A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   September 20, 2006   next

Compositions are analyzed for theory and structure, often in great detail. Conversely, composers work to theories and structures.

Perhaps it's laziness, perhaps a lack of interest, perhaps a burr under the psychological saddle about rules, but when a rule presents itself to me, especially a rule that comes without physical cause and effect, I want to break it, then and there. Like any composer, I studied -- voluntarily and not -- the theories of music from ancient times onward. Dog-eared scores, books of analysis, histories and biographies fill my shelves, some old enough to have yellowed as I have grayed. A cranial multitrack haze of voices joins fractured images and broken words, a cracking varnish on the surface of the imagination of sound. And throughout all those years, I have had but one ultimate reaction to it all: boredom.

From the first day I put pencil to paper, intuition was my companion. Not guide -- intuition is the worst guide -- but companion. Intuition is that moment between sense and logic, where the image is apprehended but not comprehended. It's the wordless sensibility that lets us stick up a finger and say with certainty, "that one, please." It's the moment that time branches.

Out of intuition came the unifying theory of my own work, which has never been set out in detail. So here it is, and where it came from.

The moment between apprehension and comprehension is variously thought of as déjà vu or The Twilight Zone. Time not only branches, but it slips. Time flies when you're having fun. A watched kettle never boils. Time stopped. It felt like an hour. A minute passed, and then another minute. Who knows where the time goes. Wherever and whenever time goes, it leaves no trace of itself and is unrecoverable.

Artistic and especially musical significance could be found in the slippage of time at different moments for different people, and in the ever-presence of everything. Tautological though the latter may be, it took five years to shake the traditionally divided structures, grasping that evolution and heartbeat, fog and pattern could inhabit the same planet and infuse the same senses, and create a sound work -- electroacoustic, it would later be called -- whose progress counterpointed melody with sliding electronic sound-image. The Composition for Tape and Soloists (1969) was a scrappy piece, unsure of its direction and dependent on a cloudiness of sound colors in a flexible temporal grid. Still with melody, though, and still a grid.

The diffuseness was brought to Exequy (1971), where the placement of sounds in time varied from the precise to the diffuse. Each part shrugged off the rhythm of neighboring parts, proceeding through time at the speed of pain or joy or boredom. The idea was to travel separately but arrive together (o! aleatory!), and fill the silence. (Cage's 4:33 was not a discovery. There was never silence in my experience.)

The concept of slipping time was encouraged especially by the fluidity and imprecision of analog electronic work and extended voice composition. Construction "on nix rest... in china" (1972) used an open score over a heavily sampled multitrack background; i cried in the sun aïda (1973) brought voices and implied emotion in and out of focus; the first String Quartet (1974) wound irregularly through fluid graphical patterns to replace the circumscription of vertical and horizontal; and Cy-Gît (1976) overlay separate, self-standing compositions to make one.

The theory of slipping time, expanding and contracting like nature and coming into synchronization at the solstice or equinox, ultimately predictable but unable to be grasped by a single mind in time, came to fruition in the Kyrie of the Missa da Camera (1978). In this movement, linearity is asserted as, for example, a late medieval motet like Dominator-Ecce-Domino. Alterations push up and down, and melody is made incontrovertible by intent, implication and inevitability. Each voice not only travels on its own temporal path, but its melodic path nudges its way into different modes and back again. It expands and contracts, like breathing, conscious of the other parts only as one knows when the sun will rise and set though enough cycles to admit the first snowflake. Breathe out.

If this description seems diffuse, it is not accidental. Writing is monophonic, except for implications, which are expelled like streams of charged particles from the sun's corona. (Stop reading and listen to the music, they suggest. It has more truth in it.) So the Kyrie ignores the expectation of simultaneity in vertical modulation patterns, increasing the apparent tension through unpredictable dissonance and planned consonance. It breathes out and in and out again, giving personality to each line. The metricism is internal and personal and grouped, and only the destination is agreed upon.

During that period of composition, the idea of de-metricizing classic works became a hobby. What if Beethoven's Grosse Fuge were rendered as graphical approximation? As pitches sans rhythms? And vice versa? Could Chopin's Raindrop be de-metricized? But then, wasn't that already the case with the Prelude Op. 28 No. 2? Yes, Chopin had put the idea into practice for one brief composition, but never engaged in explorating harmonic slippage again.

The Missa da Camera had, like Chopin, reached beyond the ability to articulate its workings, even to myself. For seven years, its ideas were dormant. A transition from analog to digital sound creation had accompanied that dormancy until Nighthawk (1985), a sonic sculpture for four small computers that created clouds of sound. Though its intent was to emulate an invented natural environment of spring peepers -- hushing at the smallest motion, slowly returned to hyperpolyrhythmic chorus -- its effect was to reintroduce the indeterminate placement in time, the fog of sound, the overlapping events of daily life. (Full expression of this concept came in In Bocca al Lupo (1986), a broader sound installation.)

Overlapping events became the subject of the maximalist Mantra Canon (1986) for orchestra, chorus, six percussionists, two pianos, and descant soprano. (Two pages from this score decorate the left side of these commentaries). The underpinning was an overlapping chorus that took nearly a half-hour to resynchronize its short melodic fragments. Percussion overlapped percussion, piano piano, and orchestral choirs each other. A counterpoint of structures substituted for the counterpoint of voices in Missa, so that Mantra Canon offered a micro-sense of relentless rhythm disguising the macro-sense of irregular shapes of sound. Played twenty-five or fifty times faster than normal speed, the overlapping, expanding and contracting shapes themselves become audible, like the blur of the sun's motion becoming the seasons in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine.

And inevitably, the fully formed time machine was next to appear in A Time Machine and Ÿçuré. (both 1990), heading for a musical manifesto two years later.

More next time.

Postcard for Inquiries into High Tech
Nighthawk was installed in 1985 at "Inquiries into High Tech," the first and only show of its kind in Vermont.

Back to the Blog Index
Back to the WAAM Page
Back to my Home Page
Please Write to Me
Previous Day | Next Day

WAAM Info Feed RSS feed for this site