A drama of instruments and objects

A drama of instruments and objects

An essay by Björn Gottstein, autumn 2010

- abridged version -

The violin is of course a wonderful instrument. To make such an instrument requires knowledge accumulated over several centuries, while its tonal beauty pays tribute to the accomplishments of humankind. But how about the musical quality of feathers and table-tennis balls? Is it possible to conceive of works that depend on the delicate sounds of such acoustic contingencies? Why Linger You Trembling in Your Shell? is the title that Juliana Hodkinson has given to a musical scene for violin and percussion in which table-tennis balls, feathers and eggshells contribute to the repertory of sounds featured in the piece. These props also serve as symbols suggesting the hesitant beginnings referred to in the title. A chick hatches out, and we witness its first tentative steps. As producers of sound, these objects limit the composer to a particular kind of material. The sound-figure of bouncing table-tennis balls combines the accelerando and morendo that characterise the entire piece. Falling feathers imply hovering and breath as musical gestures.

In conversation, Juliana Hodkinson explains that she “encounters” her material, rather than imagining sounds. Initially it makes no difference to her whether this encounter takes place during a table-tennis match in the park or at a classical symphony concert. Her work on a piece frequently begins at her very first meeting with the performer. While the musician tunes his instrument and warms up with scales, she is already forming her first impressions and creating her initial musical gestures. The peripheral area surrounding the musical act, the self-evident aspects and rituals of performance are an important part of her outlook; even gestures that would normally not be accorded any musical value can also become objects of aesthetic reflection. “Keep detuning until string is completely loose,” we read at the end of the score to Why linger you…, a work which subsequently dies away with the graceful charm of exhaustion.

Among those aspects of concert life that we take for granted, and that Juliana Hodkinson occasionally subjects to her critical scrutiny, are iconic works of musical history, works whose significance we have grown used to no longer questioning.

Brahms’s First Symphony is one such icon. In her orchestral project I Greet You A Thousand Times, Juliana Hodkinson not only paraphrases and comments on this work, she also makes it her own and translates it into the present. The routine mechanisms by which a Brahms symphony is performed a thousand times each year, while a thousand programme annotators mention the famous postcard that Brahms sent to Clara Schumann (“High on the hilltop, deep in the valley, I greet you many thousands of times”) become as much the subject of Hodkinson’s piece as the music itself.
I Greet You… begins in the same way as Brahms’s First Symphony, but the piece then strikes out in a direction all of its own with unexpected glissandi, hinting at a world of musical possibilities that seems to imply that any given work could develop along entirely different lines. This kind of musical subjunctive is typical of Juliana Hodkinson’s work. What happens when explores various possibilities that render music-making difficult or even impossible. But when the singer and clarinettist (or recorder-player) run out of breath and the guitarist loosens the strings of his instrument, the piece finally ends in a way that recalls a real death.

The fact that music designed to sound hesitant and uncertain never creates the impression of hesitation and uncertainty undoubtedly has something to do with the composer’s aura of self-confidence. Indeed, there are times when her protagonists assert themselves with positively furious resolve – the cellist in Scrape, for example, who violently pulls a nail hammered into a shoe-sole across a metal plate, revealing an acoustic abyss from which one involuntarily shies away. Drive, humour and aggression are just as much a part of her vocabulary as the delicacy suggested by her feather-games.
Juliana Hodkinson’s ability to deploy these gestures and make her points with such great precision is due, above all, to her affinity with the theatre. This comes through not only in pieces such as Rhoda’s Song and Harriet’s Song, which were inspired directly by a Jane Bowles puppet-play, but above all in her general attitude towards the effect and impact of her music. The command “Knock down the wall!” is relatively unusual among the coy composers of contemporary music today but is a self-evident part of the professional ethos of a theatre director. Hodkinson realized at some point that writing a “slap in the face” has to be carried out quite literally if one wants to produce the aesthetic effect of a slap in the face and if one is striving for immediacy and clarity in art. But it is precisely for this reason that Juliana Hodkinson does not carry through blatant gestures and obvious effects. Purposeful processes such as a crescendo or an accelerando rarely lead to a predictable goal. She herself explains that she enjoys the energy that is released by such processes, while regularly denying her audiences the expected resolution. Rather, she prefers to confront listeners with their expectations by suddenly interrupting the process mid-stream.

The fact that Juliana Hodkinson studied musicology, philosophy and Japanese and came to composition by a roundabout route, slipping only reluctantly into the role of a composer, is a stroke of good fortune for the world of contemporary music. By her own admission she doesn’t think a great deal about her professional relationship to music, the role of a composer, or ideas of musical autonomy. She also brushes aside the question of how she sees herself as an artist. And yet there are few composers who have addressed these very aspects of our musical lives as perceptively and as intelligently as Juliana Hodkinson has done.

by Björn Gottstein
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