Unter Wasser: introductions, observations, positions
How it began
The music of Unter Wasser was originally conceived in 1994, when, within a couple of months, I saw Margret Kreidl's play which provides the text, and first heard both Marianne Pousseur and Ensemble Champ d'Action. All created an immediate and deep impression, and became inextricably associated with one another in my thoughts; after three years the opportunity finally arose for this "dream" to be realised; detailed work on the composition began in the summer of 1997 and was completed about a year later.
It is difficult to say exactly what was so attractive about this text, over and above all the other reading which goes on, that I should immediately contemplate creating an extended work around it (and carry out the idea), except that it seemed to embody an answer to some unformed questions regarding suitable texts for (theatre) music, and that, on an initial hearing and seeing, I found myself responding to it in terms of sound as much as in terms of its meaning (which I suppose, however, is not so unusual with texts in a foreign language). What were these unformed questions? My previous work with Paul Celan's poetry in Opening of the Mouth had emerged from a kind of relationship with the texts similar to that I had also experienced with the work of Samuel Beckett: where the text itself seemed to call up very precise musical consequences - the composition was to some degree my "way of reading" Celan. I think that the possibility of working with a different kind of text altogether was in itself attractive, particularly (as here) a kind of text which is totally lacking in portentousness but retains a sense of mystery (and precisely without mystification), a kind of wide-eyed, reinvented sentimentality. It's too early to say where it all comes from. It always is.
Text (...) Musik
Inevitably, a composition which is a setting of a text has as one of its dimensions an examination, a critical reappraisal, of the purpose and practice of "text-setting" itself. One must answer for oneself not just what music should be composed, but why music should be there at all (or, conversely, why the text should be there). One axiomatic idea in Unter Wasser was that the text should remain aurally comprehensible for the most part, the principal reason being that the text was originally a theatre play: not a piece of poetry to be read (experienced entirely through the eye), reread and contemplated "outside time", but as an experience in time, in a created time, for both ear and eye, the words on paper "invisibly" embodied by a performer, sublimated into a new form. Such considerations as this also lie behind the absence of "extended techniques" in the vocal part, even though a number of extended notations have been devised to encompass different values of a "parameter" which might be described as the closeness of pitch- and rhythm-inflections to those naturally implied by the text as spoken. (For various reasons, the precedents of Schoenberg and Berg in this respect are more confusing than helpful, wonderful as Lulu and Moses und Aron might be.) A second axiom: as regards the relationship between text and music in Unter Wasser, a single word which might describe it would be "polyphony", understood in its widest sense. The music neither illustrates nor dominates.
The text has its own existence as a play; the music, though not "detachable" in the same way, constitutes a complementary structural/expressive strand. As with polyphony in the "strictly musical" sense, one is invited to focus one's attention in different ways: on individual "voices", on the totality formed of their interaction, on structural levels at varying degrees of "distance" or "magnification", and so forth. In Unter Wasser, a wide range of text/music relationships are invoked: these two "polyphonic voices" might be at different moments in "unison", or heterophony, or counterpoint, or contradiction, or might be totally indifferent to one another; they might be lovers or strangers or adversaries or mirror-images; they might be closely entwined or impossibly distant, or might just "by chance" occupy the same time and space, and so on. Naturally, these twists and turns in the text/music relationship are a primary motivating factor in the structural/poetic identity of the composition, are its materials in no less real a way as are its rhythms, pitches and timbres. The surface of the music does not "respond" to every "image" in the text (Wagner-Strauss-Erwartung); nor does it cheerfully run its course almost disregarding the affective dimension of the text (The Rake's Progress etc.). There has rather been an attempt to relate the deeper structure (that is to say, the deeper affective dimension) of text and music so as to imagine both as emerging into their different domains from a single constellation of pre-verbal, pre-musical form: as sharing the same nervous system. This idea is not so far removed from that of Boulez in Le marteau sans maître, although I do not expect he would express it in those terms, and indeed there the resemblance emphatically ends. As I hope would be obvious on intense listening, the composition responds to its text on many levels below the superficial or anecdotal, and a large proportion of the following remarks are concerned with indicating some of the ways in which it does so. (Of course) there are also moments when the banality of literal "madrigalism" comes to the surface.
A few words on setting a text in a foreign language. Since the sounds and structures of the Unter Wasser play have been just as important to me as the "meaning" (which in any case is intimately connected with them, as it is by definition in poetry), there was no question of working with a translation, although I did make an English version (in fact several) as part of the process of "getting inside" the text. (The English translation has been subjected to more revisions than the score ever will be, most recently in connection with the possibility of its being performed as an English-language play without music, at which point the last few embarrassing solecisms were corrected, though a few of them still occur in the published score as witness to the fallibility of my German.) Moreover, the tone of voice of the text, not just the "accent" but indeed the grammatical structure, is specifically Austrian rather than German (for example the frequent use of the perfect tense where a German would use the simple past), which would necessitate some inelegant contrivance if it were to be attempted in a translation. Having previously set German texts by Elisabeth Borchers (lieder vom wasser, 1989-90) and Paul Celan, there is obviously more than coincidence at work; I have come to the conclusion that the reason is probably related to Samuel Beckett's decision to write in French: one can if one wishes take a more distanced, objective stance towards a text not in one's "thinking language"; one is less inhibited by one's own "voice", less tempted by unquestioning intuition.
Unter Wasser is divided into five acts, separates them with three Zwischenspiele (between each pair of acts except the last two) and precedes them with a Vorspiel. These instrumental sections, mostly scored for strings and percussion, form points of rest in the musical structure as well as in the "action", consisting as they do mostly of "blocks" of (internally active) sound-material without development, often deriving from a sort of "freezing" of structural momentum from elsewhere in the work. I was concerned that the setting should not be an attempt to dictate the interpretative angle to be assumed by the soloist. But then neither does the text itself: some things are quite clear, others ambivalent, others relatively obscure; but for the most part I experience its affective content to lie somewhere below the surface, to be expressed by a combination of verbal and compositorial interpretation; and, perhaps even to the same degree as with Celan, but naturally in a completely different way, one ought not as a composer to close off avenues of communication between text and listener. (The main difference is that here, certainly in the first two acts, there is no difficulty in superficially comprehending the text: no words like "Atemkristall" or "knospend-gespaltener" which must first be cracked open, usually to reveal a whole network of possible meanings.)
While each of the five acts proposes not only different text/music relationships (usually more than one in each act), but also different ways in which solo voice and instruments might relate to one another, which again might parallel the text/music situation or not. The vocal part uses varying "degrees" of singing, including Sprechgesang, and proposing a performance style which (like the composition itself) is only tangentially related to the phenomenon of opera. The Sprechgesang used in Unter Wasser notates absolute rather than relative pitches, and also the glissandi between them (which are occasionally absent); sometimes a glissando between two pitches encompasses a number of syllables. An aspect of Sprechgesang which is frequently criticised, that it pays no attention to the natural speaking register of the voice (particularly in the case of female vocalists, where the singing range might be quite separate from it), is in Unter Wasser incorporated into the music; spoken passages (sometimes with notated rhythms, sometimes without) also occur, and the sometimes relatively high tessitura of the Sprechgesang is indeed intended to engender an "unnatural" quality of articulation, though of course no more so than in the case of singing, or for that matter in those spoken parts where the rhythms specified give rise to another kind of artificiality.
Most of the journalistic reaction to the first performances singled out for particular criticism the extensive use of Sprechgesang, in terms of Unter Wasser being derivative of Pierrot Lunaire. I put this down partly to the performances, which had not developed sufficient individuality for the qualities of the work to be fully expressed, and partly to the tendency of the gentlemen of the press to substitute Pavlovian reflexes for listening. The ensemble of 13 players (flute, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, trombone, percussion, plucked instruments and 5 strings, with extensive doublings), as a result of its size and constitution, is able to function as a large group of soloists or as a very small orchestra, or in diverse intermediate ways, and this aspect too is drawn into the area of "compositional material". As opposed to compositions like negatives and Opening of the Mouth, no non-European instruments are employed outside the percussion section, although attention might be drawn to the requirement (unprecedentedly in ensemble music?) of an open-hole quartertone alto flute in act 2 (though ossias will eventually be provided), and the use in acts 1, 3 and 5 of a zither, played by the guitarist/mandolinist and tuned once more in quartertones. All the wind parts except the horns involve at least one doubling; after act 1 (where two Bb clarinets are used), the clarinettists are always playing two different instruments. The percussion setup is relatively economical, frequently reducing to a single instrument (marimba in act 2, African talking drum in act 3), but using a wide array of wooden instruments in act 4, a sound-world which dates back to EARTH for trombone and percussion of 1987-88. Another way in which the percussion writing descends from EARTH is in its concern with timbral "synthesis" by the consistent blending of more than one type of sound, so that it takes on the function of a new composite "instrument". Two examples (structurally related, as it happens): act 1, bars 137-158, where the "instrument" consists of harmon-muted trombone, bass slit drum dyads and cello pizzicato dyads, the cello and trombone remaining within a bandwidth of around a fifth; act 4, beginning, where a gong in B is partially immersed in water to enable it to "slide" around the pitch of a second gong in G played simultaneously (with a bass drum pedal).
Where the music takes on a more straightforwardly metrical cast in Unter Wasser, the percussion is either absent or backgrounded; its role relates more closely to ruin (that is, alternating between signalling the structural articulation-points and disrupting that articulation), although a more "melodic" quality is often present also, by which I mean an integration of percussion behaviour with the rest of the ensemble, as in act 2, where the marimba part is on terms of structural equivalence with the other instruments. The string quintet begins with the (Mozart/Brahms) instrumentation of 2 violins, 2 violas and cello, mutating for acts 4 and 5 into a less familiar (but faintly baroque) configuration in which the second viola changes to a third violin. There is a sense in which I think of Unter Wasser as a "European" piece: the "romantic" tinge to its ensemble constitution is treated in a similar way (that is, with maximum freedom arising from maximum respect) to the Asian instruments found in negatives or Opening of the Mouth.
Some words regarding the score itself. Whereas in the score of Opening of the Mouth, staves only appear for instruments which are playing on the page or system in question, the score of Unter Wasser shows staves for all the instruments throughout, even when (as in most of act 2) only a few of them, or indeed none at all, are playing. There is a reason for this. Opening of the Mouth, as a music primarily organised around "soloists", organises its ensemble as a pool from which different combinations are drawn (as if out of a shadowy background: in an early formal scheme the players sat in a large semicircle and stepped forward individually to play their solos); on the other hand, Unter Wasser, as mentioned previously, is orchestral music: when a small number of instruments is playing, I wanted to underline (to the conductor) the continuing presence of all the others, who could enter at any second. This has something to do with the phenomenon of different "qualities of silence" in music (one might mention Bruckner, Webern, Hespos and Cage as composers whose silences have very different implications); in the present score, perhaps, a role is played by memories of seeing performances of Webern's op.6 and 10 (as opposed to hearing recordings of them), where the majority of the players are sitting silently most of the time. These days one often hears that writing scores by hand is an anachronistic activity, that producing them by computer is in most ways more convenient, and so on. This is of course true, but it is not the whole truth. Given that on some level one's writing is conditioned by the activity and the modality of "criture", I still prefer my own to be conditioned by the characteristics and limitations of my handwriting, rather than those of a computer program which someone else (no doubt with different priorities) has conceived and produced. The same goes, by the way, for compositional programs; while I am no programmer, my own clumsy and user-inimical software at least reflects the same "stylistic" personality which informs the musical ideas (and their notation). I cannot say that I am completely content with this situation; but there it is.
The following synopsis is intended merely as a series of Wegweiser, mentioning for each act one or two prominent features of text and music and the way in which they interact, together with some tangential comments on more general compositional preoccupations as they manifest themselves in Unter Wasser. Although the main sections are to a certain extent musically (as textually) autonomous and pursue their own directions in sound and structure, their overall coherence as a single work depends upon an all-pervading and intricate sharing of materials, as well as upon a single overarching process (not without its own twists and turns, naturally) which could be described as a gradual "submergence" of the voice within the music: in the sense of the vocal part being immersed in increasingly complex instrumental textures, and in the sense of the music itself behaving as if accumulating from the piecing-together of memories and impressions which motivates much of the text.
Gradually, a diffuse network of memories begins to assemble itself, in which the single female character (identified in the text only as SIE) remembers circumstances and emotions around an intense emotional/sexual relationship she has had with another woman, in some past time. The music too pieces itself together out of a sequence of disjunct "moments", many of which also are "memories" in a way, but of musical materials which are yet to come, presented, like the text, as a mosaic, jumping back and forth according to subconscious associations. Each of the 36 sections (between three and a half seconds and just over a minute in duration) forms something like a "scene" in itself, and they are divided between (mostly static) "act 1" sections and others which refer to one or other of the succeeding acts. These "foreshadowings" have a greater or lesser degree of recognisability depending upon the way in which the (fictional) musical memory-process erases or distorts them to accommodate their new context. For example, one section (beginning with "Sie nimmt das Besteck", bar 27), recapitulates in its vocal part the musical processes which generate the entire vocal part of act 4, while the instruments have material based upon the ensemble-collage of act 4 with its pitch range reduced from six octaves to a unison: the course of the vocal part is "remembered" relatively precisely in this case, while the changing pitches of the instrumental complement have been "forgotten". Another passage (beginning "Links ein Gasherd mit Dunstabzugshaube", bar 137), divides the ensemble into two: one group "precapitulates" the relationship between voice and gongs in the first section of act 4 (one and a half octaves lower in act 1, and with trombone, bass slit drum and cello instead of gongs, as mentioned above), and the other combines the wind parts from the two quartets of act 4 (see below) but renders them slightly "out of focus" by blurring their "original" melodic profiles. (The first Zwischenspiel, following act 1, involves a similar process with the string parts of the two quartets; the blurring process consists in a "reading through" of the material with a certain (changing) probability of each sound being left out, or retained, or retained with a slightly altered pitch, and so on.) Elsewhere, the music might derive from "freezing" a point in a musical process to be found in one of the succeeding acts: like a "still" remembered without its antecedents or consequences. The score shows a variety of ways in which the different types of vocal articulation, with both measured and unmeasured rhythm, are brought into contact (or not) with the ensemble. (Unmeasured rhythms also occur in the instrumental parts.)
While I have been assiduous in not omitting or changing a single word of the text, it might be as well to comment upon two matters which arise particularly in act 1. The first is the omnipresence of the direction "Stille" between units of the text, which in the score is frequently ignored, even to the point of having virtually no interruption in the vocal part itself at these points.. This is because, in the spoken play, some silence is necessary to establish a new and often abrupt turn in the itinerary of remembering; in a musical context such a turn may be suggested in many ways other than pausing (although of course this way is also often used). Another departure from the text is in the several directions "Sie schreit" between text-units in act 1, which have been replaced by instrumental events, mostly a staccatissimo / sfffz chord for as many of the instruments as are not otherwise occupied. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, these "screams" represent a retreat from language into inarticulacy, which is of course a strand running throughout the relationship between voice and instruments in Unter Wasser, that is to say, the condition of verbal inarticulacy manifested in the "screams" of the text is in the present work "instrumentalised". (The situation of a wordless music straining vainly to find a vocabulary, in order to express something which remains inexpressible, is one which my compositions have often found themselves in for some years.) Secondly, the vocal "scream" must be reserved for its appearance in the guise of the closing vocalise in act 5. Thirdly, not even the latter is a "scream" in the familiar sense - when working on Opening of the Mouth I resolved not to "attempt to wrench the emotions of the audience with some sort of pseudo-expressionist hysterics" (from the preface to that score), and there is no more reason to strike such a pose in the present work. One of the strategies by which the process of memory (and forgetting) spreads through the music in all directions was the "composition" of the order of composition (which in fact has been a feature of my working methods almost since the beginning) - the order in this case being: act 3 - act 5 - Zwischenspiel III - act 4 - Zwischenspiel I - act 2 - act 1 - Vorspiel - Zwischenspiel II. This is one of the ways in which the creative process is embodied (non-linearly: that is to say "realistically") in the resulting music. When beginning work, some aspects of the eventual composition are already quite clear, others less so, and still others remain for the moment obscure. At a certain point in the process, the "material", in the sense not only of the fabric of the music but also of a set of forming principles which create its identity on all structural levels, acquires a kind of "critical mass" after which the further extension of compositional work becomes more a process of extrapolating existing strategies rather than evolving new ones. Of course this is to simplify the situation. Firstly, new strategies may well be developed as perceived to be necessary; secondly, there is always a continuity with previous work which may extend to the transfer of "ideas" from previous compositions; thirdly, implications of the material will arise which have no appropriate place in the current work and are set aside for such time as they might be further examined and used. For example, the formal profile of act 1 has its antecedents in delta (the first of five compositions which together form negatives) and the first part of Vanity, in both of which cases the catenation of "scenes" serves to map out the limits of a space whose internal structure is only subsequently established; and the formal profile of act 4 descends even more clearly from the collage-structures of ruin and Trawl. On the other hand, the "anamorphic distortions" of act 2 (see below) presently seem to offer a suitable strategy for further development in future instrumental compositions. There is always something to be done. This often seems like the most unfortunate aspect of it all.
Act 2 begins with an (untranslatably!) alphabetical list of things she fears and/or dislikes: "Ants motorways bus doctor elevators. Babies balconies bacilli bees lightning blood bridges" and so on, after which the text continues as a development of act 1: memories, some of them creating a state of agitation which she has to calm by recalling or inventing a more pleasant image. Compared with act 1, the atmosphere has become unsettled and tense. In the opening section, the voice traces a gradually rising trajectory from low G to the D one and a half octaves higher, which turns out to be the first in a series of such movements in alternating directions (see below). Deviations from this path increase and decrease in frequentness (a clumsy term, but the alternative is "frequency" which in a musical context could give rise to confusion...), and are derived from the intervallic layout of the central chord of act 3. This vocal line in turn forms the sliding fourth partial of a "spectral" aggregate, comprising the first to ninth partials in all (although only four are heard at a time) which provides a parallel rising movement for the ensemble, the instruments deviating from their chosen "harmonic" by the same process of superimposing a segment of the central chord as in the voice. Though again divided into a chain of brief utterances, the music here takes on a different structural cast from act 1. The vocal part is almost entirely sung, in a kind of recitativo where melodic patterns are constantly forming, disintegrating and recombining, like the word-patterns in the text, and where a "lyrical" character is attempting with increasing success to push to the surface, before being definitively suppressed; after the "alphabetical" section the ensemble is reduced to alto flute, marimba, mandolin and cello, which themselves are eventually overlaid by a slowly accumulating texture of surfaces from the entire ensemble, expanding towards the harmonic backdrop of act 3.
The instruments of the aforementioned quartet function to a great extent independently of one another, but organise themselves around the vocal part (which, to this extent, functions analogously to the tenor in an early mediaeval polytextual motet), oscillating between unison with the voice and instrumentally-defined material whose pitch- and duration-structures are anamorphic distortions from of the vocal part (in a similar way to but more explicitly than the two quartets of act 4) - expansions in pitch-range from the one and a half octave vocal tessitura used in act 2 towards the maximum range of the instrument in question; expansions in the range of durations from that of the voice (speech-derived rhythms) towards extended "passages"; as these passages extend in duration they become increasingly "sculpted" by internal activity defined by instrumentalism. These could be heard as representations of the more or less confused or focused thought-processes lying behind and around, before and after, their concretisation in the sung text. Or not. It might be worth mentioning that the pitch-structures of the vocal part in the main section of act 2 are themselves derived from the second half of act 3: the tortuous melismata in the latter music are repeatedly "scanned", groups of (eventually) between one and ten pitches extracted, these pitches reordered (to mould "vocalistic" shapes out of the deliberately angular and awkward contours, highly systematically constructed, of act 3) and finally transposed onto the gradually accelerating (but at the same time narrowing) up-and-down traversal of the chosen vocal range of act 2. (A similar strategy was employed in Opening of the Mouth, to derive the soprano part in Engfhrung (II) from that of Largo.) While the pitch-reordering was freely implemented (according to the prosody of the act 2 text!), the other processes were deterministic: so that the permeation of the vocal line by repeated notes towards the end of act 2 is in fact a product of the minimum number of pitches abstracted from act 3 decreasing to one, thus exposing the underlying "cantus firmus" at the very point when its registral movement has become almost maximally attenuated. Naturally, these processes were chosen precisely for their expressive implications, for their ability to trace subterranean psychological itineraries through the structure of the entire work.
I digress into these technical matters in order to point out the extremely convoluted relationship between choice, chance and determinism in the compositional working. To be more precise I should replace these possibly misleading terms with three others: "traditional" choice, the choice of boundaries and probabilities, and the choice of systematic processes, respectively.
The text of act 3 derives from a 19th-century Austrian "sex manual" entitled Das Riesensystem der Liebe, a kind of secularised, Europeanised (Germanised would be more appropriate) Kama Sutra. The first half of the act comprises a matter-of-fact specification of temperature, lighting, furniture and so on, in and upon which its minutely-prescribed (and in many cases rather strenuously athletic) actions are to be carried out. (The actions themselves are not described in the text of Unter Wasser.) The second half consists of a selection from the fanciful names given to these far from sensual exercises: "valkyrie's dream", "lotus cradle" and so on. In the first half, an initially spoken vocal part is situated within a somewhat rectilinear "sound-space", a chord of 24 pitches, spanning six octaves and containing every quartertone "pitch-class" once each, only 12 of which however may be heard at any given time, gradually permutating through the ensemble. This chord in fact lies behind almost all the pitch-structures in Unter Wasser, functioning as a harmonic unit (as here), as a source of intervals, as a system of "bandwidths" (as in the instrumental parts of the second half of act 3), and so on. In the second half, the aforementioned names take the form of fifteen "micro-arias", between which an opposing kind of sound-material accumulates (muted strings and talking drum), and eventually coagulates into the following Zwischenspiel. These could be seen as highly elaborated complements to the sharply-intercut collage of act 1, but now the structural elements are separated by much more silence. Each aria additionally is split clearly into two (often unequal) "halves" whose instrumentation remains the same but as it were twisted into a different shape by widely-differing texture and figuration. The floridly lyrical vocal part occupies a completely different expressive space from that of the instrumental "tudes" which swarm around it, thinning out overall until the final "aria" ("Walkrentraum") is accompanied only by a single horn whose musical behaviour is as if incapable of pulling itself together to produce its traditional heroic/romantic effect.
Musically, the two halves of act 3 place diametrically-opposed (static/mobile) sound-forms in unmediated confrontation (and thus is almost but not quite a "still centre", in which the static/rotating formal profiles more characteristic of the Zwischenspiele supplant the more continuously unfolding forms of acts 2 and 4); poetically it could be seen as a reminiscence (a heterosexual relationship further in her past?) about which she has irreconcilable impressions, arising from a friction between sexual fantasies and realities. The 24-note chord is in fact extracted from the 48-note chord which first appears in Vanity, in a variant form in ruin, and variously "interpreted" in Trawl and stress. While its "harmonic" potential is not ignored (particularly the prevalence of the "neutral third", between major and minor, in its intervals), it functions more as a registral "priming of the canvas". In its original Vanity form, where the intervallic structure repeats every major sixth (and thus also every three octaves), its saturated neutrality was the most important feature, its resistance to identification as a "harmony"; with half its pitches removed, as here, a certain "quality", a certain colour, one might say, begins to condense out, which we hear in the first half of act 3. Much of the material of the Zwischenspiele is derived from a three-octave chord generated by "sliding" the upper and lower halves of the six-octave central chord over one another; the vocal material of the second half of act 3 is derived from a pitch-series generated by compressing the intervals of the central chord into one octave; the clearest (!) appearance of this type of material is actually found in act 1 ("Es hat ja noch Zeit...", bars 56-69), while its proliferation in act 3 (and the implementation of yet another - "unrelated" - process of extraction for act 2) proceeds according to relatively complex systems governing the way in which this series is "read", systems of transposition and so on. While Unter Wasser approaches seriality far more closely than any of my other compositions, specifically in involving the multidirectional derivation of highly diverse materials from a single set of relationships (particularly in the pitch-domain), none of the compositional processes have more than a distant resemblance to what we generally understand as "serial procedures"; for one thing, in almost all cases, the present compositional strategies involve an essential stochastic element, and concepts such as inversion and (except sometimes in a larger structural sense) retrograde motion have no place at all.
Act 4 is the longest and most complex of the five, but begins with the least complex music in Unter Wasser: a duo for Sprechgesang and gongs (referred to previously), consisting now of more pleasant recollections, in an atmosphere of almost languorous sensuality. As at the end of act 2, the full ensemble gradually joins this music, this time with staccato sounds, expanding outwards from the central G of the gong and voice towards the six octaves of the central chord, grouping the instruments into the solos, trios, quartets and tuttis which are subsequently to be the basis of the main body of act 4. The sensual element literally blooms forth in all directions in this latter, an unpunctuated stream of "impressions of nature", almost an insect's-eye view of a natural landscape and its flora, shifting erratically in viewpoint and "magnification", hallucinatory in its hyper-detail. The voice, beginning with a continuation of the Sprechgesang, expands outwards into a gradually wider range of vocal behaviours, first into speaking and singing, and eventually into whispering and melisma, eventually tracing wavelike movements between the latter extremes. At the same time, the ensemble plays twelve "compositions" with differing instrumentations (four solos, four trios, two quartets and two tuttis) which have been fragmented and reordered into a continuously flowing multidimensional collage or mosaic: material in varying "states of development" occurs out of its original order, often simultaneously, just as the forest in the text will contain at any given time trees of every age, and looking into it constitutes a view through time as well as space. The various ensembles also constitute a kind of "perspective of relative idiomacy": the solos are conceived entirely in terms of the instrument in question (giving rise, for example, to extremely fine gradations of intonation and timbre in the flute part, deriving from the researches of John Fonville and also extensively exploited in inward from Opening of the Mouth), the trios gradually less so (in a gradient from the three identical violins, through the three similarly-treated woodwinds and the more divergent brass trio to the plucked trio of guitar, viola and cello, where the latter two instruments are to a much smaller extent on "home ground" than the guitar), the mixed quartets (each comprising a clarinet, a horn and two strings) hardly at all, being derived from re-readings of the vocal part, and finally the tutti reducing all instruments to the lowest common denominator of sempre staccatissimo. (The second tutti is in fact based on the first, but enormously slowed-down and placed in its "original order" as a more or less intermittent background of "dark matter" to the fragmented foreground; the staccato points spread out into sustained sounds, some of which begin to be reclaimed by their instruments by means of various instrument-specific kinds of internal sculpting.)
The "original order" alluded to above is perceptible in all ensembles except the quartets as a registral narrowing, from various excerptions from the six octaves of the central chord (including, in the tutti, its entirety) towards a middle-register F-C# dyad which forms a link (via a canon in eighth-tones played by the strings) with the fifth act. Here, as at various other turning-points within the overall structure of Unter Wasser, an underlying progression of focal pitches is briefly laid bare (a device which is common to all my more extended compositions since I open and close): D at the beginning of act 1, G at the beginning of act 2 moving eventually to F#, the central chord in act 3, the G an octave higher than previously in act 4, moving towards F/C#, and the A with which act 5 ends, to name the most obvious instances, all of which lie within (and in the case of the G and A at the extremes of) the range of the voice. With vocal music even more than with instruments, the incorporation of tessitura into a work's structural profile is essential if one is to take timbral composition seriously.
Act 5 contains no words, but a sigh, a moan and a scream. The music, in absorbing these vocal actions into itself, does not serve to "interpret" them; the voice is eventually surrounded with a dense combination of fragments from earlier acts together with some last "new materials", a disorder of memories whose articulation is no longer possible, and her final vocalise tends increasingly towards an "instrumental" mode of behaviour: a "completion" of elements and relationships suggested elsewhere in the work, particularly in act 1, bars 171-192, where a few words are "still possible" but the punctuation of extended vocal phrases with orchestral outbursts is already beginning to form itself. While this continues (the orchestral "blocks" tending increasingly towards rhythmic-unison phrases), she is finally joined by a trio of violins with practice-mutes, playing a pared-down and upwardly-transposed echo of the duo for violas which formed the Vorspiel, which is suddenly and arbitrarily cut off. In one sense, the work has reached a point of exhaustion, running out of both music and words at the final point of absorption or submergence. In another sense, it has come full circle, and the assembling of disconnected memories which forms the first act could begin all over again.
Appendix 1: melodies
Some people to whom my work has some familiarity might have noticed a shift in emphasis in its generative processes, from an almost exclusive concentration on what I have elsewhere called a "radically idiomatic" (henceforth RI) attitude to instrumental composition (particularly), towards what might be called more "abstract" formative ideas. (I mean "abstract" as opposed to "concrete": that is to say, the conception of musical materials which are not explicitly derived from instrumentalism.) Prominent among these is the concept of melody. A melody (embodying all dimensions of sound, not just "pitches and rhythms") is, I would venture, structured and assimilated as a (changing) balance between the establishment of patterns and the breaking of patterns. Probably most musical objects we describe as melodies could be "analysed" in this way. A pattern is defined here as a recognisable (re-cognisable) substructure. A melody empty of patterns is thus not recognisable or memorable, and will tend towards the background. (Which is not to say that non-patterned melodies are in some way "bad", as witness many works by Michael Finnissy where the absence of recurrent melodic contours is integral to the poise of the music.) A melody consisting only of patterns will do the same. This is not to exclude the possibility of including either of these extreme points; but, as with the broadest definition of seriality (Stockhausen!), structure begins to take on a fascinating (whether or not consciously appreciated) complexity when the extreme points are taken as opposite ends of a continuum whose entire span is traversed in significant ways. I have worked on various means (beginning in earnest with the second half of CHARON for bass clarinet of 1995) to evolve compositional strategies with the aim of creating and unravelling melodic patterns, which need not be discussed here in detail. What they have in common is the facility to extract different kinds of patterns and non-patterns from a basic (virtual) material which is itself based upon some very simple tendency (for example, pitches expanding outwards from a single point towards a certain range). The tendency or tendencies may or may not be explicitly expressed in different forms of extraction; indeed they might be "replaced" by a procedure whose own pattern-characteristics are stronger than those of the material to which it is applied. This might sound mechanistic. Nevertheless, its purpose was to generate musical materials which are (a) "mysterious", even to the composer, with respect to some of the shapes and details which arise (particularly in the unforseeable cusp between preprogrammed patterns and randomness), and (b) consistent, in the sense of giving rise to a (malleable) "melodic style" which is itself recognisable. Are they "my" melodies or the product of a system I set in motion? What is the difference? The current "state of the art" in this connection is represented by Liebestod for 4 recorders and live electronics, completed in the spring of 2000, which is not only related in its poetic identity to Unter Wasser but also begins to develop a strategy of "recursive self-similarity" in which multiple structural levels are articulated by "anamorphic variations" on a specific melodic contour. Again, these ideas have arisen from analysis through listening: therefore, one of the byproducts of the use of such ideas is a statement about one's way of listening (as with reading the poetry of Celan, as mentioned previously); in this case, of listening to and assimilating musical structures. It isn't a matter of substituting something "new" for RI-strategies but of complementing them. Indeed, the melodic strategies are part of the RI "philosophy" in as much as the characteristics of a melody-generating process may (and very often are) calculated specifically to fulfil particular RI considerations, as in the case of the flute part of inward. Perhaps it all began, in fact, with the flute part near the beginning of colloid-E (whose solo part for 10-string guitar is certainly a "strong RI" statement), which abstracts one "pattern" - the transforming iterations of the guitar part - and moulds it into another, "flutistic" shape by permutation: a metamorphosis between RI domains.
Appendix 2: why?
A few final words. Although in the past I have spent similarly extended and intense periods of work on a single composition, the concentrated seclusion this seems to have necessitated in the present case, along with various perceptions which have occurred to me along the way, have left me with the impression that there was something different going on this time. Not specifically within the context of this work, and its ideas and realisation as outlined above, but in terms of one's relationship to the world outside. It seems to me clearer by the day that the act of composition (perhaps particularly in the case of a work such as this) is less than ever merely a matter of sitting at a desk, or taking a walk or a bath, and immersing oneself in the task of forming and notating the music. There is also the question of consciously making a statement of faith in the viability of such music. While it is a commonplace of every period in cultural history that complaints are made about the low esteem in which "high art" is held by the people to whom it attempts to reach out ("reaching out" does not imply condescension as far as I am concerned), and about the betrayal of its ideals which is perpetrated on a daily basis all around, this particular period is becoming nothing less than nightmarish. Hardly a day passes when one isn't stopped short in astonishment at how successful and pernicious are the workings of hegemony. Its permeation of the world of music is, in the larger scheme of things, so insignificant as almost to demand an apology for drawing attention to it (and away from full-blown social control and exploitation); while music is indeed my principal field of activity, which is some justification for talking about it, the danger of separating off one's own "issue" from all the others is of becoming a willing pawn in the game of divide-and-rule. One example of the many-formed "workings of hegemony" in contemporary music should suffice here: the fact that "contemporary composition" must now be taken to encompass musical styles which blatantly ignore not just the twentieth century but in some well-known cases the last five hundred years; the commercial interests which make music available to most people rejoice in this new-found "accessibility" after the "dogmatism of the avant-garde", so that, as far as the world at large is concerned, this unfortunate aberration has been put to rest, the purveyors of culture can concentrate on milking an audience instead of searching for one, and the (musical) world is once more reassuringly flat. Have "we" really arrived at a point where recycling has replaced invention (I don't speak of originality) as the mainspring of creative activity? Some of "us" have most certainly not. And not as a result of standing still and resisting the tide of fashion, but by going in directions of our own choosing; primarily by not taking for granted the reality of the "postmodern condition", talk of which has passed from being the pseudointellectual pose of a few self-styled arbiters of taste to being the tabula rasa upon which contemporary cultural discourse is inscribed. And (by definition!) a pretty insubstantial one it is.
Of course all this rubbish will eventually be forgotten, decried or derided; but that is no consolation, nor ought it to be: something must be done now, since the alternatives are to capitulate or to fall silent. Behind what I hope is the poetry of Unter Wasser is an implicit message, even more relevant now than when it was framed by Edgard Varse: the present-day composer refuses to die. And if that refusal is unavailing, the work has come into being as witness to the fact that attempts are still being made, even now, to conceive and realise art as a response to its own time in a way which unifies intellect and emotion. This is the least that people deserve; and they may not indefinitely be satisfied with so much less, even if the agenda-controllers hone their techniques and exploit their stooges to an even greater degree than we see at present. As far as I am concerned, music (creating and listening) is one of the most highly-evolved functions of which the human mind is capable, and is therefore a token of a more highly-evolved society than the one we presently endure. While everything I have stated and speculated upon here might tend to give the impression that I am resigned to appealing to an extremely limited audience, this is a question neither of resignation nor of litism. This music is for anyone. Anyone can understand it. Whether they wish to engage with it to the requisite depth should be up to them. The fact that it is not is a symptom of the stultification practised by late capitalism. The solution to the resulting breakdown of communication will be found in a domain outside that of the composer's worktable.
first version 16 August 1998
revised and augmented 21 June 2000