The following is a short description of my work with CeReNeM’s visiting artists-in-residence. In 2020-21 this was a virtual residency with International Contemporary Ensemble (USA) as part of the Re.Co.Lab programme.
One of the major projects for the first year of my PhD at the University of Huddersfield and a vital work in returning to composition post-lockdown was Passacaglia. Composed for Josh Modney (violin) and Levy Lorenzo (percussion) of the International Contemporary Ensemble (IntCE), I began writing in early 2021, with workshops and rehearsals in May through to June and the resultant video recording occurring not long after (see end of this post).
It’s hard to describe just how important this work was in returning to productive workflow, having struggled to engage in any creative work or practice during the various lockdowns in Australia (the last of which ended in October in 2021). This was an incredible opportunity to work with the fierce advocates for new music that is the renowned IntCE, but also a project that provided much needed excitement and motivation during the second year of the pandemic. I don’t want to belittle the other fortunate opportunities I had during the years of 2020 and 2021, but I found this opportunity particularly pronounced as my first work written for CeReNeM, which included a certain feeling of comradery with my fellow researchers and artists as we strive to create music in such trying times. Lastly, and most pertinent to my studies, this work really began the line of questioning and investigation intrinsically linked to my PhD.
I bring up these sentiments as they were key in how I began the composing of this work. Attempting to reignite the flame of composition, I began with the music I had been listening to at the time: solos and small works of the baroque period. Choosing the much-loved Passacaglia from Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, I began an investigation into the passacaglia as a form and what I loved so much about this work. This manifested into a list of generalised assumptions and characteristics of Biber’s Passacaglia (and of most other works within this form) that include:
- Repetition: often of four pitch-based events taking the form of a bass line. I use the term events to describe something that could be more abstract and less confined to specifics such as a melodic or bass line.
- Descent: often pitch based, with harmonic, melodic and rhythmic materials working in conjunction or in close relation to this movement.
- Closure: the nature of small-scale structures (often tied to the bass line) coming to a close, providing a regular punctuation-like point throughout the work. This manifests in a variety of forms including the compression of intervals, a certain resolution of rhythmic activity, and dynamics that further amplify this.
- Variation and expansion: the gradual development of activity and detail as the work unfolds. This includes a greater exploration in range, volume, intensity, ornamentation, and virtuosity.
It was here that I found the required compositional seed that could grow into a fully formed work. How could each of these characteristics, each of the component parts of the passacaglia, and even the original Biber passacaglia itself, go through a process of abstraction and distortion.
Largely this was via an exploration of extremes, an amplification of each of these components to the point of reaching an almost uncanny state. The resultant work goes through various stages of filtering, beginning with saturated and virtuosic gestural material before being quickly reduced to simple sustained gestures. This process occurs four times with the filtering down taking place over a similar but not identical duration, resulting in distinct block-like structures that make up the overall shape of the work.
Composed for a duo of violin and percussion, I wanted to maintain a raw and even austere quality between these two instruments, favouring a very simple percussion set-up to compliment the solo violin. The percussion, a lonely frame drum with a few stones (in the recording sandpaper and stone is used instead) often mirrors the violin, accentuating certain gestures such as vertical bow movement, scratch tones, long sul tasto tones, trills, glissandi, and dominant pitch points. Occasionally the drum will attempt to assert itself with Sarabande-like rhythmic figures, often widely out of sync with the violin, resulting in a fiercer battle between the two instruments; perhaps not unlike the use of runaway scalic figures that attempt to loosen themselves from the shackles of the grounded bass in Biber’s Passacaglia. With regards to the violin, the fourth string is detuned to an E3 and the second string down by an eighth-tone. In addition to a bow position stave, the violinist must often negotiate between two pitch staves, one a typical 5-line stave and the other an indeterminate pitch parameter indicating the highest and lowest position available on the fingerboard. It is within this parameter that shadows of the original Biber are mapped with figures tracing the contour, direction, and rhythmic detail of certain direct quotations.
Coming back to my original list of characteristics, the first and last were maintained and even enhanced ensuring some resemblance to the passacaglia form I attempting to reference. The concept of closure (the third in my list) is either non-existent in the dense virtuosic sections or incredible obvious as the filtering-out begins to take place. Instead of dynamics working in conjunction with the closure of phrases, my use of dynamics are reverse-engineered, broadly featuring crescendo-like figures propelling the momentum forward or going to another extreme, utilising extremely soft and static-like dynamics. Variation and expansion (the fourth in my list) occurs at an extreme level. Layered are both ornamental figures and different performance-based parameters (e.g. bow position, scratch tone etc) which amplify the concept of variation into the extreme. This is further enhanced with the use of quotations from the original Biber passacaglia, made unrecognisable with their appearance only occurring as indeterminate pitch.
Although disguised via dense textures and levels of distortion via bow pressure and bow position, the repetition of an underlying pitch-based event is central to this work. Seen in Figure 1, these four descending pitches form an anchor-like constant for the violin throughout the entire work. Never uniform in their duration, these pitches always appear in the same order before the cycle begins again. The first three bars of Passacaglia demonstrate this as seen in Figure 2, where each pitch event is either referenced, provided as a sense of grounding, or used as a catalyst for expansion. Their identity is intentionally masked in the dense layered sections, with the indeterminate pitch stave often providing further abstraction, while their pitch content is made somewhat clearer (albeit still masked or transformed in some way through the use of harmonics, sul tasto, col legno etc) in the responding sparse sections.
In working with Josh Modney, I had originally envisioned to create my work for gut strings and baroque bow, an obvious nod to the baroque inspiration, but after a discussion on achieving maximum control and dynamic variation we elected to retain a modern violin setup. I’ll also add the Josh’s performance and composition skill on his CD Engage (2018) was of huge inspiration, especially in the pre-composition stage before deciding to use Biber’s Passacaglia as a catalyst for this work. I encourage a listen to Modney’s just intonation performance of J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No.2 (BWV 1004: V) and his own work Pastoral; a hauntingly still work of warped dyads and unsettled harmonies.
A huge thank you to CeReNeM and the University of Huddersfield, the International Contemporary Ensemble (especially Josh Modney and Levy Lorenzo), and Nicholas Houfek, Ross Karre, Felipe Wurst, and Maciej Lewandowski who supported this project and helped create the stunning recording and video available here.