New Article Online: [terrains] for solo quartertone flugelhorn in review

Renowned Australian trumpet-virtuoso Tristram Williams premiered my new piece for solo quartertone flugelhorn (with preparations) in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago - and I've uploaded an excerpt from this first performance to soundcloud (the piece is twelve minutes long, this is the last two minutes). Fasten your seatbelts - Tristram is amazing! But I also thought the time might be right to pen a few words about the piece and what led me to its composition...

There were a lot of things running through mind at the time. The usual suspects were present of course. Thinking about material like it was an organism. A set of behavioural traits that come to a consistency of movement through time. Not an event-based onto-epistempology, but a cumulative one built of experience and exposure. Like watching a new kind of bug move around in a petri dish.

But there were other things too. And they led to the title. I was interested in how such a behavioural gait is effected by the landscape - the terrain - across which one moves. I walk very differently along a muddy country path than over an urban pavement, for example, and I was particularly interested in what was preserved of my gait (whatever that means) across these kinds of different context.

So, in one sense, that's what [terrains] does. It is comprised from a series of eleven panels of material, each occupying a single page of music. Across the panels the spaces available for a fixed set of behavioural materials to operate within gradually change (these spaces being, say, the harmonic partials of the instrument that are be used - or the dynamic bandwidth - or the tempo). The behaviours are, of course, altered - sometimes drastically - by the spaces in which they have to operate within but fundamentally they are always the same. To use a line from my programme note, 'it's like watching an earwig or a mountain goat weave its way across different planes - some steep, some high, some tight, some sprawling - and watching that same creature accommodate such different lands in its gait.'

But then I got to thinking about terrains themselves. And this helped add an extra dimension to the work.

I was reading Negative Horizons  by Paul Virilio (London, Continuum, 2008). Although predominantly a book about speed and society, it was this passage and others like it from the beginning of the text that stayed with me.

''[I]n making my drawings, I was able to distinguish the moment of reversal between (internal) individuation and (external) information, the line of the pencil running over the paper, deciding between two zones still open, then, in closing up my form with the outline of a cup and an ashtray, all at once, there would be a first form and a second form, there was the image in two dimensions of the antiform revealed by the presence of the two figures" (Virilio 2008 pp.30-31)

It reminded me of the classic Gestalt image of the face-vase (which rhymes rather well in an American accent). The two faces create the vase. The vase creates the two faces.

But, via Virilo's ideas, I began to see this effect everywhere. We just don't allow ourselves to witness it normally. A mountain forms an impression in the sky. Or bay becomes not the shape of the land but the nodule of water it lets inside. Suddenly, landscapes became strange and wonderful places.

So as well as travelling over terrains, the various gestural behaviours of the flugelhorn piece are also swapping and sliding between, if you like, a form and an antiform. Gestures are forced to move between pitch-worlds ('form') and noise-worlds ('antiform'), which themselves are constantly interlocked, juxtaposed and transitioned between as the piece progresses. As such, the flugelhorn is prepared. The third-valve is removed and reconstructed using tin-foil. This, therefore, serves as a window through which the material can travel into the antiform in various ways, unlocking transformative powers of the instrument's agency itself (but more on that another time).

Anyway, that's what I think I was thinking about. I suspect there's more to do in future pieces. We'll see where it goes from here.