Ten years have passed since I wrote beneath the veil of silence. I remember at the time I was reading Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, which is where I found the title for my piece. The fact that I was reading a book entitled The Order of Things says something about my preoccupation at the time – order.
This preoccupation derived mainly from a fascination with the visual patterns of nature, in particular patterns found in trees and other flora, as well as patterns found in the movement of water in all its forms. There must, I thought, be a link between order and beauty; and perhaps by exploring this relationship I might also have a chance of making something beautiful.
The phrase beneath the veil of silence also refers to nature. Specifically, the idea that nature contains a message, it is trying to tell us something, but it is mute and unable to speak directly. Hence the veil – something is concealed from our view, even though we are aware of its presence.
The order of beneath the veil of silence is also intentionally hidden from view; it resides at a deep level in the structure of the piece. The surface we hear is laced with signs that refer to this deep structure but always in a more or less obscure way. Hopefully, the result is a sense of order – a feeling that something is going on in the background, without our ever being sure exactly what.
There are two main structural layers to the piece – one that determines the pitch organisation and one that determines the temporal/rhythmic design of the composition. These two conceptually unrelated layers, both products of reiterative processes, are superimposed and interact with each other; in particular, the rhythmic design “smudges” the previously almost geometrically perfect pitch design, shifting elements left and right, and unpicking vertical pitch configurations.
The “fleshing out” of this structural skeleton, although to some extent elaborating material from the skeleton itself, was largely an act of imagination/fantasy. Perhaps this is why the timbral aspect of the piece is so important. It is really in the interaction of the various instrumental combinations that the “poetry” of the piece (if it exists) is located. Thus following timbral indications, such as sul tasto or sul ponticello, are just as important as playing the right note at the right time; and being clear about how each part fits together, and what each part contributes to the combined timbre of the ensemble, is critical to performing the piece convincingly.
Listening to beneath the veil of silence now, I can hear that I was preoccupied with a post-serial musical idiom in the early 1990s. This is hardly surprising considering my teachers we very much of the “Darmstadt” generation and heavily influenced by serialism. In recent years, I have moved away from this approach to composing, but the critical role of timbre and the search for the relationship between order and beauty are two things that remain from the early period. There are very few pieces written before beneath the veil of silence that I would now offer for performance, so this work is very much a starting point, the first step down a path that leads who knows where…
Human beings have a fragile relationship with reality: our beliefs are formed from a disordered stream of sensory impressions that flood our synapses. Although our brain is normally very good at packaging this into something that can get us through the day, certain pathological circumstances reveal the tenuous nature of reality. Blindsight is a condition in which a patient cannot “see” visual stimuli, and yet their body instinctively senses and reacts to them. This suggested a musical image: the two winds recite simple chordal gestures, which the strings reflect through a distorting mirror — “sensing” without “seeing”. The piano acts as an intensifying agent, sending flurrying signals down tangled pathways, and releasing static charges through the system.
blindsight was written for the Pierrot Lunaire Ensemble Vienna, as part of the Sammlung Essl Music Series 2009.
The derailleur is that piece of bicycle componentry which crudely knocks the chain from one sprocket or chain-ring to another, resulting in a higher or lower gear. The sensation experienced on a rider’s first encounter with the derailleur is strange: one finds oneself pedalling more or less to cover the same distance, but, once one is aware of the derailleur’s benefits, the feeling is one of control over gradient, surface and the elements. The derailleur is directly analogous in music to the phenomenon of metric modulation, a device pioneered in complex forms by Elliott Carter. In derailleurs, metric modulation is used in tutti passages to express ritardando and accelerando with a jumpy, cog-changing precision. Solo sections stand in contrast by allowing individual players the freedom to impose their own subjectivity on the concepts of slowing down and speeding up.
derailleurs was premiered at the Nelson Composers Workshop in 2001. It was awarded First Prize in the Young Composers Competition at 2002 Asian Composers League in Seoul, Korea and received a concert performance by Stroma in Auckland in 2003.