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maps of disintegration and forgetfulness

MAPS OF DISINTEGRATION AND FORGETFULNESS is a series of four works for chamber ensembles composed in 2010. The works take the ruins of melodic lyricism as a point of departure. Fragments of melodic gestures are dilated in time, their contours flattened and liquefied. Melodic detritus unfolds polyphonically within highly constrained pitch and timbral spaces, creating thick, opaque textures where polyphonic lines dissolve into tangled sound masses, where pitch and voice-leading melt into timbre.

MAPS references a particular historical practice of melodic lyricism. In mid-19th-century Western art music (and in its mass-cultural descendants like Hollywood film scores), lyricism embodies a moment of crisis in what might be broadly called a humanist aesthetic and political project. Industrial capitalism, ascendant in the mid 19th-century, resulted in the emergence of what scholar Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects, material phenomena that exist on such massively distributed spatio-temporal scales as to exceed human comprehension, let alone control—e.g. the modern city, industrial production, pollution, climate change, waste, etc. The scale of these material phenomena palpably decentered the human, inducing a crisis in humanism. Lyricism attempted to resolve this predicament by shoring up humanism through the creation of new musical performance practices. In instrumental music of this time period, lyrical performance of melody meant imitation of a singing voice, as if transcending the materiality of the instrumental medium, or, in pianist Sigismund Thalberg’s words, “[bending the] mechanism to the will of the art [of singing]” (quoted here). The (idealized) singing voice functions as placeholder for meaning—not linguistic meaning, but a supposedly more ineffable meaning which cannot be expressed in words. The material realm (the instrumental medium) functions as a featureless blank slate onto which meaning is inscribed.

At this point, the blind spot of lyricism’s project becomes clear. In dematerializing matter into meaning, lyricism redoubles and reinforces the same ideological assumptions that underpin industrial capitalism’s destructive environmental impact. If the era of hyperobjects meant that the material world far exceeded human meaning-making capacities, lyricism (as well as the related project of virtuosity) sought to overcome this impasse by scripting music as a bubble where humans could effortlessly transubstantiate matter into meaning, propping up humanism while disavowing its harsh material consequences.

MAPS OF DISINTEGRATION AND FORGETFULNESS takes this contradiction as a point of departure, contextualizing melody within a larger sonic and socio-ecological landscape. Focus zooms out radically: melodic gestures no longer constitute the music’s core, but instead become minute movements within vast, weighty, functionless sound masses, bursting melody’s bubble of dematerialized meaning. Scale is inverted: melodic fragments that presuppose portrait perspective are heard in landscape perspective, as minuscule movements within an immense sonic panorama.

Humanist lyricism exists within this same landscape, even when it claims otherwise. The project of lyricism can thus be situated as an attempt to domesticate this situation by perceiving from inside meaning’s insular, anthropocentric bubble, where the expansive landscape appears to be an amorphous blank slate, and where humanism’s role in creating the scene can be overlooked. MAPS aims to open a more dialectical perspective on this landscape by reversing lyricism’s hierarchy of melodic figure over sonic ground. As a result, sonic landscape functions not as passive background to melody but instead melody operates as indicator of landscape’s immensity. The works of MAPS are less transcendent critiques of humanist lyricism than they are anamorphic analyses of its conditions of (im)possibility, opening contradictions that are inherent in melodic lyricism but suppressed by it. Similarly, the gesture of zooming out on the landscape of hyperobjects is not so much an attempt to recover a metalanguage as it is a staging of the absurdity of humanism’s claims to offer a metalanguage, a passage from humanist subjectivity towards a post-anthropocentric, post-biocentric ontology.

More concretely, melodic fragments are placed in a context where preconditions for (the illusion of) melody’s transcendence of its material process of production—clarity of pitch, memorability of contour, autonomy of polyphonic lines, clarity of pulse, and more—cannot function ordinarily. Melodic interiority DISINTEGRATES within the sonic hyperobject, opening a zone of haptic, localized perception, of FORGETFULNESS.

The work’s notation and performance practice also actualizes the DISINTEGRATION of melody’s transcendence. Each of the series’s works is notated as short textual instructions outlining how performers may interact with each other in real time. Performers’ choices are usually contingent upon subtle pitch distinctions that are difficult to parse out of opaque textures, engaging performers as listeners. Notation thus functions not to steer performers towards a transcendent realm outside of sonic materiality but instead embeds them in a heightened intimacy with sound masses—as in sculptor Robert Smithson’s dialectical reconception of the MAP.

The title MAPS OF DISINTEGRATION AND FORGETFULNESS paraphrases a passage from Robert Smithson’s “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” a mock travelogue that discusses in sculptural terms the built environment of de-industrializing 1960s New Jersey:

The last monument was a sand box or a model desert. Under the dead light of the Passaic afternoon the desert became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness. This monument of minute particles blazed under a bleakly glowing sun, and suggested the sullen dissolution of entire continents, the drying up of oceans—no longer were there green forests and high mountains—all that existed were millions of grains of sand, a vast deposit of bones and stones pulverized into dust. Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor that equaled timelessness, and to decipher such metaphors would take one through the false mirror of eternity.

For Smithson, Passaic’s industrial architecture, some of it abandoned and decaying, is the reef on which the ship of humanist progress runs aground. I read “Tour of the Monuments” as a proposal for a post-humanist materialist dialectics, a dialectics that has continued to inform my work while living among similar ideological stumbling blocks in the rustbelt regions of England (Huddersfield) and the US (Buffalo).

(Written 2016)

Recordings, scores, and program notes are available here.