Songs of the Aristos (2014)

This is a radical re-working of Songs of the Aristos for two Brass Groups and Electronic Tape, composed in 1985. In the present work, the brass groups are replaced by two large wind ensembles, each incorporating an array of largely metallic percussion; two pianos are added, and the computer-generated electronic element is extended to include both pre-recorded passages and live treatments of certain wind instruments as well as the two pianos.

The title was originally suggested by John Fowles’ book, The Aristos; a collection of philosophical musings on human existence which took the tenets of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus as a starting point. According to Heraclitus, The Aristos is “the best, the most excellent of its kind”.  In the context of his philosophy, the term applied to a (possibly hypothetical) moral and intellectual elite, the Aristoi as opposed to the hoi polloi; the ‘many’ or what others, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche among them, have called the ‘crowd’ or the ‘herd’.  The more recent derivation of ‘aristocracy’ had no currency then.  Although the distinction between Aristos and Hoi polloi resonates with Heraclitus’ notions of opposites, this particular pair of opposites had little to do with Fowles’ ideas as articulated in his book and nothing at all to do with mine.

Fowles wrote; “what I was really trying to do was to define human freedom in an unfree world”. He went on to point out that “the dividing line should run through each individual, not between individuals.”   This was what was of interest to me. When I appropriated the term Aristos it suggested, to me, the  ‘higher nature’ that we all have within us, the discovery and refinement of which, through ‘moral’ behaviour and various disciplines, is the goal of most religions. Reflecting on the apparent oppositions inherent in the seemingly dual nature of human beings started me thinking about the fact that opposites are in essence part of the same whole – widely separated points in a continuum. Here also was a link with Heraclitus, one of whose principal ideas was the unity of opposites. In acknowledgement of this, my original manuscript score was inscribed with a well-known quotation from Heraclitus “the road up and the road down are the same road”. It is important to note that, despite all this, the work is not about, or based on, John Fowles book or on Heraclitus’ philosophy, nor is it intended to represent anything at all. Rather, there is a sufficient number of connecting threads to justify the title.

In this piece, there are two principal unities of opposites; of spatial location and of timbre. The two wind groups are located at opposite ends of the auditorium; one in front of, the other behind, the audience. The two pianos are located at either side, midway down the hall, and the electronics projected over four loudspeakers, one in each corner. Thus the sounds, at times, seem to ‘jump’ from one end (or in the case of the pianos, one side) of the hall to the other creating opposition, while at others, they seem to travel smoothly emphasising continuity. At times the groups are synchronised, at others, not. In the case of the electronics, the apparent ‘freedom’ of movement of the sound, in terms of how gradually or how rapidly the changes occur, is much greater.

Then there is the juxtaposition of seemingly opposing timbres; the quintessentially harmonic ones of the brass and woodwind instruments and the inharmonic ones of the electronics. Although many familiar instruments have inharmonic spectra, for example, bells, gongs or tam-tams, they are often very large (a tam-tam for example) and unwieldy. Moreover, the envelopes of the sounds of such instruments consists of a hard attack followed a more or less gradual decay.  Once struck, the performer has very limited control over the sound: in most cases, there is no ability to sustain other than by adding a trill or a roll to give the impression of sustaining. However, with a computer, these timbres, and an infinite number of related ones, can be manipulated in an unlimited number of ways: envelopes can be varied so that attacks are gradual for example; vibrato can be added, rhythmic relationships unplayable by human performers are made possible and the speed of execution (from the extremely rapid to the extremely slow) is unbounded.[1]

The pianos produce ‘crossover’ timbres that have both harmonic and inharmonic qualities. Furthermore, the writing for the two pianos at times embodies a convergence of harmony and timbre by using complex chords in parallel; the rhythmic configurations with which they are entrusted are a good deal more complex than those of the wind, but far less so than those of the electronics.

Thus, the opposition of the two types of sound, and the ways the sounds are produced, articulated and manipulated (at its simplest; the live instruments being played by human performers following the two conductors as opposed to the electronic sequences being activated by a programme over which there is little control during a performance), becomes a metaphor for the opposition of earth-bound, time-bound, human action and the eternal, divine, immutable aspects of the universe which human action is powerless to influence. It is striking that a great many religious rituals have, for centuries, utilised the harmonic timbres of the human voice; in prayers, chants and incantations, alongside the inharmonic timbres of bells and gongs.

See also;


[1] The basic electronic timbres were generated using the technique of frequency modulation.

[2] The word harmonic is used not only in the sense of ‘harmonic progression’ and to denote sounds that are traditionally considered consonant, but also in the sense of timbres consisting of lower partials of the harmonic series e.g. those of brass and woodwind instruments.  Likewise ‘inharmonic’ can be taken to denote ‘dissonance’ in the traditional sense, as well as timbres containing frequency relationships to be found higher in the harmonic series and which are commonly associated with bells, gongs and other metallophones.

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