fine print

Syzygy and Cluster: Time in Gordon Kerry's Making Signs

Article by:
Play Audio

A piano chord questions the air. A high, fragile melody responds from the cello. The cello tune is less alien than the stone-hard chord, almost speech-like as it rises and falls. The cellist, Blair Harris, has his bow right up on the fingerboard of the instrument, making a thin tone like somebody singing far away. The violin, clarinet and flute join in with a kaleidoscope of different timbres. The violinist (Jenny Khafagi) and cellist lean together in vibrating, fleeting harmony. A tone like brushed steel emerges from the clarinet (Robin Henry) and flute (Laila Engle). The sonic pairings of wood and steel disintegrate in a flutter of trills. By taking the concentrated tone of the solo cello as a starting point and then introducing an array of contrasting sounds, Kerry opens out a timbral space with palpable depth. The piano part (performed by Leigh Harrold) prods the sonic perimeter, both a part of it and apart from it. The piece is Gordon Kerry’s Making Signs, which Syzygy Ensemble performed recently for the second time at the Brunswick Uniting Church.(1) The five members of Syzygy have honed this piece so carefully that the texture is thick with edges and layers, each sound delineated from its neighbours like grains of sand under a microscope. What a perfect piece for an ensemble whose name implies an alignment or union of distinct elements not through synthesis, but through Frankenstein-style juxtapositions and superpositions.

Making Signs was commissioned by Julian Burnside for Syzygy’s “Grammar” concert, one of a series exploring the three disciplines of the medieval trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Kerry, now pushing into his fifties, has had plenty of time to think about musical grammar. He was born into the generation that reacted against Darmstadt-style musical modernism as it was taught in Australia well into the 1980s. Indeed, the piano chords at the beginning of Making Signs are from Winter Through Glass, a serialist piece from 1980 that Kerry calls his first “grown-up” composition.(2) As the years passed, many of his contemporaries retreated into a hazy Australiana, nostalgically painting the landscape with the post-impressionist techniques of this time last century. Kerry kept his teeth, which are bared to the gums in Making Signs, at least for a little while. As the piece progresses, the audience becomes aware that they are no longer hearing a timbral kaleidoscope, but a sort of tonal grammar.

Like watching a minute hand move on a clock, one is unsure of exactly when the coupling and uncoupling of instrumental timbres takes a back seat to harmony. With the benefit of a score one can see the clear juxtaposition—indeed the syzygy—of episodes based on clear horizontal lines on the one hand and gestural effects on the other. The experience in the concert hall is more gradual, like a theme in a poem dawning on you after several readings. Once you notice it, you see how it permeates the entire structure of the work. Except for the serial piano chords, Making Signs is based on a bespoke mode not unlike those used by the composer Olivier Messiaen. Some conventional tonal chords can be carved out of Kerry’s mode and the instruments make their way through it in a style resembling traditional counterpoint. Kerry’s use of the mode is evidence that he is not immune from the reactive pathos of his generation. The piece ends with the entire ensemble see-sawing, running and leaping across the mode in a way that would not be out of place at the end of a blockbuster Christmas film. They roughly outline an F# Minor chord that resolves dutifully to a G chord, albeit tinged with augmented uncertainty and a nice raised seventh. Despite some kitsch moments, the mode gives an especially vibrant quality to the timbral kaleidoscope of the opening. However, it doesn’t seem to be the most important aspect of this jagged introduction. The piece achieves a strange alchemy by creating a continuum between two qualitatively different ways of making signs: through instrumental timbre and through harmony. And yet, both ways of making signs seem to “work” equally (even if I would argue that the first works “more” than the second).

Making Time

So closely is musical construction linked to our experience of musical time that Making Signs may well be called Making Time.(3) Inspired by Kerry’s sleight of hand, I would like to canvas the idea that the effectiveness of a compositional system has something to do with the proximity of the simultaneous levels of construction active within it. By “effective” I mean that the system can furnish the basis of repeated compositions or listenings and that it allows room for stylistic development. By “levels of construction” I mean the ways in which one puts together the distinct properties of sounds including pitch, duration, volume and timbre, but also the more specifically musical properties of articulation and harmony. There are more: Messiaen offers a list of 14 such levels, which he calls “rhythmic languages."(4)

A melody, a symphony or even a noise performance may be heard as simultaneous constructions in pitch, timbre, volume and so on.(5) Different levels of organisation dominate in different works, from the rhythm of a dance track to the pitches of Björk’s solo vocalises, to the volume of a Merzbow performance. The elements of the different levels of construction also maintain different levels of correlation to one another.

If the levels of organisation are too loosely correlated, then they cannot form repeatable patterns. For instance, pitch, duration and dynamics are composed independently of one another and by chance in John Cage’s Music of Changes.(6) Aleatoric music like the Music of Changes allows unexpected and delightful new sounds to be heard that might not be created within any currently-existing musical system. They also encourage an open-eared form of listening that aims to escape the strait-jacket of our habitual listening practices. This form of creating and listening is antithetical to the recognition and repetition of musical patterns.

By extreme contrast, in Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d’intensités(7) each pitch is assigned a specific duration, dynamic and articulation. For instance, a high D above the treble staff will always be played as a semiquaver and pianississimo (very, very quietly). It is the limit example of the clustering of pitch-time, duration-time, dynamic-time and articulation-time in an immobile mass. Never would they be so closely associated again. Mode de valeurs is often credited with inaugurating the practice of “total” serialism, that is, the rigorous use of all the degrees of pitch, duration, volume and articulation in a particular order. The history of total serialism is in large part the history of the decoupling of pitch-time from duration-time and that of other musical parameters. This is the case from the early pointillist works such as Pierre Boulez’s Structures Ia, which is based on Messiaen’s original mode of pitches and durations(8) to the practice of “group” composition where groups of notes are associated with regions of volume, pitch and duration.(9) Post-serial works, including the Australian composer Alistair Noble’s recent Glasteppich II for solo flute, goes so far as to distribute the single instrument’s different gestures and techniques over multiple staves.

Somewhere in between the two extremes of Cage’s aleatoric works and total serialism sits tonal works, where duration-time and harmony-time form a loose relationship governed by the management of consonance and dissonance. Harmony textbooks counsel dissonant chords on weak beats and rogue pitches running between moments of harmonic rest. In a nineteenth-century work the final chord of a piece will generally be longer than those leading up to it. By contrast, a witty performer of seventeenth-century music will barely mark certain resolutions (one doesn’t want to overstate the obvious) and linger upon delicious dissonances. The loose alliance of pitch and duration in tonal music gives room to play with the music and the audience’s expectations. Does this mean that tonal music is the only system capable of such an ideal level of equivalence between musical parameters? Thankfully no.

The equivalence of serial parameters is distinct from their equality. While serial compositions are often criticised for asserting—against the pitch-hierarchies of tonality—the equality of all pitches, a serial composition that aims to use all pitches equally may still treat pitches as non-equivalent to durations and dynamics. Atonal music including serial music is not, as François Mitterand’s ex-economics advisor and some-time conductor Jacques Attali recently put it, “musical terrorism.”(10) As the evocative textures of Kerry’s Making Signs prove, given a certain rhetorical flexibility in the use of musical parameters, atonal music is just another way in which tension and release, enthusiasm and flight can be communicated between composers and audiences.