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Notes from a composer, Part 4 - Lost Worlds

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 10:19 UK Time, Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Illustration: Salvador Dali - The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dali - The Persistence of Memory

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

 

Last time I mused in general about temporal things. But now I’m a bit further on. And can report on some of the detail of the comings and goings of the first piece of my set of seven. So I’ve definitely called it ‘Lost Worlds’. And it’s become a kind of evocation of things once had, once grasped, once hoped for, and now gone. A sense of nostalgia is on the brink here. It’s a feeling I’m interested in. It’s often been rather dismissed in the refined circles of modern music – seen as something base, a suspicious, indulgent feeling. But it’s certainly one I have, one that seems to me part of being human – and in relation to thinking about time, and the evocation of different times, part of my expressive palette. Present time, or something like it, is cut across by things from the past – as memories involuntarily push into our consciousness. And the feelings that come with this can be strong.

But how am I trying to do this with music? There are a lot of stops and starts in the music to begin: different kinds of materials jostling against each other. Fast, slow, without pulse, very pulsed. And then, there are different kinds of harmonic worlds. This is very important for me. For too long, I tried to inhabit a sealed modernism, where all parts carefully derived from others, all was strictly coherent. This is in fact very much what I teach to students in general – for without coherence there is quickly confusion. So why I am not doing what I teach?! Because I need to push the boundaries of coherence to reach fuller, wider, deeper expression. Why can’t tonal music not sit alongside atonal? – and all the gradations in between. So bars 1-3, a recurring stillness, is a rich, deep complex sonority, yet made from the simple triadic building blocks of tonality; bars 4-7 instead turn towards the sounds of the pentatonic, the five-note group of pitches heard in so many folk musics around the world, from Celtic to Berber to Chinese. And then, in a flash, b.7 pushes that world of innocence – as I see it – away with ‘rude’ dissonance, but also something that might be heard as exuberant.

Photo of John Cage

John Cage (1912-1992)

The danger in all of these clashing worlds is that the piece simply becomes a collection of unrelated things, and is then unconvincing as a result – or at least to, shall we say, a mainstream listener, unimpressed with the ‘live and let live’ ideas of John Cage, where all can be admitted. I suppose I sit somewhere between Cage and this imaginary listener! So a good part of my compositional scratching around, testing and re-testing, is to look for ways to make such a disparate set of materials somehow sound inevitable in their placing. For sure, mine is much more an intuition-trusting edging towards rather than a cold calculated approach. But a lot of it has to do with sensitising myself to the timing of events, the musical drama if you like – how long things need to be to make an impact, but not so long as to lose the tensile strength of the music. And a lot has to do with the element of surprise: interruption is such a helpful notion.

At the same time, I’ve tried to keep a deeper line in the music – something that helps to pull you along. And the musical world that emerged to do this has been a bold, even brash kind of musical figure. It pushes up, bouncing along with triplet movement, confident horns, dashing strings. But even as it pulls along, I’ve had the idea of it being a world that cannot last, a world somehow of the past, or of the confident youth, just as the pentatonic shimmers also disappear. And I’ve also signalled this – at least for myself! – by framing this driving music with two tranquil quotations from past music – the pastorale calls from the 3rd movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – an image of a lost world of innocence; and an opening snatch from the 4th movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony – a  lost world if ever there was; the chord which Mahler builds up also chimes with my earlier pentatonic sounds. This use of ‘found materials’ is dangerous too of course. How do you integrate them? How do they relate – or not – to what is around? But we live in a plural world, and such mixtures can be deeply expressive I think – just as did Mahler and Berg and Ives and Berio and Adès and many others. I’ll muse on this more in the next instalment.

 

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