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tessitura a tratteggio and kreng

tessitura a tratteggio 1 and 2 were written in late 2016. In tessitura a tratteggio 1 a short piece for piano by Brahms (no. 2 from the op. 119 Intermezzi) provides the basic fabric of the piece, in orchestration and beyond, generating different ideas from its gestures. tessitura a tratteggio 2, which is over twice the duration of tt1, is based around a single chord from the same movement.

“Tratteggio” is the name of a technique used in the restoration of frescoes in which restoration constitutes the addition of a lot of small strokes such that the general unity of the fresco is restored from a distance but on inspection there is a distinction between old and new. I came across the word in Berio’s description of Rendering, his “recomposition” of Schubert’s sketches for a tenth symphony. Strictly speaking, tessitura a tratteggio 1 betrays the real meaning of the technique: it does not “complete” anything, and as I began to consider the technique up-close I became more interested in how it would sound to colour a single phrase, for example, or even note as if it were a product of the technique.

As it happens, Morphic Verse, which I wrote in 2015 before I was familiar with Rendering, is closer to Berio’s “tratteggio” than tessitura a trattegio 1. Morphic Verse is a small piece with a bad title which I wrote as an undergraduate, whose inspiration is Byrd’s Why do I use my paper, ink and pen, a remarkable song published in 1588 which, as Iain Fenlon would say, who introduced me to the song, “sets a mood rather than a text”. There is an extract of a recording below; the piece is for violin, trumpet, 2 violas, 2 clarinets, and bassoon, with the doubled instruments intended to create an organ-like texture in the centre of the ensemble. Morphic Verse featured as part of ‘i, Byrd’, a musical and theatrical event in which music mapped onto the architecture of the chapel at King’s College, sounding simultaneously from opposite ends of the building music at 415 and 440 Hz on historical and modern instruments respectively, such as Purcell’s Fantasia VII on viols with George Benjamin’s orchestration for violin, cello, clarinet and celeste (you can read about the event here).

Tratteggio, for me, has come to mean a kind of sharing: it is a notational technique with a specific physical result. To understand it purely in terms of its “texture” would be to miss the point as I intend it, which is really a different way of listening, of giving and receiving.

kreng is a rewriting of Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang”, the third and central movement of his quartet in a minor, op. 132. In late 2017, over the course of several months I disassembled the famous movement into a collection of thousands of notes which I then repurposed. Most notes are disordered beyond recognition but a handful keep some relation to their earlier function, and these moments, which are sometimes extended quotations, weave in and out of recognition (I write about this in chapter 5, ‘kreng and the “Heiliger Dankgesang” ’); these transformations are essentially naive, which is what makes it feel raw.

kreng is an imaginary tratteggio in the sense that it seems to preserve the structure and, indeed, certain phrases of the “Heiliger Dankgesang”, but its meaning is rather in its structure and notation. At the time my interest in the “Heiliger Dankgesang” was notational: specifically, two different kinds of writing Beethoven contrasted that represent two different ways of performing, one descriptive, the other prescriptive. I drew a parallel to New Music whose conventional notational practice I found to be essentially restrictive in performance. kreng takes this to extremes, contrasting hyper-prescriptive music—bars of 11/32 with specified sub-divisions, each note with a different technique, dynamic, and articulation—with a kind of notation which fundamentally relies on other instruments, entry points indicated by vertical lines to another player’s part with which to synchronise. “Counting” is not really possible in the latter notation which demands a different kind of reading and, therefore, performance.

Above: detail from kreng (Amsterdam: 2017), p. 2; below: ibid., p. 3.

tessitura a tratteggio (Cambridge: 2016), p. 7.

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