Mnemonics (from the interview with Sahlan Momo, Rome 1989)

The technical framework in no way dictates the stylistic or structural conception. I find that working on two levels simultaneously, the foreground of the immediately perceived inharmonic sounds, and the background structure in terms of generating dyads, is particularly suitable for a hierarchic kind of structuring, and I am irrationally drawn to and totally convinced by that kind of musical thinking. To me, complex hierarchic structures in musical composition, and in other kinds of human creation as well, for that matter, are what give a work vitality, a renewed sense of significance each time you hear it. The listener needn’t be consciously aware of the levels of structure, but it is the composer’s responsibility to communicate that complexity in such a way that the listener’s intuition can grab onto it. The composer himself may be only intuitively aware of what he’s doing, but his is a trained intuition, or if you prefer, an experienced intuition, that sets about creating opportunities for the realization of those kinds of structures. I’m not by any means advocating that structure is the beall and endall of musical composition. What I am very much assuming is that it all begins with a musical idea or conception in which the composer’s imagination sees opportunities for various kinds of development. Look at the possibilities in Diabelli’s little waltz, for example.

 

From what you’ve said so far, it’s clear that your concentrating on building musical structure in terms of dyads is a direct result of using pairs of pitches to generate inharmonic sounds. Which, then, comes first in your music, the electronic sounds or the dyad structure?

 

Well, after many years experience, I know which dyads produce which kinds of sounds, and in order to get the sounds I want, I know I have to write certain dyads; on the other hand, in developing the dyad structure I’m continually moving into new timbral possibilities which suggest further ideas and ways of going about developing or unfolding the composition, so it’s sort of a “chicken or the egg” situation. Which is where I want to be anyway, the timbre and pitch structure so well integrated that they are totally interdependent.

 

I know that you’ve been developing a system for working out the precise details of your musical structure in terms of dyads. Would you describe how you developed the system and its major features?

 

That could be a long answer, but I’ll try and boil it down to the essentials. In my pieces from MNEMONICS for violin & computer onward, or say 1982 onward, I began to make use of an interesting phenomenon: I could derive enormous variety of sound from the same small group of pitches, merely by reusing those same pitches in different dyadic associations; that is with pitches A, B, C, D, E, F I have available the dyads AB, CD, EF; AC, BE, DF; AD, BF, CE; etc. not to mention the fact that, as far as the generated sound spectrum is concerned, there is an enormous difference between, for example, a minor 7th as a generating dyad, and the same two pitches articulated as an octave and a minor 7th, or, for that matter, the same two pitches used as a major 9th, etc. ...

 

MNEMONICS uses this property as a means for prolonging a group of notes on a local level; SEQUENCE SYMBOLS (for computer solo) is the first piece to use this property in a rigorous but limited way as the basis for an entire composition. Between those two works came the computer pieces IN WINTER SHINE, realized at M.I.T. in 1983, which extends my earlier tentative explorations of the idea to cover entire sections of the piece, and SONGS FROM A SPIRAL TREE a non computer work for soprano, flute and harp (a protein piece, as Lansky would say), each of whose 5 parts explores a variety of approaches to dyad construction and manipulation independent of their electronic sound generative function. It was during SPIRAL TREE that I arrived at the full generalization of the system, and in fact the reason SEQUENCE SYMBOLS is a rigorous application of these ideas is because work on SPIRAL TREE was interrupted by the commission that eventually produced SEQUENCE SYMBOLS. ORO, ARGENTO & LEGNO for flute and computer is a full blown use of the dyad system, aided in large part by my having become totally fascinated with the Prolog programming language which turned out to be the exactly right tool for developing the considerable complexities of the system...

 

The dyad system operates on the interaction of two major and complementary principles: given a group of notes ( I use 6 at a time) you can:

 

1. keep the pitch content constant while changing the intervals (the dyads) by which the pitches are articulated, or 2. keep the interval (dyad) content constant while changing the pitches that articulate them.

 

So, with my 6note groups, divided into three intervals (dyads), I can rearrange the pitches into 15 (sometimes less) different dyad combinations, using principle 1 above. Each of these 15 I call a group. Each group, by principle 2, can assume upwards of 38 different forms, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on symmetry, each of which I call a type. Each type in its turn can be subjected to principle 1 to find its 15 groups, each of which can generate types, and so on. Oh, yes, don’t forget that each type has 12 transpositions, so I am dealing with an enormous reservoir of musical material for each group, typically 456 6note conglomerates. It is convenient to load several batches of 456 into a single database for elaboration within a Prolog environment. Each type will have its characteristic sound quality, its flavor as I like to think of it, and each group will have its characteristic means of articulation: there’s an enormous musical difference if 6 notes are articulated as a major third, major second and tritone, or as a minor second, a major second and a perfect fourth. And more obviously there will be even greater musical differences between a minor third, major second and minor second played as CEb, EF#, C#D, and played as F#A, EbF, CDb, not to mention such variants as whether the minor 3rd is played as a major 6th, the minor 2nd as an octave and a minor 9th, etc. Order of articulation of the dyads is not fixed, on the contrary: since the order can affect how and if the groups are perceived as units, the possibility of changing the order to suit particular local or global situations is of extreme importance.

 

Obviously you will have different types generating identical groups, and different groups generating identical types, but this is ideal for setting up webs of group or type progressions and, in a sense, “modulating” from one group’s area to another’s via a type in common. There are a lot of potential parallels to the power and subtlety of tonal organization without in any way invoking or referring to diatonicism and tonal functioning.

 

You refer often to perception, how things sound, notwithstanding your emphasis on building structure. Do you see any conflict in these two aspects of your work?

 

Not at all. In fact, as I mentioned before, the musical idea is the real origin of it, a hearing of something which just has to be expressed. My way of using the dyad system captures for me the way I hear, and it also permits me to explore in a coherent fashion the potential expression that is present in musical ideas. My dyad system is fundamentally an ears first approach, or bottom up, as they say in the digital world. The advantage to working within a system is that you can consciously develop those complex hierarchical structures which create opportunities for musical intuition to expand. The structural aspect of things can go a long way toward eliminating that sense of arbitrariness which is all too evident in so many purely “intuitive” pieces, as well as forcing the composer to look critically at the products of his intuition, his musical fantasy. There can be as much fantasy, invention and intuition in the creating of a dynamic, organic structure as there is in the imagining of purely musical ideas. The best pieces, I think, will always exhibit a high degree of blend of structure and idea: in fact, the two will be so intertwined that the idea will seem structure and the structure will seem idea.

 

Wouldn’t so rigorously defined a system tend to produce the same kind of music, that is, wouldn’t anybody who adopts the dyad system wind up sounding like Dashow?

 

By no means. Anybody who sounds like me might perhaps be adopting my style as a point of departure, but that has nothing to do with the system. It should be emphasized that my dyad system in no way constrains me to write in any particular style: it is definitely not ideology, dogma or religion! It is a very flexible general framework, or ground, or foundation if you like, that can provide a coherent basis for generating groups of notes whose relationships depend only on the composer's powers of invention, and which may be to any degree of complexity the composer desires within the framework, exactly parallel to working within classic systems such as tonality or serialism. It will be, after all, the kind of articulation, rhythm shaping, phrasing, sense of timing... those sensual qualities that are so perceptually dominant, yet so impossible to pin down with any precision... that will determine the composer's style and specific approach. The dyad system can stimulate a variety of ways of hearing and making music through its possibilities and, equally as important, through its limitations. It is my feeling that coming to grips with the basic principles of the system can produce many different kinds of viable musical structures and, most importantly, many different kinds of aesthetic, or styles.

 

I take it, then, that the instrumental parts of such pieces as MNEMONICS and ORO, ARGENTO & LEGNO reflect one level of composition, that is the dyad structure, while the computer part is the development and elaboration of that structure through the inharmonic chordspectra.

 

Exactly. Those pieces as well as the earlier pieces, A WAY OF STAYING, SECOND VOYAGE and EFFETTI COLLATERAL! all work with the same general principle of "inharmonic harmonizations" of specific dyads (or trichords in some cases) in the soloist's part. Each piece organizes the pitches differently, each has its own rhythm of development, selection and mixing of sounds derived from the dyad structure. Generally, the soloist articulates the pitch structure and its development, phrases are constructed in such a way as to confirm or not common tone relationships between successive groupings and especially to maintain the sense of long line that unifies the work despite its often abrupt textural changes or interruptions; the electronic sounds are generated by the dyads, many of the specific sounds chosen are those that create particularly interesting blends with the solo instrument, and in fact since certain sounds go better with, say, the flute than with a violin, the pitches must be so structured as to permit the emergence of those dyads that generate the appropriate sounds...

 

... which would ensure another level of integration, the fact that the live solo instrument's timbre directly influences the compositional structure via the electronic sounds.

 

That's right, and in fact while ORO, ARGENTO & LEGNO is an extremely rigorous application of both the dyad system and the generating dyad principle for the electronic sounds, the flutist has to play 3 different instruments whose timbres are obviously related but significantly different, and these differences are reflected in the greater variety of sounds in the piece as a whole. But I think that the perception that the sounds are directly derived from the pitch structure of the flute part provides a strong sense of unity, or better, of belonging together, across the differences.

 

Your pieces with instruments seem to have somewhat traditional forms, notwithstanding the newness of your timbres and your approach to structural integration: large sections of contrasting tempi that suggest the classic or romantic concerto; but your pieces for comp ter solo are much freer, less rigid, if I may say so, in formal design  why is this?

 

Well, for the instrumental pieces I like to take into consideration the presence of the performer, his/her involvement in the work  a sort of dialogue between me and the soloist which the soloist then interprets for the audience. In this respect I think the largescale tempo contrasts as perfected by the classic concerto has proved to be robust, viable, and still convincing. But in the classic concerto these contrasts are usually supported in some way by the structural functions of the tonal system. My dyad system produces a considerably different kind of structural functioning, and the way the familiar tempo contrasts are evolved out of, or rather integrated into, these structures has nothing whatsoever to do with the typical formal relationships you find in conventional tonal models. While you might say that the general shape of my pieces for solo acoustic instruments and computer have a sort of family resemblance to the classic forms (granduncle and grandnephew, perhaps?), the internal form of each major section is made up of a greater variety of tempo and rhythmic contrasts than you usually find in the older forms. I construct each large section with my own particular sense of pacing, development, shape and especially how the section contributes to the sense of the whole work.

 

How would you describe the sense or shape of your pieces?

 

Both MNEMONICS and ORO, ARGENTO & LEGNO have an overall shape or curve which you might imagine as high tension or concentrated energy discharging over time; but this curve is by no means a single dimensioned descent, rather there are waves of change of direction as the sense of overall energy settles to a lower level; each major section participates in or rather defines part of the curve, while the details of each section, especially its phrasing and rhythm, define the specific way in which the section functions within the fluctuating curve. Actually, the overall shape of SEQUENCE SYMBOLS is a more concentrated version of this form but with more interruptions and immediate contrasts which substitute for the always present contrast between acoustic soloist and electronic sounds.

 

You refer often to contrast; this is an important aspect of your musical conceptions?

 

Absolutely. Contrasts do several things: throw into relief various aspects of the contrasting ideas, often bringing to light surprising and interesting details; they create tensions on various levels, or in various dimensions, which can be worked out or not and how they are worked out is fundamental for the piece; contrasts suggest ambiguities which again can be resolved or left for multidimensional developments or interpretations, and so on. I think if I had to try and analytically describe my music with some sort of notion valid in the large as well as for the details, I would talk in terms of the interactions of the effects of contrasts at various levels, how they add up, what sort of energy they provide, where their implications direct the progress of the piece.

 

Is this all tied in some way to your systematic approach to composition?

 

Only indirectly. I don't think it's accurate to say that my approach to music is "systematic", in the pejorative sense of the word; I am no more nor less systematic than any composer who works with tonality, serialism or the I Ching. I think it is an indication of profound musical ignorance to classify tonal music as being the great triumph of "intuitive" composition, while any effort to provide coherent control over a wider range of musical materials is considered sterile intellectualism. In fact, we are talking now of the instinctive, nonsystematic part of my work, my "intuitive" sense of form, energy, musical thought. I strongly believe that you must have a good deal of both intuition and a conscious way of developing that intuition which can lead to further intuitions which you wouldn't have had without that development. The intuition provides the tip of the iceberg, the development of that intuition gets you a good deal of the rest of it. As I have commented elsewhere, structure without the musicalpoetic idea is sterile; but the poetic idea without structure is flaccid selfindulgence.

 

 

 

 

 

CONNECT with James Dashow

© RAVELLO RECORDS LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Ravello Records is the contemporary classical label imprint of audio production house PARMA Recordings. Dedicated to highlighting forward thinking composers and musicians from around the world, the New England-based label's eclectic catalog offers listeners a cross-section of today's up-and-coming innovators in orchestral, chamber, and experimental music.

 

www.ravellorecords.com

223 Lafayette Road

North Hampton NH 03862

 

PRESS INQUIRIES

press (at) parmarecordings.com

603.758.1718 x 151