words

A selection of texts in which I talk about the poetics of my music and discuss the works and writings of other composers and musicologists. Please click on a title below and read on…

contents

On Reflexive Analysis
Analysing one’s own work can be revelatory.

Reflections on Pierre Boulez’s musical legacy.
(Talk given at the 2017 SCA Conference, Bristol)

On Reflexive Analysis

I came to reflect on the nature of verbalising on one’s own musical compositions at the time of writing the commentary to the portfolio of works that I submitted for my doctoral thesis in 2014. The composer is inevitably led to give thought, at some point or other in the course of such an exercise, to the manner in which to present in prose what is expressed as openly and, if the music is to stand by itself, as entirely as possible, in the notated score. What can words add – or even do – to the work when all has been said and considered through the countless and often unfathomable compositional decisions (amongst which I include those mysterious and compelling instructions constantly prescribed by the unconscious mind) that have painstakingly brought it into being?

The position of authorship held by composers commentating on their compositions gives them an exclusive opportunity to feed (or, perhaps, influence) the understanding of, provide clues and keys to, and generally ‘decode’ their works. At the same time it inevitably tends to frustrate their efforts to analyse their music as a text, more or less detached from its internal poietic identity, and to abstract meaning from its immanency alone. Seldom are writings of composers (whether in academia or not) found doing just this, since that type of analysis requires a certain distantness from the material which is difficult to acquire in relation to one’s own work, all the more when its language is substantiated by a personal system of composition.

That condition is clearly recognised by Arnold Schoenberg in the closing paragraph of his 1948 article ‘Self analysis’ where, addressing the accessibility of works from his third period (such as Three Pieces for Piano, Five Pieces for Orchestra or Pierrot Lunaire), he notes: “And if I speak at present dispassionately about these works, one must not forget that they were written forty or more years ago. I can look upon them as if somebody else might be their composer, I can explain their technique and their mental contents quite objectively. I see therein things that at the time of composing were still unknown to me.” (A. Schoenberg, Style and Idea, London, Faber and Faber, 1985.)

Pierre Boulez goes somewhat further by suggesting that true creative analysis mediates between the analysed composer’s imagination and the analyst’s own – a position that, at first glance, would seem to confer a sterile, almost narcissistic character to reflexive analysis: “The most attractive situation is to create a labyrinth from another labyrinth, to superimpose one’s own labyrinth onto the composer’s: not to try in vain to reconstruct his approach, but to create, from the uncertain image that one may have of it, another approach. Productive analysis is probably, in its freest form, false analysis – finding in the work not a general truth, but a particular, transitory truth, and grafting one’s own imagination onto the analysed composer’s imagination. This analytic meeting, this sudden detonation, as subjective as it may be, is the only truly creative one.” (P. Boulez, Jalons (pour une décennie), Paris, Christian Bourgois Editeur, 1989.)

While a point of attainment for the composer, the musical work stands therefore as one of departure for the creative analyst; it is fulfilment to the former and potentiality to the latter. Looking back on what has been steering and swaying the evolution of my compositional thinking over the past few years, I can only adhere to this view; and testify to it. The manifestation of a significant potentiality – i.e., one capable of truly feeding and fostering the invention and own potentiality of the analyst – is, however, an essentially contingent event, as much the fruit of imagination at work as a moment of revelation. But the importance of those discoveries must not be underestimated, as in practice the genuinely epiphanic ones, beyond the instant (and no less valuable) inspiration they may provide, will remain both a lasting stimulus and a trusted compass for who has the fortune to encounter them.

It is clear that the concept of analysis as a creative act mediating between the analysing and the analysed presupposes a dialectical tension from one to the other. That is not to say, however, that a productive analysis cannot be reflexive; in fact, it is by assessing one’s own work beyond its apparent finality (i.e., in Gilles Deleuze’s terminology, as a virtuality) that invention can be distilled into technique: at stake here, rather than the discovery of a potentiality, is the systematisation of an original solution to a new problem and, ultimately, its integration into one’s compositional language – a process of transmutation by which what started as inquiry, as experiment, becomes poetics. It is that personal alchemy, indispensable to individual expression and yet absent from its musical actuality, that the composer alone is able to reveal through reflexive analysis. Crucially, the focus of such an exercise is on what was found as a solution to which problem, rather than how it was reached – the latter being an ambition which, as has been noted by Alexander Goehr, is likely to lead to an impasse: “One would like to convey to an interested audience what it is like to struggle with the material (and where the rewards come). But here words fail one; and every time one tries, one is aware of the impossibility and, finally, the absurdity of trying to re-create an experience.” (A. Goehr, ‘Poetics of my Music’, Finding the Key, Faber and Faber, London/Boston, 1998.)

The solutions arrived at by the composer belong to him by virtue of the fact that they are the product of his creative imagination and, in this respect, reflexive analysis – whether formalised or not – may be regarded as the process by which those solutions are rationally claimed as acquired techniques. As such, reflexive analysis completes the creative cycle initiated by mediative analysis (the apogee of which is the work itself) and, importantly, sets the conditions of the subsequent one. Over time, of course, what is to be achieved by that process is no less than the edification of one’s poetics of composition, which constitutes after all the only certainty that the composer can afford. And if, as Anne Boissière has insightfully pointed out, creative analysis “is what reveals the composer to himself”, it can be held that reflexive analysis is what reveals the composer to his audience.