Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Symmetry: Two Ways

"Phillipe Manoury, huh? His music is so complicated."

I tipped my head, "Really? You think so?"

I did not venture over to CNMAT last week under that impression, and I did not leave Manoury's lecture there thinking any differently. I had hoped that he might reveal and demonstrate some of the inner technological (Max/MSP) processes in his compositions, but alas, the patch would not work. And so the room of brilliant minds had to fall back on a more traditional format, listening, following scores, and asking very proper questions. (Here, for you, is a primer of "proper" questions: "Could you tell us about the structure of -----?" "How is the orchestration a reflection of the structure of the piece?" "Did your selection of dynamic markings follow a structural process?" Or, "How did you determine the structure of the music in relationship to the text?" Yes, "structure" is a foolproof invocation over at my beloved Arch Street.)

Manoury was a good sport about the questions, parsing the structure and explaining where he had taken a melody and inverted, augmented or otherwise subjected it to techniques that seem akin to both basic species counterpoint and Schoenbergian serial procedures. Much of this melody manipulation occurs around a "center" tone, a single pitch that threads cleanly through the musical texture. Like a drone, but not a drone... like harmony, but not traditional functional harmony... it was at least easy enough to understand (and also to hear) how Manoury uses a sustained tone center as an axis of symmetry for the other musical events. There was just enough glue and just enough glitter.

Some of his compositional processes in On-Iron, a recent work for chorus, orchestra, electronics and also video, struck me as intensely game-like: Manoury quickly and simply mapped out some pitch, interval, voicing or rhythmic information and showed how he systematically transformed those parameters, adding numbers from one column to another, across, up, down, etc. all presumably in accordance with thematic or structural ideas contained in the ancient Greek texts used in the piece. The sketch on the board looked not unlike a Sudoku puzzle: difficulty level, challenging. Though there is a severity to his method, Manoury was quick to admit that ultimately, he allows his imagination to tweak the process to his liking. The pieces I heard were both rich and dense, complex at heart--in their method and in the fact that they require virtuosic performers--but wholly accessible as a fabric of sound and texture. Complex, yes. Complicated, no.

Manoury's talk made me think about "structure" and "game," and it reminded me, somewhat tangentially, of one of the voice samples left at the Audible Memories installation (Stanford University, December 2006). The sentiment, at once so candid and spontaneous, is also a singular, centered "tone" around which these other words just fall into place, begging, perhaps to be mixed up, rearranged, augmented, diminished, or transposed. I've been haunted by the voice--by the phrase--since I first heard it, not so much for its meaning, but for its structure. It is simple but ripe with potential for variation, development and return. There is music here, the blueprint of music, though I have yet to parse it out:
I miss someone that does not miss me, and someone misses me that I do not miss.
I must go, and think about it some more. And I must listen to more Phillipe Manoury. My first assignment? Pluton for piano and live electronics.


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