Dealing with the Obvious
Notes on the Triptykon Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra
by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen
How do you deal with the obvious This question forced itself on me as I started working on Triptykon for percussion and orchestra.
After Modernism's age-long, obstinate attacks on, and reassessment of, past forms of expression, and discussion of their viability in the present, the situation now is that music history in its entirety is accepted as purveyor of material for one's own consumption -all ready for unwrapping.
Is it possible to take over the expressions of the past just like that? You can look at the past in different ways, but what's important is that it is looked at, appraised, seen through perpetually new lenses. The time in between has left its mark on us - I almost said, "has hurt us." It's not possible to identify 100% with the expressions of a bygone age. You can "make believe," acquire old tics and mannerisms and techniques - if nothing else in fragments! But we're twisting in the net - the net of the past and the present, interwoven as they are.
It's wrong, I think, to leave Modernism completely out of the game. Modernism must - what is completely in accord with it - accept being criticized, but I can hardly imagine Modernism's problematization of how the music of the past is treated being completely eliminated. What I aim to criticize is the unconcerned use of past expressions. How easy it is to pull out the drawers! In particular, European music of the last 300 years is up for grabs, so widespread, so accepted, so comforting to lean against. So obvious.
And, thus, we're back where we started with the general question: How do you deal with the obvious? It's an odd question and rather dubious. If you perceive the use of the obvious as a confirmation of prejudices, you're setting up a quick answer: unacceptable. But it's not that easy. For what do you do about Ionesco's The Bald Diva, which is nothing but a gigantic collection of the obvious? The answer shows the way. Ionesco deals with pointing out, italicizing and stylizing the obvious, with the result that it's completely drained of meaning. Anything but an unconcerned use.
How can the same notes, the same words, seem so completely different - dewy fresh or downtrodden? The moment of delivery - the situation -is of crucial importance. How do the forms project?
Staying On Guard
In other words, I'm for "concern" in this matter, for a closer consideration of the complicated and entangled pos sibilities of meaning, and I consider it only natural to be on guard against the obvious - at least when it comes to writing music. But strange it is, because it turns out that the obvious, simple banalities can have a liberating effect. How can the same notes, the same words, then seem so completely different - dewy fresh or downtrodden? It would seem that the moment of delivery, the situation, is of crucial importance. How the forms project. That "how" indicates a fine network of extra signals surrounding the oh-so-familiar phrases. In Beethoven's last quartets and piano works, obvious things, in the sense of simple banalities, occur regularly, but at the same time how strange they are. The whole form is strange, swallowing up the banalities, so they're no longer ordinary. You could say that Ionesco and Beethoven, via their work and entire production, have reclaimed the obvious.
All right, but how do you distinguish the various forms of the obvious? That is precisely the problem for both sender and recipient. There are certainly plenty of gradations and variations. In my case, for instance, a not uncommon thing happened: you can be forced into them! And that's my cue for a more concrete treatment of Triptykon.
At the outset, I considered it an unimaginative and laissez-faire obviousness that a percussion concerto should employ a whole truckload of exotic instruments, demand a maximum and virtuoso performance by the soloist -and move into a range of volume which most of the time would lie above ff.
Tableau. The nagging worm. Disgust at the demands of the given. And so liberating not to do it. I thus pictured a chamber percussion concerto, quite muted, transparent and clear as glass, with an extreme minimum of percussion instruments. You can make the most sublime music on three or four small pieces of wood.
That would be a really tempting assignment. And the opportunity arose! For some time I'd been talking with the Danish percussionist Gert Mortensen about a concerto, so I gladly accepted when the conservatories of music approached me regarding a commission in 1984.1 told Gert about my plans and he lent an interested ear. Two weeks later, he called me up to get me to come with him out to a boiler factory where he wanted to show me some fantastic, giant, rectangular metal pipes with a sound like freight containers!
From then on it was downhill -faster and faster. We worked together intensely on the instrumentation, and soon we had a whole truckload. Gert is a wonderful musician, and why shouldn't he be allowed to have fun with all the great instruments, perform maximally, virtuosically and somewhat above ff> Well, of course, I wasn't forced -1 was seduced. Voluntarily. Gert's enthusiasm changed my initial attitude to certain obvious things. I accepted them and tried to "reclaim" them.
Three Large Fields
I can't remember when the title, Triptykon, occurred to me, but from very early on, I conceived the concerto as three large fields which were at the same time different and identical. The differentiation, in the case of the soloist, consisted of the first movement being written for metal, the second movement for wood, and the third movement for skin. And for the orchestra: the first movement is only for winds, the second movement only for strings, and the third movement, finally, a tutti movement.
The similarities consist of the winds playing the same parts in the first and third movements (excepting the addition of 21 measures), and the strings playing the same parts in the second and third movements (except for the above-mentioned measures). When I say the strings play the same parts, this comes with the modification of the two movements notated in different meters and tempi, though all pitches and
durations (measured as "absolute" durations) are identical. That's because the base substance, the point of departure, is polyrhythmic.
Extensive and strictly executed polyrhythms was one of the means I considered useful for taming certain accepted elements of the "obvious." Primarily, I'm thinking of the dynamic form, a form based on searching and leaving climaxes. A way of forming that's been giving me trouble since the mid-'6os. The polarization of static and dynamic has obsessed me for these 30 years, and I'll try to explain why.
With certain types of music, you can experience a kind of elimination of time and the blessed calm that comes from not having to make it anywhere in time, not having to go hunting for new experiences or new locations but, rather, openly finding pleasure in small variations fluctuating at exactly the place you happen to be now - for a long now. It would seem obvious that music is dependent on variation, that is, movements of one form or another. You can't imagine music that is 100% static. But you can deal less categorically with the term, and say that music can be near-static one way or another.
A piece can be static in pitch, consisting, for instance, of just one note, where the variations are changes in timbre, volume or rhythm. The more areas you incorporate and lock in, the closer you get to the impossible: the absolutely static. It's strange that the idea of that impossibility exerts an attraction both as a horror and as a dream of the great calm which comes from being liberated from conflict.
Whereas the static in essence means lack-of-form, the form of the dynamic arc is the leading scorer among "ur" -forms - indeed, it has been forced to extremes in European music history. The arc itself may assume different forms which can be typical of different ages and composers. In the melodic version - as a rise and fall - the high point comes early, for instance in the Gregorian chant, and around or after the middle in Palestrina, and expressly at the end in Bach. The dynamic curves in Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner speak their clear language (see Example below).
Carl Nielsen's Helios Overture is a wonderful example of an archetypical figure: the course of a day, the year; the course of life. In Ravel's Bolero there's a continual ascension towards a "modern" climax, a burning out, a breakdown. Wagner's ups and downs are really the high point in searching for the high point.
Here I arrive at my intention: such a commonplace form - like other commonplace forms, of course - must be reclaimed. It's the task of the individual and of ever' generation to make this investment. Let me add that I'm not at all interested here in drawing any conclusions as to how that should be done; I tell of my own troubles and my attempts at conquering them.
In conjunction with Triptykon, I mentioned that strictly executed polyrhythms seemed to me to be a solution. This is seen at its most complex in the third movement which, following approach after approach in a
zig-zagging movement, finally obtains a forceful extension which, again, is sustained a good while. A plateau feeling is established. Polyrhythm is an absolutely crucial weapon. But, of course, it's not enough in itself. What more, then?
First, very generally: dispositions in blocks. Blocks of tone color, volume, pitch and register, "stylistic" blocks, etc. In that way it's possible to erect an architecture by adding, subtracting and combining, where the sudden presence and surprising collisions are more important than the "little transition," whose appointed champion is Alban Berg (conversely, Stravinsky and Varese are "block composers" ). In by far most of my work, I've gravitated towards the possibilities inherent in the form built up by blocks. But Berg is one of my favorite composers! This merely means that what you do to yourself, you needn't expect from others, and there's no reason to be blind and deaf (said to avoid any misunderstanding).
The second movement is an oasis. I think it will be apparent that static music is what I have in mind. I'm happy about the pure major and minor thirds in this movement (and their placement and doublings). I like to think that I have "reclaimed" them! An idea based to some extent on the fact that all harmonic structures are mirroring each other. Also, the strings in combination with the wood's cackle and rattle saved it all for me; I'm grateful to have encountered the Indonesian instrument, the "anklung" - tuned bamboo rods.
The second movement is also polyrhythmic: the strings versus the soloist in proportions of three to seven. On the surface, the movement is so simple that I'm sure most "Modernists" will find it completely idiotic (that, too, would mean a kind of satisfaction: there's a certain appeal in being the laughing stock of laypeople and professionals alike).
As for the "blocks" - now generally speaking of Triptykon as a totality - we encounter them also in register dispositions, as freezes: instruments bound to a determined and limited number of notes. "Style blocking" is expressed via the insistent, consonant, triadic world of the strings (supplemented by seconds) in confrontation with the woodwinds' clusters and pentatonic polytonality, and the brass's semitonal, Stravinsky-inspired harmonies.
However, it is not my intention to bring in the block form as some sort of "deus ex machina" to rescue the act - a universal medicine to restore the arc form. The rescue action is considerably more complex than that, and the manoeuvers I mentioned are merely trotted forth to demonstrate the constant struggle to liberate the music. Liberate it from prejudice. I couldn't agree more that the block form became traditional a long time ago, not least thanks to the contributions of Stravinsky, and that it, too, must be reclaimed!
To sum up and make an entirely general statement, I'd like to point out that limitations - serving as a sort of common denominator for much of the above - at happy moments can lead to a feeling of freedom.
In the treatment of the percussion, it was always my intention to limit, to fix, even if, as we've seen, the number of instruments was increasing. The rich repertoire of sound possibilities was collected in relatively few combinations which, however, were frequently repeated. The choice of combinations was very important both to the immediate expression and the overall form. Fixed combinations from the first movement, such as Java gong + pipe bell, pipe bell + tuned cowbell, tuned cowbell + crotales, oil drum + giant metal pipes, tar bucket + Chinese cymbal, large cowbell + opera gong, metal bowl + split (small metal sheet) should clarify that it's about dry/wet, short/ long, round/sharp in various degrees of affinity.
The percussion and orchestra were placed on the same wavelength in terms of sound expression. Indeed, from the start, the orchestra was conceived almost as a form of percussion with relatively few and simple, set, color-fixed blocks of sound.
Finally, let me mention that the theme of the obvious is related to recycling, repetitions and theft (Stravinsky again). Still it's worth mentioning that even among thieves, there are interesting differences in methods and ideas. More than a few "Modernists" have had difficulties in distinguishing in this matter.
Translated by Glen Garner