Monday, 7 April 2014


At the moment I'm working on a set of pieces inspired by E.A Abbot's wonderful 1884 novel 'Flatland'.  What will hopefully be the first of several pieces taking ideas from the book was written for EXAUDI, and premiered by them this March, in Bilbao. The book is an exploration of the nature of dimensions, and how we might experience a world with fewer, or more, of them, in it. In a sense, this concept - a somewhat Gulliver's Travels like proto-SciFi - appeals to me in an Enstranging, Shklovskian, way: it helps us confront the idea of dimensional space by making it foreign to us. In music, one often thinks of   pitch, rhythm, timbre and so on as dimensions, and this first piece tries to imagine a world which (like Flatland) has no 'vertical' (harmonic?) aspect. What then happens when the musical materials - as in  the book, squares, triangles, lines - of this strange parallel universe meet a sphere (Abbot's drawing of this is above)?

More music and more about this project will appear over the next few months, but, for now, here are a couple of choice quotes from the book (none of which have much to do with the music I've been writing so far).

"Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows - only hard and with luminous edges - and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. Alas, a few years ago, I should have said "my universe": but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things."

Much of it (again following Swift) is social satire:

'For this reason, among our Higher Classes, "Feeling" is discouraged or absolutely forbidden. From the cradle their children, instead of going to the Public Elementary schools (where art of Feeling is taught,) are sent to higher Seminaries of an exclusive character; and at our illustrious University, to "feel" is regarded as a most serious fault, involving Rustication for the first offence, and Expulsion for the second.'

Or, a bit later (lots of this slightly reminds me of another satirical favourite, Cornford's Microcosmographia Academica):

'Only a few of the Polygonal Class fail to pass the Final Test or Leaving Examination at the University.... It is from these specimens of the refuse of our Nobility that the great Tumults and Seditions of past ages have generally derived their leaders; and so great is the mischief thence arising that an increasing minority of our more progressive Statesmen are of the opinion that tru mercy would dictate their entire suppression, by enacting that all who fail to pass the Final Examination of the University should be either imprisoned for life, or extinguished by a painless death.'

Here, in the one-dimensional nightmare of Lineland, music - of a sort - is necessary for reproduction, in a peculiar re-interpretation of Platonic idealism:

"You are of course aware that every Man has two mouths or voices--as well as two eyes--a bass at one and a tenor at the other of his extremities. I should not mention this, but that I have been unable to distinguish your tenor in the course of our conversation." I replied that I had but one voice, and that I had not been aware that his Royal Highness had two. "That confirms by impression," said the King, "that you are not a Man, but a feminine Monstrosity with a bass voice, and an utterly uneducated ear. But to continue. 

"Nature having herself ordained that every Man should wed two wives--" "Why two?" asked I. "You carry your affected simplicity too far," he cried. "How can there be a completely harmonious union without the combination of the Four in One, viz. the Bass and Tenor of the Man and the Soprano and Contralto of the two Women?" "But supposing," said I, "that a man should prefer one wife or three?" "It is impossible," he said; "it is as inconceivable as that two and one should make five, or that the human eye should see a Straight Line." I would have interrupted him; but he proceeded as follows: 

"Once in the middle of each week a Law of Nature compels us to move to and fro with a rhythmic motion of more than usual violence, which continues for the time you would take to count a hundred and one. In the midst of this choral dance, at the fifty-first pulsation, the inhabitants of the Universe pause in full career, and each individual sends forth his richest, fullest, sweetest strain. It is in this decisive moment that all our marriages are made. So exquisite is the adaptation of Bass and Treble, of Tenor to Contralto, that oftentimes the Loved Ones, though twenty thousand leagues away, recognize at once the responsive note of their destined Lover; and, penetrating the paltry obstacles of distance, Love unites the three. The marriage in that instance consummated results in a threefold Male and Female offspring which takes its place in Lineland."