from Wednesday, June27th of the year2007.
Now that my commute in New York has been shortened to a maximum of twelve minutes, I rarely have the pleasure of reading on the train anymore. This morning, in Boston, I was stuck underneath the Charles for about twenty minutes, and finally got to finish the article in the June 25 New Yorker about Arup and Cecil Balmond. (Images of Arup’s projects are available here). I have long been a fan of this firm’s work; Rem Koolhaas describes his own collaboration with Balmond & Arup very nicely in the article, and adds, “Our best work is kind of a hybrid between architecture and engineering.”
This is an issue I think about a lot in the stage of composition before actual notes are involved. Structure is, for me, a weak point; a lot of my music is assembled like origami, where the materials are much larger than the end product. This piece for the Boston Pops, for instance, feels like an 18-minute piece folded in half to make a 9-minute piece. This is neither good nor bad, but it does require special considerations to make sure that the end result is satisfying and not an overload. Another simile that I have found revealing is like a one-pot meal, where all the food groups are represented and experienced simultaneously: this can be either satisfying or infuriatingly unfocused.
Part of the way I have been thinking about making this kind of structure work is by avoiding “traditional” formal structures of development; this is a tricky business because I don’t think what I’m doing is particularly radical in any sense, but more representative of my own proclivities and tastes in what constitutes satisfying and contemporary structures. Fast-Slow-Fast, for instance, one of the mainstays of the tradition, is never going to lose its effectiveness; it’s like Starter-Main-Pudding. But what about, for instance, shattering the idea of a starter into many starters, many bites; what, then, has to happen to the rest of the meal in order for it to stay satisfying? Or, what about returning to the fascistic monochromism of the traditional blanquette de veau for all elements of a meal?
In his book Informal, which I am ordering right this very second, Balmond writes, “Why not skip a beat? Incline the vertical, slope the horizontal. Or allow two adjacent lines of columns to slip past each other. Let space entertain us. Let’s see other possibilities, other configurations of how buildings may be framed and stabilized.” What I like about this is that it is coming from a practical mind; one that wants to envision and then immediately frame it, make it practical. “What if my whole piece were backwards” or “What if the whole thing were upside-down” is all well and good, but for a building, people have to actually inhabit it. I am beginning to think about music more in this fashion, as something that has to have a structurally sound interface for work, play, or living.
A structure for study is something I am still emotionally uncomfortable with, but maybe that’s because I’m not a performer ““ a character without, I think, a true analogue in the world of architecture. One of the reasons I have always adored Webern, for instance, is because his music doesn’t last long enough for it to even consider itself inhabitable; it’s like coming across the most wild, genius picnic table during a hike. You sit down, you have a tarragon chicken wrap or something, and you admire the way the wood twists and turns and references itself. Then you get up, move on, and tell everybody and their friends that they have to go take a meal on the table. It’s a serious folly; I wish all of Babbitt’s music were exactly the length of Missy Elliott’s music; I love it when Milton puts his grid down, flips it, and reverses it, but then I find myself wandering in Mathmagic Land without having packed a snack.
Boulez has always struck me as so amazingly in control of the awkwardness and loopiness of his structures that I am perfectly content to trust myself over to them, to let myself become like a ball in a kinetic sculpture that rolls down a path and hits a xylophone and a steel drum. Stand in front of one of those sculptures and watch kids try to point out what’s going to happen. It looks just like David Robertson’s 3D cues. Similarly, Boulez’s music, with its unclear entry and exit points, strives to have no beginning and no end ““ it is under constant revision ““Â just like these sculptures. I’m going to stop before I tease this thing out to ridiculous conclusions; I’m a little dotty after too much tarragon in Vermont last weekend and four days of the Pops; I’m going to go home and eat a whole duck with my bare hands and listen to Pli selon pli.