AND THE VOID
five works by Gwyn Pritchard
from the booklet accompanying the CD The Fruit of Chance and Necessity
the composer's daughter Alwynne
Pritchard, composer, performer, writer and broadcaster
My father's music, the processes by which the pieces came into being as
well as the finished works themselves, formed an integral parts of my early life
and colours all memories of my childhood.
The almost daily experience of hearing combinations of notes
voiced and re-voiced at the piano, gradually evolved into melodic figures,
ornamented, developed, arranged and then rehearsed makes it impossible for me to
be objective about my father's music; however, it does give me, I hope, a
perspective that will be illuminating here.
If all the notes we, as human beings ever hear, in all their various
formations are, like all our experiences, atoms from which our conscious selves
are constructed, creating the paradigms through which we experience the world,
then the music of Gwyn Pritchard is inseparable from my experience and
development as a human being and a composer.
But it is not only when thinking of my own relationship to this music
that the metaphor of the atomic particle - the irreducible constituent from
which any system is constructed - seems appropriate.
The music itself seems to me to be motivated by energy created from the
friction between the tiniest of musical particles, something which is perhaps
most directly addressed by the composer himself in the ‘cello
and ensemble work The Fruit of Chance and Necessity. This title is drawn
from Democritus, one of the first pre-Socratic philosophers to propose that,
indeed, everything in the universe was composed only of atoms and the empty
space within which they moved. However,
more important and interesting still is how these particles behave in relation
to one another, the systems they produce, the very universe itself being,
according to Democritus, nothing more or less than “the fruit of chance and
necessity”. In his own programme note to the piece, the composer
Leaving aside the broader
philosophical relevance of Democritus’s theory, many of the concepts
within it are remarkably apt metaphors for certain aspects of music and the
processes underlying its composition, at least from my own point of view. For
behind the evidently ‘composed’ audible surface of my music there are
usually a considerable number of operations dependent upon both chance and
In this piece, effectively a
concerto for solo ‘cello and large ensemble, these concepts are at the
forefront of the musical drama. The solo part proceeds along an unambiguous
course, moving through a musical landscape defined by an ensemble whose material
seldom relates more than superficially to the solo part, and often seems to
oppose it. The soloist and ensemble are never dependent on one another, the
essence of the piece lying in the space between the two and the collisions that
Like the violin line in the appropriately named Song
for Icarus, much of the cello writing in The Fruit of Chance and Necessity is intensely lyrical and even
operatic in scope. It comes at me
out of the blue, as though I have suddenly opened the door on an epic drama that
has been running for hours, years or even centuries. There are several moments in the piece that approach
repose, more exquisitely beautiful for their tantalising brevity, but the piece
ends unresolved with a blood-curdling wail from the ensemble (or are they
blowing a grotesque raspberry?) as the ‘cello is left suspended and alone.
In its final few bars this piece never fails to leave me breathless.
for Icarus, although for much smaller forces than the ‘cello concerto,
is nevertheless vast in scope, and tackles a subject of mythical proportions:
The relevance of the Icarus
myth to this music is to be found at several levels. Perhaps most obscurely, the
form of the piece makes much use of pitting height against depth, but more
obviously it includes much figuration, which, at times, might well be heard as a
kind of imitation bird-song. Imitating birds and soaring to great heights was of
course something that Icarus learned all about with fatal consequences.
At the heart of the Icarus
myth lies the fact that, able to fly like a bird, he became a victim of his own
fascination for the beauty and warmth of the sun; the tragedy of his death is
set against the thirst for ecstasy that caused it. Similarly, almost
uninterrupted throughout this piece, a lament-like, slow ‘melodic’ line is
set against fast, florid material that hovers between being ecstatic
pseudo-birdsong and the demented wailing of a mourner. So is this perhaps also a
lamentation or threnody for Icarus, and therefore an expression of a universal
contradiction symbolised by his legend?
So here again, opposing forces are pitted one
against the other, impelled forward by the formation, interaction and
dissolution of the tiniest of musical fragments - trills, runs, tremolandi -
that are in this case redolent of birdsong, but are in fact the elemental
material from which all pieces considered here are forged.
For all its opening lyricism, I cannot help but hear the violin part as
mimicking birdsong too - trying not only to fly, but actually to become a bird.
As I hear the violin attempting what sound like imitations of the
piccolo, the flute and even the alto flute, I imagine Icarus, his deadly
apparatus pounding the air in a tragic mockery of flight, but in fact no more
granted the gift of flight than a puppet temporarily suspended at the puppeteers
will, mechanical birds twittering around its head.
Perhaps it is because the mechanisms of performance are so exposed in
this difficult music that I hear it so. I
experience the struggle of flight, the violin's various trajectories illuminated
by the different flutes which seem also to lure it towards its ultimately tragic
end, the music finally melting away to nothing more than two wisps of sound.
In stark contrast, Music for Double Bass and Harp does not, in the composer’s own words, 'attempt to represent or
express any concepts or ideas beyond itself, its materials and its internal
processes'. Although much of its
material is more than quarter of a century older than The Fruit of Chance and Necessity, this work has quite clearly been
penned with many of the same concerns in mind; there is, however, a freedom and
spaciousness about the music that may owe something to the process of revision
it repeatedly underwent:
So like a tourist visiting a
town in which I had lived many years ago I returned to my former compositional
techniques and with them produced this substantially revised version. Of course
it is impossible really to return to the past and so I see this revision more as
an interpretation than a recreation of a past venture, and there is much within
it that I could not possibly have done as a very young composer, back in 1969.
The scope, elegance and even at times sensuality of
the double bass writing in Music for
Double Bass and Harp comes as no surprise in light of the fact that its
composer was working as a professional ‘cellist when he wrote it.
But over and above that, I find the timbres he coaxes from the unlikely
partnership of both instruments exciting - buzzing and rumbling away together at
the bottom of their registers or daintily exchanging harmonics at the top.
As in all my father’s music, the harmony in Music
for Double Bass and Harp is painstakingly and beautifully controlled;
although rarely allowed to express itself in full-blown melodies, his
characteristically ornate but refined - sometimes even constrained - musical
figures allow beautiful melodic moments to be glimpsed through fragments of
constantly shifting rhythm and timbre. This
is counterbalanced in Music for Double
Bass and Harp by a recurrent repeated note figure, the still point around
which all other events seem to turn, and which is a recurring feature of many of
the pieces under consideration here.
As with The Fruit of Chance and
Necessity and Song for Icarus, the
extended solo piano work Raum
greift aus opens with a declaration of opposites, extreme high and low
registers, slowly and quietly meandering, suddenly and only very briefly
interrupted by a loud burst of middle register notes. That this material is so quickly abandoned, without
explanation, leaves a questions mark hanging in the air from the first few
minutes of the piece, which remains unanswered as the music carves its way
through blocks of sound, becoming for me almost tactile, sculptural, as the
pianist seems to weigh up one mass of notes against another.
The poem by Rainer Maria Rilke from which Raum Greift Aus draws its title, and the composer’s own words on
the relationship between text and music, are pertinent to this quality in the
Durch den sich Vögel werfen, ist nicht der
Raum, der die Gestalt dir steigert.
Freien, dorten, bist du dir verweigert
schwindest weiter ohne Wiederkehr.)
Raum greift aus uns und übersetzt die Dinge:
dir das Dasein eines Baums gelinge,
Innenraum um ihn, aus jenem Raum,
in dir west. Umgieb ihn mit
grenzt sich nicht. Erst in
dein Verzichten wird er wirklich Baum.
Maria Rilke (1924)
one the birds plunge through’s not that trusty space
each confided form’s intensified.
there in the open you’re self-denied,
go on vanishing without a trace.)
Space spreads transposingly from us to things:
really to feel the way a tree
cast round it space from that which inwardly
expands in you. Surround
it with retention.
It has no bounds. Not
till its reascension
in your renouncing is it truly tree.
A literal translation of
“Raum greift aus uns und übersetzt die Dinge” might be something like
“Space grasps out and translates things”; but the ‘poetic’ translation
above gets far closer to the implied meaning of the German original.
The problem is that we are dealing with a poetic and philosophical idea,
so any translation is bound to be also a translation of meaning to some extent.
For Rilke words have to work, to reach far beyond their more prosaic
meanings, and through their redeployment in unlikely combinations and contexts
become a means of articulating ideas that constitute an unfamiliar, but
nonetheless very real, experienceable world.
Thinking back to the composer’s words quoted on the composition of the
‘cello concerto that 'behind the evidently "composed" audible
surface of my music there are usually a considerable number of operations
dependent upon both chance and necessity', it is clear from the above paragraph
that, as I have experienced myself as a composer, there is nevertheless much
that we leave to chance or ignore at our peril.
In order for notes to (as the composer’s text puts it) 'reach beyond
the audibility of their structure, allowing us unfamiliar experiences of things
we might take for granted; of time, of intensity, of density and of space' we
must take care in understanding the context from which they are drawn, before we
can begin to redefine them:
Paradoxically perhaps, in
music (as with the syntax of Rilke’s poetry) this can only happen because
those audible structures, those defined, tangible relationships of pitches and
rhythms, are there in the first place. The
illumination of elusive ideas and experiences can only be achieved by a process
which starts with concepts that are graspable, already anchored in our
understanding. Superficial notions
of transcendence are not enough.
That this music is for me both direct and elusive is an acknowledgement
of its composer’s skill in articulating this balance between the known and the
unknown, between things experienced and those yet to be discovered.
Also looking to both past and future, Janus,
the final discussed here, draws its title from the two-faced Roman god.
This is an image which serves to describe the nature and behaviour of
much of the musical material of this piece.
Its purely musical origins lay
in my wish to explore linearity, and different forms of opposition and tension
that can be generated between two linear instruments. At times the two faces of
the music are polarised ‑ locked into diametrical opposition; and at
others, each pursues a musical course obsessively independent, even oblivious,
of the other.
Once again, duality and the
deployment of extremes are the driving forces here.
Janus is a formidably
difficult work, which deliberately demands of the performers an almost
impossible degree of control of detail, particularly in its microtonal and its
textural aspects. The consequent instability is analogous to a drawing in which
the imagery is described by a profusion of linear movements.
In fact a painting donated to the composer by he Polish painter Jerzy
Stajuda, was one of the sources of inspiration behind Janus.
But in this piece lines are not so much taken for a walk (as Paul Klee once put
it) as almost unrelentingly pursued, put breathlessly through their paces (as
indeed are the players) until they lead us to a music that is ultimately highly
ornate but never frivolous, both decorative and declamatory and, just at the
point we think we've arrived, suddenly changes direction or simply dissolves
Dr. Alwynne Pritchard 21.03.08