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Vertigo Floor 5. This is the text of the talk given us by Iain Matheson


Catch the Moments As They Fly 1'08"

Wouter has been kind enough to invite me to talk about my music. Apart from composing it I don't know much about my music: but I'll say a few things about music generally, and let you hear some examples. I'm no expert on architecture, so I'll stick with music and leave you to make your own links between the two ways of making. Only to mention a couple of architects: Adolf Loos, who had a piece of music written as a birthday present for his 60th birthday, by Anton Webern, one of the most influential 20th century composers: and Iannis Xenakis, who is known in the music world as a composer: people are surprised to learn that he also made architecture, working especially with Le Corbusier.

Music is a very big thing. I come from the little corner of it which used to be called "Classical Music" and now goes by various names: New Music, Contemporary, Composed Music, Serious Music - the bit of music that claims to share the same tradition as Bach and Mozart. So what I say is in that context; and in the context of music firstly for instruments, not singers. Western classical music began with chants composed by priests and monks, a tool for the church to convey the words of the gospel: but  instrumental music soon appeared, emphasising not words but sounds. Words add a different layer of meaning: even without sung words, just giving a title to a piece of music changes it; especially if we hear the title before the music - it affects what we expect to hear. If we're not careful, a title will dictate how we should listen. Call a piece “Daffodils” or “Song Without Words” or “Twelve Notes for Three Players” or “The Balance Between Democracy and Tyranny”... and you'd hear it quite differently. [Moonlight Sonata... The Planets... Death and the Maiden...]  But I find neutral titles like Trio #1 or Untitled, unsatisfactory too: an opportunity missed. Titles are a way to suggest a way of listening to unfamiliar music.

A composer has to think about a lot of things: what notes to write, how long and how loud they should be, what instrument should play each note; and the tiny ambiguous relationships between all these things. One thing composers should not try to do, it seems to me, is to tell listeners how to listen to their music: as if there was just one authorised meaning, as if it's the composer's job to bully their audience into hearing the music in the “correct” way. There's no “correct” way to listen to the music I write. People have described it as "Like planets spinning in space", "like water dripping into a glass", "the sound of tree-frogs"... There will be as many ways of listening, as there are people in this room, and that's as it should be. 

The piece we heard at the start does have a title: It's called Catch The Moments As They Fly, played by the NZ clarinet quartet. It was a chance to write for four identical instruments, which doesn't happen very often. As you heard it's just 1'00" long. When I begin a piece I want to know two things: how long it's to be: and what instruments are available: on this occasion I was told both things. The title comes from a poem by Robert Burns: it seemed to me to suggest a way of listening to very short pieces of music. All music is made of moments; short pieces make each moment somehow more valuable, because in such a tiny piece moments are rare and precious. 1'00" is a good length of piece to write; it forces a composer to be very clear. But it doesn't allow for much subtlety.

Most of my music is a little longer than 1'00, and its shape is correspondingly a bit more complex. Music’s energy comes not so much from the emotive connotations of a tune or a chord, but from its overall shape. Writing music is about making a shape which balances predictability and surprise. Too predictable, and it becomes boring; too surprising, and it becomes incoherent. To put it another way, it’s about Continuity - gradual change: and Disruption  - interrupting whatever change was in progress. That can mean interrupting slow quiet music with loud fast notes, or the reverse: or a sudden silence dropped unpredictably into a pool of notes. Musical shapes may involve repetitions of all sorts: symmetries, golden sections.

I'd like to play you part of a longer piece. It lasts about 10'00"; I think we'll have time to hear 5'00". This is a recording of the first performance; what the audience knew then were the things I thought important – the instruments involved - horn, violin, piano: the title, When Suddenly: and a short programme note which said : "As in life, so in music, events come along more or less at random; things repeat, or not, when you least expect them to".

When Suddenly (10'00") 5'00"

Music is one big metaphor: what the philosopher Roger Scruton calls "The irreducible metaphor” (Aesthetics of Music) - the idea that the notes of music move. Of course that's an illusion; they don’t literally move, they appear in time, one after the other. It’s our instinct to look for pattern (and perhaps meaning), which tries to find a relationship between isolated sounds, which we habitually call Movement. Musical “movement” is the result of changes over time of some parameter of sound, and our perception of these. These parameters include things like:

  1. Pitch: what notes are played (high/low etc) - single notes or chords
  2. Duration: how long a note lasts (rhythm)
  3. Volume: loud/soft
  4. Location: left/right - the stereo “image” (another metaphor)
  5. Timbre: nasal/smooth - what instrument makes the sound - sound "colour"

Any particular piece of music is like a recipe, with an exact mix of these ingredients,  Pitch/Duration/Volume/Location/Timbre, to give the final flavour. Music is the measure of change in these aspects of sound, over time; a reminder that music takes time, the so-called “art of time” (Stravinsky). I'll say more about time later. A lot of music originates in dance - literal movement. Dance implies continuity of movement; and music picks up the shadow of this continuity, so that music’s “movements” appear continuous.

I'd like to play you part of another piece, for a larger ensemble: for piano solo and a small orchestra of about a dozen instruments. The pianist is Xenia Pestova, the orchestra is the Luxembourg Chamber orchestra. Once again it's a ten-minute piece, of which we'll hear about half. It's called Equal Parts.

Equal Parts (10'53") 5.00"

I thought it could be interesting to see what that music looks like when it's written down.  PDF  Music - maybe like architecture - has this intermediate stage: you write the piece with marks on paper which represent the sounds you hear in your head - you hand it over to performers - they carry out the instructions on the paper. It's not so direct as a painter with a canvas, or a poet with words; the composer needs performers to turn the music, from marks on paper, into sound. This written music - the score - is another metaphor of music - it pretends that music is a material object: just as we do when we talk about a "piece" of music.

Another tiny "piece", just over 1'00" - but a lot can happen in a minute. The instruments are violin and clarinet; written for and played by Wouter's brother Kees and his wife Tui. This one is called Bar Codes.   

Bar Codes 1'04"

All music is about the passage of time; how we perceive it, moving fast/slow, quite independently of what the clock says. Time is the basis of our emotional response to music/life; we use memory to compare how it is with how it was and make a guess about how it will be.  All composers are involved with organising Time, and expressing this human relation to Time, as they experience it; from composers in the mediaeval period, living in the days when calendars and clocks were just being invented -  through Bach and Beethoven and Bartok, writing music for a world gradually speeding up as it travels on horseback, in ships, cars, planes - to composers writing in the present day, living with atomic clocks, time zones, internet, 24-hour news, when life seems to move at different speeds in different directions simultaneously. At whatever time a composer is alive, Time becomes the “subject” of music; just as some artists say that the subject of their art is Paint, or poets, that the subject of their poetry is Language. 

To finish, I think we have time to hear the whole of this piece - 8'23" - played by the New Zealand String Quartet. It's called How Long Things Last.

How Long Things Last 8'23"

Thank you very much for having me here today.



IGM February 2014

Score of Equal Parts by Iain Matheson.


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