Practice-Led Research into an ‘Avant Garde’ Style

I’ve made a YouTube video that tries to elaborate on my own approach to composing music. This entails what I think about what we call “Avant garde” music or “contemporary classical music” today. By all means, check out the video on my YouTube channel. In this video, I outline some practice-led research (from my own PhD in Composition) that led me to conclude that the ‘Avant Garde’ music scene is just one massive adherence to a bunch of unspoken established rules and, essentially, a ‘style’. It’s a style so much so that it can be quoted and even the subject of pastiche. This video (and this blog post) should also go some way to showing how composition IS and CAN BE research (am looking at you, Croft).

I’m going to talk about a particular collection of pieces I started writing during my PhD. This collection of pieces is called ENERGY CANNOT BE CREATED. You can listen to these pieces online. So far there are four pieces in this collection. It’s important to note that I wrote all these pieces for a student ensemble.  This had an influence on how I wrote the pieces because I had to keep in mind the students’ capabilities at all times.

The Practice: My Approach

When I wrote the first piece of the ECBC collection, I just wrote it “freely” (at least, what I thought was ‘freely’). Of course, when you hear the piece, there are some underlying influences there: legato, crescendos and diminuendos, sweeping Romantic-era stuff, basically. “Extended techniques” are also infrequent in this piece. I suppose there’s a question as to exactly how “free” I was being, because I also knew that my own preconceived knowledge of music influenced the composing process and so acted as a kind of restriction: I was going to predictably select certain notes/timbres/so on according to how I thought music should be. Even if I wanted to do what I thought was “different”, it would only be different according to what I thought was different from my own preceding approaches.

Anyway, this first piece was purely an exploration of frequency easily available to the instruments I was writing for. I wanted to write freely, picking notes and timbres and so on whether or not I was predisposed to do so. I didn’t want it to matter that, say, a melody sounded almost Romantic or Classical or hinted at a particular key or mode or tonal centre or whatever. I wasn’t even considering that I didn’t want it to matter. It just didn’t matter. I didn’t care whether allusion to such tonality and consonances jarred with atonality and dissonances because I wasn’t viewing the composition in those terms. My palette was a vast spectrum of frequencies I was navigating, whilst also respecting my performers were students.

ENERGY CANNOT BE CREATED I (2013-14), pp. 1-2

I will admit that there’s room to explore the frequency and timbres more in terms of microtonality, but not at the exclusion or all things that allude to atonality because that’s just another restriction isn’t it? And this is my point: to avoid allusions to tonality (in other words restrict yourself to atonality because tonality isn’t deemed as “explorative” or “Avant Garde” or “creative” or “contemporary” enough) is just as restrictive to the creative process as only writing in a certain key or Western classical tonality in general. Now, I’m not advocating Western tonality as being forward thinking depending on how you think about it, but I am saying that one should be able to explore all pitches regardless of what they allude to.

The Listeners

When I played my two supervisors a recording of the piece, one of them commented on how Classically tonal it was, and how these Classical tonal moments “jarred” with the dissonances in a way that was genuinely uncomfortable (note: that’s not artistically uncomfortable as much of the Avant Garde aimed to do – they were genuinely weirdly uncomfortable to him, and he is a learned man who knows about the ‘Avant Garde’). Without delving into the questions his position and opinion raised, I was utterly surprised by his interpretation because I hadn’t viewed this piece as being remotely tonal. This is when my perspective on composition really came to the forefront of my mind. Of course, it had always been there, but now I was really acknowledging it. There was also an element of frustration here because I knew my perspective was really difficult to explain. People often pass it off as Postmodernism. But I don’t think it is as simple as that.

I was left with this question: how was it that I could compose seemingly freely without acknowledging the allusions to pre-existing musical traditions (such as Western Classical harmony) when this is all the listeners heard? One possible answer is that I was so emerged in the compositional process that I’d lost sight of the piece. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that I did perceive my music as being void of such allusions and references to other styles when I composed it. Therefore, it must be possible to compose freely so much so that, when you inadvertently (and unavoidably) compose in the realm of pre-existing harmonic, melodic, whatever rules, you don’t notice it because your viewpoint on all sound and music has shifted. This is what happened to me and this is why I combine consonances and dissonances so freely in a way that sounds “jarring” to my extremely learned and knowledgeable PhD supervisor.

This is when I concluded, with – perhaps – the help of some aesthetic theorists and philosophers, that people’s preconceived thoughts about music act as a kind of violence on the music. People are never going to hear the music I write. They’ll hear the music they perceive and that perception is based on what they already know about music.

So, energy cannot be created?

So, why the ‘energy cannot be created concept’? Well, as we know, energy cannot be created; it can only be transformed between states. I think the same can be said for any creative process: the artist cannot create an artwork; they can only transform what already exists into a composition. Moreover, the receiver’s interpretation of such a composition is based on what already exists in their heads (that’s their preconceived ideas about music). I explore this concept in more deliberate and obvious ways in other compositions and I will explain these compositional processes (and subsequent research findings) more in another video (and blog post).

Further Research: Is the ‘Avant Garde’ a Style?

I find my approach to composing difficult to explain because, like my music, I can never be sure that what I’m saying is what is being interpreted. For now, I’ll summarise with the following quote I found in a CD liner note. It explains how the audience at the premiere of Rihm’s Morphonie Sektor IV (1974) reacted negatively to the music’s employment of traditional idioms:

 “[t]he public reacted fiercely and at once: in 1974 Wolfgang Rihm had introduced himself to an instantly polarised audience with his orchestra piece Morphonie Sektor IV [sic]. The compositional message of the then 22-year-old was initially perceived as an enormous insult against all the established agreements of the last decades. Again, a composer seemed to be making unscrupulous use of grand gestures. He also did not attempt to avoid last century’s field of musical language, defending the uncensored expression of radicalised subjectivity and insisting that music is dependent on communication. Rihm could and would not accept a musical language canon of the prohibited which had been a matter of course with music in the fifties and sixties; just as the view that material is dead and thus could no longer be used. Rihm was convinced that dead material per se does not exist. Just as he logically concluded that there was no constraint for composition technique to progress – in whatever sense.”

Wolfgang Fuhrmann and Peter Oswald, ‘Notes on the early Wolfgang Rihm’ and ‘Musik für drei Streicher’, trans. by Christoffer Lindner, CD liner notes to Musik für drei Streicher, trio recherche (KAIROS, 0012042KAI, 1999), p. 9

Here the audience members listening to Rihm’s music were reacting negatively to his employment of the traditional idiom in relation to their established conceptual frameworks for comprehending Avant-Garde music. It can be argued that Rihm’s piece and the jarred/jarring encounter generated listeners heard in my piece not only highlight the existence of traditional ‘styles’ and boundaries between such ‘styles’, but also that Avant-Garde music, whilst claiming to be ‘new’ and explore the ‘unfamiliar’, is itself a ‘style’ that many of its practitioners (that’s composers and listeners) are evidently ‘familiar’ with. If they weren’t so familiar with an ‘avant garde’ style, then the public at Rihm’s premiere would not have reacted so fiercely against his use of tonality. Moreover, that ‘jarring’ just wouldn’t have happened to the listeners of my piece.

 Further Research: The ‘Avant Garde’ is a Style

After my ‘revelation’, I attended the Huddersfied Contemporary Music Festival and heard the premiere of James Dillon’s Stabat Mater Dolorsa. James Dillon is a composer who’s dabbled in music that alludes to other styles. He’s constantly asked about this and in 2010, The Arts Desk published a Q & A article with composer James Dillon in which he claimed that he:

‘doesn’t think of music in terms of style. Either it [music] has this visceral quality or it’s got a cerebral attraction that fascinates [him].’

Igor Toronyi-Lalic, ‘theartsdesk Q&A: Composer James Dillon’, the arts [accessed: 07/12/14]

During a round table discussion at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Dillon explained that he does not like distinctions between ‘tonal’, ‘atonal’, and ‘microtonal’. For Dillon, composing involves a preconceived ‘space of continuous frequency’ that he likes to explore ‘freely’.

In his Stabat Mater Dolorosa, Dillon does his usual alluding to other ‘styles’ that aren’t styles because of course he’s viewing the whole composition as a journey through an open space of frequency whether or not it alludes to anything the listener already knows about. But, then, he actually quotes Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. It’s an explicit quote. And, instantly, for me, it highlighted an Avant Garde style by deviating from it. And THEN he went and did an impression of an ‘avant-garde’ style. This of course is just my interpretation and probably based on my own preconceived understandings about music. But listen to it, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean. This is something that can only have an impact in relation to everything the press has already said about Dillon and his allusions to styles so in a weird way it requires preconceived knowledge to make a point about how music should be just explored freely. It was like Dillon was saying, through his music (to me anyway) that he can play that ‘Avant Garde’ (with capital letters) game and write music that fits in with the genre, but he’s choosing not to, because writing music isn’t about adhering to a style. That’s just pastiche. As he’s already said he views music as an open-space of frequency.

Of course, as this is just my interpretation, it can also be argued that, on one hand, this apparent quotation of an ‘Avant Garde’ idiom is simply one of the recapitulation-type passages that happen at the end of each movement; however, on the other hand, this Avant-Garde idiom is signposted as such because it contrasts not only with all preceding recapitulation passages, but also all preceding sections in general in its texture, tonal centricity, and dynamics. Whether Dillon intended to quote the Avant-Garde idiom or whether this was merely a recapitulation of preceding textures in this particular movement, the sensation of defamiliarisation is still present when I personally listen to this piece. For me, an audible comparison of this ‘seemingly signposted Avant-Garde idiom’ with the immediately-preceding tonally-centred sections suggests a sudden direct quotation (not just an allusion) of an Avant-Garde trope. The sense that Dillon might be trying to quote the Avant Garde is amplified by the fact that Pergolesi is quoted earlier on in the piece: quotation of other music has become an established norm by the point I hear this referential Avant-Garde moment.

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