Monday, July 19, 2010

Out of time

Well, I'm back. I've been home for about a week now, but now I'm back mentally as well. Not much of what I've done over the last six weeks or so has been restful. Between planes, trains, cars, visits, endless jet lag and intermittent work of various kinds, I can't really say I've had much of a holiday. Nevertheless, my mind's been disconnected from its daily grind long enough that I'm starting to chomp at the bit of my viola concerto, still worried about it, still just cautiously feeling it out, but it's a good place to be in right now.

During my travels I was gifted with three wonderful performances of pieces from the more meditative side of my output, from three very different groups, one in Japan and two here in Finland. (The Helsinki Chamber Choir concert featuring my ad puram annihilationem meam and an amazing premiere by my colleague Sampo Haapamäki can be streamed online here until August 11th.) All three were prepared to a very high technical level, and the performers gave deeply committed interpretations, letting the long phrases breathe fully, feeling the weight of the pauses, paying full attention to the sound of each note – in short, taking their time.

I'm used to having to do a certain amount of work with performers to get them into the temporal feel of the music, the way it flows through time. There's a tendency to rush on from one idea to the next in Western music, and it always takes awhile to overcome that deeply ingrained impulse to always press onward. It's particularly problematic in pieces like the ones mentioned above, where boxes with pitches and approximate time durations vastly outnumber notated rhythms, and the long boxed figures and fermatas, even the pauses tend to go by much more more quickly than I'd planned. One could say it's my fault for not fully notating the durations I want, but the notation I use in such cases is only meant as a guide to the proportional values of the gestures. The real point of the exercise is to get the players to feel the tension of the moment, to relax into the beauty of a texture, the feel the rightness of moving forward into a new section or gesture, independent of any specific temporal duration. In most cases, it's simply a matter of drawing people's attention to the pauses, getting them to count out the durations and feel how long ten seconds really is. Once the performers catch on, it's rarely a problem. The feel and pace of the music are established, and the interpretation grows in leaps and bounds. Case in point is the Helsinki Chamber Choir, now on their third performance of ad puram, and the piece just keeps getting more expansive, more centered, its fragmented structure more cohesive as a result.

So imagine my surprise when, after my sole rehearsal with the Japanese musicians who played The wine-dark sea, I suddenly realized I hadn't had to go through that routine. I hit me on the trip back to my hotel that the issue of pauses or phrases "breathing" hadn't come up at all, everything had just flowed the way I'd signaled through the notation. There were other small issues to deal with, the normal things one faces in coaching a performance like tone quality, dynamics and articulations, but the temporal unfolding of the piece wasn't one of them.

Don't worry, I'm not going to make any broad-brush statements about the Japanese mindset and how they have a natural appreciation of stasis and repose – especially given the head-spinning speed at which Tokyo operates. Although I've been fascinated by Japanese culture for a long time and done my share of study on it, I don't know it intimately enough to make such claims. But there did seem to be an unspoken understanding between the players about how the piece should go, how long a pause should last, when the next event should occur. The product of good rehearsal, no doubt, but there was something in the room, a feeling that ran deeper than simple professional musicianship, an attitude of rightness about how things should proceed that the players brought to the piece independently of my notational choices. I don't think it's going too far into generalization to note that Japan's culture has, of course, been shaped by Buddhism, and Zen in particular, whose values have affected my attitude toward time as well. And even Tokyo, whose activity level never seems to be at less than fever pitch, somehow manages to room for genuine peace and reflection in its hectic, multi-layered design, such that passing through a gate into someone's tiny garden completely transports one out of the urban condition and into timelessness. (I was lucky enough to be staying in such an oasis)

One of the few books I've made time to read this year is Time by Eva Hoffman, a thought-provoking if not especially rigorous or cohesive essay [pot, meet kettle] on how various cultures construct and experience time. Although concerning a culture unrelated to Japan, this passage did jump out at me (italics mine):

"[...] in each culture, the temporal order is so deeply bound up with the wider matrix of values, with the conception of the human and its place in the cosmos, as to be tantamount to an existential topography. For the Balinese, a sense of spacious stasis is clearly foundational, and infiltrates every aspect of life in ways which seem very opaque to an outsider."

If this is true – let's say it is for now, I'm not convinced it's that simple – and cultural constructs of time are binding and so deeply ingrained that getting outside them requires a supreme conscious effort, it may go some way toward explaining why Western performers need to make a conscious effort to surrender to stasis in a piece, whereas Japanese musicians do it more instinctively, despite their training in Western music. By the same token, in striving for timelessness in my music, am I fighting a losing battle with my cultural conditioning? It certainly feels like that sometimes, as I struggle to hold back the pace of events, restrain the development of a pitch field, relax, enjoy a sonority, a chord, a pair of oscillating notes.

I've been aspiring to the condition of timelessness for as long as I've been composing, but the conscious act of abandoning linear/teleological time in my music took two acts. First, I stopped wearing a watch. It was driving me crazy, making me segment up my music and count every bloody beat and subdivision, using it to clock through every bar and phrase, trying in vain to get every gesture timed just right. Second, I joined a choir that performed a lot of Renaissance polychoral music. As I got into that repertoire, the way it ebbed and flowed without regard to barlines, settling where it wanted to, forsaking harmonic tension and resolution for modal euphony, I began to see a way out of the temporal labyrinth I'd constructed for myself in grad school, a way in which I could free myself of counted, segmented time, harmonic development, form – in short, step outside measured time. The pieces where I've managed to do this, to create stasis without any conscious exercise of will or discipline on my part are generally the pieces I consider my best work, the ones where effort and ordering of time give way to artless flow. I wonder sometimes why I bother with striving, except that artlessness isn't something you make happen, it happens on its own, independently from, perhaps even in stark opposition to creative will.

This is all by way of noting that the tension between striving and stasis seems to be coming to the fore in my latest piece, the much-maligned viola concerto. True artlessness has so far seemed to me like a world apart from that of ordered musical time as we understand it in the Western sense, a place outside pitch sets and formal development, rarefied and unyielding to invitations to blend into a symphonic discourse, like a noble gas. I've had to give timelessness its own space in order to let it fully expand. But this piece is different, wanting, demanding to contain both, not only as part of its formal course, but also in the relationship between the solo viola, which is always seems to be trying to crawl out of its skin, constantly pushing at its harmonic surroundings with new pitches, and the orchestra, which so far just wants to be. It's a fascinating tension, one I can't say I've seen much in the concerto format, but one I'm keen to explore and see how it pans out. More rambles to follow on related topics, this is one blogging idea I'm not planning on letting go of for a change.