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Layers upon layers: Alex Raineri makes big music at Mt Macedon

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Coming up next week in the beautiful Mount Macedon, on the northern outskirts of Melbourne, Queensland pianist Alex Raineri will be popping down to present an extraordinary concert of new music, with no less than five world premieres , interspersed with some music of Bach, and of Ravel, and ending with phenomenally virtuosic work of Beat Furrer, Phasma in its Australian premiere.

Alex joined me on the show this week to talk about the concert, together with Melbourne composer Samuel Smith, whose work will be part of Alex's programme next week. They chatted about the whole process of creating new music in collaboration between composer and performer, and the many different dynamics that this enables and the different opportunities this creates for each to work differently than they might otherwise do. This dynamic and creative relationship between composer and performer will undoubtedly be very much on show at Alex's concert.

A concert like this is a pretty potent reminder of just how diverse music can be – not just because of the range of repertoire that Alex has assembled, but because of the natures of many of the pieces themselves and their composers, who create works that approach the possibilities of musical sound from so many perspectives and it was some of the ideas that those composers have brought to the music banquet table that helped shape the rest of music on tonight's show.

Perhaps the theme that bound those ideas in the pieces I brought to you tonight was the notion of music as something that is formed out of many layers and dimensions of sound, and it is often these interactions of layers – vertically forming and reforming – that creates the music's horizontal trajectory as well.

Samuel Smith's Dead Oceans was a pretty phenomenal example of this. Composed for string quartet, it is a powerful work, its title derived from a line from Bob Dylan, and a reflection on the vulnerability and precarious futures of our oceans and environment, a work where its layers of sound form continually shifting harmonies, some of them, as Samuel explained in our interview, formed through synthetic processes built with sine-tones in his studio, others through drawing on spectral system of harmonics, all translated into this fierce and gripping work that was premiered last year at the Bendigo International Festival for Exploratory Music.

It's one example of what I mean by music and its layers. In the four instruments you can almost hear the flow of layers of ocean, thrown into turmoil and rage by the damage that the human world has dealt them. But as those layers surge and flow, they form those continually unstable harmonies and it is ultimately those harmonies that seem define the flow. The relationship between up/down and across becomes fused.

Liam Flenady's braneworlds, creates its layers in a very different way. It is composed for seven musicians, divided into four sub-groups who each perform more or less independently of each other, at times coming into a degree of synchronicity with another group but often not. The work is built on the idea of a multi-dimensional universe in which we, as humans, only ever experience a certain slither – a 'brane' – of its dimensional possibilities. For us, it is in the form of spatial and temporal dimensions that, in our understanding of reality, come together. But in other realities they might not, or maybe other dimensions, of which we are have no knowledge, join in. This concept is what the music explores through the interactions, and separateness, of its four groups: flute; flute and percussion; clarinet and piano; and electric guitar and cello. Each musician has their own individual score, and an overall form scheme provides time cues for the entries, along with various directions about articulation and playing techniques, to be deployed by that musician in different 'regions' of the piece. It results in a work where the different parameters of different musical worlds develop in their own domains, while an overall structure, unseen by each, holds them all together.

Liam's piece is a nice metaphor for how we can think about the possibilities of music, where so many of its dimensions – the pitches of its notes, their durations, the ways of articulating them, how loudly they are played – can interact with each other in so many rich and changing ways. In conventional music these are so often defined in such limited ways, and their behaviour together is often quite static throughout large chunks of a piece of music, or even the entire piece – as if they are all working together to tell the one story.

For the second half of the show, I focussed particularly on music that explores other possibilities in those relationships.

Chris Dench's music is often connected with what has become known as the 'New Complexity' school of music – music which grew in to the status of a genre or label somewhere around the 1980s, although the ideas it embraced were flourishing certainly well before then. His small piece for piano, flex for AR, composed for Alex Raineri and being performed in an extended new version at next week's concert opened tonight's show.

'New Complexity' refers to an approach to music where all the parameters of sound – the pitch, the duration, the tempi, the dynamics, the timbre, the density of harmony and polyphony – all these things are being constantly developed alongside one another, as equal, and equally active, partners in the composition. This is in stark contrast to, for example, a conventional song, where these relationships are more stable, and a piece might stay at the same dynamic level, or keep the same harmony, or have a similar rhythmic pattern, over a stretch of several notes. In the pieces of the New Complexity school, these elements are all intricately and constantly manipulated.

It can result on music where there are masses of layers of musical activity, usually highly atonal, and in scores where the notation is extremely dense as every note has every one of its parameters precisely defined, with intricate divisions of microtonal pitch, and rhythmic exactitude, all carefully, meticulously notated.

Chris Dench's First Symphony is an early example of this approach to composition, but one that is particularly interesting because of its composer's search for music that not only explored these possibilities of complexity, but that did so in a way that had a richness of timbre and texture, qualities that had impressed him in the music of Alexander Scriabin and Yuji Takahashi respectively, giving the music the vibrant sense of harmony that he felt had been lacking in much of the music that had emerged amongst the Darmstadt serialists who similarly tried to work with all these musical parameters and elements as equal components of a composition, but through their own systems of ordering them into different sequences, or composers like John Cage, who ordered them through applying chance operations such as tossing coins and consulting the I Ching.

The First Symphony is dense and mercurial with its activity in all these layers of sound, never resting but always holding you in its constantly shape-shifting place. It had a hugely controversial start to life when it was first performed in 1980 but now, almost forty years later, we can hear in it all the vitality of internal motion and commotion that makes the work so absorbing, where the magnificence of the forest is revealed through the unstoppable fertility of its trees.

Those Darmstadt serialists I just mentioned of course included, and ultimately largely revolved around, Karlheinz Stockhausen who explored these ideas of ordering equally valued musical elements in many different ways, but one off-shoot of his belief in that equity was a system of composition that he called 'point music', where each note was considered a complete entity in its own right by its unique structure of these various elements of pitch, duration, timbre, attack, and dynamics.

But for him this was not just about an academic concept of musical organisation – it was about the nature of the cosmos: the stars and galaxies of the night sky that appear to us as tiny dots but are each a totality of complex mass and energy, united by common laws of physics but all distinct.

This was the concept that he attempted to convey in his huge orchestral work PUNKTE, which he first composed in 1952, and then drastically revised in 1962 and then continued to refine for over 30 years after that. During those first ten years in particular, the work had changed from one of small distinct points to one where hosts of notes formed around those points, creating formations that each has its own distinct timbre, its own distinct progression from nucleus to spectrum or from spectrum to nucleus.

When you listen to this work, listen first to the pauses that Stockhausen places after the first few clusters of sound. They're there to give you time to reflect, for a brief moment, on what you have heard. It provides you with a guide of how to listen to the whole work, as these pauses become shorter and less frequent, and the work develops into what Stockhausen described as a huge melody of timbre.

It is comprised of 144 of the musical clusters, built out of their multiplicity of points, like the atoms that make up a molecule, or the stars that make up a star cluster: short envelopes of sound that contain their own inner life as pitches, timbral structures, dynamics, and durational patterns, all shift uniquely within them, and as the tempi between them change constantly. Stockhausen created different patterns and systems for shaping these shifting parameters and the various permutations and combinations that these different patterns generated is what ultimately enabled him to create a work of such huge proportions as this, with its separate, distinct, but nevertheless ultimately connected, points. Within that structure he would create 'windows' that would pierce into, or rub out some of its denser moments and thus add greater diversity to the range of sounds the work was able to form, ad that its audience is able to hear, each of them meticulously, uniquely, shaped.

Just like the stars of a night sky, it can at first look like a bunch of very similar dots. But look more closely and you see just how hugely diverse they are and how interesting the structure of each one is. On the show this week, I played you the very last version of the work, which contains all the changes Stockhausen made up until 1992, when he finally felt he had really finished working on the piece.

This recording of PUNKTE, available exclusively from the Stockhausen Foundation for Music includes short talks about the work and its structure, by the composer, in both English and German.

Layers, dimensions, parameters, points, hosts - they are all part of the structure of what we and the world, and the worlds beyond this one, are. Music, perhaps more than anything - certainly more than our eyes, and probably in some ways even more than our minds - allows us to tap into the enormity of the parts, and the endless diversity of wholes, that they can create. As Stockhausen has said, we can never really comprehend the universe - but we can listen to it in music.

Don't forget that you can listen back to the show and check out the playlist right here on the website!