Vanity - beginnings of an analysis


This essay originally formed part of a lecture given to graduate composition students at the University of California, San Diego. In it I take a look inside the score of Vanity (1990-94) for orchestra. Obviously with a work as complex as this, an in-depth analysis would have been far too time-consuming to contemplate, so I restrict myself to those aspects which I think might be immediately apparent on a first hearing.

It’s a truism to describe an orchestra as an “instrument”, although this is certainly one way of looking at it. At the opposite extreme, the orchestra of Vanity physically consists of 83 instruments; and the distance between these two extremes was something I was initially interested in bridging with some kind of formally-significant “scale”, a scale between soloistic and massed behaviours.

In the first part of the work this scale takes the form of a division of the orchestra into six groups, containing 5, 7, 10, 14, 19 and 25 players respectively.

To give you an idea of how these groups relate to traditional means of dividing the orchestra, their instrumentations are:

Each of groups 1 to 5 has the following characteristics in common:

Groups 1 to 5 are musically characterised as follows:

Of course these groupings do not often coincide with the beginnings of sections, whose numbers of subsections are permutated differently for each group, apart from the sixth and last, which all begin with F1. A, B, C, D, E and F all begin from a single pitch, fanning out from the pitch of F in that order, and A1 to A6, B1 to B5 and so on expand from their single pitch towards the maximum bandwidth for that group, which they all reach in their final appearance (giving a constant registral “frame” to the last six subsections - which are in each group coextensive with the sixth and final section, the one where the five groups have condensed out into five non-overlapping “pieces” as I’ll describe presently). The changing bandwidth is occupied by “chords”, or peaks of statistical pitch-distribution, whose arrangement is also determined by overall processes between “centre” and “periphery”, but I hope I may be excused for skimming over such matters in order to concentrate on the larger formal picture. There is also a system of transitions between the subsections, which might be described as “textural portamenti”, where the instruments in a group might not all move simultaneously from one subsection to the next; again, for present purposes I feel it is sufficint merely to note this in passing.

Groups 1 to 5 are combined in the following manner: there are 6 “phases”, the first containing each group’s “section 1”, the second containing all the “section 2s”, and so on. In each phase the groups enter in the order group I, II, III, IV, V. As the sections increase in duration for each group, the phases increase in duration to a greater extent, so that the orchestral groups move from a situation of superimposition to one of succession, with intervening “gaps” by the time of the sixth phase so that each group plays its own miniature “piece”. The expansion of phase-durations in fact continues beyond the six phases in Vanity’s first part; the second part, which I’ll come to presently, has not only the same duration as the first (and the third: each is precisely 9 minutes long according to the metronome markings) but also the duration that a seventh phase would have, on the basis of the exponential function which controls the six-stage phase-expansion.

As their materials proliferate and develop, the groups gradually disengage from one another; the orchestral texture is transforming with each phase from a dense agglomeration of simpler subtextures to a more transparent sequence of more complex ones. (The exception is the first and shortest phase, which is played only by the soloists of groups I to V.) So an important consideration in specifying the six “behaviours” A to F for each group was that these behaviours must not only adapt to different harmonic/registral contexts, but must also be capable of various instances of superimposition while remaining perceptible, even under conditions of great disparities of dynamic. So there is really no distinction between the techniques of orchestration I evolved for this work, the musical materials themselves, and the work’s poetic identity.

As yet I haven’t mentioned group VI. This group in fact cuts across the six-phase structure set up by the other five, in several different ways:

So I tried to maintain a tension between different kinds of tension between proliferation and differentiation, directional and non-directional forms, textural and discrete sound-combinations, and so forth: a tension which is exploded at the outset of the second part of Vanity by the whole orchestra by now having joined group VI and become locked into its strict metrical grid.

How to describe the “poetic” idea which is interwoven with these processes? The first point to make is that the whole composition, as its title implies, emerges from what might be described as a contemplation of mortality, originally instigated (not that it needed very much instigation) by the vanitas still-life paintings of the seventeenth century. In this genre, the pleasures of sensuality might be meticulously depicted, surrounding a human skull as memento mori, but also including more subtle reminders, such as opulent displays of fruit and flowers on which insects may be seen: the decay of these luxuries has already begun. While the popularity of such genre-painting in the baroque period might be related in various intricate ways to concurrent political parameters, such as the newly-emergent bourgeois class tempering a tendency towards nouveau-riche ostentation with a nod in the direction of the church’s monopoly in passports to heaven, this complex of allegorical elements, however stereotyped, seems also to record, in its own way, a document of that vain compulsion to “understand” which is as ancient as humanity itself. So what I hope to have made here is not in any way a “requiem”, but a speculation, which, beginning from what might be called “orchestration” for want of a better word, the “skull beneath the skin” is never far from the surface.

The first part is subtitled Sensorium: one might relate the first five orchestral groups to the symbols in the vanitas of the five senses, a kind of grandeur constantly being eaten away from the inside, confronted with the sixth group whose bone-hard constructions eventually drain them of their colours, homogenise their variegations and erase their minutely-inscribed details.

The second part, subtitled Memento, evolves into a confrontation between Totentanz and “cold obstruction”, between the mechanical convulsions of group VI and the paralysis or rigor of yet a third type of pitch-material, a 48-note chord consisting of each quartertone pitch class twice, in an intervallic framework which repeats itself at each major sixth over a six-octave range. The metrical material of group VI passes from these instruments to a constantly-changing wind/percussion ensemble and thence to the strings, via three repetitions of a (clock-time) durational structure counterpointed with a single proliferating-tempo (and -dynamic) process. The “sampled” materials which had built up around group VI during part 1 continue through this part, but with instrumentations shrinking once more, becoming eventually a sequence of “solos” intermittently glimpsed through the rigid metrical grid of the rest of the orchestra.

By the end of the main body of the second part, the 48-note chord (in its first transposition with F as the lowest pitch) has built itself up, from a gradual thickening of a sinusoidal curve scanning across it (and also being progressively “damped” in amplitude), so that each of the 48 string instruments takes one of its parts; although the “focus” on the pitches of the chord increases from a rather “approximate” situation at the first entries, and only congeals to its precise intervallic architecture at the point where the strings are about to be left alone.

Shifted to a transposition on F#, the chord takes up almost the last third of the second part, with the string ensemble left alone and divided into six registral layers which proliferate individually towards different kinds of tone-colour, articulation, pulsation, incursions of silence and so on, each instrument holding its single pitch throughout; the final point of stasis arrives when the strings, all muted, play a “slab” of sound (a “coda” equal in duration to the very different one to come in the third part), the chord now transposed to E, where internal pitch-fluctuations (registrally following a sinusoidal pathway exactly like that of the F#-chord’s original entry) decrease in “amplitude” as they occupy more of the instruments.

The instrumentational organisation of the orchestra in part 2 in fact moves it in the direction of “classical” orchestration by “families of instruments”, especially as the woodwind players here switch to trios of oboes, Eb clarinets and bassoons, returning in part 3 to the doublings of part 1. In other words part 2 involves (as I mentioned earlier) an “erasure” of the intricate differentiations of part 1, which is taken to extremes in the passage for strings alone. If I seem to be treating the second part in less detail than the first, the reason is not that there is less detail (although that could be said), but that the kind of strategies I’ve described for the first part do in fact apply throughout Vanity. I hope it will become clear that this is by no means “drei Stücke für Orchester”, given the continuities both manifest and subterranean which wind their way through it. On the other hand, neither could Vanity be described in terms of a single indivisible entity. Perhaps I have hit upon an apprehension of the “mystery of the trinity” which has always eluded me in my occasional and desultory theological musings.

The third part, Residua, also consists of a “main part” and a “coda” (with the same durational proportions as part 2). Like the first part, there are several formal levels running simultaneously in an evolving mutual interaction, but only one of them retains the same instrumentation throughout; the other two retain the integrity of their material as it is projected by changing groupings of instruments. The result is a structure with more gradual timbral changes than the first part, but with emphatically clear formal divisions in comparison. The three levels are:

While the “involution” contracts continuously, the piccolo/percussion material and the “passacaglia” begin by alternating, and then overlap to an increasing degree, so that:

At the end of the main division of part three, the process of involution has reached a central G, which becomes the point of departure for another registral expansion in the coda, played by a string quartet. The articulation of this expansion derives, exceptionally, from a “classical” model, whose identity is momentarily revealed after the last of a series of pilings-up of the 48-part chord, this time on Eb, which is stratified into eight layers of parallel movement around its pitches, coalescing eventually into a single rhythmic stratum (with the upper four layers in contrary motion to the lower four) so that the whole orchestra is heard for the only time in the work. The “classical model” is the theme from the second movement of Schubert’s “Der Tod und das Mädchen” string quartet, with its final cadence unresolved; the ornamental turn at this cadence could be viewed as a “special case” of the peregrinations around single pitches which permeate the whole composition. One might note that the five different transpositions of the 48-part chord, like the group-bandwidth-differentiation and the group-VI 12-tone series met earlier, fan out once more from a point origin on F. If, by the way, I were going on to discuss such things as tempiand so forth, the same kind of global model would also be apparent. The difference between this and an “integral serial” approach to unifying the structuring of different musical levels is that I am concerned to preserve the crucial differences in the way that these levels are perceived, at least by myself, so that rather than a case of “translating” types of variability between incommensurable dimensions, the influence of an immediately graspable overall model is allowed to “infect” those dimensions with different “symptoms” in each case.

If parts one and two could be described in terms of iconic images, part three is, I think, infinitely more inscrutable. If one of the reasons for embarking on the work was to try to “understand” something, then I’m not sure I have even come to the stage of knowing what I was trying to understand. At the end of the score is placed a quotation from B.S.Johnson’s novel The Unfortunates, itself entirely though obliquely concerned with death, which seemed to encapsulate whatever “inconclusions” might have been reached: “Perhaps there is nothing to be understood, perhaps understanding is simply not to be found, is not applicable to such a thing. But it is hard, hard, not to try to understand, even for me, who accept that all is nothing, that sense does not exist.” It only remains to add that this statement could equally be applied to music.

Amsterdam 19 November 1995 / 14 December 1995 / 27 January 1996 / 1 October 1996