Detailed work on this composition was begun more or less at the same time as US and British rulers ordered the invasion of Iraq, supposedly as the next phase in their so-called “war on terror”. “Terrorism”, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, is defined by the US Army itself as “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature... through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear”, in other words what the US government and its allies have been perpetrating throughout the non-Western world for decades. “Terror”, in a slightly different sense, is what countless millions of people worldwide have been experiencing since, through the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq at the very latest, it became clear that the aforementioned perpetrators will stop at nothing in their drive for global domination and the wealth and “security” that comes with it. The world has therefore become considerably more dangerous, and in places previously considered relatively “safe”, as a result of their actions. The amount of fear in the world has increased. So much should surely be clear.
On the other hand, the question of whether and how an artist could respond to such a situation is far from clear. Obviously, making art should not be a substitute for the various forms of direct political action, by means of which people are still able to express the principle of democracy despite the obscene warping of this word that we constantly see around us. But the avenue of “political art” in the mid-20th-century sense has been closed; today there exists no focus for an artistic narrative such as was provided by, for example, Hitler or Stalin, only the impersonal workings of a technologised imperialism, whatever convenient faces might float in front of it. In what way can an artist’s response as an artist have any meaning? Is it enough to make a response in terms of (in this case) a music which attempts to engage its listeners in active participation rather than passive consumption? Is it enough to set the scene for the music by means of a provocative title? (No.) I am certainly not claiming to have answered such questions in the music. Does the music even ask them? Can it? I don’t know. I’m trying to understand, and not to be intimidated into a retreat to aestheticism. My approach, such as it is, could be characterised as “resistance and vision”. That is to say, music which offers firstly resistance to the insidious penetration of corporate values and (therefore) “dumbing-down” into all aspects of culture, and secondly a vision of how music (and, by extension, its social context) could possibly be otherwise; and, naturally, these two “motivations” are two facets of the same one.
This composition is not “absolute music”. There is no such thing. On the other hand it isn’t a “description” of a situation but a response to one. It might be objected that there is something contradictory about making a symphony orchestra, one of the most conservative of cultural institutions that presently exists in Western society, the vehicle for such a “progressive” response. Indeed there is. But the first step in a strategy of “resistance and vision” must be to expose contradictions. And part of the present “vision” is the idea that, beyond those contradictions, an orchestra presents us with a rare model of a relatively large number of people working exceptionally closely together in pursuit of a shared aim. Thus each individual member of the orchestra (as in my previous orchestral composition Vanity, but if anything more so) has an essential contribution to make rather than being submerged in a “section”. In this sense the music is composed “against” the orchestra rather than “for” it, although at the same time it is intended to be composed “for” the meaningful participation of musically-engaged people in a large group, which, whether this particular music even begins to achieve its objectives or not, is what an orchestra should surely be.
What does all that mean, concretely, in terms of sound and structure? Obviously a composition evolves out of a largely “internal” apprehension of possible sound-forms, out of an impulsion, a desire to give communicable shape to promptings from the (necessarily) lonely depths of oneself. On the other hand there is the question of identifying and acting upon “what is to be done”, what kind of sound-forms could articulate a response to this time, this place, this bombardment by lies and escapist trivia. How is this “dilemma” to be confronted and surmounted? By constantly attempting to cultivate in oneself a change in consciousness whereby it is no longer a dilemma, and there is fusion rather than conflict between individual and social artistic priorities. Marx already implied this idea in his description of socialism as “a higher type of society whose fundamental principle is the full and free development of every individual”. That would seem to imply that within this society all attempts at such development are probably doomed. However, the alternatives (retreating into quasi-monastic isolationism, orlaunching oneself as a lifestyle-content-provider into the commercial market, or in certain celebrated cases doing both simultaneously) are unthinkable - and probably also doomed.
These considerations are indeed also the background to the musical work I’ve done in at least the last fifteen years. During that time my compositional output has aspired to the condition of politically-engaged art, which I have always regarded as the highest form of art in so far as it looks forward to the next phase in human emancipation, whenever and whatever that might be. But time is running out and this background needs to be brought to the foreground.
I recently read a concert review by a respected English journalist who approvingly paraphrased Mallarmé to the effect that “music consists not of concepts but of notes”. Music does not consist of notes. It consists of sounds. Notes are just a necessary medium of communication between composer and performer. The sounds of a composition are the physical embodiment of its ideas. This doesn’t mean that the relationship between the two has to be so simple as to be blatantly obvious. I hope those sympathetic enough to have read this far will also be sympathetic enough to bear that in mind.
Finally, since you will be hearing this music for the first time, it might be apposite to point out a few “landmarks”. NO can be divided into six main “scenes”. The first consists of a six-times iterated sound-form on brass, woodwinds and percussion which becomes more internally-differentiated as it expands in duration, with a high C# held by violins throughout. The second expands downward in register from the high violins to an “impossibly” complex string texture, which is then heard again, this time layer by layer, alternating with a sequence of harmonically static “choral” events as its timbres gradually mutate. The third scene (beginning with an irruption from the percussion) generalises this alternation into a fragmented and interwoven form where the orchestra is divided into seven heterogeneous groups of between four and 25 instruments. The fourth, longest and “slowest”, focuses on unfolding further the melodic thread which began with the high violins of the opening. The fifth builds up a canonic structure which eventually collapses into the sixth, itself a continuation of the series of outbursts in the first, this time disintegrating into a “pointillism” of noises.
NO was commissioned by the BBC and is dedicated to Edward Bond. It forms the first part of a cycle of compositions collectively entitled resistance & vision, which will comprise ensemble and theatre music as well as music for orchestra.
an interview with Veronika Lenz
You mention in your introductory note that NO is the first part of a new cycle of works called resistance & vision. What are your plans for this series? How does NO fit into it?
Two other elements of the series are so far clear in my mind, and they’re both rather extensive. They will end up being interspersed with smaller compositions, probably. I’m not intending that resistance & vision should all be performed together on a single evening. For a start it will end up being several hours long, and involve wildly differing resources for the various parts. It will require some different kind of organisation if it’s ever presented as a whole. The second large element I have in mind is itself a kind of cycle, consisting of several separately-performable pieces and amounting to about an hour for female voice, ensemble and electronics and entitled Dying Words. The form of this work is in a way the opposite of DARK MATTER - it begins with solitude and ends looking outwards, beginning with a poem by Hölderlin, and ending with some fragments (first in Greek and then in English) from Euripides’ Trojan Women which deals with the experience of war from the point of view of the victims of a military occupation. The other large element is a music-theatre piece entitled L, again about an hour in duration, for which I’m intermittently working on the libretto at the moment. L is concerned with many issues: class oppression, the ability of human beings to survive the most atrocious privations, the use and misuse of cultural “icons” (in this case Shakespeare). So that makes three of what will be four main elements in resistance & vision. As I say, there will be smaller parts too. The fourth and last main part has to remain unknown for some time, and I suppose I might not live to write it; or there might not be a world to write it in. One reason for my continuing to work on these increasingly large projects is somehow to make myself believe that there will be a future in which the current one will be completed, and in which I’m somehow able to continue living in the kind of circumstances that will enable the work to be done. That’s how very optimistic I am.
When you say this cycle needs “some different kind of organisation” do you mean it should be performed over several consecutive evenings?
I don’t think I’d want to stipulate such a thing. It depends on what the scale of it will eventually be, and this I don’t quite know yet. I think that two consecutive evenings might form a limit, beyond which lies some kind of hermetic world of ritualised activity like the Bayreuth festival or Stockhausen’s plan for Licht. There should be some time between the performance events so that the audience has time to be in the outside world, to think and relate what they’ve seen and heard in the performance space to what they see and hear outside it. I am absolutely not interested in the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk; the more “complete” it is, the more closed off from the world, from society, from the concerns of most people. But then even Rheingold could have continued in quite a different direction, if Wagner had been a few years younger and had discovered Marx instead of Schopenhauer.
What about the hermeticism of DARK MATTER?
I don’t think it’s at all hermetic. Or, I should say, the idea of “revealed” or “secret knowledge” is something it passes through and implicitly rejects.
You mention a connection with DARK MATTER in the form of Dying Words. Are there other connections too, and with the orchestral piece?
Another important reason for my working on these extensive projects is that I want the form of my work to reflect the imaginative evolution which gives rise to it, which as I’ve said elsewhere is a continuous process rather than being split into “pieces”. So for example the last three notes played by the unamplified guitar alone at the end of DARK MATTER, the point to which everything preceding has led, are identical with the first three notes the piano plays alone at the beginning of faux départs, which itself belongs to a different series of works entitled addenda. These three plus a fourth one form a motif which is as it were done to death in faux départs. Apart from this musical object, the pitches of faux départs are generated from the same “matrix” as is used in NO. NO begins with the same high C# which is heard almost throughout the final minute or so of the piano quintet. Those are a few examples.
Using the word “scene” to describe a section of an orchestral piece, which forms part of a work-cycle together with some kind of opera, suggests that theatre is somehow at the forefront of your thoughts at the moment.
There’s some truth in that, to the extent that in the past year or two I’ve spent some considerable time studying the plays and other writings of Edward Bond (to whom NO is dedicated). One reason is that for some years I’ve been looking for a music-theatre text, or someone to write one, with a clear and powerful political element. Various attempts in this connection have either led to nothing or in a different direction; for example one such project eventually imploded into Opening of the Mouth. Somehow, it was in the process of reading Bond’s plays that I realised I could and should write my own text. Not because I didn’t find anything I wanted to “use”, but because his writing has the power to create, as I’m sure it’s intended to create, openings for the mind, for the imagination, to think clearly, and in my case this led to my understanding what I was to do about my “libretto problem”. I didn’t put it to myself in exactly this way at the time, but isn’t this an example of the most powerful thing art can do, to change one’s thinking, to free it from its seeming limitations? Secondly, Bond is one of the very few living practitioners of political art who regularly expresses himself on theoretical matters, and this part of his work is also very important if one aspires to find one’s own way towards such an art.
Why this move into political art now? Is it something to do with 9/11?
Absolutely not! There is so much “9/11 music” around these days that you’d think musicians were dimwitted enough to swallow the politicians’ line that “9/11 changes everything”. The only thing it changes is that, with carefully managed propaganda, it creates an image behind which the US government and its so-called coalition can continue and expand their pursuit of territory and resources in the Middle East and elsewhere. The US Army, with its state-of-the-art military technology, has killed more than five times as many people in Iraq since March 2003, not to mention Afghanistan before that, or the thousands of other deaths in Iraq caused indirectly but just as surely by the chaos which the military invasion and occupation have brought about. Which is the more “cowardly” act? The majority of people in the UK were and are against the invasion of Iraq, and they have been ignored by Blair’s government. People are beginning to understand what a sham Western democracy is. (People in the Third World have had no choice but to understand this for a very long time.) You see how various US government people denounced the result of the last Spanish election. They aren’t used to the spectacle of a national population having the opportunity to make a decision on something as important as a war. You see also how they recognised the violent coup against Chavez in Venezuela at lightning speed, while being somewhat grudging, to say the least, in their acceptance of the result of his recall referendum (which, let’s remember, could only take place at all as a result of reforms to the constitution made under Chavez’s government). An uncowed national population supporting a candidate whose platform is based on redistribution of wealth towards the poor rather than in the opposite direction? Unheard of. Anyway, in various ways it seems to me that it’s no longer enough to do what I had been doing, that is to conceive the political dimension of my work as consisting in the way it attempts to activate and unify the senses and intellect, to give listeners the respect and responsibility to create their own experience from what they hear, rather than spoonfeeding them with second-hand emotions and ideas. That element is still there of course. Simplification isn’t an option, for reasons which I hope are clear. The question is, how should one’s musical activity respond to the current situation? - and this series of works is intended to try to look at that question. Another way of looking at it is this. The same overall historical process which produced neo-conservative imperialism has also produced the anti-globalisation movement, the unprecedented demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in London and elsewhere, the protests against Schröder’s “economic liberalisation” measures in Germany, the immense popularity of Michael Moore’s films, and so on. This is of course evidence of a tendency towards polarisation in many different societies throughout the world. At a time like this, art too partakes of this polarisation. Only the other day I was reading an article on how London theatres are filling up with political plays. Theatre generally responds more quickly to such conditions than other artforms; of course it can be transformed into an arena for political ideas so much more readily than other areas of expression.
Haven’t concepts like Marxism and socialism become old hat these days, and discredited by history?
In no sense. Obviously the current state of international capitalism has aspects which Marx could not have foreseen when he made his analyses. But Marxism is not a static “canon” of immutable gospel. Many essential contributions to the evolution of socialist thinking since Marx have served on the one hand to keep it developing and relevant to contemporary issues, and on the other to further emphasise that his analysis is still the most precise interpretation of the nature of politics and history, and the one with the most potential for action and fruitful change. You need only look at one recent example, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto by Alex Callinicos. This begins from the perception that the current and growing anti-capitalist movement will benefit, draw strength and coherence, from a Marxist understanding of society and how to move towards a transformation of that society, and indeed that incorporation seems to be occurring naturally. You see the beginnings of it even in Naomi Klein’s No Logo, whose narrative gradually moves towards a realisation that “single-issue politics” is a superficial and ultimately unproductive direction to take, that no issue can be seen as separable from any other, and that ultimately they all come down to the exploitative nature of capitalism. Ultimately, whatever transformation must take place if we aren’t to destroy ourselves and the planet will come about as a result of action “on the ground” in a flexible and even spontaneous response to circumstances, not necessarily as a result of everyone having read and digested Capital or any other book. Socialism can only come about as a result of the self-organisation of masses of people, not by imposition or under the leadership of intellectuals.
So what place can the music you’re writing have in this process?
That isn’t really the right question - if at all, it could only ever be answered in retrospect. I’m asking: what is a socialist artist to do? - and trying to frame that question in musical terms, in terms of my activity as a musician. I’m not avoiding your question, I’m just saying it isn’t a useful question to ask. We can learn a lot from the political art of the early- and mid-twentieth century, which tried to answer it and ended up wasting too much time and energy on a concept of “relevance” inherited from the systems of thought they wanted to escape from. There was something beautiful and at the same time (from our perspective) ridiculous about someone like Luigi Nono taking his electronic music into a factory. That’s a classic example of trying to run before you can walk. If you speak to someone in a language they don’t speak, you won’t get very far. What music and language have in common is the need for some kind of shared context. I don’t think it’s the case that modern art has wilfully jettisoned this shared context (with a few exceptions). I think what has happened is that since art has as it were evolved self-consciousness, the ability to respond creatively to its political and philosophical environment, which happened in Europe in the 19th century as artists gradually emerged from the servants’ quarters, the controlling system of capitalism has itself evolved ways to neutralise whatever taste of freedom this art might impart to its audiences.
But what about the idea that one should make one’s music more “accessible” to ordinary people here and now, as opposed to the small and dying breed of new-music cognoscenti, or some future utopian audience?
The music I make is accessible to me, and I’m an ordinary person. I don’t exist in some kind of rarefied world of the mind. Obviously there are aspects to a piece like NO which propose a certain kind of listening engagement which is denied to most people, and even aspects which are relatively, let’s say, arcane; but I’m trying to make the kind of music I would want to hear were I in the audience, and I don’t regard myself as somehow on a higher plane of existence than the people listening, such that I have the wherewithal to decide what’s “accessible” or “too difficult for them”. And I’m trying to make this attitude explicit in the work that I do, not something that I need to explain. That’s one important reason why I’m moving in the direction of music-theatre. For many composers it seems to be some kind of accepted career move. What I want to do though is to create a statement which, as one of its corollaries, puts the rest of my work in context, to an extent which only theatre can do.
What kind of context do you mean?
I’ve often been described as, or accused of, having a pessimistic view of things. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that word and I’ve never described my work or myself in those terms. I think I’m much more optimistic about humanity than many people who write happy music. At a certain point in my so-called development (in the mid-1980s), when I was trying to strip out all received notions about musical material and form, I was also concerned to strip out all received notions about why I was doing it all in the first place, and the thought I reached was that the existence of the work of art at all is such an affirmation in itself that any further affirmation is pointless. In this I obviously found myself close to Samuel Beckett’s work, which I had already been looking at for a few years.
Where does this interest of yours in politics originally stem from?
I’m not interested in politics. The idea of being “interested in politics” is a liberal delusion. It’s like this. As a privileged member of Western society I have the choice of whether to align myself with the military-industrial machinery of capitalism and the way it oppresses and murders countless people around the world, not to mention eroding and destroying that world itself, or on the other hand with the majority of the world’s population who are suffering under the workings of this machinery. It’s a simple choice, which we in the rich world have all made, whether we’re aware of it or not. Interest has nothing to do with it.
What about “inner emigration” and silent protest? If we were all pacifists or Buddhists the world wouldn’t have these problems.
No, I suppose it wouldn’t. But do you have a strategy to convert everyone into pacifists or Buddhists? If so it should be put into practice immediately. What we have to remember is that the choices available to us are simply not available to most people, people who are on the receiving end of the rapacity of multinationals or the guns and missiles of the US government and its proxies. You can’t choose to be a pacifist if you can’t afford to feed yourself and/or you are under constant threat of lethal violence. I for one would love to see the ruling class persuaded peacefully to give up its wealth and weapons in order that people across the world could free of brutality, starvation and indignity.However it’s obvious that the chances of that are precisely nil. Socialism isn’t just a way of looking at the world, it’s a way of changing it.
What’s the nature of your actual involvement in politics?
I was an active member of the Socialist Workers Party in London for several years, before I left the UK, and I haven’t broken in any way with this tendency, or what it represents, in the meantime. However, at present I’m not involved in the kind of regular political activities that I was then, although when I’m given an opportunity to put social/political views forward in public I always attempt to do so as clearly as I can. That isn’t very much, I admit, but at present my professional and family commitments prevent me from picking up again the level of activity I had in the early 1990s.
That sounds like making excuses.
Well, that’s exactly what it is, I’m afraid. What’s your excuse?
I don’t claim to be a socialist.
My question stands.
Listen, this isn’t some kind of tribunal, I’m supposed to be interviewing you.
Sorry. Let’s continue.
What do you think about the pitfalls of composers writing their own opera libretti, as you say you’re doing?
Firstly let’s not use the word opera here, and not just because I want to invent some trendy new word for what I think I’m doing. For me the pitfalls aren’t the same as in the situation of some other composers because for the most part I won’t be setting my own words to music. The sung text in L is mostly drawn from the text of King Lear, although almost entirely as it were out of context. My own text, which will constitute half or less of the total, will almost all be spoken. This isn’t really the place to go into the hows and whys of that work, since it’s at such an early stage of planning, but, with specific regard to those “pitfalls”, partly it’s a question of the tone of voice of the text itself, neither colloquial nor arcanely “poetic” (in which connection I’ve learned most from the work of Samuel Beckett and Edward Bond), partly one of being aware of how text and music are matched, or mismatched, or not matched at all, depending on what’s appropriate. I remember one “contemporary opera” I heard a few years ago which contained a completely po-faced setting of an exchange something like “You’re a pretty good dancer” - “You’re not so bad yourself”. And of course there are plenty of other examples of how pseudo-conversational utterances in opera can descend into such pure banality, as of course can mystical and/or portentous ones. I’m not saying one should “avoid” such situations - it’s more than that: one should have evolved such an approach to the work that such situations cannot arise, I mean I don’t agree with any concept of creativity which consists in “avoiding” things. To give another example, my compositions don’t “avoid” something called “tonality” - that’s a category which simply isn’t relevant to them.
But there are occasional tonal references in your work, for example the harmonies in the third part of Vanity or dotted through NO, or the allusions to Schubert in Vanity, 13 selfportraits and faux départs...
The allusions to Schubert in Vanity and faux départs are certainly tonal - because in both cases the reference is to a cadential event, that is to the idea of tonality not as a set of “vertical” relations but as a syntactic system which determines the significance of sounds succeeding one another in a particular way. On the other hand, those orchestral harmonies in Residua have nothing to do with tonality, although one could hear them that way, while perhaps missing other aspects of the musical syntax which to me are more important. Then, in 13 selfportraits, the G major chord at the end, which is voiced exactly as that at the end of the Death and the Maiden theme (in other words it’s the “missing chord” at the end of Vanity), doesn’t arrive as the “implication” of a perfect cadence. Its connections with the preceding twenty minutes of music are rather oblique, such that it seems to occur “for no apparent reason”. That’s the opposite of tonality! Otherwise, when I’m not thinking about Schubert, there is an important place in my work for the “consonant” end of a spectrum of harmonic possibilities spanning the entire range between pure tones and noise, but again that place is not within a temporal succession which could be called “tonal”. A year or two ago I heard an interview with one of the “young conservatives” of British music in which he said that whether his music could be seen as “tonal” or not depended on how thinly you slice it. And of course this is a complete misapprehension of what “tonal” means, if it means anything. If you slice Bach thinly enough you find some quite “atonal” dissonances here and there. So what?
Why Schubert, by the way?
I’ve often asked myself that, and I’m afraid I don’t have a definite answer, except to say that when I “discovered” Schubert, comparatively late in life so to speak, one of the features of especially his late work with which I immediately felt I had something in common was the tendency towards extreme formal disjunctures. The slow movement of the A major piano sonata, the slow movement and scherzo of the string quintet, the posthumously-grouped set of three Klavierstücke, and so on. It’s as if he isn’t telling you but asking you what the formal elements of such pieces have in common. This I find very provocative and fascinating.
The way the violins are laid out in NO is rather strange. Although they are clearly arranged to the left and right of the conductor in two groups of twelve, these aren’t called “first” and “second” violins in the score.
There are two reasons for the numbering. Firstly there’s something I just don’t like about that kind of “class division” in the violins. Secondly, and more importantly, they’re divided in almost every possible way in the course of the piece, sometimes primarily for spatial reasons, more often primarily for timbral reasons, although of course the two kinds of reason are actually inseparable. So all the violins might be in unison, or they might be divided into two equal groups (this happens quite seldom, in fact), or three equal groups (left, centre and right), or four, or six, or twelve, or into 24 soloists. There are also various unequal divisions, such as 4+20 or 8+16, or different composite “instruments” formed from 1, 2, 4, 6, 12 or 24 violins in the fourth or the unequal seven-part division in the fifth. The “violin section” is in a sense the leading “instrument” in the work as a whole, although the principal never has a solo part to play except for a few seconds at the end (which consist in any case of quiet pitchless “clicks” from extremely slow and high-pressure bowing). The violins are as it were the “front line”, in several senses. And then the tenor and contrabass trombones also have prominent roles, as do the amplified harps, and in the first and last scenes the trumpets. The “perspective” created between the diverse instruments and groupings in the orchestra, and naturally its projection into the music’s in-time structure, is intended to give a particular sonic identity to the whole, to sculpt the orchestra itself into the shape of this composition so to speak.
You describe the structure as consisting of “scenes."
That was the word I used, while I was writing the piece, for its six main formal elements. One shouldn’t read too much into that choice of word. What I mean by it is that, like the scenes in a play, each one continues with its part in the overall structure while taking place somehow at a different “location”, in a different environment. The scenes are themselves also subdivided sixfold, although not always in an obvious way; the subdivisions of the third scene, for example, are broken up and scattered like the form of 13 selfportraits, where there are indeed thirteen “sections” but they don’t follow one another like a sequence of “movements”. Each of these scenes then has a timbral identity of its own, as well as characteristic ways in which the core material of the piece is developed. Another factor in the “scenic” structure comes from the form of Greek tragedies, where each “scene” consists of a different confrontation, with some characters (and of course the chorus, after its first entry) remaining constant while others make entrances and exits. I was thinking particularly of the example of the Prometheus Bound, where the protagonist is immobilised on stage throughout, and each “scene” involves one other character who only appears that one time.
Is there a structural relationship between NO and this play?
It isn’t illustrative, if that’s what you mean. On the other hand, the first scene has, at least for me, an atmosphere about it of a desolate wasteland, a desert, with a flat and almost featureless horizon (the violins) in which an intensifying sequence of violent irruptions occur. Of course, that in itself could refer to any number of things. Then the second scene confronts what I think of as a “solo” for the strings with a “chorus” of wind instruments. The last scene actually completes the proportional structure of the first (which “should” have another trumpet outburst at its end), as well as of the whole piece, and at the same time functions quite clearly as a total collapse of everything which has occurred in the preceding twenty minutes. However, the third scene, for example, I imagined as a wall on which many complex interfering layers of graffiti are inscribed: revolutionary slogans, cryptic messages, graphic images, as well as holes or gaps, as a result of which its form is less obviously “dramatic” and more like a process by which you gradually “take in” this chaotic but at the same time static view. As this scene goes on, certain constant features become apparent - the tempo gradually gets slower while at the same time any given “material” tends to be accelerating as it recurs (a highly condensed version of this idea happens at the end of the fourth scene). Also, at various points the harmony coalesces onto what in tonal music would be called an augmented triad; where there are pitches moving slowly in a certain direction, by scale or glissando, that direction tends to be downwards (the opposite happens in the aforementioned end to the fourth scene); and for every type of musical behaviour associated with a particular group there is some kind of twin or variant or what French composers would call a double, sometimes played by the same group but more often by a different one; every change of tempo begins with a percussion event. So these structural interconnections and others mean that the third scene doesn’t just come over as a kind of aleatoric collage. However, its relatively diffuse form is emphasised by the rather rectilinear exchange between winds and strings which precedes it.
Is the division of the orchestra into seven groups in this scene somehow a development of the first part of Vanity?
Yes and no. The seven groups in the new piece are indeed constructed according to principles similar to those behind Sensorium, and you could also point out similarities in their instrumentation (which is after all inevitable given that the overall resources aren’t that different). On the other hand, while in Vanity each group plays six lengthening passages in the course of nine minutes, in the new piece each plays twenty-one short fragments in the course of five minutes, and obviously this kind of structure is associated with a different kind of sound-material, because everything is so much more fleeting and disconnected. Another difference with Vanity is that here all four percussionists form a group of their own instead of being distributed through the other groups, and in general the percussionists form a single “instrument” in a similar way to the xylophone and temple-blocks in EARTH which are never heard separately from one another. That’s typical elsewhere in the percussion parts of NO. Almost throughout you hear either no percussion or all four players.
And then in the fourth “scene”, all that multilayered complexity is completely contradicted.
Indeed, you have three minutes basically of two-part counterpoint.
Don’t you think this contradiction leads to some kind of stylistic inconsistency?
Is it actually a contradiction? Are those examples I mentioned from Schubert “stylistically inconsistent”? I mean, to us they remain in “early 19th century style”, but I’m sure they sounded even more fractured at the time than they do now. Actually NO embodies a whole spectrum of degrees of proliferation and stratification, not just the two extremes. One aspect of the “serial” organisation of the piece is that each of these degrees has a place in the overall order. And as for stylistic inconsistencies, that isn’t something I worry about. I try to say everything I have to say, in a given context and at a given time, and I try to say it in an interconnected and somehow logical way, bearing in mind the huge difference between musical logic and other kinds, and I let the style take care of itself. My concern is with the soundforms themselves, with allowing them to evolve towards not one but as many as possible extreme points. To take a simpler example, in faux départs you have passages where a quite different structure is “proposed” every few seconds, and others where a single kind of soundform becomes relatively hugely distended in time, or on the other hand moments of massive complexity as against others of brutal simplicity. That’s part of the way I work. It’s also readily apparent in the work of FURT of course.
Is it a retreat into traditional orchestration, the way you group instruments together in the fourth “scene”, and especially the strings?
I can’t say I’m particularly concerned with the question of whether what I’m doing at any particular moment is “traditional” or not... in this case I’m trying to approach the idea of creating composite instruments in a different way. In this two-part slow section, the strings are “resonated” by groups of (mostly) four identical wind instruments in unison, although often these unisons are explicitly or implicitly fractured...
What does that mean?
Explicitly, as when for example the four oboes play a sustained tone an eighth-tone apart from one another, or when the four clarinets begin from the same pitch and play glissandi towards four different ending pitches; and implicitly, as when the four horns play an extremely long-drawn-out glissando using the half-stopping technique, so that microtonal discrepancies are bound to emerge from the inherent impossibility of all four players controlling the hand-stopping so precisely as to follow exactly the same pitch/time curve. Such phenomena can of course only be expressed when the rate of change of the music is extremely low, hence this had to be the slowest instrumental music I’ve written. As opposed to electronic music of course, by which these sound-processes are obviously influenced. Now, returning to “orchestration”, after the two-part section there’s a trombone solo which creates a connection in the memory with one heard in the second scene (which in turn was a compaction of the figurations of the preceding, massively multilayered, string texture), although apart from that the two solos have nothing in common, and then the same material as the “two-part” music returns but now condensed to a single part.
What do you mean exactly by “condensed”?
Well, the pitches are exactly the same, and the durations almost exactly, but instead of being allotted according to register to a “high” and “low” part they are treated as a single one. And the faster “inserts” played by the strings the first time around are now absent. Each note-event this time played by a differing selection of instruments, with these instruments generally playing a sequence of between two and four adjacent events, and also some of the time one or more instruments might evolve something more complex out of a given event while others just play a simple pitched sound. I should put “instrument” in inverted commas actually. The orchestra for this passage was conceived as consisting of 36 “soloists” each with a distinct and homogeneous timbre. In the strings particularly, but also in the winds, these “instruments” are created by differing numbers of unisono (or heterophonic) elements - for example, the violins contribute four different “instruments”, consisting of 2, 6, 12 and 24 actual instruments respectively, and these are treated as equal but different-sounding soloists within the ensemble. Likewise, in the winds, a pair of flutes is treated as a different “instrument” from a single flute. Maybe I had particularly in mind the unforgettable sound of one of Bach’s cantata arias (from BWV 39) where the obligato “instrument” is two recorders all’unisono throughout. And of course one finds this kind of thing elsewhere in “traditional” orchestration, but here it’s conceived rather strictly and systematically, so the results are bound to be somewhat different.
The effect is of a highly-differentiated Klangfarbenmelodie...
Exactly. It’s the end-result of a kind of “sub-plot” which leads from the four-part “choral” wind groupings of the second scene, where each part is constantly crossfading between instruments, to the aforementioned two-part texture and now to this single part.
Except that the percussion also re-enters...
Yes - the percussion is tending intermittently, through the gradually increasing tempi of this section, towards a more extended return of the dense but metrically simple passage with which the fourth scene began.
... and which seemed to erupt into the music for no particular reason at the time.
At the very beginning of NO an important element of its structural syntax is already set up, in the most obvious way: an isolated sustained string tone as a kind of horizon to a landscape which is about to explode into activity. This happens again at the beginning of the fourth scene and near the end of the fifth. My objective is total imaginative freedom and total structural interconnectedness at the same time, that is, nothing happens which isn’t part of the overarching network of formal relationships, but at the same time a situation is created in which “anything can happen”.
Doesn’t that involve defining your formal precepts so vaguely that literally anything could be imagined to fit within them?
I wonder. But it seems to me that the more aware one tries to make oneself of all the interconnections, and the more this awareness feeds back into the imaginative process, the more interconnections - even outside that awareness - come into being. Sometimes I don’t see them until after the fact. Was Wagner aware of all the possible (and improbable) pathways of derivation between the motives of the Ring? Are they “really” there? It’s a question for the imaginative listener. Does something like NO cohere at all? Does it cohere too much and become a string of structural platitudes? That’s not for me to say. But I should on the other hand say that I hope these questions don’t occur to a listener during a performance. If they do then perhaps the sound itself isn’t interesting enough.
Are you then trying to ensnare your listeners with spectacular sounds so they don’t worry about all the inconsistencies until afterwards?
Look, I want people, during and after hearing this music, to get something out of the experience of listening as acutely as possible, a way of listening which I hope the music itself encourages, so that this experience is something other, something more inspiring, than the murk of noise which normally surrounds us all. Such experiences are, personally, what “keeps me going”, not as a “composer”, but simply as a human being in capitalist society. Are the sounds spectacular? I have no idea. Anyway, obviously I’d prefer it if people listen first and concentrate on their doubts afterwards. What’s wrong with that?
There might be the danger of your letting showmanship get in the way of intellectual integrity.
I don’t recognise either of those attributes as important issues in composition.
You don’t think intellectual integrity is important???
Of course it is - but if you had been listening you would have heard me say that it isn’t a compositional issue. Do composers sit down to work on a score and constantly ask themselves whether what they’re doing has intellectual integrity? Perhaps some of them do. Personally I have more important things to think about.
Could you say something more about what in your opinion “holds the music together”?
There’s a whole constellation of such features, some of which (as usual) were part of the original plan and some of which arose as it was realised. The pitch-material, for example, is all based on a very strict substructure which could be described as “serial”. The form is based on various kinds of sixfold proportion (a feature shared with much of DARK MATTER), as for that matter is the serial substructure itself. There are particular kinds of orchestrational structures, including obvious “landmarks” like recurring percussion timbres and combinations, which give the whole work its timbral perspective. There are recurrent figurational features like various kinds of hockets (and also, by extension, alternations between two whole textures at regular time-intervals), like longer structural spans being “interrupted” by more momentary events, like the numerous instances of “pointillistic” staccato wind textures, like the various points when the texture suddenly cuts off to reveal a long sustained violin sound, which then proliferates each time in a different way: remaining static in the first scene, spreading out into tangled complexity in the second, spinning itself into a melodic thread in the fourth, reproducing itself into seven parallel octaves in the fifth, and so on. Each scene presents a different perspective on all or most of these ideas. Some of them are only hinted at, in such a way that one might not be aware of them at all on a first listening. The tempo-structure of the whole work has a symmetrical shape. Some are expressed completely at the outset, while others become clearer as the music progresses.
As it goes on, NO does seem to become more obviously “dramatic” and unequivocal...
I think its form has much in common with that of faux départs in so far as the interaction between different structural elements is more in the foreground than are the processes of transformation within them. That’s the way I see it anyway. It’s a tendency you can also see in DARK MATTER, particularly in its more “orchestral” sections like Ars magna lucis et umbrae...
You mean that the forms are coming to consist more obviously of clear “blocks”?
Clear formal subdivisions are a recurring feature of my work, although each time they return the emphasis seems somehow different. In the present case I think it’s very clearly a symptom of the work’s expressive identity, with what could be seen as an increasingly desperate attempt to give a voice, and thus a structural syntax, to an inarticulate sense of urgency. The music isn’t trying to find peace, or closure, or resolution, it’s trying to find an expression of non-acceptance, of refusal. Hence these structural convulsions. The “blocks” as you call them aren’t sitting there like monoliths, they’re falling from great heights, crashing into one another, and so on.
Is that some kind of metaphor for the conflicts in the world?
I don’t see it in such an anecdotal kind of way. The fourth scene, for example, may consist of contrasting “blocks” but it also has a high degree of organisational symmetry, the way it’s arranged around the trombone solo at the centre.
Is this symmetry intended to be audible, or is it just a private conceit?
It’s very audible indeed. The longer passages either side of the trombone solo, as I’ve said, consist of almost exactly the same sequence of pitches, although differently realised: first very stark and impassive, and then in a highly intricate heterophony. Outside these sections are two shorter ones, which use exactly the same materials as one another except at different dynamics, and the second time forced apart by “inserts” of new material. And outside these are long sustained sounds on the violins, the second time with a long upward glissando and “points” of sound from the winds, which as I’ve said has connections elsewhere in the piece. The idea of repetition with or without different degrees of variation is central in this piece, from the “doubles” in the third scene to the expanding eruptions of the first, the different realisations of the string material in the second, followed by an extreme compaction of the same materials in the first trombone solo, the symmetry of the fourth and the canon of the fifth.
What do you mean by different realisations of the string materials?
Well, first you have this highly differentiated stratified soundform, an impossible density of independent and frenetic activity, and subsequently it’s heard again in “unravelled” form - a large proportion of the music in that string passage is subsequently repeated, but in two layers at a time rather than in the previous pile-up of twelve layers (each in between one and four instrumental parts), as if an originally incomprehensible explosion of data is gradually explained, or as if some kind of secret, originally obscured by layers of mystification, is gradually revealed. And, since the same instruments always play their own layers, something else that’s “revealed” is parts of the string ensemble you don’t normally hear in “soloistic” contexts.
Isn’t that asking for trouble from orchestral string players?
I don’t know. Maybe they’ll wonder why the music is written like that. To which I have two answers - firstly, with the violins spread out as they are, there’s an obvious spatial aspect, which is very clear because first four violins from the extreme right of the stage play, then four from the extreme left, followed by the next two desks in from the right, and so on until the passage ends at the centre. Secondly I think there’s some purpose in creating a more “equal” string ensemble. After all, it consists of musicians, it isn’t just some kind of organ stop or “preset”. Some players might appreciate that approach. Others might hate it, of course, they might be perfectly content buried away from any chance that the audience might hear what they’re doing; but surely that’s no way to make music.
Of course it might just be a question of having to learn music they don’t like.
Indeed it might, but that’s a risk one always takes, and especially with orchestral music, where you can be sure that most of the musicians aren’t particularly interested in engaging with the music in more than a traditionally functional way.
So in the end you don’t take much notice of what the players might think.
Actually I do. One of the most interesting comments made by a member of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the time of the premiere of Vanity was that he (and presumably others) had no idea of how his part was supposed to form a component of any kind of coherent musical whole. And I thought that was fair comment. Obviously in traditional practice the musical function of a given part at a given time is almost always fairly clear; whereas here, a part might be related to various other events in a completely different part of the orchestra, something that looks “soloistic” might well not be, while something that looks like background might suddenly find itself alone, and much of the time an individual part might indeed look like Webern’s vision of madness: a high note, a low note, a note in the middle. How is this problem to be addressed? Well, one way would be to explain to each musician the purpose of every gesture in their part, or to have players sit out individually in the auditorium to hear how things work together, or at the very least to rehearse in the groups, however fleeting, for which the music is written, rather than in “sections”. Obviously those ways are impractical. Then again maybe there’s a way of clarifying such matters within the composition itself, without thereby gravitating towards well-worn pathways. Have I succeeded in doing that? I have no idea.
In connection with Vanity you have mentioned studying Mahler’s symphonies. Does this kind of study play a role in the new piece as well?
In some ways NO shows the traces of Mahler more strongly than Vanity does, I think. While writing it I was particularly involved in looking at the structures of Mahler’s 7th symphony.
Most critics agree that structurally that’s one of Mahler’s weaker efforts.
Not for me. But no doubt that says something about my own structural thinking. Soon after writing Vanity I came across the music of Berlioz for the first time; more recently I’ve been studying Wagner, particularly the Ring. What effect all this has had is anyone’s guess, and probably anyone else would be able to pinpoint it much better than I could. Towards and beyond the end of work on NO, I became somewhat fixated on Bruckner... that’s a composer I have always been very interested in, but I wasn’t studying his work in preparation for my own; I think my interest in Bruckner was somehow rekindled by gradually recognising some trace of his music in the piece I was writing. I don’t know whether anyone else would recognise such a thing. It arises no doubt from some idiosyncratic way in which I hear Bruckner. It has to do maybe with the kind of counterpoint I was working with, maybe with the occurrence of regular phrase-lengths here and there, maybe with the way he assigns instruments to musical events in a structurally integrated way rather than “orchestrating”, maybe with other less tangible features.
How far do you actually stick to your original plan while composing?
I don’t make a religion out of sticking to it; but when I reached the end of this composition and looked over the preparatory work, I found that what I’d laid out at the start was more or less what was realised, albeit not always in the way I might originally have expected. Since you mention the ending, that turned out to be pretty much exactly what I “heard” at the outset, although on the other hand the canon in the fifth scene (which was actually the last part to be written) went through many changes before it reached its final form...
Can you say why that was?
I suppose the main reason was that, once I arrived at that point in the detailed composition work, my original idea no longer complemented the remainder of the structure.
In what way?
Well, originally the canon was to have been fully-scored throughout, instead of the first half of it gradually assembling itself out of small fragments and only involving 12 instruments (indeed 6 unison duos). I can’t really describe why that eventually seemed wrong, because my sense of structural balance and symmetry, such as it is, plays itself out in my mind in terms of sounds, shapes, movements and colours rather than words. What I remember is that at the point in the composition process when I had to get the fifth scene properly “into focus”, I didn’t much like what I saw, and so I had to “play back” to myself dozens of different possible versions until I had what seemed like the right departure point and direction in which to continue. In the meantime I had already picked up from the end of the canon and worked on to the end of the piece. Even so, the fifth scene in its final form does actually embody my original idea quite precisely in terms of its relationships to everything else, so I would say it didn’t really involve a profound change of direction during the work-process.
Is that what generally happens, in your experience?
The first time I was aware it had happened was at the completion of what remains in 1991. Earlier pieces, like Ne songe plus à fuir for example, went through all kinds of twists and dead ends during the process of composition, and so indeed did some later ones. I don’t think there’s a direct connection with how “well” the eventual piece turns out, just as there seems to be little connection between how long a piece takes to write and how interesting the result is. Of course, with orchestral music there has to be more advance planning, and the process by which an initial soundform-idea is “translated” into notation is so long and complex that it’s perhaps inevitable that changes and qualifications will occur, because I can’t just work mechanically all the time, I’m constantly assessing how the process is going, and the longer that process takes, the more second and third thoughts I’ll have, even if often I end up returning to some strangely-evolved version of the first ones.
It must be quite difficult to decipher your sketches.
I’m sure it is. But then they’re not intended as fodder for musicological analysis.
Why this hostility towards musicology? I’ve noticed it before in various statements you’ve made.
I’m not at all hostile to it per se, just somewhat exasperated by the fact that it seems to have completely lost its original function, exemplified by the original Neue Zeitschrift für Musik edited by Robert Schumann, which was to form a link between the latest music and the public. So now, on the one hand you have the publication, in industrial quantities, of abstruse verbiage which can only be understood by other scholars in the same field (if then!), even when it deals with issues which might be of wider interest; and on the other you have superficial fluff like the current incarnation of the Neue Zeitschrift, which seems to concentrate mostly on platitudinous interviews with the latest recipients of new-music hype, listings of which nondescript composers have won which stipends and prizes, and plugs for CDs and composers who happen to be published by the same company as the journal.
That sounds like sour grapes to me.
Look, I don’t sit around getting all bitter and twisted about such things, I have my own music to get on with, which is quite time-consuming and frustrating enough, but you asked me why I’m down on musicology and I told you. Do I think that my own work in some way deserves as much attention in such forums as whoever the current nonentity-of-the-month is? Yes I do. I also think that there’s plenty of other music around which deserves it and doesn’t receive it. Do I think there’s some kind of conspiracy afoot to keep things that way? No I don’t. Just as with much that goes on in the wider world, invoking conspiracy theories involves a simplified, fairy-tale-like apprehension of things as an excuse not to engage with understanding the complex (but tractable) way in which late capitalism operates. Besides, if you think I’m complaining about not being “successful”, the difference between a “successful” and “unsuccessful” composer of new music is tiny compared to the difference between either of these and a “successful” pop performer, and I would rather concentrate on the wider social/political reasons for the marginalisation of “serious” or “high” art in general, rather than on all the undignified squabbling for crumbs and attention that seems to consume so much energy in new-music circles. I do wonder sometimes how some people justify to themselves their dodgy practices, but not for very long, until such matters recede into a very distant perspective. I can’t imagine a situation in which uninteresting and/or unscrupulous composers, or for that matter critics and festival promoters, would be causing more damage in the world than the ruling class. Blindingly obvious, I know.
Well, thank you for your time and thoughts.