Melancholia, or A History of Composing a Percussion Quartet

There are two kinds of music: one that turns over its fat, pulpy belly and swallows you up like a mouthless wound, later brews you to death with its copious amount of shameful insides; and one that pulls an Amadeus wearing a Ludwig’s wig, flamboyant in its very expression and, like a pied piper, lures you into the purgatory of eternal memory of its indigestible tune.

At least for me it is so, and for the good ten years of my young, burgeoning composing career I had been writing music that for the most part sounded like the second type, and only when in the middle of composing Melancholia (2011-12) earlier this year I was suddenly aspired to attempt making a piece that sounds like the first type.

I do not know why it took me so long to arrive at this point, to realize a way of thinking and of composing which may be by far the most agreeable manner to my being as a person.  A pervert keen to self-exposition rather than self-exhibition, I have grown up through lusts for sinful acts of confessions and for declaration with a bleeding heart.  Psychological self-mutilation has become the source of euphoria in which I seek my imaginary audience whom I allow to penetrate my dignity with tender thrusts.  The lack of consistency in character made me who I am — the reflection of my dreams.

Perhaps I merely came around through a full-circle from where I started.  As a late bloomer, I started taking composition lesson (and yes, started actually composing) when I was seventeenth, under the tutelary of Ya-Ming Hsu (許雅民) in Taiwan.  My first three pieces were the totality of my portfolio for music school applications in 2002.  When I composed my third piece for the portfolio I had a fever, and with a tea table set next to my bed, I spent three sleepless day-nights scribbling down a thirteen-minute piece for pipa, Nan-guan sheng, violin, cello, and percussion.  Confused and congested, I disgorged Night Split (2002) which can barely be called a composition – it was a meaningless ramble written without being first heard yet stubbornly hardened through an operational structure within a strict gestural frame.  The writing itself was a torturous journey.  It felt like a lengthy, meticulous, and painful surgical cleansing of my whole sick body during which the viscid pus of my inflicted soul thickened inside my throbbing, burning head had excreted forth and smeared across a long stretch of sound that is inconsistently dissonant, blatantly out of control.  Although I am no score-burning maniac perfectionist, the piece is obviously something I would not show to anyone nowadays who knows my existence as a composer.  However, something in that piece and in my participation of the rehearsal and recording process of that and the other two pieces has recently come back to my meditation of creating music and of myself.  I remember that the fever and cold still possessed me during the time I rehearsed, performed (my vocal piece), and recorded in studio those three pieces.  I could barely hear anything through my congestion and heavy head, and with blood-shot eyes and swollen, sore face and limbs I half-danced, half-conducted the two instrumental works that I resembled an exorcised version of Bjork Gudmundstottir undergoing severe agony.

The complete absorbance of and immersion in the very core of my subconscious psyche as if experiencing a trance, and the honest, shameless outward expression coarsely displayed in music and in my experience of writing and hearing music now return in the shape of dream and form.  The question of space, saturation, and both chronological and psychological time ensues.  It is a sticky ground: how do I create a piece of music that immerses the audience in a supersized yet intimate personal space of mine (vertical, textural, minimalistic and spectrally respected music) while at the same time engaging and celebrating the intricate and sophisticated musical narrative development (linear, with minute changes in voice-leading, harmonically progressed music)?  How do I turn over my belly, drowning my audience with the pulsating interior of my being (with the least self-conscious) while performing one or more consequential pied piper tunes powerful enough to confuse the listener’s sense of direction?  In short, how do I build a quaint sound architecture while housing a complex unfolding of the time?

I did not truly ponder upon this question until I came back from Paris in early January.  By then I was working on Melancholia (2011-12) for Talujon Percussion Quartet’s residency at Brandeis University in March.  I was troubled by the fact that deep into the fifth minute of the piece the music still yet to reach the first grand attack arrival I sketched out a while ago; that attack would just be the conclusion of the first event of the piece and there were many more coming up afterward.  I knew the piece would be at least fifteen minutes long, but the actual progress of the beginning development worried me.

Not wanting to succumb to any change of the original formal design and process, I listened through the section I wrote in head again and again.  My idea for this part was to open a beginning that disengages all materials, and only petal by petal the disinterested objects drift by slowly until the growing frequency of their visits formulates an image of a strange flower or of an audible breath.  The piece borrows its sound world from a selection of mostly metal instruments seasoned by voice of skin and air instruments, therefore a beating, long-sustained wash of sound is always present with fluctuations and inflections of its resonance and overtones.  The beginning five-minute seems to pass incredibly fast, and I was bewildered by the psychological time this music, with so little significant chronological events going on, projects onto my hearing canvas.  In Chinese we say that hundred days on earth are only one day in time of Paradise, and this slowly self-forming music of the beginning gave me just that impression.  Meanwhile those little fragments, those “petals” that, by my choice or de-choice, simply pass by each other or decide to interact and engage in a conference possess certain agency which seems at times inevitable and at times willfully designed.  My listening perception was somehow interpolated between, yet at the same time was focusing on, both the large formal evolution and the local, moment-by-moment development and counterpoint.  This observation of my own original sketch and the resulting music suddenly bestowed upon me the revelation for a drastically different approach of composing this piece –

–  one large gesture that is the form of the whole 15-minute music, metaphorically speaking it is a monster waking up in a cave with a stretch, a grunt, and a yawn. This will be the envelope of the piece.

–  countless tiny gestures that gather and produce the body of the sound.  They are introduced by accident or by succession to other materials but are made logical and rhetorical locally through counterpoint or internal distortion.  They, along with each other, create illusions of multi-layered linear narratives which may disperse or become “something” through affiliation.  However, no matter how busy and developmental they are, these gestures barely contribute to the driving and changing of the large formal envelope that was predesigned.

–  Many narratives are created – in details and in large formal development, yet nothing of these diverts (while being perceived nonetheless) the audience’s perception of an overall acoustic space.

I used to think of composing in terms of sections, climaxes, change of structural dynamics, and most of all, transitions.  With this revelation and new approach, I realized I freed myself from the ongoing, unsatisfactory consideration of transitions and musical “episodes”, instead, I concentrated on forcing myself to let go certain things that were, for a long time, ingrained in the trained ears of mine, certain things I had gradually gained control of over these few years of craft-refining: details in pacing, exact timbre, the right moment for the main musical climax, the overarching dramatic discourse, and so on.  Now I had to force myself to feel okay with things that are made inevitable, out of control, self-evolving, and self-generating.  I still have the control over the total large envelope of the piece and of the localized details, but I should no longer try to shape the foreground and mid-ground materials to serve the underlying background structure.  And whatever occurred from the process of these “petals”’ minute developments or operations should become to me at times expected and at times surprising.  Thus the interior of the piece is organic and all-encompassing like a Godspell secret garden while the outer shape of the music tells a quite different story.

This change of my thinking has its implications.  My reconsideration of the musical form and of composing mechanism and operation made me look back, with new understanding, on the music I formerly enjoyed very much yet could not aesthetically approve — repertoires branched out or affiliated with the schools of American minimalism and of French spectral music.  It does not mean that I am starting to write minimalistic music or spectral music, but that I now truly recognize the significance of their achievements and appreciate their influences over two generations of composers educated under the western classical music canon.  The reminiscence of myself as a teen basked in the spring of uncontrolled hormone immersed in a dark realm of melancholia is poignant; I now acknowledge my internal ability to lose control of the surroundings while being inside my own imaginarium, my ability to feel the thrill and ecstasy of leaving things to their own doing.  I now attempt to enjoy the consequence of writing a passage of music that would not be heard until it is inscribed on the paper, just as how I mindlessly scribbled down Night Split (2002) with a fervent frantic (except for that by then I did not want it to happen).  I now try, instead of to control and shape, to let morph and navigate the music I want to hear.  I respect Melancholia (2011-12) as a piece I was creating, but also as a living organism that forms itself as the writing progresses, and I recognize the actual, resulting beauty this balance of design and evolution will produce at the end.

The result – the piece once done – is what I wanted and what I did not know I want.  After its premier I can still find faults and problems in the piece which might be caused by the inconsistency of my compositional process or the unfavorable steps taken due to the need of meeting the deadline, but something essential in the piece and in the way I thought while composing this piece (and future pieces) had changed, and I hope the change has come across and is audible in the performance.  I sincerely wish Melancholia (2011-12) to be a successful manifestation of my creative return to the appropriating and encountering of my belly-flipping, confessionary intimacy, a brooding dark space made luminous and beautiful.

Image sources:

Melancholia (Dominique Schafer/photography; Mu-Xuan Lin/graphic);  artisan doll “Sapphire” by Enchanted Doll artist Marina Bychkova;  scene from Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”;  cave installation by Brothers Quay;  scene from Brothers Quay film;  scene from Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”;  scene from Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”

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