When Two Bricks Are Placed Carefully Together

When Two Bricks Are Placed Carefully Together

Counterpoint in music – as much a concept as a technique – has been with us for centuries, from the twelfth-century vocal music of Léonin to the playlists on our iPods. But what is really at the heart of the idea?

A drawing for Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House, c. 1914.

My father is an architect and I am a composer. From time to time we talk about problems of design as they relate to our professions. This usually leads to his quoting the iconic German architect Mies van der Rohe: ‘Architecture begins when two bricks are placed carefully together.’ This simple, powerful statement always reminds me of the primacy of counterpoint in the craft of music. It makes me think of the medieval-period Latin origin of the word: punctus contra punctum – literally, ‘note against note’. Counterpoint is more than a musicological term with a plethora of historical understandings; it’s a profound and elegant idea, perhaps the elemental idea in all creative work.

So much of creative work comes down to a balance between two or more elements placed together. We always begin with a unit – the brick, the note, the self. How then do we get a second element? Maybe we subdivide. Maybe there’s a process of refraction. But once there is a relationship, or a dialogue, or a tension between these primary and secondary elements, you’re working.

I’m a Dubliner, but I used to live in England. Trips home often meant travelling by boat across the Irish Sea. That ferry journey always seemed to engender a special kind of concentration – composing always came easier, music on headphones seemed to burn brighter. I remember Glenn Gould touching the first notes of the ‘Andante’ from Bach’s Italian Concerto, just as the ferry edged up the River Liffey. The slow inevitability of the ship’s progress, and the unmistakable pit-of-the-stomach feeling of arriving in my city, threw the music’s transcendent, stately integrity into new relief.

The piece is a ground bass; a form in which a bass line – the ‘ground’ – repeats the same musical shape, whilst melody and supporting harmony float on top. The skilful composer will manipulate the shape of the ground to manoeuvre the music into new keys, new territory. In the Bach, the ground is constructed with such sophistication as to imply two voices: one that roots the harmony in any given bar, and one that is directional, bringing about shifts in harmony. This is counterpoint at its most vehicular. Gould performs the music such that the deliberately-paced, two-voiced ground in his left hand, and the mellifluous melodic writing in his right hand are totally distinct: you hear the ground steering the music, piloting it into new waters, and back home.

Suave, endlessly subtle, uncomplicated in construction: The vocal music of the twelfth-century Parisian composer Léonin, composed for use in the liturgy of Notre Dame cathedral, involves two melodic strands placed one on top of the other. The lower strand is a time-stretched plainchant melody. The upper strand consists of a faster counter-melody – independent, and yet interlocked with the droning bottom voice. The contrapuntal art is in the relationship between primary and commentary materials.

You find a related art in jazz. First there is the statement of a melody: a lead instrument plays the melody, the drum kit parses time, the chordal instrument states the supporting harmony, the bass reinforces the harmony with root notes. Then there is the solo: the lead instrument improvises ‘on’ the original melodic and harmonic material, the drum kit still parses time (but perhaps with cross-rhythms against the main pulse), the chordal instrument plays its way through the chord progression – revoicing, repacing, and the bass improvises its own melody to get from root note to root note. A typical jazz performance will proceed from the statement to the solo sections, and will linger there before returning to the statement. In other words, voices speaking as one; voices speaking as individuals (albeit on a common idea); then voices speaking as one again.

‘When information brushes against information,’ wrote Marshall McLuhan, ‘the results are startling and unpredictable.’ For the composer Morton Feldman, composition was about what information brushed up against what information, for how long, where, and when. He agonised over these choices, believing that his materials themselves contained most, if not all, the answers. Feldman once spoke of the method he used in his late compositions, often well over an hour long: ‘I do it one way and then I do it another; I do it with four notes, I do it with three notes; I put it here, I put it there … and then when you’re really saturated I take “Z” and I put it against “A” and it sounds like a million dollars.’

Feldman’s close friend and companion, the composer Bunita Marcus, writes about her and Feldman’s conception of counterpoint: ‘Counterpoint existed in notes, chords, orchestration, meter, anywhere you placed two or more objects together. This is the skill of counterpoint and the composer: to “place” objects so each has its own integrity. There is no foreground and background. Everything is primary material.’

‘I always like to consider DJ music as the new folk music,’ says DJ Spooky (a.k.a. Paul D. Miller, pictured). ‘I mean, it’s essentially music where everyone has access to certain ideas and can just kind of flip it around.’ We have always had some freedom to choose and place our music – the mixtape made contrapuntalists of us all – but we now curate our digital selves completely, placing comment against comment, link against link. And what a reservoir of material we have at our disposal: the internet provides infinite possibilities for juxtaposition, limitless mirror images, and a countless shadow selves. And yet with such an ocean of potential counterpoints, it seems to me, more and more, that the most profound word in Mies van der Rohe’s aphorism is ‘carefully’.

Published on 23 May 2011

Garrett Sholdice is a composer and a director of the record label and music production company Ergodos.

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