(Upcoming) Semi Art Community Project: Boogie Woogie Museum, Ulsan Art Museum, Ulsan, KR.
(Upcoming) Artist Talk “Post-Texture” on May 28th, Sunday, 5–7pm at the Auditorium, Cité internationale des arts, 18 Rue de l'Hôtel de Ville, 75004 Paris, FR.
Music Scores series Prélude Non Mesuré and Fantasia have been selected as one of the 10 most beautiful books in Korea in 2023 at the Seoul International Book Fair.
I wonder how you felt when you heard Julia Wolfe’s Lick for the first time.
The first impression was that it sounded like a repetition of “peripheral” passages like intros and interludes. Such feeling dissipated after multiple hearings, but during my first hearing I found myself waiting for a proper theme to emerge. I also found the piece to be visual in the way it is structured.
I’m glad to hear that I wasn’t the only one who kept waiting for the theme to appear. I can understand that it may be the composer’s intent to have the theme not so immediately apparent, but it is practically unfeasible to create music without the material. What do you think are the elements comprising Lick?
I think the basic element is rhythm. There seems to be largely three types of materials that comprise Lick. First is the thick lump of 8th notes that strike aggressively. Second, the consecutive repetitions of the 16th notes; and third, long continuous notes. Harmonics and melody are nowhere to be found. There is pretty much no reason to look for them at all.
Then how do these main components develop to build the overall structure?
Lick is comprised of three large sections, each of which presents, deploys, and re-presents the materials to conclude. However, the piece hardly follows the typical structure of exposition, development, and recapitulation of traditional A-B-A’ forms. It is more like the components of each part are changing gradually throughout the organically connected piece.
The first part reveals the materials that comprise the piece. The bulky sound of 8th notes, the consecutive 16th notes, and the continuous notes are introduced in their original forms here. The first part also introduces how such elements are employed. However, it’s not easy to read the pattern or any regular rhythm right away. The elements are dispersed all over the place, making it difficult to predict what sound would come next. This part felt like spontaneous sounds were overlaid on top of a continuous passage of time.
The second part brings about change. As the lumps of materials gradually snowball, they begin to create certain patterns and rules, and sometimes even collide into each other. While the thick lumpy sounds created a sort of a cluster within the confines of short 8th notes in the first part, in the second part many notes are scattered about as they expand, while the duration of the cluster becomes longer as well. The expansion of materials is taking place both vertically and horizontally here. The consecutive 16th notes play out with longer phrases, as are the continuous notes. The materials no longer appear sporadically but instead begin to form patterns. Since the main components of Lick are closely related to rhythm, perhaps it can be said that the expansion of the components is naturally creating a pattern. In this part, the segmentation of time caught my attention more than the duration of time. Rather than flowing above the time, the patterns formed here gave the impression of dividing time.
The third part is re-presentation and conclusion. Although the materials from the previous parts reappear, they are not replicated completely identically. Rather, the components build up the final climax and begin to gradually shrink as the piece closes. Lick does not grant the feeling of “arriving” at a destination but instead fades out at the end. The same motifs are repeated as each instrument fades out, making this conclusion feel less like something that reaches a linear arrival at a destination and more like a spinning action that dies down to a halt.
Maybe because I am more accustomed to western classical music, I must have tried to categorize Lick into three parts in my early analysis. Although it does not follow the typical ABA’ format of “leaving home on a voyage and returning home again,” Lick is somewhat divided into three parts. The first part introduces dispersed, fragmentary ingredients, suggesting the potential for such fragments to come together and create lasting patterns. In the second part, it becomes difficult to tell whether what we heard were indeed fragments or continuation, as the sound is variably and complexly twisted. In the third part, all the pieces do come together but still convey the fragments still existing within. Since I was focusing so much on the build up, I missed the cues for the reappearing theme at first, so I had a different idea on where the third part started at first. However, considering how the piece presents no ostensible theme as if trying to shatter conventions but still has its theme function in a conventional way, perhaps it does make more sense that the third part begins when the ingredients from before reappears like a recapitulation, as you suggested.
The more closely you analyze this piece, the more you will realize that the logic behind its fundamental structure does not deviate that much from traditional ones. The reason I categorized this piece into three parts and assessed that it serves the role of exposition, development, and recapitulation is also derived from a perspective accustomed to western classical music, after all. I speculate that as a classically trained musician, it would have been difficult for the composer to deviate too far from such conventional internal structures, regardless of her intentions may have been. However, the impression I got from deconstructing the structure of Lick’s score is strikingly different from the feeling I got when I heard it played. Therefore, what we should be focusing on in Lick may not be its fundamental structure but rather the “strategy” Wolfe employs to make it sound like it does not follow a traditional structure. The events that take place based on the surface built on that structure and the sensations experienced from them are much more interesting, even when the surface and underlying structure will always maintain a loose relationship.
“Continuous contrast” could perhaps serve as one of the strategies to convert the traditional 3-part form into another sensation. Throughout Lick, I thought two different elements were endlessly fighting each other to gain mass. I agree with your observation that the music sounded visual at first. I too got the impression that the composer uses formative language of the visual arts to convey the snowballing of the sounds. Sometimes I even got the illusion that I was watching a moving diagram that followed along a timeline instead of hearing a piece of music. It is as if a point became a line, a line a plane. It continued beyond that, to become longer, denser, and thicker. Then suddenly it backs up and watches from afar. The thick planes become points again. They contrast, interchange, and expand. They wrestle with each other, the fragments become patterns, and the patterns also become fragments. It’s as if the elements intersect with, or embrace each other. It almost feels like a serious joke, asking each other whether the chicken or the egg came first.
As in the relationship between fragments and patterns, I discovered contrasts and collisions across multiple levels. Although it is a minor portion, I first experienced something similar in the pitch progression. At the beginning of Lick, the pitch gets higher (C→D) but the range drops down an octave (C4→D3) in many cases. This technique is used often by composers, and the note progression is not particularly important in this piece. However, since such portions appear repeatedly, the progression begins to feel ambiguous, like neither an ascent nor a descent. It also feels like the notes are dispersed like fragments. The learned pattern of “scale” is shattered here. Meanwhile, the contrast feels like a paradoxical coexistence of motion and stillness. The rhythm keeps moving, but the listener is numbed by that energy of motion that it feels as though time has paused. The pitch is stagnant, but the rhythm moves. Or the rhythm remains the same but the pitch keeps moving. These are some of the examples of how the contrasting states of motion and stillness are simultaneously detected in Lick. Of course, as such contrasting elements coexist and intersect, Lick certainly and gradually expands.
The contrasting concepts like fragmentation versus continuation and motion versus stillness seem to be found in not only the structure of the piece, but also comprise the fundamental premise and attitude of this piece altogether. It is interesting how the contrast does not simply arrive at contradiction but creates paradoxes through coexistence of contradictory elements. It borrows an impression of indeterminacy, a nontraditional element, from jazz or improvisation. At the same time, it uses traditional methods to predetermine the notes on the score. Such self-contradiction may be the very source of the self-contradictory layout of the piece. Does Lick utilize any more elements other than the components, structure, and attitude in unconventional ways?
I think we can talk about tone as well. The entire piece features an attacking sound. At some points there are very sharp sounds of breakage as well. In context of contemporary music, non-traditional tone colors have been studied as the means of introducing sounds we previously did not pay attention to in the realm of music, or to uncover small, hidden sounds that we “haven’t heard before.” However, the sounds that Lick presents us are neither sounds we have not heard nor very unfamiliar sounds. They are more like “sounds that shouldn’t be made.” The attacks in Lick are played in a seemingly careless fashion. These sounds come across as sounds that anyone could play, but something that musicians learned and trained over time to abolish due to their rough and unrefined qualities.
Speaking of rough, I believe that one of the crudest sensations in music is disrupting the performers and listeners from letting the music carry their body. What shook me most when I was researching Lick was its anti-physicality. In contemporary music, the importance of tonality has been replaced by rhythm as the new important component, so much so that the increasing trend for rhythms to become so complicated has led to even quartets needing a conductor. Lick is also quite taxing rhythmically. The notes are certainly simple and repetitive, but the way they subtly go off beat and intentionally, cunningly shift forms in their repetition causes a gap between what the brain can process by reading the score versus actually embodying and prosecuting the notes. The fact that Lick is an ensemble piece further widens that gap. When playing a predetermined piece of music which has specifically laid out every note down to the 16th notes, the performers must share the sense of time and its flow. In most conventional music, the piece itself provides some basic clues on how to keep track of time together, but Lick seems to have intentionally twisted even those clues. This all leads to the anti-physicality of the piece.
Sometimes I intentionally summon anti-physicality in order to study physicality. When working on my recent work Etude No.1 (2018), I researched techniques for performers to become aware of their bodies prior to the sound. As one of such methods, I discovered that unstable pulses (created by long rests or irregularity) can be quite useful. However I had the conviction (or concerns) that performers would find a way to rely on their bodies to find their own pulse no matter how twisted the pulse becomes or how anti-physical the piece may be. I also had concerns that such awareness of the body would become dulled as the players try to focus on the sound again. That is why I deliberately chose to remove the players from their instruments so that they can focus solely on their bodies. Lick, however, seems to be declaring that the body would never be obfuscated.
Save for some special cases, music is ultimately manifested through the bodies of the players. Even if a composer writes the piece based on their ideals, their expectation of the final product would be the sounds created by the performers’ bodily movements. If sensation is something that cannot be simulated in the mind prior to the actual physical embodiment and execution, the body of the performer seems to have to intervene deeply in the process of musical composition, much like the way it does for dance choreography. I’m curious to find out how much composers have the body in mind when they write music.
During composition, it seems that there are two types of “bodies” being considered: the instrument and the performer. While the composition takes place in the composer’s head before being entirely transcribed onto the score, the composer would have to verify if it is in fact feasible for the performer to play those notes with their bodies and on their instruments. The problem is that the sense of the body differs between the composer and each instrumentalist, and that the task each of them is required to perform in a piece. What the composer can verify as (un)feasible is bound to differ from what the player perceives as (un)feasible, based on the physical training they have accumulated through their repertoire. Some composers may partially verify the playability of certain parts in a piece, but performers must consider the time and continuity of the music since they must play every moment of the piece as a single, connected, uninterrupted unit. That is why sometimes players have more difficulty playing certain pieces than the composer expected, leading the latter to complain why the instrumentalist cannot play the notes the composer had verified before putting it on paper. Sometimes performers assess certain pieces as “composed with good understanding of the performance” or “composed without any knowledge of the performance.” In other words, musicians judge whether a composer fully understood the physical sensations of playing the piece they wrote. Such physical sensations definitely have an impact on the listener as well. Music that sticks close to the performer’s body and movement looks and sounds different from music that is not.
Lick delivers such physicality through an unexpected way. This piece is by all means distant from the natural movements of the body and the pulse usually innate in most music pieces. It does not sound stable to the listener either. When I heard this music, it felt like the performers’ hands were being restrained from going where they usually would go. Any physical sensation this piece delivers to the audience is not because this piece is compatible with natural movement but rather because it is incompatible. This is similar to how the piece was seemingly written not to accommodate the performers’ natural movement but rather to deliberately restrain movement that the body is familiar with. Lick thus provides the sensation of physicality through utter non-physicality.