Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On 'Tethys', a concertino for violin and ensemble


written for Miranda Cuckson, and counter)induction

The many violent foldings of the Tertiary era took place at the expense of this very ancient Mediterranean, much larger than the present one. All the mountains, from the Baetic Cordillera to the Rif, the Atlas, the Alps and the Apennines, the Balkans, the Taurus and the Caucasus, were heaved up out of the ancient sea. They reduced its area, raising from the great sea bed not only sedimentary rocks-sands, clays, sandstones, thick layers of limestone-but also deeply buried primitive rocks. The mountains surrounding, strangling, barricading and compartmentalizing the long Mediterranean coastline are the flesh and bones of the ancestral Tethys. Everywhere the sea water has left traces of its slow labour. The sedimentary limestones outside Cairo, "so fine-grained and of such milky whiteness that they allow the sculptor's chisel to give the sensation of volume by working to a depth of only a few millimetres"; the great slabs of coraline limestone from which the megalithic temples in Malta were built; the stone of Segovia which is easier to work when wet; the limestone of the Latomies (the huge quarries of Syracuse); the Istrian stones of Venice and many other rock formations in Greece, Italy and Sicily-all these came from the sea bed.
Fernand Braudel
"Memory and The Mediterranean"

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Tychism, Birds, and Collaboration


Bird-like Things in Things like Trees exists in multiple, co-mingled forms: the visual works in their various forms, the concert work performed by Harmonious Blacksmith, and the installed, acousmatic soundscape derived from past performances of the concert work.  The network of works engage with several distinct and, perhaps, interrelated aspects of practice.  The inescapable historicity of the present, the tension between the mimetic and the ekphrastic, and the contingency of expression (especially expression in performance) on memory are all in operation, threading through the visual and musical components of the collective work.  The instruments, with their Baroque origins, evoke long past sound-worlds, but deploy emphatically Modern musical material. The work also presents a strong sense of memory, of recovered experiences of the lines-of-flight of birds, of the speed of the river Garonne, of wind in trees, crepuscular murmurings. The audience is presented with traces of sense memories avian and arboreal, but the possibility of a mimetic, imitative, and verisimlar compositional stance is quickly abandoned, as the paintings and musical sketches move away from portraiture and towards an iterative cycle of representation and representation, in which the originary source material is only occasionally clearly visible or audible;– more often the material is so completely 'worked' that the connection to source is lost, replaced by connections to subsequent iterations of 'working.'  This folding and refolding of the gap between experience and memory transitions events into memory, memory into speculation, and speculation back into being.

In these sequential rearticulations, the gap between speculation and event comes to the fore alongside compositional practices associated with chance, speculation, andd coincidence.  The work involves the rhythmic aleatory of frame cell notation, chanced based durational structuring devices manifest in 'random walks' through the Fibonacci series, and extensive passages of solo and group improvisation.  Writ large, the meta-compositional process, the coming together of multiple artists from multiple locations and disciplines to produce a particular performance of a particular work similarly enters into the realm of seeming coincidence, in which happenstance plays a major role in the works becoming real.

I find the term 'tychism' as a somewhat antique but highly appropriate word to describe this aspect of musicking.  Tychism is a concept developed by C.S. Peirce to describe the emergence of order from chance events.  (Peirce's friend and colleague William James perhaps articulated his friend's idea more succinctly, calling tychism "Peirce's suggestion [that] order results from chance-coming.").  My hope is that these techniques will make overt the dynamics of performance which are always in play, but are sometimes masked behind the edifice of precision and accuracy, and remind us that we are, composers, performers and listeners, all partners in the drawing of order out of chaos, chronos out of aion.

Peirce describes the notion as follows:

"...I endeavored to show what ideas ought to form the warp of a system of philosophy, and particularly emphasized that of absolute chance... I argued further in favor of that way of thinking, which it will be convenient to christen tychism (from {tyché}, chance). A serious student of philosophy will be in no haste to accept or reject this doctrine; but he will see in it one of the chief attitudes which speculative thought may take, feeling that it is not for an individual, nor for an age, to pronounce upon a fundamental question of philosophy. That is a task for a whole era to work out."
('The Law of Mind', CP 6.102, 1892)

Though unfamiliar, it is preferable to the terms already in use: "Indeterminate" is a bit inelegant and imprecise; much is still determined by the composer.  It has implications of abandonment, rather than mutuality. Similarly, aleatory, used most often to describe the works of Cage, is problematic. The term became known to European composers through lectures by acoustician Werner Meyer-Eppler at Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music in the beginning of the 1950s.  According to his definition, "a process is said to be aleatoric ... if its course is determined in general but depends on chance in detail" (Meyer-Eppler 1957, 55).  This emphasizes a lack of human agency, while in my view the impact of the technics are actually exactly the opposite, a surfeit of agency and a multiplication of agents.  'Open' would seem a more attractive term, though its use in literary theory would emphasize the impact of these structures on the 'meaning' of the work, which is not really the focus of this discussion. Ludism has picked up associations with 'game pieces' and so runs the risk of obscuring the point that all works and actions are, in a very real sense, games.  'Improvisation',  though it captures the character of real time decision making, tends to minimize the bundling of individual decision-making through notational devices and conventions of praxis.

So, tychism as a philosophical frame forces to the surface surface issues of identity, collectivity, and agency; a performance, and even a work, is the product of the actions of many individuals.  As Peirce wrote in his essay 'Some consequences of Four Incapacities,' "We individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it there for the community of philosophers."  Tychism speaks not only to the happenstance of events, but of the interplay between chance, action, the individual and the work.  This is a cutting back the roll or impact of the composer or artist; rather, it is that composers never had that kind of control to begin with.

The composition of this work has been supported by a grant from the George Washington University.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On 102nd & Amsterdam

The string trio 102nd & Amsterdam is dedicated to my father, Raymond Boyce; this was the first of many New York addresses for him. My father’s stories of growing up in New York in the 40’s and 50’s cemented in my mind the idea of New York as The City, an idea strengthened by my own relocations and peregrinations. My father is a wonderful, if diffuse, storyteller, with many narrative elements being developed, abandoned, rediscovered and sometimes corrected; while writing this piece, I thought often of his kaleidoscopic rhetoric, not merely episodic, and yet open and unbounded.

The work is discursive in at least two ways. It is discursive in the same sense that all music is;Рthe work is emplaced within a network of practices and repertoires and it achieves significance not through any inherent and essential content, but rather through dialogue with its historical-æsthetic context. In this particular instance, the terrain of signification encompasses the personal and familial archeology described above, but for most listeners, the primary axis of actorialization and meaning making will be the technical roots of the work in texturalism, the mainline chamber strings repertoire, and post-serial Modernism in general.

It is at this technical level that the second discursive mode becomes perceivable. "102nd & Amsterdam" foregrounds the interactive character of performance, a concept of the work as conversation. The piece is not an object, but an exchange of roles, attention, instrumental color and motivic material;– these transaction that in themselves do not bear import, but by their being afford opportunities for music making. This model is manifest in the works shifts (from highly imitative counterpoint with its egalitarian organization of entrances and continuance to the marked soliloquies and features which highlight each performer in turn. The framework of exchanges and partnerships shift as voices emerge, participate in, and leave a conversation devoid of semantic content but not of significance.

This discursive focus on counterpoint and polyphony is presented not merely as a model, or a static representation of a conversation but as a experience in the moment of performance. The score is structured using numerous 'open pulse' textures in which the temporal placement of entrances, the duration of passages, and the alignment of events are renegotiated in each performance by the performers in real-time. The practical negotiations of collective music-making, present in all performances, here move to center stage, making the living dialogue amongst the musicians visible and audible.

The openness of the score also provides some intimation of a third discursive mode operative in the work;– given the degree of freedom the printed score allows, the relationship between the composer and performer is opened up to examination and transformation. The work, or rather the series of instantiations of musical practice which we find convenient to call this work, is produced not by the inspired scribbling of an autonomous individual composer, but through the collective, varied, occasionally contradictory, always fascinating tychastic actions of a collection of individuals, individuals capable of action and possessing agency. A collection, it should be added, that can easily and should always be understood as encompassing the audience. –DB