THE SUCCESS AND FAILURE OF PETER IVAN EDWARDS (2006)
PIE: Why entitle this interview “The Success and Failure of Peter Ivan Edwards”?
PIE: The title might seem at first somewhat pretentious since I’m interviewing myself, but I don’t mean it to be. In fact, I hope that through this conversation with myself that I can lay bare my thinking about composition through a critical examination of my own work. What I want to avoid is trying to explain my ideas behind the works while attempting to sweep under the carpet the ways in which these ideas don’t actually come to fruition. This might make for a good salesman, but it also makes for a disingenuous artist. It is only through this kind of unrelenting, honest criticism that one can go forward. I also hope that some who read this will empathize with my experiences, my trials and errors, and from that realize something about their own work. In the end, I think that composers confront many of the same issues regardless of stylistic disposition.
PIE: But how could that be? How could, for instance, a composer like Brian Ferneyhough and a composer like Steve Reich have much in common?
PIE: Though they are aesthetically quite removed from one another, they are nonetheless both human beings. I don’t mean this in a kind of romantic sense such as they are both human beings and therefore wrestle with their feelings within the shared medium of musical composition. Actually, I think that, to a certain degree, the act of composition, perhaps even artistic creation, has some basic limitations due to the fact that it is done by people, and people have similar cognitive abilities. In addition, composition is a limited terrain - again to a certain degree - in that it involves the act of putting something on paper. That something is generally an idea and the exploration of that idea within a musical context has limited means to blossom. Mainly, I feel that composition is, and has always been perhaps, the act of responding. How one responds within the act of attempting to transform their concepts into a musical situation will involve some basic approaches – varying, filtering, augmenting, diminishing, layering, thinning, covering, revealing, isolating, etc. It is the results of my act of responding that I will be addressing when we discuss the success and failure of my works, and it will be a similar act of responding that will provoke any sense of empathy, that is, “relating to-ness” from a reader who will experience how I have responded in a compositional context, relate to that experience, and respond to it by personalizing it and attempting to use that information to solve the blockades that exist for them in their work.
To answer the question specifically about Ferneyhough and Reich, one could say that, at least in their earlier works, they were both deeply involved with process in music. I could imagine that in, say, the early 1970s Ferneyhough and Reich could have had quite an inspiring conversation about the employment of process in music, as they were both thinking about how it functions in their creative works. Of course there would have been much disagreement and the solutions were at odds, but it is, I feel, unimaginable that throughout that conversation the act of responding and relating-to would not have been a significant part of the two composers’ experience, even if the result of such a hypothetical situation were to reinforce their aesthetic positions.
PIE: But there seems a contradiction or at least a lack of clarity here in your use of terms? For instance, how do responding in the compositional process and relating to something as a concept deserve the same description “responding”? These seem to be two distinct experiences.
PIE: True, responding to something and simply relating to it are distinct, but I think that they are two parts of the process of creativity. One must relate to something before responding to it, that is, one must build an understanding of something, resulting in the feeling that one can fathom it and hence relate to it, before one responds to it. This understanding, though, can be distinct amongst individuals, that is to say that I’m not thinking of a situation in which there is a correct, factual way of understanding something. And following this, what then is responding but the act of applying creativity to a problem or a situation that is understood in a particular way? Composition seems to me to be largely made up of problem solving, which is essentially comprehending something, recognizing that it isn’t exactly the thing that you want to a greater or lesser degree, and coming up with a solution to get it to become the thing that you want. My assumption in saying that relating to my ideas is an act of empathizing is based on the conviction that a composer would recognize that there is some kind of problem to be solved in their own work and that the description of my successes and failures would be a spark to their creativity since it addresses – most likely –problems that they might face themselves.
PIE: Would you talk then a bit about how responding has functioned in your own works?
PIE: This is a very complex topic to address at one go. It is the source of creating, as far as I am concerned, and it therefore exists on a number of levels. In fact, I often experience the act of composing a new work as moving farther into something. So, responding is occurring at all of these various levels or steps along the way. And once I’m in the thick of it, I don’t just stay there the whole time of composing. If I did that, I would lose valuable possibilities offered by the different layers of the composition, so I like to move in and out to different perspectives on the materials with which I am working. I would answer the question though by talking about the most general level at which a sense of responding occurs for me. The thing to which I’m responding is the initial inspiration for the piece. Let me give three examples. In my trio for flute, clarinet, and piano, Aussprache, I actually take the word “annicha” as a source. I responded to that word not by interpreting its meaning but instead by breaking up the act of saying it into 5 parts. First open vowel to closed; next extension of the “n”; next, closed “n” to open vowel that stops abruptly; followed by the noisy “ch” noise; ending with noise returning to an open vowel sound. The first act of responding, then, is finding a way to interpret that data into some action in the piece. In two other pieces, the initial inspiration for the work was another composition. These works are in essence transcriptions, but not in the common sense of the term, and they each respond to the initial composition in different ways. I base my orchestral work, Puer Natus est Nobis (zu irgendeiner Zeit), on the Christmas chant of the same name. Each pitch in the chant is taken as a point, which is then elaborated on, almost like magnification. The chant itself is unnoticeable in the experience of my composition, but its structure significantly shapes the structure of my transcription. With a recent solo guitar work, I transcribe Machaut’s Hareu! Hareu!, a 3-voice isorhythmic motet, but again the act of transcription was significantly the act of interpreting the original source. This work though is much more like a transcription than my work with Puer Natus est Nobis.
PIE: I don’t understand how one can call something a transcription if the source is not apparent.
PIE: In English we have two words that are perhaps commonly assumed to be somewhat interchangeable – arrangement and transcription. However, there is a distinction between the two terms in my mind. The former term seems to be limited to the act of taking a work originally written for one instrument(s) and rewriting it for another instrument(s). But transcription seems to allow greater freedom. It is a bit more like the German word Bearbeitung, which is used to describe anything from arrangements to parody masses. My definitions of these terms are actually the opposite of what New Grove’s Dictionary states. But I honestly can’t bring myself to call my works arrangements. That word is reserved in my mind for Beethoven symphonies played by wind ensembles and the like. For me, I would agree that if a Gregorian chant, for example, is taken as inspiration for a work but doesn’t actually form a part of the composition, then it is not an example of transcription. But that’s not the case in my work. Instead, the structure of the work is founded on the structure of the chant. If I had used a different chant, it would have been a different piece. So, I think that the term transcription is appropriate.
PIE: Why don’t we begin with this work then? Would you give a little history and description of it?
PIE: Puer Natus est Nobis (zu irgendeiner Zeit) is a work for full orchestra, commissioned and premiered by the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. It was written in the Fall of 2004 and premiered in the Spring of 2005. Originally, the conductor, Harvey Sollberger, had requested a fanfare since the 2004-05 season marked the 50th anniversary of the orchestra. I pitched the idea of writing a work based on a Gregorian chant to Harvey and he seemed to like it, perhaps in part because he himself has a great fondness for early music and has done some transcriptions of medieval music. So, the work started from there. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to produce a fanfare recognizable as such, just as I didn’t produce a transcription in which the source is apparent.
<p>At this same time, I was in the midst of investigating the idea of musical object in my compositions. This, also, supplied a great deal of direction to the composition. I decided that I would treat each pitch or a small group of pitches as an object. The metaphor that I used was one of being able to take a bunch of different things, which are all seemingly the same from a great distance, and bring them closer and, by doing so, reveal their individuality. Hence, as I mentioned earlier, I saw what I was doing as a kind of magnification. Of course, what one sees under the microscope, so to speak, is completely the result of my imagination.</p>
PIE: So, the object is the individual pitch or the magnification? What about the chant itself?
PIE: Well, that’s a good question. My experiments with musical objects have been just that: experiments. I’ve been trying to approach it from different directions. In this particular work, that direction would be the magnification. The chant is something structurally significant, but not observationally significant. For me, the musical object needs to be experiential, not inspirational or pre-compositional.
PIE: But within the part of Puer Natus est Nobis that you’ve taken as your source material, there will be repetition of pitches at different points within the chant, not necessarily adjacently, with the same magnified characteristics. So is there to be a sense of a return to some object, some particular magnification previously heard? That seems in conflict with your stated goal.
PIE: Yes, this could be seen as a shortcoming of my work in fulfilling the original concept. There are returns to material previously heard. But they are often as much practical – for balance reasons – as conceptual.
PIE: And there is also a section toward the end in which a series of Cs in the chant are realized as a series of the same object repeated and developed – each repetition increases in dynamic and activity. So, while there is something powerful in the idea of each pitch being brought close for observation and to reveal its individuality, the places where this would be most effective – a section in which a single pitch is repeated a number of times – avoids this.
PIE: Yes, this is true. It isn’t the case that the object in this work is consistently handled as I’ve described above. In those situations, it would seem more compelling to see the object as the source pitch from the chant, rather than the magnification. The metaphor that I mentioned previously also seems focused on repeated notes, that is, in finding the individuality in similar things. But I occasionally lapsed into thinking more generally; for instance, part of the sameness of these pitches is the distance, not the pitch. For instance, a C and D are not the same pitch, but they are conceptually the same distance from the listener. So, here the sameness is distance, which is unmasked when the pitches are magnified.
PIE: What do you mean by distance? This is confusing, I think.
PIE: Let’s take three imagined musical moments. First, there is a single pitch played at mezzoforte on the piano and held for one second. Second, there is an orchestra that plays a single pitch class but with different registers, different tunings (+/- ¼ tone), and on different instruments and it is held for one second at pianissimo. Third, an orchestra plays a single pitch class but with different registers, different tunings (+/- ¼ tone), and on different instruments and the pitch is held for 20 seconds. While the pitch is being held, some instruments crescendo/decrescendo at individual speeds, some pulse in regular/irregular rhythms, new instruments enter, etc. These three different contexts offer three distinct distances from a single pitch. I would describe the first event as only seeing the exterior of the pitch. The second event I would describe as revealing an individual interior for the pitch. The third event goes even farther and reveals multiple moments of that interior, i.e., the possibilities of that particular thing – in this case a pitch – being observed. This is how I would describe distance as it relates to Puer Natus, at least.
PIE: If I may raise another issue, I find that when I listen to this work, that I’m not experiencing each object as an object. Instead, the objects seem to run into each other and form small sections. So, if the object is to be something observationally significant, then what you call an object isn’t an object at all.
PIE: This is true to a certain degree. You know, this work formed part of my doctoral dissertation. The committee for the dissertation included a music lover who was a professor of philosophy. When discussing this very issue in my defense, he described it as a paradox, which I liked a lot. Having spent 2000 years arguing about things, philosophers seem to have developed a lexicon design to simultaneously defeat you and not insult you. So, paradox is the nice way of saying that you can talk the talk but you can’t walk the walk. But it was strangely comforting to know that a paradox existed in my piece, as it seemed to suggest more mystery than incompetence. Still, the juxtapositions that result from the adjacencies of objects create a dynamic musical experience. Yes, the “objecthood” of each object could have been clarified by greater distance between appearances, but I think that the status of an object as such still exists here. The objects that make up a section do not always have much similarity. The adjustment of the degree of similarity between adjacent objects as well as the sectioning of groups of objects was considered more from a practical perspective than a philosophical one.
PIE: Since we are talking about your notion of object in this orchestral work, why don’t we speak a bit more generally about this concept. You mention that an object must have observational significance. When I think about what you’ve described as an object, I can’t quite see much difference between a musical subject – a term we are very familiar with from fugue and could be more generally applied to musical theme – and your notion of musical object. What is the difference between these for you?
PIE: As much as it is nice to create new terms, often the creation of these is more diffusive than sharpening in the ongoing discourse of a topic – more noise than substance. So, I thought about this. Why not use the term subject, since a subject can undergo transformation, such as diminution and augmentation, for instance? And these transformations are something to observe. But the notion of musical subject has been made antiquated by the musical events of the 20th century. I think that the radical departures from late Romantic tonal music thinking that took place in the last century really allow composers the opportunity to begin to consider the role of perspective in a musical experience. Prior to the 20th century, musical perspective strikes me as largely monolithic since it is guided by the use of melody and harmony. A musical subject exists on one dimension – a dimension common to musical subjects throughout that history. If I can delve into my metaphor again for a second, then I would say that we always look at a musical subject from the same distance – say about 10 feet. Whereas in the 20th century the thing to which attention is drawn – and that’s what we are really talking about - in a musical experience could be a giant mass of sound – I’m thinking of certain moments of Stockhausen’s Gruppen or Ligeti’s orchestral works from the 1960s - or simply the interaction of a few pitches, like in Feldman’s late works. These aren’t motivic in any real sense, and distance from the “subject” needn’t remain the same. Sometimes we are pushed away from the canvas, so to speak, because standing at a close distance – trying to catch all of the minute details that are constantly changing – doesn’t provide us as listeners with much meaning. This is how we often deal with Pollock’s drip paintings, though with these I think that there is more tension between detail and whole than I’m currently describing. So we push away and try to get a more global view. At other times, however, we can be drawn into the details, observing small changes and drawing a great deal of meaning from them. Here it seems that the limitations of the notion of musical subject and its limits on perspective are too restrictive. But the concept of an object allows one to account for the possibilities that have arisen in the last 100 years. Also, an object can be taken as a given, whereas a subject is not. Here I’m thinking of the distinction between objective and subjective. One could say that in a fugue we experience the composer subjecting the musical theme to his thinking. This, however, is the act of composing and the object could be presented in a similar way. But this, again, is not necessarily the case, and there have been ample instances in music from the last 100 years where the notion of developing a theme or transforming a subject is foreign. One could, for instance, imagine a work built from 3 distinct musical gestures. These gestures are repeated exactly in terms of pitch, rhythm, dynamic, register, instrumentation, but their proximity to each other changes throughout the work. Sometimes they are performed right next to each other; at other times with 10 second silences in between them; at other time, only 2 seconds, etc. This kind of subjection of the musical material – exclusively by durations of silence and not pitch and rhythm - does not fit that commonly associated with musical subject. But it is a “subject”, a foundation from which the entire work is built. For these reasons I find the concept of object to be useful.
PIE: As you mentioned, you have been experimenting with this idea for a while, and when I think of your other works, I don’t think of object being employed in the same way that it is in Puer Natus. Perhaps you could give a bit of an overview of the different ways you’ve gone about dealing with object in your various piece.
PIE: If I have any natural talent as a composer, it is in my ability to focus in on material and work with it. In fact, the origins of my composing with objects stems from another orchestral work that I wrote in 1997, which takes a trichord and subjects it to a slow metamorphosis over the course of the composition. Changes are incremental and achieved by simply replacing one note at a time with another that is either a half- or a whole-step away. As a result there are large sections with only three notes. The opening section, for instance, is 2 minutes long and the harmony remains completely static. Any sense of change results from the rhythm and small fluctuations in timbre. My goal at that time was to reduce the role of harmony in the music to a minimal state so that attention would be drawn to other aspects of the composition.
I would say that my work with musical object really began, however, in 2003 with a work called Schlag-Halt(en)-Distances, written for the Noise Ensemble of San Diego. I must admit that the original interest in musical object springs from the music of Morton Feldman and Luigi Nono. Nono’s influence can be heard in Puer Natus and the idea of the work – magnifying something, viewing its interior – all comes from Nono’s late works. Feldman, however, is sort of my nemesis. I’m so seduced by his sound world and magnificent talent for focusing attention on small details, but I could never imagine my sound world restricted to something so delicate. So, Schlag-Halt(en)-Distances is an investigation into whether or not one can create objects out of things other that the shifting of pitches around each other. I wanted to see if a gesture could be treated as an object, something Feldman avoided, but still get that Feldman-esque focus on the moment.
PIE: Yes, this is clear when one listens to the piece, but I think that the biggest problem with the work is that you don’t illustrate an ability to know when a small change in detail is significant and when it is superfluous.
PIE: Indeed. This is what I learned from this work. I thought that all small changes mattered, and so the work has long sections in which small changes are occurring but registering little meaning for the listener. So at times you feel that it just goes on and on. I’m hoping to do a revision of the work that takes this into account. Until then, it won’t be heard in a concert hall again though.
You see, once one starts looking at a gesture created by 3-4 instrumentalists as an object, one finds a seemingly infinite number of possibilities for transformation. These transformations become places to draw attention. All transformations are based on definable parameters. The basic ones are, of course, pitch, rhythm, duration, dynamic, register, and timbre. When you have 3 instrumentalists, for instance, then you have all of these parameters for each instrument as well as the order in which the instrumentalists play their parts. On the page, these differences might seem quite important, but in reality – in the experience of the piece – they don’t always register as meaningful.
PIE: So what causes a difference to be meaningful?
PIE: That is extremely context-specific, so I can’t think of a hard and fast rule. One just has to listen closely as they are composing and be clear about where attention is to be drawn. What I can say as an aid, however, is that remaining true to a transformation is not always a good thing. By that I mean that a transformation, once begun, does not necessarily have to be completed, and transformations needn’t be teleological, something that seems obvious now but at the time wasn’t for me. In writing Schlag-Halt(en)-Distances I used processes to carry out the transformations. Hence, I felt compelled to bring each procedural transformation to its end. This is unnecessary though. Over the few years that I’ve been working with these ideas, I’ve found that basic processes are helpful in composing, but aren’t substitutes for my senses. This is specific to my work, however. Take as a counterexample a work like Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalogue in which all 8178 chords possible within an octave are systematically presented. That is raw process music, and it works as such. But my interests are somewhere else and, when I do engage with process, I have to do so differently.
PIE: It seems that these issues were further considered in Aussprache.
PIE: Yes, and there I think that it is much more successful. Where in Schlag-Halt(en)-Distances there are sections in which what is proposed in the composition as significant and what is experienced as significant often miss each other, I feel that these things match up better in Aussprache, and this is partly due to an appropriate balance of clarity and mystery. I feel that one has to decide where they want to project their music at any given moment on the continuum between the obvious and the obtuse. I’m not proposing this as some kind of judgment meter, closer to obvious equals good, closer to obtuse equals bad. Obtuse can be a useful approach, but not one for every musical experience, just as the obvious is useful but often too immediate and boring. A good mixture of these things, however, can create a very rich musical experience and is what I strive for in my work.
PIE: How does the approach in Aussprache differ from that in Schlag-Halt(en)-Distances?
PIE: Aussprache actually takes what I learned from Schlag and experiments further with object. Here I was much more aware of the differing kinds of approaches to the notion of object in the work. I identified a few different objects that affect our experience of the piece on different levels. So, there are the gestural objects like in Schlag, but there is also what I called a meta-object, namely, the order of the different gestural objects used. Also, the gestural objects are quite distinct from each other and develop in the work based on their own unique terms. These terms were defined by the 5 different actions that I spoke about earlier that go into making up the actions necessary to speak the word annicha. Some are procedural in nature; others are not. On one level we are focused in on the gyrations of a single object, then attention is turned toward a new one, and then in the course of the work we form assumptions about the balance and order of these different objects and that is then called into question through treating the order as an object itself. This is, of course, experienced on another level though. Also, I attempted to find points at which different gestural objects, though initially distinct from each other, overlap. So there are interesting moments in which one is a bit confused because the distinctions originally established are blurred. This, of course, affects the sense of order as well.
PIE: But one place where these distinctions could have been heightened is in the use of harmony. Over the last ten years, you have spent a lot of time avoiding harmony. Perhaps because you wanted time to develop your technique with other musical parameters. We spoke about your earlier orchestral work built from a metamorphosing trichord, and I know that following this work you were experimenting with pieces build on a single interval. Puer Natus takes that in a certain way one step further in that each pitch is imagined as an object, an isolated – conceptually at least – moment wherein that pitch is explored. With Annicha though, you turn back to chords, and it seems to be a place where you show weakness. What I’m not saying is that the music doesn’t work harmonically or that it is unattractive harmonically, simply that yours is such a primitive use of harmony. It’s all a bit gray, or rather light blue, something other than gray but nonetheless static. It all works, but it doesn’t really act as a source of content in the work.
PIE: I’m not sure I agree, but what would you suggest as a remedy?
PIE: Well, I’m reminded of a story about Stravinsky that is relayed in Robert Erickson’s book Sound Structures in Music. Stravinsky was giving a lecture at a university and was speaking about a particular chord in one of his works, and he expressed how excited he was when he discovered that chord. Some members of the audience though couldn’t understand why Stravinsky was getting so excited by what they saw as just a D major chord. But Erickson suggests that it was more than that. In fact, Stravinsky was thinking of the chord not in terms of its harmonic function, but in terms of its voicing, instrumentation, dynamic balance, etc. So, perhaps the next step is to consider how particular harmonies can be used to support the uniqueness of these objects. That is, how does the harmony integrate with the voicing, dynamic, registral transformation that you are applying to each object? In Aussprache, harmony has little active function in shaping the expressivity of the work. I can imagine though that harmony, when thought of in this way, could greatly enhance the expressivity of the music overall as well as enrich the possibilities of each object. But the enrichment will be very subtle. What I’m not suggesting is that you turn toward a harmonic music. This isn’t where I imagine your music going. But if the harmonic aspect of the music is brought to an equally vital level as the dynamic, rhythmic, timbral aspects, then the richness of the music can only be increased. Up to this point, we have spoken about object and perspective as well as how they interrelate. But what hasn’t been addressed is the role of the notion of sound in the 20th century. In fact, when you spoke about the radical departures from late Romantic tonal thinking, you didn’t give any examples. But I think that if a few examples were given that the thing that many would have in common is their foundation in a notion of sound that guides the pitch aspects of the music rather than a notion of harmony. I should speak not of a single notion of sound, but instead of multiple notions, since sound as a concept influencing compositional decisions has had multiple manifestations. But it is these concepts of sound that have allowed for the new perspectives or the multi-perspectival approaches to composition. So, I feel that a reconsideration of sound is in order in your work.
PIE: Yes, I think that’s an excellent approach to the issue. Perhaps you should write my music.
PIE: Sometimes I feel as though I do. You know, I think that we have neglected something, which seems in need of being addressed before we wrap up and that is: Why is it that you work with objects and various objects within a work? What is the point of juxtaposing these things? What value does this bring the listener?
PIE: There are really two answers to this issue, I think. First, the reason I work with various objects in a single piece or perhaps would focus in on a single object for an extended period of time is simply part of my aesthetic. This is how I create richness in a musical experience. I want to create an experience in which the listener is moving in and out of the sound world(s) offered. This is also my method of controlling musical time. There is also a philosophical position though that I hold, one that is not simply about making my personal version of a “beautiful” experience, but also some kind of statement. One way to think about working with objects is to look at them as entities that have certain qualities or characteristics. What you offer listeners in the course of the piece reveals to them the potential of that entity. So, to create an experience, for instance, in which something is defined and then that definition is thwarted, as in the moments of confusion in Annicha that I described previously, is to force the listener to reevaluate their relationship with that entity, to reevaluate their assumptions. Recent research in identity politics certainly has a lot of conceptual resonance with this idea, for instance, the notion of “otherness”, identity formation based on race, class, and gender, etc. We have discovered that identity is, in fact, not a fixed thing, but is constantly being adjusted by both individual and society. In works like Aussprache and Puer Natus, I consciously try to place the listener in moments where they feel that letting go of their assumptions – their “othering”, albeit benign - is more beneficial for their experience than holding on to it. At certain significant moments in my own life, I’ve stumbled into situations in which I have the same experience in terms of identity, both my own and others. I’m not a political composer, so these ideas won’t consistently make an appearance in my work, but it is something that has been part of my thinking about composing with musical objects. But I would have to say that as a composer I’m much more of an ethicist than a sensualist, that is, I create works not because I want to simply create something beautiful, but because I feel that there is an experience that I would like to offer others. I find that music is much more satisfying an experience when it heightens our thoughtfulness, rather than our emotions. So, I try to offer something new for consideration and appreciation that will hopefully enrich a listener’s human experience. To express it in another way, the place I find my work needing to focus at this time in one that involves working with musical objects and multiple perspectives. This is where I feel more work needs to be done.