Memory from one to infinity

Sligo New Music Festival, 24-26 March 2006.

When you hear a piece of music, the means by which you grasp it is memory. Consciously or otherwise, getting an impression of the shape of a piece of music is only possible if we are comparing the part we heard earlier to the part we are hearing now. In the simplest cases one can even learn the music: for, say, a tune as simple as a nursery rhyme it might be possible to sing it all back after one hearing. A lot of more complicated music (including composed classical music) becomes something we can internally recall in almost perfect detail, provided we have the chance of many repeated listenings. Especially with the crutch of recordings, one can listen to long and complicated pieces repeatedly until one gets to a point where you hardly need to put on the CD, because as you reach for it, the music all floods through your mind – sometimes this even kills the urge to put on the CD at all. At this point one may not be dealing with having totally ‘learnt’ the music perfectly, but the principle extends further all the same. It certainly extends to large and varied works of, say, the complexity of the Rite of Spring. I like to imagine that one could measure the complexity of a piece of music by the number of times you must return to listen again before you have, even in a loose sense, ‘learned’ it. Of course, no two people could agree on actual numbers, but we could nonetheless agree that music with a very low ‘return number’ is rather facile, and music with a very high number is ‘difficult’.

Then up pops an interesting question: is there music whose return number is infinity? Yes, in practical terms, there is certainly plenty of music that is beyond human cognition in this sense. It is, whole or in part, ‘unlearnable’. However, confronted with extremely difficult music, our mind and ears adapt. In the past this has happened also. About a thousand years ago, in the western classical tradition, there was a massive leap forward from melodic music to harmonic music. We actually listen to melody and harmony in totally different ways: with melody we still strain to ‘learn’ the line, but with harmony we listen to clumps of notes and assess their similarity or difference instantly: our ability to do so is innate, since it is another version of the same trick by which we tell timbres apart.

We also have a third way of listening, using memory to grasp rough categories without the details being grasped in any real sense (‘statistical listening’, perhaps). This is how we tell similar noises apart, over time. Two sets of traffic noise can be hard to tell apart, but a difference in density, i.e. average number of events per second, makes the job quite easy – and in some musical situations that may be all you have to go on. Statistical listening can apply in a more obviously ‘musical’ way than that: for example, the ear can assess gradually changing degrees of consonance or dissonance in extremely thick musical textures, so it is not all about ‘noise’.

So for music we can use these three kinds of listening, usually all together, and the proportion in which we combine them varies according to the type of music in question. Contemporary music is frequently ill understood or received because for it the first type of listening is sometimes irrelevant, while in other music the last type usually is.

In the moment
Memory is still the key to all musical (or other) cognition. Yet in the search for undiscovered lands of the avant-garde period of the 1950s and 60s, music sometimes sought to throw off the concept of memory as a means of grasping structure. The structure was not in the temporal unfolding of events, rather it was outside of time: it only operated in the composer’s preparation of the elements. The listener was not supposed to try to do most of the things outlined above. Stockhausen called this ‘moment form’. A piece that aspires to being in ‘moment form’ must (ideally) never give the impression that a sound is there merely to lead you towards another sound; it is there for the poetic intensity that it alone brings to the moment. So such music refutes, or attempts to, two of the three kinds of listening mentioned hitherto. Only the instantaneous assessment of colour or timbre (same thing) is required. I hate to conclude that it seems that a fourth type of listening has to be proposed – hate because it invites ignorance through the same door as enlightenment – I can barely type these words: let the music wash over you. Well, it was the 60s… The concept of grasping the piece as a whole ultimately ceases to have any relevance whatsoever. There is no full cognition. In such cases it is pointless to ask ‘why is this piece forty minutes long and not twenty minutes?’ What is interesting is that this was a logical place to arrive at once ‘open form’ had been considered, since, as discussed here in the last JMI, form affects everything in a piece. Yet there is a logical error in ‘moment form’, since you can’t actually make music operate without time. After all, how long is the ‘sound’ that we are not supposed to relate to the ‘other sound’?
So we see that there is no such thing as difficult music, but thinking makes it so.

It is clear from all this that it is possible to go into a concert venue and unwittingly use the wrong listening techniques. For example, only a tiny minority of pieces are really in ‘moment form’, but it is a good idea to know if the next piece is or is not essentially of this kind. Most new music still invites or benefits from listening for internal relationships expressed over time. Some lures the listener towards trying to ‘learn’ some simple element, but then it turns out that it was not significant – in a sense you have been listening to the wrong thing. Some background information can be helpful. Typically the way that the listener begins to cope with all this is by becoming familiar with the work of one composer at a time – after several different works by the same composer one gets the hang of what is going on. This is why the best festivals of new music focus on one or two composers, and carefully scatter a few others who somehow usefully fill out the context further. We have recently had two fine examples of such festivals: the RTÉ Living Music Festival and the Sligo New Music Festival.

The move towards open forms and the freedom for structure to wander was embodied in the motto for the Sligo festival: ‘there is no path’. This motto comes from the titles of works from Luigi Nono, one of the featured composers. It does not actually fit quite so well the work of Morton Feldman, the other main festival focus. With his approach to form, instead of ‘no path’, there is a labyrinth. Works by Ferneyhough and Kurtág fitted well into this theme, while works by Scelsi, Jürgen Simpson, Siobhán Cleary and others showing how, more recently, composers are generally back in the business of leading the listener.

Nono’s very substantial La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura was a real example of ‘moment form’. The piece is (somewhat loosely) organised so that it can be from 45 to 60 minutes, with just one violinist and a thinly deployed eight-track tape of violin sounds. It was not hugely removed from the sound-world of a two-violin piece from the next day: ‘Hay que caminar’ soñando; both rely mainly on timbre, dynamic and expression rather than rhythm or pitch for their material. But because the second was shorter and more fixed in form it was tempting to think that it alone could have stood in for both. However, that would have removed a landmark premiere from the festival. Ioana Petcu-Colan and Sarah Sexton (of the Callino Quartet) made the poetry of this gestural music speak as well as is possible. Perhaps the best piece of Nono’s three to feature was …sofferte onde serene… for piano and tape. This piece is rich and subtle, but never an endurance test for the audience. Sarah Nicolls, who played this and other piano works, calmly and expertly projected the music.

Feldman was represented by six pieces in all, from very short early works to the 85-minute Piano and String Quartet. They ranged from the start to the finish of his career, from 1951 to 1985. This meant that one felt invited to overview this composer, more so than with Nono. Both composers resist cognition, but with Nono this situation is compensated by the manifest expressivity of the sound-world. With Feldman that is held back, one must adjust to the lower light level in order to perceive the poetic intensity that is going on. While at least one of Nono’s pieces was in ‘moment form’, if not all three, Feldman would have rejected that whole idea. Particularly with Piano and String Quartet he provides a path; but it is a labyrinth, returning you to not quite the same spot over and over. This aspect, and a refusal to layer materials, paradoxically makes his music most amenable to the ‘washing over you’ type of listening. Use of memory is rather punishing.

Two pieces from Brian Ferneyhough, Superscriptio and Mnemosyne, widened the context, since his music is another branch of the avant-garde. He is a composer with a highly distinct voice that is not heard here enough. Nancy Ruffer’s mastery of flute technique made his celebrated complexity sound flowing and slightly less angular than is usual.

There was a strong Irish presence also at this festival, with three pieces from Siobhán Cleary, two from Jürgen Simpson, and, thanks to a tape concert curated by Simpson, four others: Judith Ring, Rob Canning, Sean Keating and Paul Smyth. The tape concert, which included works from Cleary and Simpson, showed how in Ireland things have developed so much in recent years that we now have a large number of young composers producing electro-acoustic music that stands up to comparison with that of any other country worldwide.

This has been an extraordinary and mostly unsung story of playing catch-up, against the usual Irish backdrop of getting the resources in later than everywhere else, and less generously. The pieces that stood out for their richness of thought and musical range in this concert were Simpson’s own Thwaite Act3 and Ring’s Mouthpiece. It is in tape music that the possibility for a realisation of ‘moment form’ is strongest, since utterly distinct sound objects can be collaged in endless variety. Nobody in this concert took this exact approach, but Rob Canning, Sean Keating and Paul Smyth seem closer to rejecting any process of musical development than Simpson, Ring and Cleary, who are clearly more interested in creating musical progression – without any obvious borrowing from the past.

Another major focal point that this festival has established in recent years is the creation of new work. Nowhere else do we hear of single commissions for works of forty minutes duration, as we do here. Jürgen Simpson and poet Sinead Morrisey were jointly commissioned, and produced The Second Lesson of the Anatomist. This was a piece with four poems that resists the term ‘song cycle’. It was cast as a single flowing entity in four substantial sections, with a wonderfully effective sense of musical pacing at every level. Musico-dramatic contrasts in the piece had the rare qualities of rightness and mutuality. It is a piece that deserves to be heard many times.

The Callino Quartet were the key to the success of the festival, appearing in all of the instrumental concerts. They produced iridescent sounds and played with telepathic ensemble in Kurtág’s Officium Breve, Feldman’s Structures and Piano and String Quartet, and Carrowkeel by Siobhán Cleary. Richard O’Donnell produced an unforgettable account of Feldman’s The King of Denmark. It was an ultra-quiet play on timbres that current recording technology just would never capture (despite which Radio 3 dutifully popped it in the can for broadcast). Sarah Nicolls also gave authoritative accounts of early solo piano pieces by Feldman, and Cleary’s Suantraí, which was the simplest piece of the entire festival, its direct authentic feeling showing the freedom that composers have claimed in this direction in the time since the deaths of Nono and Feldman.

Ian Wilson, in directing this festival, deserves plaudits for bringing together in just five concerts such a range of rare treasures, with no ‘programming down’ to the audience whatsoever. Through his choice of performers he ensured that again and again we heard as directly as possible from the composers themselves.


Published on 1 May 2006

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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