Gordon Downie Interview- part one: forms 7

Composer Gordon Downie is the founder and Artistic Director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble of Wales. I sat down with Gordon this week and asked him to talk a bit about his music and this week’s CMEW program.
Typically, our discussion went far beyond the scope of a singly blog post, so this interview will be published in instalments leading up to this weekend’s concert.

Casual readers may be scared off by the relatively dense language of these interviews, while others may be resistant to returning to issues of the place of modernism and serialism in today’s musical culture that have been argued about for so long, but I would strongly encourage them to stick with it and be patient and thoughtful, as hopefully Gordon offers a relevant and now rarely heard perspective on music and art today. The very fact that this topic remains problematic and controverisal for so many musicians, music critics and composers tells me that our discussions need to go further, not be abandoned. In part one, I ask Gordon about forms 7:non-mediated forms, and a bit a bout his language and technique in general.

KW: Let’s start with forms 7: non-mediated forms. Thank you for trusting me with the first performance- it has been fascinating and exciting learning it.  Can you talk particularly about the idea of “non-mediated” forms in this piece?


GD: Serialism can be viewed as a particular domain-specific instance of a general tendency that has dominated certain trends throughout contemporary art theory and praxis. This is a tendency that rejects hierarchical modes of operation in favour of heterarchical modes of operation. It is thus a tendency that emphasizes equivalence or equality between the constituent parts of an art object. Put simply, everything is as important as everything else [emphasis added]. Under another name, it’s equivalence to which Stockhausen refers in his characterization of serialism as a process of mediation, whereby extremes or opposites are reconciled through their scalic mediation. And once permutated, such scales become series. And mediation forms one of two primary organizational and structuring devices for forms 7’s antecedents, forms 1 to 6. In forms 5: event intersection, for example, the gestural complexion of the work is determined through the establishment of two formal extremes comprising high impulse density and low impulse density. The two extremes are then mediated to form a 7-element scale of high to low impulse density – or notes per unit of time. The elements are then permutated to form distinct series which, in the case of forms 5, prioritize adjacencies which exhibit maximum differentiation from one another.

It is this latter process of negation that forms the second primary organizational and structuring device of the forms series. Within standard set-theoretic discourse, negation stands for a relation in which the contents of set A have no common elements with set B : they are thus distinct and wholly contrasting entities. Thus, by combining the organizational device of mediation   (that emphasizes high levels of structural identity) with negation (that emphasizes maximum contrast), highly dynamic and perceptually differentiated forms can be devised that are nevertheless highly integrated and uniform.

In forms 6: event aggregates for orchestra, whilst the events that constitute the formal series of the work are generated by mediation, they are also given levels of specificity and autonomy that further enhances their distinctness from one another, mainly through instrumental and timbral differentiation. In this work then, processes of negation begin to be prioritized.

And this is a process that is further developed in forms 7: non-mediated forms, where mediation is subordinated in order to emphasize formal constituents that are highly distinct from one another, not only in terms of timbral and instrumental identity as in forms 6, but also in terms of gestural complexion and intervallic projection.  Forms 7 then, comprises a sequence of 44 distinct events, each delineated by distinctive instrumental and gestural organization.  The extent to which successive events negate or contrast with one another is controlled through the application of the logical operators NOT, AND, and OR, to either entire events or their constituent parts.  By this mechanism, it is intended to produce a rich and diverse succession of behaviours the dynamic of which is determined by inter-event interaction and reaction. And by this mechanism, the forms or events in question, are no longer the result of mediation – they are non-mediated forms.

KW: Complexity and abstraction seem to be two very important aspects of your musical language. For many listeners and performers, these can be barriers that may not only make it more difficult for them to fully comprehend the music, but may cause them to not want to even try. Can you talk about what you think is important and relevant, and hopefully rewarding, in the exploration of complexity and abstraction? What is the reward for the listener in coming to terms with high levels of complexity or abstraction?

GD: Much of this discussion boils down to what one considers the function of aesthetic objects to be. Most of the time, there appears to be a tacit understanding between cultural producer (or artist), consumer, and various administrative intermediaries about what such objects should do. In the main, and to varying degrees, this is an agreement that prioritises the mimetic or representational function of art objects, in which the art object must signify or be about something external to itself.

I’m interested in self-referential work that seeks to foreground the medium, so that the subject of an art object, if it has one, is the formal and technical means of its production. Much hostility toward this programme is based around the extent to which it seems to demote subjectivity. But in the current socio-political context, I find the notion of the subject so problematic that, at this juncture, I see no alternative to a more or less strict formalism. Methods of rationalisation – integral serialism being the most well known – enable us to externalise creative action in order to subject it to thorough critique.

Parametric composition – building the art object from the ground up – strikes me as the most efficient means to control the signifying capacity of artworks. The alternative – which is the norm – is to construct music from other music, or from compound, ready-made material the contents of which are more or less out of the composers’ hands. This practice explains, in part, the routine explanation of artists’ work with reference to other artists’ work, rather than in terms of more fundamental, medium-specific criteria. This is the staple critical diet of much work in academia. 

I have no responsibility for listeners or performers that aren’t interested in this perspective, but I think they need to consider the relationship between composer and auditor much more seriously, to be sure that they are content with the levels of exploitation associated with work of a more immediately accessible complexion – they should ask themselves why they find a given work easier; they should ask themselves how the composer achieved this, and why the composer achieved this; they should ask themselves why, when we are surrounded by complexity in all other spheres, music should be any different. I’m not interested in art as escape.



 Interview Part Two is here

Comments and discussion on this series is here. Any comments should be posted there- this post is now closed to comments.

Broadcast information from BBC Radio 3 is here

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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