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Notes from a composer, Part 5 - Found Objects

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 16:16 UK Time, Thursday, 22 September 2011


Part of the Found Objects manuscript

Part of the Found Objects manuscript

Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his fifth post explaining the process and his thoughts along the way.

Actually I’m still not sure if 'Found Objects' is the title of the second movement! It feels a touch cold for my taste – so I’m continuing to consider. But certainly the resonance of the piece is that: a collection of different musical objects, from a variety of sources, including at least 10 quotations from the compositions of others.

What’s my expressive reason for doing this? In my last blog I said something about reflecting our plural world. But it’s not just a portrayal for me of what happens if you channel hop. Indeed it’s not really that at all. It’s much more to do with our internal plural worlds, the way our minds (and hearts) hop from idea to idea, from feeling to feeling, one object eliding with or juxtaposing with another, one thought or memory reminding one of another. And I’m aware too of how quickly these leaps can happen. I have another image too for this piece: and it’s of someone opening an old chest of objects, and out pop half-forgotten objects, some of great sentimental value.

So what ties these objects together is in many ways no more than my own personal taste – a chord from Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments rubs shoulders with a snatch of Cantaloube’s Songs from the Auvergne, the hopeful innocence of Mahler 1 elides with Bach’s Cantata of resignation Ich habe genug, which in turn falls back into late Mahler, the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde. Later in the piece, the opening of Berg’s Violin Concerto slides into the start of Ravel’s Mother Goose. Most of the quotations are classical, but I leave room for a moment from The Sound of Music: My Favourite Things.

And the found objects are not all just actual quotations: I’ve also taken familiar bits of musical vocabulary – a triad, a bit of a scale, a snatch of a tune – and tried to find ways, for example through unusual voicings, or extreme highs and lows of register or sudden, unexpected shifts of orchestral colour and texture, for these objects to be heard anew.

‘low’ art (though I’ve done this more elsewhere).  But most of all it’s a reflection of how I hear things existing together; and - to return to my recurring theme – how different times (reflected in different materials) can sit right alongside each other. And how moving that can be.

Part of the Lost Worlds manuscript

I guess I do want to try to surprise in this piece, perhaps, too, to question the separation of ‘high’ from

Still, the biggest technical question for me throughout shaping this short movement (it’s less than 2 minutes) has been how to put all these things together, push coherence to the limit, but not go so far over the edge that it all feels merely confusing.

A lasting model for me in the making of a piece out of many different ‘mosaic-like’ parts is Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The epitomy of modernist fragmentation on the surface – and yet it holds together. How? 1) sections do not end, they stay ‘up in the air’; 2) below the surface, there are ‘lines’ that join sections together, ‘common’ notes that straddle different materials (I’ve learnt this from Debussy too); 3) a climactic section centres the piece; and 4) things do recur, in particular, a chorale, the final chord of which is in my piece (though not at the end!).

I am undoubtedly pushing stylistic coherence further – but all of these techniques have gone into my piece. This is the stuff of compositional craft of course – it’s not what you need to listen out for. It would be like saying: examine how I mix the mortar and place the bricks one on top of the other rather than stand back and look at the shape of the building! But without careful placing of bricks and RSJs, houses fall down. And it’s perhaps all the more necessary when the surface sounds are so disparate.

Well, as I write I’ve just finished this movement. And I’m still wondering if I’ve got the balance between surprise and fragmentation – and something that holds things together. Certainly it’s the piece in my set that will push cohesion the furthest, and perhaps in itself it has gone over the edge. But what I’m hoping is as part of the set of 7, it will – especially coming near the start – have the sense it has to be how it is. That elusive, vital impression one wants to give that things must be as they are: as though all is born in one flash of inspiration – even though that is the stuff of fantasy. 99% is always perspiration.





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