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  • Writer's pictureAlex Huddleston

Writing and talking about my own music

I was recently asked to write a few paragraphs about an ensemble piece I'm currently in the throes of composing. I produced the following text:

My piece is titled Books II III VI VII XI XVII XXIV XXIX XLI. I would like to tell you some details of its construction. It is scored for Tenor Trombone, Bass, Soprano & Tenor Saxophone, Contrabass & Soprano Clarinet, seven guitar Pedals & Amplifier, fixed electronics, with limited amplification. Of the five musicians, all excepting the guitar pedals will be arrayed in a partial arc on the stage. The Clarinetist will sit closest to the audience on the right-most end of the arc, facing to the left; beside him will be the bass, beside her will be the Trombone, Beside him will be the Saxophone. The manipulator of the pedals is seated behind them. The two speakers, stereo, will be rotated from their traditional position at the far left and right of the stage, such that the L channel will sound in the rear left corner, while the R channel will sound in the front left corner. Both the trombone and the guitar pedals will have their sounds taken into a microphone, and displaced to the rear left corner. The piece is 25 minutes long.
There are 6 autonomous musical strands occurring simultaneously - Each of which is an exploration of continuity as foundation - none of which are coordinated in any musical, or technical way. Each autonomous musical strand equally divides the total duration into some number of equal segments - the electronics are in 7 parts, the guitar pedals in 11, the Trombone in 17, the Bass in 24, the Saxophone in 29, and the Clarinet in 41. When conveyed through notation, each segment is indexed to the page - thus every page within a single stream is exactly the same length of time. Rhythms, Meters, & Tempi are not employed for the structure of time. A page may contain more or less material, having a clear sonic impact - more material within the same page = less time = faster. less material = more time = slower. In this way, the material of the music is imbricated in a notational network of nested imprecisions, ambiguities, aleatorea.
I have focused my descriptions to the structural elements of this work, rather than those of emotion or phenomenon. These have been written into the music, and cannot be rewritten in prose here. Therefore I invite you to hear the work for yourself with or without the information above in mind as you listen.

This text is obviously written in character. I suppose it's the capital-C Composer speaking. My reasoning begins negatively - I want to avoid specific problems because they annoy me. These are common problems I find with regard to discourse on music - something I really don't think has been nailed by anyone. How to speak about music? One may feel tempted to re-create certain aspects of the music in prose descriptions. But obviously a description is far less of a reality experience than that which is described. Indeed, the piece, certainly this particular piece, presents a whole network of reality experiences to which one's inability to recreate through description is the whole artistic goal - the less easily words comprehend the music, the more of a real experience (rather than symbolic?) it constitutes. On the other hand, one may be tempted to focus on the craft elements; to talk about how the musical surface was composed - but this too presents problems: what is a forest and what is a tree? And does that potential forest with its virtual trees even manifest while listening? Did the composer even care when faced with the clear discreet decisions as to what and how the next thing happens? Why did they put themselves in contact with these trees in the first place? These more background questions have a much more salient impact on what the thing is and how it sounds than the technical decisions that come after. But those later decisions are much easier to frame in terms of justification.

Having deliberately stripped away at least the two dead-ends, what remains is this purely formal description of space and time in a cybernetic, awkward-elegant prose, which actually I like quite a lot. The most awkward move is to describe spacial transformations in prose, rather than using a diagram. It's something I would never do except in this context. I think it emphasizes a few things: 1 this is a thing of words, and words can be tricky 2 this is not at all a part of the artwork.

Point 2 is worth dwelling upon. What is and is not part of the artwork? Let's make a list of things that are part of the artwork. This is, I will happily admit, an idiosyncratic list:

1 the music

1a time

1b space

2 the score

2a the system - what gets its own staff; in what terms are materials defined

2b formatting - empty space and filled space

2c documentation - performance notes

3 the title

4 the program note

~*caveats and apologia found below*~

Here's my point: the title and the program note, for me, are part of the artwork in an integral way. I consider the title to be the most compact re-articulation of the work, the program note to be a slightly less compacted iteration of the work.

SO, to write 'this was written with x in mind' is in my view wrong and pointless. Just write about x.

Here's the program note for my 2016 string quartet I found a few configurations // some stripes

To begin, I feel we must properly count

do we count?

if this were a race I’d lap or perhaps overlap

What ramifications from the indefinite article

or a definite article.

Article of

It really didn’t feel like writing


but not the

process, of course

The lines clearly alternate, with one indenting further and further from the left margin. That sets up the possibility to move from a dialogue to a continuity: but not the process, of course. Counting and numbers, and A vs The as grammatical functions, parsing & continuity, are all important aspects for how this quartet works. The words perform aspects of the piece, which provides an heuristic whilst listening (but also conditions subtleties of performance and clarifies compositional intentions)

The initial few paragraphs about Books II III...... at the top of this post do not perform the work of the music in any sense: on this point I think we should be very clear. If something is performing the work of art, then it is among the many pressures and contexts that amount to a reality experience, and I'll speculate on what that means, but far too briefly:

The term reality experience is here meant as an aesthetic application of the Lacanian Real. The whole point for me is that it is not symbolic. The symbolic is roughly language and logic. It is understanding therefore it is compressible, ultimately reducing to a single unit: the signifier. The real, since it's a real thing, is what it is and nothing more. Any compression loses something; any understanding misses something. Not that we won't try. I should hope that any given listener would have multiple discarded failures at an understanding.

*A word: my numbered list assumes and generalizes my world: publishers do not exist, people read PDFs from iPads rather than paper, 'practicality' is treated plastically; it is molded with care and precision as necessary condition for the reality experience. Perhaps most importantly, it assumes that I'll be there at the concert to field the kind direct questions that are typically addressed in program notes. I've stopped myself from really going into the taxonomy and embarking on a Tractatus-like journey.

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I've encountered some version of this sentiment many times since starting my formal education in music, if not earlier. From all sorts of people on the spectrum of musicality about all sorts of music.

The purpose of this series of informal essays is really to serve as a kind of sketch-pad. In all honesty, I have a great deal of trouble speaking about my music. Finding the right words is just so dif


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