Verdigris and the Succession of Presents by Tom Kazas April 2010
The album Verdigris began life with the idea of 'response'. Each piece was created as a reply to an existing work. What a ruse that became. To intentionally avoid the 'predicament of presumption': thinking that an idea for a work starts when one first (consciously) 'thinks' it, instead of the complex history of incubating subliminal ideas. More clearly, it admits that rarely can such an inchoate point be isolated and seen for what it is: a beginning. ‘Responding’ allows one to be ‘in media res’, so what emerged, was that the central dynamic of the work was in fact the 'nature of narrative'. The music on Verdigris can be imagined as making movements along an axis  which has 'narrative presence' as one pole, and 'narrative absence' as the other, and points to the fluid nature of events, complexity, and our attention to time.
What does it mean to be non-narrative? Is music most revealing of this condition? It is often stated that the 'random' is non-narrative, but randomness is simply a special case of organization - expressing an intricate order that is emergent and complex. This is an idea of the random where a lack information about a system renders any pattern, (most likely there), undetectable. One way of dealing with this question is to admit that the 'non-narrative' is not an absolute quality, but rather, the experimental intention to break with conventions. Fripp reminds us that, "what we hear is the quality of our listening". A indication that the listener's attention plays a crucial role in determining the effects of these intentions.
Spora is an example of a non-narrative piece. It does not develop to any outcome, and any point during its length generally resembles any other point. This is not circular narrative, it doesn't evolve to then return. Rather, it is a piece of the ever-present, or rather, the succession of presents - of being in a state of 'being'. Spora is comprised of melodic ‘seeds’, fragments of a recorded ‘whole’ melody (on only two instruments - the piano and lyra), that is never heard in its entirety. The space is occupied with incomplete copies of itself - pieces recycling and mutating as they feedback. With the absence of this ‘whole’ playing out against the presence of the minutest sample, our quotidian perspective vanishes. The ‘suggested’ whole is contrasted with the ‘stated’ fractional. The indicators that mark our daily common-sense impression of time diminish. Further, the recurring fragments repeat on multiple time-scales and in non-linear sequences, that operate to further break any steady narrative. Spora more appropriately shares the dynamic of a ‘drone’, and not just because all these distributed events rest on a monotone. Rather, it is the piece as a whole that is drone-like. A drone is the ultimate in non-narrative music; strictly, there are no events - stricter still, there is only one event that is unchanging. If there are no events to be organized, then by definition , there is no narrative.
Emerge embodies a movement along the axis away from the 'absent' pole. The dissonant chordal progression has no tonal centre, nowhere to tether itself, and proceeds with only a loose pulse - so it starts to blur into an amorphous chromatic haze. Constant novelties of pitch and rhythm have the effect of making the listener immune to noticing change. This removes the listener from a type of attention, one disengages and is ‘absented’ more easily. (See the Appendix). This is counter to the act of listening to minimalist or ambient music as foreground and not as background, where one becomes hyper-sensitive to the smallest changes. In this case, one’s awareness of detail is enhanced. The markers that describe and fix the passage of time are generally absent, so one is freed from its narrative tyranny. In Emerge, this absenting-blured-reverie gives way to the arrival of the cycling consonant chords. A new attention is sought; to a rather minimal narrative, where the organization is more familiar and developmental. There is a push and pull of attention - the piece changing direction along its axis several times. Curiously, what now appears as a challenge is the idea that, “the truly linear is truly frightening". With this phrase, Krauss and Scherrer wonderfully capture the challenge of the cosmic-universal scale narrative - that unyielding, energetically dark procession of events that expands into astronomical hyperbole. In contrast, broken narratives, flashbacks, and the circular, are conventional because we understand them as how time is experienced; how our thoughts, memories and reveries behave. The truly linear is at the very edge of human experience, if not outside it. The infinitude of events simply overwhelms any narrative order, pushing it to incomprehensibility. Alas, there is no example of the truly linear on Verdigris, and no time to deal with infinitude here.
Dismantle’s limits are more clearly enjoyed. The contrast of restrictions and freedoms are held in more relief, allowing narrative a place to take hold. A few friends have commented that the piano licks are even a bit 'jazz'! Taken as a compliment, they are the rebellious responses to the restraints imposed by the two chord limit that shapes the piece. Improvisation, having a fluid position on our axis, is a challenge to the idea of narrative cohesion. However much the imposition of order is a completely natural and a desirable activity, it nonetheless conflicts with the urge to improvise, which seeks to abandon attempts at redesign and reappraisal of the order. Of course improvising is a construction, but the heightened sense of time and attention separates it from more conventional constructions. Fripp astutely notes, "in composition we hear the thinking, in improvising we hear the being". ‘Being’ here is not only the state of ‘presence’, but a kind of clarity that is unaffected by ‘contrivances’. It alerts us to the fact that by equating the ‘compositional and thinking act’, we are removed from the present; we are caught in a narrative gesture - backwards to correct, forwards to propose, and the circularity this entails.
Berceuse is a rescue, a rediscovery of the ‘lull’. It is a piano piece, despite its lack of resemblance to a conventional piano sound. The subject - the ‘original’ piano, has been removed. Only the many treated versions of that piano remain, and have become more dense and much larger than the original could ever be. With the original ‘cause’ having receded, a flourish of events can come into existence - yet with a memory - acquiescing to a nascent narrative. Curiously, one is also hearing the same recording both forwards and backwards at the same time, a musico-pallandrome if you will, across the length of the piece. Not only was this a way of creating tonal complexity, but is an example of the coexistence of opposite time arrows, a seeming contradiction in coherence of the present. Berceuse completes the album's narrative journey, that started with the intimate singular and ends with an expansive multiplicity; that started with a solo piano and ends with the piano's absence.
1. Emerge is a response to the word, (the poem ‘Something like an Emergency’ by Josephine Scicluna), while Spora is a response to a response to the stage, (theatre, my existing soundtrack to ‘the Wound’). Dismantle was created for the image, (the film, ‘the Topologist’), and Berceuse became a closing response (to the album ‘Verdigris’ itself).
2. 'Axis Thinking', Eno, Brian 1996, A Year With Swollen Appendices, Faber & Faber, London.
3. Fripp, Robert, Aphorisms, retrieved February 2010 <http:/www.dgmlive.com/aphorisms>
4. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, On Historical Principles, 6th edn (2007 p.1890) defines 'narrative' as, "an account of a series of events, facts, given in order and with establishing connections between them".
5. The piece Emerge is a piano improvisation, performed to a reading of a poem, as noted above. The idea of ‘improvisation’ is discussed in the section: Dismantle.
6. Krauss, Lawrence M. and Scherrer, Robert S 2008, The End of Cosmology, Scientific American.
7. Fripp, ibid.
The axis of 'narrative' previously discussed, with 'presence' and 'absence' at the poles, is prey to a very curious effect. These extremities are not mutually exclusive - they become more like each other than different. It’s as if they reach a critical point, then flip to a similar phase space. In one case, there is an absence of events, in the other there are too many events. Both positions render the narrative inoperative. In their differences, they produce the same effect.
Above, the 'absence of narrative' was examined more closely than the 'presence of narrative', but what is happening at the other pole, what does it mean to be 'hyper-narrative'? But let's go further; can we simply amplify the qualities of the definition above? If so, we arrive at: 'a very large number of events (infinite?), in a very complex organization (fractal?), that either makes the medium exclusive or overpowers it?. Isn't this the medium rendering the events inert? This is obliterates the manageable, and so, whoosh, the narrative has vanished - and in its 'hyper' state!....
.....and I just wanted to doodle at my piano!
My thanks to Josephine Scicluna for her patience and clarity in editing this essay.