I recently watched a documentary of the German painter, Gerhard Richter that films him as he is working. It’s a remarkable film first off because, as he himself admits, there is something a little creepy in having the act of making something non-utilitarian recorded. One is reminded of Hans Namuth, below a piece of glass, filming Jackson Pollack drip painting and Pollack’s eventual breakdown from the experience. Secondly, the documentary reveals that Richter’s painting methods, at least in the series in the film, involve an enormous amount of layering and transformation often achieved by the complete obliteration of the earlier image. This is most radically demonstrated when Richter applies with a giant squeegee a coat of brilliant white paint on what had been a black painting. In the film, this process is applied to one of two very similar paintings so that one then sees what had once been a pair of nearly like images are now starkly contrasted. While Richter attempts some explanation of the reasons for so doing, one is left eventually with the sense that only he can understand the reasoning. The methodology is experientially arrived at and not subject to objective rationalization. This led me to think about three things that preoccupy me when composing;
- What is the function of pre-compositional determinants, in particular relating to time organization? (Stravinsky)
- Is there an analogy in composing music to Richter’s methods of painting?
- How are computer engraving programs actually composing tools? (Finale)
About seven years ago, I started to go directly into the computer when composing instead of notating a paper score first. I had previously, like Stravinsky, written all my music at the piano, testing the sounds before notating them. Out of sense that the music was too often too vertically oriented, I asked myself if a change in the process of notation might orient me more to thinking of the horizontal dimension of music and from this question I started notating directly into the computer. Now one could say that a computer screen is simply an electronic representation of a piece of paper so how would this actually signify a change in methodology? Much to my delight I discovered that this form of notation made much simpler the serialization of different drafts of a composition and encouraged the immediate testing of alternatives such as transposition, rebarring and registration. I soon began using MIDI playback, all its negatives acknowledged, while composing.
Watching Richter painting, making irrevocable decisions which altered fundamentally the images he was creating brought me, perhaps oddly, to think about Stravinsky’s method of working. In the published sketchbook for L’Histoire du Soldat, one is struck by the sequence of the sketches. Complete sections of the many different pieces of the work are notated in very precise detail, but their eventual continuity in the finished work is not present. It is as though Stravinsky is totally confident when notating the sketches that they will be in the piece, but he does not know where they will occur. This is completely different from Richter’s approach in which, through layering, the original “material” may be nearly completely eradicated.
It is not untypical for me, even with a short piece, to have 10 to 20 drafts before arriving at the final version. In this way, I am working like Richter.Unlike Richter, however, through the technology of Finale, I am able to save all my variants. While his paintings and my pieces are palimpsets, his original points of departure are no longer or only dimly perceptible. I can reverse the process of my decisions but he cannot.
Yet, if this multi-draft palimpset approach is like Richter, I sometimes arrive at a final version of a piece by analyzing, often ipso facto, its proportional relationships. With Stravinsky this is most certainly done as an original part of the composition. A piece like Bransle Gay from Agon is a demonstration of this. Inevitably I ask myself why am I adopting a principle of rationalization after the fact which normally precedes a decision, as in architecture.
This is where Richter’s serial approach to painting, which is common to many artists of the last 50 years, ties in with Finale as well with Stravinsky. In the film, Richter begins a series of three identically sized canvasses with the same palette, a yellow base, upon which blue, red and white layering is applied and then squeegeed. The three “original drafts” thus have very similar points of departure. He then works on the canvasses simultaneously, so while the “originals” become altered the series affords some evidence of what was effaced by comparison with each other. This is what Finale makes possible. Stravinsky, while working with very fixed and precise materials, accomplishes something like this through his rearrangement of repeated elements. In the Bransle Gay, for example, one could say the castenet is Richter’s yellow base and the oblligato instruments are Richter’s squeegee. Stravinsky’s grid approach to proportion, viewed in the light of Richter’s serialization, seems closely related to it with , apart from the difference of mediums, the primary difference being that Stravinsky allows the grid (the castenet) to be perceived while Richter effaces it, in this case, the yellow base.