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Blog » A Composer's Response to Just Criticism (?)

6 Apr  

After posting my previous article, I was astonished to find myself so quickly on the receiving end of a few negative reactions to the text and to my work (not on the CT website it must be said). While I felt the speed of some of the responses was indicative of presumptions and criticism leveled without the foundation of any enquiry into the context or substance of my work, it also occurred to me that I had rather brought this upon myself by presenting such an abbreviated and unexplained overview of my activities with Antony Gormley and visual art in general. And so it seemed a timely moment to investigate some of the issues raised, with reference to the Memory Field project.

In summary, the main objections focused upon my posting of my ‘sound-map’ of the Angel of the North, in response to which it was stated that to corral notation into the shape of a 2 dimensional angel was meaningless in terms of how that shape would relate to the resulting sound, and further to this, to use the notion of retrograde in sound as any kind of representation of a retrograde visual structure (as in symmetrical forms such as a body), was similarly meaningless when transferred over into the new domain. It was also stated that the experience of music resides solely in the orbit of what is heard (i.e. it is a hermetic auditory-only experience) and all reference to the visual is either coincidental and/or irrelevant.

My critics should have gone so much further; the ludicrous fallacy at the core of my approach and the glaring inconsistencies in execution are seen in the detail of the sound-map of the Angel which contains far more offences than those singled out. This includes a row of notes that (more or less) progressively expands through interval as an allusion to the expansion proposed by the sculptor in the Angel of the North. However, the ‘expansion’ as exposed by me in pitches is not in any way equal in increment or disposition and is therefore certainly inconsistent with the smoothly graded expansion of the sculpture. Worse than this though is the direction of expansion: in the sculpture this occurs from the centre outwards, but if you lay my pitches out on an image of the Angel, my expansion happens in the reverse direction to that of the sculpture, from the wing edges into the central core. Then there is the employment of retrograde in pitch in order to allude to the bi-lateral symmetry of the sculpture. The concern expressed was that a retrograde in music cannot be perceived as easily or vividly as a symmetrical visual retrograde, and that perhaps plain repetition would have been a more representative analogue. The rest of Memory Field contains a host of similar such transgressions, indeed it is riddled with, and built upon them, and I shall come to some more of them later.


Not only are all of the charges true, but I was more than aware of them beforehand. What is sad, though I suppose understandable, is that some such views miss the whole point, perhaps rushing past a world or two in their haste to these conclusions, conclusions often drawn by those in fear of preserving a perceived purity of particular subjective delineations of what music is and what music isn’t, where it is and where it isn’t, or at least, an attempt to pronounce upon how relationships (if there are any) between the visual and the sounded should be properly perceived. The huge irony in all this for me is that my way of working and my own beliefs about this ‘art in sound’ are probably so close to the beliefs behind those criticisms which were made on the basis of no familiarity whatsoever with me or my music.

In many ways, the project to respond to visual art in music is hopelessly flawed: the sheer volume of inconsistencies and incongruities between the spaces in which each discipline exists and the behavior and qualities of their respective material vehicles are so at odds that one can see why logic demands a separation. And yet history demonstrates a consistent compulsion on the part of so many composers to explore links between these worlds, be it indirectly through visual elements in opera, or imaginary visual and narrative realms in programmatic music, or actual responses to specific artworks, or even hybrids that borrow from a variety of disciplines.  There just isn’t space here to list all the examples of where composers have allowed the walls between sight and sound to become porous, and that is without mention of those who possesses a neurological bridge in the form of synaesthesia (the completely individual nature of this condition notwithstanding).

In the case of my own practice, I think many people will be surprised by just how conventional my approach is: I write traditionally scored concert music using an array of the most basic and well known traditional musical devices that any graduate from a typical Western European-type music education might expect. The only slight difference is that I don’t mind showing an audience some of the strange ways material for a piece can begin and that as this has very often found its origins in visual arts of late and I have found it useful to let people know this.

I know perfectly well the nature of where the objections lie. The controversy described above has all emanated from just one manifestation of the many different kinds of starting points I play and experiment with when beginning a piece. The interesting thing was the nature of the assumptions made. One of my ways of working with an artwork has been to try to lay the form out on manuscript paper, to see what happens. As pointed out, this is very often a fruitless exercise with the sounding result certainly not as interesting as the visual effect and I routinely reject vast amounts of material generated like this. Sometimes it does produce something arresting, but yes it could be argued that no matter how good, there cannot be any substantial or aesthetically relevant link between the curve on a

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