Space Rocks: Shapes and Shadows
This triptych of piano pieces – the first one for prepared piano – was written over a long span of years, but they form a unified whole in their aesthetics and their treatment of the instrument.
Superficially, the style recalls the pointillist approach that became popular among avant-garde composers in the 2nd half of the 20th century. (Think, for example, of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke). But there are deep and significant differences, which I think – I hope – make these pieces more accessible to listeners who are not necessarily devotees of the avant-garde and not necessarily musically literate.
The most important difference is that each piece has a clear narrative shape. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a climax towards the end of the middle section. The music moves forward towards the climax and then settles down through the denouement.
This has been a feature of virtually everything I have ever written. In contrast, the predominant avant-garde style of the latter part of the 20th century – continuing with some fine composers into this century – tends to be somewhat static, as if the listener is meant to enter a kind of trance in which the sounds form a pleasurable sensation but there is relatively little (if any) movement – as if one were floating in space. I believe this is very much connected with the increased popularity of eastern (Asian) music and, indeed, with eastern religions and philosophies.
This tendency also reflects a fascination with – and yet, a fear of – the amazing scientific and technological advances we have witnessed over the past decades, and in particular a fascination with space, both as a frontier that technology is conquering, but also as a place of escape from the pulls and pushes of the quotidian world in which we function.
We can see this fascination in the pseudo-scientific and pseudo-mathematical pretenses of certain composers, who claim to invoke mathematical principles in their music. As someone with a fair amount of mathematical training (and who has made some minor contributions to the field), I bristle at such pretensions. They appear to be mathematical, but really are not. Mind you, if such methods lead to good music, then I am all for the result; but I find it hard to countenance the scientific pretensions, which are simply bogus.
Space Rocks – Shapes and Shadows expresses some of these same fascinations – hence the name – but the pieces do not simply hang suspended in space. Rather, they move, from beginning to end. I mostly agree with Ezra Pound’s old adage that music atrophies when it gets too far from dance. I have never been able to write music that seems statically suspended. It is just not my musical language.
The other major difference in my style concerns the harmonic language, and it is also related to movement. There is a lot of dissonance in these pieces, but at some deep level I also believe there is a strong tonal aspect. While the pieces are superficially atonal, there are nevertheless strong harmonic progressions. Each chord either creates, increases, or reduces the harmonic tension, pulling the music forward. That, to me, is the essence of tonality.
In writing these pieces I followed no explicit harmonic rules. Rather, I relied on my ear to tell me where the music needed to go. This is a lesson I learned from Otto Luening: whenever I would ask him how I could be sure whether something I had written was right, he would simply point to his ear.
Although there have been various attempts to codify the harmonic principles of atonal music (a worthy example being Paul Hindemith’s Craft of Musical Composition), I am skeptical as to whether anyone has really figured this out yet. Perhaps some day someone will. But for me, it is my ear that tells me where the music must go, and it is a process of trial and error getting it right.
Still, I hope and believe that the harmonic pull and narrative shape of the music comes through even to the uneducated ear. I write what is inside me. Composing, for me, is a kind of testimony. Thus, I do not have any particular audience in mind when I compose. I simply hope that what I have to say, musically, will touch someone who is interested in hearing.
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