Making our way through our lives

We often assume that the best route to the meaning of anything is the process of thought. Thinking about problematic things – reflecting, philosophizing – seems to promise resolution. In connection with my recent works, I’ve been repeatedly reading pragmatist philosophy, the purpose of which is to ask questions about the relation between the way we think we think (i.e. what other philosophers have to say about our thinking) and the actual thinking that we do in our daily lives.

Being a ‘composer’ today allows a similar opportunity for reassessment. You can do it like most composers have done it since the late-eighteenth century, in which case you’ll have no problem taking onboard ideas, things and situations like choirs, orchestras, five-line notation, conductors, regular rows of seating, rehearsals, static acts of listening etc without question. Such arrangements of things usually imply ideas like ‘technique’, ‘accomplishment’ and ‘skill’. Or you can do it in a way that a minority of composers has chosen that rejects such historically accumulated paraphernalia, in which case you’ll make something that brings about its own situations and engenders its own ‘things’. Further, you will probably challenge the notion that meaningful musical experiences are a function of training and musical ‘ability’.

The difference is in the doing. Those situations and things in the first category are in evidence in our concert environments. These environments encourage thinking over doing: you listen and admire. The object of that admiration is two-fold: i) somebody doing something you can’t do; ii) the pleasurable result of that act of doing (i.e. if you think it beautiful, for instance). For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, this kind of experience (aesthetic contemplation) involves a special kind of thinking that invokes our capacity for imagination. There is surely no question that we may have a valuable experience through this process of apprehending the beauty of something. But I think there is some question as to whether it represents the most that music (or more importantly, music-making) can give us.

What we are increasingly understanding, I think, is the value of the act of making something – call it ‘art’, for old times’ sake – to help us through our daily lives. Our lives leave us with plenty of difficulties, unfulfilled wants and wishes. We can always read our theories and ponder their application. We can read the poets, taking comfort from those who have lived through the same problems before us. But I think we can go even further. Once we re-prioritize our inherited values concerning skill and accomplishment, we release creative acts of doing – of making – that present themselves as remarkably efficient ways of resolving the issues of our lives. We can find a way to use our experiences of living as the materials of our acts of making. We can, as they say, ‘write’ about what we know.

On the Operations of the Sun (Processing sketch)

On the Operations of the Sun (2011) from Nicholas Brown on Vimeo.

Here is the animation-model, made in Processing, for my new choral piece, On the Operations of the Sun for twelve singers.

On the Operations of the Sun explores the interrelations between science, music and architecture with reference to medieval thought and the development of Western polyphony. The title comes from De Operationibus Solis, a tract by thirteenth-century philosopher, Robert Grosseteste. The structure of the piece (see image) derives from the South Rose Window of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. A computer animation of the window’s tracery was programmed in order to determine the ‘progression’ of the voices through the performance, from the ‘centre’ to the ‘circumference’. The use of a computer model during the process of composition resembles architectural practice: the animation makes a spatial proposition – a ‘blueprint’ for each singer to ‘inhabit’ and make real. For Grosseteste, light was the first form of things. Here, the tracery of a rose window gives structure to the sound of twelve voices.

The piece will be premiered at this year’s Three Choirs Festival on 13 August 2011. Information here.

Three Choirs Festival 2011

Immersed in Processing code at the moment, working on a new performance-piece to be premiered at the Three Choirs Festival this August. Tricky to explain just yet: it has to do with ecclesiastical geometry (see the Fish’s Bladder, above). There will be 12 singers – Musica Beata, in fact, the very choir I formed with David Mumford at Oxford 17 years ago. There will an element of performance-theatre, too. More soon.