Dyads, Triads

Dyads, Triads

for soprano saxophone and vibraphone

dur. ca. 6'

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.