Interview with Bryn Harrison

Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Bryn Harrison’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 283–292.  Copyright © 2009


Bryn Harrison’s primary interest is in our experience of time as listeners, and in particular the way we ascribe it with directionality. The moment is the focus in much of his recent work, played out against a cyclical repetition of events, sometimes exact, sometimes with almost imperceptible variation. Structural panels of rigorously controlled material are presented with a slower rate of change than is normally the case in Feldman: Harrison uses looping processes to independently determine the drift of individual elements rather than the clearer cuts formed by Feldman’s gridded patterning. It is a music in which little happens and there is no sense of direction, even though it displays a constant, intricate motion. The scale of his music has changed considerably too, moving towards the much longer durations that allow this sense of immersion to emerge. As composers, we have grown up together. Both based in Yorkshire for most of our formative years, the relative distance from London provided by our location has perhaps formulated a sense of independence that would not have been afforded us were we to have moved south. We have tracked each other’s development in post-concert discussions, long-distance car journeys, and remote parts of eastern Europe for some fifteen years and shared our first live experiences of the extended late music of Feldman. It is for me then no surprise that his music has started to find its place on a larger scale.

The interview was conducted by email between 5 January 2005 – 16 August 2006.

When listening to your music I’m always struck by the way time seems to be suspended, or at least slowed down, and I wanted to start by asking you how you use repetition and change in your work?

Well, I’m fascinated by the whole notion of time in music and, in particular, by the ways in which repetition and change may occur when one shifts one’s attention away from a dialectical time (in which sounds have intentionality) towards a less goal-orientated way of construction. I would say that, in a post-Cageian (or post-Feldman) world it is possible to view musical time as something other than a device which provides directionality or rhythmic impetus (and all the other rhetorical devices that this implies). For me, time can be viewed on a moment-to-moment basis as a space in which to contain musical material. I would say that my whole motivation to compose and the subsequent working methods that I’ve chosen to use has come directly from my response to that situation. If time seems suspended, or at least slowed down in my music, as you suggest, then this may be to do with the way in which I’m trying to place the material into a sort of time-continuum in which the repeated figures can be expanded, contracted or subtly varied from one moment to the next. I try to work with material that will allow for a degree of flexibility or manipulation. Working with rhythmic and melodic cycles has been the natural consequence of this approach. I try to make each cycle have an internal logic (i.e. simple repeating intervals) that is clear to the ear but then manipulate the patterns in a way which is disorientating to the listener. Here, I think, there is a sense of implied motion within the cycles but not of musical progress. There is more a feeling of going round in circles, literally.

This seems to imply an interest in process at various levels in your work. Could you explain how such cycles operate, and whether there are any links between individual moments in a piece and its overall structure?

My use of pitch and rhythm is entirely process based although I tend to take a ‘looser’ approach to other parameters such as timbre, dynamics or the overall structure of a piece. When working on a new piece, I usually begin with pitch and often test out certain pre-structured intervallic patterns at the piano, most often to determine issues of registration or rates of harmonic change. Once I have a fragment of material defined sonically I can usually deduce, what I feel to be, an appropriate tempo and level of rhythmic activity. I then tend to work away from an instrument, expanding on the material and developing rhythmic cycles that can be coupled with the chains of pitches. I try to work with pitch and rhythmic cycles that are of slightly different lengths in order to generate longer sections of music or to subvert a sense of the music repeating in exactly the same way (or both). In earlier pieces such as Open 2 (2001) and Four Parts to Centre (2002), I tended to focus on a very limited number of pitches (typically between five and seven chromatically-adjacent pitch classes) to create a feeling of harmonic stasis or of very gradual change. In these pieces I tried to maintain a level of musical interest by constantly altering the registral, timbral or rhythmic aspects of the music or, in the case of slightly larger ensemble pieces such as the ground (2000) or low time patterns [#1-5] (2002) by dividing the ensemble into smaller groupings, each playing cyclical material within a particular harmonic range.

Whilst these techniques are still intrinsic to the way I work, I feel the more recent pieces operate in a slightly different way. In pieces such as rise (2003), Octet (2004), six symmetries (2004), and the piece that I completed recently for the London Sinfonietta four cycles (2002-2005), I’ve been working with longer chains of notes which move through an entire octave before reaching their starting point. This developed from an interest in exploring the ways in which our perception of time passing is governed by harmonic change, metre and rhythm – i.e. what happens if the rate of harmonic change is slowed down whilst the level of rhythmic activity is accelerated or vice versa? I found that focusing more specifically on harmonic rhythm necessitated a broader note range and pitch cycles of much more variable lengths. At the moment I have only explored this area tentatively but have found myself utilising different ways of organising pitch such as the very straightforward use of a chromatic scale which, until recently, I always found too obvious to use. This is particularly noticeable in the pieces rise and the second movement of four cycles in which continually rising glissandi in the strings are pitted against the more harmonically stable sound world of the rest of the ensemble. The effect is wholly disorientating and gives the effect of something which is always moving whilst at the same time remaining largely unchanging (analogous, maybe, to that of a river or waterfall)

In answer to the second part of your question, since what I’m aiming to achieve is purely experiential at the moment of it taking place and, since the music is largely non-developmental, I don’t tend to concern myself very much with how the micro-structure of the music will be percieved in relation to the whole. Unlike in traditional performance practice (where a piece will ordinarily have a sense of a beginning, middle and end) I do not feel it necessary for the performer to consider how their approach to a particular note or phrase will impact upon the piece as a whole as I don’t think this will be of consequence to the listener. There are, however, internal relationships in tempo or regulated levels of stasis/activity in the music which provide me with some kind of system to work with. The resulting flexibilities in sound structure are then presented as a variation on what has gone before or as the presentation of the same pitch series in a different way or as part of a gradual shift from one place to another. These slightly different approaches have seemed to result in pieces that fall into two different categories: those in which the material is presented in sections (or movements), rather like ‘panels’, in which the music goes on largely undeveloped until it stops and something else takes its place (etre-temps (2002), low time patterns [#1-5] or six symmetries) or those where a piece very gradually grows organically out of itself (Four Parts to Centre, Octet, rise). As I begin to work on a piece it becomes apparent quite quickly whether the material has the potential for an Escher-like metamorphosis or whether it is better suited to smaller degrees of variation. In the first movement of six symmetries for instance, the rhythmic contours seemed to pull away from each other and then fold neatly in on themselves. The pitch cycle I was using was, coincidentally, of the same length so the whole section neatly resolved itself without change or the need for any development. In these kinds of instances I tend to ‘frame’ the material by putting repeat marks around it and allowing the material to be heard several times. I might then expand or contact the material subtly and then allow this to be repeated to a slightly greater or lesser extent than the previous ‘frame’. At some point I would like to explore much longer durations, to explore material much more fully and to take the listener on a much longer journey into different musical territories without a sense that we’ve really gone anywhere. I particularly like the American playwright, Richard Foreman’s comment on Philip Glass’s early music expressing that ‘the work of art as primarily a structure articulating its mode of being-present’ . I think, through the use of cyclical processes, that that’s what I’m trying to articulate as well.

One of the interesting things about both these approaches to structure is that they are almost infinitely scalable: regardless of whether there are more panels or you use a longer process, it does not radically affect how the piece operates. Whilst the panel approach alludes to Stockhausen’s moment form, the latter resembles Jonathan Kramer’s notion of vertical time, where a single moment becomes the entire piece. Given that, I’m interested in how you might go about articulating longer spans, particularly given your interest in late Feldman and his concern with time/memory structures?

I like Jonathan Kramer’s description of a music which adopts the requirements of stasis as its entire essence and there are some good examples of pieces which operate successfully in this way (the late so-called ‘number series’ pieces by John Cage for example). I think that, for me, approaching the material from the perspective of issuing forth a very gradual change could lead to a longer, infinitely scalable structure. However, I’m not sure that it would be possible to use the panel approach indefinitely as I think it would, beyond a certain point, affect the way the piece operates. Jonathan Kramer’s notion of a vertical time refers to an immobile, undifferentiated sound world which is, of itself, the piece. For me, I’m trying to set up clear internal relationships between one panel and the next. This is why I tend to leave gaps between each panel and present them more as individual movements than moment by moment sections. Hopefully this will give the listener time to observe these relationships more clearly than if the sections followed each other without a pause. For instance, in low time patterns and six symmetries there are very clear structural relationships in tempo, pitch organization and levels of rhythmic activity between one section and the next. Typically, each section is relatively short in relation to the overall piece (2-4 minutes in a 15-20 minute piece). I think adding more and more panels in this way might deter from the overall structure and could appear monotonous. Feldman successfully avoids this by simply replacing one moment with another to create one continuous experience. At first, to my ear, these changes from one moment to the next can seem quite abrupt and, at times, even dramatic but the persistent presence of the material ensures that we very quickly forget what we were listening to before.

My interest in writing much longer music comes from thinking primarily of a piece that would be in a constant state of growth or metamorphosis. What I have accumulated over the last few years are these various techniques, these various ways of doing things and the idea would be to set myself the challenge of getting from one place to another, drawing on these different techniques as I do so. It would be interesting, I feel, to return to previously used material but by a different route rather like in an Escher woodcut. I have been working on ways of modulating from one pitch area to another, of moving between modal and chromatic note series and of moving from counterpoint to static chords. I am thinking perhaps of a continuous solo piano piece but without a commission and time available this material might remain as sketches for some time to come.

Ironically, the solo piano piece, Flowers Fall (2004), lasts only one minute. I was asked by the Guildford Festival to write a miniature for Clive Williamson as part of the One Minute Wonders project. My response was to take a purely deductive approach by writing an entirely process-based piece. The piece begins modally with a seven-pitch cycle and builds chromatically to a twelve-pitch cycle with the addition of one new note in each bar until it returns to a seven note cycle in a different key. The whole piece goes just once through the entire cycle. There is a succinct coherence and logic to the music that feels, to my mind, structurally right despite the brevity of the piece. The only difficult I have with musical coherence and logic is that it ensues a sense of closure which is something which I want to avoid musically. Another route that I considered was just the opposite- to offer a brief glimpse into a potentially longer piece- a vista into a larger world, although this seemed, in some ways, too conceptual an idea. Perhaps it will only be through writing a much longer piece that I resolve some of these issues concerning time and perception. For the moment, most of my pieces seem to be coming out at about twenty minutes which, of course, prohibits me from entering most composition competitions or calls for pieces!

There is a particularly fine degree of rhythmic differentiation in your music and I wanted to ask you how you develop this aspect of your work with regards to metre and the duration of notes.

Prior to about 1999 I would experiment with different ways of creating rhythmic patterns and often found myself using a technique of creating durational values from simple generative number sequences. As I became more involved in this process I began to look at ways of generating bigger numbers to create more finite rhythms. This necessitated a working method that would allow me to determine more precisely the exact rhythmic placement of notes within the bar. Around this time I also re-read both Morton Feldman’s essay ‘Crippled Symmetry’ and Brian Ferneyhough’s essay ‘Duration and rhythm as compositional resources’ and was subsequently reminded of their individual and idiosyncratic approaches to, what Feldman refers to as, ‘containing’ material within the bar. I became interested in looking for a way of being able to create small temporal shifts by leaving the original rhythm in place and instead altering its relationship to the bar. What I eventually arrived at was a method in which I would begin with a time-space version of these rhythms and then trace the resulting points into grids containing beats and bar lines. From there I could deduce (and subsequently convey through conventional notation) the exact placement of notes in relation to a particular beat or the whole bar. Tracing these same points into a grid of a slightly different size enabled me to stretch or contract the figure whilst preserving the original relationships between the note values (a method not dissimilar to that used by a figurative painter copying from a photograph in which the original image is divided into a grid and all the details then copied into a magnified version of the same grid so that the scale changes but the details remain in proportion to one another) By putting the emphasis on the size of the bar, the use of these frames led me to towards a more regulated system of time signatures. The same material could be repeated but within an ever changing metre. I began to see each bar almost as an area of compression, in which I could subtly contract, expand or in some way distort the rhythms. I would then overlay, combine or link material into longer chains of note values to form whole sections of music or even entire pieces.

Over the last few years I have used the number sequences with less frequency but have retained the use of the time frame. I am constantly looking for new ways of plotting material. At the moment I use about ten different time frames and tend to determine the placement of points either by overlaying acetates of a particular rhythmic pattern or by creating simple geometric contours based on a sixth of a circle (a method adopted from the British artist Bridget Riley) In both instances I trace directly onto the frames themselves and then translate into standard (but sometimes quite complex) rhythmic notation. The piano piece I-V (2003) illustrates the former technique and six symmetries the latter. What both techniques allow for is the same unifying temporal aspect to a piece that the number sequences provide. Rhythmic unity seems to be an important part of my working process – a way of allowing a piece to proceed from a limited starting point that is coherent and logical but with twists and turns developing along the way. Both the acetates and geometric curves still have their origins in simple numerical sequences and I am drawn the fact that, as in Renaissance and Baroque music, there is a silent system of number and proportion underneath the surface of the music. It is irrelevant to me whether the listener is able to perceive the precision of these slight rhythmic changes but it seems important that the player is able to convey a sense of exactitude and poise through performance in order to make these small differences ‘visible’. Despite the lack of any discernable pulse in much of my music, the rhythms still seem to have a bodily effect on the listener and both musicians and non-musicians alike have commented on the resultant gravitational pull as material is expanded and contracted. Of course, all this is experimentation and I am still trying to determine the exact degree that these figures can be manipulated. If the changes are too small then the results can imperceptible or simply uninteresting and if the material is expanded too far then the results can appear as a novelty to the listener

One of the things I find interesting when listening to your work is the paradox of it being a densely textural music yet one where linearity, and to an extent counterpoint, is the driving force. How does the ensemble size affect the approach you take to an individual piece in this respect, and how important are the particular sounds you use? Are they simply ways of articulating the material, or do they have a more important structural role?

I think my approach is largely the same, regardless of the number of instruments that I am writing for, as I see the use of linearity and counterpoint simply as devices to articulate the given material. The rhythms come mainly from the time frames and can be used to explore the different contrapuntal possibilities for an instrument with homophonic capabilities (i.e. the piano, guitar or keyboard percussion) or as a way of creating hockets between several different instruments. What appears to differ, however, is the resultant focus of the music. In other words, the way in which we perceive the linearity or counterpoint in my music seems to be different when listening to a large ensemble piece to that of a piece for duo or a solo instrument even though the music has been created in much the same way. For example, in the opening section of six symmetries, with its 17-part counterpoint , the perceived result, to my mind, is of a combined or contained mass of sound that shifts around as a series of quietly oscillating canons. Here, I find myself listening to the ensemble as if it were one large instrument. This comes partly for the fact that I chose not to concern myself with the colouristic possibilities of the different timbres available and thus avoided individual instruments drawing attention to themselves. In the flurries of activity, one can still perceive a high degree of rhythmic articulation taking place but it becomes impossible to identify what any individual player is playing at any given moment.
In other pieces, however, written for, say, 5-8 players, such as the ground or low time patterns the resultant focus tends to be more on the ways in which the material is layered or intertwined both melodically and rhythmically. With both of these pieces much of the material is created from different rhythmic cycles that are superimposed to create more rhythmic complexity. The individual timbres of the instruments then present the listener with different points of focus. At times I feel myself drawn to a particular line, let’s say played by a viola, and at other moments find myself focusing on the harmonies resulting from the combination of these lines sounding simultaneously.

Obviously, with the solo piano pieces (etre-temps, I-V and Flowers Fall) or the recent solo electric guitar piece Return (2005) where there are fewer simultaneous events taking place, the counterpoint becomes a point of focus in its own right. So, depending on how many instruments I have to write for, it is really a question of scaling up or down and in the process considering what effect this will have on the listener. If the piece is large then the rhythms will appear more inwardly mobile whereas if the piece is small then the rhythms will feel more articulated or projected. I am interested in exploring these different levels of material density and the phenomenological responses that arise from working with ensembles of varying sizes. I very often write ‘tutti’ throughout, regardless of the scale of a work, to give the piece an “all-over” textural density somehow akin to abstract visual art. A large ensemble piece, to my mind, is rather like looking at an object from afar whereas a smaller ensemble piece is more like looking at the same object close up.
Hockets and counterpoint can also have the effect of breaking up the surface area by splitting events into different registers or timbres. There seems to be a tendency in my compositions to let the music flow through you and I sometimes feel a need to counterbalance this with a tension that runs contrary to notions of relaxation. I am interested in making the surface more detailed, ‘grainy’ and occasionally unpredictable. What I’m trying to do seems to be about maintaining a balance between flow and resistance- to create transitions that are smooth but at the same time slightly unsettling.

You’ve recently completed a few collaborations with artists in other fields and cite the paintings and writings of Bridget Riley as an important influence on the development of your compositional technique. Could you explain how your interest in visual art in particular has impacted on your work?

My interest in modern abstract painting goes back several years and I have found inspiration in the work of a number of artists coming mainly from the Minimalist and Abstract Expressionist traditions. I feel the artists that have had the biggest influence on my working methods are those which are able to engage the viewer in a kind of kinetic stasis. I am thinking primarily of the British painters Bridget Riley, James Hugonin and Mike Walker (with whom I have collaborated on several occasions) as well as American artists such as Brice Marden and Agnes Martin. I am drawn to the idea that painting, as an immobile art form, can convey movement and conversely, that music, as a temporal art, might be able to convey stasis. In the work of all these artists (and Marden is perhaps the loosest) there is a certain organising principle in which the process of variation can only occur through a counterbalance with regularity and symmetry. The grid in particular, in Hugonin and Martin’s work, creates a dialogue of shifting sensations which sustains the visual experience as the eye is drawn continually across the canvas. In the work of Bridget Riley, the picture plane is divided into music’s most primary elements – tonal values and rhythmic gradations and it is often the way that these forces interact that maintains both the paintings dynamism and equilibrium. A detailed survey of the paintings often reveals rhythmic and tonal repetitions that are derived from simple number sequences being superimposed on top of each other- a process not dissimilar to that of the isorhythm in music.

When writing six symmetries I made a careful analytical study of how Bridget Riley uses the curve. I wanted to be able to convey in musical terms the same sense of transition and oscillation that occurs in the paintings of the mid-seventies. The result was a series of rhythmic canons that I coupled to pitch cycles, running these backwards or permutating the rhythmic sequences to create the variations in the piece. In Rise and the second movement of four cycles I also use the influence of the curve to create a series of trajectories to plot the upwards movement of continually rising glissandi played by the strings. There is something analogous here I feel to the upwards motion in Bridget Riley’s work in which the eye is taken from bottom left of the painting to top right. Riley herself has spoken of the sensations that arise when clusters flow into each other along the twists of a curve. In musical terms, this can be achieved by the superimposition of melodic and rhythmic cycles. I think this creates a type of art that is situational – it is not about creating the results but the things that make up the result.

Over the last few years I have had the privilege of finding out about many of the techniques under discussion through the collaborative work that I have undertaken with painter and printmaker Mike Walker which has culminated in several projects for different gallery spaces. In particular, Mike’s unique approach to over-layering in his linocuts has made me think differently about how different layers of music can be superimposed. The beautiful Linden Sequences is a perfect example of how a sense of continuity and variation can be achieved within one singular set of prints through the superimposition of a limited number of templates. Similarly, in the highly reductive Music for a Light Room, Music for a Dark Room one is reminded of how much dynamic and tonal variation is available from very economical means. Here, in a complete environment, our vision becomes focused not just one painting but on how each relates to the others. Perception becomes not just the act of looking at a singular object but allows for a degree of contextualization. In a lot of visual artists there seems to be an interest in building a large body of work that utilizes the same procedures, processes and structures. There is much more of a sense of continuity as there isn’t always the need to start anew each time. Through working with Mike and the interest I have developed in abstract painting in general, I have come to see my music as the continuation of one or just a few ideas and of setting up frames of material that can exist as musical objects. I feel that I am always looking at the same thing from lots of different angles and yet, at the same time, as time progresses, I am aware of a very gradual shift into new areas.

I have also been involved in another project recently, passage, with John McDowall who is an artist working mainly with books. From a set of 25 pages of images (the magnified holes and tracts of bookworm taken from a secondhand novel) I and four other composers, were invited to translate these marks into a musical score. One of the interesting aspects of working with an artist from a different medium is that it makes you have to look at what you do in a different way. This project in particular has made me consider how I organize material on the page and the consequential impact that this has upon the performer. It has also made me take greater care in the presentation of my finished scores. I now feel also that there is a strong link between my interest in visual art and my idiosyncratic approach to musical notation. Hand copying my scores is a laborious task. Like each of the paintings by James Hugonin, developed slowly and methodically over the course of a year or so, it allows me to look carefully at each aspect of the composition in detail.

Do you feel then that notation and the writing of scores are integral parts of your compositional method?

Yes, absolutely, because the specific use of notation and the final copying of the score itself are essential parts of the actual working process. For me, composition is very much a process of discovery and notation plays an intrinsic role in throwing up possibilities that I can explore further. I think there is a great deal of difference between the traditional role of notation as a means of transcription and a more experimental approach in which notation can act as a compositional tool. For me, the way I use to notation to organize material on the page has a very direct consequence on the spatial and durational aspect of the music itself as well as helping to preserve a sense of continuity to the whole piece. For example, when defining the exact placement of notes within the time frames I may, for example, find myself using irrational ratios 5:4, 7:6 and 3:2. I may then limit myself to only using these particular ratios for the rest of the piece – thus setting up a kind of rhythmic design. This is just one simple example, but my approach is always to work with strategies that will allow the piece to come into being. The most important thing for me is to try to get a balance between how I want to hear something and how this might be in some way slightly tempered by a system that runs counter to my intuition. I am not interested in a so-called ‘paper composition’ approach to writing music since I am primarily concerned with the sonic result. It is of no real interest to me whether the listener is able to read a score or relate in any way to these strategies. I feel this approach has more to do with allowing me to become an observer by giving me the opportunity to step back slightly from the material that I am using. Perhaps I have a certain mistrust in the notion that the composer can, in some ways, control the experience itself. The experience, for me, is what results from the active and mutual engagement between the composer, performer and listener.

The methods of organization that I employ always seem to be slightly different for each piece thus providing each particular score with a certain ‘look’ as well as a certain sound and intention. Some pieces seem to require more involvement with spatial organization than others. It all depends how the material is to function within the piece. In the solo piano piece etre-temps I was dealing with a very limited number of pitches, often presented within a sparse context. So here, I began by setting up certain systems to ensure that the temporal aspects of the music became the main feature. I set up each page as a metric grid- a series of self-contained organizational units into which I could place the rhythmic figures that I was working with. Each page is characterized by having the same pattern of time signatures running vertically down each page. This then becomes an organizational tool, helping to regulate the degrees of compression as well as helping to define the precise lengths of the pauses between events. Subsequently this has an impact upon the actual way in which these phrases and silences will be interpreted by the performer.

Another example of the use of notation as a compositional tool is illustrated by the II, IV and VI movements of six symmetries. The vertical contours that were used to create the tightly-regulated canons for the other three movements are here magnified and presented in a looser way to provide wave-like patterns running down the page. Although the listener may not be able to visualize the precise shape of these patterns the effect of an oscillating wave is immediately discernable. Indeed, after the premiere of this piece several people asked me if I had a strong interest in or connection with the visual arts. Of course, if I was to use computer software to write my music then none of this would come into being. Even if I was to make a rough copy of the score and then type-set the information onto computer then this would require having to present the score exactly as it appears in the hand-written copy. One could argue that, even then, some of the intention would be missing. In a technological age which promises more and more time-effective ways of documentation copying by hand slows one down and requires a certain level of patience and commitment. It is also an approach in which, to get to know the material I am working with, I require a certain scrutiny. I often find myself making important changes at the point that I copy up the score and, as this can take several months, a piece may go through several fundamental changes along the way before I arrive at the final result. As mentioned previously, it all gets back to how I’m trying to deal with time really.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: