Karlheinz Essl

New Aspects of Musical Material

Darmstadt Lecture 1992


If today I were to attempt to define a new concept of musical material, I would first sketch three aspects of contemporary thinking in which our altered social reality is reflected. This recourse to intellectual fundamentals seems unavoidable, for when we deal with "material," we are not dealing with raw matter which can be treated separated from its intellectual environment but rather, as Adorno pointed out, we are dealing with sedimentiertem Geist or, in the english translation, with the "crystallization of the creative impulse." [Philosophy of New Music; translated by Mitchell and Bloomster, p. 33]

Philosophical Fundaments

a. Postmodernism

That in the post modern age, what Lyotard called "la crise des grands récits" [La condition postmoderne] has indeed taken place, can be seen in the decline of once powerful political and artistic ideologies. If reference to advanced theories of art used to be -- if not a guarantee of artistic quality then at least an expression of avant-garde awareness -- nowadays it seems to be futile. Today we are faced with a condition of potential infinitude which presents us with a completely new demand, namely the following: in a situation of "anything goes" to find an orientation -- which can no longer be dictated ex cathedra -- without sinking into the dead-end street of "rien ne va plus." For in addition to the loss of compelling theoretical thought there exists a second loss: the disappearance of the "meaning" which was once implicit in the code of what is called das Musiksprachliche. In fact, there is every reason to believe today that we have lost the very "common sense" to which theory and language must refer in order to be understood.

But I would find it mistaken to lament this condition. Instead, this situation of at least potential freedom from external constraints should be taken as an opportunity to unleash new artistic potential rather than taking refuge in the restoration of inherited traditional artistic categories. Without going so far as to refute the attainments of modernism as an "unfinished project"", the ambiguity and equivocalness which characterize post-modernism could lead to new dialectical thinking, which could put an end to the trivial dualism making way for a real multivalence. By "multivalence," I do not mean an arbitrary juxtaposition of historical quotations, I mean rather the conscious sustaining of the tensions and contradictions between different aspects of a material, which in itself is polyvalent.

In saying this much, I have indicated one aspect of a new concept of material: It is neither some sort of objet trouvée lying on the street, nor a prescribed idiom that can be adapted at will; it is not a historical recycling product, rather it is the result of compositional effort. This material develops its tensile potential primarily from the internal dialectic of its own various aspects and not by reference to a reality outside itself.

b. Systems Theory

The idea of an objectified material became obsolete not lastly through the discovery of self-organization in open systems and through the application thereof to artistic creation. The static object as incarnation of a timeless existence has been replaced by a temporally oriented, dynamic process of becoming. Accordingly, material appears not as something frozen, but rather as a potential which constantly regenerates itself in time and which follows its own inherent, constantly regenerating laws.

To become involved with a material's capacity for self-organization would entail yielding to unpredictable proliferations and the thereby resulting "chance." And with that, the question is raised, to what extent chance can be integrated into a compositional concept without neutralizing its subjective intentionality -- chance, for instance, as a catalyst for the expansion of our limited empirical perceptive horizon.

c. Radical Constructivism

It has been up to so-called "radical constructivism" to make a radical inquiry into how, indeed, our perception is constituted. This scrutiny of our mechanisms of perception has led to the insight, that what we commonly refer to as "reality" cannot be the image of a reality that exists outside of our self; rather, it is an individual mental construction. Or, as Heinz von Foerster so aptly expressed it, "The world, as we perceive it, is our own invention."

For this reason, a shared and binding sense of meaning -- a "common sense" -- can no longer be tacitly presupposed, for it itself is a product of individual apperception. This fact would lead us as a consequence to give a new value to the listener. The listener -- instead of being obliged to decipher a presupposed message (the failure at which would deprive him of the promised delight) -- the listener is now challenged to finish, so to speak, the composition of the piece based on his own personal assumptions. In so doing, however, he breaks out of the passivity ordained by society and becomes an active "co-creator" of an open work of art. As Umberto Eco formulated in the early 60's, this work of art can "be interpreted in a thousand different ways without its irreproducible singularity being altered. Every reception is thus at the same time an interpretation and a performance, since in every reception the work is relived in an original perspective." [Opera aperta, p. 34]

It must be stipulated that the listener's active participation in no way releases the composer from his responsibility to compose in the true sense of the word. Now, his task consists of embedding -- in the material itself -- a multitude of relationships that can be utilized as potential meaning. The particular "meaning" must be re-established each time by means of compositional labor. It is not a reflection of a pre-existing meaning, it is rather the set of possibilities in a given situation for joining one act to other acts. In Jürgen Frese's words, "The meaning of an act is the multiplicity of connections which it opens up." Or, as Heinz von Foerster put it, "Always act such that further possibilities are created."

Let us note that an openness achieved in this way would have to pre-exist in the material itself, and this material would have to be based rather on polyvalent relationships than on unambiguous, linear constructions. This fact would also have far-reaching effects on structure and form. And this doesn't mean that an open work of musical art must have something in common with "variable forms" or other such fluid form concepts. For me, openness is first of all a quality of writing which allows the listener to explore different approaches, to look for his own way through a maze of sound, and not a specific method of composition or notation.


It will be seen now that this new material is not a static object, but rather a dynamic process that has its source in the dialectic of two principles. A matrix of relationships as a defined field of possibilities represents the formalized, objective part of the composer's mental world. This matrix is not a literal image, it is an abstraction of the material data necessary for obtaining the desired openness and polyvalence. For it is only subjective compositional interpretation that can bring the abstract matrix into a concrete manifestation, thus animating its proliferation. In the interaction between object and subject, the original abstraction is transformed -- it becomes sensibly perceptible reality.

It is this interaction which is the real germinating force behind a material's capacity for mutation. Depending upon the musical context and an individual's cognitive potential (which constantly changes in the course of the compositional process), similar matrix-constellations will be interpreted differently and thus will manifest itself in a variety of appearances. In order to make this possible, it seems to me of utmost importance that complete pre-determination be renounced. Only the conscious creation of free spaces allows the contextually dependent transformation into perceptible reality. Thus, farewell is bidden to the utopia of "integral" music which functions due only to its own prerequisites and which, as a hermetic algorithm, has only itself as content.


At this point, I would like to elucidate my theoretical remarks using as a practical example the composition Partikel-Bewegungen (1991 ff.), which was performed last night. This piece for flute, bass clarinet and saxophone was written for performance with the artist and "sprayer," Harald Naegeli, whose so-called particle drawings were an important stimulus in its writing.

Besides their general artistic appearance, these drawings fascinate me by the way in which they are created. Without any planning, Naegeli works directly on glossy white paper, the position of which he constantly changes. With the fine point of his pen, he carefully places points, lines and angles. The constellations, convolutions and disintegration of that which has just been formed elicit his spontaneous, unconscious reactions. But Naegeli doesn't act as a nobly governing master, a lofty sovereign who brings a conceived image to paper. He functions rather as part of an organism which, in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable process of self-creation, begins to proliferate, taking new directions and producing unforeseeable mutations. For these reasons, Naegeli's Particle-Drawings do not represent a final and finished state. On the contrary, they remain "open forms" which, even though they have been graphically fixed, leave open countless directions and approaches in which the observer can encounter himself.

In these drawings I recognized a hidden relationship to my own compositional thinking, less on the aesthetic surface than in the interior -- more precisely, in the material: in the ambiguity, in the unpredictability of the process of creation, in the force of self-organization, in the openness of writing. For Naegeli's unpretentious graphic particles taken alone signify nothing at all. It is only in context, in relationship to other particles, in the mind of the beholder and in the temporal process of reflection through interpretation, that the picture finally takes form, appearing not as a static object but rather as liberated motion.

Two years ago here in Darmstadt, I stated that rudimentary, featureless sound particles are the material basis of my compositional thinking. These sound particles form a matrix of graduated relationships. They are inherently multivalent, and it is only in a global context that they acquire their specific meaning. In order to attain the desired polyvalence, the sound particles must be as simple as possible in structure. Out of their dispersion, larger, more complex formations are created which, however, do not represent fixed constructions, rather, the formations remain fundamentally variable. It is not the individual sound which is in the foreground, but the relationships and tensions which are created each time anew between the sounds. It is not the individual object which has meaning, rather the process in which the tensions and contradictions between different objects are sustained.

The two mutually conditioning aspects of the material I have spoken of -- objective matrix and subjective interpretation -- can be particularly well observed in the composition Partikel-Bewegungen. They are divided -- in a manner atypical for my usual compositional practice -- between composer and musicians.

My task as composer lay in the definition of the sound particles as a matrix of relationships, in the planning of the development of their forces and in the formal and temporal lay-out of the total process. Since the music was conceived for a spray-performance by Harald Naegeli and since spray cans produce not only particles of pictures but also noises, I chose the noises as the starting point for the construction of the sound material. The three wind instruments are transformed, so to speak, into musical spray cans, which sprays not color but sounds. I will return to speak of the transformation of the spray can sound into musical material later.


Before I continue, I would like to make a few remarks concerning the Notation used in Partikel-Bewegungen, which I will explain using an excerpt from one of the instrumental parts:


Partikel-Bewegungen: Player A, p.4

My stated purpose was to create a sound organism which obeys a prescribed temporal and formal course but which in detail self-organizes unpredictably at the moment of performance through a creative communication process between the musicians. This purpose led me to develop a system of graphic indications especially for this composition and these instruments. In this graphic notation, it is the desired result -- and not the mode of production -- which is notated.

I began with three noises typical of a spray can, namely : pulse-like points, sustained sounds and the rhythmic rattling inside of the spray can. During an intensive collaboration with the musicians I derived from these spray can noises three fundamental types of sound particles, which I call point, plane and grid. This terminology describes sound principles as abstractions of rudimentary sound events, and not as concrete sound phenomena. Therefore, this terminology is symbolic, not literal.

a. Types of Particles

Each particle type is designated by its own graphic symbol:

b. Color

These three types of particles can occur in three color variations, which are represented by the shade of the graphic symbol:

c. Structure

Each type of particle appears in its own separate characteristic structural variation:

These symbols appear on a staff in which time is represented horizontally and pitch is represented vertically. The entry point, duration and pitch of the individual particles must be estimated according to their position. Horizontally, elapsed time is represented in the manner of "space notation" from left to right, each line standing for approximately 30 seconds. Vertically, three registers are represented: low, middle and high, from which the approximate pitch can be read (noises, of course due to their nature, being less differentiated than pitches). The rhythmic-harmonic decoding of the symbols is thus combined with a certain inexactitude; but this imprecision is necessary in order to make a context-dependent interpretation possible. I will return to this point later.

In order to explain the principle of this notation, it was necessary first to consider the individual facets independently of each other. But it is only through the coinciding of the different parameters -- particle type, pitch, dynamic, color, duration and different additional individual indications -- that the particular characteristic sound is created.

As a first approach, let us now hear a few examples of individual sound particles which, as we will see later, practically never appear in such punctual isolation.


The interpretation of the material obtained by this graphic notation has now become the task of the musicians. Their interpretation follows in accordance with their individual creative and technical possibilities. Thus, the same group of symbols will yield different though related sound results in each of the three instruments. Let us take another look at the instrumental excerpt already shown:

Example: K.D. 6b-7a

Isolated sounds such as we have just heard practically never occur in this piece. The concrete form of the individual sound particles depends on the particles surrounding it. In fact, each sound is surrounded by two contexts: It is imbedded in a local context between the particles of the same part and in a global context between the particles of the different parts.

Local Context

In the local context of a particular part, specific particles can be joined (according to their temporal relationship) in such a way as to form complexes, figures or musical gestures. This, however, is only accomplished through the process of interpretation by the musicians. Let us now hear how the musical excerpt shown can be interpreted in its local context. First we hear the flute player interpreting a structure which is mainly build up of POINTS with some addition of PLANES and GRIDS:

Music example: K.D. 6b-7a (flute)

Let us now hear a second example consisting mainly of PLANES, this time played by the saxophone.

Music example: K.H. 9b-10a (saxophone)

And finally a short example where the particle type GRID is being emphasized, played by the bass clarinet.

Music example: K.E. 19b (bass clarinet)

This is where the musicians' creative interpretation begins. The musicians don't play isolated sounds, rather they start relating the sounds to each other as Gestalten. In the same way that isolated phonemes of a spoken language (which can be considered as language particles) don't make any sense, it is only through their succession and temporal structuring that verbal meaning is created.

Global Context

The global context -- in contrast to the local context, which the players can work out for themselves individually or in collaboration with the composer -- doesn't occur until the moment when the musicians play together and is completely unpredictable. The reason lies in the fact that the three parts are not synchronized. They proceed at approximately the same speed, but because of the indefinite temporal coding of the sound particles and the musicians' tempo variations, different global contexts will be created in each performance. In reacting to one another, the musicians instantaneously coordinate their interpretations, thus "finishing," so to speak, the composition of the piece. They accomplish the transformation of the abstract -- and therefore "open," ambiguous -- notation into a perceptible, meaningful concrete sound event. In doing so, they have performed neither a reproduction of a pre-ordained text, nor an improvisation, rather a kind of instant composition, which takes place at the moment.

Let us now hear an example of reacting in a global context.

Music example: K.x. 7 synchronized (all)

Let us listen to the same excerpt again, with the difference that the musicians now play their entrances staggered in time -- a situation which produces other unpredictable contexts:

Music example: K.x. 7 temporally staggered (all)


After these extensive explanations of material and notation, I would like to conclude with a few remarks on form. Partikel-Bewegungen consists of three independent, asynchronous parts in which the same processes take place, but in each part with a distinct, individual formulation. The self-similarity of the three layers permits the weaving of the sound particles into a whole without external global regulation. In this way, from the three individual parts, a single, global sound organism is created, whose concrete appearance is due to its built-in, indefinite relationships and which will be unpredictably different with each performance.

Each particle type obeys its own individual tendencies of growth and development, which are a part of the compositional concept. I would like to demonstrate this with the first four minutes of the piece using the particle type POINT as example:

Music example: K.D. 1-4

Let us examine the situation as it can be seen on the first page. There are points that represent noises; they occur in all three registers and their temporal organization is completely aperiodic. This situation gradually changes. Little by little, the noises are replaced by semi-pitched sounds, which later will become definite pitches. Through the successive addition of grace notes to the impulse-sounds, the initial punctual, individual events are transformed into more complex configurations, which also succeed one another with increasing density and periodicity; finally, they appear only in the highest register. Out of an initial amorphous, pointillistic situation, a dense formal complex is unfolded. The POINTS gradually loose their initial character and begin to take on characteristics of the particle type GRID. In this way, the appearance of this particle type is structurally prepared.

That kind of transformation process I showed in this simple example using a single particle type is also to be found in the other two particle types. But to enter here into a detailed explanation would lead us too far afield.

I have coded the compositional idea of this piece as a computer program using a composing environment language which I have developed. This allows the definition of the different formal variants; from these, structural variants can be generated, which are similar, although different in detail -- as for example the version of Partikel-Bewegungen performed here in Darmstadt, which was composed especially for this occasion.

To conclude, let us hear the just described transformational process of the particle type POINT from the beginning of the piece.

Music Example: K.x. 1-4

This lecture was given at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik 1992. The text was written between June and July 1992 in Paris. Translation by Joyce Shintani. An excerpt of this lecture was published in germans as "Material" in: material-ton, hrsg. von Lothar Knessl (Winter 1993/94).

© 1992 by Karlheinz Essl

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