The Still, Small Note (I)

(A great deal of my music over the last 18 years has been conceived out of a desire to explore the expressive possibilities of extremely limited amounts of material. To my mind, this dovetailed closely with an interest in exploring the relationship between sound and silence, and between stasis and change. In looking back over what now seems like a group of pieces, I can see where they came from (influences) and where I might be going as a composer. The following is the first of an as-yet-to-be-determined-number part essay on the subject.)

The most striking moment of a performance of Erik Satie’s Pages Mystique comes at the end of the second movement, “Vexations”. “Vexations” consists of 640 repetitions of a minute-and-a-half of tonally-ambiguous music and lasts about 18 hours. The roaring silence that followed the end of the movement at a performance I heard as a student was shattering and profoundly unsettling.

I’ve seen a good number of performances of John Cage’s 4’33”. As I described here, performances of this piece can vary in quality and effect:

If a performer camps up the beginning and ending of the movements, the effect is lessened, much as the effect is lessened in a performance of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata if the important structural points aren’t articulated, for example. I’ve seen such a performance, and the piece is reduced to an undergraduate prank.
I got a copy of a DGG recording of a couple of the pieces in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days) after having heard recordings of the composer’s Hymnen and Stimmung. The way the composer used electronics combined with instruments and voices was fascinating to me at the time, and I was also very interested in improvisation in both performance and in composition. Shortly afterwards I found the score to Aus den sieben Tagen and came across this piece (marked “for ensemble”):


play a sound
with the certainty
that you have an infinite amount of time and space

This piece is a great centered listening experience/exercise, even if you never play or hear of it.

Some of my first experiences in music outside of school and pick-up bands of various kinds involved these close encounters with Satie, Cage, and Stockhausen. Then came the music of Morton Feldman and Elliott Carter, which have been constants at the center of my musical life and thought ever since.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:59 PM

    Always best to write about composing as you would compose.