Perfect Sound Forever


An Open Field of Closed Sets
by Daniel Barbiero
(December 2016)

The Open Field

To begin with a premise: the variable musical composition--the composition whose score leaves undetermined certain key aspects of the work, or whose constituent elements can be combined and recombined in novel and sometimes unpredictable ways--isn’t an unchanging collection of elements so much as it is a field in which certain possibilities can be realized.

The suggestion that variable compositions are something like fields isn’t a new one. The notion of the artwork as a field was common in the last century among avant garde artists with an interest in improvisation and indeterminacy generally. In 1960, composer Henri Pousseur, for example, in discussing music and chance, drew an evocative parallel to the field in subatomic physics, which wasn’t made up of unequivocally defined values but rather was a “’field of possibles,’ defined by a certain probability.”* For Pousseur, as for other postwar composers, painters and poets in Europe and America, the model of the field as a network of possible states from which transient events and objects could emerge was a fertile model for imaging the process of artistic creation as well as the products of that process--a stimulus for practice as well as for thought.

Given a definition of a field as a bounded area in which constituent elements are structured as possibilities arising through dynamic relationships, the variable musical composition would have to count as just such a field: not a fixed set of permanent events but rather an open field in which the performer can act to realize the possibilities it affords. During the second half of the last century, Polish-born composer Roman Haubenstock-Ramati produced a body of compositions that function as nothing if not dynamic fields for the performer’s actions.

The Variability of Dynamic Closed Forms

Haubenstock-Ramati (1919-1994) began as a composer in the serial tradition. His early studies were at the Lemberg Music Academy with Józef Koffler, one of Schoenberg’s students. Although Haubenstock-Ramati’s early work, like the 1948 "String Trio No. 1," employed serial technique, but it was serial technique shot through with unorthodox deviations. Haubenstock-Ramati eventually abandoned dodecaphonic composition in favor of internally variable works composed with what he called “dynamic closed forms.” These latter consisted of phrases made up of common elements but combined in different ways and given different lengths. All of the constituent elements were specified, but their co-occurrence in ensemble play was left open. Hence the seeming paradox of closed forms constituting an open field.

Haubenstock-Ramati’s use of a closed set of elements in free play came about through his rejection of serialism’s prohibition of repetition. Dynamically closed forms lend themselves to repetition, but in a flexible manner: The elements may be repeated, but their occurrence both sequentially and coincidentally is subject to variations that introduce an elasticity into their recurrence. This flexible or elastic repetition, which in practice often comes down to local repetition within larger scale variation, was meant to lend cohesion to the work through a kind of attenuated or unpredictable predictability. A reciprocal movement oscillating between consistency and surprise, or tracked navigation and deviation.

Haubenstock-Ramati built this reciprocal movement through the use of cyclic structures as 'semi-fixed' elements- they were called that because their overall shape was given, though the pace at which they could be played and the direction in which they would go (clockwise or counterclockwise) was left up to the performer. In addition, the lengths or periodicity of individual cycles would vary.

This cyclical concept of Haubenstock-Ramati’s suggests a parallel to the mobile sculptures of Alexander Calder. And this was not by coincidence- Calder’s mobiles were an inspiration to the composer, as reflected not only in his compositions’ makeup but also in such titles as "Mobile for Shakespeare" and "Interpolation: Mobile for flute." Haubenstock-Ramati’s adaption to sound of the mobile’s dynamics took the form of having musical elements in constant motion with and against each other, thereby creating the sound equivalent of the quasi-epicyclic, constantly self-rearranging movements internal to the sculpture.

"Interpolation" (1957) for one, two or three flutes, for example, contains twenty-five different sections of varying lengths and sonic material, which can be played in two different directions: left-to-right or right-to-left. The individual sections are connected by dotted lines which lay out the paths the performers use to navigate the work. Once a direction has been chosen, the performer than chooses one out of several elements to use as a starting point; once selected, the performer’s subsequent choices are semi-determined in that some sections lead to certain other sections, to the exclusion of alternatives. Sections are subject to repetition; when played by two or three flutes, these sections repeat in mutually incommensurable cycles. This creates overlapping cycles of variable lengths, the interplay of which in turn creates an internal kinesis of parts that aren’t fixed in relation to one another--in other words, a musical plasticity of dynamically interacting, cyclically staggered forms. As a result, the texture of the piece is always changing, with the change of sections or the entrances and exits of instrumental voices each following its own cycle in contradistinction to the others. The overlaying of cycles of different periods creates the dynamic that drives the piece and produces its ebb and flow of tension and release. By multiplying these constituent elements in relation to each other, Haubenstock-Ramati builds up a global structure that comes together and breaks apart through contrasts and coincidences of timing. In this and other compositions like it, configuration--the particular shape any given performance takes--is always reconfiguration because the details of the internal relationships are constantly arranging and rearranging themselves. Like the metaphorical energy field, transient events in the form of coincidences of phrase and voice coalesce and evanesce.

The Graphic Score as Variable Field

The score to "Interpolation" consists of fragments of conventional notation connected by broken lines and arranged in such a way as to resemble a Calder mobile. "Konstellationen," a work composed in 1971, is a graphic score that relies entirely on abstract shapes. The score consists of a set of these shapes occurring in twenty-five patterns of slightly varying configurations, each pattern represented by one page (a recent release on the Kairos label features the Klangforum Wien performing three selections of "Konstellationen" for twelve-piece chamber orchestra).

As visual art, the composition’s twenty-five pages are masterpieces in themselves even before they give rise to a single sound. Beyond the undeniable appeal of the score’s appearance, though, Haubenstock-Ramati’s choice of graphic notation is significant for the implications it holds for the performer and his or her relation to the composition as well as to the other performers. And it's also notable for the way in which it constitutes the work as irreducibly variable.

Graphic scores are particularly suited to notating compositions that invite the performer into an open field. Even a fixed graphic score--that is, a graphic score whose parts are set out in an unchanging order--is indeterminate. Generally, this indeterminacy will be in terms of specific pitches, rhythms, harmonies, and so on suggested by the notation. Because these relationships are open to interpretation, such a score is dynamic: potentially in flux. By contrast, a fully scored work in conventional notation fixes all significant parameters (though of course necessarily leaving some aspects to be filled in by the performer’s own choices). The graphic work leaves much open, by necessity.

The Variable Field as Dynamic Texture

To conceive of the composition as field is to conceive it from the point of view of its overall texture. This is to say that to imagine the composition as field is to take the textural perspective--to think of the composition or its realization in terms of its internal relationships overall, as determined by such elements as density, timbral constellations (of similarity and contrast), dynamics, intensity and so forth. The plasticity of relationships among the work’s elements is the factor determining the relationships and interactions of instruments and voices. This is evident throughout "Konstellationen," whose internal relationships, at least as realized in the Klangform Wien’s three selections, tend toward the intermittent and disjunct. In this way the work’s textural profile, with its discontinuities of phrase and contrasts of timbre, recalls the fragmentary surfaces of work by Webern--a composer Haubenstock-Ramati was drawn to while still a student of Koffler’s (an attraction that apparently was the cause of some disagreement between student and teacher).

The Topographic Turn

The primacy of texture to the variable field composition leads to another way “field” suggests itself as a metaphor for work like this. Texture can be thought of as a field containing multiple points of attraction. These latter are, figuratively, topographical features of the work’s surface: peaks made of accumulations of sound that build up and compel attention like elevated features of the landscape. Points of sonic concentration and crescendo, sounds and sound events standing out in the overall weave of the piece by virtue of a coalescence of timbres, pitches, and dynamics. And the opposite: plains wherein sounds are dispersed into thinner textures, lower dynamics, sparser orchestration. Texture is thus a dynamic field whose elements can coalesce into features projecting out from the background like landmarks drawing attention along a path, or can scatter and level themselves into a flat surface of undifferentiated features. Seen this way, the composition as field is a discrete bounded unit bordered on all sides by silence and marked by topographical features that describe a variable surface.

This topographic turn of the field metaphor derives less from scientific models of fields as probabilistic complexes of force or energy then from the more mundane physical world underfoot. To stay with this more mundane figure, one might to interpret a graphic score as a map of the piece’s overall textures rather than as an indication of specific pitches, pitch relationships, phrases, etc.. But its marks can designate landmarks and other features only when interpreted that way by the performer’s choices. The score to the variable work is a map, but a paradoxical one in that it calls into being the territory it describes, and one that will be different each time the map is consulted.

A musical work has an orientation that points it toward the future--it unfolds in time, and is completed at some point in time ahead. The variable work has a peculiar relationship to the future--to its own future. The variability of the work--its refusal of a single way forward mapped out in all of its particulars--is played out in the unpredictable future it calls into being through its status as a work to be realized in time. All musical compositions are works to be realized in time, but it is the variable score that conjures up an open future to be realized through the substantive choices of the performer. Like the field that exists in the present as a network of possibilities to be realized in an as-yet undefined future, the variable score contains its features in potentia, until the performer acts and brings them into being.

This is the case with Haubenstock-Ramati’s variable works. They are fields that refuse to retain the same dimensions and topography for all time. Their scores are maps that point the way to a future that isn’t given, by way of a path that’s never the same--a peculiarly self-arranging map that ensures that one will never reach the same future by the same path.

*My thanks to Professor John Dack of Middlesex University for calling this quote to my attention.

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER