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GWYN PRITCHARD

TWO TEXTS ON HIS MUSIC  

by Alwynne Pritchard and Nicolas Hodges

 

 

 

ATOMS AND THE VOID

 

Reflections on five works by Gwyn Pritchard 

edited from the booklet accompanying the CD The Fruit of Chance and Necessity (2008), 

by the composer's daughter Alwynne Pritchard, composer, performer, writer and broadcaster

 

            My father's music, the processes by which the pieces came into being as well as the finished works themselves, formed an integral parts of my early life and colours all memories of my childhood.   The almost daily experience of hearing combinations of notes voiced and re-voiced at the piano, gradually evolved into melodic figures, ornamented, developed, arranged and then rehearsed makes it impossible for me to be objective about my father's music; however, it does give me, I hope, a perspective that will be illuminating here.  If all the notes we, as human beings ever hear, in all their various formations are, like all our experiences, atoms from which our conscious selves are constructed, creating the paradigms through which we experience the world, then the music of Gwyn Pritchard is inseparable from my experience and development as a human being and a composer. 

 

            But it is not only when thinking of my own relationship to this music that the metaphor of the atomic particle - the irreducible constituent from which any system is constructed - seems appropriate.  The music itself seems to me to be motivated by energy created from the friction between the tiniest of musical particles, something which is perhaps most directly addressed by the composer himself in the ‘cello and ensemble work The Fruit of Chance and Necessity.  This title is drawn from Democritus, one of the first pre-Socratic philosophers to propose that, indeed, everything in the universe was composed only of atoms and the empty space within which they moved.  However, more important and interesting still is how these particles behave in relation to one another, the systems they produce, the very universe itself being, according to Democritus, nothing more or less than “the fruit of chance and necessity”.  In his own programme note to the piece, the composer writes: 

 

Leaving aside the broader philosophical relevance of Democritus’s theory, many of the concepts within it are remarkably apt metaphors for certain aspects of music and the processes underlying its composition, at least from my own point of view. For behind the evidently ‘composed’ audible surface of my music there are usually a considerable number of operations dependent upon both chance and necessity. 

 

In this piece, effectively a concerto for solo ‘cello and large ensemble, these concepts are at the forefront of the musical drama. The solo part proceeds along an unambiguous course, moving through a musical landscape defined by an ensemble whose material seldom relates more than superficially to the solo part, and often seems to oppose it. The soloist and ensemble are never dependent on one another, the essence of the piece lying in the space between the two and the collisions that inevitably occur.

 

             Like the violin line in the appropriately named Song for Icarus, much of the cello writing in The Fruit of Chance and Necessity is intensely lyrical and even operatic in scope.  It comes at me out of the blue, as though I have suddenly opened the door on an epic drama that has been running for hours, years or even centuries.  There are several moments in the piece that approach repose, more exquisitely beautiful for their tantalising brevity, but the piece ends unresolved with a blood-curdling wail from the ensemble (or are they blowing a grotesque raspberry?) as the ‘cello is left suspended and alone.  In its final few bars this piece never fails to leave me breathless.     

 

            Song for Icarus, although for much smaller forces than the ‘cello concerto, is nevertheless vast in scope, and tackles a subject of mythical proportions:

 

The relevance of the Icarus myth to this music is to be found at several levels. Perhaps most obscurely, the form of the piece makes much use of pitting height against depth, but more obviously it includes much figuration, which, at times, might well be heard as a kind of imitation bird-song. Imitating birds and soaring to great heights was of course something that Icarus learned all about with fatal consequences.

 

At the heart of the Icarus myth lies the fact that, able to fly like a bird, he became a victim of his own fascination for the beauty and warmth of the sun; the tragedy of his death is set against the thirst for ecstasy that caused it. Similarly, almost uninterrupted throughout this piece, a lament-like, slow ‘melodic’ line is set against fast, florid material that hovers between being ecstatic pseudo-birdsong and the demented wailing of a mourner. So is this perhaps also a lamentation or threnody for Icarus, and therefore an expression of a universal contradiction symbolised by his legend?

 

             So here again, opposing forces are pitted one against the other, impelled forward by the formation, interaction and dissolution of the tiniest of musical fragments - trills, runs, tremolandi - that are in this case redolent of birdsong, but are in fact the elemental material from which all pieces considered here are forged.  For all its opening lyricism, I cannot help but hear the violin part as mimicking birdsong too - trying not only to fly, but actually to become a bird.  As I hear the violin attempting what sound like imitations of the piccolo, the flute and even the alto flute, I imagine Icarus, his deadly apparatus pounding the air in a tragic mockery of flight, but in fact no more granted the gift of flight than a puppet temporarily suspended at the puppeteers will, mechanical birds twittering around its head.  Perhaps it is because the mechanisms of performance are so exposed in this difficult music that I hear it so.  I experience the struggle of flight, the violin's various trajectories illuminated by the different flutes which seem also to lure it towards its ultimately tragic end, the music finally melting away to nothing more than two wisps of sound. 

 

            In stark contrast, Music for Double Bass and Harp does not, in the composer’s own words, 'attempt to represent or express any concepts or ideas beyond itself, its materials and its internal processes'.  Although much of its material is more than quarter of a century older than The Fruit of Chance and Necessity, this work has quite clearly been penned with many of the same concerns in mind; there is, however, a freedom and spaciousness about the music that may owe something to the process of revision it repeatedly underwent:

 

So like a tourist visiting a town in which I had lived many years ago I returned to my former compositional techniques and with them produced this substantially revised version. Of course it is impossible really to return to the past and so I see this revision more as an interpretation than a recreation of a past venture, and there is much within it that I could not possibly have done as a very young composer, back in 1969.

 

             The scope, elegance and even at times sensuality of the double bass writing in Music for Double Bass and Harp comes as no surprise in light of the fact that its composer was working as a professional ‘cellist when he wrote it.  But over and above that, I find the timbres he coaxes from the unlikely partnership of both instruments exciting - buzzing and rumbling away together at the bottom of their registers or daintily exchanging harmonics at the top.  As in all my father’s music, the harmony in Music for Double Bass and Harp is painstakingly and beautifully controlled; although rarely allowed to express itself in full-blown melodies, his characteristically ornate but refined - sometimes even constrained - musical figures allow beautiful melodic moments to be glimpsed through fragments of constantly shifting rhythm and timbre.  This is counterbalanced in Music for Double Bass and Harp by a recurrent repeated note figure, the still point around which all other events seem to turn, and which is a recurring feature of many of the pieces under consideration here.

 

            As with The Fruit of Chance and Necessity and Song for Icarus, the extended solo piano work Raum greift aus opens with a declaration of opposites, extreme high and low registers, slowly and quietly meandering, suddenly and only very briefly interrupted by a loud burst of middle register notes.  That this material is so quickly abandoned, without explanation, leaves a questions mark hanging in the air from the first few minutes of the piece, which remains unanswered as the music carves its way through blocks of sound, becoming for me almost tactile, sculptural, as the pianist seems to weigh up one mass of notes against another.  The poem by Rainer Maria Rilke from which  Raum Greift Aus draws its title, and the composer’s own words on the relationship between text and music, are pertinent to this quality in the work:

 

 

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:

da? 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.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke  (1924)

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.

 

 

A literal translation of “Raum greift aus uns und übersetzt die Dinge” might be something like “Space grasps out and translates things”; but the ‘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.

 

             Thinking back to the composer’s words quoted on the composition of the ‘cello concerto that 'behind the evidently "composed" audible surface of my music there are usually a considerable number of operations dependent upon both chance and necessity', it is clear from the above paragraph that, as I have experienced myself as a composer, there is nevertheless much that we leave to chance or ignore at our peril.  In order for notes to (as the composer’s text puts it) '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' we must take care in understanding the context from which they are drawn, before we can begin to redefine them:

 

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.

 

             That this music is for me both direct and elusive is an acknowledgement of its composer’s skill in articulating this balance between the known and the unknown, between things experienced and those yet to be discovered.

 

            Also looking to both past and future, Janus, the final discussed here, draws its title from the two-faced Roman god.  This is an image which serves to describe the nature and behaviour of much of the musical material of this piece.

 

Its purely musical origins lay in my wish to explore linearity, and different forms of opposition and tension that can be generated between two linear instruments. At times the two faces of the music are polarised ‑ locked into diametrical opposition; and at others, each pursues a musical course obsessively independent, even oblivious, of the other.

 

Once again, duality and the deployment of extremes are the driving forces here. 

 

Janus is a formidably difficult work, which deliberately demands of the performers an almost impossible degree of control of detail, particularly in its microtonal and its textural aspects. The consequent instability is analogous to a drawing in which the imagery is described by a profusion of linear movements.

 

             In fact a painting donated to the composer by he Polish painter Jerzy Stajuda, was one of the sources of inspiration behind Janus. But in this piece lines are not so much taken for a walk (as Paul Klee once put it) as almost unrelentingly pursued, put breathlessly through their paces (as indeed are the players) until they lead us to a music that is ultimately highly ornate but never frivolous, both decorative and declamatory and, just at the point we think we've arrived, suddenly changes direction or simply dissolves into nothing.

 

Dr. Alwynne Pritchard 21.03.08

 

 

 

 
THE MUSIC OF GWYN PRITCHARD

 A Survey by Nicolas Hodges (1998)


Gwyn Pritchard's music celebrates the issuing of sound out of silence, music out of ideas, and melody out of harmony. From his earliest acknowledged works, such as Enitharmon (1973) for mezzo-soprano and piano, the music strikes the listener with a sense that its progress and indeed very existence is somehow inevitable. Towards the beginning of Pritchard's mature output this progress is from object to object, the music rising out of the drama of juxtaposition, in the form of a still-life arranged in time, or the simultaneous existence of several musical organisms. Key works of this period are Strata (1977) for chamber ensemble, and Objects in Space (1978) for clarinet, harp and percussion. Strata presents three small ensembles together, their material and progress living independently more often than not. Each layer has a gestural precision and strength which ensures the survival of its discrete life, while the texture of the piece as a whole is engendered with an energy which seems more than the sum of its parts. 

This exploration of the relationship between static objects and the drama which it can produce continues in Pritchard's next piece, Objects in Space. Here there is only one stratum, the three instruments joining to form an ensemble as instrument texture, the clarinet having prominence only by merit of being melodic. Each unit is self contained, as in the previous piece, but the nature of the drama, aligned as it is in time, encourages spillage between sections which in its turn encourages so much melodic invention that a drama also arises between the forward mobility of the clarinet line and the more rootednature of the harp and percussion material. In the end the impulses of the clarinet are contained, although one feels that a much larger world of dramatic possibilities has been glimpsed, as if by accident. Earthcrust (1980) for six percussionists, extends these preoccupations, having as its basis static, monolithic textures, often of great richness. Rather than striking sparks off each other as in earlier pieces, here the textures contain (or produce) large amounts of energy, holding within them the drama itself, or spilling out into bursts of forward energy.

This exploration of the power inherent in blocks and their interrelation centred itself mainly on the nature of sonority and texture; however, with the Sonata (1982) for solo guitar Pritchard shifted his emphasis more towards focusing on pitch itself. Sonata form concerns itself with long range structuring by essentially harmonic means, whereas much contemporary music achieves this aim through purely textural or orchestrational devices (despite posturings to the contrary). With his first mature piece for a solo harmony instrument, the composer took up the challenge of true sonata form, turning his back, for the moment at least, on many of his earlier techniques. This concern for functional harmony produces a new melodic fecundity, not as a static, textural phenomenon, but as a strongly directional element, rooted in audible harmonic logic. The resulting piece is tighter and terser than Pritchard's earlier work, while at the same time giving the impression of being yet more imaginative. 

This new- found melodic gift is given full rein in his mini-concerto Moondance (1982) for clarinet and small ensemble. Brilliantly imaginative and atmospheric, its melodic starting point allows Pritchard to show off his orchestrational skills, the writing for all instruments being notably economical and idiomatic. Nothing is spurious and yet the effect is of an almost decadent richness, recalling the most successful works of the Second Viennese School. Indeed, the influence of Schoenberg's actual harmonic world can be detected, particularly that of Pierrot Lunaire, and the result is perhaps this composer's most approachable work. Lollay, Lollay (1982) for cor anglais, bass clarinet, viola, cello, piano and percussion, continues the exploration of the relationship between harmony and melody, setting solos for each melody instrument in the context of monolithic lullabies for the whole ensemble. These latter are transformations to the point of perversion of real lullaby melodies and rhythms, and this, added to the darkness and muteness of the orchestration go to make a piece of uncomfortable and pessimistic beauty. 

Dramalogue (1984) for solo percussion in some ways looks back, to the music of Earthcrust and before. The total lack of pitched instruments disallows many of the preoccupations of preceding pieces, replacing a concern as before with juxtaposition and repetition. Pritchard's experiences during the period between the two percussion works makes inevitable a florid precision exceeding that of the earlier music, but the newly acquired functionality and pitch based energy cannot be transferred in quite the same way. Bringing to an end this phase of Pritchard's output, the Chamber Concerto (1985), for piano and four players, charts a more gradual easing of melody out of harmony than in any other of this composer's pieces. After an extended opening section of purely homophonic writing for the whole ensemble, the piano breaks into a texturally florid but harmonically static cadenza which then inspires a similarly florid exposition of the harmonic world in the ensemble. Only towards the end of the piece does the ornamentation gain a life truly its own, and start breaking away from its harmonic roots. At the end of the piece, one is witnessing the beginning of a proliferation, rather than the summation. This contradiction forms the crux of the piece and is a rare example of a retrospective structure in Pritchard's work, where the functionality of the whole is only apparent after the event.

The last few years have seen a notable expansion in range in Pritchard's output, anticipated in the works after 1980 but only coming to fruition since 1986. Madrigal (1987) for flute, oboe, clarinet, percussion and harp makes explicit for the first time the relationship between harmony and melody which was explored more circuitously in earlier works. Independent sections of distinctly different emphasis (Chorales, Solos and Verses) are set next to each other, demonstrating almost schematically the relationship between the dry, homophonic material of the Chorales and the richly profuse melodic web of the Verses, via the sparsely accompanied melody of the Solo sections. The piece as a whole rather than expressing its processes, describes them. After having thus consolidated his attitude to these relationships, Pritchard's natural next step was to stretch them to their limits, in the expansive arena of a piece for large orchestra. 

La Settima Bolgia (1989) stands as one of Pritchards most successful compositions to date, and sums up the aims and preoccupations he discovered in the 1980s as a whole. The piece progresses as naturally and improvisatorially as could be imagined, in complete contrast with Madrigal, harmony implicitly generating melody with an exhilarating profuseness and naturalness. The orchestration is masterly, as one would have expected given the smaller beauties of Moondance and Lollay, Lollay, and the drama which ensues has a richness and complexity which would have been impossible in Pritchard's work of the 1970s. The seamlessness and range of La Settima Bolgia carries forward into Eidos (1990) for six percussionists, a far more melodically conceived piece than any of his previous percussion works, while the melodic profusion suddenly focuses and friezes in Janus (1991) for flute and clarinet. Here the harmonic roots of the melodic material are for the first time merely implied, the piece flowing continuously with melodic invention, unrestrained and yet (as so often in Pritchard's work) with a sense of inevitability. The two lines spark off each other in a new way, based not on blocks of material standing or running, together, but on a more visceral, virtuosic discourse which results both from and in the richness of melodic detail in the piece: the inevitability is that of a self-perpetuating organism.

Pritchard's most recent works bring a new found maturity to some previous preoccupations, synthesising elements which before would either have been concurrent but differentiated in their implicitness or firmly kept separate (such as the explicit harmonic and melodic blocks of Madrigal). A fluidity of cause and effect rises out of this synthesis, different kinds of material often tumbling on top of one another in an endless stream of reaction, propulsion and negation. This is most obvious in pieces such as Demise (1994) for piano, percussion trio and live electronics, and the major recent piano work Raum greift aus (1996), but in varying degrees it also informs the progress of Wayang (1993), and Break Apart (1995). Demise and Raum greift aus also share memories of La Settima Bolgia's sonority which leads one to look forward to Pritchards next essay for large ensemble or orchestra. In Raum greift aus the powerful combination of these elements heralds a yet higher level of expressive confidence which bodes well for the future.

Amongst commissions in hand Pritchards projected opera on Eilmer, the twelfth century monk from Malmsbury, England who tried to fly, will surely be a natural and essential carrying through of the achievement of La Settima Bolgia, extending at last the composer's melodic talent to the medium it lies best in; and a Cello Concerto* will allow the composer to re-explore the dramatic world of the concerto, not touched upon since Moondance and the Chamber Concerto. How Pritchard meets these challenges and where he goes next will be of great interest to all those concerned with the music of today.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

*Since this survey was written the ‘cello concerto has been completed, entitled The Fruit of Chance and Necessity (2004) and performed at the 2004 ISCM World Music Days.

NICOLAS HODGES is an internationally celebrated pianist and also a writer on contemporary music. As well as performing both in Britain and internationally he is a regular contributor to specialist musical publications.

 

 

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