SA9: The Monophony issue
Play one note.
Play another note.
Play another note.
This is an exercise I did for years, building melodies one note at a time with or without regard to harmony or rhythm; letting the shape and flow of the melody define itself based only on the consideration of this question: "Does it work?"
It's an exercise that still causes a certain amount of existential angst. "Does it work?" turns into "what does work mean to me?" turns into "how do our definitions of success compare and contrast?" Each new question becomes the analog to a note in the exercise. I follow the spiral until I find myself curled up in front of the television in need of a nap.
Play a note.
I've found myself using monophonic work as a possible entry level into studying new composers. The desire to tackle the one-note-then-another paradigm has become an automatic point of interest for me as I peruse the record store/library/internet aisles. It has become my roast chicken, well-tied bow tie, or perfectly located fastball. It is my musical equivalent of watching a great artist do something simple in a transcendent way.
So, when I decided it was time to do a Sound American issue that would feature a number of writers, beside myself, talking about the music they know and love in terms wholly their own, I naturally gravitated toward what I thought was a musical staple capable of great elegance: monophony. This issue started that simply; what monophonic pieces encapsulate an artist's aesthetic and skill. And, who can speak most eloquently about them?
What lies within is an attempt to answer that question with features by great musicians and writers about great composers and performers: Mark Menzies on Gérard Grisey, Mary Jane Leach on Julius Eastman, Josh Sinton on Steve Lacy, Richard Pinnell on Antoine Beuger, and an interview between Carol Robinson and Tom Johnson.
Play another note.
Regardless of the skill and insight these writers brought to their subject matter, these essays felt like the beginning for this issue of Sound American. There is a specific kind of joy that comes from discovering music. It's a quality that I've tried to portray in every issue of Sound American in one way or another. In these pages, it had been replaced by the joy of understanding music; something that's deep and meaningful in its own right, but needs that spark of spontaneity and unknowing to set it in relief and make it that much stronger. To that end, each essay is paired with the thoughts of a separate musician or artist on hearing the monophonic piece for the first time. It became an interesting exercise to read the interview after the essay; parsing out what is important to different ears and what qualities come to the fore immediately or need immersion to become evident.
And, this line of thought opens up other, broader, ideas about what we need or what we think we need in music. Is harmony necessary? What creates motion to our ears? Do we need motion? Is a single voice more powerful than a choir? Obviously, this line of questioning becomes subjective at best, but as I followed one thread after another, one question kept coming back to me: "How do we use limitation?"
Ultimately, the exercise of one-note-then-another is meant to be about limiting yourself to a rational succession of pitches. The endgame of the exercise is a sense of control when given the freedom to do what you want while improvising. But, doesn't the freedom we're striving for in performance have a need for some sort of limitation to ground or define it? As I listened to the pieces for this issue, I found that sense of limitation or ground in different places: obviously in Tom Johnson's Rational Melodies, but also in the cellular structure of Grisey's Prologue and the maniacal sound shaping of Steve Lacy's New Duck. It reminded me of a passage in a Slavoj Žižek essay on F.W.J. Schelling's work on the beginning of temporal thinking;
...our intellectual creativity can be 'set free' only within the confines of some imposed notional framework in which, precisely, we are able to 'move freely' - the lack of this imposed framework is necessarily experienced as an unbearable burden, since it compels us to focus constantly on how to respond to every particular empirical situation in which we find ourselves.1
Play another note.
So, what does that mean for the monophonic composer? Does the lack of harmonic framework present the possibility of moving "freely" for the composer or does it created an "unbearable burden" to be overcome. If the latter, how does the composer climb that particular mountain successfully?
And so, to address that question, Sound American includes an exercise in limitation; in this case, historical context. Issue 9 features four great tenor players of the moment working through the harmonic, rhythmic and historic limitations of Body and Soul, a song heavily defined by Coleman Hawkins's seminal 1939 recording. These saxophonists each dealt with the limitations of a very well known harmony and melody, as well as Hawkins's towering presence in very different and, ultimately, very musically satisfying ways.
So, in the end (and after including our return of 5 Questions, this time with Kurt Gottschalk), the issue came about like the one note exercise. It started with monophony, which opened the mind to certain composers and their monophonic works, which further opened into the broader ideas of experience and limitation.
And, this leaves us here. Perhaps in an existential crisis. The narrative string of one note after another has been convoluted by choice as you click from page to page. The availability of information can be paralyzing, ending with you in front of the TV, but I admonish you to stay strong! Start where you want, think of that as your first note, then follow it to what makes sense next, even if it's not on this site, then wait, then move, then wait. When you're done, come back and pick another note.
 Žižek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso, 1996
listen to gerard grisey
Gerard Grisey: Prologue (1976) Para Viola Solo
mark menzies on Grisey's prologue for viola solo
the resonances of dualities in an acoustic space:
illusion and counterfeit in Gérard Grisey's Prologue for solo viola
prologue: ideas, images, heartbeats
This is an essay in the form of a fragmentary prologue to Gérard Grisey's Prologue for solo viola. Prologue is a stand-alone piece and, as such, a major contribution to the virtuoso solo repertoire; the piece is also a prologue to an evening-length linked instrumental compositions that start with the solo viola and end with an epilogue requiring some 90 musicians. In Prologue, Grisey reveals with great clarity some of the more innovative aspects of his contributions to musical language – this is where the term 'spectralism' crops up, though to my mind, going into great detail about theory and practice of that musical method obscures the central accomplishment of the viola piece, which is Grisey's extraordinary ability to write a substantial piece as essentially one melodic line, unveiling, in the process, a radically new approach to harmonic and melodic writing.
A few things that are important to know before we commence upon my perambulations into exploring Grisey's viola solo. Prologue is a piece with more-or-less four distinct manifestations:
– the discreet work for solo viola
– the work for solo viola as the first installment of 6 to create an evening-length totality called Les Espaces Acoustiques (the acoustic spaces); in this version, about 1/3 of the 'coda' in Prologue isn't played since the next piece, Périodes, erupts into the viola solo (my idea is the 'coda' to Prologue begins where the crunch tones clear, and where the texture is dominated by sustained pedal tones)
– Prologue (as a stand-alone piece or as part of the cycle Les Espaces...) for viola and resonators
– the work (in either way again) for viola, resonators and live electronics
The last two versions are very interesting: they serve to underline my faux complaint that the piece is not an exercise in melodicism, despite the composer's description of the piece: "One can perceive and memorise a melody in two ways: by the notes that it is made up of, or by Gestalt, by the form of the melodic curve. Prologue is constructed entirely according to the latter type of perception". In its place I believe the success of the piece is fabricated by its ingenious harmonic progression, to which Grisey alludes when he admits the structure gains energy as the melody becomes gradually 'inharmonious'; the harmonic process I see is quasi chaconne/passacaglia – not least because the emphasis on resonance in the later versions with resonators and electronics lengthen every phrase into ambience, focusing our attention onto the combination of tones, rather than on their contribution to shape. Of course, it would be lovely to study these later manifestations of the piece in forms other than Garth Knox's loomingly charismatic recordings – if only the publishers were as committed to forwarding the interests of their precious compositions particularly those with 'problematic' multi-versions (a similar case is with [Luigi] Nono's output – and we are speaking of the same disengaged publishing bandits) as their composers were in pursuing what their music could become, rather than allowing the scores to harden into a kind of monument-shaped marble the minute the final notes are 'drying' on the page.
Prologue is not the only example in Grisey's output of monophonic (solo line) composition: particularly striking is the embracingly beautiful Anubis, Nout for contrabass clarinet where the furry, purry resourcefulness of the instrument's sonic capacities solve a great deal of the challenge to 'draw the listener in', not least by the relative uniqueness of experiencing this sound on its own. The challenge akin to the writing for unaccompanied viola, is explored in Charme for solo clarinet: here, radically differently paced materials give the impression the piece is larger than it really is, elegantly portraying simultaneous evolutions occurring at very different rates of change. With Charme I am much more willing to buy the line that this is an exercise in melodicism, even though the harmonic rigor that underlines the structure is also presented with radical clarity. Similar techniques are exhibited in the 'unlikely' duo pieces: Solo pour deux for clarinet and trombone, and Accords perdus: Cinq miniatures for 2 horns.
Prologue goes further than these compositions: the very naïvety of the opening underscores the scale of Grisey's challenge to make something compelling based on a rather simplistic arpeggio shape (joking aside about violists playing in tune, let alone finding shades of microtones with accuracy).
As we get going, there are a few quotes from Grisey we should read. The joke just mentioned is one Grisey makes in his interview with Guy Lelong, published in the liner notes to the first recording of Les Espaces...(where the violist for Prologue is Gérard Caussé). He goes on to say:
"Today, Les Espaces Acoustiques seem to me like a great laboratory in which the spectral techniques are applied to various situations (from solo to full orchestra). Certain pieces even have a demonstrative, almost didactic, aspect as if, in the euphoria of discovery, I had taken pains to make the characteristics of the language that I was gradually inventing be grasped as fully as possible.
"The term 'process', which I contrast with development, signifies that it is no longer a question of obtaining a musical discourse through the proliferation of details, but rather of deducing the detail of areas crossed from a trajectory set in advance. That allows proposing journeys to the listener that link one state characterised by the sound matter to another (for example, from consonance to noise), passing through zones from which any catalogued indicator seems abolished. In other words, the process determines the contradiction between the known and unknown, the predictable and unpredictable, and integrates surprises against a backdrop that is relatively easy to spot."
In the program note to the cycle, from the same una corda CD, Grisey writes:
...The unity of the cycle is achieved through the formal similitude of the various pieces and two acoustic reference points: the spectrum of harmonics and periodicity.
I would sum up the language used in these pieces as follows:
-no longer composing with notes but with sounds;
-no longer composing only with sounds, but the difference that separates them (the degree of pre-audibility);
-acting on these differences, that is to say, controlling the evolution (or non-evolution) of the sound and the speed of its evolution;
-taking the relativity of our auditory perception into account;
-applying to the instrumental sphere the phenomena experimented upon for quite some time in electronic music studios. These applications are much more radical and perceptible in Partiels and Modulations;
-seeking a synthetic writing in which the different parameters participate in the development of a unique sound; e.g., the ordering of non-tempered pitches creates new timbres, and from this ordering come durations, etc. The synthesis aims, on the one hand, at developing the sound (material), and on the other, the various relationships existing between the sounds (forms)....
I would say this about Prologue: One can perceive and memorise a melody in two ways: by the notes that it is made up of, or by Gestalt, by the form of the melodic curve. Prologue is constructed entirely according to the latter type of perception.
Here one finds a melodic outline and its transformation that constantly return in a sort of spiral form. The definition, point by point, of these outlines is in motion, because the pitches they are made up of are going to gradually move away from the original spectrum to reach a state of noise in passing through different degrees of inharmoniousness. This melodic outline also governs the large form, the tempi and the appearance of two kinds of inserts: the heart-beat (short/long) and echo.
A solo voice, the ghostly response of unoccupied instruments, but also an abstract, unbending structure...I hope I have succeeded here in stammering out what I believe music to be: a dialectic between form and frenzy.
back to the catastrophe ~ I suggest: counterfeit?!
Advertised as a melodic event, in fact Prologue acts like a passacaglia: as if one were in the engine room of the evolution mechanism of the idea of a passacaglia.
A dialectic of harmony and fury, resonance, and the intellectual fallout of dancing with the components of that resonance. A triumph of evolutionary motivic development, the elemental and implacable logic of the spiral method that motivates the piece's unwinding, renders that very motivism secondary and its details incidental, beautiful as they may be, and a precious gift (an invitation) to the listener.
My point returns to assertions:
"-no longer composing with notes but with sounds", Grisey says of Prologue;
...what a lovely idea, one suggesting that this piece is part of an evolution of musical language, and a technological improvement upon the past. However, in Prologue, the 'sounds' make sense (particularly in the later versions with resonators and electronics) as an accumulation of harmonies that evolve through the impeccable crafting of the relationships between notes. Though the outcome is quite a different expressive terrain, how is this different from, for example, Bach's Corrente (and its Double) from his Partita No 1 in B minor?
I mean not to diminish Grisey's accomplishment, and his contribution to the changing consciousness of sounds, timbres, and nuanced methods of composing with this focus: its legacy we have yet to grapple with. Particularly in the area of unaccompanied (monophonic) music, such as Prologue, the outcome – the screaming, gloriously full-throated celebration of the primitive viola, rich in raw sound, breaking, cracking, squeaking, screeching – is a 'symphonic' climax as breathtaking as it is, with the benefit of hindsight (analysis), so convincingly set up.
coda and/or transition: in (Indian) heaven
I experience a touch of humor in the coda to Prologue, a somewhat unexpected element in this so-called 'didactic' exercise. It is as if the 'catastrophe' of the prologue's climax, with its crunch-tones implying so much of the ending and destroying of things, is the 'down the rabbit-hole' utility so desired in the '70s when this was written: it is in India we end up...much by virtue of the single-finger glissandi outlining the shape of gestures, touching upon a very specific set of pitches.
One of my most extraordinary (humbling) experiences at the California Institute of the Arts University, where I have been a member of faculty since 1999, was 'teaching' a violinist already well-established as a significant 'classical' (North) Indian-style musician named Jagan Ramamoorthy. He had come to the US to broaden his musical bases, being one of those musicians, like Grisey, who is (was) unwilling to accept the safety of accepted formations of expression and language with which he grew up. I would watch, in our lessons, in fascination at the capacity for a single finger to simultaneously glissando with that heart-rending throb that shapes the Indian tradition of vocalizing we all recognize immediately, while at the same time pick out a bewildering array of notes, and ornaments upon those notes, all at often great speed.
So, 'the rebirth (after the catastrophe)' is a transcendence of 'the form of the melodic curve', though thanks to the Indian contribution to string virtuosity, this is not an excuse to cheat the (very specific) notes (despite Grisey's notes in the score suggesting just that – he was no doubt worried about the violists' virtuosic capacities!): fragmentary 'throbs' of the painstakingly accumulated forms and reforms of shape and gesture from 'before'.
I return to my assertion at the top of this fragmentary prologue essay: the piece is a counterfeit. The cat is finally let out of the bag vis-à-vis the harmonic nature of the piece, by the writing finally including double-stops, as if to say: 'aha!, have you not heard this all along?!'. So, too, does the baroque-ish pedal-device function pretty much as does any pedal: nicely wraps up (grounds) the action in a satisfying bow(ing) that, here, plays a wonderful game on the idea of the 7th partial. A trick on the unsuspecting. Of course, D, which is the pedal tone of the ending of Prologue, sounds like the 'first weird note' of the opening gesture/overtone series on E at the very beginning of the piece. But it is not that note at all: it is a normal, tempered D, a normal whole-step away from E.
Why should this matter? I think these tricks, these 'fraudulences' are in fact at the heart of Grisey's accomplishment, and dare I say, genius. Whatever the attractions of 'systems' or electronically controlled patternings, or, indeed, conceptual conceits, the over-riding reality is performance via horse-hair, sheep-gut, and other physical realities of concert halls and whatnot, and this is inevitably an acoustically messy affair. Intonation is a human experience capable of almost limitless nuance, but still very difficult to communicate with any reliability thanks to the vagaries of acoustic spaces (!), shortcomings of our technology, etc.
Grisey embraces this reality, and makes rhetoric out of it. The final notes of Prologue – with their whistling, rasping, sliding, and stabbing characteristics – modulate our chaconne to D, and, briefly, give us the overtone-series fantasia of the opening now all on the 'new' tonal center. The section is also reinvents the notion of duality, which I assert is central to the composition, and the cycle as a whole. Here the dualities are in dramatic register delineations; in static versus moving lines; the heroic appearance of a few double stops; the 'fumbling' (sliding, falling..) between extreme timbres, particularly molto sul pont and molto tasto (where the bow dusts the left hand fingers); the 'otherness' of the glissandi figures I call 'Indian'.
If, by some miracle you've followed the essay up until now, with its somewhat non-linear descriptions twisting its descriptions, contemplations and backgrounds to Grisey's Prologue, now it is time for me to make some assertions about how the prologue answers the challenge to write a monophonic composition. That, after all, was the brief given to me in writing this essay.
Grisey's solution, in short, is very Schönbergian: Prologue makes some very radical moves in its deployment of an advanced microtonal language, in its combinatorial utilization of both a disciplined evolutionary and radically eruptive structural energy, and with all this, an explication of a totally (re)new(ed) poetic dialect, reworking notions of order and fury, form and frenzy, in a way that 'feels right' in the late twentieth century; at the same time, what underpins the piece is, to me, a very traditional technique of harmony implied by melodic outreach, and this harmony develops in an elegantly-paced process not unfamiliar to that found in baroque and pre-baroque (medieval) examples. I would argue that the 'motivic' development of much of the piece is also Schönbergian: the idea that music should be constantly in development and this development takes place by constantly recontextualizing the harmonic and/or textural placement of the motive. Grisey radicalizes the means of recontextualizing his motives – by using microtones, by 'teasing' the transformations in a much more drawn out unwinding than early 20th century serialists would ever conceive – but the principle is still the same.
My complaint in this essay is as misleading a fakery along the lines of what I believe Grisey accomplishes. A triumph of monophonic writing – and a miracle of a work in the solo viola repertoire – Prologue is at the same time a harmonic edifice, expertly crafted in a way that would have earned Bach or Machaut's admiration, had they had a chance to see it. And they would have enjoyed and applauded the 'proliferation of details' which journey the piece, as they would appreciate 'deducing the detail of areas crossed from a trajectory set' by the poetic/lyrical acoustic body, the love for which created the whole piece in the first place.
-Mark Menzies, June 2014
toby driver listens to prologue
I heard about Toby Driver long before I heard his music. He was a bit of a shadowy figure on my radar; occupying an unsure space, in my mind, between rigorous "art" composer and dark, ambient songwriter. Although I know him better now, he still occupies that space and seems to live and thrive in the cracks between genres. His music seems improvisational at its most composed; structured at its most improvisational.
I always had Grisey's Prologue to Les Espaces Acoustiques in mind for Toby. There was a quality to the solo viola, especially the recording of Garth Knox we shared in Toby's Brooklyn apartment, that summed up everything I associated with Toby's own aesthetic: structure, repressed violence, and a kind of raw humanity. Of all the participants in this issue, no face lit up more upon finishing the first listening than Toby's after listening to the Grisey.
Toby Driver: Alright! I’m so glad we listened to the whole thing, because I think the end is really important.
Nate Wooley: Yeah, exactly. The issue is about monophony, and obviously at the end he plays some harmonies but he’s going into the second part, so I’m not going to count those. It’s still going to be pure [monophony] in my mind, but we can talk about those as part of the piece if you want
TD: Well that whole kind of ending, the denouement I guess definitely sounds like the beginning of something else as opposed to the end of that thing, so I don’t really know why these track markers are this way.
NW: there’s probably something scored, but it does seem a little arbitrary for sure
So what’s your initial take on that piece? You’ve never heard any Grisey?
TD: No. Well, (laughs) I thought it was amazing. Obviously one of the first things you notice is that it’s kind of like chunks; like separate phrases as opposed to being all connected and I found myself trying to find out why certain things were happening because you told me it was Spectralist and the little I know about Spectralism is that it has a conceptual purpose. Do you know what I mean? So, I was trying to figure out why certain things were happening. Especially that low note which I guess is a E? It keeps repeating and I could figure out that each phrase that comes after it would always pivot around an E as well, and so it was giving context to all the other things that were happening around it. Which was cool, but I was also wondering why the low note was doing this fake groove...
NW: When nothing else is like that.
TD: Yeah. And I don’t really like things when they groove unless it’s succeeding. I don’t know. I have complicated issues with the idea of groove, because a lot of the music I like is sort of demented, do you know what I mean? I think, when you have a groove, you take the music out of the world of dementia and into the world of a party.
NW: And sometimes a groove feels artificial, too. How many things in the natural world have a consistent beat that moves? It’s usually more of an ebb and flow. So I can totally understand that; especially in this kind of music. I’d had a different thought about that repetition which also bothers me a little bit, and more because it seems like a weird improviser trope. I know I’ve done it in the past as well, where you go off onto a tangent and then return to this repeated cell, and repeat over and over again. It’s kind of a classic.
TD: Is this an improvisatory piece?
NW: No, it’s completely notated, but to me it has the sound of an improvised piece and there is an element to that trope which maybe is my version of the groove issue. I’m trying to think back now to how that might connect to the rest of the piece. It’s not fair for me to take it out of context.
TD: Yeah, I would love to hear the rest of the piece to see how elements connect. The other thing that I thought was that I’ve heard a lot of pieces that are doing a certain thing and then they fall apart, but this one, I really got a visual sense of a film cell just kind of disintegrating. And then the thing that comes after , the denouement, was really good at also continuing that if you know what I mean? Like when you see a film cell dissolve and then there’s a little bit of white and you can see the reel moving. It really gave me that impression. And, the way it ends is also really cool because you’re spending all this time thinking about it and then, suddenly, it kind of wakes you up and says “stop thinking about this!”
NW: Do you think it loses anything by not having harmony?
TD: No! I think it’s better that way. Also, I don’t know what the composer thought about the particular reverb and the particular space this is recorded in, but I feel like the reverb kind of creates a harmony that’s not actually being played.
NW: When we’re listening to all these pieces, one of the things I’m always thinking is how the composer makes up for no harmony. And, it’s always different. One of the other pieces I’ve talked to someone about is Tom Johnson’s Rational Melodies, which are these short melodies that spin on themselves based on basic math or number sets. To me, he makes up for lack of harmony by having this interesting repetition that engages your brain. It becomes…not a game…it’s not as simple as that, but it keeps you from the motion that harmony or lack of harmony implies.
In this piece, I think it’s the room [that achieves this]. Harmony is implied. It’s a ghost harmony; especially with how he’s dealing with overtones and the microtonality. It’s kind of giving it to you whether it’s being stated or not. Your brain is filling it in.
TD: I think monophony in a piece like this helps you get these visual impressions of how the music is cascading in a way. Like in this piece for example, a lot of the phrases would be these straight things, rhythmically, that would swing down at the end. And, I think that’s always easier to see when you have monophonic phrases like that. I always thought the Scriabin piano sonatas were a really good synesthetic example of how you could see things moving just because of their lines or, in this case, how the rhythm suddenly changes.
NW: It’s interesting for a composed piece of music to create a visual impression that takes you out of the fact that it’s composed. I think I want to spatialize composed music on a score in my mind but, in this music, it's very difficult for me to do. I see this more as an expression and more color-full. For some reason, I have an easier time with improvised music in that sense.
TD: That’s interesting that you have that perspective, because you do so much improvising. I often hear improvisers talk about composition as sounding improvised and composers talking about improvisation sounding composed (laughs). I never think about that, but I hear it a lot. People seem to come to music from the point of view that they understand. Some of my favorite improvisations have been ones that I think of as really well-structured compositions.
NW: or when I see Kayo Dot and it sound spontaneous, even though I know everything is composed. It has that same kind of feeling of improvisers at their most directed and focused. Maybe that’s where music lies; the parts where everybody’s saying the opposite thing. You got peanut butter in my chocolate; you got chocolate in my peanut butter…(laughs)
TD: It’s a very good thing (laughs)