Thoughts at the Intersection of Findetotenlieder

On receiving the Carl Sczuka Prize for his composition Roaratorio, John Cage opened his acceptance speech with the following sentiments:

‘Everything we do is done by invitation. That invitation comes from oneself or from another person.’

In light of this, I have invited myself to formulate a number of thoughts I have been having in relation to my current work in progress Findetotenlieder. Living with a work for an extended period of time (from its gestation to its final realisation), ones mind can often become unfocused as to why the work is being created in the first place. These short musings offer me the opportunity to solidify some thoughts I’ve been having in relation both to this piece and to contemporary music more generally.

As I write these petit mots, my music has been undergoing a radical (or reactionary, depending on your viewpoint) sea change, morphing from what could be seen as a zealous engagement with the European art music tradition culminating in a style associated with spectral compositional techniques, to one more associated with Cornelius Cardew’s concept of radical simplification and a deeper engagement with popular music making (from a poietic standpoint at least). This modulation has taken place for a number of reasons; the first being an outcome of my PhD research which focused on the (seeming) anxiety felt by artists in creating art in the shadows of the seminal works of their predecessors. The second, a stagnation (as I see it) in ideas from younger composers of contemporary art music owing in part to the towering influence created by modernist compositional techniques, concluding with spectral composition & musique concrète instrumentale. This slightly polemical statement is made in the interest of debate and there are of course notable exceptions to this general observation.

Refraining from divergence, this radical simplification of style (simplification in terms of technical demands imposed on players, but not in terms musical concentration or ensemble interaction) has occurred through my use of popular music as an influence in the Bloomean sense, which equates to something being used as a guiding principle and surmounted at the point in which I think the original work has not gone far enough in achieving its aesthetic principle. The result of this approach is treating popular music that has had significant impact upon me as found objects. However, I am dissatisfied with using the term objet trouvé in this context, as it implies an accidental discovery of material. Contrariwise, my use of these materials is completely deliberate and is the result of the said materials being significant either as an influence on my development as a musician, or because the said materials have some noteworthy extramusical meaning in relation to a given work. Consequently, I would prefer to label these materials, matériel prélevé (taken material), as I am purposely taking previously existing material and appropriating it to suite my own ends (usually structurally), or to put it another way artistically intervening upon pre-exiting material. (I shy also from using the phrase borrowed materials as I do not plan on returning them when I am finished!)

At this point, one is entitled to ask why I use popular material as matériel prélevé and not material from ‘world’ music or the ‘western classical’ tradition (or any other music for that matter), and to this I can offer a bipartite answer. Firstly, unlike many composers from the recent and distant pasts, but increasingly similar to many younger composers, my first musical experiences and engagements were with popular music and more specifically the ‘grunge’ and ‘alternative’ music that was prevalent in the 1990’s. Since my PhD research was dealing with influence, I elected to specifically investigate the music which has arguably had the greatest impact on my formative musical experiences before I had any formal musical training (piano & theory lessons, first class honours degree, masters degree, diploma, PhD etc), the result of which is trying to creatively tap into the music that imprinted itself on my mind whilst developing as a musician. In many ways this research is comparable to Pablo Picasso’s sentiments when he uttered such statements as:

‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up’


‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child’

Secondly, the actual sound and energy created by rock music fascinates me, as it does for countless other people the world over. (Why I am not a rock musician, is the subject of an entirely different discussion). I find it incredibly interesting how rock songs can be continually re-invented and kept interesting despite the fact that the majority of them use quite a small timbreal gamut, usually no more than guitar(s), bass guitar, drum kit, singer, the occasional keyboard (and sometimes electronics), and by using an exceptionally limited harmonic palette, seldom moving beyond the constraints of 18th Century harmonic practice. Seldom also does this music move beyond 4/4, 3/4, or 6/8 and more often than note employs seemingly straightforward rhythms (although this has begun to change over the past ten years or so). Moreover, this music tends to engage with the simplest of structures and their resulting forms.

While it could be argued that much of what makes popular music appealing to the masses is no more than what the culture industry dictates (see Adorno, Benjamin et al.), the same can be said for the classical music culture industry, which can often be more aggressive and cut throat than its popular music counterpart (It could polemically be argued that this industry is responsible for ghettoisation of ‘contemporary’ music in concert hall venues). Moreover, the effects of the culture industry on rock music are increasingly diminishing since the digitalisation and democratisation of music realised through the internet. More often than not the underground and DIY culture bypasses the culture industry completely and there is a direct relationship between composer, musician, and audience member. Because this pure, undistilled relationship exists, and is so engaging, there must be some essence to this music which can be extracted and appropriated in my own music (feel free to accuse me of cultural Imperialism here).

In addition to these aforementioned facets, I have become increasingly under the influence of contemporary visual arts, and as a result have noticed two interesting phenomena. Notably, that the most interesting art today in my opinion does not invent, but intervene. By this I mean that it is created by using pre-existing material often altering the original function thus creating an alternative reality (the same procedures can be observed in architectural practice, the Tate Modern in London being a prime example). Furthermore, this artistic practice is more often than not driven by text.

For these reasons my most recent compositional output has been involved with offering artistic interventions on popular culture/music (in a highly disguised way), the music/culture that has exerted the greatest influenced on me whilst formulating my musical personality. This recent music has to a large extent been driven by text, either in an extramusical poietic space or by literally setting text to music.

All of these aforementioned observations have manifested themselves in my most recent work, Findetotenlieder, which seems (as any artist’s latest output does) to encapsulate all of my current preoccupations. Firstly, those of the extramusical realm: visual art, the media, text, death, voyeurism and the fetishisation of all of these things, in addition to the neutrally musical: using popular music as influence, and the ‘radical simplification’ that this entails.

Findetotenlieder is an extended song in six verses, with six interludes, or instrumental reflections on the previously heard material, lasting roughly fifteen minutes. The text is taken from Gabriel Orozco’s piece of visual art entitled Obit and is notable for a number of reasons. Obit is itself a collection of found objects, more specifically a series of elongated white panels onto which single lines taken from newspaper obituaries have been printed (mostly taken from the New York Times). Rather than the single line obituaries reading like an obituary that one would read in the paper (highlighting that persons major achievements etc.), Orozco has chosen quite carefully the most peculiar single line relating to each deceased individual, such as ‘Champion of the Unpopular’ or ‘Eccentric, Even for England’. These specific choices and their assemblage into a piece of visual art to be presented and viewed in an art gallery are important. Firstly, the work can be read as a contemporary Memento Mori with each individual life summed up with these pithy phrases, his or her life distilled to just a few words; thus, no mater how important one may be in life, this life can always be distilled to these few words. Secondly, the specific choice of text is interesting as their ironic nature highlight a changing attitude to death in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century. These single lines are often comic and quirky, far removed from the solemn reverence that was once attached to all things pertaining to death. Nevertheless, while one may find the individual lines funny there is a pervading undercurrent of darkness, because as we read through each individual line, we assemble them in our minds as obituaries, and we realise that each of these individual lines represented a life that no longer exists.

The concept of the obituary itself is also noteworthy in this context as it highlights the media’s fascination with the Lacanian death drive (made even more apparent these past few weeks in the UK with phone hacking revelations) and society’s voyeuristic fetishisation of the lives of others. Why read a stranger’s obituary if not to get a glimpse into the lives of others? And by so doing comparing our own lives to theirs, measuring our own successes and failures against the deceased. Orozco, by arranging these obituaries and displaying them in a gallery, has paradoxically done two things. He has teasingly satisfied both the Lacanian death drive and society’s voyeuristic fetish by making these pithy phrases public. However, he has not fully satisfied either phenomenon as although we get these representations, they are anonymous, and because we are left wondering who these people could be, our unanswered questions leave us frustrated. Who for example did the New York Times deem ‘eccentric, even for England’? Wouldn’t we love to know?

Why have I chosen to set these texts, and how have I gone about doing it? Why am I intervening on something which is already an intervention? Firstly I see an enormous parallel between this work of visual art and my own work as a composer. As noted earlier, this work was created by assembling a number (or a single) objet trouvé collected and assembled over a period of time. This is exactly what I do compositionally by taking pre-existing musical material and using it to my own ends.

Additionally much of my work as a composer (in an extramusical sense) deals with many of the issues alluded to in Obit such as the Lacanian Death Drive, voyeurism, and how these things are perceived in popular culture vis à vis the media. For this reason I was instantly attracted to the work upon experiencing it and wanted to set it to music.

What can I bring to these texts that have not already been made apparent through the original artwork?

Firstly, by intervening upon this work I am offering (in an ontological sense) an alternative existence for the work, one in which its function moves from a piece of art to be viewed in space, to one which should listened to in time. A facet of this is that I have to arrange the order of, and the specific lines that the audience is to hear. In so doing I have edited 729 lines of text down to 30 lines and divided them up into six individual sections or verses. My line choices were made instinctively (much in the same way Orozco chose the obituaries that interested him the most). However, there was some sort of logical progression, and a great deal of time invested in the actual choices. From each panel, I highlighted the lines I found most interesting or quirky, and eliminated any line that could possibly be traced to name. This last approach was done in order to maintain the anonymity of each line, which for me is an important feature of the work. Beginning with 729 lines, I removed about 100 lines with each edit, and eventually arrived at 30 lines, which for reasons of musical structure have been divided up into six sections. This has a bipartite effect. Firstly, despite the fact that each line is a single obituary representing a single entity, because of the way I have arranged each line, and because they are experienced in time rather than space, each verse could be perceived as one individual obituary. Furthermore, this could be taken a step further by the whole text setting (again by the choice of texts and the order in which they are presented) being perceived as one whole page length obituary, albeit on which would be quite fanciful! This obviously changes the way the subject matter is experienced by the audience member, and offers an additional insight into the said theme. Not knowing if this piece represents one person, six people, or thirty people, disrupts the inquisitiveness of the audience member. It could be one, six or thirty, but it is difficult to tell.

Furthermore, by setting these texts to music the person who experiences the art becomes passive (the texts are delivered to them in time), rather than active (as is the case in a gallery, where the person reads the texts in whatever order they like at their own leisure). This makes the subject matter a little more uneasy, on the audience. No longer are they in control of their own voyeuristic fetish; instead this fetish is projected back onto them and they are invited (or forced) to contemplate it for the duration of the composition. This aspect is made all the more disturbing by the musical setting (which has its basis in popular music, as discussed below) sitting uncomfortably between the comic and the serious. The music that accompanies the text sounds comic (as much as music can sound comic), while the interludes are slightly more ominous (again as much as music can sound ominous). With such a setting, one is left unsure as to whether this piece is comic or serious, and by leaving this impression with the audience, it is hoped that they question the aspects mentioned above; such as 21st century attitudes to death, the media’s evasiveness and by the same token our own fascination with the lives of others.

To briefly discuss the musical details, this piece is very loosely based on a piece of popular music. The ironic nature of the texts printed in the popular media (newspaper) prompted me to search out popular music which treated themes associated with death in an ironic way, more specifically where the music accompanying the lyrics seemed to be at complete odds with the subject matter explored. After an extensive search I settled on a song entitled Someone Great by the group LCD Soundsystem. This was a perfect choice; firstly, because the subject matter is quite ambiguous. It is obviously a lament, but whether the singer James Murphy is mourning a death or a relationship is unclear (I am told it is clearly a death). The Song is quite upbeat, using D major tonality throughout, a lively 4/4 tempo etc. which is completely at odds with the subject matter. I am using three elements of this song in my own composition. The structure, a repeated semiquaver followed by a quaver rest motive (heard throughout the song on a synthesiser) which is heavily disguised in my own piece, and a feature of the song’s orchestration, doubling the voice with a glockenspiel. However, my work utterly transforms these minor details and bares little or no resemblance to its source material. One final point which might be made in relation to the musical detail is that it relies heavily on repetition, which is of course a feature of the Lacanian Death Drive, one of the key inspirators of this piece.

It is hoped that these short musings can offer some insight into my current compositional preoccupations as well as offering the reader a glimpse into the poietic space of Findetotenlieder. Whether or not I manage to achieve these thoughts convincingly in the piece remains to be seen, but I am nevertheless enjoying the process.

Published by seanlclancy

Irish Composer living between Dublin, Ireland & Birmingham, UK

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