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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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 David Bruce commenting on A Composer's Response to Just Criticism (?):
07 April 2010 at 11:21

I for one found it fascinating to read about your working method. The main thing it said to me was how incredibly different people's approaches are. I could never imagine working like that, but luckily there are no rules and we each have to find our own crazy path to creativity!

I can see however that you have a kind of dilema with these graphic scores (which are indesputably beautiful objects in their own right!) and even with the whole method of presentation of such pieces of music that relate to works of art. On one side of the coin you have this huge wealth of fascinating interaction between yourself and the work, which has inspired your work, which is great to both look at and hear about. On the other hand, you are, as you say, wanting the piece of music to be heard as such in their own right. Having heard your Memory Field piece in the performance at Gormley's studios, I must admit that when seeing and hearing the two works side by side - the sculptures and your piece of music - I was instinctively looking for the simplest of surface correspondences - so on that shallow surface level I felt a disappointment that your rich, intricate and complex language was not a mirror of the sculpture which essentially builds its large structure out of thousands of the same-shaped little pieces of metal (which would probably imply something more like minimalism if mimicked literally). I totally understand now that your relationship with the piece is far more subtle and deep than that, but the fact of seeing the two art works in the same space made it hard not to look for those kinds of connections. One could imagine your work would be better served away from that context purely as its own thing; but then you would lose the surrounding richness mentioned earlier. It's certainly a quandary! I look forward to hearing it again in the new context later in the month.

 Jim Aitchison commenting on A Composer's Response to Just Criticism (?):
07 April 2010 at 21:37

Thanks David, you've put your eloquent finger right on the mark! The pieces are not in any way 'better' (far, far from it!) than the artworks, but they do often completely outgrow the areas of original common ground to quite an extreme degree, which is what you've noticed and I've been aware of myself all along, and this is really what I want: I want the music to have its own life and I think/hope it does. The trouble is that I seem to get punished by purists for mentioning the visual origins; there's a suspicion (I know it's there) that what I've done can't be 'real' music, even though, in terms of remaining in any way faithful to the original stimulus, what I have done (if people take the trouble to really listen) is in fact TOO real (in my humble opinion) to the point that many of the tangible links are often superseded and engulfed.

 Jim Aitchison commenting on A Composer's Response to Just Criticism (?):
08 April 2010 at 09:43

...Actually I seem to get it in the neck for both not being CLOSE ENOUGH to the original artwork, AND being too far away from it... Can't win

 Graham Lynch commenting on A Composer's Response to Just Criticism (?):
08 April 2010 at 17:29

Most composers remain fairly tight lipped about their creative narrative, but when pushed will generally describe the evolution of their music as a process that demonstrates lucidity, command, and profundity. The truth is normally less secure; confusion, terrible self doubt, and technical deficiencies, are more likely to be the companions to a composition. At least in my experience.

I’m never really worried whether, in the creative process, the composer has rolled a dice, or evolved a brain twisting method of integral serialism; my interest lies in what the piece sounds like. I find it curious that not everyone feels like this, but maybe musico-theoretical affiliations are like religious beliefs, or political opinions - easy to get worked up about. As you say Jim, you’re twice accused; for being too close to the work of art, or too distant! Opening your tool box for public view was probably necessary given the nature of the project though; the music/art axis would require a textual (linguistic) rubber band to hold it together (in particular, to reassure any funding bodies…).

If anyone doesn’t like what you’re doing then they should turn up and have a listen to the piece! And then form an opinion.

When it comes to relationships between different mediums I’m always reminded of Wittgenstein’s idea of homologous form (in case that sounds like a bit of intellectual name dropping, I got this from my copy of ‘Wittgenstein for Beginners’!). This idea suggests that there is a formal relationship between, for example; the notes on a piece of MS paper, the vibrations of the piece on the eardrum, the organisation of the particles on a magnetic tape in a recording of the music, or the grooves on a record, the digital information on a CD, even the movements of the performers. These are all resonances of the same form, but contained within very different objects. I see what you’re doing Jim as a sort of experimental extension of this – but I appreciate you may not see it like that! (I may be simply adding another misrepresentation to your ideas…).

Sorry I can’t be there for the performance; hope it goes well, and that you’re not torn to death by angry bands of neo-minimalists/retro-serialists etc.

 Jim Aitchison commenting on A Composer's Response to Just Criticism (?):
08 April 2010 at 18:32

Brilliant, brilliant! Thanks Graham: so swiftly after feeling demoralized by presumptuous, casual and superficial criticism (heaven protect me from an authentic, well informed inquisition), then along come real insights from real composers (David and Graham) who know exactly how excruciating it is to stick your balls on the block and hand the mallet to people who couldn't care less how hard they swing it, where it falls and what they are hitting. Yes(!): confusion, tormenting self doubt, technical deficiencies, the real evolutionary companions of the composer. And yes, it sounds as if we are all such a load of whingers - especially as we chose to do this to ourselves - but that doesn't excuse people from forming properly considered justifiable opinions before they pronounce, and also perhaps thinking about the consequences of those opinions. But, no doubt there will be plenty of others who will say that music is a blood sport, and if you can't hack it don't get involved…Perhaps there’s a twisted logic to that…
Love that Wittgenstein idea: it sounds spot on and I might nick it!!

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