I saw Bryn Harrison‘s music before I heard any of it. This was back in 2001, and he was giving a research paper at Goldsmiths College a year after I’d finished my Masters there. I’d been intellectually in thrall to the very different temporal and notational manipulations of Feldman and Ferneyhough and as Harrison presented slides of some of his recent music (from the Listenings series), in which very precise, very sparse material was rotated around asymmetrical rhythmic cycles, I saw music that stirred the two contrasts together.
Harrison’s music isn’t a cocktail recipe, but that combination of apparently opposite poles is an interesting place from which to approach it. The mix of what we might call European and American influences gives his music a feeling of both intensely structured rigour and aleatoric freedom. As he explains below, his music still involves material cycled round in asymmetric loops, but it has become considerably more dense over recent years such that the sounding surface acts as a thick, almost impenetrable skin through which details may periodically become apparent, but beneath which the full depth of activity can never truly be appreciated. The listener is cast somewhat adrift, therefore, in an aural environment that continually pulls them back and forth between highly energised structural details and an almost completely neutral surface sheen. Where Harrison is most successful is in exploiting the expressive potential of such a combination: the tension between intensive detail and strait-jacketed stasis has a melancholy grandeur, a bittersweet ebb and flow of resistance and acquiescence.
There isn’t a better piece in which to explore this tension than Harrison’s Repetitions in Extended Time. This 43-minute work was written for Ensemble Plus-Minus, who will be performing it at Kings Place this Monday, 12th April. I strongly recommend that you take up the opportunity to hear it for yourself. This piece is too big to share (although extracts are available via Harrison’s website) so here is the much smaller Quietly Rising, written for pianist Philip Thomas:
Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?
Bryn Harrison: I’m not sure that I find composing to be an anachronistic career choice. After all, there seem to be more composers now than ever before working in a multitude of musical genres. I can understand though why some people might consider sitting down at a desk and composing with pen and paper a little old fashioned but that is my preferred method of working and I find it to be the most effective way of hopefully ensuring that what comes off the page still feels vibrant and new. Composing needs to feel invigorating and stimulating and as long as the creative impetus is there I will continue to do it. I do find that it becomes more challenging as one gets older. Pushing through into newer territory becomes more difficult and it is easy to fall back on what one already knows. I am happy to adopt the position (as, say, many painters do) of working within a very limited field so that each piece does not need to feel radically different to the last, but there always has to be the feeling of the pushing myself slightly further in a particular direction. I still find it stimulating to discover things about my music that I hadn’t previously considered.
TR-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, is different now than from 20–30 years ago?
BH: Well 20–30 years ago the goal seemed to be to get a publishing deal but I don’t hear younger composers talking about that at all any more. I suppose that electronic communication has made it far easier for composers to promote and disseminate their music themselves. I think the situation is actually healthier now. There seem to be more composers working across various disciplines and enjoying the autonomy that comes from having certain creative freedoms and not feeling that one has to write for a particular group in order to get a degree of recognition.
TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?
BH: It feels increasingly gratifying for me to work with performers who I know and respect. Over the last few years I have built up a particular working relationship with groups such as Ensemble Plus-Minus, the Norwegian group Asamisimasa and, more recently, ELISION. Essentially, this has meant that although I still adopt the standpoint of writing for the instruments themselves (rather than for the particular strengths of an individual player) I have confidence that what I’m writing will be given the level of committment that is required to really pull the piece off. I very much doubt that Repetitions in Extended Time would have been written for a group with whom I had not worked previously due to the immense amount of concentration required. Similarly, it would be difficult to envisage writing such a complex and enduring piece as Surface Forms (repeating) for a group other than ELISION. I am always interested though in the differences in perspective that arise when another group take up an existing piece. Often interpretations will be quite different and bring fresh insights to the music.
TR-J: What is musical material for you?
BH: Morton Feldman once said that he thought there was a crucial difference between having ‘ideas’ and a sense of what the material was in one’s music. I would agree with Feldman here. For me, materials are the pitches and durations that I deal with on a moment to moment basis. What I am interested in is the inter-relationships that occur between the rhythmic cycle and the melodic cycle and, in the case of ensemble pieces, the ways in which cyclical materials can be distributed or combined. Timbre and dynamics are also important but it is the projection of cyclical pitch material through time that I am principally concerned with. I try to steer away from a music that is in any way rhetorical or referential. I am interested in a music that is purely reflective/experiential and engages with our faculties of musical perception, cognition and memory.
TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?
BH: I am interested in writing a singular, monolithic kind of music that asserts a kind of objectified presence and that seems to operate in a different way to that which unfolds through time. All music, of course engages with the passing of time but we can still hold to the notion of stasis as a symbolic representation of something which, we might say, reflects a certain ideology but which, ultimately, will be superseded by the reality of dealing with a transient, temporal art form. In the past I have worked with panels of material which are presented with little or no direct development and which assert themselves as objects by being comparable to one another, and have written single movement works which change very gradually. What I have been trying to do in very recent pieces such as Surface Forms (repeating) (2009) is to present all the material as quickly as possible but to allow the listener time to then assimilate this very high level of information over a prolonged period of time. I find it fascinating how we deal with very high levels of information, especially when these ideas are presented over and over again. I’m really interested at the moment in allowing the listener to build up the musical image very slowly over a period of time through constantly revisiting the same, almost ungraspable, musical surface. In Surface Forms (repeating) there are some very literal repeats but they never feel this way because the listener is always scanning a different part of the musical surface when the same materials re-occur. In other words the music has to be cognitively constructed rather than directly perceived.
TR-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?
BH: I’m mainly focussing on a solo classical guitar piece for Anders Forisdal (guitarist with Asamisimasa) following a commission from the Norwegian Arts Council. I have about three weeks to complete this. There are also projects in the back of my mind for Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea, the London Sinfonietta in collaboration with digital artist Tim Head, and a vocal ensemble piece for EXAUDI. So plenty to keep me busy!
TR-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?
BH: C for me is as good a note to proceed from as any other but I’m particularly pleased that you picked a mid-range note! I would create a pitch cycle from the C to other contingently related pitches which eventually would return to the C only to become, once more it’s point of departure. I would then create a rhythmic cycle that was of a different length to the pitch cycle and experiment combining the two.