead of it but I was very happy with what Ensemble01 and Felix Anton Lehnert achieved and I was positively surprised by the enthusiastic curiosity of the school group that attended the second performance. Now the musicians and I need to keep delving into the open possibilities of this work and persuade others to engage with it in whatever way they can.