Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Townsend: Long Lines of Winter Light

Way back in September 2011 I put up a post called "History of a Composition" that discussed a piece I wrote for guitar orchestra. I have just come across a recording of that piece so I have prepared a clip of it. The original inspiration was simple need: I had a large guitar ensemble and it was so difficult getting them to play exactly together that I thought I would write a piece where they never had to!

I knew about "moment form" so I wrote a piece called "Forms" that consisted of a series of boxes arranged like a flowchart. You started at the top and followed the lines. There were ten numbered levels so you could just go through playing each level in sequence. Most levels had options: you could choose from three or four different musical ideas. Since I conducted the piece, that allowed me to make choices as well. By signaling I could tell specific players to play specific levels. For example, the first level is a snare-drum effect. By crossing the two lowest strings over one another and strumming, you can make the guitar sound a lot like a snare drum. What I liked to do was to recall this level later on in the piece, so it sounds like chaos is going to overcome. Of course, every performance will be different, but the conductor can shape how it unfolds in various ways. The score is like a toolbox for building a piece and the conductor--with the players--can build a different piece every time.

About the title: as I said, the original title was just "Forms". I had an inspiration one day walking by the ocean and looking at the late afternoon light shining on the Sooke hills. Sooke is a village and adjacent wilderness area near Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. My idea was a piece for "string quartet" of mandolin, banjo, guitar and double bass and the title that came to mind was "Long Lines of Winter Light Falling Gently Across the Sooke Hills"! Well, I never got around to writing that piece, so I appropriated the title for this piece.

A few years ago a Swedish publisher put out an edition of three pieces of mine for guitar orchestra which included this piece. On the clip I have the front cover of the publication, the two pages of the score of this piece and three pictures of the Sooke hills. Oh, and a photo of me about the time I wrote this piece. Here it is:


./MiS said...

Nice. I read your previous post about it (linked from this post), too.
It does seem like instinctive music, although I may be a little biased. I am biased for (at least) two reasons: first, I am fond of music (or any art) done instinctively. Of course you will agree that not all of it is great or even good but sometimes one can stumble upon gems (even in one's own archives). My appreciation of these kinds of forms comes probably from my fascination with certain east-Asian art forms and philosophies and the understanding that diligent practice, concentration and study may culminate in moments of pure instinct creation. I guess one of the examples is eastern calligraphy. But now, having read many of your articles (I only recently discovered your blog) I am looking forward to a post on controlled aleatorism, improvised music and the like! I know already that you don't like Lutosoławski and Cage but what about other composers of the 20th century such as Penderecki, Tenney, Gearge Lewis, and the like. What about less academic music: John Zorn, Fred Frith, Keith Rowe, Taku Sugimoto, Toshimaru Nakamura, René Lucier, Instant Composers Pool to mention only a handful of people.

Bryan Townsend said...

What a lovely and challenging comment! Yes, this piece for guitar orchestra, like everything I wrote at that time, was entirely instinctive. I still, even today, am reluctant to look too closely at what I wrote!

Not everything turned out so well. I have another piece for flute and guitar that is very economical in that it goes absolutely nowhere.

True, I'm not a fan of Lutoslawski, but while I find some of Cage unconvincing, other pieces of his have been very influential on my work. And I just discovered his Third Construction, which I think is a gem.

Of the long list of people you mention, some I know, some I don't. I have a complex relationship with improvisation coming from my early experiences playing in a rock band--we did a lot of very tedious noodling! But if you search this blog under the term "improvisation" I think you will find several posts.

./MiS said...

Glad to see that my previous comment triggered a post on composition methods. Please allow me to get back to "Long Lines..." once again. I did say in my previous post that I was probably biased for at least two reasons but gave only one. The other reason is that I have actually played this piece and you conducted it! And it wasn't with the Victoria Guitar Ensamble... In fact, this particular piece and other experiments you did with us (Hocket Tango, some other piece, the title escapes me, which consisted only of verbal instructions as to the "mood" interpretation) have contributed to the way my own musical life has shaped.
Usually, I am not that enigmatic, but I hope that your fun of figuring out who I am (which should not be that difficult) will match my fun of "finding" you after all these years.

I could not resist this post's golden opportunity to address this issue. You have been a big inspiration for me in the past and I just had to bring it up :)

Bryan Townsend said...

This is one of those wonderful and entirely unexpected things that happen when you blog--especially in the musical world. Thanks so much for the much appreciated compliment.

I have been a musician for over forty years-- but yes, I think I can guess who my commentor is, but without certainty. Not a lot of people have played this piece and even fewer have played Hocket Tango, which is really difficult! It had to have been in a smaller ensemble--a quartet, perhaps? Did we also do Deconstructed Dew?

Why don't you put up your email and I'll drop you a line...


./MiS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
./MiS said...

Yes! Deconstructed Dew was one of them. My email is and the riddle is basically solved.