for soprano saxophone and vibraphone
Premiered June 2, 2021
Meany Center for the Performing Arts, University of Washington
Nick Franks, ss
Yongyun Zhang, vib
And, as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.
Jacques Derrida, Structure, Sign and Play in the discourse of the Human Sciences
für jemanden, der wollte, dass ich das hier "Bad Vibes" nannte.
Where is the dividing line between me and you? Where do we end and the world begins?
Our skin would seem to be an obvious first answer. The mind, the supposed locus of our sense of self, evolved at first to take stock of our bodily landscape, of which it is an integral part, posits António Damásio. The skin, then, by binding together all the features of that landscape, emerges as a fairly evident border. I sit on the inside, separated from what’s outside.
And yet, there was a time before that border. «Infants begin to see by noticing the edges of things», writes Anne Carson in her essay Eros, the bittersweet. As children, we gradually learn that we are separate from the people and objects around us. And so, before erecting the walls demarcating our own self, there is a time in which we are boundless. A fragment of that boundlessness remains with us thereafter. We end up always occupying some portion of space beyond ourselves. We stake a claim to the space immediately around us for our “personal bubble”: our peripersonal space.
This peripersonal space is the region around a person’s body — peri coming from the Greek: around, about. Like our skin, it mediates the border between inside and outside. Like our skin, we tend to mind dearly who, and how, and where we allow contact. Unlike the skin, however, this edge is fuzzy: one that expands and contracts as if it were a lung. (Indeed some touches — those capable of making this space contract so as to allow skin to brush skin — are known to quite often affect one’s breathing.) It is part of the same feedback loop between body and mind through which we think, feel, modulate our emotional state, or let ourselves be modulated by it. It is veritably ours — it is veritably us. What is at a distance may be in fact already touching us. An object is either safely farther away than the reach of our glance, or it is already close enough to trigger one’s fight-or-fight response. That is why “needing space” during times of duress is more than metaphoric fancy, and why closeness requires trust. Like our skin, the peripersonal space bears the scars of what – and whom – we have encountered.
Touching without touching. Boundlessness within bounds. Though seemingly contradictory, these tensions are in fact part of the geistiger substrate that eventually produces a (linguistic) I from a bare sense of Self. They are also part of a number of events that make up the rituals of seduction, if not the creation of the mixed repertoire that sustains any type of intimacy besides the romantic: incompleteness and ambiguity, desire alongside reality, pain mingling with pleasure.
On that note, it is also significant to remark that a mechanism that evolved (like so many others) in order to maintain the integrity of an organism plays nowadays such a big part in its undoing. This functional change can perhaps be described as an exaptation. While an adaptation consists of a wholly new trait that came to persist, oweing to the way it improved an organism’s fitness, an exaptation is a retooling of existing structures for new purposes. With this kind of “improvisation”, however, comes an increase in complexity, an unwieldiness in conscious control, and the possibility for confusion: the basic mechanisms of desire.
It is on these mechanisms that I tried to ground Dyads, Triads. Two figural lines of force pervade the piece, flowing in opposite directions. The first questions the thick identities of both instruments, progressively making them more and more flexible: the stability of the vibraphone regarding pitch is bent out of shape, while the use of multiphonics splits the saxophone into something of a harmonic instrument. The same material properties of the instruments that once supported the so-called “conventional” styles of playing are here exploited, their perceptual and semiotic givens twisted into something more ambiguous. All the while, a second opposing force brings them closer together. Still on the topic of pitch, both are brought closer together when made to step into the same (in)harmonic pitch space in the interstices of equal temperament. Pertaining gesture, the unambiguously idiomatic vocabulary they start with is throughout the piece progressively interpolated, entangled, imitated, further blurring one and the other’s “identity”. Still, this process is not without its resistance, as, the closer one instrument gets to the other, the more extremely the other reacts — what is at a distance may be in fact already touching us.
Impelling these mechanisms is a fairly thorny and stubborn metric cycle, that looks over and controls the players’ somatic impulses. Although seemingly indifferent to the needs of their surface actions (and to the gestures its pressures end up molding into existence), this metric organization stems in fact from the very same economy of impulses that shapes the rest of the piece. Still, its stark contrast to the utterances of the duo is essential (in driving home the by-now grating metaphor, if nothing else): by commanding the self to sacrifice or surrender its usual mechanisms of self-control, and by articulating a conflict between the individual and something beyond itself, the forces of desire are restructured, and a certain kind of pathos finds itself again capable of providing some sort of existential clarity.
In the end, however, this metric cycle collapses in on itself. The players, now free of its yoke, huddle strangely together, pressed by the still-acting contradictory lines of force. This coming together goes as far as contracting their presences onto the same staff in the score, where, now bare of the underlying pulse, one observes how the same basic drive yields such disparate results in different individuals when pointed solely at oneself and not the other. The notation — that before did what Alterity does, which is alter — atrophies into the task of taking account of abstract relationships between musical material, not unlike Stockhausen’s schematic pieces of intuitive music. However, whereas Stockhausen could simply command players to quote from earlier material of his (as is the case in Prozession) — also pointing towards what still strived at the time to be a more or less a common language for contemporaneity —, the duo performing Dyads, Triads will have to trust the mixed repertoire they themselves built up to that moment. (Perhaps of some relevance here is also the fact that I don’t have the luxury of being Karlheinz Stockhausen.)
I’d also like to thank Philippe Trovão and Yongyun Zhang, both of whom I’m owing solo pieces to.