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The dialectic of dialogue

The Sound Barrier : Blog

When two musicians, or two strands of music, come together, what sort of relationship do they build with one another? We can, of course, describe their differences musically – describe the harmonies they create, the counterpoint, the ways one might work with the musical material of the other and how this moves back and forth between the two. But how much does this explain what sort of relationship is formed in the process? How much do those musical connections resemble and reflect, and even comment on, the sorts of connections me make between and within ourselves?

These are some of the questions I sought to explore on the latest edition of The Sound Barrier: questions which, as usual, I probably ultimately went nowhere near really answering.

The stage was set for the show with its opening work, Differing Dialogues by Melbourne composer Vincent Giles. Composed for live bass flute and multiple pre-recorded low flutes, the work navigates its way through a nexus of conversations, as the connections between the pre-recorded flutes shifts and as the live bass flute responds differently to this and to its own place in the conversation. In its five minutes, it captures, in its beauty and constantly kaleidoscopic web of low-flute colour, something of the forever-shifting nature of dialogue, and in a way the live flute is like a metaphor for the subjective human experience of dialogue, as a person seeks to find their place, and leave their mark, in a world which somehow lies beyond what they can control and which nevertheless is always shifting and laying down new challenges, new networks, new connections.

The relationships that develop within a piece of music, between the musicians, between their musical approaches, between their creative styles, can be a source of endless possibilities, especially in improvised music where those connections are dynamic, constantly developing and changing in real time. In the latest release from Immediata, where Rohan Drape and Anthony Pateras perform together on two vintage organs, we hear how immersive and timeless the emergent conversation can be. Ellesmere is the result of days of Rohan and Anthony collaborating and finding, in the interactions of the two organs on which they played, a rich work of shifting colour and texture, where stasis and movement merge: a piece that, precisely because of the conversations between the two instruments, and their intersections and separations, creates its own time-space, its own version of both duration and motion. It's very easy, when you let youself immerse into this music, to forget where and when you are.

Like all of the Immediata releases, Ellesmere comes with liner notes that outline a conversation between the collaborators and, in this case, also the score of the album's main track, which I played on tonight's show, 'St John's Wood'. It's a discussion that in some ways reflects the sort of musical territory that the piece navigates, where Anthony's precise questions about musical process are met with very poetic answers, steeped in imagery, from Rohan.

In a way it is almost like a metaphor for the the music's embrace of both form and spontaneity, of convergence and divergence, of unity and difference.Throughout the piece you hear how the sounds of each instrument, sometimes just microtonally separated, form harmonies and pulses as the mix of each creates a new sound space on a new sound time continuum.

As Rohan explained in my chat with him, the score that accompanies the recording is in fact a transcription of what they played - an artifact of the creative merging of these two artists and, in a way, the result is a testament to both the spontaneity of improvisation and the structure of score-based music, and their capacity to lead to one another where, in this case, the score emerges from the music that was played, rather than the other way around. A script emerging from dialogue, rather than dialogue from the script.

In Blended Metal by David Aguila on laptop electronics and Ethan Marks on trumpet, we hear a kind of meta-dialogue as a recording of a live improvisation with both artists then becomes the substance for more sampling and electronic manipulation afterwards. It builds a network a complex, layered, sound, shaping new reflections and commentary on the original complex dialogue. It is like the growth from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, as one voice leads to another and the coming together of the two, these two very different sound worlds of trumpet and electronics, gives birth to their own resolution. It's a brilliant, charismatic debut release from these exciting young artists.

The dialectic of dialogue, as one side meets another and forms new combinations, is in many ways at the core of Stockhausen's TWO COUPLES, a composition drawn from the electronic music of his opera FREITAG aus LICHT (FRIDAY from LIGHT). Throughout the opera, which focuses on the temptation of Eve the sexualised earth mother by Lucifer the anarchist archangel, a layer of electronic music plays beneath the action on stage, along with periodic 'sound scenes' of electronically manipulated sounds and voices, as different couples of humans, animals, machines, and objects play out highly sexualised activity. These couples could almost be staged representations of the 'desiring machines' of French philosopher-psychoanalyst pair Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the couplings of the creative force of human desire that connects to the world of production and machinery. Throughout the opera these couples exchange partners and produce new hybrids of themselves in a work that can be read as a complex and sophisticated metaphor for human development through dialogue and dialectic.

TWO COUPLES was created by Stockhausen as the soundtrack for the 2000 film In Absentia by the Brothers Quay, and here the sound scenes are drawn and combined from two of the twelve couples that are formed in the opera's first half: a pinball machine with pinball gamer, and a soccer ball with a foot. Beneath their music, beating and thrusting as vocoded male and female voices interact with the sounds of machines and objects, the layers of Eve's and Lucifer's musical formulas – the music that defines their character and shapes the overall musical structure and content of the opera – plays out slowly, like a bed on which all the other activity takes place. It is a work that presents a shifting, but always creative, dialogue, dark and yet enticing as human and mechanical creativity mesh and egg each other on, evolving, distorting.

All of these dialogues are, in a sense, representations of connection between something and something other. In Éliane Radigues Vice Versa etc … , however, we are presented with a more introspective notion of dialogue in a work that enables an virtually infinite number of possibilities of dialogue with self. The work consists of a few minutes of taped feedback, creating simple but rich microtonal timbres. The recording includes two CDs, one with the tape played forwards at four different speeds, the other with the same tape played backwards at the same four speeds. These tracks can then be played on two CD players simultaneously, in any combination, synced in whatever way the person managing the playback chooses. Each version will bring those feedback loops into different patterns of dialogue with each other, creating their own unique and uniquely nuanced new timbrel soundscapes. It is a wonderful example of the sort of creative fluidity with which Éliane Radigue was, and is, so skilled and at the same time it gives us a chance to note the ways in which music creates not only the opportunity for dialogue with the other, but also with itself: the ways music generates ideas and material that is internally dynamic and fertile, every bit as much as the person listening who must, like in the music, find their own ways of self reflection: not in the sense of passive observation, but in that of creative reconstruction.

Musical dialogue is a rich and varied thing – creative and confrontational, always generating something new and different as the patterns and paths of individuality and connection merge and diverge in their myriad ways. The music on tonight's show demonstrated the endless capacity of music to enable fascinating, imaginative, notions of dialogue: notions that show dialogue not just as the toing and froing of phrases, but as the part of the constant search for place, for connection between self and other, as each plays out the different influences and powers each has. These are notions of dialogue that are as essential to explain our own connections with one another and the world as they are to keeping music vibrant, alive, interesting, and new.

As always, you can check out both the audio and the playlist for tonight's show, right here on the PBS website!!

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