Guided by voices (IEM #4)

After having written below about the need to introduce constraints into the creative process, and then having fully immersed myself in the composition of the piece, what has become clear is that while it is useful to introduce pre-compositional constraints – establishing a work-concept that informs the creative process – these constraints themselves are only a scaffold which is eventually replaced by the more substantial constraints the work itself gradually establishes the further one moves inside this emergent territory. For example, in working with vocal material for the newly completed Let x = I had presumed that the heterogeneity of voice, the fact that it resonates at causal, semantic, and reduced levels (voice as voice, meaning and sound), could be accomodated in a single work. Certainly it can be and there are plenty of examples of works in which all these levels (and more) are operating simultaneously (one of my favourites remains John Young’s Sju), but in Let x = the constraint that the work itself introduced was a product of exploring the spatial sound environments afforded by IEM’s Ikosaeder (20-channel loudspeaker) and ambisonic hemisphere (24-channels), and the combination of these. In investigating what can be done with these spatially, it quickly became clear that the work was veering away from voice as speech (semantic), and voice as voice (causal) (aside from in a delimited but structurally significant way, i.e. as a means to mark key structural moments in the piece), and that in fact it needed to, wanted to, was going to, do so. The voice as sound, transformed but still vocalesque (voice-like), afforded enough sonic ambiguity and abstraction for sound materials to be utilised spatially without the histrionics of voices that behave like winged creatures or the schizophrenic effects of invisible conclaves, juries and choruses. The outcome is a work that, at least in my reckoning (I don’t need to be reminded that “the author is dead“), through which I manage to achieve one of the initial aims, but which also guided itself in a direction I had not anticipated. In the vocally tinged spatial atmospheres, textures and trajectories of Let x = there is a commingling of voice and environment which I feel fulfils my stated aims of  “the transformation of speech into objects resonating at embodied.. and environmental levels” and the dissolution of  “the barrier between ‘over here’ and ‘over there,’… the illusory boundary between ‘inside and outside’” (Tim Morton). Yet at the same time, the aim of deploying speech “as an ‘interface language’ between the kinaesthetic (nonverbal expression, including music, utterance, gesture and space) and the cenaesthetic (complex cognitive structures, including poetic language and the semantics of music)” has not really begun to be explored, simply because there is so little direct speech in the piece and when speech is heard it is in forms difficult to understand unless one is Indonesian (“Kaki langit,” the foot of the sky is the phrase that opens the piece) or capable of deciphering 6 languages at once (the closing moment of the piece simultaneously introduces the same phrase in English, German, Italian, Farsi, Bengali and Indonesian). Recognising that the piece guided itself is an important thing for me, not only because it recognises the extent to which things themselves have their own propensities and powers to which we are always having to respond (Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics is good on this topic), but also because it means one can feel good about letting one’s own work-concept fall away and trust that engagement with the complex thing-in-itself (shadowy though its being is) will produce an object which is cohesive in its own ways, irrespective of how closely these match with the hypothetical thing it was intended to become. One of the other very satisfying aspects of this is that I can still attempt to compose the piece I thought I was composing, and by concentrating less on spatiality and more on semantics, perhaps a new work will emerge which “[deploys] speech “as an ‘interface language’ between the kinaesthetic… and the cenaesthetic”. Therefore the work itself is not finished. Let x =.

 

Notes towards a programme

Lilburn in the Victoria University EMS

Douglas Lilburn’s electronic music continues to fascinate. I’ve written about it in a number of (offline) contexts, and this Wednesday evening will be helping to present a concert marking the 10th anniversary of his death – 10 years ago today. Here follow notes towards programme notes for the electronic works in the concert, which explores the links between his lesser known piano works and the electronic work. Lilburn’s complete electronic works, by the way, are available as a box set from SOUNZ.

God Save (1972, 1:00). A familiar melody, transformed into wonky bagpipe filigree and, later, towards those birdlike forms so prevalent in the electronic work. It  is no doubt a republican snipe, not least given Lilburn’s focus on the “the discovery of our own [musical] identity” (Lilburn, 1946), and delivered with irreverent antipodean wit.

Five Toronto Pieces – Sings Harry (1963, 5:06). One of Lilburn’s earliest electronic works and it presages many of the features of his mature works in the electronic medium. There is a sparseness, a concern for inharmonic timbres (so characteristic of the technology of the day), a structure defined by refrain (song is never far away in Lilburn’s music), and the sudden opening of the texture into ebullient melody (birds and bagpipes again). Then at the end, somewhat unexpectedly, there is Lilburn, giving voice to a different reading of Denis Glover’s poem. This might be understood as Lilburn revising his own history which in 1963, as Lilburn embarked on a journey into the nascent electronic medium, was still largely defined by the success of the other Sings Harry (1954).

Soundscape with Lake and River (1979, 11:00). Without doubt Lilburn’s best known electronic work. It remains a singular statement, juxtaposing and overlaying field recordings made near Taupo with electronic textures that reflect and refract the natural world of New Zealand which Lilburn held to be key to his aural imagination. Aside from its sheer beauty, the reasons for the work’s significance are best articulated by Lilburn: “I think the last piece that I did [Soundscape with lake and river] really brought me full circle to what I’d been wanting to do all the time: take the natural sound of the river and lake at Taupo and weave it into the texture of the electronic sound and fuse them in some way.”

Triptych (1977, 11:00). This work presents something of summary of many of Lilburn’s signature sounds and techniques, and as ever bears relationship both to his instrumental work (melody always hovering close by) and his engagement with the natural world (birds around tangled horizons). To a contemporary ear, it has an appealing quirkiness and grittiness, which is one reason why these pieces grab the attention of those who are as interested in electronica as Elektronische Musik. More than this though, it is in soundworlds such as this that, as Frederick Page put it, ‘the strangeness, the remoteness, of our world, finds its sound’ (1970).