Note: The following interview was largely completed in 2019. Editorial work began in 2020 yet was significantly delayed due to the global pandemic crisis. As Chris Dench and I revisited the interview, we both thought it would be unfair to the 2019 zeitgeist to retouch it based on current events. This is particularly pertinent to the later questions regarding contemporary music’s socio-political situation: a conversation that would certainly have taken a different course had we begun the interview more recently. The reader will nevertheless find a handful of parenthetic updates in the form [subsequent thought or event—CD 2020]. These were kept to a minimum so that they did not break the interview’s established flow. —EB
Ermir Bejo: A disproportionate number of composers and students have been sold the modernist stereotype of “revolution or die,” yet you seem to trail a more ambiguous territory. Do you ever recognize yourself in those stereotypes?
Chris Dench: I’ve come to the realisation that when young we try to draw a line between ourselves and history; eventually however we choose to draw a line from history to ourselves. …Of course, there are many kinds of “revolution”. Some of those are like Tom Wolfe’s ‘revolution into style’, or even ‘radical conservatism’—even the decerebrated fundamentalist religionists see themselves as ‘revolutionary’. More than enough has already been written about modernism and ‘technocratic myths of progress’, and I have no desire to weigh into that debate. It’s something we’ll probably come back to later, inevitably…
But I’d better start by making a couple of observations that may surprise some of your readers. I am, by inclination, quite a traditional composer. I’m not an anatomist, or a sonologist; I find that I can do most of what I want to do in my music with a relatively confined toolbox, and from where I sit the primary interest in my work seems to reside at the structural level. My most powerful devices are harmonic tempo and harmonic colour—hardly the most earth-shatteringly radical concepts. My three perennial benchmarks are Scriabin, Elliott Carter, and Xenakis.
Also, I’d like to counter the stereotype. I’m really not the tunnel-visioned, ascetic, aesthetic zealot that some people imagine all modernists to be. Certainly I take composing very seriously, but I do recognise that it matters very much less than, say, medical research, climate science, social welfare …or even particle physics and cosmology, which I regret not studying. One of the reasons I like to read people like Sabine Hossenfelder and Lee Smolin is that I am envious, not just of their brilliance and insight, but also their relevance. Certainly, nothing I ever do can compete with hard science for significance or interest. Seriousness of purpose should not be equated to humourlessness, mind you; having been brought up in Britain, I like my humour somewhat sharp, so I try to insert irony into my work as a compositional element. This tongue-in-cheek factor can take many forms; for instance, my 1996 Fourth Symphony has the cell from Josquin’s Missa La sol fa re mi (“lascia fare mi!”—“leave me alone!”) woven into its texture throughout, while the third section of my Piano Sonata treats the Photino Birds, Stephen Baxter’s dark matter entities, as Messiaenesque birds on amphetamines, and the sixth, k=+1, section about densening space-time, is at the same time a homage to my old friend, composer Kristian Ireland. It is very difficult to make this kind of subtext obvious without killing it off; I am not one to put up a huge flag saying THIS IS FUNNY, as Kagel seems to have felt obliged to do. Nonetheless, if you encounter something in my work or writings that suggests a levity of intention, you are probably not wrong. [And don’t miss Dr Hossenfelder’s physics-related songs on Youtube—they are sui generis. This one even addresses the same issue as the last section of my Piano Sonata].
EB: Let’s delve into the details of your compositional process. How do you write music?
CD: How I write music is inextricably interwoven with why I write music. I have often defined a composer as someone for whom there is a music that is intolerably absent from the world and which they strive to create—a quixotic aim, for sure. Historically, making music up has always been a marriage of two competing impulses, the need to get one’s vision ‘out there’ and the urge to, as Terry Pratchett points out in Soul Music, get paid. So composing has always been a vocation in both senses of the word: a calling and a job, a compulsion and an obligation.
If composing is the making real of an imagined music, then it follows that it is also the externalising of one’s internal soundscape. Much has been written about the cinema screen in our heads, but there is little that I have come across about our internal sonic worlds. My preoccupation is with the music that inhabits my qualia. Much of it is composed by others: like any other musician I can hold many works of music in my mind; score, sound, and, if piano music, the proprioceptive feel of performance—even in music I can’t actually play. (This is perhaps one of the reasons my piano music turns out so hard; I can imagine the experience of playing Lévy flights, even while I cannot begin to make my body move that virtuosically). But there is also, and always, an internal perception of a music which is not yet formalised, my own idiosyncratic soundworld. One of the reasons I don’t rush to hear pieces by composers who work in a field similar to mine is that I don’t want there to be any crosstalk in my consciousness between my nascent music and theirs.
So, I cannot see the point of writing music if it does not illuminate the author’s inner sense of what it is to be a human. Whenever I am reading or eying up visual art, a portion of my attention is always on the lookout for what I call ‘triggers’, potential ideas that might underwrite a new musical work. These triggers can take many forms—words, phrases, concepts, images—but they all need to have certain plunderable features: an implicit architecture that can unfold over time; a meaning that can be demonstrated in a metaphorical fashion; and, preferably, a constellation of associated ideas that can resonate both towards and away from the core meaning—as for example in my 1985 piano piece tilt (slant, inclination, velocity, recklessness, pinball tilt). Notice that I do not mention expressive potential as a required element; I regard expression as an emergent feature that occurs when listeners interact with the coded-in meanings. Titles are for me crucial to the creation of a new piece: usually closely linked to the trigger, they provide the substrate onto which the entire edifice is imagined.
One of the first things I ever decided about how I would write music is that, at core, what I would do is to conceptualise forcefields, into which I would then insert sonic behaviours to make those forcefields audible. In that sense I am, and have always been, a top-down composer. What has changed over the decades is the sophistication of the sonic behaviours that I forge to make the architecture palpable. I think of myself, to use Xenakis’s terminology, as using outside-of-time strategies to plan out my works. This does not mean, of course, that the architectures are static (although they can be); the teleological character of the unfolding sonic argument differs from piece to piece. But to prioritise teleology is to admit that I am probably more interested in phenomena than sonorities—behaviour before colour, rather at odds with the zeitgeist.
EB: Are you attached to traditional musical notions of intervallic, rhythmic, or dynamic manipulations? Has your approach changed over time?
CD: I have spoken elsewhere about having lost faith, modernistically, in the meaningfulness of traditional musical material. When all intervals, rhythmic deployments, dynamic strategies, are of equal merit and value, some external validator becomes necessary to imbue one’s work with immanent authenticity. I initially sought this kind of validation in number, using numerologies and patterns that could be discerned in the world around us. But, to adopt Gregory Bateson’s terminology—he adapted the terms from Jung, where they have a somewhat different flavour—number is pleromatic; that is, it belongs to “the non-living world that is undifferentiated by subjectivity” and consequently contains no information (what Bateson defined as “difference that makes a difference”). Using number patterns produced music that had lots of variety, but that variety had no ulterior intelligibility, no reason other than that which I imparted by external compositional design. My early piano piece topologies is entirely forged out of the naturally-occurring Fibonacci series, and as a result is both weak and predictable—hopefully concealed, or at least distracted from, by its gestural flamboyance. Trying to derive forms from Nature—flora and fauna—was also not very productive, being in essence a fuzzier version of number. What I needed was a way of creating the kinds of sonic patterns I heard in my head but organised according to principles that emerged from the living world, subject to perceptual difference, distinction, and information—the products of sentience.
It is at this point in compositional praxis that one of my primary dilemmas is situated. The basic problems I encountered with using behaviours derived from raw Nature were that the patterns are either very straightforward and once grasped no longer interesting; or occupy too large a scale to be reducible to musically useful material; or are so non-intuitive as to be inscrutable. Having disregarded Nature, my solution to the question of imbuing my work with meaning in a modernist landscape was to adopt a gematric approach. The gematria is a kabalist practice derived from Greek thought, and appropriated by mystical Judaeo-Christianity, where letters of alphabets are converted into numbers, and manipulated. My usage of this idea is a long way from its hermeneutic origins; I adopted gematria solely as a compositional device that seemed a good fit with my imagined soundforms. What gematria brings is a way to import symmetries, and relationships between musical materials, that are derived from an anthropic but entirely unconnected domain, and consequently divorced from historical notions of musical meaning. This is unarguably a lurch towards Platonism. When I adopt a chosen word, a name usually, as the basis of a piece, I am mindful of its usefulness; usually that word or concept becomes the piece’s title, or in the case of a name, the dedication. Richard Toop lamented that his surname was not a particularly fecund resource, whereas the science fiction author Alastair Reynolds’ surname assuredly is. As I’ve already gone into some detail on this elsewhere under the heading of “form”, I’ll forgo further elaboration here.
EB: One can imagine that a gematric approach to music composition may create structural imbalances and arbitrarities according to the source used. How did you navigate these conflicts?
CD: The dilemma emerges precisely from this intrinsically Platonist, or to skip formalisms, Apollonian musical metabolism. It is a secular version of the old God’s eye looking over one’s shoulder impulse towards what one might call ‘civilised order’. In such a compositional environment, spontaneity seems excluded, and yet all musics rely at least in part on improvisation as a driving force. Not that improvisation is necessarily spontaneous; most popular music is so narrowly-defined that the improvisational elements are highly and often uninterestingly constrained. But the Dionysian impulse, let us call it natural abandon, is one of the richest elements in any compositional toolbox.
Historically, composers have frequently used their improvisations as the basis for more worked-out pieces—Messe de la Pentecôte, for example. I have attempted to obviate my Apollonian/Dionysian dilemma in the opposite direction: I create my forcefields, which I then inhabit with partly extemporised sonic behaviours. Clearly, this practice owes something to popular music, where a song-structure offers a chassis for spontaneous invention. As I write I am acutely aware of my dissatisfaction with the limited extent of natural abandon in my pieces: in the future, expect more!
A sideband to the Apollonian/Dionysian distinction concerns structure. If I create a work that uses such a gematric metabolism as I outlined above, and unfolds according to a trigger-prompted narrative, it is naturally a closed structure. There is no scope for the intrusion of anything external to that structure—indeed, such an intrusion is undefined. In some works, generated by other kinds of trigger (the Infinite Improbability Drive, say), the aim is to create an open structure, one where alien elements can jut-in to the narrative: the EM fugue section from my Piano Sonata does this. Or, as in certain of my extant works such as e(i)ther (“I in the ether”), the argument is incomplete, only the first half is present, so closure is imaginable, but absent.
I have said in the past that my aim is to create works that exhibit “a ceaselessly unforeseeable originality” (a notion I appropriated from Barthes) while also projecting inevitability by their internal cohesion. If I can marry the Apollonian and Dionysian, the closed and open, sides of my musical personality more fully, such a work may be achievable. For now, I continue to wrestle. My colleague Andrew Bernard made the pithy observation that “Agonising about Apollo versus Dionysus is completely Apollonian. Your case is incurable”.
On a more practical level, I have always felt the need to have certain kinds of equilibrium in my works. One of these is what I refer to as parametric equilibrium, where the degrees of extremeness of the various component dimensions of a work are at comparable levels—you could almost call it homeostasis. I find music where one aspect is highly developed to the disadvantage of others uncomfortable; for example, the microtonal music of Alois Hába or the late Ben Johnston, where the handling of rhythm and instrumentation is somewhat less subtle than pitch. In my own work I try, not always as successfully as I’d like, to achieve a balance between the degrees of subtlety of my parameters—deriving all the parametrics from the same gematric germ certainly helps. The other equilibrium I habitually adopt is what I used to call ‘instrumental socialism’, where no one player is more dominant than any other—concertante music does not come naturally to me. I was very amused to discover more recently that Percy Grainger beat me to it with his concept of instrumental democracy, although in his case the democracy resides more in choice than equality of instrument. These are purely aesthetic assessments; I frequently over-ride my inclinations where they are inhibiting articulacy.
EB: Originally, gematria was the fruit of a religious practice and its time. Did this context inform your current evolution?
CD: For a long time I played with the conceit that using gematria to generate my material somehow imbued my works with a spiritual dimension, but in recent years I have watched the misogynist and otherwise uncompassionate and dictatorial behaviour of people of self-declared religious leaning and decided I want no connection with it, however tenuous. My own stance has always been that there is no Supernatural, no God nor ghosts—it is a figment of our collective imagination. To pray is to talk to yourself. I am what Douglas Adams would call a Radical Atheist. So although my use of words, predominantly names, to generate material imbues the music with meaning for me, there is no additional general radiance imparted by such use. My works are just that, the product of work. Numinous, nonsense.
A corollary of my loss of faith in the efficacy of historical musical material is a recognition that my music is, pace Peter Livy et al, a purely abstract patterning of sound. We are all aware how limiting this is: “The narrator’s powers of communication were scant, perhaps because his genius was more inclined to the severity of abstractions than to the obviousness of images”, says Calvino in Castle of Crossed Destinies. My attitude is that musical expressivity is largely predicated on the modern ubiquity of learned listening habits, and that every listener will decode what I write in their own distinctive way, part nurture, part nature. I imagine that an expert in Affective Response would be able to give a more incisive account of musical reception, but for my compositional purposes I assume each listener will develop their own singular reading of the affective dimension of my musical language. I therefore focus less on expressivity and more on the mimetic and demonstrative capacities of music, its potential for revealing pattern and relationships between patterns. It is for this reason, I have come to realise, that I borrow so many of my compositional images and models from popular science, and science-fiction, rather than visual art or literature. Music can articulate structure unambiguously; it cannot except conventionally convey mood.
EB: Speaking of structure, how do you think of scale in your music? Does your preoccupation with self-similarity, holographic and fractal structures inform the music’s local and global architecture?
CD: One of my compositional adages is that rhythm and structure are the same thing, merely articulated on different scales. Consequently I don’t really think of the two parameters separately. So there is a sense in which I don’t think about scale per se. Except that I am obliged to, because it is such a major element in any work’s nature. This is where the gematric approach gels closely with my larger compositional practice—it provides a mechanism whereby the scalar decisions can be connected.
I sometimes wonder if my frequent adoption of the gematric methodology is what Andrew Bernard would call a Behaviour Attractor, an inescapably instinctive course of action. But I think there is more to it than that; I have also long been interested in dynamical discontinuity—or, perhaps more accurately, vertical decoupledness—as a compositional process, but have balked at actually using this as a large-scale organisation. It seems to me that there is a tension between structural levels in works that are not holistic, which, while rich in potential, I find temperamentally unsatisfying. It comes down, once again, to my desire for my works to have a parametric and instrumental equilibrium.
Brian Ferneyhough once referred to my music as “a constant flow of non-objects” (or something, I don’t have a copy of his Boros interviews handy). While I acknowledge that in the shadow of the loss of faith in material I moved the interest in my works away from local interactions to global flows, I think that musical objects in my pieces are perhaps more vertically aligned than in much other music; that is, the local sonic behaviours are linked by self-similarity to behaviours at both higher and lower structural levels—or to put it another way, nested time-zones offer views of similar material at different speeds. One way this functions is in the dialectic between harmonic tempo and event tempo, where, as in Beethoven’s Op 111 Arietta, the ground moves much more slowly than the foreground, or vice versa as in the One Note Samba. I take this up a level, also, in that the rate of change of harmonic tempo—the topology, if you will—more often than not reflects the same processes. But Brian’s remark holds true even today; I have never quite got over my suspicion about the efficacy of sonic objects, and I prefer to link my material up non-locally.
I already alluded to one of the considerations that emerge from my processes: by adopting a compositional methodology that calls on self-similarity it is incumbent on me to decide on the scale for any given work. This is not always difficult; in the cases of both my 98 minute Piano Sonata, and my more recent re-imagining of my 1985 work strangeness as my String Quartet, which eventuated at about 65 minutes, the scale of the works were a consequence of the scale of the component sections. The Piano Sonata was initially performed by Peter de Jager in a 45 minute provisional version, but it was quite clear to me as I listened to it that the sheer size of the gestures demanded that it become a very much bigger piece. Similarly, when taking stock of the extant material from strangeness, I was acutely aware of how poor a fit the sections were in the original 16 minute architecture; they felt cramped, constricted. Producing a new work that contextualised these sections in a commensurately enlarged form took almost a year, but I feel that it was worth it—the work is effectively equilibrated. Yet again, I am in the process of completing my work passing bells, producing a day section to counterpoise the existing night section, with a Vigils to open, and a Catullan postlude (…nox est perpetua una dormienda). The duration of these sections emerges naturally—ie. composedly—from that of the existing material.
Other works however do not necessarily have a natural scale. It was the bane of my compositional life that I used to always be asked for eight to ten minute works. While grateful for the opportunity to get any work performed, I have become aware over the years that my music is at its most idiomatic on larger scales—I cite ik(s)land[s] as an example of this—and the under-ten-minutes formal requirement was and is confining. When I sit down to create such a smaller work I have to make the decision whether it will be a single-arch or a plural-arch structure, and a whole gamut of compositional decisions devolve from this decision, from the number of hierarchical levels of nesting to the number of compositional elements that can be brought into play. Most of my solo woodwind pieces are of a single-arch character, although I have tried to ring the changes with differing structural solutions—dé/ployé, for example, runs through its fairly succinct architecture twice, foldedly, then unfoldedly, as its title suggests, and the sadness of detail exists in two different but equally valid versions: structurally intercut, and structurally linear.
EB: In the end, how does the work come together for you?
CD: The crucial final step, once I have knit all my concerns together, plotted the forcefields, generated the musical material, and picked up my pencil, is to filter the outcome as it comes together through my sensibility, and aesthetic judiciousness, so as to alchemise the raw creative product into music. Thus the products of Ariel are modified by Caliban to produce a balanced outcome.
I have tried to cover the various decisions that are required between the initial epiphanic impulse to write a piece and its completion: choosing the material and bending it to my will; matching the concept to an instrumental format; deciding on the work’s expanse; refining the mimetic landscape it will inhabit (which I trust will bring with it an affective sideband); balancing the various semiotic parameters, such as the mélange of order and abandon; and allowing the music to evolve itself naturally during writing. It is almost always my intention that the interactive process of shaping material should take the music in unanticipated directions, and this is borne out in experience.
Feldman once remarked somewhere [in fact, I think it was in a presentation he gave at Musica Nova in Glasgow in 1976—CD 2020] that immediately after completing a work he developed amnesia about it. I wouldn’t go that far, but the differing requirements of each successive piece act as a kind of mental eraser so that I find it hard to recall details of writing previous works, let alone resume a piece that has been shelved for any length of time—as so many are, unfortunately. The solution is that I record my incremental progress through the creative labyrinth so that I can retrieve my methodology, and retrace my steps if necessary. This means that my studio and hard drive are stuffed with sketches for pieces going back decades, so if I really wanted I could conduct a kind of objective auto-archæological audit of my processes and see if my approach really has changed substantively over time, but I’ll let some future PhD student researching the dunny lanes of Australian music make that call. Subjectively, I find that my approach changes from work to work, and usually as a direct consequence of the character of the initial ‘trigger’—for example, I have a series of smaller works in my creative queue, each of which will use a quite different toolbox. There is Arcanabula, a planned work for solo bassoon, for James Aylward, that will have an ironic character, and by dint of its title consist of a sequence of linked aphorisms; resuscitatîve will be a work for solo contrabass for Miranda Hill, and also possess a certain facetiousness, connecting bowing speeds with breathing tempo—recitative meets CPR… Contrasting with these are flora in calix-light, taking its title and textures from David Jones’ painting, a small ensemble piece that is essentially a ternary mosaic, and therefore worked-out more locally than usual; and noctuary, an already half-finished work for Stuart Fisher’s guitar that hints at a link with Britten’s Nocturnal, itself a Dowland homage. Every one of these four works will require a quite different compositional ethos. So my approach changes constantly, but less surprisingly, I’m probably the only one who is aware of it.
EB: Could you exemplify the evolution-of-approach in your writing with a concrete piece? Has your reworking of older or unfinished pieces given you any insights in this regard?
CD: Yes, I was brought face to face with the evolution of my own writing last year, when I turned my attention to my only string quartet to date, written in 1985. At no stage in my music education was I ever exposed to the world of string instruments, and to this day they feel strange and exotic to me. The work was originally called ‘strangeness’ at least partly for this reason; it was also compositionally strange, in that I designed it to consist of a sequence of large sections which, in performance, felt far too substantial for the work’s 16-minute duration. After the series of performances by the Arditti Quartet in 1985-6, I put the score aside. Since then I have repeatedly tinkered with a series of plans for a future revision …which I never quite got around to. Last June, however, on the basis of a bit of encouragement from string guru Bec Scully, I decided to take the plunge. I went back to my old plans and was abruptly confronted by the huge gulf between those hifalutin intentions and the actuality of the 1985 music. The moment I sat down and started to push the material around I realized that neither the pitches nor the rhythms would suffice, and the global architecture was rudimentary and inadequate. Nonetheless, that 1985 work had a pungent, impersonal, rhetoric that pleased me at the time. In 1985 I was, albeit less than fully consciously, seeking to create a kind of punk modernism, a reproach to the rather anæmically institutional and self-satisfied music being written in England at the time—with notable exceptions, of course.
In 2018, then, I finally sat down and designed a new version of the work, I call it a ‘reimagining’, that accommodates the scale of the existing music into an extended single-movement 65-minute String Quartet (losing the old title seemed necessary). This was one of the oddest compositional challenges of my life: I realised that the majority of the old material needed to be replaced by newer, more competent, music, but without losing the slightly punk character, and level of compositional developedness of the 1985 version, if it was to maintain any sense of continuity with the old work …or in fact make any sense. Today, in another time and another place, I found that I was obliged to rewrite the piece through the prism of my 2018 sensibility, an approach that has necessitated completely new harmonic and rhythmic worlds, and the turning inside-out of the architecture, plus a lot of added-in complexity. To balance the unavoidable tendency to anachronism I have plundered old unused sketches of roughly the same vintage as strangeness to provide some new music that enriches the rather skeletonic original. I have tried to retain certain key features of the earlier version, such as its intense monogesturality, and obsession with homogeneous textures, tessituræ, and glissandi; without these it really would cease to be the same work.
EB: One would assume that, like most composers, your inner voice was progressively revealed also through encounters with the music of others. In this context, what were your formative years like, and which composers captured your imagination?
CD: I think it’s fair to say that—at least until recently—most people who went on to be composers heard much the same things in their formative years, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Schubert, Schumann, if they were lucky, Mahler, and so on. That was the canonical radio fodder that got into our young heads. From there, however, I guess each composer’s idiolect was forged in the subsequent musics that we encountered and were amazed by, with temperamental affinity playing a major role in the selection we each chose to internalise. For me this goes back a very long way, to the mid-60s, and my first strong influences, beyond the Classical canon, were Ravel, Szymanowski, and Barraqué, and at much the same time John Coltrane, the Grateful Dead, and Robert Graettinger, as performed by Stan Kenton. I am eternally grateful to Bernard Marlowe for introducing me to Graettinger/Kenton’s City of Glass in the mid- to late-60s; it was influential on a work of mine as recently as 2005, when I embarked on my Permutation City. But, with these particular influences came a specific mindset, I see in retrospect, which made me susceptible to later influences, such as Scriabin, early Takemitsu, Jean-Claude Eloy (Faisceaux-Diffractions remains one of my favourite works), Finnissy, and, once I made sense of his intentions, Bussotti. What all these composers’ musics have in common is both sensuality, a concern with sonic voluptuousness which appeals to my inner sybarite, and flamboyance, a pleasure in virtuosity—hardly something I can deny.
Strangely, those two features are the aspects of Xenakis’ music that most appealed to me beyond its bold futuristic assertiveness. I first encountered his work on a series of historic Erato LPs that I discovered in the legendary London Music Shop, in—if I remember correctly—Great Portland Street. I had no idea what the music sounded like, but the covers and liner notes were sufficiently avant-garde that I was certain they were important. And, indeed they were, featuring the first recordings of Kraanerg, Terretektorh, Nomos Gamma, Syrmos, Bohor, Medea, and several other core early Xenakis pieces. I was 17, and did not immediately recognise the promise such music held as a compositional influence; it was several years later that I heard Roger Woodward perform Scriabin’s Preludes Op. 74, Takemitsu’s For Away, Anne Boyd’s angklung, and Takahashi’s Chromamorphe II, in the first half of a concert. This concert was, for me, the most epiphanic encounter I have ever had: I took away from it an instantaneous and fully-fledged sense of what my soundworld might be like. Ironically, it took Yuji Takahashi’s music to alert me to the promise of Xenakis’.
Sensual and flamboyant—these, to be fair, are not the first things that come to mind when one thinks of Xenakis’ music, and that is partly due to his own pronouncements. But I knew Xenakis when he was Gresham Professor at the City University in London in the late ‘70s, and found him modest and unpretentious. I think he created his mathematical smokescreen at least in part to protect himself; I have no doubt that he was consciously aiming for serious emotional impact and felt a degree of personal vulnerability in being so exposed. But I defy anyone to listen to Eonta or Erikhthon and not be swept up by their richness, virtuosity, and conviction.
EB: You have spoken of several musical epiphanies throughout your career. Given that your interest in the music of Horațiu Rădulescu and Emmanuel Nunes in the late 80s coincided with the composition of your flute tetralog, could you talk about the ways their music affected your compositional approach? What were you in search of at the time and how did you get there?
CD: We composers must be careful not to be over-influenced by things that are unassimilable into our extant language. I first heard Nunes’ Tif’ereth in 1986, and his influence was immediately useful to me, his soundworld a revelation, insofar as how closely it resembled the music that churned in my own head, and I think it is fair to say that the main thing I took away from Nunes, apart from ideas about numerological manipulation, was a greater confidence that my soundworld had validity—after a couple of decades of being constantly told that my music was somehow fake, that I could not possibly have meant it to sound as it did. Here was a major composer, admittedly of a very different provenance, who was unafraid to create huge works of great density, which were at the same time both subtle and momentous. I would not emulate his work, but I have learnt from it. Radulescu, on the other hand, although I knew him and we chatted from time to time—something I never did with Nunes—provided a model that I really did not know quite what to do with. His soundworld, built from scratch for every piece (a lesson I did take away and turn to my own ends), did not really overlap with mine at any point, besides a trivial liking for dense flute sounds. He once told me that he refused to accept commissions for works shorter than 45’. I must admit at the time I thought this, if true, a tad conceited, but that was not the whole story: Horatiu dealt in cosmoses, in entire musical worlds, and to create short works required a brutal level of omission, and I think he preferred not to have to make such concessions. The message I got from him, once I had given up the quixotic attempt to import his sounds into my own music, was to do with organising time and texture, and only recently have I really managed to build satisfactorily on this lesson. I heard a lot of his music in rapid succession in the 1980s, but the standout work for me has to be Iubiri, a piece I still play to students as an example of sheer compositional brilliance.
I had the good fortune to work in a record shop between 1973 and 76, and have had some connection with the trade ever since. Being able to listen to many of the new recordings as they appeared has been a great resource, permitting me to search within the wider range of musical activity for things that bear a kinship with my own output, and from which I might learn. Stockhausen’s Trans, for instance, was a sleeper; my first response to it was almost derisory—I thought it was nonsense. Over time, however, it began to have an increasingly strong hold on my imagination, and my Fourth Symphony borrows an entire dimension from Stockhausen’s bizarre vision, bent to a quite different use, of course. There is a fifth work that belongs in my Pantheon, with Trans and Eloy’s Faisceaux-diffractions, Radulescu’s Iubiri, and Nunes’ Tif’ereth: Tona Scherchen-Hsiao’s Vague T’ao. I first encountered Scherchen-Hsiao’s music in the late ‘70s, when, for a brief moment, her star was rising, and it was possible to hear her music in concert now and again. Today, the only way to experience the astonishing Vague T’ao is on Youtube—happily the score is still available, at least. What these five works brought to my attention was the potential to work with multiple planes of music, superimposed on one another to produce a poly-texture, not unlike a painting on panes of glass. Or a City of Glass, perhaps.
Admittedly I am a kleptomaniac; I purloin ideas from other artists—and not just artists—that I find promising. For example, I appropriated a text from the front of Greg Egan’s Permutation City for the structure of my aforementioned work with that title; it was an uncanny match for the processes I was then exploring—Egan fortunately did not object. This is a rare example of likemindedness; Egan’s use of permutated letters to create a poem was exactly analogous to my use of permutated values to generate my material. All that I had to do was change the semiotics. More frequently, the things I steal have to do with the kind of work I need to write. For my current project, I have taken the mediaeval prayer hours, conflated them with the Ages of Man, and used this template as the starting point for the day section of my extended piano piece, passing bells (passing bells: night already exists, and can be heard on my Tzadik CD). My point is that I never know what I am in search of at any given time—I only know when things present themselves and my antennae quiver. I trawl culture for triggers, and sometimes they consist of sound models, like those of Radulescu and Nunes, but more often they are conceptual filchables, memes I can opportunistically transmute into musical material.
EB: You have rejected the idea that “new complexity” is a school, a unified front, or even a meaningful term. Yet the question of “complexity” in your notation seems to generate polemics that are far from settled — cf. a recent example from our comment section addressing the notation of ik(s)land[s]. You have addressed this topic extensively in your 1998 conversation with Bruce Petherick. Could you summarize your notational evolution up to that point? Has your viewpoint further shifted since then?
CD: Simply put, my attitude to the notation debate is that the acceptability of a notational mode is entirely at the discretion of the performer, and performers are self-selecting, because, tautologically, performers perform what they want to perform. Non-performers can debate the pros and cons of such modes as much as they like, but their opinions are philosophical, if not political, and as far as the music qua music is concerned, irrelevant.
My starting point is that I have little to no interest in iterative rhythm (by which I mean an unchanging equal pulse) except as a particular instance in non-iterative. The world is saturated with iterative rhythm; it is impossible to escape the ubiquity of the Duh, duh, duh, duh pulse—as Bootsy says, Just keep it on THE ONE!. Even Classical Music between maybe 1725 and 1900 is entirely predicated on the uniformity of temporal subdivision. The world of nature, on the other hand, is virtually entirely lacking in regular iteration; sounds of the nonhuman environment tend from entirely random to a subtle semi-regularity which is irrecoverable (you cannot parse it) and, I suspect, irreducible. Lets come back to irreducibility later.
I have, from time to time, made the observation that if there is complexity in my music, it is in the structural domain, and as far as I am concerned structure and rhythm are the same thing, merely expressed at different temporal scales. I set out to work on my pieces in seconds, and use a 3cms = 1 second standard as a way of organising my thoughts. This enables me to work out the holographic nature of my pieces in an immediately graspable way, uncomplicated by mensural coding. I can work with rate of change—what in Carter’s music is referred to as metrical modulation—without any of the clumsy increments of metronomic tempo. Only after I have decided on all the internal temporal relationships, my ‘forcefields’, do I start to sketch in actual material, and even then the resolving of the events into a mensural format is usually the very last thing I do—and sometimes re-do, if a better notational solution occurs to me.
My rhythmic notation is therefore an approximation to a music already construed in seconds; what I meant when I said, long ago, that I was simplifying the rhythmic notation, was that I had decided to accept a less precise match between the underlying proportions and the resolved mensural notation. After all, the differences were often of the order of a hundredth of a second between a precise and an imprecise rendition: hardly worth the extra effort.
So, that’s what I do to produce my notated rhythms. What sits behind much of this debate, however, is the equating of a rich notation scheme with a desire to limit performers’ freedoms—what Gregory Bateson would call an error of logical type. I can’t speak for the others caught up in this tedious polemic, but as far as I am concerned, my notational praxis has two dimensions: firstly, it exists to provoke a particular level of performance from players. Now, I have often seen this described as an intention to induce anxiety in the performer so as to impart edginess to their playing. I don’t know who came up with this ‘performance anxiety’ interpretation of notational intention; I can only think of a handful of pieces of which it is unarguably true—particularly, Brian’s Time and Motion Study II. One of the Score Follower commentators regurgitated this particular superannuated piece of nonsense; it certainly cannot be attributed to my work as an intention. My reason for notating as I did, and do, is to limit the amount of informational loss that occurs between my mental concept and the listener. I have occasionally remarked that I expect a shortfall of about 25% between what I write and what performers succeed in nailing. That was a couple of decades ago; performance has improved vastly over my lifetime, to the point that these days the shortfall I anticipate is more like 10%. This is not to diminish the accomplishments of my performers, many of whom nail the entire 100% (sometimes with the assistance of beta-blockers), it is simply to acknowledge the reality of dwindling rehearsal time, onstage nerves, unfamiliar repertoire, and Rumsfeldian unforeseeables. After a discussion of this very issue, my colleague Andrew Bernard came up with a breakdown of the compositional sequence:
“composer – creates mental concept
composer – writes score → loss of information from concept
engraver – engraves score → loss of information
performer – interprets score → loss of information
listener – hears the work → loss of information
so, composer over-notates to attempt to compensate for this entropic process”.
In that sequence is the nub of why I notate mensurally the way I do; with the erosion factor diminishing from 25% to 10%, I feel less need to provide the performer with every iota of relevant information, and my notation has simplified accordingly. It is worth noting, however, that my simpler notation provides less insight into how the piece qua system operates.
Secondly, my notation attempts to provide two quite different kinds of information: the mensural information tells the player about why the music is the way it is, how the parts of the piece connect to one another. Essentially it reveals the intellectual metabolism of the work. Parallel to this is the proportional element in my notation, the time-space layout which has been present all along, which provides players with a more-or-less exact correspondence between the density of the events on the page, and how fast they are required to be executed; seemingly a help in rehearsal of, particularly, ensemble pieces.
Further, there is a third reason for my adopted presentation: it compensates to some degree for the built-in contradictions of our received notation. As Jonathan Feist acknowledges in that notational bible, Berklee Contemporary Music Notation, “the truth is there is no single, universally accepted “correct” way that notation practices are executed. … The music is what’s important, not the way the music is notated. To be an effective musician out in the world, you need to be able to decipher notational styles. Being exposed to a diversity of options makes us all stronger”.
I think this notation issue also reflects a certain educational dogma. I am 66, and my education, in the European tradition, where notational ambiguity is a given,—how else can you perform Liszt, let alone d’Anglebert?—equipped me to deal with the semiotic vagaries of our received notational system. Many of the critics of my kind of rhythmic notation have spent their, more recent, formative years in educational environments where, for better or worse, musical notation is treated as being as inelastic as a chemical formula. Of course, these critics do not perform like robots, so they are instinctively accepting that notation is ambiguous, while failing to comprehend that my notation might be building on that ambiguity.
Coming back to irreducibility; definition: a complete account of certain entities will not be possible at lower levels of explanation, for instance, a series of random numbers. One of the features of notation that we take for granted is redundancy—the assumption that patterns will recur, will resemble one another closely. However, my goal of “ceaselessly unforeseeable originality” makes irreducibility an inevitable feature, denying my notation the possibility of redundancy. All details need to be notated pretty much in full—my fourth, final, reason for notating the way I do.
On a related topic, my initial answer to your earlier question, “how do I compose?”, was with a pencil, an eraser, a drawing board, a scanner, and a lot of coffee. Not, please note, with Sibelius, or Finale, or Dorico. So far, none of these programs have cracked the nut of proportional notation, or at least not in conjunction with mensural notation, so to use them would be a step backwards. If a system of notation software came into being that could do both, I would adopt it like a shot. Until then, some of my works are in the process of being engraved in Lilypond by “a harmless drudge” (Andrew Bernard’s self-description, after Samuel Johnson), while most remain in my tolerable, if stiff, handwriting.
EB: A notation software that can intelligently accommodate both mensural and proportional engraving, without the need to code or perpetually fight against the program would be the holy grail of software. I don’t remember ever talking about notation software with other composers and not hearing deep resentment about the absurd difficulties of notating things proportionally; so there is a tremendous need for this.
Returning to your previous line of thought, do you think simplifying your rhythmic notation has compromised your ideas of temporal elasticity and stratification? I am always struck by the rhythmic notational simplifications that have occurred later in life to composers such as Stockhausen, Xenakis, or more extremely to Franco Donatoni. Something similar has happened with your music, that of James Dillon and many more. I am tempted to see a general chronological pattern (i.e. one simplifies their notation as they grow older) rather than anything having to do with the composer’s individual notational philosophy. But to be honest, not having spent countless hours fending off misconceptions regarding this topic, as you and many others surely have, I am likely not considering the polemic’s extramusical context.
CD: Precisely! For me this whole debate, in addition to my complaints above, is not really about the music, and consequently not aesthetic but political. I could riff on about notation ad nauseam and people would always still be in one camp or the other. But truly, what does it matter except to a few stylistic bigots what form of presentation I use for my music? There is little that is genuinely complex about my notation—I don’t think I use anything that cannot be found in one of Ysayë’s Violin Sonatas. Half-flats maybe; he restricts himself to half-sharps. What I try is to use this relatively tame notational toolbox to the fullest extent, rather as Elliott Carter does. Once, long ago I did flirt with the possibility of using a beat-grid with unmensurated proportional notation such as you find in Huber’s Tenebrae or Eloy’s Kamakala, but I rejected that as risking very significant information-loss between score and sound, as compared to rhythmically parsed notation—the music would change between notation and execution.
This is the point really. Notation is a combination of mnemonic and record, performance prompt and approximation. It entails a really elaborate constellation of codings, mostly imprecise, which one navigates with the best possible solution to one’s own compositional aims as goal. So I would agree my current mode is compromised in a nit-pickingly obsessive sort of way, in that I could mourn the loss of precision in using lower-resolution notation and complain that it is no longer the same music. But that is, to my mind, a bit theological—recent performances are, if anything, more confident than older ones, so the little that has been lost is offset by considerable gain. Of course, it is not quite that clear-cut: I accepted a simpler, more granular presentation of the ideas in order to achieve more exact performances, which strikes me as reducing the freedoms of the player, the opposite of the usual ‘complexism-as-bondage’ argument. This was underlined when, after Gunther Schuller notoriously refused to conduct my Fourth Symphony, I revised the notation to make it less daunting; the eventual conductor, David Porcelijn regretted this simplification because it made the music stiffer, and more challenging to coordinate… The lesson would seem to be that in many cases, musicians feel more confident performing music when they have less interpretative freedom. Nonetheless, I am happy to escape accusations of a Ferneyhoughian Sisypheanism; the essential point is that the actual music, the ‘notes dropped into the forcefield’, did not change one iota. And rubato is, as it has always been, a sine qua non!
One of the hardships of not being involved with an academic institution is that I cannot lay my hands readily on much musical technology. I think my own work would benefit hugely from the use of clicktracks—not as rigorous determinants of events, but as scaffolding within which players locate themselves—and I’m very struck by the results when composers do use such mechanisms of coordination. Indeed, if I were young today, I would be exploring the potential of algorithmic music for real-time evolution, so that elements of the score and parts would modify as the piece unfolded in response to feedback—a quite different kind of ceaselessly unforeseeable originality. Chaos Theory’s Butterfly Effect would make it likely that from the same opening material completely different music would unfold at every performance. Now that I would regard as potentially game-changing… And I’m pleased to see that some tentative experimentation in exactly this area has already begun.
This all brings me back to the dubious notion of a performance being a momentary realisation of a Platonic entity that sits behind all such manifestations. For me one of the enduringly problematic questions is where the quintessence of a work of music resides—is it the score; any given realisation; an aggregate of performances; the World of Ideas? I once mentioned this issue to a very bright colleague, who dismissively said “Prototype Theory answers that question”; which might be true of a Dylan song, but is hard to apply to, say, la Terre est un Homme. Nonetheless, I imagine my works as embodying, and hopefully revealing, ideas that are not fully immanent in the score, that are emergent, and manifest slightly differently on each occasion that the piece is performed. This is why I’m not especially attracted to the electronic media; I am fascinated by that vibrancy which pieces gain in human performance, and would I miss it in a less elastic medium.
EB: Are you ever suspicious of the multi-layered and decoupled notational approach that is taken to new heights by young composers today?
CD: I must confess that, living like a hermit on the edge of far-flung Ballarat, I am not widely current with the compositional adventures of young composers, beyond those among my friends, so I cannot comment on their notation generally. I do however feel that the temporal dimension has received far less attention in the past than pitch- and physicality-related issues, and if these younger composers are engaging with time in a way that promises to make music capable of even greater elasticity, then I’m all for it. The relatively recent attempts to convert Nancarrow’s Studies or Aphex Twin’s tracks into instrumental concert-music seemed to me promising. The interplay between composerly conception and performer comfort will always act as a governor on the more extreme experiments.
EB: Instruments like the piano, flute, clarinet, and guitar occupy a prominent place in your output. Is that circumstantial or does something deeper draw you towards their sonorities?
CD: In the first instance, almost everything I write is to some degree circumstantial—it has been requested by somebody for specified forces. Which can be a pain—I’m often in the position of having lots of good ideas for what suddenly becomes the piece-after-next, which I then have to laboriously document before temporarily shelving. But I shouldn’t complain; I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing something for someone. Too much work always trumps too little, even for a composer who rarely gets paid.
As I already mentioned in respect of ‘instrumental socialism’, I have strong views on how instruments should be deployed—in my works, at least—and this has a considerable influence on how I choose instrumental colour for pieces. In some cases the instrument emerges from the concept, as in un petit mot crabe c’est ma faute (below); or e(i)ther, where the “I” has to be in the “ether”, only really achievable on violin (piccolo would be too terse). In others I seek to achieve a balance between colours, so my Second Symphony is for three brass trios of a horn, a trumpet/flugel, and a trombone or tuba, plus three percussionists, and flux uses a pair of flutes quasi-antiphonally. Light-strung sigils does likewise but with recorder and flute; the result is a dance between uniformity and contrast. I think it is true to say that I choose solo instruments, but I fashion ensembles.
The piano is my own instrument, as I have said. I am not even barely a competent performer, and my contempt for my own technical abilities has led me to avoid practising so I get worse, not better. But then I also discovered very early on that I lacked the temperament for performing in public; my level of nervousness exceeds the tolerable. So it is unimportant. Being a closet pianist has both bad and good aspects. Bad includes being aware that there are a million piano works (possibly even literally) and that there is not a hope of ever writing anything truly pianistically innovative; by the same token, one is therefore freed of the need to make the attempt, and can aim for something quite different (more later). Bad also includes mental habits of composition, behavioural attractors; these are so instinctive that they are quite hard to overcome. For instance, I too readily fall into the habit of two-part counterpoint (albeit usually fairly complex two-part counterpoint)—I have always liked the austerity of extended two-part writing, one voice per hand, such as you find in the Barraqué Sonate, or my esperance, but it is rather a cliché. The long stretches of three-part polyphony in Three Windows from the Piano Sonata were, in part, an attempt to exorcise this tendency.
For the first decade or so of my career, I seemed to bounce from really excellent experiences with players to really horrible ones. This was, I think, a generational issue; I lived out the old adage that what challenges one generation of players becomes repertoire for the next, and graduate study for the third. The bad experiences caused me to develop a distrust of players’ ability in general to fully realise what I write, and I am even now often caught between writing what I imagine, and what I imagine is playable—the result can be paralysis. It takes a leap of faith to write pieces like tilt or E-330 plays or closing lemma. I can report however, that I have not had to grit my teeth when acknowledging applause for many years now; I have had grudging performers in ensembles now and again, but no longer inadequate ones. (Although less than twenty years ago a cellist asked me at a first rehearsal why I wrote some of my flats back to front—she seemed truly mystified. Good musician though). Where the piano is concerned, I have had the good fortune, over the years, to be blessed with the most extraordinarily talented succession of players: Doug Balfour, Julie Adam, Michael Finnissy, Andrew Ball, Yvar Mikashoff, James Clapperton, Ian Pace, Stephanie MacCallum, Mark Knoop, Steven Niles, Marilyn Nonken, Peter de Jager, Alex Raineri, and others; the adventurousness that I have been able to adopt in my piano works is entirely thanks to their admirable skills.
I also learned the organ, and although my skills on that instrument were even less developed than my pianism, I retain a fondness for the sound, particularly of Spanish Renaissance music on 17th century instruments. Indeed, one of my desert island discs is Francis Chapelet playing the Tiento de medio registro alto de primer tono by Francisco Peraza on the organ in the church at Covarrubias—a tiny work with a long shadow. I have only written one work for the organ so far, for Kevin Bowyer, and it was not as innovative as I would have liked, but I suspect there are some more pieces floating in my future-store.
I do have instrumental tastes, though—I’m not an omniphile. I have always loved the flute, a partiality that is fairly evident from my output, and I have worked very closely with several flute players, particularly the brilliant Laura Chislett. In the last three or four years I have written two more large-scale flute works (Dawn is a girl, removing her necklace of stars and geminy, for Carlton Vickers) and I have four more planned, including a heretical bagatelle for wooden flute in honour of my old friend, poet and exceptional flute repairer, Arthur Haswell. I can’t really give an account of why I feel so drawn to the flute; the sound is certainly supple, the instrument versatile, the range of dynamic and timbre spectacular. But, in truth, it’s simply a continuing love affair.
I feel a similar affection for the clarinet, but I have never had as close a working relationship with a clarinetist, so my insight into its nature is less keen. I had worked closely with Carl Rosman while he lived in Australia, but after he moved to Europe I had no player nearby to consult with, and I have written less for the instrument. I would like this to change, of course, but in the meantime I retain a great affection for my two solo works, ruins within and the two versions of the sadness of detail, despite their relative unadventurousness. I’m ever-grateful to the excellent performers, Carl, Richard Haynes, and Michael Norsworthy who brought them to life.
As for the guitar, in truth, it doesn’t occupy a prominent place so much in my output, as in my too-hard basket. The seemingly large amount of guitar music I have written conceals my frustration with the instrument; I have withdrawn one of my works simply because it is too difficult to perform. Not impossible—just sufficiently colossally hard as to sound as if it is an effort to play, and I abhor putting my performers through that kind of public discomfort. As I put it elsewhere, constraints are often a prompt to invention; the guitar however offers not constraint but a strait-jacket. I made a pact with an American guitarist, Mark Wilson, that I would write him a piece for his custom 24-fret 7-string classical guitar if he edited it as we went along. He has been gratifyingly assiduous in doing so but it has led both of us to certain inescapable conclusions. One such is that the guitar simply cannot do what I want, that the essential features of my musical approach are incompatible with the guitar’s nature. I like to use tessitura (not scordatura!) as a strong structural function; with the neck joining the body at the twelfth fret, and the scale of chords being limited by the player’s handbreadth—not to mention their limited number of fingers—the guitar has a puny range. Not only that, as Mark observed to me recently in response to my remark that the guitar lacks any real scope for registral contrast,
“This is actually a concept I have thought about from both a technical perspective and an aural perspective. … As you know, the guitar “sounds an octave lower than written.” … The weird thing is, in practice, very little of the fundamental pitch is heard. The 1st harmonic is the loudest pitch heard, especially at the lower end of the guitar’s register. This means the lower pitches sound higher than they would on an instrument like the cello. Now, at the higher end of the guitar’s register, the opposite seems to be true. The fundamental pitch is the strongest pitch and the upper harmonics become weaker. This means the higher pitches sound lower than they would on an instrument like a violin. … I am aware this is one aspect of the guitar where 1+1 does not equal 2”.
So registral contrast can neither be played nor heard on guitar. A couple of more personal beefs with the guitar are that, to my ears, non-harmonic-series harmonies reduce its resonance, and microtonal retunings kill resonance altogether. An acoustic instrument without resonance is pointless, unless all one wants is a rhythmic clatter. Another staple of my musical language—in fact, the primary element—is counterpoint, and I have learned over the years that the guitar is intrinsically poor at sustaining even two voices at once, let alone more; what little it can do is not very aurally effective, either, the ear does not readily parse a sequence of guitar pitches as plural lines. All in all, enough to make the guitar fairly unappealing as an instrumental choice.
The work I wrote for Mark is completed: in Chasm City. In trying to use registral contrast I wrote extendedly for the top fifth of the strings, which takes the left hand a long way onto the body of the guitar, to the point of awkwardness. Having set out to write a piece that avoided all the problems of my previous pieces, I created a specific new one. Two solutions occur to me: to recommend it be performed on a 7-string acoustic rather than classical guitar—there are models with cutaway bodies making access to the 12th to 19th fret much easier—or to redefine it as a piece for electric guitar. The electric guitar, however, with its cutaway and 24 frets, and sustain—and pedals—is an instrument I’m only now beginning to seriously consider; like the organ, no two players have quite the same set-up. Much more research is required.
EB: I happen to admire your guitar writing on Severance, especially the polyphonic current that results from it. Do you reject all of your guitar works?
CD: Severance and asymptotic freedom I’m quite happy with; likewise the guitar chamber music: driftglass, ik(s)land[s], blinding access…, and from n(ich)t. All these works seem to me to use the guitar, if not idiomatically, at least interestingly—and unclichéedly. There are even three new guitar pieces already in progress, noctuary for Stuart Fisher, unquiet for Daryl Buckley, and a sine nomine 10-string piece. So I don’t want to give the impression that I entirely repudiate all my existing works for guitar.
The lesson I have learned, nonetheless, is that there is a reason why so much classical guitar music sounds the way it does. I have tried over a very long period to write against the stereotype, to overcome the somewhat threadbare limitations of the instrument …and failed. This may well be the end of my trying to reinvent the classical guitar.
EB: What about double-reed, brass, and string instruments? They are all featured in your works to various degrees and proportions.
CD: The double-reed instruments I find somewhat less appealing. I have a fondness for the sound of the oboe, but I find it limited as a solo instrument—I think it works better in ensemble. Bassoon I have entertained a dislike for my entire life …until recently, when James Aylward suggested I write him a piece, and I reconsidered my view. While it is undeniable that the bassoon has limitations, I find I can imagine an interesting, wry, music that it might excel in, and I have started to sketch the work Arcanabula, as a kind of sonic rune-hoard for James.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, there was a real vogue for large ensembles—15-25 players, and a number of my older pieces are for this size of band. My personal interest at the time was in the also-rans of the orchestral family, bass flute (rare then), bass/baritone oboe, contra-alto and contrabass clarinets, C bass trumpet, alto trombone, and I used these instruments whenever I got the opportunity. I’m just as interested in these lovely timbres today, but here in Australia there are very few of these instruments in circulation, and the few that there are would seem to belong to orchestras and are therefore not really available for use in small ensembles. So if you were to ask me what my personal favourite instruments were, I would probably point to the list above, but you won’t find them in any of my scores since I came to Oz.
I don’t deeply understand the brass instruments, but I do love their sound. My Second Symphony is for brass and percussion, and although I’ve never been a major fan of the horn, I would put the trombone up there with the flute in terms of its scope and effectiveness as an instrumental voice. For almost twenty years I have nursed a project that interests me greatly—finally, this year, I hope to get it written—using both the trombone and baritone voice as soloists in front of a big solo percussion layout. Called un petit mot crabe c’est ma faute, and based on a poem by the brilliant Martinican Aimé Césaire, it will attempt to successively merge and unmerge the voice and ‘bone. I was particularly pleased with this concept; the mea culpa crab in question (uca pugilator), native to the Caribbean, is sexually dimorphic in that the male has one claw much larger than the other, rather as the trombone has a single slide projecting. It’s a fanciful connection, I know, but for me it has a certain poetry.
It is fair to say that all the non-keyboard instruments I have favoured are activated by wind, by the player’s breathing. As already mentioned, I am still very much an outsider where string instruments are concerned, but for me they are the opposite of the breathed instruments (although in resuscitatîve that distinction will be blurred), and I have always used them primarily for their capacity for indefinite sustain. For this reason they rarely occupy the foreground in my work; although this is more a habit than a choice, I do feel the need to proactively feature string instruments more in future works.
EB: Judging by the detail and thought you put into choosing your texts I would presume much consideration goes towards the human voice. Would you ever consider writing for acapella voice(s)?
CD: For me, an important aspect of writing for voice is trying to match the gender of the author of the text to the singer—it discomforts me to hear women singing text written by men (I would say also vice versa, except that I can’t offhand think of an example). This may seem like a perfectly reasonable stance, but in practice it leads to all kinds of problems, since more often than not, the singers I’ve had the opportunity to work with have been women. Anything written in the last century or so is almost certainly still in copyright, which, unless you have the good fortune to know a self-published writer who is onside for you to set their work, involves dealing with publishers. I have done that—it was not a happy experience (on the strength of about 100 words set to music I am required to give 25% of all income from my large-scale Fourth Symphony to a well-known publisher). And some authors are uncomfortable with a third party adding effectively a sonic commentary to their words; for instance, Beverliey Braune, from whose Skulvádhi Úlfr comes the title of my light-strung sigils, politely declined permission when I tentatively suggested a songcycle on her remarkable poems, as is her right. Fortunately, berni m janssen gave me permission to use excerpts from her wonderful texts, and I was able to write ik(s)land[s], blinding access, and from n(ich)t—and, for that matter, e(i)ther, all works I am very fond of. Elsewhere though, I have preferred to use writings that are more than a century old and, sadly, that immediately reduces the number of available texts by women by an order of magnitude. The solution, as many have found before me, is to make one’s own text. I have, in the past, applied my core toolbox of processes to text, so that the sung material is intrinsically related to the musical material. I like the idea of a phonetically-generated abstract text, one that has no signified whatsoever. This also has the benefit of being unauthored and therefore ungendered, meaning that such material can be sung by both women and men.
Even so, even with the benefit of an ungendered string of singable sounds, I have always baulked at the prospect of writing for more than one or two voices, and especially a cappella. When I wrote for four voices with orchestra in my Fourth Symphony, the singers chose to have keyboards and earpieces to assist with intonation—a serviceable and confidence-enhancing option—but they used huge freestanding keyboards, and my Symphony looked like it was being performed by Faithless. Expanding to, say, a 12-voice ensemble would be impracticable. Nonetheless, I would very much like to be able to write for multiple voices. I already profoundly detest the banal ‘spiritual’ choral music that is currently so much in vogue, from Pärt to Eric Whitacre, and I suspect I will at some point feel obliged to create something militantly antidotal—and probably militantly atheist. Recent recordings of Sciarrino’s Madrigals and Finnissy’s Kelir, Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis and the amazing choral corpus of Felix Ibarrondo, go some way towards restoring my faith in the genre. But I don’t want to start up that road until I have a vocal group and conductor willing to make the attempt.
EB: Your Piano Sonata is one of the ground-breaking works of the 21st century literature. I have rarely encountered a single movement piano work of this scale whose variegated architecture paralleled its equally refined musical content. Most surprising to me, given the 100-minute duration, the Piano Sonata does not overload; Everything grows naturally, leaving plenty of breathing room to inhabit its sound-world. I think this is also the merit of Peter de Jager’s performance and his ability to clarify the dense polyphony of many sections throughout the work. As one commentator mentioned in that video, it is all the more astonishing that the recording we used for the video also happens to be the first live performance of the work. Thinking forward, does the piece leave you room for more unexplored ideas or will your future piano works build upon the sonata’s achievements?
CD: Well, I’m flattered you think so, but the Piano Sonata is still much too new for me to have any real perspective on it, let alone a larger context. It was certainly ground-breaking for me. You ask about unexplored ideas, but a large proportion of those reading this will not yet have any idea what the ideas explored in the Piano Sonata consist of, so I’m going to expound at some length about the work. Forgive me if I repeat myself or reprise material readers have encountered elsewhere. I have said that it was a long time in the making, but I didn’t work on it continuously for a long period, as I did rather fitfully on the String Quartet; what I meant was that I cannot remember a time when I did not have an ambition to write such a work. It was hearing the Barraqué Sonate played by Claude Helffer in 1969 or so that triggered in me the desire to write a large-scale Sonata; at much the same time I also first encountered Alkan through Ronald Smith’s inspired performances, and Szymanowski, whose piano music has long rolled around in my head. Over the years I have frequently tried to interest pianists in a work of this scale, but understandably, none of them wanted to commit to a piece that was (at that stage) half-a-concert long. So when Peter de Jager and I first discussed my writing this piece, I was initially a bit stunned and daunted by the prospect, but it was clear that the long-awaited moment had arrived. When Peter gave the première of the shorter, first version, he did indeed preface it with performances of the Alkan Symphonie, Szymanowski’s Third Sonata, and the Barraqué. Thus was a forty-five-year arc completed. …But, like the String Quartet, the scale of the separate sections of the 2015 version of the Sonata felt incommensurately bigger than the overall architecture could accommodate, and I went on to write almost an hour more music, effectively solving the structural balance issue.
The ordering and duration of the separate sections were not preordained—rare for me to be so anecdotal—but arrived at by a process of juggling symmetries and fine-tuning the running order. One of my very first decisions about the piece was that it would involve a polysemic attribution of structural meaning. The first level of meaning I developed was an abstract unfolding of speeds and textures, organised according to directional and dialectic requirements. I followed this with a second, more particular, level of meaning, a very general scientific creation-myth structure—from a Big Bang of sorts to a Big Crunch. I then also allocated specific meanings to the Prelude and eight sections, all derived from science or science fiction (reproduced below); I finished by writing brief tags as simple précis of the affect of each section, as an operatic-style synopsis [which appears below—CD 2020]. Thus far, the piece could be construed as a modernist entity, with an imported structure providing a narrative.
As I finessed this structure, however, another reading entirely of its sequence started to emerge: that of a traditional Piano Sonata …admittedly a somewhat embellished one. This unexpected realisation gave me pause; having grown up in the era of highest modernism, I have always been somewhat allergic to hints of traditional form. It started to cross my mind however that perhaps a rapprochement with history (rather than feeble postmodern capitulationism) was just what was needed at this stage in my creativity. Not that I saw the traditional form as superseding the abstract formulation; I began to think of the ternary Sonata-description as an equivalence, potentially decodable with equal validity as either an abstract entity, a story about musical space-time, or an expanded Lisztian Sonata.
This insight also gave me a key to the musical material out of which the piece would be forged. Just as there would be a structural equivalence it seemed to me that I could at least attempt to achieve an equivalence of musical content, a multiply-decodable sonic surface. In order to import a new quality that could take me past unalloyed modernism I started to think about the un/conscious stylistic filters that I had consistently applied to make my music ‘modernistically pure’. Some, like avoidance of octaves or bald triads, emerge from an aural sensitivity; others are more arbitrary, and part of a slowly-developed personal stance. I hadn’t previously thought of this selectivity as being the product of filters, exactly; I saw it as defining the characteristics of my idiolect, and the music that emerged from the pressure-cooker as ‘my music’. It came as a revelation that I could abandon the filters without any substantial change in the soundworld; far from it, the enrichment that resulted from allowing previously interdicted musical behaviours provided a whole new dimension of articulacy.
For all that, the delicate balancing act of achieving equilibrium between the three different possible formal readings of the piece caused me much grief; similarly, moulding musical material to populate it was perpetually challenging. I found I needed a sliding scale of material: for the two rather abstract intermezzi I forged more-or-less ur-modernist material; the three scherzi, photino birds, Lévy flights and infallscape seemed to require what felt to me like a French-flavoured music, toccata-like, fleet, and polychromatic; the two larger, more architectonic sections, three windows and gallery of spaces acquired the most traditional-sounding of the musics: contrapuntal and chordal, respectively; and the rhapsodic EM fugue is a polyvalent mix of all of them, plus a few imported aliennesses. To achieve these broad stylistic types it was necessary to develop a great deal of material (the sketches for the Sonata are 10 centimetres deep). I settled on a seven-pitch zone and a five-pitch zone, which could also be supplemented by set-theoretical unions and complements, producing sets that ranged from two to ten pitches. (This also allowed of the use of anti-sets, which had five members for the seven-pitch set, and vice versa). All of these segmentations were also applicable to generating the rhythmic life of the piece—and by ‘rhythm’ I mean the organisation of time on all scales …except of course, at the global level, governed by the ternary formal description. As a consequence, I think the harmonic and rhythmic landscape of the Piano Sonata is by far the richest of any of my works to date.
With the assumption of these complex stylistic hybrids of form and material, I found that I could think in terms of prior influence. In particular, prior influence from before WWII. I have acknowledged the influence of the Liszt Sonata, and of course there is a considerable debt, not least for my Sonata being a single movement in multiple sections. But, for all my affection for the Liszt, as ever my tastes are a bit less mainstream, and I personally feel a deeper indebtedness to, on the one hand, the Piano Sonata of Liszt’s pupil Julius Reubke, a major work for piano that is still, unfairly, very much in the shadow of his Sonata on the 94th Psalm for organ, and on the other, one of my all-time favourite piano works, the Études Transcendentales of Sergei Lyapunov. I will let the reader do the (very pleasurable) research and ponder the extent of my borrowing from Lyapunov’s great work, but I certainly see my Lévy flights movement as in direct line of descent from Lyapunov’s Terek.
(While I was writing some of the Sonata I was also reading Alastair Reynold’s excellent novel On the Steel Breeze, which to my astonishment made reference to another Lyapunov: Sergei’s brother Aleksandr, a notable mathematician. Given the extent of my borrowings from science fiction for the Sonata, I took this coincidence as auspicious).
The formal structure of the Sonata is shown below, as it does not appear on the Piano Sonata Score Follower page, with the ternary formal descriptors for each section (in moments of inattention I sometimes refer to the sections as ‘movements’, but that implies a potential separate existence, and at no point did I think of these as being performable separately).
|Whiteout: “a blizzard of unremembering”|
[Gregory Bear, Blood Music, p 255]
|I||three windows: “refuges in infinite winter”|
[Philip K Dick, Conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria, as paraphrased in The Penultimate Truth, p 59]…interrupted by
|II||heat sink: “all warmth is local”|
[Stephen Baxter, Vacuum Diagrams, p 4]
|III||Photino birds: “avian dark matter”|
[Stephen Baxter, Vacuum Diagrams, p 334]
|Scherzo I & trio—7′|
|IV||gallery of spaces: “in the musical multiverse”|
[John Barrow describing Luigi Bianchi’s Classification of three-dimensional spaces which admit a continuous group of motions in The Book of Universes, p 161]
|V||Lévy flights: “random leaps in a musical configuration space”|
[Albert-László Barabási, Bursts, p 157]
|VI||EM fugue [A—B—C]: “what emerges when EMs sing”|
[Gregory Benford, Across the Sea of Suns, pp 133-144]
|VII||k = +1: “Kristian Ireland collapses spacetime”|
[John A. Peacock, Cosmological Physics: the Isotropic Universe 3.2: ‘…The Friedmann equation shows that a universe that is spatially closed (with k=+1) has negative total “energy”: the expansion will eventually be halted by gravity, and the universe will recollapse’.]
|VIII||infallscape: “GM Hopkins culminates cosmic contraction”|
[Collins Online Dictionary: Infall: the falling of matter to a celestial body from space under the influence of the body’s gravity; Gerard Manley Hopkins: Inscape: the essential inner nature of a person, an object, etc.]
The Sonata was originally projected to end at this point; its cosmos had expanded, sentience had emerged, collapse had happened, and the whole texture had imploded into a superdense singularity (or, in my musical metaphor, an unrelenting and unvaried repetition during which the musical space annihilates itself and abruptly evaporates). On reflection though, I realised that there was more to be said, a ‘post-annihilation’ coda. I had planned for decades to write an ensemble piece based on the concept of the Omega Point, that instant of maximal density and complexity where all the world lines of the cosmos intersect. Both Teilhard de Chardin and Frank Tipler imagined this indivisible fleck of totality as the location where all the universe’s information came to rest …and was harnessed by some kind of meta-entity—for Teilhard, presumably ‘god’—as a simultaneous reincarnation of all the sentiences that had existed at any point in the universe’s life. Tipler defines it more as a kind of eschatological computer run on a substrate of space-time.
So, for my purposes, this Omega Point becomes an extended instant after the ‘end of time’, during which all the previously-heard musics are resurrected in a dream-like, directionless, temporally-suspended, final elegy. Sadly, my old friend Robert Schuck died just as I was working on the piece, and it seemed absolutely appropriate to dedicate this final section, this Tombeau (after the 16th/17th century memorial genre), and the Sonata in general, to his memory.
|IX||Tombeau/Ω Point: “voodoo remembrance as end-of-time resurrection”—Memento Robert Schuck†.|
[Frank Tipler (after Teilhard de Chardin), The Physics of Immortality, pp xiv, 1]
As you will gather, I wrote the Sonata for many reasons; it was distinctly not one of those summarising works that one writes to close off compositional phases. In fact, it functioned as a laboratory, a testing-ground, and a jumping-off point for the next phase of my work. So, to belatedly answer your question, I think the work opened up an entire new realm of ways of forging pieces for piano. I went into some detail earlier about pianist-composers realising that there can be nothing new at the keyboard—as Terence says in the Prologue to the Eunuch, ‘Nothing in fact is ever said which has not been said before’—but what can be done is to develop a new kind of material, modernist but unfiltered, inclusive rather than purist. I’m far from being the first to come to this approach; it dates back at least as far as Roger Smalley’s devilishly clever, and compelling, Accord for two pianos, in which he treats his material superficially in a modernist manner, while allowing the textures and harmonies to be quasi-accidentally redolent of older musics. A neat trick, nostalgia masquerading as novelty. But well worth a listen.
I find the idea of reintroducing ‘impure’ kinds of sonic behaviour, like repetition, melody with accompaniment, ostinati, and so on, liberating. I also like the idea of permitting myself the luxury of revisiting ideas, of writing more than one work with a similar blueprint, in place of my old vision of each work as its own pinched-off universe. After all, visual artists have never had any qualms about trying out many versions of visual images, to wrest as much depth from their ideas as possible. I have admittedly tried to utilise this approach previously, but have always confined the various different views to mosaic-like parts of a single piece.
Quod fuerit demonstrandum: I am currently embarked on an extended version of my old work passing bells: night, and the lessons I have learned from the Piano Sonata are feeding directly into how that work is panning out, replete with repetition and redundancy. I am also planning several more of my heretical bagatelles, little piano works that are snapshots of people I care for, admire, or both. One of these pieces, the not-so-miniature flex for AR which I wrote for the excellent Alex Raineri, surprised me considerably; having finished it, I realised that the entire work could be parsed as if in sonata-form. I was completely oblivious to this inherent formal plan while I was writing the piece. Analysts be warned!
EB: Scientific concepts abound in your works. Besides using various models to generate material, do you find the structures are recoverable and identifiable from a listener’s perspective once the work is finished, or do they only communicate in metaphors?
CD: Near the beginning of Tarkovsky’s Stalker is this speech, given by Anatoly Solonitsyn’s character, ‘the writer’: “My dear, our world is hopelessly boring. Therefore, there can be no telepathy or apparitions or flying saucers, nothing like that. The world is ruled by cast-iron laws and it’s insufferably boring. Alas, those laws are never violated. They don’t know how to be violated.” (Translation from the Artificial Eye release, 2016) In its most brutal form, this is how music is; ruled by cast-iron laws. What we call expressivity is the supernatural component, the telepathy, apparitions, flying saucers, the ‘ghost in the machine’ that we either romantically believe in, or, like ‘the writer’, unsentimentally don’t. Scriabin versus Stravinsky, for example. Music is, after all, at core the manipulation of abstract sound. There are many composers who expand this definition to include extra-musical elements to enrich, or even supplant, the purely sonic as the vector of meaning—Bussotti, Jani Christou, Kate Neal, (let’s not even mention opera…)—but I would not want to be among their number. Theatre has always been figured very low in my sphere of interest.
My personal view is that this ‘supernature’, this expressivity, is primarily a learnt decoding of sonic behaviours. If so, I simply have no control over the expressive reception of my works; how listeners decode the detail into subjective affect is entirely unforeseeable, unless in composing I consciously adopt the kind of templates we have inherited from previous stylistic eras—the “tumbling strain”, the “stretto”, the “delayed cadence”. That I choose not to do. Instead, my compositional choice is to utilise a very narrow range of sonic objects in my music, thus limiting the risk of over-interpretation. The affective dimension of a work of music is, to my mind, a rather localised feature; whatever expressiveness is, it has a definite scale, probably in the range of seconds to minutes, not more. We take away in memory a very generalised emotional reaction to a work of music, assembled in recall from a mosaic of micro-responses—a single musical arch may cover a wide gamut of such instants. It is a presumption, but I suspect that such micro-responses are overwritten on previous ones in working memory, so that ultimately the last response is the dominant one: most of us think of Verklärte Nacht as uplifting, rather than a journey towards uplifting, largely in consequence of its final minutes.
Structure, on the other hand, although also perceived as a succession of data in working memory, seems to me to be accumulated and retained, presumably in long term memory, enabling the listener to test models of unfolding and make judgements about how the music will play out. I imagine a cyclical oscillation between prediction and contradiction, out of which the listener develops a more and more reliable expectation of the architecture—of course, only fully verified the moment the music ends (and even then, not always). A music that offers up all its structural logic too simply, where prediction is rarely contradicted, is not one a listener will want to return to, at least for reasons of enrichment. Re-listening for emotional gratification is of course another matter entirely, subjective and undiscussable. And the inverse is also true, I never ever want to hear another piece by Handel, but can give you no account of why except that I find his compositional personality intolerable.
(In fact, there are several composers for whom I feel an intense disaffinity; from the very beginning I detested Mozart’s smugness, and Beethoven’s self-certain belligerence, and later I discovered how much I disliked Handel, Monteverdi, Rihm, R Strauss, and Verdi. (Note though that I do respect these composers’ achievements; I simply feel very little personal engagement with their work)).
The question then is: to what extent might these accumulated mental schemata match those that I originally imagined myself coding in (as I say, flex for AR taught me to be circumspect about my imagined intentions)? Does hearing EM fugue or gallery of spaces result in a sense of palindrome ∪ monodirectionality? Do the three windows in three windows reveal themselves? Does flux fluctuate? Would the listener take away a sense of a piece’s meaning even without the benefit of the title? For me titles are extremely important. They have to resonate towards the music and my chosen titles are always the antithesis of the kind of Wolpean Piece in Three Parts for piano and sixteen instruments nomenclature. Often the titles have a whole constellation of more-and-less-related meanings (see my earlier mention of tilt) that feed back into decoding the music. I choose them very carefully, and then design the music to illustrate (demonstrate, illuminate) their meaning. In this sense my music is mimetic. I regard pieces that have grown away and become detached from their titular concepts as orphans, bearers of titles that are not essentially theirs.
I am sometimes asked what the parentheses indicate in the title (e.g. ik(s)land[s].) No mystery: berni m janssen’s original title, from her book Mangon, was ik(s)lands, a lovely pun. At that point in my life, 1997-8, I was still in the transition from being a British composer to an Australian one, so I designated the second ‘s’ as representing my two islands. But because the second ‘s’ had become ambivalent I bracketed it, and as the first ‘s’ was already in an authorial curved parenthesis I used square brackets to indicate the third-party addition. This was the work in which I found myself as an Australian composer, and I have identified as such ever since).
Speaking of constellations of meaning, I do like a good (= bad) pun. I am considering writing a short étude called highly composite numbers, a mash-up of high-school maths and high-school musical. Or perhaps this idea is best kept as a piece of conceptual art, like Michael Craig-Martin’s Oak Tree).
But, my answer to your rather probing question has to be: yes, but limitedly. I think/hope that even without the fairly rich clue of the piece’s title, the core structural behaviours can be anatomised, dissected-out, in real-time but almost certainly only at a fairly low-res level. I’m sure that many if not most listeners would understand my Third Symphony: afterimages as a Big Bang/creation myth metaphor, énoncé as the juxtaposition of a closed group of combinatorials (many voices, many lines; one voice, many lines; many voices, one line; one voice, one line), or dé/ployé as a matching pair of folded/unfolded melodic lines. If I didn’t believe this I think I’d go silent. Very occasionally the pieces become these titular orphans, so different from the original intention that the title ceases to be relevant, and I have to research a new name—this is one of the hardest tasks of all, I find. I have sometimes pondered having an entirely abstract nomenclature salted away in case of need, but it will probably never happen because I am constitutionally allergic to titles that do not illuminate the musical argument to which they are tethered.
Yet listeners do, from time to time, report back to me on their experiences of hearing my pieces, and they are often gratifyingly perceptive, so I’m not failing completely in this regard. What do you think?
EB: You are not failing at all, though I don’t think the credit should necessarily go to the title choices. Since each audience member can only listen through their subjective understanding, trying to forecast the correspondences between title and musical understanding is rather futile; at best, it will always feel like tentative guesswork. However, this is an interesting topic to me since when it comes to titles, I consciously belong to that “antithesis” group of composers you are referring to. In fact, I have taken an extreme stance by eliminating titles entirely in order to preserve a numerical publishing order via opus numbers. It is ironic (yet welcomed) that this decision in itself has occasionally been interpreted as an ironist’s reference to either mocking or revering the past. I know this might sound unacceptable to you, but I think you could get rid of your titles and it would not impact how your music is understood because your notated scores, recordings, or even your program notes, interviews etc. would still be in existence. Obviously, it would impact your creative process since it is fundamental to the creation of the piece, but assuming a piece is finished, the effect titles might have upon a listener seem to me to be generally overstated by many composers.
In this regard I am reminded of Schoenberg’s “The relationship to the text,” essay which provocatively parallels my natural inclinations: “A few years ago I was deeply ashamed when I discovered in several Schubert songs, well known to me, that I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the poems on which they were based. But when I had read the poems it became clear to me that I had gained absolutely nothing for the understanding of the songs thereby, since the poems did not make it necessary for me to change my conception of the musical interpretation in the slightest degree. On the contrary, it appeared that, without the poem, I had grasped the content, the real content, perhaps even more profoundly than if I had clung to the surface of the mere thoughts expressed in words.” (Style and Idea, 1950)
In any case one thing that titles highlight about your work is the wealth of concepts you are working with, many of which originate from other disciplines and are reworked into your musical language. Since you have invariably touched upon many references thus far, let me move ahead and probe some more in this direction. Whether through surface influence, homage, cabalistic gematria and so on, your works also draw from multiple genres outside of classical music, including jazz fusion (Miles Davis), funk/hip-hop (Afrika Bambaataa), Rock (Can) etc. How do you accommodate other musical genres and overt influences in your work?
CD: This is in a sense, a redundant question—every composer’s individual voice is a product of a vast accumulation of influences, which leave more or less of a trace in their idiolect. I don’t think it is possible to engage with a wide and multistylistic range of musics without absorbing some of their elements, be they structural, timbral, gestural, textural, or even rhetorical, and I am aware of some of these aspects colouring my own work. The notion of accommodating influence, however, assumes conscious derivation, which is quite another thing, having to do with one’s purpose in composing, and of course there are influences that I’m happy to own up to, and others that I prefer listeners to discern for themselves as part of the decoding process. For instance, various works contain intentionally coded homages to a number of musicians, such as Dave Fiuczynski or Phil Lesh. But there are no intentional moments of stylistic whiplash in my pieces—I expect all the material to gel, to cohere, and this is only possible if the inherited ideas are sufficiently metabolised to untraceably assimilate into my idiom.
At the same time, I must admit to being permanently afflicted with ‘anxiety of influence’; it is virtually impossible not to be awash in recorded sound from every quarter: involuntary inescapable influence. I try to filter out alien input that is unamenable to absorption into my soundworld, and try to suppress subliminal earworms, but it is probably impossible to remain uninfested. I occasionally discern half-digested flickers of other music haunting my lines—the opening gesture of Berg’s Op.3 Quartet being a frequent visitor—and if I catch them in time I remove them. (I find myself wondering if that is not being overscrupulous—is embracing a nugget of Berg so bad?). Perhaps there is a congruence between absorbing diverse external elements and intentionally concocting a polysemic—as opposed to polystylistic—discourse.
Something I find very rewarding is to collide dissimilar—sometimes congruent, sometimes not—influences in order to come up with something new. My pieces are full of such hybrids. A feature of such semiotic synthesis is that it is virtually impossible to disentangle the influences—as is probably already clear, I like irreversibility, and more generally, mysteriousness. One I have been pondering for a very long time, and which may finally get some use next year, is a convergence of the kind of ‘field’ composition of the Mwandishi sextet—as more recently reincarnated in some of Ross McHenry’s brilliant recordings—with the textures of Radulescu or Eloy.
And then there is conceptual osmosis, the way that we gradually, through our reading and conversation, update our intellectual machinery to conform with the gradual changes in external values. Few are immune to this kind of constant adjustment, and that’s probably a good thing as it otherwise leads to the kind of generational disconnect we see in a lot of current politics. In my own case, I have felt the tug of politically-correct modernism gradually subside, to be replaced by a vision of a syncretic music, at which my Piano Sonata is, as already outlined, a first attempt. This too is an accommodation of influence, albeit more subtle and global. I don’t think it is unreasonable to admit that one’s vision changes as one ages, and that the music we write is a reflection of our interaction with the world out there as much as the inner voice. It may be a cliché, but what I am aiming at in my music, at core, is to enrich and enhance the listener, to provide my own window into the human condition as I know it, at the time of writing. This temporal localism is an essential element of the meaning of any given piece of music, and there are lots of truisms about how any composer’s music changes over time, from, say Šárka to From the House of the Dead. It is also part of what makes works written or revised over very large spans—Enescu’s Oedipe for instance—strange. I have tried to harness this strangeness in the very recently-completed reworking of my 1985 string quartet, originally called, appropriately strangeness; I’m hoping that in performance the work will substantiate a dissonance between the residual 1985 elements and the technical upgrade I have imposed on it in 2018-9.
Speaking of conceptual osmosis, over the years I have come to really appreciate the kinds of sonic categorisations that my old friend Ernie Althoff demonstrates in his installations, with titles like D C Wood, the Garrard quartet, Sushi tray quartet, Declivities II, Clarke’s slip (1891), How dare you, Arachne!, the middle eight, Cafe points, Pen and ink, White on green, Trade ten, Tide shelf. Because Ernie’s raw materials tend to be things like turntables, styrofoam cups, aluminium, and gumnuts, his soundworld involves complex quasi-periodicity, percussive and abrasive sounds—he utilises and often contrasts attack- and envelope-space. For Ernie the essential elements in his work might be continuous contrasted with discontinuous sounds, timbral and registral contrast, tessitural bandwidth, drones underpinning ‘melodies’, and degree of predictability. I find his categorisations of sounds a useful antidote to some of my own lazy thinking, and I—good Batesonian that I am—have got much from his talks about his work, where the talk is the performance, a proper metalogue. Ernie, like the poet and composer Chris Mann, brings a wonderfully Australian vernacular and lack of solemnity to these concepts. But, like me he takes his not-so-solemn work very seriously. Over the years I have observed the ways in which he orchestrates his machines, and I have developed some ways of organising my own material following principles I derived from Ernie’s work.
This is the essential point about trying to produce a polysemic musical discourse. I want my works to linger in the listener’s mind, to draw them back to re-experience the music in the expectation of finding more and different things in it each time …and to ensure that the music doesn’t disappoint. Thus my works are quite deliberately the opposite of accessible.
EB: This segues perfectly into my next question. There has been a renewed discussion recently — cf. two polemical videos (one) and (two) on YouTube, — of contemporary music’s cultural relevance in today’s society. Although each generation deals with such questions, upon reading your bio, I get the impression that you are more pessimistic today than in the past. What are your opinions on the values of such music and what possible solutions should our community explore?
CD: …so, accessibility. I must say from the start, that I regard this as a remarkably disingenuous debate, driven by a similar kind of populist urge to that we see around us in politics. The presumption by the …let’s call them populists, seems to be that audiences can be persuaded of the benefits of musical characteristics, and that ultimately everybody can be convinced that the world would be a better place if all music was quick to absorb and facilely expressive (and I’ve already offered my opinion on the limitations of expressivity). This seems to be the choice we are being offered: between A) music that is accessible, delivers its entire cargo of meaning in one listen, that can be listened to passively (requires no collateral energy), that is reassuringly familiar, that is comfortable; or B) music that offers some resistance to apprehension, demands more listens with the promise of further rewards, that requires active listening (expends collateral energy), that is challengingly unfamiliar, and is unsettling and possibly even uncomfortable. Of course, most music, classical or otherwise, sits somewhere between these two stereotypes, and many listeners have a reception range that covers much of the realm between. The terms I have used to couch these polar characteristics are of course highly tendentious, but so is the debate; it is as if there were some higher moral attributes being contested here rather than just the merits of one or another aesthetic stance.
Of course, this very debate has always raged within classical music itself, let alone in the wider culture. Rob Wegman has written tellingly on the hostility of the Renaissance Church (not to mention town councils who had to foot the bill) to sacred text settings rendered unintelligible by polyphony sung by expensive and in their view redundant choirs. Jean-Jacques Rousseau attacked Rameau on the basis that melody must have priority over harmony, thereby introducing the intrinsically Romantic notion that “in art the free expression of the creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures” (sound familiar?). Not to mention the tectonic ructions caused by Schoenberg’s innovations.
In my view, then, this debate is misrepresented in the polemical material: what is really being debated is the continuing and longstanding battle between the thousand-year-long body of knowledge that constitutes the Classical tradition, and the instant-gratification Romantic spirit, that continues to infuse modern culture, indeed life in general.
This divisive concept of accessibility is central to the debate about the relevance of modernism in particular. As far as I’m concerned much ‘contemporary music’ is flaccidly conformist and is not even relevant or irrelevant—it is simply anodyne phatic sound-fodder. Think Jon Lord or Karl Jenkins (or, truly awfully, Paul McCartney…). I am one of those people the populists claim not to exist, a passionate lover of modernist music. I have heard so many times that there is no audience for modernism, aka the New Music, and yet the Youtube postings of New Music attract large numbers of listens. Not anything like as many as bloody Karl Jenkins, of course, but for instance my Piano Sonata page on Score Follower has been viewed over five thousand times. That’s possibly more people than I have met in my entire life. I regard that as promising. And besides, the polarity is false, in that the two audiences are not mutually exclusive. Once upon a time, earnest classical musicians repudiated the seeming banality of all non-classical music by using the dismissive epithet ‘popular’ for anything non-classical (unless it was Indian music…). Today I find that musicophiles, especially younger people, tend to have very broad listening ranges, as exemplified in the soundtrack to Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which stretches from Kay Starr to Brian Eno, Max Richter, Cage/Nam June Paik, Lou Harrison and Scelsi. All modern references to ‘classical and ‘popular’ musics have become ironic. So whenever I use these terms please understand them as being solely historical tags useful for what is a historical issue.
EB: I can tell you that currently, about 85% of your Piano Sonata’s views uploaded on our channel come from ages 18-34. This is representative of our entire YouTube audience as well. Do you suspect the polemical opposition to contemporary classical music is primarily a generational divide?
CD: Yes, those numbers further confirm my suspicion. Anecdotally speaking, I have not heard anyone under 30 express views antagonistic to modernism—quite the contrary, they seem to find it all rather intriguing. They would also regard music as a simple spectrum and see Black Midi and Aaron Cassidy as ‘points on a curve’. Those who do actively condemn modernism, such as David Bruce and Graeme Koehne, tend to be from a particular generation, those who grew up during the gradual transition from classical to pop hegemony. When I was a teenager undergoing classical music training I was strictly forbidden to listen to popular music—presumably on some nebulous kind of law-and-order/corruption/morals grounds (I guess it made sense at the time)—and in fact regarded it as quite a reasonable constraint …until I heard the Grateful Dead and John Coltrane and realised that not all the music loosely designated as popular was as saccharinely inane as the Beatles.
Much of the animosity is highly subjective, to quote Graeme Koehne in the Sydney Morning Herald from about 1992: “Students come along and they’re writing these very dreary, dissonant, drab pieces as though they’re survivors from a prisoner-of-war camp. I think the modernist style was influenced by these incredibly dark European ideas of angst-ridden expressionism. Even though this has nothing to do with most Australian students’ life experiences and culture, there is this guilt there. They feel they must take on this heavy cloak in order to be taken seriously.” Nothing personal, you understand. I can imagine just how dispiriting it would be to get this kind of feedback from your mentor.
It’s a very dated view (and admittedly this is Koehne in the early nineties, but I have no reason to assume his opinion has changed) equating dissonance (whatever that is) with darkness and gloom. There is doubtless an incalculable load of fury in works like Pithoprakta or Nomos Gamma or Gruppen or Photoptosis, or Intolleranza, but the fifties and sixties were a time when the world needed a collective and liberating catharsis. Nonetheless, cathartic fury is quite a different thing to “dreary, dissonant, drab”. In contrast, there are also many works of a brilliant and uplifting positivity from this era, Métaboles, Worldes Bliss, Carter’s Piano Concerto, Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphony, November Steps …and, no, I’m not blind to the relevant nationalities of the composers.
For people born before, what, 1970?, this is also a class confrontation. Michael Finnissy recounts that, “Bernard Stevens asked me, at my first tutorial at the RCM, if I “came from family money”. I didn’t”. According to Michael, Stevens response was to ask, “Are you sure you want to be a composer?”. Despite all his “anti-capitalist fulmination”, in all probability Nono was only able to pursue his course because of his private wealth. My own lower-middle-class background to some extent immunised me against the kind of resentments on both sides of the élite-classical/vulgar-popular battlefront, but it is certainly true that working-class children encountered huge prejudice when they had the effrontery to consider a career in refined classical music, and to some extent still do.
I had the great good fortune to be a member of the Scratch Orchestra briefly in the very early seventies, in London, and had my musical horizons vastly expanded by the remarkable collection of people involved. I discovered Terry Riley, whose les Yeux Fermés remains to this day on my regular playlist; I distantly scrutinised John Cage, and almost immediately repudiated his smug, self-regarding, smartarseness (not to mention the dullness of his music); I learned much from pub chats with Cornelius and Stella Cardew, John Tilbury, John White, Howard Skempton, and even met—I discover from the archives (I have no recollection of them)—Brian Eno and Michael Nyman. Scratch was a melting-pot of collisions, the Maoists and Trots, art students and anarchists, pingpong and Festival Hall organ. This was a remarkable one-off fusion of leftwing politics and avant-garde art. But on the whole Scratch did not attract classical music students (and even fewer women…); I think it was too questioning of their entire outlook and purpose, and to some extent I had to eventually distance myself from the Orchestra so as not to lose faith in the efficacy of notated music.
(One of the biggest shocks I got upon emigrating to Australia was to discover that composers here were not all leftwing. Until I arrived in Sydney I had never met a rightwing composer (although I had my doubts about Müller-Siemens and von Bose), and it astonished and depressed me how many of my fellow Australian musos were conservative thinkers—activists, even. This of course was in line with their musical stance of aggressive traditionalism; the attractive, mild adventurousness of Brenton Broadstock, even, was regarded as suspect. But, as Chris Mann once remarked to me, the nineteenth century never ended here in Australia).
I’m entirely in agreement with Richard Barrett in his formulation of modernism as an ongoing Project. I think of the New Music as a kind of sonic Fermilab, a laboratory where the potentialities of music are pushed to the limit. But just as cutting-edge physics eventually becomes incorporated into laptops and mobile phones, I expect today’s avant-garde sounds to be integrated into the mainstream in, what? 40 years? There is a Star Trek episode, from series six, called Schisms, with ‘background music’ that could (almost) be extracted from Pithoprakta. That’s 1992, and Pithoprakta is 1954. On that basis I expect to be asked to write my first soundtrack when I am about 100. And, for reasons given below, I would politely decline… (Unless, of course, Scorsese, or Adam Simon, or Andy Horn, happen to read this).
I am indeed, rather pessimistic about the future, not just of modernism, or even the Classical Style, but music in general. My primary sadness is that music, from the most banal to the most sophisticated, is already being reconstrued as a pastime—look for the music reviews in any online newspaper today and you will find them in the Entertainment section. Worse, music is being subtly but implacably mutated into soundtrack: either ambient or accompanimental. This state of affairs is being caused—if not actively engineered—by the great dinosaur record companies, who have finally noticed Youtube. It is not difficult to think of artists who have made video their vehicle, from Valentina Lisitsa to Missy Elliott, and I’d like to think that the marriage of sound and vision portends great Gesamtkunstwerks, where each aesthetic parameter (one can no longer consider them as separate arts) reaches its apex—but I fear the real outcome is more likely to be a Disneyfied broad-appeal mundanity, rather like Aldous Huxley’s feelies. The preeminence of the visual element (thanks indeed, Hollywood) means that music will always be its servant, and consequently will become a subordinate, applied art with all the shallowness and dependency that implies, eheu. The aforementioned Koehne wanted his students to be influenced, as he was, by the music of cartoons. In this he was prescient, at least.
And I have no suggested remedies; like climate change, I suspect it is too late.
EB: Do you find the young generation of professional composers are evolving classical music, or does every innovation feel endlessly cyclical?
CD: Some things are perpetually cyclical, of course. Every new generation of young composers, and young musicians more generally, are mystified when their elders are markedly less impressed with their accomplishments than they are, after they unknowingly reinvent the wheel. But this time there are differences. Here I am talking about what Max Headroom so entertainingly called 20 seconds into the future. This is the immediate future where everything has—barely perceptibly, but inexorably—changed. In her hilariously tragic new novel Zed Joanna Kavenna has a coked-up character called Friday Lake: “She had some new theories about the Internet, which she also explained … that people needed to accept that originality was over, that all future enterprises would be new versions of the previous ones, that this was good because everything was a mass collaboration across generations and civilisations. She also had a theory that people couldn’t watch more than 3.3 seconds of a video clip without getting restless, her 3.3 second theory, she called it, and so all clips had to be 3.3 seconds or less because then they finished just before people even got the first inkling that they were getting bored. Then they recommended the clip or liked it but if they got to 3.3 seconds they never recommended the clip or liked it, at all. …She was blatantly on drugs”. This reads as a prediction, but, allowing for a touch of hyperbole, we are already there.
It is not so much that the latest young composers are failing to evolve classical music, more that they are being starved of opportunity. The problem derives partially from the new delivery technologies that music has adopted. The various streaming services have been set up in such a way as to make classical music virtually impossible to access; not only that, working out how to get paid for streams of one’s work is complicated enough, but is also made more labyrinthine by the complete failure of the streaming services to understand how classical music works. As an example I recently got an email from a company that dealt with sound recording royalties for the US that described a recorded performance of one of my works as a ‘cover version’—”Our client, W, has recorded his own cover version of your song X. …He has not altered the words or the melody and is not sampling your master, just a straight cover version.” I tried, without much success, to explain the relationship between a particular recorded instance and a work I had written, never mind the subtleties distinguishing a realisation of a written score from a reinterpreted or sampled sound recording, on all of which nuances of funding depend. With no grasp of the phenomenology how can such megacorporations be trusted to administer classical music copyrights equitably?
This situation imposes very marked constraints on any composer who wants “to get paid”. It more or less obliges composers to perform and record their works themselves, and discourages having their work performed by third-parties; it inclines them to very short works and single-movement pieces—songs, in essence. And doubtless all sorts of other nuisances that I’ve not even considered. So, let alone evolving classical music, I’m impressed that composers who have looked into the business deeply still want anything to do with it. As someone says in the New Yorker piece above: “The winner-take-all economics of online media … means that if streaming doesn’t work for jazz and classical music, then those genres are just collateral damage.”
And then there are performance and commission fees. More and more performers are being expected to play for nothing; the assumption seems to be that this will be acceptable as useful ‘exposure’, that it will somehow convert into future income from some third party who happens to have attended the free performance, unless they too expect one to play for ‘exposure’. In other words, endlessly deferred income. David Bowie predicted a couple of decades ago that eventually artists would be forced to tour perpetually, as their only reliable income stream. But his prediction fell short: even this previously trustworthy source of money would seem to be in jeopardy. There are of course (industry) voices suggesting that these changes should not be seen as a significant nail in the coffin of music generally, let alone classical, but their arguments seem flimsy, having more to do with musics that exist primarily in electronic media, and suggesting methods of getting paid that are not really relevant to classical musicians. For instance: “For Spotify, royalties are around $0.006-$0.0085 per play; YouTube is $0.001”, and so far as I know, that is irrespective of duration; a Mahler symphony has likely become equivalent to a song by the Dickies. At those rates even Herbert von Karajan would have struggled. And the commission fee system, the funding mechanism that is supposedly firewalled against all this industry turbulence, has undergone a major shift, in that now it is frequently the composer who has to apply for funding, rather than the performer/organisation on the composer’s behalf. That is, we composers have to make the case for our being funded to create something for someone who asked us to do it. To my mind this smacks of censorship: executants apparently cannot be trusted to choose composers themselves, their selections need to be ratified by the peer review body, itself a representation of the (turbulent) industry. [It is worth pointing out that more recently Australia has ceased to have an Arts Ministry as such, although we apparently still have an Arts Minister. The current government sees art as valueless, unworthwhile, and seeks to starve it to death—CD 2020.]
Then there is the evolution that is being caused by performer practice and audience preferences. This might include the Melbourne Symphony programming orchestral versions of Kiss or Metallica, or a movie soundtrack—sometimes syncronised with a showing of the film, which is apparently particularly appealing to audiences. I think of the orchestra these days as being the LHC of classical music—exorbitantly expensive to run, and primarily reinforcing the status quo. One cannot blame orchestras for wanting to justify their existence by pleasing the punters, and they would probably argue that without these extravaganzas they would be able to do even less for classical music. As for their argument that they are ‘growing the audience’, it might increase the audience for similar shows, but I seriously doubt that it will have any impact on numbers attending a Bruckner Symphony, let alone a new work by Mary Finsterer.
So undoubtedly classical music is being caused to evolve—but not by composers. I admittedly do find some of the music considered innovative today either uninterestingly conformist, despite the surface brilliance of so much of it, or self-defeatingly concerned with the rather limited palette of extended playing techniques. I was reading the liner notes to a CD of Scelsi orchestral works recently and they quote Tristan Murail as having said “we shall no longer compose (juxtapose, superpose), but de-compose, or at least, quite simply position sound”. That is how quite a lot of what I hear seems to me—sound being moved around. What I so often miss though, is any compelling semantic purpose to that positioning. But then, my response is entirely personal: my not enjoying these works does not mean I would wish them out of existence, as the anti-modernists would love to do to this very music.
EB: I have often read or participated in the “what is to be done” type discussions regarding the relevance of new music where participants somehow forget to articulate their inner wishes and visions—however far-reaching they may be. Since I don’t want to repeat the same mistake here, could you speak about contemporary music’s place in a distant utopian future?
CD: What I would like to see happen is another matter: I have been known, usually as the result of exasperation with stupid labels, to describe myself as a science fiction composer—a fairly marginal niche. But, seriously, I’ve often thought that the kind of music I write is to the kind of music, say, Mark John McEncroe or Elena Kats-Chernin write, as science fiction is to mainstream fiction. I imagine the New Music of the future being more widely defined as speculative composition—an honourable discipline, surely?—and offering the Stingray promise: “anything can happen in the next half hour”. It is partly that potential for outside-the-box unpredictability that makes it seem so inimical to the mainstream, which thrives on sameness. This speculative creativity will not, of course, be exclusively classical; many of those in Drone and Noise are already seeking to expand sonic definitions. And who hasn’t been astounded by Aphex Twin, or Autechre, Squarepusher, or other IDMers? Even the London Sinfonietta has tentatively probed their soundworld. Perhaps we could hope for a wider acceptance of speculation-in-sound?
There is a very long way to go, but I am encouraged to see the number of women working visibly in STEM these days. If science can begin to embrace equal opportunity, then surely the New Music can too? I have many recordings of work by women, but many, many more of music by men. It is gratifying to see the rediscovery of historic women composers, but it is no longer acceptable to treat composers who are not men as exceptions. A woman being a composer should not require comment. Nor should we be afraid to acknowledge the brilliance of a composer like Tona Scherchen-Hsiao. I do not hope, I expect the future to be better for women composers. That it will be increasingly difficult for everybody is sadly unavoidable.
I have given a brief and rather shallow, and very personal, account of the radical trajectory that music is inexorably following. My suspicion is that it augurs very poorly for classical music as we know it now. But I would be extremely hesitant to make any specific predictions beyond that. So much will depend on societal currents that no one seems to really understand. I ascribe much of the recent hostility to modernism to the perceived and real limitations of funding available for classical music. But suppose that the current right-leaning trend in society is a temporary glitch, that the climate rebellion generation manage to wrest power from their idiot elders? [Our current political leaders belong to the generation who grew up under Thatcher and Reagan and imbibed selfishness just as we baby-boomers were imbued with liberalism; one can only hope that they are anomalous and once superseded will fade into history—CD 2020.] We might see a future where richesse is spread more evenly, where sound culture starts to become a feature of society independent of the movie-and-music business. If that ensues, then perhaps enough resources will be available for there to be no need for competition or enmity between the huge mainstream and the teeming fringe. Maybe the huge mainstream will itself evaporate—one can dream…
Another possibility in the deep future is a gradual convergence of artforms, into the afore-mentioned Gesamtkunstwerk era. At the moment the primary syncretic arts are opera and the ubiquitous video, but with the rate of technological advances showing no sign of slowing, I think we must expect not to have a clue what the norm might be further down the line—downstream, as sci-fi has it. What could possibly supersede IDM events or stadium concerts, or immersion VR or multiplayer online gaming? I’ve no idea. Real-time interactive electronica-opera? Samuel Delany could probably tell us…
What I do expect, and we are already moving in this direction, is sonic emancipation. One of the great disappointments for me is the way that popular music—as exemplified by Lady Gaga or Ed Sheeran—is still using the same three chords (expect more plagiarism trials!). It is certainly true that, since the innovations of Cluster and the Can—and, surprisingly, Lou Reed—back in the early 70s, there has been a very gradual osmosis of more adventurous sounds into some areas of popular music, particularly soundtracks, without necessarily a corresponding loss of audience. There are microtonal rock and jazz bands—King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Steve Lehman, and Dave Fiuczynski’s various outfits come to mind. Also in the 70s Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, under the avowed influence of Stockhausen, had the idea to reduce their music to a very basic soundfield to allow intensively adventurous foreground improvisation, including ring-modulated guitar or keyboard; this music has been widely influential without, sadly, becoming very popular. Assuming that this trend continues I think it is reasonable to predict a greater level of speculative music-making across all genres in the future—music business notwithstanding.
Dench, Chris. “Chris Dench in conversation with score follower director Ermir Bejo.” Interview by Ermir Bejo. 23 Jul. 2020, https://scorefollower.org/featured-composer-dench/