Compositions of the early 80s

In the last two years two features of my composition have become more prominent:

1. the use of found and home-made instruments and

2. the use of chance.

The first of these works was “The Ever-circling Light” commissioned by the Royal Christchurch Musical Society in 1980 and first performed in July 1982. My main aim was to write a “New Zealand" piece about the land, its people and its weathers. I chose texts from traditional Māori poetry which would serve this purpose and arranged them in movements to show a New Zealand day as I saw it. Thus the macro-form is largely programmatic, but chance processes were used to determine details of the micro-form. I shall describe two uses of chance systems in 'The Ever-circling Light" which typify most other uses.

The quiet introduction of "night sounds" is subdivided into "bars" whose proportions are derived from the Fibonacci Series:1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 .... I wrote 6 of these numbers (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 34) on the sides of a die and rolled it until, calling the numbers seconds and each roll one bar, they added up to a minute and a half. The number of instruments playing at the beginning of each bar was found by rolling an ordinary die, and which instruments by rolling another.

A similar process was used in the last movement, in which each singer of the chorus (except the basses) sings only one note. The note is taken from the harmonic series of a low F and the plastic tube which each singer has is tuned to his or her note. For the whole movement (Waiata Tangi) I used random number tables to decide how many seconds each singer would alternately sing and rest. Over this pattern I imposed another pattern - like a solid inverted V (see diagram). All durations outside this V were rejected, and the voices which were thus made redundant were then required to sing the "Waiata". This was chanted on one note, a D flat, especially chosen to contrast with notes in the harmonic series of the low F.

Schematic diagram of "Waiata Tangi"
Schematic diagram of "Waiata Tangi"

One important experimental feature of "The Ever-circling Light" probably failed. The abstract voice sounds, which are heard first in the introduction, are intended as a simple fore-taste of the richer and more complex palette of fricative sounds used in "Rimurimu". In the introduction one hears just 'f' and 's' fricatives, but in "Rimurimu" are added 'sh' and 'ch', each being filtered by the mouth shape, between the shape for 'i' and for 'u'. In the introduction the chorus is divided into two stereo groups, in "Rimurimu" into four groups. The text, half whispered, is superimposed (in 4-way stereo) over this, and all is heard against a background of delicate percussion sounds plus the long notes from the four solo sopranos. Some listeners responded very positively to this movement, others felt it didn't say anything new that the opening "night sounds" had not already said. This is probably a valid response, due mainly to the inability of the chorus to differentiate clearly between 'sh' and 'ch' ' and the half-whispered words. I now think the movement would be improved if, as well as four solo sopranos, there were four solo speakers, so that the text could be clearly projected and the chorus could concentrate on the filtering of the fricative sounds.

"Devotion to the Small” contrasts deliberately with "The Ever-circling Light". There is one solo voice instead of a large choir, and all the large percussion is avoided in favour of small instruments, including many found and home-made instruments. These are arranged on two large stands, so that some of the gongs and bells can also be played by the solo singer, while the rest of the battery is managed by five percussionists. The texts are a selection of six small poems by Michael Harlow, whose themes are also "small".

To a large extent the texts determine the shape of each movement, e.g. the short lines of "Andacht zum Kleinen' are emphasized by breaks in the singer's line. In the second movement "Stone Poem", the text even determines the Instruments: each of the five percussionists has two large stones, which are gradually replaced by the softer sounding clay chimes. In "Contemplating the letter O" ' the singer does just this through a range of emotional Os from sadness, shock, surprise, interest and ecstasy, while the percussionists supply both accompaniment and text. The fourth movement, like the other even-numbered movements, has a strong "tonic", which is superimposed onto the graphic notation. In this movement the singer tries to break away from this tonic, making small jumps at first, but only really succeeding on the very last note. This, note is one of the few big sounds in the whole piece. It is sung fortissimo and supported by two bullroarers, two bowed (Chladne) plates and a vibraslap. This "different" note is an example of the contrast principle on a micro-level which I discussed during the planning period of the piece with poet Michael Harlow: "The lateral leap which throws the whole structure into relief". The fifth movement is an example of the same principle on a macro-level. It stands apart from the other movements by the use of conventional notation and of repetition of various parameters: words, rhythms, even melodic fragments. The number of repetitions of the percussion ostinati and durations of rests were determined by chance, but the number of instruments playing was determined by me. The "lateral leap" in the last movement is given by the percussionists in the form of a brief cadenza. "Devotion to the Small" was recorded in 1980 by Radio New Zealand, with Jillian Bartram singing the solo part. The recording, directed by Dorothy Hitch, was awarded the Mobil prize for the best recorded New Zealand Musical Work in 1981.

Shortly after this recording I left with my family for study leave In Switzerland.

Many of the Swiss compositions between August 1980 and December 1981 show my preoccupation with chance methods. The only exceptions are the "Ten Duos for two Celli" and the 'Four Ostinati" for flute, violin and cello (which are in fact reworkings of four of the cello duos), and "Christophorus".

Both the "Divertimento for Piano Flute Violin and Cello (November 1980) and "Three Chance Pieces for Piano" (February 1981) use chance extensively, the latter almost entirely, but the former was an attempt to apply chance methods to traditional material. In the first movement of the "Divertimento" vaguely tonal fragments are ordered by chance, producing a sort of Bartokian texture. The second, a slow movement, is a set of variations on a tune devised from hymn numbers, written down while waiting in Zürich's Fraumünster for a concert by Gheorghe Zamfir. The third movement is a limping minuet and trio, 2/4 and 3/4 bars occurring randomly, and triadic harmonies are thrown by chance against a melody which constantly tries to adjust to this curious chord pattern. The fourth movement is a synthesis of all previous material in the form of a fugue.

"Nothing but Switzerland and Lemonade” (September 1981) which was also written for the same trio of flute, violin and cello, plus a solo speaker, is a setting of five prose poems by Michael Harlow, whose book with this title appeared while we were in Switzerland. The form of each movement follows the poem and, with the exception of the last movement, the pitches and often durations are determined by chance. The last movement – a setting of the title poem – is a burlesque which distorts fragments of three Swiss folk songs.

My studies in Switzerland on musical creativity with children centred on two places: the Konservatorium in Zürich where music teachers are trained, and the local Gymnasium where the music teacher, Hans Egli, allowed me to experiment.  The “Galgenlieder” for spoken chorus were dedicated to him. He also arranged for their publication with Pan Verlag, Zürich, and the same company also published my booklet for teachers: "Musik mit gefundenen Gegenständen" (Music with Found Objects).

The "Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs) are settings of ten of Christian Morgenstern's famous cycle of poems by the same name. They exploit the possibilities of a spoken chorus, divided 5, A, B plus a part for solo male spoken voice. In addition to the normal spoken mode one hears shouted voices ("Bundeslied" and end of "Wiegenlied"), whispered (“die Trichter" and "Das Wiesel”), croaking or cracked voice ("KM 21'), mouth pops ("Fisches Nachtgesang") and various hissing sounds ("Das Knie", "Galgenberg").The movements are arranged to contrast with one another and to reinforce Morgenstern's credo: "one sees the world differently from the gallows". Thus the solo speaker, who is dressed as a hangman, behaves rather as a philosopher, jester, or preacher. The reversal of the normal is best heard in the "Galgenkindes Wiegenlied" (Cradle Song), which grows to an overwhelming volume and finishes with eight fierce snare drum rim shots, calculated to wake any normal baby. Perhaps the most original movement is the setting of the now famous in the history of concrete poetry "Fisches Nachtgesang" (Fish's Night Song): I have interpreted Morgenstern's symbols fairly literally, viz. – = mouth pop by closing the lips suddenly, and ‿= pop sound by opening the lips. To this I have marked the beginning of the last four lines of the poem by a mouth pop made with the finger. The only accompaniment is the similar sounding temple blocks, whose chance determined entries contrast with the very regular shape of the mouth pops. In the surrealistic "Das Knie" (The Knee) the hangman speaks and the chorus accompanies. This accompaniment shows a different chance system: The words bimm, bamm, bumm, were each put twice on the sides of a die. When the die repeated a word consecutively, this was interpreted as the end of a line. Instead of actually repeating the word, I tied the last two notes of the line together. I stopped when the accompaniment was slightly longer than the time needed to read one verse slowly. With each new verse the pitch of the chorus clusters (the words are actually sung to an indefinite note) rises and the attack changes. The movement finishes on a fricative sound already heard in "The Ever-circling Light". Similar fricative voice sounds are used as an accompaniment to the hangman's speaking in the last movement "Galgenberg" (The Mount of Gallows): "You will  understand life better when you've learnt to understand a gallows-brother". Elsewhere Morgenstern explains what a gallows-brother is: One knows what a "mulus" is, that enviable between-state between school and university. Well then, a gallows-brother is a between-state between man and the universe - nothing more"

At the Konservatorium I met composer Gerald Bennett and went with him to the Bourges Studio for Experimental Music, which inspired the other two Swiss works "Piece of 4" and "Krähenalles".

"Piece of 4” was originally intended as my contribution to a group composition proposed by Gerald Bennett to fulfil his commission from the Bourges Studio. Bennett later decided that it would involve more rehearsal time than he had available and replaced it with the clarinet version of "Krähenalles". "Piece of 4" was intended for the four remaining members of the Bennett composition group after I would have returned to New Zealand. Each of the four players is required to find four found-instruments which he plays according to various chance systems, supplied by rods and cards. The sounds they make are picked up by 4 microphones and taken to a vocoder or synthesizer, which allows three of the signals to be modified by the fourth. I met the vocoder at the Bourges Studio in the spring of 1981 and wrote "Piece of 4" between then and our return to the Studio in autumn. This time I was disappointed with the vocoder and decided to replace it with a synthesizer. The sounds from the synthesizer are fed to a tape recorder, which sends a large tape loop past four other tape recorders in play- back mode, which are controlled by chance via each of the four players. The main musical concept in "Piece of 4" is the idea of adjustment This involves one player changing one or more of the parameters of his own music to approach musically the corresponding parameters in another sound source (i.e. tape sound, or music of another player). During rehearsals for the first performance in the McDougall Art Gallery Christchurch on 4th June 1982, I decided that the movement of the players should also be a parameter for adjustment. This had a major effect on the piece, giving it a strong dramatic element.

Krähenalles” for solo flute (or clarinet) and magnetic tape was written for my sister-in-law Gudrun Racine. The tape which runs for the duration of the piece (12 win.) was realised at the Bourges Studio in autumn 1981, and the piece was first performed by Gudrun Racine in Zürich in May 1982, and then immediately afterwards in the clarinet version as part of the collective Bennett piece "lm Hause des Sanften: Das Durch-beissen" at the Bourges Festival in June 1982.

The proportions of the piece are all derived from the poem "Krähenalles " by Renaud Racine. The poem describes the dream worlds of the young poet just before waking, when he is transferred from one state to another by a crow. His reading of the poem is heard fragmented on the tape, while the other two sound sources for the tape are flute sounds and crow sounds. These were filtered and transposed to make the tape collage, which accompanies the solo instrument.

While writing "Krähenalles " I invented a formal system, which arose from the desire to have the overall form of the whole piece reflected in each of the sections. In this case "Krähenalles" is divided into seven sections, whose proportions are derived from the original poem. I then divided each of the seven sections in the same proportions and found that, if I labelled the larger sections I, II, ... VII and the sub-sections i, ii, iii ... vii, then the durations of sub-sections (II, iii) and (III, ii), for example, were equal (this is in fact easily verified mathematically). I started to see this whole framework as an Abelian Group and decided to use the same material in corresponding sections. This I did only in part, as I later decided to overlap some of the sections, which meant that sometimes two sets of material would claim right to one section, and I was forced to make a compromise. This compromise is, however, I feel, the strength of the piece. Had I followed the Abelian symmetry slavishly, the repetition would have been too obvious. I have since used this Abelian form with children who grasped it quickly and who could later identify sections easily. I am presently planning a new piece which will use the overlapping version of Abelian form on a much larger scale.

Kit Powell 1983