Towards a monolithic non-teleological music

I’ve been writing a lot of music recently. Come to think of it, I’ve written seven pieces since January.  Currently, I’m engaged in writing an orchestral piece. After this, I move onto something on a much bigger scale, which will hopefully be realised in 2014. In addition to this compositional activity, I’m recording another record with my band in a few weeks, which more likely than not will feature just two tracks. I’ve also been listening to a lot of music this past while. A lot, a lot of music. Both live and recorded in many, many different styles & genres. Moreover, I’ve been talking about music and talking to other people about music. All of this activity has led me to think about a lot of things.

I have for the past three or four years, been engaged with a compositional practice which I refer to as artistic intervention. This practice resonates very strongly with the working methods of a large proportion of visual artists, architects, poets, playwrights etc. that have been active for the past twenty years or so, but heretofore has not really been taken up by composers. I am fairly certain I know why this is the case, but for reasons pertaining to clarity, I shall not go into this here. For my own part, this working method generally involved me taking pre-existing structures from various different phenomena be it rock songs, contemporary and (or) classical pieces, poetry, visual art, video pieces etc. and filling these structures with my own musical material, thus presenting these familiar objects in a new light and by the same token offering my own subjective reading of such phenomena. In many cases this resulted in the transference of the aura of a piece of art or experience from one medium to another. I have talked about this practice and working method at length elsewhere (this was the subject of my PhD thesis), but what I would like to address presently is the actual material I am currently filling these structures with and how it might differ from what I have previously done.

Much of the music that I have heard since say April of this year has not really appealed to me that much. I have heard some stunning pieces and bands between then and now, but I have heard much more that I probably could continue my life without ever hearing again. In times gone by, I would have suggested that why I did not like these pieces was because their focal point was novelty for the sake of novelty and rather than presenting anything inherently new, they reiterated a sense of newness that pertained to that same concept more than forty years ago. I like the music that was written forty years ago. I like a lot of different musics and generally try to be as non-partisan as possible. I like Luigi Nono. I like Gérard Grisey. I like Helmut Lachenmann. I like Salvatore Sciarrino. I also really, really like hard-core modernism, but it is precisely because I like this music and these composers that I don’t want to hear it from other composers. If I want to listen to a piece that sounds like Lachenmann, I’ll go out and listen to Lachenmann. I don’t want to hear something that produces this sound world because the composer is interested in the alleged novelty of the sounds but rejects the conceptual, aesthetic and structural basis of this compositional approach. Art and (or) music for me, is not about what we can do, but what I’m thinking about.

I suggested that this would have been my thinking in past times and in many respects I still hold these views, but recently I think I have discovered more pertinently why this music is uninteresting to me and it is here that I shall segue from my initial line of argument. To put it simply, much of the recent music I have heard of late does absolutely nothing to test the listener’s attention span in any way. It’s seems to me that it is all too easy and too instantly gratifying, focusing a little too much on episodes and drama in an easily digestible timeframe. We hear something for a minute, the composer gets bored of the material, we hear something else for a couple of minutes, the composer gets bored of the material and moves on to something else and so on and so on. It all works somehow because the composer uses a number of interesting sounds, might use some strange looking (or sounding) playing technique, has a number of climaxes that sound very impressive when played by an orchestra or large ensemble and lets the audience know when to clap either through disintegrating to absolute silence or by ending with an extremely grandiose gesture. To put it another way these kinds of compositions rely on drama and a sense of narrative to carry the listener from beginning to end. It’s a classic case of teleology at work in music, the same kind of operational procedure that carried music from beginning to end since the systemisation of tonality. This time only without the tonality. I’ve seen this procedure in my own music too, particularly in my more well-known and better-received compositions. They too, have for the most part been teleological. These pieces have I think, a strong sense of narrative with a beginning middle and end and also have grand gestures often resulting in climatic points from which the music never quite recovers. I always had extra-musical, philosophical and aesthetic reasons for doing this, but I’m not so interested in these issues anymore. I’m still interested in intervention, just intervention without the drama.

We live in an age of instant gratification. Everything is available everywhere, all of the time and very easily obtainable. We receive a lot more information than ever before on a daily basis but we digest it in much smaller chunks, A 140 character tweet, a ten minute YouTube video, but more importantly, if our attention isn’t grabbed in the first thirty seconds, we skip through to something else. It’s modern advertising. Not only are we receiving information in smaller chunks, but we are also receiving information from a multiplicity of sources simultaneously. It is not uncommon to walk into a household and find a person watching television, listening to a radio programme, checking Facebook, texting, watching YouTube videos all happening across a number of different devices; a smartphone, a laptop, a tablet. Not only this, but people still manage to engage with other people in the room whilst information on all of these disparate medias is being consumed. This is just the way things have gone and it’s a fantastic age to exist in, but I can’t help but feel something is being lost in the process. Art in simplistic terms is essentially a reflection or a reaction to what is going on around us as individuals and I feel that much of the music that I have heard of late is simply a reflection of how we engage with these extra-musical phenomena. This for me though, is a far too literal approach. I want to engage with art in a way that I can’t or don’t get the opportunity to do in day-to-day existence. Art is far more important than day-to-day existence (Art is long, life short, experience difficult). I want it to be ineffable, I want to have to think about it, but above all, I want to listen to the sounds interacting with one another without drama, narrative or the composer’s own boredom with their own material getting in the way.

This is why I feel I am moving towards a monolithic non-teleological music. As I noted earlier, art should not be about what I can do, but what I am thinking about and since what I think about most is listening, I am always approaching composition from a listener’s point of view. When I write, I ‘listen’ to how long I can listen to a given section or block of material and then make it longer. Switching between writing and listening is a difficult procedure, because the act of writing is a much longer process than the act of listening, but making this switch during the compositional process is of paramount importance and in my opinion often results in better composition. I approach composition from a listener’s point of view and because I’m currently interested in listening to musics of extended durations that do not develop or use drama, my current music has become monolithic and non-developmental. James Tenney has often noted that ‘the unadorned use of musical structures and the avoidance of drama will produce meditative perceptual states, allowing the listener to listen to the sounds for themselves rather than in relation to what preceded or what will follow.’ This is precisely what I currently value in music and in these recent pieces there is essentially only one gesture containing no drama, no development and no process, only change allowing the listener to listen to, comprehend and experience the sounds for themselves.

I mentioned above that a simplistic concept of art might be that it either exists as a reaction or reflection on the society around us. These new pieces for me, paradoxically address both issues. I’m still interested in artistic intervention and these new pieces are interventions on pre-existing phenomena, this for me is a true reflection of where we are as a society, both artistically and more generally, but the material I am using seems to be a reaction to everything else that happens around us. I don’t want my art to be a literal representation on how we digest information. I want it to be ineffable. I want it to have a sense of mystery and to have secrets that are not yielded easily. I don’t want to hear the composer’s (mine or others) boredom with their own material. I want to listen to things for a long time. I want to contemplate the existence of a sound or a series of sounds beside each other or on top of each other. I want to see where this brings my mind and above all, I want to create moments of real beauty. As I’ve suggested, how I think these objectives are manifesting themselves is by moving towards a monolithic non-teleological music.

This is a working method and conceptual framework that is currently proving fruitful for me and I have no intention of suggesting it be prescriptive. If anything, I hope that at the very least, it can prove to be an addition to the already amazingly diverse ecosystem that is our current musical landscape.

Published by seanlclancy

Irish Composer living between Dublin, Ireland & Birmingham, UK