A large composition for string orchestra, harp and piano, approx. 25 minutes. It is included as the final part of my doctoral dissertation.
The recording presented here comprises excerpts from the entire piece, read by the Berkeley Symphony as part of their Under Construction series, December 10, 2006.
The Berkeley Symphony, cond. George Thompson
Program Note: (N.B. These are the program notes that accompanied a reading of Anaphora by the Berkeley Symphony, as part of their Under Construction series.)
Anaphora was begun late in 2004 and finished in March of 2006. Written as a part of my dissertation thesis, Anaphora was placed in the unenviable position of being not simply a composition, but rather an exemplification of my compositional and theoretical thinking.
In the dissertation, entitled The Music of Skepticism, I spend many pages discussing what I mean by a “musical skepticism.” Rather than thinking of skepticism as type of crippling philosophical doubt, I tried to argue for skepticism’s utility its everyday application. By skepticism, I intended something quite specific: the continual need to revisit our everyday practices of listening and composition; the drive to continually question the way in which we apply of our musical concepts; the elicitation of continually new criteria from the weave of improvised practices that constitute our musical form of life. Furthermore, a skeptical music does not imply a stylistic demand. It is directed at making perspicuous our habits of listening in order to investigate the relationship between human intentionality and acoustic materiality. The proliferation of contradictory and conflicting aspects that accrue to musical passages can be used to expose the limitations, or better yet, the inadequacy of our intentional claims to totalize musical experience. Musical material is richer than our hearing alone.
Anaphora is my piece of musical skepticism.
For tonight’s concert I have excerpted 3 passages from the entire work, preceded by a “ritornello” or refrain. This refrain comes back many times in Anaphora, initiating a wide variety of events. The listener never knows when the ritornello will return; nor do they know how it will be re-orchestrated, truncated or expanded; nor do they know to where it will lead.
In the first excerpt, I contrast the strings with the harp and piano, in a fairly traditional manner. The harp and piano pick up an idea from the strings and, sticking to this tiny piece of material, they begin to stretch and transform it, coming in and out of phase with each other and the string orchestra. The listener is given the opportunity of hearing “the same” material played against itself, to the point where it can no longer be understood as, simply, “the same.” The notion of sameness is challenged, making the listener aware of the way in which they project the concept of sameness and different onto a purely sonic material which is quite indifferent to such labels.
In the second excerpt, I contrast the intentional and material properties of sounds by juxtaposing rich chordal sonorities (which offer up the suggestion of harmonic direction and promote affective and expressive projections upon the musical surface) and microtonal sonorities (which do not clearly afford such projections, and force attention towards the tuning and timbral properties of the chords). The point of this procedure is quite simple, namely, the simultaneous presence of chords, which evoke a rich history of tonal associations, with microtonally tuned chords, derived through acoustic principle of difference tones, produces a strange sense of flickering between incompatible systems—one acoustic, one harmonic.
Perhaps the simplest, and most pedagogically clear moment of musical skepticism appears near the end of the third excerpt, where a massive pizzicato cloud in the strings transforms itself into series of unisons on middle C. In the passage that follows, this unison pizzicato is slowly blurred and stretched back into a cloud. In reality, it is nearly impossible for an entire string orchestra to play a unison note pizzicato perfectly in time—there is always someone a little early or late due to the complexities of producing the note (the resistance of the string against the finger, etc.). However, perceptually, the ear is quite willing to compensate for this discrepancy and hear this tiny cloud of notes as a single point in time. By slowly stretching this “single point” into a cloud, the ear struggles in vain to hear it as a single point, until the moment when a switching-effect is perceived. In an orchestral reading of a very early version ofthis passage, it produced a chuckle amongst the members of the string orchestra and the audience—but not all at the same time. The chuckle recorded the moment when the ear “gives up” its attempt to hear this cloud as a point, and begins to hear it as a cloud. This discrepancy between the idealizing activity of the ear and acoustical reality becomes a lever with which to pry the habits of listening out of their hiding place in the form of life and into perspicuousness.
These three examples do not comprehensively cover the ways in which a musical thinking about the question of skepticism is manifest in Anaphora. In fact, I am sure that an attentive listener will find other moments (more subtle and satisfactory and perhaps less pedagogical) that similarly bear the lineaments of this musical skeptical thinking. In retrospect, it may be discovered that these moments were more worthy of demonstration and explanation than the ones I have highlighted here; but, to quote Wittgenstein, explanations must come to an end somewhere, and it becomes time to let the work speak for itself.