Music from The Caucasus

Sketches and workstation from this afternoon…

Horsley Williams Duo Sketches Jakob Bragg

Currently writing a new work for the Horsley & Williams Duo (Uilleann Pipes and Recorders). Both the concert (21st of August) and my work explore the heritage of Georgian traditional music.

It’s been absolutely fascinating to delve into this rich musical culture! Hearing the wildly different influences coming from Turkish, Persian, Byzantine, and Russian traditions, via the rise and fall of these empires, also the huge variation found within the native Georgian musical identity – from mountain to valley, between ethnic minorities, between language groups, and sub-cultures… to just name a few. It has been thrilling to simply digest so much fascinating music I might otherwise had not.

For a little taste of this music, here is some Georgian polyphonic singing available on the UNESCO YouTube channel (here).

…For those curious, my set-up in the image above includes my keyboard and piano, always tuned out from one-another, at times by quarter, eighth, or sixth… Tea and biscuits were also served!

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Post Masters and reflection on Aposiopesis

In late February I submitted my Master of Music folio comprising 6 works written from early 2016 till early 2018. I’ll skip a lot of the details on each piece as you can find them in my list of works, however I’ll spend some time reflecting on the various threads that tie each of these works together and a bit about the middle work Aposiopesis, which I recently uploaded to soundcloud: (a big thank you to BRON!)

 

One of the primary benefits of a Masters (or be that a PhD) is the time enabled to critically look at your own work – to understand what and why you’ve done as you have. I think prior to this I could broadly describe the many characteristics and preoccupations found within my output, however given the opportunity to search a little further, my accompanying commentary for the folio focused on what I eventually recognised as five core concerns within my work. These have been and continue to be:

  1. Heterophony
  2. Ornamentation
  3. Microtones
  4. Rethinking harmony
  5. Instrumental parameters

If anyone reading this is familiar with any works of mine, I think the first three are very apparent. I have my first principal teacher, Gerard Brophy, to thank for the profound influence that music of Turkey and the greater Middle East has upon my work. This rich and vast set of musical cultures quite naturally drew out my fascination with the first three concerns; especially evident in pieces such as The Sleep of Reason, Metamorphosis, Babbling House, and Ochrelîla.

I’ll add that although these are at the core of what I write, they are certainly not the only concerns; these really only focus on a somewhat music theoretical viewpoint. Neglected are the more extra-musical concerns and the very-musical concerns, in particular timbral-transformation, which I feel is also at the centre of my writing. This re-enforces the problem of categorising and making broad conclusions (even of ones own output) – it illuminates but equally leaves so much unsaid.

On to the fourth and fifth concerns of my little list: rethinking harmony and instrumental parameters. Largely noticeable from many of my work is the lack of harmony, or at least the lack of a stable harmonic bed. Enter my work Aposiopesis. Almost entirely harmonic in thinking, multi-movement in structure, simple panel-like gestures, and generally soft, subdued, quiet; this piece does almost everything I never do!

The harmony in this work arises out of a playful use of frequency modulation. At times this is a morphing bed of pitches that derive from a higher sum-tone (e.g. frequency A + frequency B = frequency C), and other times the entirety of the pitch material is derived from all possible combinations of say the first three pitches. Although at times frustrating and a little mathematical, I soon worked out what arithmetic would yield what pitches, thereby bringing my personal sound preferences back into the equation.

Aposiopesis Jakob Bragg page 2 excerpt

Excerpt from Aposiopesis

The last of the five concerns, instrumental parameters, I’ll talk about in more detail in another entry. However this is mostly what is described as decoupling; breaking down various musical parameters, instrumental and physical components, into independent lines or concerns. In Aposiopesis I barely scratched the surface with this, focusing on the quality of the tone; a spectrum from airy tone with barely any pitch audible, to a full bodied and rich tone. Rethinking these parameters and their increasing independence is something I explore much more in works Fragile Notions, and my latest work Territory ; Terrain.

…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!

Shanghai New Music Week

In mid-September I had the privilege to travel to China to attend the 2017 Shanghai New Music Week as part of the international masterclass programme. The composition tutors were Liza Lim (Australia), Yann Robin (France), and Narong Prangcharoen (Thailand) with Quatuor Tana (France) performing the selected composers works as part of the festival.

It was an absolute honour to hear my work Unravelling Graphite performed for the second time, performed by a different ensemble, and receiving fresh feedback from a panel of internationally renowned composers. This was also a unique chance to hear what both the younger and older generation composers are writing in China, plus hearing and meeting the other 4 immensely talented composers selected for the same programme: Catherine Robson, Stevie Jonathan Sutanto, Jifang Guo, Tianyang Zhang. The festival also featured an extensive selection of the tutor’s works performed by the masterful Elision, Quatuor Tana, Shanghai Opera Orchestra, New Zealand Trio, and Berlin Piano Percussion, and famous selections from Europe’s late 20th century.

Quatuor Tana

Quatuor Tana

Metamorphosis: a complete and utter change…

Metamorphosis – defined as a transformation, a complete and utter change into something new.

Metamorphosis – 1915 novella by Franz Kafka. Depicts the overnight transformation of a Gregor Samsa into a gigantic insect. His family attempt to adjust, however repulsed by him and ultimately a burden, Gregor eventually dies, a stranger in his own home.

Metamorphosis – Opera by Australian composer Brian Howard, based upon Kafka’s original work. Set design and model by Nigel Triffitt. Miniature set model located in the bowls of the Melbourne Arts Centre.

Metamorphosis – short work written by myself for oboe, bass clarinet, percussion, violin and cello. Commissioned by the Melbourne Arts Centre for the 5x5x5 Programme where 5 selected composers are asked to write a short work, responding to an item within the Arts Centre’s archives.

It was Triffitt’s striking set model (seen below) and it’s correlating subject matter (metamorphosis) that inspired my work for this programme.

The staircase, a ‘vehicle’ that provides access to another location, is seen here fragile and contorted – unwilling. It’s this dichotomy that I took as an overarching concept. The musical material works it’s way moving between various pitch centres, often unstable and deviating for periods of time before returning on track. The idea of metamorphosis is used somewhat ironically. Instead of a complete transformation, the work actually remains in a constant state of unstable and slow change, without ever reaching remotely new material or ideas. The resulting sound world I believe echoes the absurdist and nightmarish (however arguable real) world that Kafka conjures, one of disconnect, disorientation and alienation.

The individual musical gestures are fluid and somewhat slippery. These adjectives have applied to all of my output of the past two years, something I have increasingly become aware of and now trying to move away from, or at the very least, be certain of my intent and not merely the default. This ‘language’ includes frequent leaps between octaves and especially of the minor 9th and major 7th. A littering of microtones, used either ornamentally or harmonically, as opposed to a linear level such as a ‘melodic line’, or in a quasi contrapuntal treatment. Gestures could be described as meandering, freely using neighbouring notes and ornaments such as turns, trills and grace notes. What little harmonic layers exist are unstable, sliding in and out of equal tempered intervals, with the majority of the texture probably falling within a heterophonic description.

My next work, a saxophone quartet for the Bron Quartet, attempts to move away from these approaches, or at used them much less overtly, and explore newer ways of organising pitch (especially with regards to microtones and treatment of the equal tempered system), development of ideas (or lack thereof), pushing away from heterophony, and reconsidering octave equivalents and certain favourited intervals.

So I feel my work Metamorphosis is a sort of summary of where my compositional thinking has been for quite some time, with the next few pieces to come (a quintet, duo and solo [tba!]) exploring newer avenues and other ‘musical’ parameters. The concept of parameters – what we as composers (or any artist) choose to control and what we chose to relinquish, and what is left up to tradition, performance practise, or intuition, is a concept that is at the forefront of my thinking for these next works…

Metamorphosis can be listened to here

A big thanks to the performers Hamish Upton, Andrew Fong, Eve Osborn, Caleb Wong, Lily Higson-Spence, and the Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Unravelling… whims…

2 weeks ago I attended the premiere of my string quartet Unravelling Graphite. Commissioned by the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, as part of the 2014 Silver Harris & Jeff Peck Prize, it was so incredibly bizarre and intriguing to hear a work I began so long ago. Having composed half and mapping the entirety by early 2015, the next 12 months I slowly and gradually revisited, finished, edited, re-worked, re-wrote, re-edited, and re-revisited over and over again. As expected, every time I revisited this piece it became more and more alien, more and more difficult to pick up where I left off, at war with myself when faced whether to or whether not to add that new idea.

What resulted was a work dictated by an accumulation of more than a years worth of compositional whims.

Ultimately a slowly evolving spectrum of sound, the work follows an overarching pitch trajectory from pitch class E. Up until about halfway (4’30”), Unravelling Graphite works its way very slowly and sometimes rather roundabout, from E, ascending to A. A is reinforced via a short cello solo, before becoming more and more unstable, proceeding upwards again, eventually up to B. At two-thirds in there is an unexpected event whereupon the pitch leaps up to F, collapsing in a matter of seconds to Eb, a semitone below where the piece began. This slowly builds again but only ever reaching F.

Alongside this very macro-level pitch trajectory, is the constant emerging interval of a third (major, minor, and microtones in-between). Beginning rather bluntly as a minor third in the cello towards 1’30” it acts as a germ in the piece, reappearing, morphed, sometimes frequently within a short space of time, and sometimes after much time has elapsed. Most unstable at the two-thirds mark after the ‘collapse’ (the glissando gesture), here it morphs into the major third, which most strikingly dominates the end of the piece (Db-F).

The last structural device I used in constructing this piece is a sketch I made during a few dry spells of musical creativity. Starting as mere scratchy lines and shapes, it soon became a visual embodiment of my work. Although not used to dictate gesture and development from the start, as I reached further into 2016 of editing and rewriting, this became increasingly useful and a reference as to what realm this piece might occupy visually.

Unravelling Graphite Sketch

Unravelling Graphite Sketch

As far as specific micro elements of the score, how I decided on use of microtones, rhythm, how quickly the pitch would rise or collapse, this was the most difficult part and difficult to pin down in words (and generally what I earlier referred to as whims). Through constant editing and revisiting over almost 2 years, I slowly refined where I wanted pitch to be more stable, where I didn’t want stability, where it would build, and where it would slow in momentum, and the role of register – by how many octaves are the instruments displaced, how erratic are gestures utilising leaps and harmonics, and when are the instruments all compacted in unison etc.

Typical of where my compositional thoughts are and have been for the past few years, this piece further explores my push and pull with heterophony, use of microtones and harmonics, and somewhat excessive use of ornamentation (an excessive decoration of a gesture, idea, or line).

Big thanks to Kurilpa String Quartet (Graeme Jennings, Brendan Joyce, Yoko Okayasu, and Katherine Philp) for premiering my work! Recording is here via my barest of bare skills utilising a Zoom H4n.

Unravelling Graphite Sketches Spring

Sketches from Unravelling Graphite – outside, spring has arrived…

 

Hobart and back…

Earlier in September I had the honour of being accepted into the Symphony Australia TSO Composers’ School. Below is an excerpt from a CutCommon article in which myself and the 3 other composers (Chris Williams, Stephen de Filippo & Timothy Tate) reflect on our experiences:

” Symphony Australia’s Composers’ School has been a programme I’ve had my eye on ever since my undergrad. With an intense 5 days working alongside the TSO (when does a composer ever get access to a symphony orchestra for this length of time!), the ‘school’ taught me to refine my orchestral writing: from notational issues, to harnessing the most from each performer and instrument. Alongside the combined expertise and experience of James Ledger, Richard Mills, Hamish McKeich and the staff at TSO, I also learn just as much from my fellow composer participants, more often than not over a few drinks. The school culminated in the performance of my work Atmosphoria (a sort of textural tone poem depicting a Brisbane summer downpour), reworked for the TSO forces, and an orchestration task (we were each given) of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue no. 9, Book 2. No Hobart trip was complete without a visit to MONA, which I squeezed in before flying out, and equally compositionally insightful; a vast cavern of confronting artistic ideas and practices. ”

Currently I’ve just completed a new work entitled Ochrelîla for a reading and recording session with the MSO (as part of my Masters at the Melbourne Conservatorium), and yesterday heard Kurilpa String Quartet rehearse my work Unravelling Graphite for it’s premiere this Friday (21st, October). Promise a proper blog post is coming soon in which I’ll talk more about these 2 pieces!!!