Notes from a composer, Part 11 - Bohortha
Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his eleventh post explaining the process
I’ve reached the final part of my work – and once again I’m facing its recurring subject: time. 6 months ago I wasn’t sure if I would really call this last movement, and the whole piece, after a tiny cul-de-sac of a hamlet in rural Cornwall. But my visit there last May has remained deeply etched inside me: a perfect image of tranquillity and stillness, of time stretching out towards infinity. And this is where this last movement – and the whole piece – is headed.
At the same time, early on in writing the piece, I had the idea that the last movement would try something new for me in terms of the evocation of time, and that was to attempt to layer different kinds of time. A kind of experiment I suppose, but with a deep poetic impulse behind it. I felt – and as I’m now in the midst of writing the music, I feel even more – that infinite ‘slow’ time or ‘timeless’ time, would appear all the more so if I could superimpose upon it different kinds of ‘faster’ time. Certain questions have arisen in doing this. Does one kind of time subsume, or win over, the other? Am I really dealing with speed rather than time? Can I really have any control over how a listener perceives the passing of time?
But I am of course the first listener of my music – as all composers are. And as all composers do, I write as I hear. And it seems to me that there is at least a possibility of evoking simultaneous time layers; and that there is also a relationship, however difficult to define, between the way music moves and how (much) time appears to have passed.
There are precedents for what I’m trying to do – though perhaps not so very many. One in particular figures strongly for me – and that is Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. In his piece, the orchestral strings inhabit a world of sustained long notes, changing little and unpredictably – the infinite universe; against it a trumpet is layered with its question, and scampering woodwind respond. And I’ve certainly taken the idea of using orchestral texture and colour to differentiate the time layers. The strings at the start of my movement are also the timeless layer. But as I’ve worked into the piece, I’ve realised too that I want to try to evoke stillness not only as something static from the start, but also in terms of slowing down – to reach an even deeper calm.
To do this, I’ve thought again about both slow cycles as an evocation of the infinite, and music entirely without metre. Moving from the first to the second seems to me a possible way to get to a deeper sense of suspension and calm - as metrical repetition gives way to pure duration. So the movement starts with a serenely repeating pattern in a slow 3 in the strings – which is then dissolved by the presence of a slower metre in pitched percussion, piano, harp and celeste, which in turn takes over and moves into a passage of completely unmetred material. This idea I have in mind to repeat two more times, with a slow 4-time and then a still slower 5-time, each one moving into ametrical music. Each section then stretches out more than the previous, each section part of a larger-scale cycle.
But will this be too schematic and predictable, and so just boring, and not a route to the ineffable, as I would like: it’s always the danger with slow moving repetition. But I’m hoping that my core idea of layering fast time – over the first two sections – will temper this. And I also hope - though I haven’t written it yet – that the ‘4’ –and ‘5’– patterns will surprise in the most delicate of ways through added resonance in the harmonies, and different orchestration mixtures.
And there is something else – and that is that I actually want to approach utter predictability too. How dangerous it feels to write this – even now in 2012 – in the polarised world of new music! For slow cyclic repetition – in the hands of early Reich and Arvo Pärt, or in another way Feldman, my favoured minimalists – was indeed a marvellous ‘discovery’, I think, in the evocation of the timeless. And I want this to be part of this final movement: to nail my colours to the wall!
In fact I have had something of this in mind from the very start of the piece. For one of my early ideas was that the opening 3 bars of the first movement would serve as the basis of the last, and even that the very end of the piece would repeat these first 3 bars, as some kind of large-scale cycle: the work could, at least theoretically, go round and round again. The notion now though of ‘my end is my beginning’ feels just a little too easy. Time does not end! And so I think the 5-time will indeed give way to another unmetred stretch: settling in to the deepest Bohorthian stillness.
- Find out more about Michael Zev Gordon here.
- Read his tenth post: Of Pain and Angels
- Read his ninth post: Staying Light
- Read his eighth post: In the wilderness
- Read his seventh post: Still centre
- Read his sixth post: Venice once again
- Read his fifth post: Found Objects
- Read his fourth post: Lost Worlds
- Read his third post:Time Travel.
- Read his second post: The composer's dilemma, what to call the piece?
- Read his first post: Composing as it happens.