21 February 2009

Wish I Might Be There Dept

This evening (Crumpets Time) will see the premiere of Luke Ottevanger’s Elegy & Ascent. Luke shares the bill with Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto and Fifth Symphony. Especially with such company on the program, it is heartening to see that Elegy & Ascent are programmed afterward. Program a new piece before, and the bluster of the Beethoven (which of course is part of what we like about LvB) were apt to drive all thought of the new work out of the audience’s mind. This way, the last music the audience will have in their ears is the Ottevanger, and it is that piece which they will be talking about as they exit the space.

EDIT: Well, next best thing. Guido's eyebrows very rightly rose figuratively to this scheme. According to this listing, Elegy & Ascent follow the concerto in the first half. An even sweeter spot, as Luke’s piece will have been the talk at intermission.



[ The composer's notes on the piece ]

Elegy and Ascent (2008)

Elegy – Memorial Trio and Chorale
Ascent - ...towards Ishaan...

Elegy is made of up two orchestrated extracts from Memorial, a long, unfinished piano piece of mine dating from 2001. That piece is strongly bound-up with the idea of ‘fate’, and for this reason every note of it was chosen by chance operations (the drawing of cards giving the notes and the order in which they are to be played). The advantage of this process is the way in which it tends to throw up odd correspondences – hints of other music, familiar musical gestures etc. – and to grant the composer glimpses of mysterious avenues which would otherwise have been unseen and unexplored. In the case of Memorial the thousands of chance-determined notes at times coalesced into particularly unified sections I called ‘trios’. The first section of Elegy is the first of these trios, whilst the second section is a chorale which closes the completed portion of Memorial. To me, the original Memorial is inseparable from the idea of ‘memory’, not just because the music itself is concerned with remembrance but because it is an old work of mine which was lost, found, lost again and finally given a place here in Elegy. Among other memory-filled gestures suggested to me by the cards, you will hear a violin shyly tuning up, horn calls – a typical Romantic signifier for memory and distance – and, entirely coincidentally but fittingly given tonight’s programme, the ‘fate’ motive of Beethoven’s Fifth.

In contrast with this collection of memories and familiar gestures, Ascent is entirely concerned with a movement towards a single point of ‘now-ness’, a point equivalent to Eastern concepts of enlightenment, to Western (Jungian) ones of the individuation of the Self, and indeed to any journey towards a state of integration, coherence, completion, including an artist’s journey towards a personal style. Ascent is therefore also piece of ‘now’ in that it uses modal techniques and other compositional approaches which I have developed in the last few years – techniques and approaches which are in tune with my own musical character but which I don’t imagine would be appropriate for anyone else, and which are in themselves the result of this search for (musical) Self. ‘The new’ is thus presented here growing out of ‘the old’, but in fact Elegy prefaces Ascent simply because I found that it had to: I was unable to compose the literally Self-centred second piece until it had been balanced and contextualised by a more communal one.

At its simplest this ‘modal technique’ uses small collections of pitches which are never transposed and which leave tonal implications present but ambiguous and fluid, creating a harmonically floating, circling effect. A more complex version, suitable for writing larger pieces such as Ascent, uses the various intersections and negations of a number of different modes (that is, the notes they share, the notes they don't include, and other combinations of this sort) to create more sets of notes, and therefore to give unlimited structural possibilities akin to those created by the various key centres in a piece of tonal music. In Ascent this structure is based on the fundamental concept of reduction towards a single point. Three basic modes are used, of 7, 6 and 5 notes, selected so that their various intersections are of 4, 3, 2 and 1 notes - in other words, the notes used tend towards a unity, the single note G which all the modes share. As the music progresses from a seven-note mode to a single note, so the rhythmic structure of the piece contracts, from 7/8 to a final bar of 1/8 (odd-number metres - 7/8, 5/8, 3/8 - are characterised by more propulsive, ostinato-driven music than the reflective even-number metres, which feature the piano prominently).

The abstract concerns outlined above are objectified for me in the shape of Mt. Kailash, a Tibetan peak sacred to four religions. My long-standing fascination with this mountain is probably connected to my interest in the idea of the elusive centre (or the Self), and the way in which it is implied by my ‘circling’ modes. The looming, unattainable Kailash is seen as the omphalos, the axis mundi, the centre of everything - to climb it would be sacrilegious; instead pilgrims circle it in a long high altitude route called the Kora or Parikrama. The four faces of Kailash point towards the cardinal points of the compass and in Hindu iconography have their own names and specific qualities - destroyer, creator, sustainer, compassionate one. But there is a fifth face, Ishaan, which faces upwards, showering blessings on mankind - the summit of the mountain, where the four lower faces merge into one unity. Though no one climbs Kailash this symbolic ascent is thus implied, and it is the ascent my piece draws on. In my mind, the notes of the three modes and their first three intersections – the sets of 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 and 2 notes – which are physically present on paper and under the players’ fingers, are analogous to the physical faces of Kailash, facing out for all to see. But the final G, like the summit, Ishaan, faces upwards, and like Ishaan it showers out invisible blessings - at this point a G bell is struck, radiating not tangible, written notes, but a haze of harmonics, as if, on reaching the summit, the note itself has been transfigured into new dimensions.

3 comments:

Guido said...

Hi. Are you sure about the order? It seems most logical to me that they would put this 10 minutes piece in the first half before the piano concerto like a standard overture...

Karl Henning said...

Well, not absolutely certain; that's the order listed in the link at the head of the paragraph . . . .

Karl Henning said...

Post emended. Thanks, Guido!