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10 August 2011

Circles and lines (First Stones)

Chris Williams Image: Chris Williams  
© Hayley French

In July, Halcyon and Elliott Gyger brought together a group of young composers, along with the drafts of new vocal works, for an intensive four days of rehearsal and discussion. Chris Williams writes about his involvement - for more First Stones blog articles, please see the Resonate blog. The First Stones workshops are organised with the AMC as a supporting partner. (See also: First Stones concert 19 November.)

It seems cruelly appropriate that the text I have chosen to use works, on some levels, as a metaphor for the panic I have found for myself. The piece, as yet unwritten, is called That a circle, this a line, and while, in the piece, this is an allegory for the different types of eternity experienced by humanity and nature, progress and revolution is also the current conflict in my mind.

While I have always been fairly 'conventional' in my own approach to words, I have very clearly had in my mind two distinct, albeit equally valid, musical approaches. The first, and the one I have usually followed, is that the text provides structure, pace and coherence, while the music, though equal, is created to work around and with the words. (The AMEB would be so proud of me.) As the text is 'received,' it is an already tangible object, as immovable as any physical object. This means that the musical material provides the greatest opportunity for malleability, and is the real creation. For this piece though, I have cut words together, and allowed myself a new (terrifying) freedom from literary form.

In the other corner, however, is the approach of text being a jumping-off point, something just as fluid as the music, with the result being neither necessarily 'about' the words nor the notes. Neither approach seems to quite solve what Ferneyhough calls 'text-music discontinuities', without that really being a problem. While the first, my usual approach, dodges the bullet by allowing the words, in a sense, to dictate, the second solution seems to ignore the issue all together. Phonemes simply become compositional material, like a motif or an instrumental timbre. Suddenly the musical discourse subsumes semantics. Both approaches can, and do, work beautifully, but neither seems complete to me right now. One solution takes us from point A to B, ever onward, while the other allows us to look around, in wonder. 'That a circle, this a lineā€¦'

Are there other ways? Thousands, I am sure. Some lie between point A and B, some jump skillfully between them, while others fall beautifully from the line. This is the exciting unknown in introducing text to music, but also the daunting navigational obstruction I see in front of me. I should take comfort in knowing that there is no correct solution, and the fun lies in the struggle of trying to find one. 'A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?'

If only everything in life could be this complicatedā€¦

Further links

'First Stones - compositions taking shape' (blog article on Resonate by Alison Morgan)
Halcyon - First Stones 2011 (http://www.halcyon.org.au/page/first_stones_2011.html)

Chris Williams is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and an associate artist at the Australian Music Centre. In 2011 he is taking up a position at the university of Oxford to complete his MPhil in Music.


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