Getting through the Clutter

Eddie and I took in an ecat concert last night, “String Quartet on the Tight-Rope” with the Quatuor Diotima, and some interesting events occurred (for me, at least). The expertise of the players was very evident in their handling of pieces from James Dillon (Fourth String Quartet), Henri Dutilleux (Ainsi la Nuit) and Helmut Lachenmann (Gran Torso) (they also performed Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, but I’ll speak of that later). Each of these three composers are still living and their compositions are cutting edge music, with the Dillon piece, his Fourth String Quartet, the most recent - completed in January 2005. All three pieces are excellent examples of the European exploration of new sound, what ecat is all about.

One of the first things that struck me was the awareness that I was able to understand the form of the pieces just on listening to them. I won’t say that I could achieve an in-depth musical analysis of them just through aural exploration, but even grasping large connected elements was an epiphany for me last night. Up to this point, these musical styles always felt random and disjointed - a collection of noises with no real purpose. Before last night, I always left concerts of this type of music wondering why I’d bothered to go. (I went because, as a composer, it’s important to explore music in a wide variety of forms – even forms I may never write it).

Last night, however, I got it. At least, grasping the organization of pieces in a grander sense was very enlightening – particularly since previous to this my only means of understand what the composer was attempting was through analysis of the written work – and I am a believer that if the only way the music makes sense is by exploring the written page, then it doesn’t really classify as music (for me). This means I am gaining the skill of understanding disparate elements aurally, and it should translate into a better weaving of ideas into my own compositions.

Next was the appreciation of skilled musicianship. This wasn’t the first time I’d been exposed to “extreme” musicianship up close. Any of the ecat concerts is a good example of amazing musical craft in terms of performance. Probably the first enjoyable exposure to this form was with solo flute works performed by Richard Craig. His mastery of the flute created a fascination for the techniques used in works by Ferneyhough, Fox and Dillon (oh, there’s that composer again), even though, during that concert, I didn’t grasp the overall sense of the music.

I am not a “new complexity” composer, although there are certainly elements of this style of compositional technique that have a real potential. However, the complexity of the music often tends to put the music out of reach for most people so the audience appeal is limited (note: it’s taken me several years of exploring the sounds of this music to grasp the over all structure). But that doesn’t speak of the musicianship it takes to perform it.

Quartuor Diotima did an amazing job of keeping the music held tightly together, even when there was no clear pulse or continuity of time (for most of the evening) to keep the players in sync. Each of the three pieces had moments where the players were expected to play “notes” (this term is used extremely loosely in context of this music) together to create a “harmony” (again, term used loosely) of sound. And yet, for most of the time, each player is performing their own elements, creating a kaleidoscope of sound. I still don’t grasp how they do it (and I may never grasp it), but it was amazing listening, and watching them do it so very well.

The last interesting event (at least the last I will discuss here) was the juxtaposition between elements of these three pieces and the Beethoven. For me, Beethoven’s was the most enjoyable, although I think the Edinburgh Quartet actually does a better job of performing the piece. It’s not just that Beethoven’s piece is more familiar to me, or that the style of music is more familiar – but that (for me) it is more musical. Lachenmann’s Gran Torso was an exploration of the various sounds that can be made by the quartet and not necessarily by the strings – but by striking or bowing along on the body of the instruments, using the bow in a variety of techniques other than across the strings and plucking or striking the strings with the frog. Yes, all of these methods produced sounds, but it wasn’t musical (IMHO). There wasn’t even a sense of rhythm even though the musicians obviously kept some sense of rhythm in their heads as they were able to maintain a collective progression of the piece. Dutilleux’s Ainsi la Nuit was more musical in terms of using the instruments in more traditional ways, but the notes were so extreme and the elements so disparate it was a struggle to gain an overall flow to the work. Dillon’s Fourth String Quartet was the most enjoyable of these three pieces, but I like Dillon’s work (at least what I’ve heard). Dillon left me wondering as to his titles though. His third movement is entitled “Love is a pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause” and yet, I didn’t hear “love” in the music – certainly there was a lot of external cause, but love and pleasure weren’t aspects I would have attributed to the music on just listening to it.

Each of these pieces showed ways in which to use a quartet in an extreme manner, exploring new ways of producing sound (note: I did not say music). These pieces and the performers showed potentials, but not necessarily realization, i.e. they showed us what might be possible to do with a quartet, but didn’t take it to the point that I felt I enjoyed what was produced. Again, I like Dillon, so if I had to choose one that came close that one did for me – but still, close is not all the way.

Beethoven, on the other hand, didn’t even explore the variety of techniques considered standard at the time. In the Grosse Fuge, there is no pizzicato, nor use of mutes. Beethoven wrote a piece just using standard notation with no tricks, other than the extreme intricacy of his fugal writing (that is amazing! – and I’m not even a particular fan of this piece).

As a composer, I am interested in new ways of exploring music, but as Gary Bachland wrote to me “pre-compositional limitations are a marvelous way of pruning all those options into a few worth chasing down.” He went on, “If one were to follow ‘clutter’ from the beginning of the huge symphonies forward, by the time one gets to works of Carter and Birtwhistle, the complexities are so great that general audiences no longer appreciate the musical ‘arguments’. If you have something clear to say, you will find out how to say it, or, taking the path of least resistance, add clutter to clutter in hopes that it will look as if you have something valid to say.” This is a great way to describe these pieces – added clutter in hopes it had something valid to say. During the Lachenmann piece there was a section where the viola was playing in a style that was so quiet, the piece was reminiscent of Cage’s 4’33” – an exploration as to the sounds an audience makes during a performance.

It was an interesting evening. I am glad I went. Will I compose anything like these other modern composers? Not likely; I have enough clutter to clear out of my own compositions without trying to add their techniques.


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