The resonant box with four strings Interview on the musical esthetics of Richard Barrett and the genesis of his music for cello Arne Deforce - Richard Barrett KEYWORDS: cello pieces Ne songe plus à fuir, von hinter dem Schmerz, praha/ complexity / inner logic and esthetics / the cello: a resonant box with four strings / the ‘zero point’ / historical perspectives / monologue intérieur / the instrumental recitativo / the Roberto Matta painting / Allan Brett / notation, pitch, rhythm and timbre / microtones / form and structure / scordatura / four string polyphony / Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan / expressionisms / analyses / developing repetition - developing variation / amplification / an idiomatic style of 'propositions' / performance practice / complexity as metaphor...
AD: One of the main features of cultural history since the 20th century is the coexistence of many different styles such as futurism, impressionism and expressionism, neo-styles and academicism, performance-art and free-improvisation, modernism and postmodernism, ars electronica and pop-culture. Viewing the history of 20th century music, in which context do you situate your music and what is the meaning of style in the context of your work? RB: Style to me is 'that which can be imitated', that is to say it doesn't bear very much on the deeper issues which a piece of music might be engaged with. (I state my definition at the outset so as to avoid confusion with other possible ones.) Composers with a recognizable 'style' tend to attract imitators who reproduce or even intensify this surface flavour, without any of the inner necessity which originally lay beneath it. (Think of Franco Donatoni, Brian Ferneyhough, Helmut Lachenmann for example.) I don't think I have such a thing as a recognizable style, I feel that I have constantly to reinvent style in response to the demands of each work, but I' am aware that others might recognize one in my work - in other words, I'm not the best person to talk about it. I have my own way of hearing, of listening, which will have become highly-developed in some ways, and no doubt atrophied in others, and this will manifest itself in ways I won't be able to characterize because of having no other sense of hearing to compare them with. Occasionally I've come across compositions which I recognize as having been influenced by my own work, and generally I'm surprised at which aspects of it have been prioritized and absorbed by the composer in question, which I would like to see as evidence that my music doesn't force a certain interpretation on listeners. As for context, the context of all the music's you mention is that of a society ruled by market capitalism. This means, firstly, that genres and categories come into being, and are defined, along economic lines. There are pop musicians I feel I have far more in common with than with some of the people with whom I might have become superficially associated. Labels like ‘post-modernism’ were, after all, mostly invented by self-appointed arbiters of culture with nothing more creative to think about, for their own purposes whatever those might be, and not by artists. AD: In many articles you are mentioned as being part of the British modernist ‘complexity’ group along with Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy, Chris Dench
and James Dillon. It seems to me unfair and too easy to assimilate you into this category. On the other side we see there is also a great revival of the neo-modal, neospiritual or simple easy listening music like John Tavener, Gavin Bryars and so on is there some relation between the British musical situation and your deliberately moving in exile to Amsterdam, as Ferneyhough did by moving to the US? RB: Exile is too strong a word - let's not forget that for many people in the world it has a much less nebulous meaning than for an artist with the relative freedom to decide where he should live. Britain is actually home to many of the composers and improvising musicians I personally see as most interesting and important. At the same time I do find the music of Tavener et al particularly disgusting. Among the many contradictions it throws up is the fact that, on one hand, this kind of music is supposed to be the new fashion in composition, to put an end to that unfortunate period of atonality, while on the other hand it is supposed to have some kind of timeless beauty about it. To which I say: nothing is timeless, and least of all Mr Tavener whose work and image are symptoms of the most superficial and stultifying face of contemporary culture. The artistic reasons for my moving to Amsterdam were mainly connected with developing my performing activities, initially with the assistance of STEIM where I worked quite intensively for over two years. The political reasons concerned my inability to live as a musician in a country whose cultural life (and not only this of course) had been starved and dismembered by over twenty years of rule by reactionary philistines, which the current (Blair) administration is doing nothing to reverse, since despite its name it is of course just as reactionary and just as philistine. The other reasons need not concern us. AD: Your music has often been categorized as abstract and intellectual. What is the relation between those categories and the musical idea, expression, notation, gesture and musical motif? There is of course a long tradition of musica reservata - for a select group of music lovers. It means that there are certain inner levels of appreciation which can only be heard, felt or understood when there is a certain amount of intuitive and cultural knowledge of its inner logic and esthetic. I can't imagine that my work would be categorized as abstract and intellectual by anyone who had listened to it without prejudice. For me the purpose of music, to paraphrase Luigi Nono, is to activate the senses and intelligence of the listener, while for many people I suppose the function of music is to deactivate and anaesthetize these things. I suppose there are aspects of my work which might be difficult to grasp at first, especially by a listener with little experience of where this music comes from. The structure of this music is, after all, largely intrinsic and resides in the musical experience itself, rather than fitting into an already-familiarized network of ideas and sound-forms. (This in no way makes it ‘abstract’, as far as I can see.) This seems to me an important thing to do, a visceral compulsion even, and I don't see myself as an intellectual in the sense in which that word is normally used, although the pejorative way in which the word ‘intellectual’ is often used seems rather stupid when our intellect is what defines us as human, and has given rise to our most beautiful and profound achievements, from the quartets of Beethoven to the general theory of relativity... AD: Michael Finnissy remarked to me that complex music like yours is not at
all intellectual but has a great deal of ‘erotic-tactility in regard to the manual movement of the players hands’ and the highly sensual differentiated view of the notation? RB: I agree completely with Michael - indeed his work was of central importance in awakening this tendency in my own; the first time I came across his music (I remember the time and place very well), was the first time I heard anything by a contemporary British composer with which I immediately felt a deep affinity. AD: I personally believe that some of your solo pieces - more specifically Ne Songe plus à fuir - belong among the enigmatic icons of 20th century music. Do you see some affinity with predecessors in contemporary cello music? Is there a certain historical link with 20th century experimental music history? RB: Only in the vaguest sense, I think. Before I began work on Vanity I made a study of certain orchestral scores which I hoped would help me to evolve my own approach to this medium, as recalcitrant (in every sense) as it can be. But with my soloistic music I began more from first principles, especially in the case of Ne Songe plus à fuir. AD: Up till now you have written four substantial works for cello solo. How would you describe the role or importance of the cello in your oeuvre, and what was your first attraction towards the cello to write your first solo piece? In other words how did it all begin? RB: Before I could write Ne Songe plus à fuir I had to search out a way to approach a solo monodic instrument, which I had never done before. Initially, the idea of a cello solo came out of a request rather than a definite decision. The main reason why I subsequently returned to the cello so often was that - unlike many other instruments - it presents us with a very close and accessible analogy between the player's actions and the sounds that emerge. When you see a cellist performing, you see as well as hear exactly what he or she is doing; with winds, piano or even violin those actions are not exposed to the audience to such a degree. The movement of bow against string is fascinating to me in itself, the almost impalpable nuances as well as the potentially brutal frictions which can come into being at this point of contact. The primary thought in my mind at that time was to try and purge myself of received notions about what musical material should be - partly because this specific project in itself demanded much rethinking of these things, and partly because my compositional development in general had reached a critical stage. As always with me, the rethinking and the criticality were enacted within the composition process rather than being preliminary to it. To this extent my music could be described as ‘experimental’ - it's concerned with possibilities rather than outcomes - although a better word for this might be ‘realistic’. I had already become interested in the idea of extending the technique of instruments (and voices for that matter) beyond their accepted limits, but somehow in an integrated way rather than simply adding more scratches and squawks onto the classical sonic repertoire, or by writing smaller note-values with more jagged pitch-contours, and so on. It became obvious to me in the mid-1980s that the only way to achieve this was to begin from an intimate knowledge of the instrument concerned. With such a compositional attitude, the ‘difficulties’, the ways in which
attention is drawn to the process of sound-production, could become much more meaningful than when the player can only attempt to negotiate an obstacle course whose twists and turns seem indifferent to the physical act of playing. Nomos Alpha by Iannis Xenakis is an example of such indifference. I have no problem with this as a notion from which to compose, especially when the results are as powerful as with Xenakis, but that wasn't the direction I wanted for myself. I decided to treat the cello as more or less just a resonant box with four strings on it; then, the player has two hands, one of which holds the bow, both of which are able to move in three dimensions. This, one might say, is a ‘zero point’ from which to begin thinking about the cello. In subsequent works I became interested also in taking on board historical aspects of performing technique, but at first it seemed most important to try, not merely to ignore, but consciously to reject the history and associations of the instrument, and at the same time the history and associations of the relationship between musical material and composition. Also, most of the contemporary soloistic music I found and still find interesting has been made not by composers but by improvising performers. And obviously they are working on the basis of an intimate physical relationship with the instrument. I felt a need to enter into the same sort of relationship, although in a ‘virtual’ sense, so that the instrument becomes not a machine for projecting sequences of notes or sounds which contribute to an abstract compositional structure, but instead a theatre of action with its own characteristics, its own landscape, through which the composer is then able to make ‘poetic journeys’. This is one way in which Ne songe plus à fuir became a turning point in my compositional thinking. Secondly, having begun from this zero point of instrumental technique, and of the concept of musical material, I could now imagine what other directions could be taken from there. Since then, as I mentioned, many more historically-derived elements have begun to work their way back in. One example is the increased interest I had during the 1990s in structuring music according to some idea of what melodic coherence might consist of, but with the advantage that having gone back to a point where melodic patterns or melodic development were completely irrelevant to me, I returned to these issues from a different direction, so that they were perhaps less unthinkingly conditioned by received notions of material. Historical perspectives AD: The zero point: stripping the instrument of all its tradition, as Richard Toop said. The result being a new musical language with a complete redefinition of the technical craft of cello playing, and a re-sculpting of its sound producing choreographies. The early baroque viola da gamba players tried to make of the instrument an adequate equivalent to linear vocal music. Later on, J.S. Bach transmitted the whole polyphonic tradition into his cello solo suites. Your music seems to be also very polyphonic or at least multi-layered. Maybe ‘polykinetic’ is a better word, as the many independent movements of the right and left hand lead to a new concept of instrumental sound? RB: I don't think of the polyphonic element of music as being restricted by the number of instruments. So it can apply as much to one instrument as to an orchestra.
In some ways more so, because the essence of polyphony is not just the number of different structural levels, but the depth of interaction between those levels, which we see very clearly in the music of Bach for example. And when everything is collapsed down to the very concentrated situation of a solo instrument, then of course the interactions between layers, between the different elements of polyphonic thinking, are inevitably brought to the fore, plus the presence of a single interpretative mind organizing all the material. The instrumental music of the 17th century has always been a particular interest of mine, and the main reason seems to be that in that period the concept of instrumentalism was basically created from nothing. What I mean is that with the increasing sophistication of instrument building, it became possible for instrumental music to create an identity of its own, separate from its previous dependence on vocal music. (Perhaps electronic music is now in an analogous relationship to instrumental music.) There was almost no fixed concept of what an instrumental form should be, and what kind of materials are appropriate to such a work, until these things became more formalized at the time of Corelli. My second cello piece Dark ages, which was written for the two-bow technique, was actually more influenced by the music of viol consorts than by solo music. Because the ability to play all four strings simultaneously, as well as the specific limitations thereby imposed on what kind of activity is possible, immediately leads back into that kind of sound-world, at least if one is so predisposed. As one's experience as a composer gradually accumulates, together with an increasing confidence in dealing with what seem to be the important musical issues, the question of ‘influence’ becomes somewhat less sensitive. Eventually, one's growing individuation as a musical thinker enables a backward glance at other cultural phenomena, with a certain amount of confidence that one isn't about to drown in this ocean of historical material that surrounds us all the time. At the moment I am working on a composition for string quintet and electronics (Khasma) which makes something of a feature of ostinati and canonic structures, and so perhaps Webern might be dimly sensed in the background, but I don't think anyone would imagine that I was making a reference to Webern. In earlier days I was occasionally told that if I were really interested in expanding the range of sounds and expressive possibilities in my work, I should devote myself to electronic music, rather than writing for instruments which were 200 or 300 years old. When I subsequently also became involved in creating and performing electronic music, it became much more clear to me what the reason for using these old instruments actually is. Which is that the one thing an electronic instrument cannot in any way provide is a physical unity between gesture and sound, where the action of playing on the instrument itself produces the sound. As an electronic performer, I am concerned to create a very clear correspondence between what I do gesturally and what comes out of the speakers, but it is also at the same time obvious that all these things are connected by wires which carry for example the binary codes of MIDI information, and not by actual, physical friction, or movement of air, or whatever. This difference preserves a crucial significance for the act of live performance on an ‘old’ instrument. The physicality of the sound, the exposure of the corporeal aspect of sound-production, defines itself in distinction to the comparatively disembodied way in which sounds in electronic music are made. It sometimes seems as if acoustic instruments are gradually being supplanted by electronic technologies, but this is only because most composers already use instruments as note-producing machines, and if that's all you want you might as well
use a computer instead, it's cheaper and more reliable, but experience with electronic music has caused me to try to explore those areas of instrumentalism which are idiomatic to the ‘acoustic’ domain. I don't say that technology will never be able to reproduce the sound and articulation of a cello, just that such a simulacrum is pointless since it excludes the intimacy which is central to the experience. ‘Monologue intérieur’ AD: Although you are looking for an individuation of the instrumental practice away from the 19th century Romantic melodic cantabile style, I can see in works like Ne Songe plus à fuir and von hinter dem Schmerz, and in the solo pieces for other instruments as well, a clear vocal breath-like shape in the phrasing, in some ways a instrumental parlare cantando, recitativo or arioso style... RB: That's true. In the end, bearing in mind my comments about the development of instrumentalism, it is difficult for any music to become independent of the voice. One of the reasons that interests me most (and you touched just on this in your question) is that the way we assimilate and understand the time-scale of music must be based around the long history we have of using spoken language. And so in music we talk about ‘phrases’, and sometimes even ‘paragraphs’, and other ideas extracted from verbal communication. So a solo instrumental piece can approach the condition of monologue, a form which of course occurs quite often in the theatre works of Samuel Beckett. And so that was another element which stood behind my increasing absorption from the mid-80's on in writing solo instrumental music. Beckett would often reduce the degrees of freedom of the performer to almost nothing, where you might see only the performer's mouth, as in Not I, and everything she does has to be concentrated and projected through a very small part of their body (although naturally the entire body and the brain are also involved). The strongest way in which Ne Songe plus à fuir is affected by the experience of studying and getting to know the work of Beckett is the idea of this monologue taking place as it were almost under unbearable stress, in confrontation between the necessity to express something and the impossibility of knowing what that something is, or how to express it. AD: Considering that psychological level; the many expressive quotations and directions we find in your scores speak of paradoxical and extreme situations, in which the theme of the 'Unthinkable' (the title of part 4 of the series After Matta), the inexpressible, the unsayable is the motto. Would you say music making - composing - becomes some metaphoric art in which one communicates in sound about the inner questions and answers we all have when it comes to the 'meaning or sense of things'? In this context you tend to bring the performer to some almost existential confrontation of fear or survival like Beckett often does. So some musicians say 'this music is unplayable' in the same way as some texts of Joyce, Beckett or Celan might be called 'unreadable'. When you look at the extreme difficulty of certain passages, the attitude of being under unbearable stress to which you bring the musician - more particularly in the cello pieces- this is even visually transmitted in the notation of the music, where the 'reduction of the degrees of freedom of the performer to almost nothing' incorporates an aesthetic of failure. An attempt to give expression to the inexpressible as Celan says in ‘Cello-Einsatz’ - ‘alles ist weniger, als es ist, alles ist
mehr’... There is much to say about all that, the psychological-philosophical 'zone', so to speak. RB: The experience of hearing music should be a very direct and unmediated one, whether as a listener or a performer or a composer. I am not interested in expressing my experiences to audiences and performers but in people actually having an experience of their own. Something should be happening to them, not just in front of them. The listener should be confronted with him- or herself, though reflected and refracted through the music in such a way as to defamiliarise and therefore perhaps to create some kind of insight; and what applies to the individual listener here could also apply in the more social act of listening to a concert. The ‘stress’ of the performing situation is, I think, more comparable to someone like Celan's attempting the unsayable, rather than to the ‘unreadability’ of the result, or in this case the ‘unlistenability’, well, if people find my work impossible to listen to, they are perhaps not interested in the kind of confrontation it implies. An aesthetic of failure... this is almost tautologous. What other kind of aesthetic is there? Entertainment? Religion? fuir?
AD: What was the actual role of Alan Brett in the history of Ne Songe plus à
RB: Alan Brett had asked me to write a substantial piece, preceded by a study or sketch for the more extended version. When I started work on the study, I wasn't actually working directly with him, but more or less in isolation, which is the way I have continued to work, more often than not. Unfortunately all of the copies of this study seem to have disappeared. What I do remember is that it began and ended in the exactly the same way as the finished piece does. Not in terms of details but more generally - technique, texture, ‘tone of voice’. I think that everything in the study was in some shape or form incorporated or sublimated into the final piece. I did actually almost finish a version of Ne Songe plus à fuir, which was very different from the one you know, and I left the manuscript of it in a tube-train in London. I never saw it again. I had actually begun to doubt the direction I had been taking, so this wasn't as upsetting as it might have been. I remember the lost version as having been somewhat weighed down by deterministic systems, with which I was trying to encompass every possible state of the instrument, which may have been useful in research terms but were hopelessly cumbersome for compositional purposes; after losing it all I ended up returning to the sketch version and extrapolating my strategies from the sound-images I had produced intuitively, which again is my usual way of working, though usually without going as far as notating the initial ideas in playable form. Roberto Matta AD: The title of Ne Songe plus à fuir is taken from a huge painting by the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta. The piece itself is the 3rd composition of the fourpart cycle After Matta. What is the genesis of your involvement with Matta? Is there some correspondence with the surrealist idiom? I remember you once told me that it could be interesting to perform the piece with a projection of fragments and details of the painting during the performance, to create a multi-media performance. Are there any programmatic aspects in the music itself?
RB: My first experience with the works of Matta was from looking at his paintings in books as a teenager. It was already clear to me that I was strongly interested in the surrealist movement and its objectives. It had struck me that it consisted almost only of poets and painters; no composers were ever admitted. There are two reasons for that. One is that André Breton (whose word on membership was final) had no feeling for or interest in music, or so he liked to claim. Secondly, music had already been fulfilling for centuries the precepts of a surrealistic art, in that it was not so much a depiction of reality, or an escape from it, but an intensification of reality. In 1977 in the Hayward Gallery in London I saw an exhibition of paintings by Matta. There were only five paintings in this enormous space, including Ne Songe plus à fuir itself. (At that time I had just begun my scientific studies at London University, and my first serious compositions were still a few years in the future.) With paintings of that size, in such a space, one can experience the work from enormously different perspectives: from 25 metres away or from 25 centimetres. Matta's paintings have that sense of perspective built into them already - there is no single way to view them since there are elements which can only be appreciated from a short distance, and other elements only from a large distance. This kind of polyvalent perspective struck me as something which was very akin to the way that I had started thinking about musical polyphony, and the composition of structures which could be sensed in different ways, which neither reveal themselves immediately nor hide themselves behind a screen of mystification. I was also deeply impressed by the way colour (rather than motif) was used by Matta in a kind of global-thematic way, and the way that with some elements you can see the gesture of the hand, the arm, and the body which created that shape, while in others there seems to be a more architectural approach to structure, and thus a ‘polyphony’ between gesturally-conditioned and architectonically-conceived elements, which had clear consequences in the music that I subsequently wrote. On the other hand there is the particularly expressive world that Matta's painting inhabits, which on one side seems to be rather exuberant, and sometimes light-hearted, but on the other hand is also a document to the cataclysms of the 20th century. He was indeed a politically committed artist who saw it as necessary to express something about the relationship of the artist to the world, of the individual to society. The painting Ne Songe plus à fuir is emphatically concerned with torture and imprisonment, familiar social atrocities to a South American, and thus leads back to the idea of the ‘monologue under stress’ of Beckett. In the composition with this title, all of the expressive, structural and technical aspects of music that I had been concerned with finally flowed together for the first time. Notation AD: How would you describe the importance and function of notated rhythm in your work? Considering the tempi of certain passages, the pitch and rhythm almost become imperceptible. Pitches and rhythms become interrelated as part of the micro sound, contributing to the collective sound which is not obviously noticeable at the first reading of the text. Could we say that the over-complex micro-sculpted rhythms are in some parts micro-timbral fluctuations of the general quality of sound - in other words pitch and rhythm melt together in moving sound?
RB: Yes and no. Obviously there are rhythmical aspects in this piece which are very clearly in the foreground, like the kind of breathless phrasing of the whole piece, with the lengths of the measures fluctuating around a basic value of five 8thnotes. The further one goes into the rhythmical detail, the more it becomes a matter of timbre fluctuations. But of course it is true that if these things had been written out as more regular rhythms, or without rhythms, or as rhythms which were in some way undefined, then the result would be very different. Because it is not just a question of random fluctuations, but of getting one's hands compositionally on what the precise nature of the fluctuation and its raison d'etre is at any one time. And, as you say, many of those details work together to generate an overall timbral and gestural flux. But that flux is in itself quite complex and multi-layered. Often each measure is as it were a variation or development of the previous one, where some materials come to the fore, some materials drop out, and some appear for the first time, some survive for a while and some don't. What is happening in the microstructure of all those gestural details is a process of evolution, wherein certain elements emerge and some of them survive within this environment, some don't, and some develop into something else. And there are moments at which all of the material up to that point becomes as it were extinct, and then the whole process begins again. All of these things can be quite clearly appreciated in the foreground of the piece. There is almost always a sense of continuity between what is happening in the present, and what has just happened, and what is about to happen next. And I was trying to do that without using received ways of articulating the play of tension and relaxation, but instead contextualising all these things within the piece itself. So these processes of evolution proceed outwards from an initial situation of unchanging repetition, which in an architectonic sense is somewhat neutral, though in a poetic sense of course this beginning is strongly expressive. AD: Microtones play an important role. They occur as (1) timbre-inflections, (2) microscopic glissandi or (3) enlarged vibrato-types and also, more systematically, as (4) part of a microtonal harmonic world. What is the role and importance of the microtones in relation to the traditionally fixed sounds of those of the tempered intervals? Can the different types of microtones be seen as a different (new) articulation-characteristics of what I would call the continuously moving organic and general sound flux? RB: In Ne Songe plus Ă fuir I was developing a view of pitch-behaviour in which each string embodies a continuum of frequencies when fingered normally, but a discontinuous spectrum when fingered as for harmonics, again proceeding from first principles: everything you see in the score, both glissandi and microtones, emerges from this. Therefore the tempered intervals are not treated as privileged in any way, and unchanging pitch is treated merely as an instance of glissando where the rate of pitch-movement is zero. AD: Can your use of micro-tonality be seen in a historical context? RB: For many years I've been interested in music's from non-Western traditions which feature non-tempered intervals, and while this experience has no doubt helped me to be able to hear these things, I wouldn't say that this aspect of my work in any way derives from it. It does seem to be the case that in the earlier history
of Western music, variations in intonation have been used as an expressive device, for example Bach's occasional use of difficult or unstable pitches and tonalities in various wind instruments, and this kind of thing was in my mind when developing the kinds of pitch-behaviour which occur in my soloistic music for clarinets, for which I've now written three pieces (using three different clarinets). But I don't think the earlier 20th century researches into microtonality have had much effect on me. I tend not to be so interested in that kind of ‘single-issue’ composition where one aspect of music is overdeveloped at the expense of some or all of the others. AD: Looking at the various parts of Ne Songe plus à fuir, the continuous variations, capricious ornamentation and polyphonic textures that contribute to the process of evolution - and here I am coming back to the baroque spirit - remind me somehow of the chaconne-like variation and ornamentation techniques -e.g. part 3 'veiled, melancholic, distant' (bar 60-81) and part 4 'grinding and laborious' (bar 82111). Chaconne-like, so to speak, in the way you present each time again and again the same material in different ways, in a different rhythmic, microtonal, timbral context. RB: I think that is a fair thing to say. One of the most important lessons which I learned from my composition teacher Peter Wiegold was that, however complex one's music is, there has to be one level on which there is an element which is drawing the listener into the complexities, one level that is simple, whichever it may be. You mentioned the chaconne idea, which was not consciously in my mind at the time when I wrote the piece, but I do recognize it - the idea that on some levels there is a flow of intensity, of greater or lesser diminution of rhythmic values for example, while on another level there is constant reiteration of a basic structure. What remains constant in this case is the fact that the particular tuning (a-d-f#-b) that I chose actually sounds all the way through it - most of the sections of the piece return repeatedly to one or another combination of open strings. You can view the piece on one level as being an exploration of different imagined internal aspects of a particular resonance selected from the open tuning. This also derives ultimately from my work with Peter - several of his compositions base their harmonic structure around a particular tuning of one or more of the instruments, though in a very different way, since Peter's music tends to be recognisably modal. As time goes on, one naturally finds that the accumulation of one's oeuvre brings with it an awareness of certain common factors which manifest themselves repeatedly over the years, and I have often found that many of these ‘axiomatic’ elements in my work have their roots in studying with Peter, and indeed are related strongly to some of the ideas which lie beneath the surface of his work too, though this might not be obvious to anyone else. Form, structure AD: How is the piece Ne Songe plus à fuir conceived. How is the musical sound material organized? Has it still a serialistic structure or framework? RB: No. The instrument itself was the starting point. My first decision was to use this particular tuning. And in fact I haven't yet written a solo cello piece which
doesn't retune the instrument in some way. That is obviously an important aspect of reinventing the instrument for each new piece, because it not only affects the possibilities of different pitches and harmonics being played, but also the whole sound of the instrument (another link to the 17th century). The material which lies behind the piece actually consists of a series of trajectories across all 4 strings. That means that I divided each string into a number of different registral bands, and I then constructed straight lines which would scan across from top to bottom of a specific band. AD: Which explains the very unusual extreme high playing on the third and fourth string. RB: Yes. Each string is almost used like a separate instrument, each string has its own material. AD: So you scanned the possibilities on all four strings in the longitudinal and vertical dimensions resulting for example in the famous 3-part harmonies and polyphonic passages? RB: That would be done by combining the trajectories in the same band on several different strings at the same time. In the case of Ne Songe plus à fuir this aspect is somewhat beneath the surface, whereas in later pieces for strings (like your piece called Air or von hinter dem Schmerz) the trajectories are more sophisticated and at the same time more clearly projected. In air for violin solo, they systematize not only where the left hand is on the fingerboard, but also the extension between the first and fourth finger of the left hand. My guitar music functions in a similar way. In von hinter dem Schmerz also, the trajectories across the strings are calculated on the basis of actual physical distances in millimeters rather than in terms of intervals as was the case with Ne Songe plus à fuir. I have a long strip of graph paper with, among other things, all the positions of the different pitches (and the possible harmonics) marked on it and what their exact distances are. In the second part of von hinter dem Schmerz (where the practice mute is on), you have a single line which forms a kind of cantus firmus, around which everything else is woven. And that single line is the result of interactions between three parameters: (1) which string is being used, (2) what is the position on that string (it begins alternating between very low and very high positions and ends up oscillating much more quickly, but with a much smaller amplitude), (3) how long is the transition between one pitch of the ‘cantus’ and the next, in other words what percentage of the duration of that pitch is taken up by the sliding movement towards the next. AD: It is clear to me that your music is after all extremely expressive. Are the many quotations of e.g. Beckett or Celan, the annotations, injunctions of how a certain sound or passage has to be played or interpreted, to be seen as a kind of guideline or metaphorical direction for the performer and/or the auditor? I quote: 'raging and confused', 'catastrophic', 'deserted', 'collapse into alienation', 'with barely articulate anger', 'dogged and disjunct, becoming hysterical and convulsive', 'veiled, melancholic, distant', 'grinding and laborious' , 'nervous and hesitant', 'nightmarish, indistinct', 'fleeting, delirious'? They are inspiring and very helpful to understand more about the music.
RB: Obviously the notated music in itself places the performer in something of an extreme situation, and the verbal directions were intended partly to point to one possibility of what kind of extremity that was. I hardly ever use these things at all these days. That's partly because I have more confidence in the suggestiveness of the notated material itself. I wouldn't go back and revise things by removing the text from earlier pieces now, because for example Ne Songe plus à fuir is a document of a certain stage in the development of one's thinking. For this reason I am generally unwilling to carry out revisions of any kind, except for purely practical reasons, unless there is some purpose in delineating the revisions from their surroundings. For example, when I composed the version of Illuminer le temps which was performed in 1990, I didn't have time to complete it, and so there are still 3 minutes or so of music missing from the middle of the work. Some time it will be performed again and I shall have to complete it; but trying to recreate my younger self would I think be less interesting than realizing this central section (for which much of the material is of course already in existence, though whether I shall be able to decipher it is another matter) as an anachronistic intrusion. Returning to the ‘barely articulate anger’ of the opening of Ne Songe plus à fuir, it's very obvious that's what it is, just by looking at the notes. But at the time it was less clear to me that this would be apparent to a performer. Besides, these things seem to me now somewhat too prescriptive. I took them to an absolute extreme in the piano piece Tract, which was begun around the same time as Ne Songe plus à fuir but completed only in 1996, - every few bars you find some quasi-expressive indication or other, some of which seem to stand almost in contradiction to what the notated music is doing. In Tract this is just one aspect of a massively polyphonic concept which is central to its whole structure and poetic identity. Analyses AD: If you would have to analyze the cello pieces, how would you proceed? What are the tools to find their inner logic? Are there many possible analyses? RB: There are indeed many possible analyses, although my own preference in such matters is to proceed from the music as aural experience and use the score, if at all, as a work of reference. If I am called upon to analyze a piece of music, whether or not I wrote the piece myself, I try to keep in mind the idea that my purpose is to somehow enhance or make more accessible the music for a listener. The rest I am happy to leave to professionals! AD: Are there some traces in the compositional work of mathematical thinking, or of your education in genetics? RB: Of mathematical thinking, certainly. I have a kind of ‘toolbox’ of mathematical techniques, which over the years I've gradually added to and incorporated into a set of computer programs. I should be clear that they are only tools and thus are not intended to be ‘visible’ as such in the compositions, any more than is the scaffolding which helps in the construction of a building. Most of them have in common the idea of some kind of in-time process which is algebraically formulated and allows for a certain statistical uncertainty, producing for example a distribution of data-points around an overall tendency in whatever dimension or parameter, or combination of parameters, is being composed. These tools can also be
used in an outside-time way, to produce a distribution around a fixed point instead of a function of time. I use these techniques as a means of generalizing from and structurally contextualising the sound-images and -forms which are the basis of a composition, and although I use them rather strictly, their built-in uncertainty means that at every stage there is freedom to move and so to speak to ‘breathe’ compositionally. Whether this has anything to do with genetics is not so clear, although Ne Songe plus à fuir is one of my more ‘genetic’ pieces in the way that each section proceeds through ‘generations’ of phrases, with evolutions and extinctions and so forth. In a more general kind of way, my scientific education has probably meant that I find working with concepts of statistics, for example, relatively comfortable, in so far as any part of composition could be described as comfortable. I don't make a point of ‘translating’ scientific concepts into composition. Nevertheless, these concepts say possibly as much about the structure of human understanding as they do about any hypothesised structure of objective reality, and so inevitably have something in common with the imagined structure of an art work. I should say, by the way, that I do believe there is such a thing as an objective reality, however coloured or distorted our view of it may be... AD: Could you describe the relations between the seven parts of Ne Songe plus à fuir and development of particular materials such as architectural form, motives, harmony, tempi, texture, etc. ? RB: Certain things remain consistent. For example, if you took the duration of every measure in the whole piece, you would find that they would approximate to a Gaussian distribution around a 5/8 bar. (A Gaussian distribution is a mathematical formulation for the famous ‘bell-curve’ which describes many real-world population phenomena, and my use of this and other statistical techniques certainly derives from my scientific background, though whether I would have thought of applying them to music without the example of Xenakis is doubtful.) Each section is then separated from the succeeding one by some sort of transition in which the 5/8 phrase structure is suspended, and the transitions become gradually more extensive until their original function becomes blurred. Most of the main sections are contrasted from the others, and also unified with the others, by concentrating on a different combination of open strings as an almost constant resonating environment. So at the beginning you have the open B string, and to a certain extent the open F sharp string. Then in the 3rd part you have you have the F sharp and D strings, and subsequently the B and A strings where the bow is placed beneath them; and so on, not exactly systematically. Developing repetition - developing variation AD: One of the perhaps most unusual and challenging passages in 20th century cello music, is the 4th part, with the direction 'grinding and laborious'. The left-hand, as if it were split into two separate hands, is playing two totally independent gliding contrapuntal voices with an independent right-hand bowing articulation on top of that, in a polymetric relationship. How did you come up with this idea? RB: This is actually the part of the piece where the scanning of trajectories
across the registral bands becomes most obvious. Because basically what each component of the left hand part is doing is following one of these lines, although with fluctuations of various densities and amplitudes around it. AD: What you hear in listening to it, is a kind of tonal center with a rhythmical and gliding melodic flux, or ornamentation, around it - as if the same material was sculpted each time with a different chisel... So from each start of every bar you see a new trajectory (a new slightly altered gesture) coming out of the musical motif, idea. Personally I see it also as a typical vocally-conceived musical development rather than instrumental. RB: The lines are moving quite slowly and sometimes you can see that both parts are heading in the same direction, or in contrary motion, or they may be standing still. This section is always emphasized as being impossibly radical in the way that the instrument is treated. I wouldn't want to place quite so much emphasis on the difference between this part and the rest of the piece, except that also to my mind it's expressively the strongest part. I remember I was feeling at the time that I was taking a certain risk in giving the material as little variation over such a long time scale as I actually did. You have this quite frenetic activity of both hands, while at the same time on a higher structural level the music stays exactly where it is. And each time a bar starts, it is as if we are beginning all over again and trying to find some way of expressing this material, but never quite succeeding in doing so. At the end of the 4th section the music seizes up, and degenerates towards a pathetic little scrape, where the bow has ceased to move altogether, and then the music starts up again in the same way as it did before, but this time begins to lean in a different direction. That's a kind of formal technique which is used again, much more radically, in Tract, which is in 2 movements each of 12 minutes or so, separated by a silence of one minute after which the second movement begins exactly as the first, the first few pages note for note, except that the tempo is slightly slower. This idea of constantly starting over is of course related to Beckett's work, but to a greater extent to the expressive and structural world of Robert Pinget (also I often find that my dreams are structured in this way). Pinget says in an interview that the most important thing for him to establish before starting a novel is the tone of voice which the novel will have. Very many of his books feature the same characters but quite often a character with the same name as one from a previous novel is actually a completely different person. Most of the novels take place in a fictional town somewhere in France. In L'inquisitoire, virtually every detail of the town is exhaustedly described. But if you actually made a map based on these details, the streets wouldn't link up, because the ‘tone of voice’ is that of a person under interrogation and with a faulty memory (as we all have) who of course exists only, like the town, as words printed on paper. Literature AD: Since you mention Pinget, could you describe the importance and influence of the work of Beckett, Celan and perhaps also other authors on your artistic thinking and work as a whole? RB: Beckett and Celan are examples of authors whose work has the ability to catalyse a chain-reaction of sound and structure in my mind. Of course, music and
visual art and other phenomena do this too, accessing some primal area of artistic consciousness functioning independently of which of the senses it passed through on its way. I don't think of music as a language, but if it were, to me it would be a foreign language with which I have a certain fluency - maybe the reason I write music rather than words is similar to Beckett's reason for starting to write in French rather than English. The easy familiarity of one's mother tongue can be an obstacle, and sometimes one hears this in the music of composers for whom music is as it were their ‘mother tongue’. Naturally, I had been interested in the work of Beckett and Celan for some considerable time before this began to manifest itself in my work. There may well be things I am looking at now, or have been looking at for years, which will come to play just as large a part in some future project, Shakespeare perhaps, or the Greek tragedians or whatever. It isn't so much that I think of Beckett and Celan's work as closer to me than anything else, just that they have had the strongest visible effect so far, owing to the way my work has evolved. It's been suggested that my work can be divided up into ‘periods’ depending on whether the compositions show primarily a relationship to Beckett or to Celan. This doesn't make much sense to me. Obviously, if one is busy creating large conglomerate works, or sequences of works, as I am, each one takes some years to be completed, and each one also has a certain consistency within itself, but this is more a matter of conscious compositional decisions than of ‘periods’. After all, one of my most extensive literature-related works is Unter Wasser which is by neither of these authors; also, my current project DARK MATTER involves sung texts from many different sources spanning several thousand years (but, as it happens, including my first setting of a Beckett text). Structure and form as process. AD: You see an alternation in Ne Songe plus à fuir also between sections which use more than one string at a time, and those which use only one string at a time. In the second section, which I would describe as ‘melodic’, or as close as this piece gets to melodic, the single line, moving between the independent trajectories on the four strings, creates a kind of polyphony of trajectories, which you could say relates to what Bach does in his cello suites, suggesting several lines but actually using only one. In the fifth section, again there's a single line, but now it has become as it were atomised, as a result of almost every sound being played with a different technique a soloistic ‘Klangfarbenmelodie’. RB: The material based on more than one simultaneous pitch reaches a climax immediately afterwards, where basically all pitch-movement has stopped and becomes distorted into noise. So just after the point at which the single-line material reaches its highest complexity, its counterpart descends into a kind of brutal immobility. This fifth section was actually originally suggested by the first of Zimmermann's Vier kurze Studien. I had an LP recording of that piece by Siegfried Palm, played at an absolutely amazing speed. Subsequently I've heard a number of other interpretations, all somewhat disappointing because the speed wasn't so extreme. (The score doesn't specify how fast it should go). So this section was, in a way, a homage to Zimmermann himself, but more precisely to the interpretation of Palm.
Barrettian musical features RB: The bow is a breathing apparatus. I have always been interested in making some kind of timbral distinction between the two directions of the bow. In Anatomy for 11 instruments, written just before Ne Songe plus à fuir, there is a passage where all the string instruments have their up- and downbows notated, because down-bows always move from sul tasto to sul ponticello and up-bows in the opposite direction, in other words the bowing is diagonal, in fact as a beginner might play. Again, in the violin piece air the whole piece is very clearly ‘breathing’ in the tempo of the bow-changes, not only that but gradually tending towards the extinction of breath. Towards the close, the bow-movements become ever smaller and therefore the sounds less coherent, and finally the music dies when the bow is no longer able to move. AD: Melody? One characteristic of the Barrettian phrase is the 'one-breathlike-line' diminuendo? And these phrases seem to bear a strong relation to the time length of the bar and the changes of the metre. Actually it's the other way around. The phrase-lengths are a primary formal determinant and there's no metre as such - the time signatures are only put there to underline the ebb and flow of the duration between successive primary attacks. Except in certain specialised situations, I always write initially without barlines, and then insert them, either for reasons like that I just mentioned, or for coordination in an ensemble piece, or for eventual coordination with an ensemble part to be added subsequently (as is the case with many of my solo compositions); or, when none of these apply, I might not put in time-signatures at all, as in praha. My solo music for strings has tended not to place melodic structures in the foreground, with rare exceptions like the fifth movement of stress for string quartet. This is something I am intending to address in some upcoming projects, probably in a piece for piano and string quartet entitled faux departs which I'm intending to write in early 2002. Where melodic configurations do occur in a piece like Ne Songe plus à fuir, it's obvious that these are a ‘special case’ within an environment of more generalized instrumental behavior. AD: Some other musical features of your string-writing can be illustrated by examples we find in Ne Songe plus à fuir such as: (1) the two part finger-percussion simultaneous with bowed or pizzicato attack e.g. in bar 26-32, (2) bowing behind the strings (I & IV) in bars 121-127, (3) the scratch-stroke with abrupt stop on the string, bars 128-133, and (4) the two-part pizzicato/tapping passage at the end. How, out of what idea, influence etc. did you develop those particular sounds, what is the genesis of them and what are their expressive means? RB: Some of the techniques probably derive from my guitar-playing activities, others from my ‘objectified’ approach to playing the instrument. The simultaneous finger-percussion, for example, was intended to expand the range of possible attacktimbres, and leads directly to the two-part passage at the end where the left hand has by now decoupled itself completely from the right in order to become an independent sound-generating component of the instrument/player ensemble. At the same time, this final passage could be said to enter a state of derangement - a fantastical virtuoso passage which hardly makes any sound, like the high-speed
muttering almost below the threshold of hearing which begins and ends Beckett's Not I. The compulsion to speak has been removed, leaving an empty husk which jabbers meaninglessly into the silence. And so on. Stopping the bow on the string is a similar case: it has always seemed strange to me how composers (and performers) pay so much more attention to how a sound begins than to how it ends, and the end of a sound requires just as close attention to articulation. I have since found a range of possible poetic applications of this technique, although in Ne Songe plus à fuir, combined with the high bowing pressure, the idea of strangulation isn't far away. ‘Articulated endings’ have also become a feature of my compositions for wind instruments in the meantime, especially Liebestod for 4 recorders and live electronics, completed in the spring of 2000. Playing under the strings was something I remembered from a performance of Xenakis’ Nomos alpha by Rohan de Saram some years previously - Rohan was using this technique in order to get around some of the literal impossibilities towards the end of the Xenakis piece, and I thought it could be very interesting to conceive a kind of music specifically for this way of playing. This was before I had any knowledge of Frances-Marie Uitti's two-bow work. Most of the techniques you mention were things I initially tried out in the little study piece before Ne Songe plus à fuir, so that I had the chance to check how well they worked before going any further. Actually I don't remember trying anything that didn't work, which I suppose shows that I have some kind of intuition for string instruments. AD: Similarly for (1) the fingered chains of microtonal tone repetitions, (2) the fingertrills of the left hand on the bow, (3) the bow between thumb and finger technique, (4) the meticulous notated fingerings, (5) the lefthand pizzicato four-note row on a fixed note, (6) the one-stroke staccato with fast interruptions of the bow speed, all used probably for the first time in von hinter dem Schmerz? RB: Between these two pieces I had ten years of further experience, of performances of Ne Songe plus à fuir, of composing other work, and crucially of extending my involvement with improvisation, which involved working at close quarters with several players who had evolved their own particular techniques. The first of your examples is one of these, which I originally came across in the playing of violinist Mary Oliver. What interested me about it was that it sounds very clearly as an extrapolation of several different types of musical behavior - as a reduction to nothing of the intervals in a group of microtonal gracenotes, as a much more gentle iterated interruption of sound compared to a bowed tremolo, as a possible connection with the ‘timbre-trills’ of woodwind instruments, and so on: in other words it's a technique which extends the existing vocabulary in an integrated and consistent way. The others were mostly derived from my own investigations, either (as in (5) and (6)) as an extrapolation of known techniques, or (as in (2) and (3)) merely from trying out every combination of bow, strings and hands that I could think of, and then using some (not all!) of these as the basis for a particular direction which could be taken by my musical materials. The notated fingerings are intended primarily to save the player some time... if I've worked out what the fingerings should be (since often they emerge directly from considering the materials and their possibilities), then why not put them in the score, since otherwise the player will in any case have to work them out for him- or herself. They also of course give an idea of how the music should actually sound - if a cellist sees a notated fingering which is in some way unorthodox, he or she might end up using a different one based on practical considerations different from mine, but with the knowledge of what sound was intended by the notation of the fingering in the score, which can say much more
than a vague verbal indication. Maybe here one can find a sublimation of the expressive purpose of the words which, as we remarked, have been becoming less common in my scores, while fingerings, also in music for wind instruments, have been becoming far more common. In recent pieces like interference for contrabass clarinet, and Liebestod, a large proportion of the sounds notated in the score are accompanied by indications of their fingerings. AD: Finally there is your preference for mutes and scordatura. RB: I think of mutes as another extension of the field of possibilities of the instrument, for example as a means of creating a timbral dimension to particular structural components in a piece. Most of the music I've written for strings includes muting somewhere, either with a normal mute or with a metal practice mute, which in von hinter dem Schmerz causes the middle section to sound rather as if the instrument is speaking from inside a container of some kind; also, the considerable attenuation of the dynamic range is then compensated for using amplification, which has the added effect of reducing what you might call the ‘signal-to-noise ratio’ of the instrument so that the incidental sounds of fingering become much more present. Scordatura contributes to the aural identity of a piece by altering the resonance of the instrument as well as opening new fingering possibilities and therefore different possible pitch-structures. None of my solo cello pieces uses the standard tuning, and the most extreme example, Praha, also involves restringing the instrument - of the two bows, the one underneath the strings plays exclusively col legno tratto on strings I and IV, which are both C strings but tuned to B and Bb, while the one in the usual position above the strings plays with the hairs of the bow on strings II and III, which are an A and G string respectively. To do all this for a four-minute piece is impossibly indulgent, of course, but the result is that it hardly sounds like a cello any more. Indeed any kind of scordatura will, to a greater or lesser extent, alter the characteristics of the instrument so that its tuning is more strongly connected with the identity of the composition than with the ‘standard’ cello, so that one could speak of creating a new instrument for a specific purpose. AD: The use of the cello as a resonant box with 4 strings in Ne Songe plus à fuir is in fact an approach which is continued in the two-bow pieces Dark ages and Praha, and finds its culmination in von hinter dem Schmerz. In the latter you specify in the foreword that the fingerings have to be followed rigorously since the music treats the 4 strings as four distinct instruments. The consequent step could be even to split everything up with live electronics in such a way that you cloud pick-up every string separately and process its sound into space with 4 different speakers? RB: If this would actually work, this would be a wonderful idea! and as you say a completely logical extension of the directions I've already taken. The instrument would then seem to occupy the entire performance space - I remember about fifteen years ago having the idea of creating this effect by putting a ‘soundfield’ microphone inside a piano so that the amplified sound could be rotated, elevated and lowered and so on. But that piece was never written. AD: The polyphony of strings is indeed very unorthodox and results more often than not in challenging (almost 'finger-breaking') situations for the performer. It surprising to see that you know the possibilities of those new fingerings very well, and on the other hand we performers are confronted with a totally new knowledge
of what you can do on a cello. RB: All of this is, in various ways, because I don't play the cello myself! so that what might seem obvious to me might seem outlandish to a performer. All I do is I try to imagine what my fingers could do, if they could do anything (since they are more or less the same shape and size as yours or most other people's, though not specifically trained to interact with a cello in ‘real life’), and what kind of sound might be the result, and might that sound be somehow appropriate at some time. I ‘practice’ the cello quite frequently, especially if I'm writing for it, without seeing or touching an actual instrument of course... Once I borrowed an old cello from a friend for a couple of weeks and was extremely disappointed to find how little I could actually do with it. My imaginary playing is much better. Amplification AD: One other aspect is the use of amplification in Ne Songe plus à fuir and von hinter probably as a medium to bring out the massive power and on the other hand the fragile detail of the music. RB: A microscope not only makes things look larger than they are, but also makes objects visible which are not detectable at all with the naked eye. This is how I think about using microphones and amplification with acoustical instruments, for example in the muted section of Ne Songe plus à fuir, which is indeed both extremely fragile and intensely detailed but would sound like nothing at all unless amplified, and also the second part of von hinter dem Schmerz, as I mentioned before. Amplification has become much more important to me since the time of Ne Songe plus à fuir, for example in an ensemble context to create ‘impossible’ balances between instruments - most of Opening of the Mouth is an example of this. The flute solo in the Schneebett section is intended to be balanced forward of the rest of the ensemble, but is nevertheless playing very quietly; of course the flute part could be written with louder dynamics to create the desired balance, but the intention was to create a sense of closeness and intimacy, with the ‘incidental’ sounds of flute-playing becoming almost as present as the actual ‘notes’. An idiomatic style of 'propositions' AD: What do you consider to be the essential criteria for a convincing performance of your work? The hyper-detailed notation of your music incorporates a kind of failure or impossibility to play what is actually written, at least when you read scores in the traditional way. We could say that there is a certain esthetic of inexactitude in each reading or realization of the score. I do believe that everything is playable, but we have to face the fact of human imperfection. In this context what is the meaning of interpretation and the culture of reading (scores, the music)? RB: There is no such a thing as 'exactitude’ in interpreting musical notation. You could take a piano sonata of Beethoven and program a computer to play it, and have absolutely every aspect of the music exactly as it is described in the notation with respect to dynamics, articulation and duration, and so on - we agree that the result would not be a musical interpretation, and we don't even need to go to the bother of carrying out this experiment to know that. Whatever kind of notated music
you take, the relation between what you see on the page and what you hear in the performance is not a simple one to one relationship. Notation to me is not a specification, but more of a proposal of a way of making music. The music doesn't make ‘demands’, it makes proposals. The act of interpreting is one whereby such a ‘proposal’ is transformed into music by the performer. The difference, in terms of notation, between music like this and music of the past is more a question of familiarity than anything else. In the 19th century it wasn't necessary to notate the ‘expressive rubato’, because this would be understood within a certain kind of stylistic orbit. That phenomenon doesn't exist any more. One way of suggesting an idiomatic performing practice is to notate far more than a 19th century composer would have done. This raises all kinds of interesting questions about the relationship between what's on the page and what you might hear; and it opens the possibility of working with that relation as musical material in its own right, rather than seeing the score from a ‘utilitarian’ point of view. A score is in the first instance a means of communication between composer and performer - any means of communication is going to contain its confusions, impossibilities misunderstandings... That is the nature of human communication. Maybe what I'm saying is that for me a score is more closely related to a theatre script than it is to an instruction manual. AD: What is your concept of communication in respect to composing, music making? I would also like to link it to your literary influences form Beckett, Celan and the others. Their writings are not particularly optimistic. Referring to James Harley's article in Musicworks 72, is there a nihilistic aspect to it? RB: I don't think of myself as a nihilist, nor would I describe Beckett and Celan in those terms (and I don't think they would either). It's too simplistic. We see the world around us, which certainly isn't cause for rejoicing; from a political perspective its existence is on the whole characterised by oppression and injustice, while from a cosmological perspective its existence seems to be without purpose. Nevertheless, such phenomena as art, and the urge to find answers to ontological questions where all have failed before, to name only these, have come into being (how? why?). This complicates the picture somewhat. My suspicion is that the ‘communication’ which takes place in the act of listening to music has a common source with verbal language but split away from it in prehistory. Regarding communication - that is, the communication between music and its audience, most of what is discussed under this heading seems to me to have less to do with communication and more with reinforcement of familiar emotional reflexes. A music which is communicative, in what I would call a real sense, has by definition nothing to do with such well-worn pathways to the mind of the listener. Therefore it invites a high degree of concentration from its audience, otherwise it will probably come across as meaningless. The audience is in a similar position to the performer, indeed to the composer. Coming back to the idiomatic style - the density of the notation, and the constant awareness of the possibility of not achieving something, brings the player (and the composer) into a situation of hyper-concentration where the possible failure of a musical idea has to be compensated by a possible solution made by the performer. When he respects the initial musicality instigated by the composer's
notation, the music will survive and he can bring out different aspects of the same piece. In all music there are never two identical performances. The musical idea is realized from a different viewpoint, but despite all the diversity between different performances, it remains very clearly the same piece. But in your music these matters have been brought up to a point of culmination. Would you say composing means composing problems, rather than answers, so that every performance is only one possible realization of one of the many versions hidden in the composed text? Accuracy, graphics and improvisation AD: The hermetic notation, its reading and technical difficulties, are also known as being a natural barrier or defense mechanism against uncommitted performers. There are certainly great differences in performances from one player to another, and even in a series of performances by one musician. You once stated that in some cases you where happy when 60% of the notes are played. Later on you corrected yourself by remarking you where surprised to have said that. Perhaps a witticism? Nevertheless it is true that some of your pieces experience many of difficulties before being performed well. Could we speak of a different or new approach of reading the text, the score? What is the expressive, social or philosophical meaning of virtuosity? What is its role and meaning? Compared to the 19th century competitive virtuosity of Liszt or Paganni, it must results from a different kind of necessity. Could we speak of a new kind of perhaps existential virtuosity? I don't know why I would have come out with such nonsense as this 60% statement. How does one quantify such a thing? After all, accuracy, whatever that means, is not the only important factor in creating an experience out of a musical performance. On the other hand, different players - 100% performances might still sound quite different from one another. And there is no reason why somebody listening to the music should come to the same conclusions about what it is trying to say as I did (if conclusions is the word). Because, as I said, I am interested in people creating their own experiences, and not being dragged through my experiences. That goes for the performer as well. Even though many people would say that these cello pieces, in their notated precision, almost squeeze out any possibility of interpretation, that really isn't the case at all. For example, I tend to prefer those performances of Ne Songe plus Ă fuir (which to my knowledge has so far been publicly performed by eight different cellists, not very many but enough to create a spread of interpretations) in which the player is not just interpreting but also recreating the music in a way which is somewhat unexpected to me, because then I feel I'm discovering something about it. I think such a performance can also transmit its creative musicality to others also. One of the reasons why I use the compositional techniques that I do is not just to realize an idea that I have in my mind, but also to give that idea a life of its own so that I feel I'm being surprised, I'm discovering things as well as inventing. Somehow one could imagine - without wishing to sound too metaphysical - that the music was lying buried somewhere, and what I did was dig it up. I was thinking about this kind of metaphor much more explicitly in the composition of Dark ages and especially ruin, a piece for six instrumental trios which was completed in 1995 although its roots go right back to the early 1980s. Composition, performance and
listening are all part of the same process, and of course they all feed back into each other, at least this is a motivating factor for me. AD: All notated music is somehow graphic music. 'Graphic' in its visual aspect. I do believe the ‘text’ or ‘textuality’ of complexly notated music is a notation of a conceptual living music that exist somewhere in the mind. In its objective exactness there is the score, unique in itself. The performer reads the text and creates his own interpretation, one of the many possible readings of the piece. In times where a lot of composers are writing, copying and reproduce everything by computer in its smallest details, you are still loyal to the craft of writing music by hand. We know that most computer programs are not able to lay-out the complexity of your music, but even if it were possible, the virtuosity of your handwriting has something enigmatic, transcendental and mythical. The act of reading is, due to the complexity, an existential struggle in conquering the material, the score. In this aspects it guarantees personalization and uniqueness. Every good performance shall always be slightly different: part of a series of attempts to go beyond the text and find that 'transcendental moment' of what it stands for. What do you understand under transcendence in musical notation and the actual performance of the music? RB: I'm not particularly keen on the idea of graphic notation per se. Think of Treatise by Cornelius Cardew. There is some sense in producing a completely written-out version of what you perceive to be in that score. It's obvious that the graphical elements in the score have been ‘musically’ organized. And in fact Cardew provides you with two staves which run all the way through the score, he silently encourages you to make a more or less fixed realization. If approached in an improvisational way, then the original graphic notation can actually stand in the way of music making, rather than encouraging it to happen. Treatise is a highly contradictory piece of work, as Cardew realized, though I'm not at all certain that many of the other composers involved in graphic scores had as deep an awareness of the issues as he did. Often the results seem like an excuse for having no musical ideas. Recently I saw a new graphic ‘score’ produced by a visual artist for interpretation by a solo musician, which consisted of 36 pages each of which had one large black blob in the middle. It wasn't even interesting visually! and certainly wouldn't fulfill my idea of a ‘proposal’ of a clearly-imagined kind of musical behavior. We need to be clear about what notation is for, what can and can't be achieved with it. In the various activities that I'm involved in, you have on the one hand the extremely intricate notation that you see in those pieces, and on the other hand a strict avoidance of the idea of notation altogether. To me these extreme points are not contradictory. What is contradictory is a composer wanting to have his or her name on something which was actually created by somebody else. I am interested in the idea of evolving some way of creating a truly collaborative composition. Of course there is my collaboration with Paul Obermayer in FURT, but I have been gradually moving in this direction with other musicians, for example with the vocalist Ute Wassermann, with the ensemble of students from the Institute of Sonology, and soon with others also. Sometimes I have the feeling that I should give up on notated composition altogether, but probably my work as a performer, what I have to offer in this area, depends upon a continuing input from the precision of structure in my notated work. And of course the converse is also true: I spend much of my composing time trying to generalise and contextualise a ‘sound-image’ which has occurred to me with the same kind of spontaneity that I experience in an intense improvisatory situation. Sound and form are what I care about, everything else is a means to those ends. And that of course includes notation.
AD: We spoke about complexity as musical idiom. Complexity as a metaphor. What is it for you? Michael Finnissy once said ‘if you accept that human nature is complex, all life and art is as well’. In the philosophical concept of your music, is your work to be seen as an imitation of nature like in the Greek concept of Mimesis or does it tends towards the modernistic definition of e.g. Jean François Lyotard's ‘sublime’, that is: ‘trying to say the unsayable?’ RB: I don't conceive my work as an imitation of anything, nor would I want to align it with anything Lyotard and his crowd have to say... the problem with applying this kind of philosophy to music is that it's so verbally mediated, and therefore of limited relevance - philosophers would love to be able to talk about music, but in fact they can't, music is philosophy (among many other things) in the sense that making and experiencing it are vehicles of understanding, or at least of questioning. The important philosophical questions are surely the ontological and epistemological ones, and I feel that philosophy as such is no longer equipped to carry these questions any further, whereas art on the one hand and fundamental science on the other seem to me to be in a better position to do so. Returning to complexity, of course all art (to name only this) is complex, but, as with many other such matters, one can choose to engage with it, or one can choose to ignore it and pretend that things are really much simpler. Complexity in composition as I understand it, and I'm sure Michael would agree, isn't a matter of striking an intellectual pose but of involving oneself deeply and intimately with the fabric of music. AD: I should like to conclude with the words of Beckett. What is your point of view - anno 2000 -on this quotation from Beckett's The Unnamable - ‘The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things for which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter. And at the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never.’ After all these words there are sounds and silences? The end means we have to stop the never ending journey of discovery. So, imagine these would be the last words. What would be your last statement or quotation, or do you prefer the possibility of a silent roar. RB: When I am composing (or performing), I try to put myself into a situation where discovery is made possible, where every step should be a first step into uncharted territory, while at the same time I am quite aware that every step might also be the last. When I look at what I'm doing from a certain angle I have the strong feeling that it is hardly even a beginning, that a grasp of the craft is still out of reach and still no nearer, that I have hardly begun to open my mouth so to speak; from another angle it all seems exhausted and near to extinction were it not for a few remaining issues to be examined, in order to have done with the whole confusing business. Which might give the impression that I am concerned only with beginnings and endings. Which might well be the case. The problem is to know one from the other. Arne Deforce, Amsterdam, 9 October 2000; remixed by Richard Barrett January-February 2001
The resonant box with four strings Interview on the musical esthetics of Richard Barrett and the genesis of his music for cello Arne Defor...
Published on Apr 11, 2014
The resonant box with four strings Interview on the musical esthetics of Richard Barrett and the genesis of his music for cello Arne Defor...