on generality

July 20, 2013 - workbook / writing

I find myself always trying to find the most general way of framing a piece at the moment. When planning a piece, there are so many ways in which the basic concept could be articulated, normally through specifying certain parameters, durations, actions, or sounds. When considering these possibilities, I am always conscious of their arbitrariness. I could do one thing, or another, or something entirely different, and the piece would still represent the idea I wanted to work with. This is something which has been central to my interest in open forms for some time now. In previous pieces, I have tended to leave various things open, such as instrumentation, selection of material from a field of possibilities, use of time windows to reduce the amount of synchronisation between sounds, and distributed decision making. The purpose is to make available more of the possible ways a piece may be constituted. Why is a single, fixed version better than any other? For me it’s not. It is simply one possibility amongst many. Of course it’s possible to generate a justification for a particular choice, and composers do this in various ways, such as framing decision-making as a personal choice, or through a process, or more complex rationales. Ultimately they are self-determining; I invent a system to make this piece, and the piece works because it embodies the system. I am right because I made it, and that’s absolutely fine.

So recently I’ve been more aware of the need to consider the point at which I intervene to make the piece. I am trying to find the most efficient way of presenting the material to allow the idea to be realised, but without including any arbitrary choices. This seems to involve removing information about sounds in particular, and on occasion ways of dealing with time. On the whole this seems to work for the pieces I am making at the moment, where a process or activity is at the heart of the work, or where there is something specified which shapes the production of sound such that anything within the range of possible sounds that could be produced is acceptable. I wonder if this enough though. Is acceptable really sufficient? At the back of my mind I still have this notion that what I do as a composer should involve making scores and specifying sounds with respect to time. My job is, supposedly, to show masterful control of my material to produce novel sonic effects. I guess I could try to do that, but it comes down to specifics again. The quality of a sound or its context can be controlled in fairly specific ways, whilst retaining a wide degree of choice. All sustained sounds lasting over thirty seconds have something in common, as do all extremely high sounds, or those on the edge of audibility. I think it’s these generic characteristics which are most useful for me as parameters now as it removes the minutiae and irrelevance of decision-making. The general provides specificity, more so than the assumptions inherent in the precise.


  1. […] to the problem of generality and specificity which has been bothering me for a while. I posted on generality last year, and gave a talk about it at Goldsmiths in October, but essentially the concern is that […]

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