Gordon Downie Interview- part two

In part two, we turn our attention to the other works on this week’s program, and Downie’s attitude to programming.


KW:  Xenakis was a very prolific composer and Akrata is not one of his best known works. What is the specific interest of this piece for you?  

GD: Xenakis is important because of his work on formalising music composition. My interest in this work stems from that fact. But I have always found Xenakis’s critique of continental serialism problematic. There’s a curious sense in which the complexity of his techniques of generation isn’t mirrored at the surface of what he produces. And from what I understand, that was his intention, in that he sought to make sure that underlying mathematical structures and method weren’t blurred by implementational detail. For that reason I often find his music, at the immediate level of perception, rather simple. It becomes more complex if you try to listen to it with reference to the math or statistics underneath. I can only listen to Herma, for example, as an exposition or process of set manipulation and projection.

KW: Mefano’s Interferences is rather unique in combining open form writing with an exceptionally high level of density and complexity. What is the importance of open form music in your opinion, and do you think there is a certain risk in expecting performers to respond spontaneously to each other in music that is so dense and abstract? A piece like this suggests that the performer should have a significant creative impact on the shape of the piece by how he or she responds to events, but they can end up so busy “doing” that there is little time or mental energy for the “responding.”GD: Open or variable form must constitute one of the most important and significant developments in post 1945 music. Its appearance is an inevitable outcome of the formal and harmonic expansion of musical resources. But we have to be more precise about what we mean when we use the term. Both Earle Brown’s Novara and Paul Mefano’s Interferences are classed as open form, but they respond to the possibility of variability in different ways. I think there’s an inherent contradiction in Brown’s work, at least as it appears in Novara or Available Forms. The contradiction stems from his formal abstention from repetition within local events or material, and his use of manifest repetition of these events at the global level. I understand that Brown’s model for this approach was certain forms of kinetic art, such as the mobiles of Alexander Calder. But in the case of a Calder mobile, despite the kinetic quality of the objects themselves, and despite the extent to which objects occlude and form different relationships with one another as they move around in space, they are nevertheless always in the viewer’s sight: they do not disappear then reappear. In the case of Brown, because music inhabits a temporal modality that is impossible within visual art, the constituent objects do disappear and reappear which, of course, corresponds to repetition within the temporal domain.  Maybe this problem is ameliorated to an extent because of the nature of his material, which also exhibits variability in terms of temporal placement and the like. And his interest in extended instrumental techniques that introduce sounds whose precise repeatability is sometimes difficult to maintain, also adds variability to material that’s repeated. But we’re still left with the problem, in concept if not in fact.Mefano’s Interferences constitutes a much more ambitious use of the concept, but in so doing, raises new problems. As with Boulez’s Eclat, he utilizes the conductor to more fully enable the creation of complex gesture and relationships, even though many of the coordinating devices that customarily enable such relationships are more or less absent. That’s an achievement.

As you’ve observed, Mefano seems to attempt to offer the instrumentalists some degree of freedom, and opportunities to spontaneously create and abandon temporary relationships with one another. Maybe it’s here that we need to clearly differentiate between open or variable form and improvisation. It was certainly never Boulez’s intention to relinquish control in his Third Piano Sonata. In contexts such as these, form has been parameterized and problematized and, once foregrounded in this way, becomes an object of aesthetic contemplation and a powerful means of technical exploration and expression. I would argue that the further along the continuum the composer travels toward performer choice the further one approaches improvisation. And at that point, the resources polyvalent forms offer are more or less lost. So variable form is important for the opportunities it offers for formal exploration and extension, but these opportunities are lost if extended beyond certain boundaries. Most fundamentally, polyvalent form offers the opportunity to abandon linear forms in preference for branching forms, or tree-like structures – to use more precise mathematical terminology. Works employing such means should attempt to explore the combinatorial problems that such structures generate, with a view to examining notions of order, sequence, association, and the like.

Such processes have significant implications for composers’ medium of information exchange, the score and notation. That’s why so many open form works also redefine the score. In this regard Stockhausen’s Zyklus, Boulez’s Third Sonata, Amy’s Sonata, and Mefano’s Interferences are instructive in this regard. And it is this line of development my own variable construct 1 for solo piano takes. This work was premiered by Ian Pace at the Transit Festival in Leuven October 2007. In addition to sophisticated graphics and colour coding to assist the performer navigate a route through the available material, the work also employs transparencies that, once applied to selected pages, process the material upon which they rest. This adds an additional layer of global variability and also extends our definition of score.


Comments on this thread have all been moved here. That is the place to join the discussion- this post is now closed to commentsInterview Part Three is here

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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1 comment on “Gordon Downie Interview- part two”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Gordon Downie Interview- part one: forms 7

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