Monday, September 16, 2013


The original version of this text was written in Dutch, written for the Flemish literary journal DWB as part of a special on music and literature. It discusses some ideas that were in the background of my mind while composing Toccata III for two glockenspiels. Here is a recording of this piece, on the UbuWeb page on my music, of a live performance by Duo Vertigo (Niels Meliefste and Claire Edwardes) from 2004: Toccata III [MP3]

At the end of 2001, I caught a glimpse of an echo in time. I don’t mean a memory, flashback or reflection in the now of something that had happened before, but I could see the shade of a movement that was able to exist in several moments at once, that could let two points in time echo one another, without the one point having to precede the other.

That is not how we usually experience time, and it seemed to me that the shade had to exist within another kind of present, a simultaneity of multiple moments, that within our normal time should occur within some linear order, but that would enter into a different relation within the time of the shade. In that way, this echo-time was adding an extra dimension to linear time itself. Between the two moments the shade moves back and forth in its own echo-time, and that way an extended present comes into being, a present that is no longer the point of intersection that separates the future from the past, but one that encompasses both future and past in an internal dynamic within still unknown extra dimensions.

The occasion was the request to write a piece for the two percussionists of Duo Vertigo, Niels Meliefste and Claire Edwardes. We were talking about the possibility to organize a concert in the series that I was programming at the moment in Amsterdam, and without thinking too much about it I blurted out that I would like to contribute a piece of my own for two glockenspiels. Immediately upon saying that I saw the shade of the movement before my eyes, seeing how it would echo back and forth between the two instruments, with the two layers of the music illuminating one another, without being in a linear relationship of question and answer. Rather, the two would form each other’s mutual reflection or echo.

This led to a composition called Toccata III: a work in which the two players simultaneously play motives that are based on simple ascending and descending scales and arpeggios, in a constant tempo relationship of three to five. Figures appear in both parts in repeating mosaic-like patterns, making the whole unfold to kaleidoscopic effect, in which the motives would continually shift across one another into changing combinations. While listening this leads to a dislocation of temporal experience, because as a listener you can’t entirely tell at what moment you heard a motive exactly, or even which part played a particular motive first: the faster or the slower one. Additionally, the patterns contain a polyphony within themselves (much in the way that J. S. Bach could weave an entire polyphony into a single melodic strand in his works for solo instruments, such as in the Cello Suites.) Since playing is always simultaneous, the ear of the listener can always jump from a line that it hears within one part to one within the other part, making the piece as a a whole into a very complex crystal of potential paths of listening. Performed with the complex resonant sound of the glockenspiel, a sonic world comes into being of an indeed almost hallucinatory spectral quality.
The score was furnished with a motto from J. G. Ballard, out of his short story News from the Sun. In the aftermath of 9/11, for a few months Ballard was the only prose writer that I could read at all. It was a time in which an intellectual hardening seemed to spread all over the entire Western world at astonishing speed. Everywhere, the attack on the Twin Towers was received, almost even welcomed, as finally a real moment in time, a fixed point, an origin out of which finally the axes could be laid down of a coordinate system to measure good and evil. For people of a great diversity of political positions, this event could serve as the irrefutable proof of their particular insights and as the unmistakable announcement of an epoch of truth in time. The religious become more religious, those who hated religion began to despise religion more, anti-imperialists saw empires finally teeter while experts on terrorism were making calculations of risk assessment and intelligence analysis in order to unfold even grander visions of mad carnage. A mythomaniac composer saw an artwork of cosmic destruction and a literary journalist who was considered influential in the Netherlands saw a final end to postmodernism. Everywhere, time was pulled taut. Myself, I went back to one of my first favorite authors, the only one who at that point seemed to have anything meaningful to say about the relationship between modernity and violence – and about escaping linear time.

In News from the Sun, Ballard presents a mysterious illness that is encroaching on the entire world.  It is a spiritual kind of disease, a consequence of the travels through space which humanity has embarked upon. The exploration of space has opened humans up to a completely other way of experiencing time, and that mode is spreading like wildfire. Those who suffer from this disease (which will in the end come to include all humankind) no longer experience moments as being isolated within a linear progression; instead, subsequent moments are increasingly compressed into ever more static, but also ever deeper experiences of time, perhaps a bit as in cubist painting, only more brilliant.

As in many of his stories of that period of his career (the 60s and 70s), the main characters are gradually being initiated into this resplendent new world liberated of linear time, which also has the effect that their normal, old existence grinds to a halt entirely. Ballard’s obsessive evocations of a time that disappears from the world seemed to me to be more truthful and fitting to the big trauma of the New World Order than the many battle cries of the Epoch of Truth, and by taking up a quote in my score I made his work godparent to mine:

The sky was filled with winged men. Franklin stood among the mirrors, as the aircraft multiplied in the air and crowded the sky with endless armadas. Ursula was coming for him, she and her sisters walking across the desert from the gates of the solar city. [...] Happy now to be free of time, he embraced the great fugue. All the light in the universe had come here to greet him, an immense congregation of particles.

There exist strong similarities between Ballard’s vision and the image that I had in mind while composing Toccata III. But in the end, the visions do not coincide. If Ballard evokes the transition of linear time into static time, my composition remains a musical composition throughout, working with motives and motions, which always retain an aspect of linear development. What I was interested in was to see motion, or gesture, as such, and to pry its quality loose from a temporal fabric that would be linear by necessity, in order to fashion deeper forms of time out of it. Just as positing a mystical form of time as a contrast to linear time may not be a sufficient answer to the stasis of the ideological hall of mirrors, the swamp of lies, of covert operations and manipulations that the world had gotten trapped in during the Bush years following 9/11 (and I’m not sure we’ve quite managed to get out of that swamp today).
Music lets us experience how an act defines time. However, the time of a musical action (a motive, say, or every single sound that is emitted) is not subject to any absolute measure, neither being formed of pointillistic nows, nor existing within static infinity, but it always comprises an internal measure and composition that determines its specific quality.  Such temporal units I will call time zones. Put together, time zones can merge into a fabric that we could call a music(-al composition). The specific composition of time zones determines the form of a present, of a space within which acting is possible.

All time zones are accompanied by other time zones, they reflect on one another. Sets of time zones can compose themselves into a linear process, a one-dimensional time with future and past, but other compositions of time are possible as well. Time zones can mutually act on each other, let their particular measures interfere with one another; they overlap and form lines, fields, circuits, zones of unanticipated dimensions; they compose into larger time zones or divide into smaller ones; and both the pointillistic now and eternity are limit cases of temporal compositions. The time of gesture, which always has its own measure and composition, is primary; life in the world such as we lead it, one of many possible compositional results.

Not only can we dethrone linear time or expose the present such as we live it day by day as a false kind of time, but we can also deploy time and motion as the building blocks for creating another experience of the present. One that is deeper and more livable than the rhythms of the world as we know it, and more so than those all too brilliant and static visions. A present that invites us to acting differently.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Othertimely - On history and Jürg Frey

The following text was written for a collection of texts in celebration of Jürg Frey's 60th birthday: Jürg Frey, Werkbetreachtungen – Reflexionen – Gespräche, edited by Eva-Maria Houben, published by Edition Howeg in Zürich. The book also includes texts and interviews by Frey himself, by Eva-Maria Houben, Dante Boon, Jack Callahan and others.

When is Jürg Frey's music? Not from when, but at what moment in time does it work? Does it belong to now, whatever the moment 'now' may be, or does it speak from some other time, gone or to come, or is perhaps timeless? These are fundamental questions that can be asked of any music. Like no other art form, music seems to exist 'now', but at the same time it always relates this 'now' to something outside, some virtual other time that gives 'now' its shape in the music, a time of hazy memories or vague expectations. Let’s, for the moment, call this virtual time from which music speaks the othertimely dimension of music. In my experience of the work of Jürg Frey, this dimension of relating now to the othertimely has become particularly uncanny.

Some background, to begin with, on how I encountered this dimension first, which goes back to music education. During the years of my formal training at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, a very large thing called 'music history' was always present. It was the thing that somehow would always condition the now that we were creating in our own works, and in the teachings of The Hague School, consciousness of your relation to this music history was always stressed. Moreover, in that environment, it was clear that there existed a major opposition in how one could deal with ‘music history’, exemplified by Schönberg on the one hand and Stravinsky on the other. The difference could be said to be this: Schönberg was seen as a believer working inside music history and giving it shape and direction, whereas Stravinsky worked with the ironic wisdom of one who can't afford to fully believe any more, and was circling around music history from the outside.

While both were revered, the aesthetic environment of the conservatory made it clear that the more advanced compositional sensibility should include a Stravinskian moment of distance. We were taught to see music history as a repository of models, of styles, forms and techniques, and one defined one's own artistic persona by relating to these models, but always through a distancing function, usually called 'commentary' or ‘irony’. As a composer, the ideal was to become an individual by the way you commented on a model, which was a thing that was available to you through the big medium of music history. You could call this position “post-historical”. The distance was necessary not only to form your own position, but also to guard yourself against getting trapped too much in the believer's position, that of the belief that one could live the actual Truth of music history.

Such a belief was of course Schönbergian. Indeed Schönberg is a historical composer if ever there was one. Maybe he even was the last one, of perhaps very few such composers at all. It remains striking to read a work like the Theory of Harmony, a book that I've often thought of as a “novel about tonality”, meticulously reworking the past at the very moment that the composer's own works were consciously exploring the future. In the book centuries of tonal experience are critiqued, turned upside down, explored, speculated about, even as in the book, Schönberg explicitly refers to his own practice as “ultra-modernist”. Thus the Schönbergian ‘now’ was a point from which one had to look back and forward at the same time to locate oneself at a pivotal moment in music history, and so be fully part of its project. The problem of course is that the project called ‘music history’ is not a general thing. Music history is a construction for understanding music, and its form in classical music was conceived to help the Western bourgeois class explain its own rise to prominence. Hence, music history is a project that only really gets going with, say, Mozart's attempt to work independently (Father Bach’s work still being ‘early music’), and ends with the very gradual decline of the bourgeois project of Bildung and political participation, with the role of the citizen gradually being replaced by that of the consumer. This more or less defines two centuries of work that even today is recognized by us, late-bourgeois consumers, as “classical music”, with Schönberg working at just about the end of it.

Neither model was satisfactory for me as a young composer, though I wasn't quite able to articulate why. I learnt the tricks and tactics of commentary without learning to trust them; I also learnt the forms and techniques of music history without learning to live them as Truth. I think these are conditions that very many artists have been working under for decades, and by now, the majority of working composers have matured in these conditions.

The great influence of John Cage on composers working now may in part be explained by this. His work can make you feel that there are ways around the whole problem of “music history”, as if he found a way to sidestep the conundrum. Morton Feldman in fact used that idea in his polemics against the European avant-garde composers, claiming that Boulez and Stockhausen were still too much within history. By contrast, in Feldman’s beautiful mythology, the New York School could come out of just six weeks in 1951 during which nobody knew what was happening. That’s without doubt an exaggeration, but it does feel like the othertimely dimension of Cage’s work can’t be reduced to “music history” as we know it. Instead, Cage’s work speaks from a different place, closer to the texture of time itself as it is moulded and shaped in his temporal structures, using chance techniques that can be applied to whatever material it encounters, whether historical or not. Sometimes, Cage’s work uses some kind of “music history” (say, in Hymns and Variations, the Europeras or Cheap Imitation); sometimes, it hardly seems to do so (say, in the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra or in Music For...). Cage’s othertimely position is like a diagonal cutting through history; indeed, as Marjorie Perloff has argued, his tradition is a piecemeal personal construction: the “tradition” of Schoenberg, Satie, Joyce, Thoreau, Fuller and Suzuki. Bien étonnés indeed!

One of the things then that one might get from Cage is the sense that art need not speak from, or about, music history in order to have interesting or important things to say. Or perhaps even that it’s possible to redesign the othertimely place from which the music speaks. A looser relation to music history helps open artistic awareness to other possibilities, to help us realize that there is in fact an irreducible plurality not just of musical styles, but of temporalities themselves. Many can be discovered. Music can speak from the other time of social organization and class struggle (Wolff, Cardew), from awareness to sound itself (Oliveros’ Deep Listening) or its physical structure (Lucier), from the timeless realms of mathematics (Johnson, Tenney) or even from outside of time (as Ashley called his collected writings).

This, then was my situation when I first heard Jürg Frey’s music: I had become familiar with the idea that music could speak from within music history (as did Schönberg), or from a deliberate distance to music history (the Stravinskianism that was taught in The Hague), or from places that are somehow entirely tangential to it, even outside of time. But in Frey, I heard again a voice speaking from history - but not as I knew it. Here, history was neither an intensely lived actuality, nor a distant repository of objects and materials. History itself seemed to be a place outside of time.

This is probably not a situation unique to Jürg Frey’s work, but thinking of what I heard in some of his pieces made me more aware of this possibility than anything else. Perhaps you can hear a composer like Satie in a similar way - Satie, a composer who was dreaming of the middle ages as he lived the life of the bars of exciting metropolitan Paris. His early works sound like a dreamed reconstruction of some very old music, as if he was trying to dream Gregorian chant and the middle ages back into our time (even up to inventing entire holy knighthood orders for his personal church). Likewise, Xenakis, in key moments in his work, dreamed of a music that would speak from ancient Greece. But with Jürg Frey, the dream is harder to grasp. It’s not even clear if it’s a dream at all.

The clearest example I can think of is the use of triads in pieces like Sam Lazaro Bros and the 2nd String Quartet. In neither of these pieces do the triads “refer” to historical material, as a triad would do in a piece out of the post-historical commentary line. But neither are the triads ahistorical things, pure objects, as they might have been in a James Tenney piece. What happens instead is a consistent evocation of history, though I’m never quite sure what history is being evoked exactly. The piano piece has something Satie-like, but at times one feels a turn could almost be from the 16th century. Or is it Schubert, or rather the place from which Schubert’s work speaks as well, that we are hearing? Then again, our piano is a modern instrument, and the piece might also just be modern music. Between all these possibilities, Sam Lazaro Bros. (with its bluntly noncommittal title) never quite settles into a specific one. It seems to skirt the boundaries between historical identities as it ambles along in its own time, just as its own phrase never settles, never quite cadences, drawing us along with it, constantly passing many othertimely times that virtually dance around it in the background.

In the quartet similar effects happen through different means. Here, we’re not drawn along by an ambling line; instead, the sounds are separate, but each new sound again sucks us into an inner world that itself sounds like a vast superposition of other-times. This time, it’s not the turns of phrase that suggest these, but there are many voices submerged into the sound itself. The insistent atmosphere might remind you of Schubert, the sonic complexity, of Scelsi; but if you listen deeply, you can sometimes hear what sounds like entire orchestras and choirs in the sound, playing symphonies that sound from an unknown place. Each chord itself could belong to many eras at once. Again, it is as if they are all virtually present, shaping our now without disclosing their own location.

These pieces speak from an uncharted virtual world that is hidden within music history. The music does actively seek out that world and so it does engage history, but without fixing it. Instead, it encounters material that is historically loaded, but the material is immediately being returned to virtuality. I hear a minor triad, but I don’t know from what place it came, like a piece of driftwood washing ashore which clearly must have had a history. I’m in fact not sure if I know the triad or not. Perhaps it needs to be heard again. And so we realize we should listen once more to the things that seemed known, perhaps to discover that they are, in fact, starting points for things we did not know we knew.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Now on Youtube: Disaster Songs, poems by Rob Halpern, music by Samuel Vriezen, performed by the David Kweksilber Big Band and the amazing Claron McFadden earlier this year. I'm very happy to have it as a video, because the ensemble playing was meant to be seen as well as heard, particularly in the third song.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

A hidden non-hierarchical structure. Block Designs and The Weather Riots

Below, an exchange with musicologist Gilbert Delor, on my composition The Weather Riots and on Block Designs.

The Weather Riots, for variable instrumentation, is one of my most performed pieces. Written in 2002, it constitutes my first compositional response to John Cage's idea of structuring pieces with 'flexible time brackets', which he did in his late series of compositions, the so-called Number Pieces. Links to performances of the piece are given at the end of the post.

Block Designs are structures from the mathematical field of combinatorics. I used one such structure to determine the harmonies in The Weather Riots. Upon learning of this technique, composer Tom Johnson, who is a good friend of mine, explored the subject much more deeply, which led to a whole series of wonderful pieces.

Hi Samuel

I have a question for you: when it comes to combinatorial design, Tom often refers to a piece of yours he heard "around 2003", which was based on a series of 11 five-note chords, each one having two notes in common with all the others. Can you tell me which piece it was, and, with some precision, when this took place? Thanks for your help.


Dear Gilbert,

Block designs appeared in my music briefly in 2002, as basic harmonic structures that were used to develop elaborate contrapuntal possibilities. First this happened in Seasons (2001-2002) which used systems of 9 chords of 4 notes each. The (11, 5, 2) system appeared in The Weather Riots (2002) and Krise (2002); Tom heard The Weather Riots in performance in 2003. The Weather Riots remains among my works the strongest composition to use block designs; the piece has been played more than any other piece of mine so far.


Dear Samuel,

Shall I conclude from what you say that you were already aware of block design theory in 2001? Tom says in his writings that you're the one who led him toward this field of mathematics, but that you probably didn't know about it yourself by this time. As if you had settled your collection of chords for The Weather Riots only through empiric approach. Is he wrong?


Dear Gilbert,

No, that was more or less the case. I do have some background in mathematics, but I never studied the field of combinatorics deeply so I didn't know about block designs. I was simply looking for a harmonic system which would have certain symmetrical properties, and I found a few block designs. These I used in my pieces. Then I showed my structures to some music theorists & mathematicians online, and people told me that these were in fact "block designs".

Shortly after that, I told Tom about the structures when he happened to be in Amsterdam, at a concert I organized, on which the ensemble HPS Band performed their version of The Weather Riots (this was in fact on march 11, 2004). In our correspondence, I find the first mention of Tom's investigating "Steiner triple systems" a few weeks later, on April 1, 2004.

I never used block designs seriously in my later works after that; Tom more or less "took over" with the technique, and applied them differently than I did.  For me, block designs were a solution to a compositional problem about harmony. For Tom, the block designs were given, and the compositional problem was how to translate them into music! As a consequence, I think Tom's approach to block designs is much purer than what I did.

The real subject matter of The Weather Riots is not block design harmony as such, but how to integrate the time structure of the Cage number pieces (with flexible time brackets) with what you could call a neo-baroque kind of contrapuntal language.

My problem was this: all the motives in The Weather Riots (each with its own contour & metrical feel) have a similar harmonic structure, being all based on five notes. The time structure in The Weather Riots was supposed not to be about hierarchical relations between the harmonies. That being given, how could I find harmonic families that would relate chords to one another in a minimally hierarchical way - i.e. no two chords were supposed to have a "stronger" relation than any other pair, so that any progression would have the same structural meaning - while also allowing for a maximum of variation of harmonic quality - so that the harmonic feel of the piece would have something "chancy" about it?

Block designs were the solution to the problem. In The Weather Riots, everything is based on eleven sets of five pitch classes (you could say "chords"), with every two such chords having exactly two notes in common. Finding the (11, 5, 2) system (though not yet knowing that it had a mathematical name!), I found a specific set of 11 chords in which I would integrate the two maximally opposed harmonic qualities possible in 12-tone tuning. That is, one of the eleven chords was to be a pentatonic scale (stacks of fifths), another one was to be a chromatic segment (stacks of minor seconds). Taking those two chords as my starting point, much of the choice for the other 9 chords was already fixed, and among the options that were left I chose what I felt would give me the most varied harmonic quality.

For Tom, however, it was a question of taking known block designs and then figuring out the best musical forms for them, which led him to quite different problems, such as how to order them, which scales to choose, what instrumentation, what types of phrasing. He's more interested in choosing all that with an eye to making the block design as such musically clear, whereas for me block designs were more like a hidden structure for governing non-hierarchical relations within a free and highly varied polyphony.

Nowadays, I do feel that, after all of Tom's excellent work on them, I should perhaps go back some time to block designs and explore them again in the context of my own interests (which is often more about "musical games" than about "musical structures"). They remain highly suggestive models for organizing musical actions.


Some performances of The Weather Riots:

Number Night Ensemble, Amsterdam 2002 (first performance)

Dante Boon & Samuel Vriezen, Vienna 2005

Ensemble of Moments Musicaux, Aarau 2011