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This brief essay was included in the back of the programme book for the concert at St George’s Brandon Hill, Bristol that included the first performance of Gwyn Pritchard’s large-scale piano work: “Raum Greift Aus”. The audience was invited to read it only after the performance.  

Some after-thoughts to the composition of Raum Greift Aus

  Rilke’s poem from which the title is drawn is as follows:

Durch den sich Vögel werfen, ist nicht der
vertraute Raum, der die Gestalt dir steigert.
(Im Freien, dorten, bist du dir verweigert
und schwindest weiter ohne Wiederkehr.)

Raum greift aus uns und übersetzt die Dinge:
daß dir das Dasein eines Baums gelinge,
wirf Innenraum um ihn, aus jenem Raum,
der in dir west.  Umgieb ihn mit Verhaltung.
Er grenzt sich nicht.  Erst in der Eingestaltung
in dein Verzichten wird er wirklich Baum.

The one the birds plunge through’s not that trusty space
where each confided form’s intensified.
(Out there in the open you’re self-denied,
and go on vanishing without a trace.)

Space spreads transposingly from us to things:
really to feel the way a tree upsprings,
cast round it space from that which inwardly
expands in you.  Surround it with retention.
It has no bounds.  Not till its reascension
in your renouncing is it truly tree.

When it comes to new works there is, it seems to me, a problem with programme notes.  Perhaps because reading them in advance of hearing the music to which they relate they inevitably filter, to some extent, the experience of listening to the music itself; and frequently any connections between the music and the composer’s notes about it appear tenuous to say the least.  The simplest solution to the problem would, of course, be to have no notes at all.  And yet music so often provokes speculation about the context of its creation that to remain consistently silent about one’s own music, when listeners’ curiosity may be raised by it, strikes me as being somewhat uncooperative.  

As the composer I know, of course, exactly where I started, exactly what it was that preoccupied me sufficiently to compel me to set to work on the music, exactly what I thought I wanted to explore.  But the very process of working on a piece can transform a composer’s perception of those initial ideas to such an extent that it can be difficult to make any definitive comment about the music until the experiences gained in the process of composing it (not to mention hearing it) have been thoroughly digested - and that can take some time.  From this perspective I can only furnish the listener with some of the thoughts that have occurred to me after writing the piece, and in response to it; effectively entering any debate about the music only as an equal contributor to a speculative discourse, not as an authority on it.  In short, being the composer of a piece of music does not necessarily put one in a position to make unequivocal statements about it.

Raum Greift Aus had no title until its composition was almost complete, when a remarkably ‘synchronistic’ encounter with a poem by Rilke suddenly crystallised much that had preoccupied me for some months whilst working on the music.  From embarking on the piece with very definite ideas as to what I thought musical space (my primary interest in this case) really was, I had come to redefine those ideas on the basis of understandings gained whilst working on the music.  Rilke’s brief poem, both in its content and equally in its approach to language, was particularly pertinent to those newly gained understandings.  It was not, however, simply saying the same things in a different way.  If it were I would have abandoned the piece there and then.  What really struck me about the poem was firstly its concern with a kind of ‘relativity’ of space (in a philosophical sense), and secondly the extent to which that concept, metaphorically, penetrates deeply into the subtle and complex issues of experience and understanding, particularly when it comes to music or poetry (but equally, of course, any of the other arts).

A literal translation of “Raum greift aus uns und übersetzt die Dinge” might be something like “Space grasps out of us and translates things”; but J B Leishman’s ‘poetic’ translation above gets far closer to the implied meaning of the German original.  The problem is that we are dealing with a poetic and philosophical idea, so any translation is bound to be also a translation of meaning to some extent.  For Rilke words have to work, to reach far beyond their more prosaic meanings, and through their redeployment in unlikely combinations and contexts become a means of articulating ideas that constitute an unfamiliar, but nonetheless very real, experienceable world.

To some extent notes can be like that too.  Although assemblages of notes can never have the specific intended meanings that words and sentences do, they can certainly be made to work and to reach beyond the audibility of their structure, allowing us unfamiliar experiences of things we might take for granted: of time, of intensity, of density and of space, for example. Paradoxically perhaps, in music (as with the syntax of Rilke’s poetry) this can only happen because those audible structures, those defined, tangible relationships of pitches and rhythms, are there in the first place.  The illumination of elusive ideas and experiences can only be achieved by a process which starts with concepts that are graspable, already anchored in our understanding.  Superficial notions of transcendence are not enough. In that sense the creative process, whether musical or literary, is in itself a form of translation - the structure of experience becomes translated into the structure of sounds or words; and that experience is so intimately tied to its precise form of representation that to effect that is to effect its ‘meaning’, and consequently also the listener’s or reader’s experience of it.

Of course listeners to a new piece of music are only given that agglomeration of audible structures, and can know little, if anything, of the experiences that lie behind them (even taking into account programme notes attempting to contextualise them in some way).  It would certainly be naïve to imagine that the average (or even specialist) audience can somehow spontaneously and intuitively grasp the raison d’être of all they hear; and yet, by way of a further process of translation, the listener may ‘surround it with retention’, allowing its ‘reascension’ until it is ‘truly’ a piece of music: the one of their own experience!  The striking point about this is that listening becomes an intensely active and creative process, and that the alternative, in the presence of music, is to be ‘self-denied, and go on vanishing without a trace’ (something which, in these times, an alarming amount of music almost seems to encourage).

And so, from the initial impact of Rilke’s text and its relevance to my concern with musical space, in taking him at his word and ‘casting my own space’ around his poem, I find its sphere of relevance far greater than I had at first suspected; and the outcome of that is to be left wondering how far music can equally contain within itself the key to its own ‘translation’ processes, both those before and after its structural composition.  For to translate something, be it in the usual sense of  translating from one language to another, or more subtly, the translation of experience into music or words (or conversely music or words into experience), must be, in all cases, both to remain faithful to that which is being translated and at the same time create something out of it.

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