What do you see here?

April 1, 2020 in awards 2020 blog, featured, Home, safnm by mwhiteside

We are at an interesting point of history, planned economies are showing their strength during a crisis, the power of the globe is shifting east, and everyone’s isolation is giving an incredible taste of what life has been like for many disabled and unemployed people. Like various elements of the working class, disabled people have been having a mixed bag of victories and defeats. Society, in general, is kinder and more understanding of how disabled people exist; however, there are still many flaws across the board. This understanding has brought us a strange scenario where we can be world class athletes and scroungers in the very same breath. We can be profound individual thinkers, or we can be burdens of the state, who are likely to be abandoned to make sure the ‘deserving’ survive the pandemic.

This perverse existence is partly what led to the creation of my recent string quartet can’t you see… – which in short tries to come to terms with the bombardment of contradictions we face in society at large. The writer Lennard Davis, in his book Enforcing Normalcy, gives an incredibly diverse discussion of the history of disabled people and how we ‘fit’ into it. One particular element has really stayed with me – disability does not exist until you can see it, once it is seen it can never be forgotten.

This premise, is firstly used to argue why we see broken ancient Greek statues as broken and not as amputees. In the wider context the sentiment can be understood like this – a blind person talking to you on the phone is not inhibited by this dynamic so does not appear disabled, however once you see them in person with their cane or guide dog that understanding changes. Similarly, a D/deaf person sending you an email gives no indication of being ‘deaf’ as written words are silent.

Being autistic, this dynamic is particularly interesting to observe as one it starts to underline why so many people struggle to truly comprehend the overarching impact of mental disabilities as it is not something you can necessarily see. It also goes to show the broader ideology of what a ‘disabled person is’. This nature is significantly more insidious really underlines why say disabled making music is more of an outreach, feel-good project, and not art – or why an individual overcoming a struggle is a heartwarming motivation video and not an indictment of our society failing people.

This binary has been on my mind for many years, and I was quite glad that using this as a premise for a work for string quartet and electronics managed to gain support from Creative Scotland. Musically I wanted to highlight this constant to-and-fro. Admittedly, the metaphor, is handled incredibly simply – what you are seeing is not necessarily what you are hearing. The electronics and shifting harmonic language makes for an unstable and sensory environment. Sometimes the group are miming, sometimes they are in sync, other times they are not, sometimes they are just performing acoustically. Sometimes the simplest gestures speak loudest, and I hope you agree.

This particular rhetoric has little to no other examples in the world of contemporary or historical music. This, however, does not mean it is void of history or has no historical or societal examples it imitates or draws upon. The two composers who are particularly important here are Erik Satie and Horaţiu Rădulescu. Satie’s influence in the piece is very simple and two-fold. Firstly, his essay A Day in the Life of a Musician is a brief but illuminating insight into the eccentric man’s life. His focused daily plans combined with strict rules like ‘only eating white food’ in my mind implies the great French composer was possibly autistic. He was not diagnosed, and in reality, I am not always fond of ‘historically diagnosing’ people, however in this particular instance it warms my heart and is very relatable. Also, his possible autistic-ness says more about how conditions like mine an invention of are not just the mid-twentieth century. This fascination with Satie deserved to be honoured and brought to the fore in this particular piece as it is my ‘loudest’ disabled piece to date. I turned to Satie’s Vexations a curious piece demanding 820 repetitions of a chorale and chant. The blurring of double flats and double sharps gives the impression that Satie wanted more than tempered tuning – but was stuck with a piano, because of this and the curiosity of what 820 repetitions of something would do to the psyche Vexations had to be referenced in some form. This reference is more of an insidious one, than a clear-cut quote. Following the chorale, I simply ordered the notes that appeared, avoiding repetitions, this eventually produced my tone-row, which gave rise to the specific harmonic hierarchy of the piece and in turn gave suggestions to the wider structure of the work.

Rădulescu’s influence is much more of an eternal one, considering he is a composer I have obsessed about since I was eighteen. He is a composer I have written about on multiple occasions, and often, when at a loss for ideas I often turn to his 100+ catalogue for ideas. His second string quartet is a fascinating work which does not have the same cult popularity as his fourth and fifth, however the work has a lot of wonderfully notable characteristics. Firstly, this work is prior to his Credo, which was his first spectral work, because of this he relied more on serial technique; however, a proto-spectral thinking was certainly there, even if not as mature as later works. Structurally the work is fascinating as the quartet is recorded in advance and plays the material, they are given either ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ or vice versa. These speakers are pointed at a piano which is left to sympathetically resonate. The live quartet in turn plays the opposite of what they recorded i.e. if they played slow first, they would play fast first. The quartet is amplified and pointed again at the resonating pianos. The overall effect is a blur, where the harmonic material is shifting like sand with some layers moving quicker than others, as well as constantly remaining in very similar shapes. This approach is fascinating and became the backdrop of what I was aiming to produce in this quartet, with the constant blurring between what you hear and what you see. So, like always, Rădulescu is never to far away from my work.

The work was in the end performed with great success in Bluecoat, Liverpool. I was thankful that DaDaFest and Sonic Bothy were both able to support me so much during this process. In the end I can talk till the cows come home, I should let the music speak for itself.

Ben Lunn