Kaleidozyklen [Composition No. 57]

For many years, my compositions have attempted to explore the still largely unworked fourth-stream interface between contemporary composition, improvised music and experimental jazz. Until relatively recently, those works with a jazz element have dealt with the incorporation of explicit (modulated) swing, with possibly the most significant exploration of this aspect being realised in Composition No. 30: Compilation III (1994). However, since 1996 I have grown increasingly interested in the development of implicit swing phrasing and rhythms. By this I mean the development of a style of composition and performance which effects a subtler synthesis of jazz rhythms with contemporary composition techniques, using a less hierarchical melody/rhythm section structure, and producing a 'classical' music realised with the sensibility, techniques and flexibility associated with experimental jazz and improvisation.

Although Kaleidozyklen uses improvisation throughout the orchestra, particularly focussed on the three soloists, to open out the technical resources available to the composer, I have also tried to generate a style of playing notated material which reflects the discoveries of the jazz tradition, and which resists the temptation to place accuracy above passion and commitment. In Kaleidozyklen this has been achieved by several varied strategies, including extreme complexity, extreme vagueness, verbal and non-specific notation and improvisation. Whilst the resulting ensemble style may sound strange (and possibly distressing) to those schooled on the hyperclarity and precision of many specialist contemporary music ensembles, my hope is that at least some listeners will recognise and relish the influence of composer/arrangers such as Charles Mingus, Sun Ra and Gil Evans in this "messy heterophony". It is the sense of excitement and danger generated by their particular 'skin-of-the-teeth' complexity which I feel is one of jazz's greatest lessons for the performance of 'classical' music.

Like many of my compositions, Kaleidozyklen utilises a modified serial method as its springboard, although as is often the case the serial composition is combined with freely composed material, improvisation and aleatoric elements. The 'series' upon which this piece is based is nothing less than the 88 notes of the piano keyboard itself (Martin Archer's "88 enemies"), with different subsets forming the raw material for each movement.

1. Duration works with the extremes of this set of 88 pitches. The 7-note series uses the two lowest pitches from the keyboard, the two highest, and 3 additional pitches from the middle of the range. It will quickly become apparent that this movement utilises these very low notes (piano, contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet) and very high - and sometimes painful - notes (piano, piccolos, glockenspiel, crotales and celeste) to the point of hysteria; the monstrously mechanical inflexibility and inhumanity of much of this movement is perfectly deliberate. This is leavened by the addition of both freely composed and improvised commentaries, which run parallel to the strictly uncompromising extremities.

This movement also incorporates several quotations from composers who are periodically referred to throughout the work, and who will be more baldly pillaged in Movt 3; Strauss, Stravinsky and Ives are particularly referenced, although Mahler, Messiaen and Brahms also appear. But in this movement the quotations are almost completely synthesised into the dominant style, emerging only fleetingly and uncertainly.

The second section of Duration consists of improvisations from double bass and clarinet combined with various improvised and notated textures, including a fugue of significant mathematical complexity for the highest instruments. This leads to a rhapsodic freely composed section which features solos for bass flute, viola and harpsichord and culminates in a bass flute cadenza. During the third section the orchestra explores a looser interpretation of the Varèseian machine music; a contrabass clarinet cadenza leads into an improvised trio set once again against various improvised and notated textures. The final section reverses the process, gradually distilling the music back to its fixedly neurotic exploration of extremes of pitch.

2. Timbre offers an extreme contrast. This movement explores a tranquil world of single pitches, combined with sparse improvisation and a wandering contrabassoon melody. This movement is based on 12 further pitches from the 88, spanning the lowest B natural to the highest Bb; these pitches are slowly revealed by single instruments dotted throughout the orchestra.

3. Frequency is the movement which gave Kaleidozyklen its name. It is in a twisted rondo form, with rapid moving tutti sections framing a series of experiments in real-time xenochronicity. The exploration of simultaneously occurring independent events is an idea which I have explored extensively in my recorded work; it is of course a technique which is ideally suited to the manipulations of the recording studio. Its use in live classical performance is not new, however; several composers - notable Ives and Cowell - have undertaken experiments in attempting to surmount the practical difficulties inherent in this principle. This is my first step in developing a large-scale xenochronicity for live performance; the practical difficulties involved in rehearsing and performing this material mean that the development of the full potential of these techniques may take some time! Frequency uses 5 assistant conductors to introduce independent elements of the musical texture in unrelated tempi, mood and tonality, according to a predetermined time schedule. But the flexibility inherent in performance ensures that the particular combination of sounds heard is unique to each performance, and the elements rotate against each other forming unrepeatable patterns. The fragments include developments of the 18-note series which underlies this movement, quotations, and freely composed material, played both forwards and backwards, and at varying speeds. These are all set against improvisations from the double bass and piano.

The movement opens with a freely notated duet for piccolo and tuba; before the final tutti this is reprised, with the performers having exchanged their note sequences.

4. (In)articulation is simultaneously the most experimental and the most traditional movement of Kaleidozyklen. I've always been fascinated by the famous description of Verklärte Nacht as being "like Tristan left out in the rain"; (In)articulation is a 21st-century exploration of this tantalising idea. Rather than Tristan, the movement uses the Adagietto from Mahler 5 as its raw material; rather than the rain, I've used computer technology to distort, disrupt, blur, smudge and pervert the romantic original. The Mahler score was scanned by music-reading software which had been set up for minimum accuracy; the resulting nightmare was arranged for bowed and plucked strings, with a central improvised section for harp, guitar and double bass. During the course of the piece, tremolo strings also play through the 23-note series allocated to this movement. The result combines nostalgia with a queasy unsettledness, romanticism with aleatoricism, glimpses of beauty with bizarrely 'wrong' notes. I hope you find it as disconcerting as I do.

5. Intensity uses the remaining 28 notes from the 88 note set, in combination with chromatic scales, for a rather wild and reckless finale. The central section includes string improvisations, a piano/bass/clarinet trio, and a xenochronous development of one of my favourite moments from one of my favourite records - the contrabassoon playing the Dies Irae from Sir Adrian Boult's 1968 recording The Instruments Of The Orchestra. (This reference was extensively explored in Composition No. 26a: Mutual And Reciprocal Ceremonies, but I make no apology for returning to it here.) After a Dies Irae section of (I hope) unbelievable lowness, this material is combined with the rushing chromatic opening to form what could be described as a rather noisy finale!

Composers now live in a strange post-modern, slightly patronising, world, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to find performers and promoters still prepared to support work which is not afraid to challenge both performer and listener alike. The situation is doubly difficult when a work sets out to undermine preconceptions about what a piece of music is supposed to 'do'. Therefore I would particularly like to express my most heartfelt thanks to Simon Baines and the LSTwo ensemble for the courage and commitment they have repeatedly shown during the long and difficult process of bringing Kaleidozyklen into being. And as well as Simon Baines, I'd like to also extend my special thanks to Vanessa Bridge and Peter Nix; all three have worked long and hard (well beyond the call of duty) to make this evening's performance possible.

© Simon H. Fell 2000

back to main Bruce's Fingers index page

back to main on-line texts index

back to programme notes index