Counterpoint and experience

Only a few days ago I returned to Brisbane after 18 months living in Brussels. This act of moving has already given me some interesting experiences that have helped clarify some thoughts I’ve been developing about counterpoint.

This morning in Ormiston (a small town in the Redlands, to the south of Brisbane), by the water, was teeming with birdsong. This birdsong (and the accompanying sounds of cars, etc) palpably represented a ‘world’ in the Badiouian sense. Each bird call differentiated itself in the ‘signal space’ by taking up a more or less separate part (bandwidth) of the overall frequency spectrum. Things like speed, articulation, contour, also obviously play a role in differentiation. (check out: Marler, Slabbekoorn, Nature’s Music: The Science of Birdsong, pp. 192-15). This is field of differentiation and identity is something that has been ‘composed’ over millions of years of co-evolution, with all its contingency and imperfection and so on (as well as social development bringing in foreign species, etc). It represents a ‘natural world’ insofar as the relations are given and not, in the present, transmutable, and there is a fixed hierarchy of parts. This establishing of a world of differential relations, a ‘music space’ like the ‘signal space’, is one of the basic goals of contrapuntal composition as I see it. But a contrapuntal composition does not just content itself with outlining a world of natural relations, but showing how each element within the world can become each other element, and thereby creating a world of free relations.

More generally, I’ve felt a contrapuntal element to my overall experience of returning to from Brussels to Brisbane after 18 months. In my recent paper that I delivered at IRCAM ‘We only want the Earth’, I outlined a theory of counterpoint (conceived very broadly) related to Badiou’s phenomenology, whereby each object determines each other reciprocally within a field of relations, and in which the role of counterpoint is to curate the intensity of the experience of these determinations. I’ve found that the move back to Brisbane has confirmed this basic idea. Not only have I come to understand Brisbane (and Australia) better by way of the negation or determination via my experience in Brussels, but because there was little in the way of transition between one and the other, the intensity of the experience of that determination, was, let’s say, close to maximal. Which is simply to say that because the experience of European climate and culture was still so embedded in my body and mind, the quick shift to the Australian climate and culture created a ‘virtual polyphony’ and dissonance between these strata, which gave the logical determination a particularly strong intensity for experience.

Now, of course the more extreme would have been me instantly teleporting from one country to the other, or even more so, living in both places at the same time ­– but both of these are, as yet, impossible for human beings. So the intensity is historically maximal (especially considering I moved from European winter to Australian summer).

This reminds me of Janacek’s theory of harmony that I read about in undergrad, whereby chords in a harmonic sequence create dissonantial relations by way of the fact that something of the previous chord still lingered in the memory of the listener (or the resonance of the performance venue) when the new chord presented itself. (I’ll have to chase up that source).

Now it could go in the other way. If I, on the way back from Brussels to Brisbane, spent 12 months in Spain, or wherever, the determination of Brussels on Brisbane would have been logically the same (since the world is closed and atemporal in this sense), but the intensity of the experience of the determination would be greatly reduced.

This indicates to me the importance of trying out long structures that ‘get under your skin’ and then rapid breaks (although of course the point would be to contain a scale within the work from simultaneity, to abrupt cuts, to slow transitions, to separation by great distances).

Now Brussels and Brisbane are also internally divided, and therefore contrapuntal in themselves. Worth remembering – since its entirely possible, as Boulez pointed out decades ago to have a ‘polyphony of polyphonies’…