Sunday, 21 June 2009

Everything in Life can be Montaged

Everything in Life can be Montaged is by far my biggest piece to date, and received its first performance on the 12th of June, at the Royal Academy of Music. I'd like to thank all the performers for their incredible efforts here, but especially the amazing soloists - Natalie Raybould, soprano, Lucy Railton and Severine Ballon, cellos, Sarah Cresswell, percussion - and the conductor, Matthew Coorey.

Because the piece is a full hour of music, I've created a little highlights selection, which you can hear below. It begins with the last of the 4 Mossolov arrangements which are a kind of Prelude, and leads directly into the beginning of Knight's Move, a movement mostly for percussion and cello. 5 minutes into the sampler, there is the end of 'Energy of Delusion', the central part of the whole thing, and then at 10mins I've put the complete last part of the piece, my 'setting' of Shklovsky's text on Ostranenie for 2 cellos and soprano.

Everything in Life - Selection (c.20 mins)

If you want to hear the piece complete, or any particular movement, I've put them up as separate downloads on the sidebar. The movements all run into each other, so sometimes the file breaks don't coincide with those between movements, but the whole piece is there, in order. A score sample of the ending is also available there.

This is my programme note for the piece:

Prelude - On Mosolov's 4 Newspaper Ads, Op.21
I. Knight's Move
II. A Sentimental Journey
III. The Energy of Delusion - Montage
IV. The Dissimilarity of the Similar
V. Ostranenie

This piece grew very gradually from a notion of the power and purpose of art proposed by the Russian thinker Viktor Shklovsky. Every since I first read it, at least ten years ago, I’ve had this passage, which is set in fragmented Russian at the end of the piece, stuck in my head, and sometimes above my composition desk:

And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war…. And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the order of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious’. The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant.
Theory of Prose, 5-6

The notion of art allowing us to see the familiar with new eyes, to re-experience things we think we know well differently is an enormously appealing one to me. Shklovsky’s wonderfully diverse and unique literary output, from that text written in the early 20s through to the Energy of Delusion, written in the 70s, is concerned with showing us how art ‘makes strange’, and these ideas form the backbone of this piece.

One of the most important mechanisms for this enstrangement – Shklovsky’s neologism ostranenie alludes both to strangeness and distancing – is montage, the combination of fragments to create a narrative through their juxtaposition, rather than content. Although Shklovsky shows us many examples of literary montage, its obvious expression is of course in cinema, and its pioneer, Eisenstein, was a friend and collaborator of Shklovsky’s. The third part of this piece grew from watching Battleship Potemkin many, many, times, where I was captivated by the way repeating images are always acquiring new meanings and implications from their changing context.

Another level on which montage is important is the pre-recorded electronic component of the piece. This is made of two strands: processed instrumental sound from the piece itself, and a collection of samples of materials from outside the work. The making strange and montaging in these moments uses music that has been important to me while I was writing this piece, and whose influences are felt in less obvious ways elsewhere. Some of these sources are ‘classical’ – 3 massive pieces I’ve been lucky enough to hear live over the last few years: Gerard Grisey’s Espace Acostiques, Helmut Lachenmann’s Concertini and Luigi Nono’s Prometeo. Equally part of the montage, and of my thinking in writing the piece, are musics from quite different worlds – Bjork, The Yellow Magic Orchestra (a sort of Japanese Kraftwerk from the late 70s), the accidentally experimental pop of The Shaggs, and shamanic chanting from the Selk’nam people of Tierra del Fuego, which could be argued to be the most culturally ‘ancient’ music we have on record. Another part of the ‘everything’ I am montaging is Mosolov’s settings of newspaper advertisements, which belong to the same brief period of wonderful experimentation and freedom that Shklovsky and Eisenstein inhabited in the early 20s, before the Stalinist clampdowns on artistic expression.

Other means of enstrangement – and ideas of Shklovsky’s – inform the piece on many levels. ‘Knight’s Move’ refers to a narrative which, like the chess piece, moves in non-linear jumps, rather than along straight, undeviating, paths. ‘A Sentimental Journey’ is Shklovsky’s autobiographical account of the Russian Revolution, which paraphrases Laurence Sterne, one of his literary models in the strange digressive blur he creates between art and life. This movement was the first part of the piece I wrote, indeed before the rest of it was really conceived, and is a kind of autobiography itself, trying to encapsulate a moment where the watching the natural chaos of water at the top of a fountain forced me into a fundamental reassessment of my own work, the beginning of the journey which has led me to this piece. The Dissimilarity of the Similar is another enstranging notion – art stops us from experiencing the same thing the same way, it lets us see rather than recognize. The final strangeness, though, comes from the voice and word, which should be the most familiar things of all but become transformed, not least through the influence of The Shaggs and the Selk’nam, into something quite other.

I’d like to thank all tonight’s performers for their help and ideas during the writing of this piece, Kwesi Edman for letting me try out and develop my approach to the cello, giving the first performance of what is now A Sentimental Journey and playing for the electronic music, Olga Stezkho for her help with Russian written and sung, Matthew Shlomowitz for our 10 years of endlessly talking about composing, and especially my parents, to whom the piece is dedicated.

- Alex Hills

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