Work

Gradients of Detail (2005-06)

Chiyoko Szlavnics

string quartet

Commission: Bozzini Quartet

Program Notes

The music gradually unfolds in long, curving contours——there is stillness, and there is motion. Phenomena such as beating and difference tones become apparent. The listening experience of these compositions is similar to when one scrutinizes the microscopic detail of a painting——being aware of and absorbing minute visual details, such as the texture of the paint, or the colour of the pigment——the extremely slow tempi of Szlavnics’ new compositions allows us to pay attention to the detail of sound, while being carried along by the long, gradually unfolding forms of the compositions.

The new compositions are strikingly austere with their uncompromising silences, and the strange, fragile beauty of their curving forms.

Gradients of Detail was composed especially for Bozzini Quartet. It is the seventh composition resulting from a tremendously gratifying creation and compositional process which emerged in 2004 with a seminal work, (a)long lines; we’ll draw our own lines. One of the performers in the premiere of that work was Clemens Merkel. During rehearsals in Düsseldorf, we spoke about the possibility of a new string quartet for Bozzini Quartet——almost two years later, we are listening to the result!

In spirit, in form, and in the nature of its utter simplicity, Gradients of Detail has a close affinity to (a)long lines; we’ll draw our own lines, although the former was composed for seven, mostly distinct instruments, therefore the orchestration was quite different.

In 2004, I completed a radical shift in my approach to composing, one which began around 2000, when I began to use graphic representation in my scores because I was tending to work with extremely slow sustains and glissandi, figures which were based on duration, and which were devoid of the use of metred time units. I began to produce scores, for which I would use the visual balance on each page of the score to mould the form of the work. In 2001, I produced a series of six drawings, made with a pencil in an artist sketchbook, and decided that I preferred working with this kind of artistic basis, to working with music notation programs, or staff paper. Suddenly there was a freedom in hand, and it emerged that I had a kind of imaginary sound world, which I could “draw out” on a page, and translate into music.

This new composing process can be summed up as follows: I draw sound, as literally as possible, with a pencil (HB or 4B, depending on the piece) in an artist’s sketchbook. The left edge of the page represents Time = 0 seconds, and the top and bottom edges of the page represent the high to low frequency range. I do not worry about specific pitches while drawing——I am only concerned about relative proximity of pitches to one another. I create forms which control the shaping of frequency over a length of time, and the visual forms which are produced must fulfill a kind of visual satisfaction, must fulfill visual criteria of balance, must be recognisable as visual art works in and of themselves.

In this process, sustained frequencies are often set against changing frequencies (glissandi). Traditional rhythmic units, often used as a basis for time-division, are abandoned. Taking their place are varying rates of beating and extra-frequencies (difference tones). Traditional equal-tempered or other “metric” divisions of equal tempered pitches to produce microtonality are replaced with the use of just intonation based ratios, sometimes both overtones and undertones. By drawing forms on a blank white page, without the template of representation that staff lines automatically impose during creation, these new works exist first in a completely separate dimension——the forms are allowed to exist first and foremost for themselves, floating free in space (a white page being as representative of space as I can at present imagine). The integrity of the works’ initial existence as artworks, is what guarantees the eventual strength of the musical works, once I have completed all the tasks involved in translating them into music: using a grid to determine pitches and timing of events, orchestrating the lines, and translating all this information into traditional staff notation.

The freedom of this approach to composing has liberated me from the pressure of expectation from without. It is thanks to my first composition teacher, James Tenney, and the example of a wealth of experimental composers, that I have had the confidence to pursue something as radically different from the mainstream as this.

I would like to stress two points, however: the initial drawings are not “graphic scores”, they are not freely interpretable, they are very specific forms which stem from my imagination, often for very specific instruments, and the process of scoring them is crucial to resulting musical realisations; but also, even though I am providing detailed information about the creation/composition process, I think it is extremely important, when listening to the performance of the works, not to try to imagine the visual image the piece stems from, to try to forget that the sounds represent pencil lines… it is crucial to listen to the sounds, to the musical piece, and to try and forget everything I have just explained.

Just briefly, the forms in Gradients of Detail are somewhat related to images I drew in Canada in the Autumn of 2004, just after my father had died. They are related to the form of the seed pods of a plant, native to Canada, called “Milkweed”, which I happened upon while walking in the forest to grieve. Now it is the Winter of 2005, and my mother is facing immanent death. In honour of her tremendous influence and shaping of my life (she was a prolific visual artist, and exposed me to a tremendous amount of new music and contemporary dance when I was a child), and to honour her own dedication to the cultivation of her own garden behind the house——which is filled with trees and plants native to the forests in our province, Ontario——I would like to dedicate this performance of Gradients of Detail to her.

Chiyoko Szlavnics, Toronto, December 2005

This performance is dedicated to my mother, visual artist Aiko Suzuki.