Veils is a solo for violin I wrote for Hollas Longton to perform for Why Can’t Minimal: Do This? at Open Space Arts on 30 Sept 2016. The concert is a Victoria Composers Collective event, and I’m thrilled to be playing a solo of Hollas’ for solo bass and electronics, as well as ensemble pieces by Alex Jang and Lynne Penhale. A forthcoming blog post from Nathan Friedman will have more information (I’ll link here once it’s published). For tickets see the Open Space website.
The performance of Why Can’t Minimal: Do This will be set among the works of the concurrent exhibit by John G. Hampton, Why Can’t Minimal, a curation which engages with minimalist tropes in visual art. The call for participation in the concert therefore suggested that composers do the same for our medium, with a nod to the humour Hampton finds in minimalist sculpture. This initially set me back a bit. I’m not much for humorous absurdity in music, and my primary engagement with very quiet sounds threatened to come off as a surface engagement with the topic (“very quiet > not much happening > minimal > done”), so I decided to look for a new approach.
Veils is very simple on the surface: a sawing away at two open strings in regular rhythm, similar to my duo Breach (though – look ma! – different strings). I guess stylistically this points to my taste for block-like forms and beat derived energy. There’s an obvious connection to Reichian pulsing, but where Reich’s perpetual mallets and lovely swells seem to point to something transcendentally pure and simple, my hope for Veils is, well, not that.
The score for Veils is a roughly sixteen-minute through-composed improvisation in late-Romantic or proto-Modernist style (that is, pitch-based and expressive in a naïve sense). There are climactic rushes, dramatic triple-stops, a slow exploration of the open G string, a racy pizzicati section, and a brutal ending after Ustvolskaya and Górecki. It even has a basic formal pitch structure. The performer is asked to play this impromptu through (or, effectively, as) the “veil” of regular sixteenth notes on the open D and A strings, without changing tempo, dynamic, or articulation. The underlying material is then hopefully communicated as an energetic contour by way of minute tempo and dynamic changes.
One of the things I find interesting about minimalist visual art is the way it can direct a corporal response, often empathetic. The spaces between elements in Judd’s stacks feel denser than the space around the work, as though I shouldn’t physically be able to put my hand there. Their vertical rhythm also gives an impression of upward motion, similar to the actions suggested by the standings or leanings of pieces by Tony Smith or John McCraken.
Brian Massumi discusses this type of experience in his text Semblance and Event. He explains that the imagined actions and sensations evoked by objects like these sculptures are really felt, experienced as “lived abstractions.” An example he uses is that of a box (maybe we should picture Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making): our confidence that the box has three other sides in addition to the three we see comes from our virtually experiencing an interaction with them. Some perception-challenging works by Charlotte Posenenske and Robert Irwin invoke this principle: you see the piece a certain way because you are internalizing what it would be like to interact with the object the piece purports to be – that is, until your perspective changes and the illusion breaks.
Michel Serres describes a similar effect in The Five Senses in his discussion of Pierre Bonnard’s The Dressing Gown and Nude in the Mirror. Serres suggests that the painter is appealing to the sense of touch more than sight, that we experience the touch of the bathrobe through the veil of the canvas. The robe naturally veils skin, which for Serres is another veil.
“The canvas is covered in canvases, veils pile up and veil only other veils, the leaves in the foliage overlap each other.”
The veils mediate between what’s given and the subject. Serres rhetorically asks why Bonnard painted on canvas rather than on the bathrobe itself: of course you can never have the-thing-itself. For that reason, these veils function through modulation of sense modality. The canvas renders touch as sight, the bathrobe renders empathy as touch.
Minimalism is often described as having abstract intent, to create worlds of pure form, not limited by the dirty constraints of reality or of an individual perceiver. In my opinion, the success of minimalism is that it does the opposite of this. Rather than escape dirty reality, the works affirm and revel in it, transducing their abstract geometrical models to their inaccurate instances. In the process, they create new abstractions which are lived out in their viewers. Veils, I hope, creates something similar.