Retrospective


Preface (2009, revised 2014)

As a student in 1970, I was both fascinated and appalled by the problems facing my generation of composers. New Music was obviously in deep crisis. Managers were practising human sacrifice in a desperate attempt to keep the show on the road.

For me, the underlying problem seemed to be purely technical: Writing was a fundamental part of our European musical tradition, but it was quickly becoming impossible to write new music because the existing symbols were in a conceptual mess. That meant loss of control and endless time spent explaining things in rehearsals...
In the end, established Avant-Garde composers had no time to sort this mess out, and, in 1970 they abandoned notational experiments altogether in favour of more literary approaches and/or an emphasis on exploring new sounds.
Composers’ careers have always depended on their performable creations. Individual composers’ careers do not depend on how they get their results. That is part of how the problems developed in the first place. But, as in any cultural context, writing remains the long term key to progress. If cultures don't use timeless symbols to encapsulate high level concepts, they stagnate.

Still a student, and not particularly interested in sounds per se, I decided (in 1970) that the time had come to go away and do some quiet, long-term work behind the scenes. As Morton Feldman said of himself “I had nothing to lose”. So I became a copyist1, and burned my bridges at the end of Act One by killing Clytemnestra and the old world she represented. With her went standard music notation, which I wanted to rethink from scratch. She has haunted me ever since, while I have been trying to find something real, something timeless, to break though the murderous cycle.
I deliberately, ambiguously, went underground, into the night.

The Avant-Garde was dead. Long live the Avant-Garde!



The scenario and texts for Retrospective were completed in 1970-71, together with music for Scene One, Scene Two and Act One.

I tried very hard to write some music for Act Two during the 1970s, but nothing seemed to work. There was obviously a snag that I couldn’t quite understand. The answer came in 2009 when, after the advent of the internet, the completion of Moritz v.1 and the death of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Act Two became this website. The answer was that Act Two is a meta-level, representing the context in which I work. This website contains not only essays and descriptions of what I do and why, it also contains a description of the Retrospective, in which Act Two is a self-referential pointer - a sign of incompleteness.

The Retrospective is, like any autobiography, intrinsically a work-in-progress, impossible to pin down or complete. A form that contains itself.

A real performance of the Retrospective would be like an exhibition at an Art gallery. It would have the scenes and form described in the scenario, but some of the music could be different in different productions. (Different retrospectives of a particular painter's work can contain different paintings.)
Act Two’s function in such a performance would be to provide relevant contextual information. It can therefore contain any music that does that — even music written by other people — but not music that I have written myself for the purpose. I can't write my own context, but nothing makes sense without it.

I first set Song Six to music in 2013-14. This was not only because, at 65, I felt that I had earned the right, but also because I had, by an extraordinary chance, met Heloise Ph. Palmer in 2010. It was her idealism, stage-presence, extraordinary command of time and independent concern with context that convinced me that I had found the ideal performer. When, before it was even composed, she offered to include the piece in one of her programs, it was the chance of a lifetime for me to break out into the real world again...
A more detailed description of the composition and its genesis can be found in About Song Six. The score and a default recording of the first setting can be found here.

Music for every scene of the Retrospective now exists, but that does not mean that it is complete.
The music for the scenes preceding Act Two needs revising, but is otherwise fixed. Act Two and Song Six, on the other hand, are different: Act Two is variable as described above, and I will probably write alternative settings of Song Six as my software continues to develop. The difference of context between the beginning and end of the Retrospective is part of its meaning, and should be made as clear as possible.



Apropos changing context: In 1972, I inherited the Avant-garde's goal of working towards some kind of new logic for musical forms, comparable with the defunct tonal system. That goal can, however, only be pursued using symbolic notations to encapsulate lower level information (timbres etc.), so it is no surprise that high-level musical logics ceased to develop when the Avant-garde gave up on music notation in 1970.
Now, in 2014, I still think that compositions should be more than just a collection of beautiful sounds, but I now believe that that the development of high-level musical logics has to go hand in hand with the development of composing and performing software. And the development of such software in turn depends on the incorporation of ideas evolving within the composing, performing and programming communities.
So my present aim is simply to show that encapsulating lower level information in music symbols enables the development of interesting new kinds of composing and performing software.
My compositions and software are simply concrete demonstrations of what can be done. They are not the only way forward.
All my software is now open source, and can be examined in detail by anyone who wants to look.
(The GitHub repositories are at Moritz and AssistantPerformer.) The whole point of open source software is that it is an invitation to cooperate. Possibly it would be better, in a cooperative project, to extract the relevant ideas and start again from scratch. Moritz, especially, is beginning to feel his age...
Milein Cosman portrait Portrait captionLucida and link


Retrospective (Scenario 1970-71)

  Scene One: Genesis, Prelude to Act One
Scene Two: Machines, Prelude to Act Two
Act One: Clytemnestra

Texts

Song One

Song Two

Song Three

Song Four

Song Five

Act Two: home
Scene Five:

Song Six



Scene One: Genesis, Prelude to Act One

  On Stage: The lighting is off except for a spotlight or two aimed at a figure (probably male) who is seated behind a table or desk. He has a very pale or white face. He is draped all over in black. So is the desk. His character is ambiguous, vaguely reptilian but undemonstratively so. For the duration of the scene (about 12 minutes) he can move only his head and jaw (the latter sparingly), these movements should be slow. The lighting is dim and is varied mechanically (slowly and irregularly).

Off Stage: Six vocalists (three male and three female) stage-whisper the six given parts into six separate microphones. The signal from each is independently filtered and its dynamic controlled. These processes are achieved mechanically (possibly using prerecorded varying pitches in conjunction with a pitch-voltage converter), and change, like the lighting, slowly and irregularly. The six signals are then mixed and taken to a loudspeaker concealed under the table onstage.

At the end of the scene: The figure on stage turns into a dummy. Its face explodes, revealing the net foundation to the plaster. White filaments explode out of the head, filling the space around it. This vision is visible for about 5-7 seconds, during which there is no change in the fluctuating nature of the music and lighting. A very rapid fade (almost out) in both the lighting and music ends the scene.


Scene Two: Machines, Prelude to Act Two

  This scene (like Scene One) is in the form of a tableau with one ancilliary event. However, in Scene Two, this event need not occur right at the end.

On Stage: There is only sculpture on stage. This may or may not be mobile (with respect to itself or the stage). But all such sculpture is onstage throughout the scene. Some or all of the sculpture is designed to make sound. All movement (including the movement of lighting) is acheived by mechanical means (e.g. electric motors or clockwork etc.). There may be noisy electric motors or any other real sound. There may not be any electronic or pitched instrumental sound in this scene. The sounds produced will be controlled in time, but a precise schedule depends on the sculptures present. The sound should be controlled so as to give the scene a certain variety, not to give it musical structure. The quantity of material on stage is variable (from production to production) between one sculpture and a stage full of machines. The design must however be coherent. There may be nothing representational, only the real thing or abstracts. With the above restrictions, the ultimate design of the set is left to the imagination of the designer.

Off Stage: There are four percussionists disposed around the stage or in the pit, and a conductor who can be seen by all of them. The conductor controls not only the players but also the occurrence of sounds on stage.

During the second half of the scene: The dummy from Scene One crosses the stage in a bath on heavy, cast-iron, trundling wheels. The literalness or otherwise of the bath is up to the designer.


Act One: Clytemnestra

  On Stage: An area of the stage has been cleared of sculpture. In the space there is a tent-like structure just large enough to contain the performers inside it (the space could even be a bit cramped). The tent forms a stage within the stage. The sides lift in the manner of theatre curtains to reveal a Dramatic Alto and a string quartet. She is Clytemnestra, as that character appears in a nineteenth-century translation from the Ancient Greek (Aeschylus). She has arrived in the wrong plot, and as such must be dressed and made-up very incongruously. She is wearing a very rich dress with beads, jewels etc. She has rings on her fingers and an elaborate head-dress. Her face is made up as if for a much larger theatre. She performs extravagantly. Her presence is overwhelming. The string quartet, which is seated behind her, must perform just as if they are giving a recital. (So they are dressed and act as if they were in that situation.) During the scene, a dummy falls onto the stage as the dead Agamemnon. At the end, a piece of sculpture standing outside the tent is used by the character from Scene One to kill Clytemnestra. This weapon is long and mobile so that when a handle on it is turned, it makes a noise. It may also have a visually mobile business-end like a bird-scarer. While being killed by the bird-scarer, Clytemnestra is also smothered by the closing sides of the tent.

Off Stage: Currently planned are (at least) the four percussionists from Scene Two, a keyboard player (who may have played before between scenes) and a conductor/coordinator.

Clytemnestra’s Texts:
  Song One
Song Two
Song Three
Song Four
Song Five

Remarks (1971): The music and words for Act One are deliberately different from the rest of the opera. Its five songs correspond to the five scenes of the opera. Thus, Song Three is a projection of its containing Act onto a different plane. Here, Clytemnestra is simultaneously Lady Macbeth. She dreams, talks in her sleep and wrings her hands... At the end of the third song Agamemnon dies, at the end of the third scene Clytemnestra dies, at the end of the opera the character from Scene One “dies”.
It is crucial that any allusions to Clytemnestra outside Act One should be kept ambiguous. Ambiguity is her very essence. In fact, the rest of the opera’s scenario (including the bath in Scene Two) was complete before deciding to use her text at all. The music in Act One is stylistically an expression of an alien reality (the most advanced music I could write with standard notation in 1970). It should be performed in the spirit of that reality. The music means what it says, but it is a quotation.


Act Two: home

“waked by the flitting of the gossamer...”

Act Two

“Escaped, as when the fawn leaps lightly o'er the net of the unskillful hunter...”

  Scenario 1970:
[2009: This is no longer an obligatory part of Retrospective, but is included here for historical reasons. Note however, that whatever music is chosen to be performed between Act One and Scene Five, the character from Scene One is discovered sitting on stage towards the end of it. He(?) is dragged diagonally backwards as the rest of the scenery moves off stage or when the other performers have left.]

On Stage: The tent has been removed. Amongst the sculptures are three tall replicas of the character from Scene One. Inside each is a female singer (also from Scene One). Only their faces show, and these are sealed into the structures (like nuns). These replicas are white and solid.
Somewhere in the set there should be an inconspicuous screen (possibly a television) showing an irrelevant film (without sound track). During the scene, a pile of rope (a rope-bush?) gradually moves across. It starts to sing. (It contains a loudspeaker though which the three male voices sing.) Later it moves off stage. All the set moves off stage slowly, including the replicas and all the sculptures, leaving the character from Scene One revealed behind a screen in front of which the rope has sung. He and his desk move off slowly backwards (the stage is otherwise completely empty) towards the back wall, as if he too is part of the scenery.

Off Stage: All the players, except the three female singers:
  Four percussionists
  String Quartet
  Keyboards Player
  Three Male Voices
  Potentiometers operator
  Conductor/coordinator
 

Scene Five: Song Six

  On Stage: The character and his desk come awkwardly to rest against the rear wall of the theatre, facing obliquely to the audience. The lighting reverts to that of Scene One (fluctuating).

Off Stage: The Dramatic Alto, who was Clytemnestra, is as close as possible to the character and his desk. Her voice is to be heard both live and through the speaker in the desk. After a short silence, she sings the speech given by Clytemnestra at the trial of Orestes. The character vaguely mimes to this. The music is an unaccompanied song, though I may decide to add some simple electronics.

Song Six


Clytemnestra’s texts

These texts were assembled (1970) using the following three books and occasionally my own words. I found them by searching for 19th century translations of Aeschylus’ Oresteia at the British Museum:
  John Dunning Cooper: “The Agamemnon, Choephori, and Eumenides Rendered into English verse”
  E. D. A. Morshead: “The House of Atreus: being the Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, and Furies, of Äschylus Translated into English verse”
  A. Swanwick: “The Agamemnon, Choephori, and Eumenides Translated into English verse”
By far the most commonly used source is the text by John Dunning Cooper (ca.90%). I went back to the British Museum in February 2004 to check my sources. The books were still there.
 
  Act One (scenario)

Texts

Song One

Song Two

Song Three

Song Four

Song Five

Scene Five (scenario)

Text

Song Six



Act One, Song One

  Today the Greeks are in the streets of Troy!

And now full diverse cry pervades the town.
Pour in one vessel vinegar and oil, and they will part unkindly.
Even so two voices are there, each distinguishable,
Both vocal diversities of fate!

For diverse sounds distinctly now are heard within her houses
as the dismal wail of captive voices tries in vain to drown
the louder echo of the victor’s song!

For here the voice of wailing rends the air
As in despair the weeping mothers fall
Prone on the corpses of their slaughtered sons
Or wives lament for husbands dead, or maids
Round whose white necks the ruthless fate of war
Hath cast the chain of cruel slavery
Mourn for their dead sires, who, rigid now in death
Heed not their grief, nor hear their pitious groans.

While there the soldiers of the conquering host
Fierce from the fight and smit with hunger’s pang
Search through the streets and glut their appetites
With such good things as fortune first affords.

Within the captured palaces of Troy,
Stretched at their ease before the cheerful blaze,
They sleep all night, unsentineled, like Gods.

If now they fear the tutelary powers who hold the conquered land
And spare their shrines, the victors should not vanquished be in turn.
But let no ill-timed lust assail the host, to covet things unlawful, smit with gain.
A safe return has yet to be secured, and half the double course is yet to run.

But should the host come sinning ’gainst the Gods
Then would the curse of those that died
Wake, e’en though sudden evils might not fall.

Such thoughts are mine, mere woman though I be.
But may the good prevail that all may end propitiously.
For truly, I have gained great blessings by this glorious victory!


Act One, Song Two

  Some time ago I raised a cry of joy
when the first messenger of fire arrived
with tidings of the overthrow of Troy.

And someone sceptical and chiding said
“Dost thou persuaded by a beacon light believe that Troy is sacked?
Oh verily, tis like a woman to be thus elate”

By such a speech as this was I rebuked,
But nothing daunted, I in spite of all
Continued my oblations to the Gods,
Til by a woman’s edict one and all
in different places through the capital
Raised the loud shout of triumph
Pouring forth in every sacred fane the song of joy
And swung the sacred sensers to and fro
As gratefully they lulled the fragrant flame.

But Lo! There is no need to question now
for from the King himself
I soon shall hear the tale complete.

Therefore will I make haste to welcome back my well beloved lord,
Loved as my husband, reverenced as my king.
For what can glad a woman’s heart like this?
Or when did day so favourably dawn as this?
When can I open wide the gates to welcome my victorious spouse and king
Returning from the bloody field of war, safe.
For bounteous heaven has kept him whole.

Bear then this message:
Beg the king to come full speedily within the palace gates,
And may he coming find a loyal spouse to greet him,
Firm and steadfast to her trust as is the faithful watch-dog
And to foes as ill-disposed, and in all points alike.

Not in the course of long years have I lost one single seal
And as for constancy, I know not ill report from other man,
More than pure gold knows how to change its heel.


Act One, Song Three

She dreams she is Lady Macbeth - the sound of her dreaming, isolated twitching.
“What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charged”
“Foul whisperings are abroad. Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles; infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets; more needs she the divine than the physician”
“Unsex me here!”
In the middle of the song, the following fragments (Clytemnestra):


 
He would have been riddled more full of holes than any net.

A three-fold tomb...

Each form dying once...

But for myself, the gushing founts of grief have long been drainéd dry.
Nor does one drop remain of all the bitter tears I shed,
My sight too seems to fail me, for mine eyes inflamed with loss of sleep and grief suppressed,
Bear witness to
my deep anxiety | There’s knocking at the gate

(The two halves of the above line are simultaneous. For this line, Clytemnestra opens her eyes and says “There’s knocking at the gate” (Lady Macbeth’s words) normally. “My deep anxiety” is Clytemnestra’s voice broadcast over loudspeakers as if continuing the song outside herself. Following this line, she closes her eyes again, and continues her dream.)
 

 
Lamenting that the lamp forever burned gainst thy return, but never seen by thee.

And in my dreams, full oft I started up,
Waked by the flitting of the gossamer.

Imagining misfortunes for my lord,

More than could e’er have happened in the time.

I thus will call my spouse,
Faithful as the dog that guards fleecy folds,
Dear as an only child to parent’s heart.

Impurpled be the path that justice treads.

A previously invisible, life-sized dummy (Agamemnon) falls onto the stage. Purple blood. Squelch. Simultaneously, Clytemnestra’s head is thrown back (as if pulled by a wire), her mouth wide open. Her recorded, operatic laughter (screaming?) is heard in a much larger accoustic than the current hall. The laughter is mechanical, inhuman. It continues, with varying degrees of loudness, through the next song.


Act One, Song Four

  Though much before to suit the times was said,
It shames me not the opposite now to speak.
How else could I imbued with bitter hate
construct such snares to catch my enemy.
Hid neath the guise of love?

And snares that he with all his wise experience could not avoid.

Long since, I meditated this, how best t’avenge the ancient feud.
And now, tis done.
Here I stand where I struck him, and tis done.

I did it too, in such a way that he neither could ’scape, nor yet ward off his doom.
In truth I did, I care not to deny.

Ha! How I staked the net that snared his life, til tangled in the deadly robes he fell.

And twice I struck him: Thus and thus!
Until with two deep groans he dropped his lifeless limbs, and fell.
With that I dealt another blow,
A votive offering to the dismal king who guards the dead in Hades dark domains.

Then ebbed away his life.
While gurgling forth, the gush of crimson blood
Sprinkled my robe with drops of gory dew.

And I exult!

Not more the thirsty field, scorched by the sultry sun,
When hangs the ear lifeless and withered in the summer heat,
Rejoices in the dews of heaven!

Since then tis thus, Oh Argive senators:
Rejoice ye, if indeed ye can rejoice,
For in the deed I glory.

Fain would I, so just I deem the deed, libation pour above the corpse.
And twould be fitting too that he who thus hath filled the cup of evil to the brim,
In this his home,
Now that he hath returned, should drain it dry.

The figure from Scene One appears outside Clytemnestra’s tent. He has a long-range weapon, a propellor (like a bird-scarer) on a long, as yet vertical pole.


Act One, Song Five

Sung “mechanically”, she is now an object without feeling, already dead.

  Ah God! Ah God!
I read your riddle!

We are to perish, even as we slaughtered him.

Tricked and betrayed!

Bring me a battle axe!

We shall see whether I’m vanquished here or vanquisher.
For to this crisis hath the evil come.

The weapon is deployed. While cranking the propellor, the pole is turned to a horizontal position. The propellor disappears into a corner of the closing tent.


Act Two tacet


Scene Five, Song Six

  What! Slumber ye? Is this a time to sleep?
While I, dishonoured by the dead, reproached
Unceasingly, because in righteous rage
I slew, am doomed to wander in disgrace
Shunned even by the denizens of Hell.

What! Slumber ye? While I, who things so dire
Have suffered at the hands of those most dear,
Stalk unavenged through Hades’ gloomy shades
Scorned by the dead, neglected by the Gods,
The victim of a matricidal son.

What! Slumber ye? Behold these reeking wounds
That, gaping, call for vengeance from my breast.
Oft when on earth I walked, I heard it said,
“Keen of discernement is the slumbring mind”
And can ye not discern my direful fate?

Oft have ye tasted my oblations rare,
Wineless libations, and the soothing gifts
I nightly offered at the hearth of fire
At hours unseasonable to the Gods,
But all these gifts are trampled under heel
And he the murderer has gone, escaped
As when the fawn leaps lightly o’er the net
Of the unskillful hunter, and he mocks
The clumsy toils ye spread for him in vain.

Give ear ye Goddesses of Hell!
A dream that once was Clytemnestra calls!

Aeschylus (ca.525-456 BC)





Footnote 2014
I was rightly suspicious of the academic world. There seems to be no academic tradition for working on the theory and practice of contemporary music notation.
Many people are now working on the temporal aspects of music (sounds, live performance technologies etc.), but nobody seems to be concerned with writing. “Musicologists” (the people one might expect to be best qualified) are traditionally scholastic. In the case of music notation, they are either seeking the truth in the works of (equally helpless) composers or are simply not interested. Where are their disprovable hypotheses? Where are their practical suggestions?
Meanwhile, extraordinary things have been going on in the outside world. We are in the middle of an information revolution. But why are applications like Cubase and Ableton still using space=time notation?
Why are composers who want to use symbolic music notation stuck with the 19th century concepts embodied in programs like Finale and Sibelius? (back)