…from Reason to Notions

Braneworlds – Kupka’s Piano debut album is now released and available for purchase. The CD features music by Liam Flenady (the title track), Hannah Reardon-Smith, Alan Lawrence, Chris Dench, and my work The Sleep of Reason, which was premiered in 2016.
I thought I’d take the time to contemplate what this work has meant, how it has informed my compositional approach, where this approach has now lead me, and to reflect on the year that is almost past.

The Sleep of Reason was commissioned by Kupka’s Piano in 2015, completed in early ’16 and premiered that same year. It’s written for the standard new music/pierrot line up, piano, percussion, flutes, clarinets, violin, cello; taking Goya’s etching (El sueño de la razón produce monstrous – the sleep of reason produces monsters) as it’s title and impetus for the work.

Like much of my work, this piece explores the use of heterophony, microtonality, ornamentation, and pitch trajectories. There is a push and pull between lines as to who leads, who follows, and what seemingly small ornament or figure becomes the catalyst for development. Quarter tones are used to enhance these ornaments as well provide unstable pedal points throughout, while the overwhelming sense of pitch being driven in a forward singular motion is the underpinning structural device. Other than these more technical devices used, the work proceeds through an ‘organic’, animated, and at times changeable first section, before leading to the ‘sleep of reason’ – an uncomfortable lull, a suppressing of energy, a false sense of ease. The energy of the opening attempt to break through – increasingly repressed, increasingly fierce – as the pacified middle section eventually breaks and reason (as brutal and difficult as it can appear) take the fore once again. This idea compliments Goya’s set of works in which this etching belongs; criticising ignorance, superstition, and the influence of aristocracy and church upon late 18th century Spanish society…

Following on from The Sleep of Reason, I next wrote for saxophone duo (Babbling House), orchestra (Ochrelila), and quintet (ob., fl., vln, vc, perc.) (titled Metamorphosis). All three of these works follow directly on from the sound world explored and what I had learnt in writing The Sleep of Reason. Of all, Metamorphosis (listen here) is almost a sister work to The Sleep of Reason, employing not only similar instruments and a similar gestural language, but acting as a kind of bookend to a set of works that all had a similar aesthetic and approach. The Sleep of Reason began this exploration and Metamorphosis in a way rounded it off; marking a shift in focus towards newer music ideas while my previous development/lessons become more naturally integrated into my compositional language.

My latest works this year include Aposiopesis (2017) for BRON (saxophone quartet), and Fragile Notions (2017) written for Syzygy Ensemble (flutes, clarinets, violin, cello). In both these works, and very much what I’m preoccupied with right now, is moving away from heterophony, away from a strict pitch trajectory, and attempting to find a way to reimagine harmony and further refine my microtonal language. Looking back at previous works, my microtonal use has largely been used ornamentally, adding ‘colour’ and nuance, pushing the ear to brief unknown territory, or used to augment a pedal note or single pitch. In my earlier work Unravelling Graphite, there are small moments of microtonal harmony, however for the large part it’s a kind of a Scelsi-esque inflection of a pitch trajectory.

To give a new structure to my harmony and discover interesting intervallic relationships, I’ve been looking at the use of combination tones in deriving pitch material (used extensively by Radulescu, and the more recent Enno Poppe). This has yielded some fascinating results, avoiding the overtly spectral sound-world of just intonation and the overtone series. Through essentially playing with sum tones, difference tones, and frequency modulation, rounding to the nearest 8th tone, I’ve been able to knit together my pitch material and a explore a newer way of thinking about music in a vertical fashion.

Aposiopesis uses exactly this in an almost entirely harmonic fashion. It’s largely a collection of fragmented harmonic statements, punctuated by silence, with a very restrained dynamic range – and across 3 movements – all of which I very rarely do! Whereas Fragile Notions finds a somewhat middle ground, tying together my newer harmonic approach with the previous heterophonic one. Fragile Notions also begins to consider other parameters in the creation of sound, those other than the traditional pitch and rhythm–centric focus. Air vs full-body tone produced by wind instruments is expressed on a separate stave, whereas on the strings this is reserved for bowing positions – allowing for great precision, a more fluid spectrum of possibilities to be explored, and rhythmically independent parameters to exist.

Aposiopesis will be premiered either late this year or early 2018 in the Netherlands by the BRON quartet, and Fragile notions recently was premiered by Syzygy at Macedon Music.

…I suppose the narrative of this post is realising the importance of key works – The Sleep of Reason undoubtedly, and also my string quartet Unravelling Graphite, as being the somewhat roots in which the rest of my pieces have grown from – and as a sort of update to my latest works, discussing where my compositional thinking has currently been.

Also, I am so indebted to all the dedicated musicians who perform, workshop, and rehearse my works, especially Kupka’s Piano with whom I have a long standing relationship – I am now listed as an associate artist, plus do listen to their debut album Braneworlds! A new work for Kupka’s is coming mid 2018, as well duo’s for Phoebe Green & Ben Opie, and Tamara Kohler & Kaylie Melville, stay posted!


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