A SLIGHTLY OLDER ESSAY ON SOME EARLY MUSIC OF MINE:
In recent years I have been focused, primarily, on composing multi-channel works of electronic music that utilize, for their timbral material, fairly simplistic and rudimentary midi instruments. I am attracted to these instruments for a variety of reasons, not least of which is their feeling of being, in some sense, cast off, of being a kind of detritus, of being, at first glance, seemingly unfit for the production of serious music. However, foremost among my reasons for using these midi instruments is their essential artificialness. This artificialness is, in my work, held in contrast to a musical language that is mainly concerned with, for lack of a better word, a kind of "humanness." My compositions explore this humanness from a variety of perspectives, ranging from the imperfect physicality of the gestural phrase, to the complexity of how individual instruments attempt (never with complete success) to find structures in which they can function together, to, on a formal level, a kind of awkward relationship between duration, scale, and material. However, it is the initial conflict between the fundamental limitations of the midi instruments themselves, and the complexity and nuance of their musical aspirations that serves as the central metaphor of all of my recent music.
Taken from another perspective, what I am most interested in as a composer is the underlying process of integrating metaphor into the techniques of my musical language. This process has little to do with any kind of overt progromatisism, rather it is, I believe, something innate to music and central to the communication of meaning in composition. For example, the technique of fugal writing tells us, on a purely abstract level, a great deal about how the Baroque composer felt about the world: about complexity and how it develops, in an ordered, almost mechanized, fashion out of certain seed ideas; about the nature of the individual (musical line) and how it retains its identity and importance in large vertical groupings; about the fairly fixed, archetypal nature of various musical/emotional states. Similarly, the Classical era’s reduction of contrapuntal complexity to, largely, an individual line capable of nuanced dramatic shifts and shadings of character speak to these same issues in a quite different fashion. This is not to say that a given compositional technique should be something that can be "read" intellectually (indeed, the basic clumsiness of the examples I have given here speak, at least in part, to the essentially non-verbal nature of this issue), rather that any fully realized piece of music will, by its very nature, express a whole range of ideas and emotions at the level of its construction, and that the process of building a successful musical language is, in large part, the process of developing a collection of integrated techniques that mean "something."
For me, the most fundamental level on which music functions, expressively, is in the mapping of the musical gesture to the movement of the human body. The awareness of the body, pre-linguistic, pre-logical, and, at the same time, a profound corollary to identity, is among the most basic and universal of human experiences. When music expresses something abstractly it is, I believe, relying in large part on the shared experience of human physicality to do so. In this sense all music is, to some extent, dance music. One of my main goals as a composer is the creation of a gestural language that makes constant reference to the complex collection of symbols that is the body, thus allowing for a deep, non-verbal emotional effectiveness.
I take as a model for this gestural language not the body in an idealized state, but rather the body "as it is." The majority of past musics have tended to posit some sort of gracefulness as the goal toward which gestural languages should aspire. They have tended to idealize human physicality, and make of this idealization a major compositional theme. In contrast to this I am, again, interested in the body as it is in reality: a body that can trip, fall over, stutter, lose track of itself and fall apart; a body that is essentially clumsy, and for which moments of gracefulness, only ever provisionally achieved, are rare; a body that is, in a word, human.
If an individual line of music can be seen as referencing a single human body, a single human voice, then multiple lines of music quite naturally imply images of human society and social structure. This analogy can certainly be pushed too far, however, suffice it to say that most musics for which it is at all appropriate tend, from Palestrina to Cage, to present an idealized, utopian image of human relationships.
In my music I generally create situations wherein a variety of instrumental parts, each with their own unique gestural characteristics, their own unique identities, are required to interact with each other in a variety of ways. How these instrumental parts attempt to find structures that allow them to retain their unique characteristics while at the same time functioning together as an overall whole is one of the main dramatic tropes running through all of my compositions. This conflict between part and whole is never fully resolved in my work, and indeed, the natural condition, as it were, of my music is one in which this conflict is held in a kind of perpetual state of tension.
Furthermore, in my music material (and the whole open-ended question of what constitutes material) is, in a sense, deployed across this division between part and whole. The material of each individual part is, generally, not so much a collection of motives, but rather a collection of characteristic approaches to realizing material. (Some simple examples: one part may tend toward obsessive repetition of a few notes, another may tend to loose track of the idea at hand, another may be so heavy-handed in its performance that it tends to overwhelm the other instruments, another may be so tentative that it becomes nearly imperceptible in tutti groupings). However, there is another level of material in my music that exists outside that of the individual part, and that generally requires some kind of cooperation between individual parts to be fully realized. The material of the whole, then, can be seen as essentially structural: it is the (political) structuring agent of diverse parts.
For example, I very often employ a kind of hocketting structure in my compositions wherein multiple unique lines of music fit together in such a way as to form, in the resulting interaction between voices, an overarching melody (very often a folksong) that is not found in any of those individual parts when played alone. The opening section of Dark as a Dungeon is an example of this. Here the overarching melody both requires for its realization, and is, at the same time, obscured by the individual lines of music. The level of the part and the level of the whole both need and oppose each other.
(This type of hocketting structure occupies, in my music, a midpoint between two extreme structural possibilities: on the one hand a structure wherein an overarching control (very often, again, a folksong) so limits the behavior of the individual instruments that they are drained of their unique characteristics, and, on the other hand, a kind of collage structure wherein individual instruments all "speak at once," as it were, with out any controlled relationship between parts. The opening third of Josef, Lieber Josef Mein points, at least provisionally, toward these two possibilities).
The search for various structuring principles that allow for a (more or less) cohesive whole capable of a (more or less) continuous forward motion comprises a great deal of the formal narrative unfolding in my music, particularly in the larger scale pieces. Certainly, one thing that gives a sense of success in music, on a formal level, is a kind of continuousness, a kind of extension, in time, past the limitations and obvious implications of whatever material happens to be under consideration. To return again to the example of fugal technique (and to, again, oversimplify a whole range of complex issues), very often the material involved is fairly simplistic and even, to some extent, unmusical. It is, rather, the various formal gambits at play that lift this material up and make it light and buoyant. The formal/temporal processes, in a sense, overwhelm, surpass and transcend the inherent weaknesses of the given material. Far from being unique to fugal writing, however, this idea of formal process transcending material is one that is, I believe, general to a great deal of composed music.
This continuousness, however, can also be seen as a kind of gracefulness, a kind of idealization of human experience on a temporal level. My music, on the other hand, is a music of starts and stops. It is a music that does not see time or constructed narrative as being capable of redeeming the actualities of human experience. It is, rather, a music wherein the groping search for a structure that would allow for this type of transcendent continuousness ultimately becomes the form itself. This continuousness, rather than being denied, is posited as the goal toward which the music itself unremittingly aspires.
None of this is to say that my music denies the role of the ideal in human life, rather that it is presenting a situation wherein the striving after the ideal is seen as the general human experience. My music is perpetually attempting to transcend its own limitations, and, indeed, this sense of striving after something beyond oneself is the central theme of my work. The simple midi sounds that I employ, then, are, on the most basic level of timbre, a kind of natural state that the music itself continuously attempts to overcome.