In 2012, during the Second International Young Composers Academy in the Tchaikovsky city, academy professor Klaus Lang played on an old piano of the local music college one of his Praeludiums, — a soft and slow ascending white keys scale. In this piece there is a complex part of pedals: clouds of resonances and overtones appear behind the surface of the scale. They themselves are the material of the piece, and the scale itself is the means, the instrument necessary for the appearance of this material. Hearing overcomes the scale’s surface, and concentrates on what’s happening behind it …
In 2015, at the Fifth Academy – on the same piano, in the same hall – professor Peter Ablinger performed his piece “Diagonal line”, a soft and slow ascending white keys scale. Ablinger investigated the formal translation of the diagonal line into the space of music. The scale here is the starting and ending point, a line on the plane.
These two formally identical works struck me by their difference. I decided to compose a series of Transcendental Studies, the sound material of which is given — a soft and slow ascending white keys scale. Composer Anton Svetleechny made a video interpretation of these studies …
“HyperMusic”, is a study in which each note should be interpreted as a micro quotation from piano literature, each note is a hyperlink. (Note the authors of the quotes).
And “Tabulaturi” — here I propose to write out the fingering of any piano composition, and play the scale with this fingering — the initial composition is straightened into a scale.
At the same time, I started offering students to write studies, the actual sounding material of which is given — a soft and slow ascending white keys scale. I will mention two interesting examples.
Asiya Ahmetzhanova from Latvia, drew an anatomical map of the human body, and offered to perform each note with the support on different parts of the body — on the finger, on the shoulder, on the diaphragm, etc. The material of the piece unfolds in the body of a pianist.
Another example is the Fatal Scale by Valeria Kukhta.
When a key is pressed someone dies on the planet. I can’t imagine the possibility of performing this piece, as it enters the moral territory.
I plan to assemble a collection of such studies and organise a concert, at which only soft and slow ascending white keys scales will be performed.
However, all the pieces are fundamentally different. Their difference is composed on the territory before the sound. And it is a huge territory. The territory of inner life, private motivations, of our biographies, geography, philosophy, ideology.
The sound is just a surface. The surface which often covers, hides, or even replaces this territory of inner motivations.
Antoine Beuger. “One sound. Rather short. Very quiet”.
Two performers, each with a clock in front of him (or her). Every minute is divided in half.
In the first half, one performer can make one sound (rather short, very quiet).
In the second half – the other.
They communicate this way, playing a time tag, placing the sounds closer to or farther from each other, waiting for a close meeting and escaping it.
The closest meeting entails the longest expectation, and it is possible at the junction of the two halves of a minute.
If such a meeting occurs, the next close contact shall be awaited for the longest time – a minute – until the next closing of the two halves of the clock face.
Any of the performers can stop any time. Then the second continues alone until he (or she), decides to complete the performance.
In his (or her) solitude the performer continues to play tag with the remaining emptiness of the partner, placing the sounds regarding the silence, absence.
I happened to be twice at the performance of this composition. The first lasted about 20 minutes, the second – about an hour. In both cases the moment when one of the performers stopped I felt physically, with my skin, like a catastrophe, an irrevocable loss. The silence was filled with a hum of expectation and hope.
I’ve only once reacted like this.
I was probably 12 years old, listening to a broadcast of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony on TV. In the finale movement I experienced exactly what I felt again, more than twenty years later, listening to Boyger. And the experience of listening to Boyger brought me back and explained to me that childish feeling.
Each descending motif of the Six’s final movement, resolved by a long sound, threatened to stop, break up, or lose. I was afraid that the long sound would not come.
In both cases – in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and in Antoine Boyger’s performance – I felt the expectation of parting and loss on a physical level. In one case, it is a big pathetic Symphony, with hundred performers, with thousands of notes. In the other, two musicians and a couple of dozen quiet short sounds.
We are often too much attached to the sounds.
The sound has become a fetish.
The sound is overrated.
The sound is the main problem of music.
The sound is the disaster of music.
The sound does not allow us to hear.
Helmut Lachenmann said similar:
“Musical culture is a Walkman that allows us to listen and at the same time plugs our ears.”
The context of his statement was the commercialisation of beauty. Lachenmann defends the rights of ugly sounds. Again sounds.
Is the composition limited to sound?
We may also ask this question regarding the form and all the parameters or tools the music is built with. But where do these tools come from? Do we compose these tools or use the given ones?
The history of music is the history of overcoming the given tools.
We do not use the existing sounds — we compose the sounds. Do we?
We do not use the given instruments — we compose instruments. Do we?
We do not use existing forms — we compose forms. Do we?
We do not use space (concert halls or any other given spaces of music performance) — we compose space. Do we?
We do not use the means of music representation — we compose them. Do we?
We do not use the existing relations of composer, musician and the audience. Do we?
We do not use the existing conception of what is composing – we compose how to compose. Do we?
To generalize the question: we do not use existing models — we compose them… Do we?
If we don’t compose models, models will compose us. The model — from a genre to a gesture — cannot reproduce itself, it has no hands, no eyes. It uses our bodies for self-reproduction. We become the models’ avatars.
There are compositions in which composers reproduce existing models.
There are compositions in which composers operate different existing models and clash them.
There are compositions in which composers carry out a dialogue with existing models.
There are compositions in which composers take something extra-musical for the model (the previous three types of relationships are also applicable here: reproduction, clash, dialogue).
There are compositions in which composers create their own models (becoming food for the first three types). We all know these composers – these composers survive. I am afraid, these composers are not in the list which Anton Svetlichny created for the interpretation of my study.
The models are waiting for us, they’re looking for avatars.
There are many gestures and figures in music which exist by themselves, they don’t need composers, they need copy machines.
Let’s try to experience how strong the models in contemporary music and in its perception work by attending an imaginary concert:
Now we will imagine a piece for bass clarinet by composer N, a student of Helmut Lachenmann.
Now a piece for violin by composer X, a student of Salvatore Sciarrino.
Now the piano trio of composer Y, a student of Gerard Pesson.
Now we will imagine a piece for bass flute by composer Z, a student of Beat Furrer.
Now a string quartet with electronics, the composer has just completed IRCAM course. Performed at the Manifest festival by the Arditi Quartet.
And in the end, without specifying the authorship – a piece for 5 performers, duration 10 minutes.
Detecting and overcoming the inertia of model thinking is our daily work.
I often ask students to recompose banal, readymade gestures. The gestures we rarely consider problematic. For example, I ask to compose crescendo or diminuendo, accelerando or rallentando.
Here is a diagram of simple acceleration.
Let’s try to break the inertia of the formula by releasing some elements of the structure (while keeping the stability of acceleration of intact elements).
Similar offsets are also possible with going beyond the cells.
Or even exiting the borders of the figure.
Such operations can follow a specific algorithm or be free. It is interesting that this not only overcomes the inertia of a certain gesture, but also reveals new opportunities to work with the form and time.
If we break away from the pre-set plane sheet (who said we have to deal with the plane?) and start composing in 3-dimensional space, for example, we can imagine that all points of the acceleration figure are at different distances and form completely different groupings when the viewing angle changes.
This is just a couple of possible solutions for composed acceleration.
If you only think about an elementary gesture, it will open up the prospect of discovering new forms and processes. We should be aware of what we are doing when we write down a particular sound or gesture. Whether we compose on all levels and not just on the level of beautiful (or ugly) sound combinations.
The key to break this avatar problem is the question mark.
Let’s imagine a very simple situation: I compose a piece for string quartet. Just put a question mark after each word: I? Compose? A piece? For string? Quartet?
If there are no questions – we’re probably avatars. Composition starts with composing answers to these questions.
All these questions make our life harder. They return us to the eternal “to be or not to be”. My answer is – to doubt. This is a rhetorical question.
A composer is a person who does not like music. A person who is not satisfied with what is usually called music. He (or she) feels the lack in music. He (she) is not happy. If he (she) is happy, satisfied, he (she) will not change anything, he (she) will not compose, he (she) will just reproduce.
When we buy a watermelon at the market we know what it should be and get upset if the watermelon is not red and sweet enough. The composer will not go to the market to get a watermelon — he (or she) will make his (or her) own: square, white, wooden. And he (she) will call it a banana. Or, better, Pianohero 2.
And all these questions stay before the sound. But probably the answer can be found not in sounds. And here the fears come.
We all look for a novelty. I hardly believe in novelty, but I believe in difference.
It is interesting that we don’t have to go far for it. The difference is not outside — it is inside us, we’re all different. We all have different biographies, experiences, different fingerprints. And here is the reason of fear. Being different is being alone.
There is also a fear to fall out of the concert scene, the music industry, or to fall outside the limits of what is recognisable as music. This fear can lead us to a compromise. The request, pressure comes from outside, it controls and uses us.
However, as I have already said, the history of music is the history of overcoming such requests. More or less radically.
Karl Marx said:
“A work of art forms an audience capable to perceive it.” The request comes from the artwork. Not from outside.
Marx also wrote:
“To give up one’s illusions about one’s condition is to give up a condition that requires illusions.” This is the way of inner revolution. Mozart is brilliant not where he follows the model — he is brilliant where he overcomes it. Breaks. Profans. Composer is a “profanator”.
History of music is the history of profanation of what is music.
Composing music is each time composing what is music.
Speaking about model thinking, I speak not only from the perspective of a composer, but also from the perspective of a listener. The perception is also filled with stereotypes and expectations. We often know what we want to hear before we hear it. And when we don’t get it, we protest, often quite aggressively.
Listening, perception is the same creative act as composing. When we listen we compose what we hear. And here arises the same dichotomy of the author and avatar — do we want to reproduce the familiar or are we ready for the new, the other? In most cases people look for confirmations. We don’t want to change, we want to confirm.
Creating is creating something that didn’t exist – creating the other.
Perception is meeting the other – accepting or rejecting it.
To meet the other is to change, to become the other.
One is not anymore the same after meeting the other.
When one doesn’t want to change, he doesn’t want to open a door for the other.
But who is behind the door except for ourselves, other ourselves?
I believe that the fear of the other is the fear of loneliness.
Not opening the door to the other – is keeping the hope that there is the other behind it.
By composing the other, by introducing it to a listener, we compose (or recompose) a listener. And this is a sort of aggression which meets resistance. That’s why the contemporary art is not so widely accepted as the pop culture, which mostly works for confirmations of models and expectations. But it happens often in contemporary music as well.
Music is an abstract art. Nevertheless, it operates structures and systems of gestures that have much in common with social and political gestures and structures. The systems of attractions, subordinations, hierarchies, etc. Composers build communities of sounds, laws of interactions, minorities and majorities, etc., based on the experience of music history as the history of similar systems/communities.
In music there was modal feudalism, tonal monarchy, 12-tone democracy, and other systems of organising material. There were also revolutions that led to the emancipation of a particular parameter, resistance to the center or any other hierarchy.
There were also reversals to previous stages of development: so in their cultural policy, the totalitarian systems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries were accompanied by a return in music to the tonality, in which the power of the center is proclaimed.
Such systems are projected through music – consciously or unconsciously. And composers are responsible for what is projected through their music.
Music is toxic.
For example, there is a tradition in which tonal, euphonious material symbolises Good and is contrasted with atonal, which symbolises Evil. This tradition mostly characterises cultures that are traumatised by totalitarianism and often do not realise their trauma.
This tradition is not as simple and carefree as it may seem. It raises the question of what is beautiful and what is not. Moreover, the beautiful equals the good, the ugly equals the bad. And this is a way out into the ethical and moral field.
Helmut Lachenmann in one of his lectures showed the audience photos of two women: one was of a model appearance, the other was an elderly, tired, wrinkled. Lachenmann asked the audience to indicate which of these women was beautiful. Sophie’s Choice. But are we really responsible in our work, operating with sounds and giving them moral categories?
The same about formal structures. Simple, clear forms – such as e.g. exposition, development guiding to a climax, resulting to a coda. We can experience such forms in most of musical compositions throughout centuries. One may say (and I personally hear it from many students) that these forms are «natural» biologically, psychologically, sexually etc. But what we mostly see in the highest examples of music masterpieces is resistance to such inert forms. Great composers broke the fatality of such formulas. These formulas introduce a generalised view, equalisation instead of individualisation. Resistance to an otherness. And, again, we face a political statement. Generalised perception, generalised «people», generalised «audience». It is in this paradigm that the statement “the public will not understand this” is possible.
When we go by train through the forest what we see in the window we call “the forest”. However, the forest consists of an infinite number of unique parts. If we think of the forest as a collection of an infinite number of details, our brain will not be able to withstand the flow of information.
Art can teach us to distinguish, to resist generalisations, to focus on details, slow down and stop time, overcome the linearity of the narrative. This is how art forms a complex person who sees not averagely. And this is why it is dangerous for political systems that benefit from a crowd and not from a collection of individuals who articulate their rights to otherness, alterity.
On the other hand, pop culture, which, as I said, traditionally works to confirm models and expectations, is also capable of asking questions and producing Other. No less sophisticated and radical than modern music. And in this case, the division into popular and academic scenes becomes quite conditional.
A composer is not someone who writes sheet music, but someone who exists in an active creative dialogue with the context and material and develops ways to represent his thoughts.
Now I suggest listening to a few tracks, all of which are examples of extraordinary work with models and expectations in popular culture – from dance music to rock and pop.