Crystallography, Strucutre and Notation: Some Decisions
Here’s a new film from the Royal Institution about the Braggs:
This short film has even more intersting information, including how the Braggs might have been involved in shortening the war!
This is very interesting to me. It’s great to see someone related to the Braggs talking about them as people, and to see a snippet William Laurence Bragg’s Royal Institution Lecture as well. And it’s good to have more information as well. But, I think I am somewhat suffering from information overload in the project I am doing related to the Braggs and to crystallography: a new choral piece for the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds which will be performed next year as part of the Bragg centenary. There have been lots of things to find out, including local historical information, historical scientific information and information relating to today’s scientists. Trying to work out how to make this in some way musical has been causing some headaches.
In my previous post about this piece I commented that I want the relationship between the theme and the music to be more than a metaphorical one. If this is going to be true it seems that I should only concentrate on a small amount of the information available. (Perhaps there is a whole opera for someone to write on this topic eventually!). By examining a small part of the information in detail I think I can get closer to a meaningful piece. Perhaps slightly ironically, this decision does seem to be something of a metaphor for what crystallographers actually do.
In the video above, Professor Stephen Curry can be seen discussing two nets which represent the structure of salt and a more complicated molecule. Salt was one of the first structures that the Braggs worked out. This caused me to return to Bragg’s notebooks, which the Univeristy of Leeds has helpfully made available online, since it is perhaps the idea of structure that speaks to me in the most musical way in this project.
Everyone needs to begin somewhere. The Braggs began with rock salt, and perhaps so should I. The pages of Braggs diaries relating to rock salt and quartz are discussed online by the researchers at Leeds—these are some of the pages that I looked at most closely on my visit. The things that interest me most, as well as the idea of structure, are the presentation of information and the idea that from this presentation the structure somehow arises. There are links here with two statements from composers that I revisted this week (both are from Richard Toop’s interviews in the article ‘Four Facests of the New Complexity’):
The first is from Chris Dench, who speaks to Toop about
structures which are only perceptible in hindsight. (p20)
These are exactly the structures that crystallography discovers; each new piece of information completes the full picture of the structure.
The statement from Chris Dench caused me to think about what I want to achieve on the macro- and micro-scales of the piece. In some ways, it revealed to me that the idea for what will now be the first ‘movement’ of the piece is potentially complete in a strucutral sense. Two things that were bothering me were how to handle the transition between two major ideas, since no ‘transitions’ seemed to fit with ideas relating to crystallography. I was also aware that the musical idea I’m working on might seem in some ways quite radical for choral repertoire and wondering if it needed to be ‘explained’ by contrasting music. Now, I’m tempted to further stick to my guns. Thanks, Chris Dench!
My current ideas also have a notational implication that is ‘secret’ within the score. This is in the form of a sort of metric pattern or cypher which works out so all parts have equal durations of music arranged differently for each voice. What is sung co-incides in the form of chords, requiring further notation/explanation for the conductor. I have also been wondering whether to completey hide this (i.e. to change the notation to regularise it in each part) but felt as if I wanted to show this aspect of the work, even if only as a secret for the performers. I then read the following quotation from James Dillon's interview with Toop:
For me, notation is not simple transcription, as it is with Xenakis. I think you can’t disengage yourself like that, and one of the useful things about notation is its circumscribed environment. Ideally, you use it to make the state that you are in even more concentrated, which is why I tend to write things out neatly: it’s not just a matter of graphism, of ‘how it looks on the page’. It’s also a question of forcing myself to work at an incredibly slow speed, so that you begin to become aware of the micro-detail of what you’re working at in a different way from the initial moment you might have made those marks, somewhere else. (p40)
Here, Dillon draws out a number of important points. Notation is not just about transferring the music from the composer to the performer but actively constitutes the piece.
The act of the creation of notation is part of the act of composition, and in and of itself helps the composer to understand their work.
The appearance of the notation on the page is itself influenced by the compositional process.
This speaks to the importance of both leaving the metrc structure in the score, but also to the link between notating and recording data that I commented upon in my first post. Thanks, James Dillon!
The next step, then, is to finish cataloguing the material that I intend to use within this structure, which includes sounds (there is no text), “situations” (chords made up of combinations of sounds) and chords themselves, which are derived from 7 composed ‘stations’ and some transitions between these composed by only allowing one change to the chord at a time. Here’s a poorly-taken photo of my notebook where you can see some of this:
These decisions now mean that I will begin to work in a more concentrated way on the idea and structure for the second movement or section. It will investigate sound and structure in a similar way, but also incorporate a further idea. This page of discussion refers to the shared notes made by the Braggs and some of the ways they later tried to make sense of them. I’d like to capture something of this shared way of working, and of the issue of interpretation and re-interpretation which must arise for two peple working with the same data in this way. That, perhaps, is the subject of my next post.