Rambler Roundtables: ELISION ensemble continued

(This is the second in a series of posts. Parts 1 and 3 may be found here and here.) 

One of the things that intrigues me about complex music, the sort of music that stretches performers, listeners and notational practice to their limits, is its frequent contextualisation within systems of thought, constructional models and terms of reference that might be considered by many to fall outside the purview of ‘the musical’. Such contextualisations might work in two, opposite directions on a particular piece: as (one of) the means by which the composer arrived at or nurtured this musical idea; or as a possible way in for the listener, an interpretive toolkit.

The following discussion reveals that those two directions are not necessarily as opposite as they might seem. Complexity allows for networked associations, layers, multiplicities and ambiguities. Trying to unpick absolutes in terms of composerly intention or ideal listening is impossible. The musical work, heavy of import and light of being, hangs somewhere in tension between the two. In the end its phenomenal presence is all that can be relied upon.

The musical/non-musical dichotomy evaporates in these regions of uncertainty: in its expression through temporally organised sound, notated in such a way as to guide the actions of an interpreter, any idea, intelligently composed, can become musical. Or, rather, achieves a musicality that was always latent. Composition becomes, at some level, the process of finding and fixing that latent music.

Roundtable 1, ELISION ensemble: ‘The new programme music’?

TimR-J: With a lot of ELISION’s repertoire, including most or all of the pieces on this programme, there is often a considerable explanatory, philosophical aura that accompanies the music. Although this isn’t programme music, I find it tempting to think in such terms, whereby the musical constructions are being asked to take on considerable responsibility for extra-musical dimensions. I’m interested to know to what extent this seems like a fair assessment; and if it is fair, how far can this responsibility can be pushed and still remain perceptible?

Richard Barrett: I haven’t been too sure about how to go about answering this question, Tim, without something more concrete as a starting point, so here is my programme note for Aurora:

Aurora traces a trajectory from the natural harmonic spectrum heard at the opening (the first ten odd-numbered partials of a low C, subsequently distorted by multiphonics), towards an eventual unison which is internally sculpted into several timbral layers. Together with many of the other component parts of my large-scale project CONSTRUCTION, begun in 2005 and including the strongly-related clarinet duo Hypnerotomachia (premiered by Elision last November), Aurora refers in its title and form to a ‘utopian’ vision, in this case the writings of the German mystic Jakob Böhme and in particular their theme of cosmological evolution from ‘innocence’ through a differentiated and conflicted state into a higher state of unity. Aurora is dedicated to James Dillon on the occasion of his 60th birthday.

I suppose the ‘extra-musical dimension’ here is the allusion to Böhme (a frequent point of reference for James Dillon also, of course!), although, as I hope is clear, the structural idea connected to that allusion isn’t at all ‘extra-musical’. So the question of ‘responsibility’ doesn’t arise … or does it? The more I look at it, the less clear I am about what this ‘responsibility’ actually means.

Daryl Buckley: Tim, I am also not so sure about the question – in a sense of there being an absolute and clear division between musical and extra-musical dimensions. The composers whom I value, respect and have gotten to know over a period of time are clearly creative and extraordinarily intelligent people in the broadest sense. Obviously at some point in life their energies and efforts are framed and shaped by studies, professional experiences and encounters, and so their artistic responses and thinking resolve into musical outputs. But maybe there is also a level of abstraction which underpins the creative process, however briefly, before it settles into a sonic domain. With Liza, with Richard and with others there is too much thinking, reading and engagement (in their individual ways) in the broader world for me to see this as a clear and ‘extra-dimension’.

Richard, would Dark Matter have been conceivable without a decades long interest and consideration of physics, cosmologies and philosophy? And for Liza with her engagement with indigenous Australian aesthetics I wonder if the cello solo Invisibility could have been possible at all if we had not lived at 11 Cameron St with a senior Indigenous visual artist and activist living next door, without the friendship with other Indigenous Australians that developed over the 12 years or so we were in Queensland.

Benjamin Marks: I would be interested to know, from the various composers, if the programme notes evolved with the piece of music, or whether they were part of the primal material, or perhaps a way of defining a final product, or a summation of events? Programme notes, composer chats, or introductions seem vital in giving an audience a few clues as to the aural landscape they are about to encounter. You don’t want your audience, expecting to fry in the heat of Mercury, stuck on the polar caps of Mars … well you might want that, but it’s not always the nicest or right thing to do! I’ve always loved ELISION programme notes (read some early Dench!) as they generally articulate a very open, intelligent, associative space, that allows you to find your own way to or through the sounds. Matters very much to me as a performer – I crave ‘connection’ on some level and like to be ‘onside’ if I can (a positive audience ‘vibe’ always gives you an extra boost as well as inviting more risk).

TimR-J: What I’m getting at is how far the idea of the ‘musical’ can be stretched before a composer runs the risk that a neat bit of theorising can bring anything under that rubric?

Daryl talks about there not being a clear division between musical and extra-musical dimensions. What the question is aiming at is how far can that proposal be pushed? At some stage – when the work is actually performed and heard, eg – the notes have to bear the burden of transforming the conventionally non-musical (physics, fractal geometry, archaeology, etc) into the musical. To what extent is that sort of metonymic transformation sustainable? Does it come down to faith in the composer’s creative and intelligent engagement with the world? That’s what I’m getting at with the idea of the notes’ ‘responsibility’ – at some point they have to do the composer’s talking for themselves.

Or do they? Or are they completely inseparable from the surrounding context?

Richard: This isn’t the way I think about it though. For a start, I’d like to reemphasise that making any kind of boundary between the musical and non-musical is a problematic thing to do. In fact, I suppose a lot of what I do is concerned at some level with trying to imagine a situation where that boundary doesn’t exist, and I mean that both in terms of the relationship between sounds and ideas and in terms of what constitutes a musical sound in the first place.

Timothy McCormack (composer): I think that the idea of ‘musicality’ or of something ‘being musical’ becomes far more interesting once it is stretched to its limit, once it is radically and deliberately taken out of our general understanding of what these ideas signify. Please let me briefly cite two examples:

Though the work of Aaron Cassidy has not removed sound from its equation, it is largely communicated through the physicality behind sound production. Specifically, his notation typically employs an extended tablature system prescribing the physical actions/operations necessary for sound production on a given instrument (see the example given, from The Crutch of Memory). This is because Cassidy’s music operates under the belief that these physical actions are in and of themselves are already musical, and carry with them musical significance. This has been the primary informant behind all of his work for the past decade, and, in my opinion, has yielded gradually more intriguing results and consequences.

Secondly, the work of Peter Ablinger has, for quite some time, challenged our conception of what music is, or at least what counts as an aural experience, and to some very interesting and provocative ends. For example, his piece WEISS/WEISSLICH 26b: Arboretum is literally an arboretum he planted ‘according to acoustic criterias as, e.g., colour and intensity of noise’ and stands as the first act to his Landscape Opera (more information here: http://ablinger.mur.at/ww26ulrichsberg.html). He describes his series Seeing and Hearing as ‘music without sound; photographs, photo series, photos and chairs.’ These pieces, among many others of his, ask the question: Does a confrontation with a soundless object (a photo, for example) still present the possibility for a musical experience? Is ‘imagined sound’ sound? Is ‘remembered sound’ sound? I think the answer to this lies more with the perceiver/listener/experiencer than with the composer, who is just setting up the situation/environment for this possibility to be realized or rejected.

If the idea of the ‘musical’ is not being stretched by a composer, I do not believe the composer is engaging with the medium to a significant degree. I do not mean to suggest that a composer who is not considering the musical potential of non-aural forces, etc .., is therefore not engaging with musicality. However, these theories and practices, and the questions they raise, are absolutely fascinating to me, and are a large reason why I am a composer. The fact that music is a medium which allows for such varying relationships between theory, perception and sensation is why I engage with music, and why I listen. For me, it is not a question of what is being brought under this rubric, but why it has.

Liza Lim: I think there’s a bit of a value judgement in the question which pits ‘pure’ music versus a somehow more contaminated ‘programme music’ that can’t ‘speak for itself’.

I don’t define being a composer as just writing music as if it were some kind of ‘pure’ form. I don’t define being an artist in a single dimension.  My particular medium is music but I find correlations to compositional ideas in many different places – other works of art, philosophical thought, cross-cultural models etc.  Yet for me, it’s not so much about those things in themselves.  Rather, what always attracts my attention are certain kinds of internal structures where energies and intensities interact across a number of levels.  I might find examples of this say in the asymmetrical temporality of Japanese court music or the shimmer effect of Aboriginal art.  I’m looking for a certain dynamism, a relationship between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, that I find enculturated in different ways in different places.  So the ‘programme note’ points to this wider field of creative engagement – I’m sharing where I found systems of knowledge that have been drawn into the creative process.

Richard: Tim McC raises a couple of interesting examples, and that of Peter Ablinger is indeed quite relevant in this context, in that he comes closer than most people called ‘composers’ to what in a visual-arts context would be called the ‘conceptual’. While I find much of Ablinger’s work fascinating, my own commitment is to encourage listeners in the direction of the connecting and radiating complex of ideas around the music, if at all, as a consequence of engaging with it as sound/form/presence, because that’s been the nature of my own most important relationships with music.

Liza: Yes, I find Ablinger’s work very thought provoking – the clarity with which he frames a situation so that he foregrounds a way of perceiving it as a musical event is impressive. I wanted to add to my comment above though, that I don’t think that whatever a composer says about their work should necessarily be privileged in terms of the meaning of a work.  Surely the power of music/art lies in the way it can be refreshed in its impact and significations at every encounter between a work and the perceiver/listener.  When I write a programme note, it’s just my take on something at a particular time rather than standing in for ‘what the work means’.

Richard: It’s not just about programme notes, though. Personally I don’t tend to read them before or during the concert (and often not afterwards either, if the music hasn’t generated sufficient interest!), and I know plenty of others who don’t. So I’m assuming that at least some of the people listening to my work aren’t going to be aware of Tim’s ‘explanatory … aura’. However that may be, something that’s in the back of my mind constantly is the idea of an ‘uninitiated’ listener coming to the concert (it does happen!) without any particular expectations, and I’m hoping that, even if they leave at the end in a state of bemusement, their interest would have been activated rather than repelled. Daryl will confirm that he has to squeeze programme notes out of me these days: if I were left to my own devices I’d probably limit them to a couple of facts and acknowledgements …

TimR-J: Reflecting on the three composers’ posts here, I wonder if it is true to say that although there may be any number of non-note-based influences etc brought in during the compositional process, at some stage their importance falls away from the final, sounding result, which essentially ought to be able to stand on its own?

Looking back at Benjamin’s post, however: ‘I crave ‘connection’ on some level and like to be ‘onside’ if I can’ – is there a case to be made that performers might benefit from more priviledged access to the inspirational background to a piece?

Richard: It depends (as Mr Clinton might say) on what you mean by ‘importance’ and ‘final’… you could look at that the other way around, that hearing the music, for the listener, might well be the beginning of something, which might well be related to Ben’s ‘crav(ing) for connection’.

I know for a fact that not all performers share Ben’s feeling that knowing something more than the notes is a desirable part of developing an interpretation. Irvine Arditti, for example, is proverbially not interested in such matters.

Benjamin: Yes, there is the danger that knowing too much beyond the score can obscure rather than clarify, or the music can take on unwanted dimensions. I have to say it is also a frequent occurrence that I find out more about a piece at the concert, when everything is already rehearsed (thinking ensemble pieces not solo pieces), and I get a copy of the programme note. With ELISION we rarely play a piece where we don’t have direct contact with the composer, so developing an interpretation is a shared process anyway. I look for information when I don’t have that contact or feel uncertain about the context, mostly with much older music. It would also be extremely hard to approach Richard’s music without thinking of the way he performs i.e. it would actually take an effort to distance myself from that.

Daryl: I wouldn’t neccessarily share Irvine’s cited attitude on this. In most instances I do feel there has been benefit (at least with ELISION) to players and composers having a shared dialogue and access to knowledge of each other – and the band having an experience of the composer from rehearsal to the concert and in the various social situations surrounding the endeavour.  All of this form part of the connections that Ben is referring to and can be very helpful in generating and sustaining player engagement, interest and commitment. Rarely is it not positive. I think I can pretty confidently say that ELISION as an ensemble has an ethos which welcomes contact with and meeting a composer and tends to the inclusive.

I also note that in some instances the musicians are inherently and directly privileged within the creation of the work by the composer. I remember Liza for a long while saying that everytime she wrote for cello she heard the sound of Rosie (Rosanne Hunt) in her head and Richard’s composer drafts for ELISION have player names instead of specified instruments preceding his staves.

In this environment access to knowledge of a work’s inspiration can be very positive. Musicians will absorb this knowledge in different ways, at different times and rates BUT its all part of the overall osmosis.

Richard: In fact DARK MATTER has the names of the players throughout the published score too (as well as the instruments!).

Another aspect of the ‘dialogue’ Daryl refers to has become very immediate to me in recent weeks, working on the brass duo Aurora, and listening often to the ELISION recording of codex IX in which Ben and Tristram [Williams, trumpet] both took part, and to which they contribute their own musical imagination, this being a piece for improvising players. So there’s a complex interweaving taking place on a number of different levels, some of which (as Ben has pointed out) are more immediate than a discussion of formative ‘extra-musical’ ideas: what Ben and Tristram play in codex IX is conditioned to a degree by my fully-notated music as well as our mutual experience of improvisation, and certainly by the way the improvisational score is laid out, which is in turn partly an encapsulation of my own practice as a performer, and then the result feeds back again into thoughts which find their confluence in another fully-notated score.

Tim McC: I have always been of the opinion that, for me & for many of the musicians with whom I have a particularly deep relationship, the ‘non-note-based influences’ and the ‘sounding result’ are completely connected. Somewhere in the compositional process (before it? During it? Sometimes, afterwards.) the extra-musical influences and intentions become just as musical and the resultant sounds become just as semantic, physical, graphic, painterly, etc … That having been said, I have also always been of the opinion that, yes, the final, sounding result can stand on its own and, due to the unpredictable and divergent life experiences of the pieces’ perceivers, it has to.

But, as far as my music is concerned, I also believe that a listener’s experience of the final sounding result can also stand apart from any historical, traditional or lineagic knowledge. So I wouldn’t say that at some point in the life of a piece, these non-aural forces suddenly lose all importance/consequence. Rather, at some point the purely aural aspects of the piece are able to speak for themselves; they carry the influence of these forces without necessarily trying to communicate them.

Though the non-aural influences working to shape my music are significant to me, and may be of significance to a performer or listener, I am more interested in learning what a perceiver gathers from the performance itself (I am, after all, writing music to be performed live in front of a body of listeners). In this way, I very much like what Richard said: ‘…hearing the music, for the listener, might well be the beginning of something’. I would like to take that further: since my ideas, experiments and lines of thought, both extra-musical and primarily musical, are typically developed, altered, recontextualized or affirmed through the writing of many pieces, I would say that actually hearing the music might well be the beginning of something for me. At the least, it is a significant point in the middle (the ever-expanding middle…).


  1. Pingback: Rambler Roundtables: ELISION ensemble concluded « The Rambler

  2. Pingback: Richard Barrett’s CONSTRUCTION at HCMF | The Rambler

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