Side A: Movement I [17:53]
I've been working for a few years to replicate these systems musically. 'Hearing is Forgetting' was an early attempt, and different subtle approaches arose throughout my work since then. In 2011, I composed the rule-based work, 'The Great Order' and the system really came to life. The score called for performers to play only notes from a pre-determined pitch pool and follow written instructions that focused on a philosophical approach to playing. The performers were instructed to play any note from the pitch pool, in any octave, for one of four predetermined lengths of time. They were instructed to listen to negative space, not play louder or softer than the rest of the ensemble, arrive and depart gently, create a meditative environment, and many other similar guidelines.
Following these instructions, and performing each movement live in the studio as an ensemble (with no computer, overdubs or metronome) created a truly organic and natural breathing system of sound. The ensemble is the herd, the flock, the school. Each instrument's voice is the mammal, the fish, the bird, with its own life and story. The sound, like an animal, has only its intuition and natural vibrance to help it fit into the herd where it belongs. All of these energies flowing separately yet together as one, create what we understand as our world. Through our simple act of existence we create our own infinitely majestic structure… The Great Order.
Both sonically and conceptually, the musical coordinates for this 32 minute composition lie somewhere between Brian Eno's Lux and Morton Feldman's Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello. That covers a wide area, but there is an overlap with both. As well as using similar instrumentation, Allen revisits Feldman's ideas of elements moving slowly through space, which he specifies should be played at low(ish) volume.
Eno's 80 minute Lux was also music inspired by the idea of a system - in this case the generative capabilities of Koan software - and shares with The Great Order piano (and vibraphone) notes hanging in space over a slowly shifting sonic undertow. But Lux feels rather sterile compared with this. Allen talks of creating a " truly organic and natural breathing system of sound". The ideas may not be groundbreaking, but few in this musical field have stated their intentions as clearly and produced such elegant results as he does here.
Allen marks out space in a different way on an as yet unnamed, self-designed and built 49 stringed instrument you can hear on his Soundcloud. On these short, meditative samples, recorded on his iPhone, with its silvery high notes and deep resonances, it has some of the qualities of a harp, zither, or hammer dulcimer, recalling Richard Skelton's A Broken Consort project or some kind of homemade homage to Feldman.
Of course, Allen is far from the first to propose a link between the hidden laws of the Universe and harmonic patterns of Western tonal music. The notion goes at least as far back as Pythagoras, but perhaps its most well-known articulation is to be found in 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler’s ideas regarding the harmonious movements of stellar bodies, which led him to coin the expression “music of the spheres” (‘spheres’ in this instance being stars and planets). In Kepler’s day European music was still dominated by the rich polyphony of the Renaissance, where every melodic ‘voice’ was treated equally and had an important role to play; one feels that the universal harmony he had in mind was of this order, with all forces and objects held in precise balance. This is certainly what is heard in “The Great Order”, with no one instrument taking precedence over the others. However, there is also a sense of tentativeness, hesitancy, and uncertainty in the ensemble’s playing, with no clear patterns or repeating structures, contrasting with the rigid, divinely-established laws upon which Kepler believed the Universe to be founded. The overall impression is not one of precise and uniform conformity to the written instructions included in the score, but rather of an intuitive and feedback-driven process of interpreting them. The model thus presented by the music is not a complete and systematic theory of everything, but rather an open and attentive mode of listening and responding — a cognitive practice that arguably facilitates the perception and creation of structure and organisation in everyday experience, whether of morning coffee or telescope telemetry.
There’s no doubt that “The Great Order” is a substantial departure from previous works by Allen; although he has been pursuing the idea of self-organising musical systems since 2009’s “Hearing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Hears”, everything from the choice of all-acoustic instrumentation and the ensemble collaboration to the decision to record single takes with no overdubs represents a working method we have not seen from him before. In other words, it is a massive gamble, but for me at least it is one that has paid off handsomely. The music has all the rich harmony and melodic beauty that characterises the so-called ‘Modern Classical’ movement, without falling into the reified style the approach has often been reduced to; it also sits uncomfortably in the category of the ‘contemporary’ or ‘new’ orchestral music whose avant-garde compositional methods it adopts. A balance is struck between aesthetics and concept, between thought and experience. Perhaps Kepler would argue that in “The Great Order” the whole tends to drown out the development of the discrete voices of which it is comprised, whereas a true “music of the spheres” is one in which both wholeness and the individual workings of each part are simultaneously perceptible. And if that begins to sound a lot like an arrangement of cogs in a well-oiled machine, such as one of those mechanical models of the solar system that spin when you turn a handle, well, perhaps there is something to that too. At any rate, this music is beautiful, challenging, and highly listenable — three qualities that are rarely combined with such success.
“The Great Order” is available for pre-order in limited-edition “milky-clear” vinyl from Quiet Design, the label curated by Allen and Mike Vernusky, who also appears on the album; one suspects that there will be a digital edition too. The performers do a great job of exploring the space outlined for them by the score without exceeding it or over-complicating things, and that the two movements unfold so compellingly is largely due to their sensitivity and imagination. This is a bold new direction for Allen, and judging from the quality on evidence here I rather hope that opportunities arise for him to explore it further. I’ve come to expect good music broadcasting from this man’s universe, but this record has got me re-tuning my radio telescopes all over again.
To describe it in simple terms, Fariss, Vernusky, and Chou produce extended tones of contrasting pitches that overlap and provide a firm foundation that Allen and Hennies punctuate with staggered accents. With only five musicians contributing to the overall mass, the listener has no trouble separating one instrument from another and is able to monitor the music's trajectory more easily as a result, an effect also enhanced by the meditative music's slow and steady unfolding; the timbral contrasts between the instruments also, of course, helps create that separation. The natural and flowing manner by which the sounds organize themselves is very much by design, as Allen set out to create a micro-system that would reflect the structure of the the universe and the innumerable micro-systems that constitute its order. In that spirit, Allen devised a number of guidelines for the musicians to follow, such as instructing them to play notes from a pre-determined pitch pool for one of four predetermined lengths of time and to hew to a shared volume level. True to the project's organic character, no computer, overdubs, click track, or metronome were involved; instead, the musicians wove their individual sounds into a collective whole that breathes with a natural, one might even say timeless rhythm.
Though Allen might have directed the music's creation using a rigorously conceived system, at no time does the music itself feel bloodless or sterile, as if disinterested musicians are simply reading a score. On the contrary, they sound as engaged in their playing as one would expect, given the artistic choices Allen required them to make during the music's creation and the fact that their playing was so much a product of listening and responding to the choices made by others. In short, the creative undertaking was probably as engrossing an experience for the performers as the experience of reception is for the listener. Issued on Quiet Design (managed by Allen and Vernusky), The Great Order is presented in a gorgeous bone-white vinyl colour, its misty and ghost-like appearance an attractive complement to its transporting musical content.