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Notes from a composer, Part 7 - Still Centre

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 16:56 UK Time, Thursday, 20 October 2011

Picture of the Buddha


Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his seventh post explaining the process


In many ways I only want to write serene, tranquil music. Here are some favourite examples by others: the slow movement of Schubert’s String Quintet, the second movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, the first piece from Ravel’s Mother Goose, much Morton Feldman, most Arvo Pärt.

And the fourth movement of my set of seven will be a moment of real stillness – the still centre, time standing still.

But how to do this and not be dull, monotonous? That question is especially in my mind when I approach writing something of serenity. And also another: if I would always like to write tranquil music, why don’t I?!

A search for lasting tranquillity is a personal quest for me, the image of the perfectly centred, enlightened Buddha, beyond suffering, at the core. But art that simply imitates a state of inner peace feels to me ultimately unsatisfying. There was a vogue for it, of course, particularly in the 1960s. I still get my students to sing La Monte Young’s Composition 1960  No.7 – a piece of just two notes a fifth apart with the instruction ‘to be held for a long time’. Cage’s ‘freedom’ allowing all sounds to be equal, to be themselves, remains an enticing idea. But it seems to me – perhaps being the Westerner I am – that peacefulness, deep serenity and so on, is only really appreciated as such within the context of tension, struggle perhaps.

Present-day packaging of ‘relaxing classics’ and playing single movements from pieces etc – we all do it now with our play-lists – seems to me misleading, for it omits context. The Schubert, Bach and Ravel are poignant islands of stillness not just in themselves, but because they are juxtaposed with fast, agitated movements; the Schubert is in fact calm only in the outer sections of the movement. Feldman, meanwhile, may appear untroubled on the outside – a music without direction - but there are many disturbances of pattern within. Arvo Pärt appears to me much better than many of his imitators because there is a real strength of structure that counterbalances the simple sounds.

So though my impulse is just to write something smooth and gentle, I know I have to shape things carefully to make it fully effective – and affective.

I hope for a start this still moment of no.4 will appear startling and effective because of  the roar, the surprises and the expressive tensions of what will come before. And within the movement itself I want to try to maintain tension by appearing to set up the sound of a long slow movement only to cut off its stillness only just after it has fully settled. The ending is not an ending.

And I hope too the smooth surface of the movement consisting mostly of evenly moving beats in a simple, unchanging minor mode, is balanced by the layering in the piece, its basic material heard at different speeds. This is a little like what I did in movement 3 and want to do again in the final piece: my idea of different time levels haunting this piece too.

Now as I write this, I wonder if the piece may have become too active! If – in my concern not to be boring – I have swung too far the other way. Where is the crucial balance point between necessary change and focussing on the same? How do you produce something of serenity which yet keeps you awake? This compositional tension is one I think I’m destined to continue to live with.



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