August 17, 2018

I am putting myself to the fullest possible use which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do (HAL, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)).

2001: A Space Odyssey
(courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

Fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick released his magisterial 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was nine years old, and remember the poster distinctly. At the time, the film was slammed by the critics for being, to their mind, boring, confusing, and pretentious. (It’s now widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of twentieth-century cinema.) Unable to persuade anyone to take me to a screening, I had to wait until the late 1970s, when the film appeared on TV. So began my love affair with the work. If, with a gun to my head, I was asked to name my all-time favourite film, then, this would be it. (There are works by David Lynch that come within a hair’s breath.) When I first saw 2001, I experienced something akin to David Bowman’s encounter with the monolith, as he travelled through the Star Gate towards the end of the film: utter bewilderment mixed with sublime astonishment.

The film taught me about metaphor; intellectual, visual, and musical abstractions; and the essential visuality of cinema. (Its first and last 20 minutes has no dialogue.) Subliminally, I learned that great art (and this film truly is) neither compromises form, craft, content, vision, seriousness, and aesthetics, nor panders to the limits of an audience or critics. (When has an artist owed anything to either?) Kubrick pushed the boundaries of the medium, the genre, and, as significantly, how the sound design could profoundly transform one’s apprehension of the moving images, and vice versa. The compositions of the avant-garde Hungarian composer György Ligeti, which the director drew upon extensively, not only opened my mind to new musical forms but also influenced the way in which I conceive of sound composition. People who are passionate about the film have something in common: they prefer questions to answers, mysteries to explanations, and have a deep-seated conviction or hope that humankind and the universe are overseen by someone of incomparable beneficence and transcendence. (Small wonder, then, that the Roman Catholic Church gave the film an award in 1969.)

I set apart the morning to complete my sound-word studies of the scriptures, with Ligeti’s Requiem (1965) in the background:

Ligeti is a master of silence (musical space). He distributes notes sparingly and sparsely, like small graphic marks on an extensive sheet of pristine white paper. But he can also organise dense clusters of sounds, like galaxies surrounded by thick dark empty space. The works are often a tension between complexity and simplicity, much and little, and something and nothing. (I hope, one day, to be as brave.) 12.15 pm: An early lunch (a reduced English Breakfast) before my elder son took his train back to London, a new career, and another phase in his life:

1.45 pm: An Instagram update, followed by studiology. (I should write an extended blog about my uses of, and attitudes towards, Instagram.) Back to ‘Write the Vision …’. I wanted to explore how far apart I could push the tonal spectrum. I aimed to range from 24-semitones below to 24-semitones above the native pitch. At this point in the compositional process, each constituent component has to make a case for its continued inclusion. I was also asking searching questions: ‘What am I avoiding?’; What’s missing?’; and What’s insufficiently challenging? Even if the audience (assuming there’s one) hates the work, I’d like to leave them with the impression that it wasn’t easy to achieve:

There’s a ferocity in the piece that I wasn’t anticipating. It sounds, in part, like a mortally wounded wild beast taking its last stand against the assailant. This isn’t an expression of my feelings. Rather, it’s a result of the process and, appropriately, a reflection of the venom in the source text. On with the cans for the first of several stereo-field mixes. All the time, I’m trying also to breathe space into the piece, and tease apart tones. In tandem, I mulled over the outcome of my turntable free-fall a few days ago, when I manipulated the recording of Scourby reading from Habakkuk and the acoustic writing of the same, together. Before, closing down my machines, I challenged myself to start and finish a composition in only 10 minutes, using this material. This exercise is a helpful counterpoise and antidote to endeavours that seem to take an age. ‘Incognito (for Jane and Sean)’:

7.30 pm: Responsibility for this Sunday morning’s Holy Communion intercessions had fallen to me. A preparation.

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