‘sympathetic error’, fragile architecture

I was commissioned by Ensemble musikFabrik to write solo works for two musicians of the group: Axis Mundi for solo bassoon, for Alban Wesly, and The Green Lion eats the Sun for double-bell euphonium, for Melvyn Poore on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday.  Both works explore ideas connected to shamanic journeying or alchemical transformation touching on the very ancient idea of sound as a vehicle for communication with other worlds or for enabling altered states.  An intense dream I had in 2011 gave me some points of orientation for both solo pieces.

In these works, I am exploring morphologies that belong to dream states – collage, episodic slices in time, organic elaborations of details that bifurcate in unexpected ways. There is an emphasis on the tactile, on the haptic, in which intimacy and emotional excess find musical form in gestures of irregular formation. The temporal landscapes of the pieces are in continuous flux, sometimes accelerating or slowing, at other times stilling, so that time is experienced as a kind of highly volatile liquid-matter – fluctuating, flowing and spilling out, or halting, distending and pooling in to-and-fro movements. The emphasis is on an experiential journeying through sensory states arrived at through both real and imaginary bodily conjunctions that accommodate and amplify juncture points, nodes of resistance or of ease in the physical structures of the musical instruments.

Rather than working with a pre-fabricated architectural plan or a systematised method that ‘logically’ determines the details, here, I am working in slow, labour-intensive ways which prioritise waiting, watching, and listening out for things that appear in my ‘peripheral vision’. If this is a ‘strategy’ for composition, it is something fragile, it is ‘hands-on’, it involves micro-level participation rather than delegation of decision-making, it is about ‘attention’, ‘wanting’, ‘receiving’, ‘deciding’, ‘making’ and also involves redundancy, failure and wasted effort. What I find interesting about the element of failure is the way traces of discarded efforts still find their way into the work – there is a reverse archaeological dimension to the process of composition whereby earlier ‘ruins’ are recycled to build up new forms. The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto has spoken about ‘sympathetic error’ in which so-called mistakes lead to new design solutions. My working process for these pieces leaves a lot of room for this uncertainty principle (!) For me, this way of composing is a conversation between different layers of time leaving ‘margins for error’ in terms of what eventually surfaces. There is an engagement with the heterogeneous qualities of sonic materials as opposed to the homogenising impulse of ‘classical’ instrumental virtuosity. A different kind of virtuosity ensues as the performer negotiates more unfamiliar combinations of touch and breath to coax a result. Close listening to so-called ‘imperfections’ where sounds catch, distort, break and breathe, guides a sensual process of creating a music which has the fragile and violently metamorphosing architecture of dream states.

Axis Mundi (2012), for solo bassoon

Images came to me in a dream: I saw a dead tree with dessicated bark and as I watched, the cracks and hollows filled with insects and larvae. Birds began feeding and breeding until the whole tree was a singing mass of fluttering creatures.

I used this dream sequence as an ‘emotional key’ for elaborating the idea of the bassoon as a ‘singing tree’ exploiting the natural irregularities of intonation and timbre in the instrument. Together with Alban Wesley, I investigated ways of organizing a conception of bassoon acoustics coupled with an unorthodox technical approach so that many differently coloured tones and sound-complexes are arranged into scales that have rather localized positions within the resonating tube of the instrument. There is the materiality of tree and reed and metal: a hollowed-out log is shaped to emphasise particular acoustical properties; a cane reed is cut and scraped to perform against tongue and lips; a metal key system extends the reach of fingers to produce new and more complex combinations of touch. Elemental matter produces new messages yet still remembers its origins in the intimate details of this interior landscape of sound.

The title ‘Axis Mundi’ refers to the idea of a central pole extending between Heaven and Earth which can be found in many cultures and religions. One of the best known of these is Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology, whose roots, trunk and branches connect multiple realms of existence. Similarly, in Siberian shamanic cultures, the world tree represents a kind of ladder between lower, middle and upper worlds. Symbolic representations of the tree in the form of a ceremonial staff, a column of smoke or the vibrations of a drum, act as a ritual axis enabling the shaman to enter into states of non-ordinary reality to communicate with animal spirits and other sources of power.

The Green Lion eats the Sun (2012-13), for solo double bell euphonium

 As I watched, a larval creature at the base of tree transformed into a scorpion, then a turtle, a wombat and finally a ravenous-looking mountain lion. I tried to hide from it in a garden shed but its powerful paws demolished the building and it moved to devour me.

from J.D. Mylius, Philosophia reformata (1622)

from J.D. Mylius, Philosophia reformata (1622)

The Green Lion eats the Sun was written especially for Melvyn Poore and the double-bell euphonium which he developed with the instrument builder Gottfried Büchel during 2011-12.

‘The Green Lion Devouring the Sun’ is one of the classic images of alchemy with a great variety of interpretations as to its possible meaning. The green lion usually represents a powerfully volatile corrosive agent (aqua regis) which swallows seven metals, even dissolving gold in a process of purification.

The euphonium solo explores an interplay and transference of vibrations between the musician’s body and the many chambers of the instruments: voice, lips and reeds create sounds that interact inside the euphonium’s tubing and bells in a turbulent landscape of frictions, activating internal nodes of vibration (‘interior stars’) and combining to bring about a ‘roar’.

‘Green Lion Eating the Sun’ illustration from the Rosarium Philosophorum (1550)

‘Green Lion Eating the Sun’ illustration from the Rosarium Philosophorum (1550)

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Axis Mundi (2012-14)

Axis Mundi: Tree of Joy, Tree of Sorrow (2010), artist book by Stephan Erasmus medium: ink on paper, 50x33x33cm, Gallery Brundyn + Gonsalves
http://www.stephanerasmus.com/

AXIS MUNDI (2012-14) for solo bassoon
Commissioned by Ensemble musikFabrik through Kunststiftung NRW. Dedicated to Alban Wesly.

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Images came to me in a dream: I saw a dead tree with dessicated bark and as I watched, the cracks and hollows filled with insects and larvae. Birds began feeding and breeding until the whole tree was a singing mass of fluttering creatures.

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The symbol of the ‘Axis Mundi’ as a central pole extending between Heaven and Earth can be found in many cultures and religions. One of the best known of these is Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology, whose roots, trunk and branches connect multiple realms of existence. Similarly, in Siberian shamanic cultures, the world tree represents a kind of ladder between lower, middle and upper worlds. Symbolic representations of the tree in the form of a ceremonial staff, a column of smoke or the vibrations of a drum, act as a ritual axis enabling the shaman to enter into states of non-ordinary reality to communicate with animal spirits and other sources of power.
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Alban Wesly visited me in Manchester on 23 March 2012 to demonstrate the bassoon: the instrument is a long wooden tube that doubles back on itself, punctuated by a great number of holes and keys. The keys might be thought of as a quite complex ‘management system’ to resolve a natural out-of-tuneness but it was precisely the irregularities of intonation and colour in the bassoon that attracted my attention. Alban and I found a way of organising sounds which takes an ‘inside-out’ view of the instrument: in thinking about each hole as a venting point governing the cycles of vibration inside the instrument, and then subtly changing the interaction of these vibrations by opening and closing parts of the acoustic chamber below the open hole, we arrived at a series of irregular scales. These scales are made up of differently sized microtonal intervals and changing ‘behaviours’. There are tones expressed in distinct timbres from bright to dark to fuzzy, and complex multiphonics ranging from highly dissonant rolling tones and roaring frictions to consonant harmonies. Some of the sounds are highly localised, gloriously emerging from the bell at the top of the bassoon or circulating in quite specific regions of the tube. These sonic ‘knots’ inside the vibrating hollow tube of the instrument form the musical material of Axis Mundi. The breath of the musician travelling the hidden pathways across and through these knots activates the many voices of a ‘singing tree’.