Saturday 25 April 2009

Lutoslawski's Ad Libitum method: A Failed Experiment.

A while I ago I was looking into Lutoslawski's 'ad libitum' method - called, post-facto, 'controlled aletoricism' by the more musicologically minded - I didn't get that far into it before I moved on to look at something else (studying Simha Arom's book 'African Polyphony and Polyrhythm', still some way from finishing it, it's about 700 pages long, I am currently more interested in scoring things conventionally at the moment so I chose to follow this route first)

From what I picked up the pitches are notated but the durations, tempos and rhythmic values are, in general, approximate. These sections are cued in and out by the conductor, sometimes performed simultaneously with semi-conducted sections (where the conductor gives some instruments a starting pulse/tempo, as in Jeux Venetiens) and (more often) these ad libitum sections are juxtaposed with fully conducted or 'A Battuta' sections/movements (as in Chain 2.) [one odd one out so to speak, is his String Quartet of 1964, which obviously, has no conductor, I intend to study that one more closely when I get the opportunity.]

Even though I hadn't grasped the method fully (probably an understatement) I had a mess around with it by multi-tracking some flute parts. I wrote a twelve-tone row and simple aggregate section (i.e. all twelve notes in use at once, 4 per voice) to see what they sounded like, not that great as it turns out (make your own mind up from the YouTube clip.)

I constructed the twelve-tone row as chromatically as I could stomach in the hope that the vertical alignment wouldn't stray too far from the sound I had in mind (i.e. avoiding any tonal implications ideally).

I chose a twelve-tone row just to see how it worked as presumably it's one of the most trying or challenging melodic/horizontal forms to use (the more pitches you use, arguably, the more indeterminate the result.)

As you can see from the score on the video clip it's a basic heterophonic form, the same line with slightly different rhythmic values (played freely/approximately.)

The aggregate section is musically more successful in my opinion but still wanders somewhat and in the vertical domain there are a few shaky moments, and some nice ones. From my cursory look at Lutoslawski's method he tends to use less pitches per voice which, I think, results in a more predictable vertical arrangement, that is how it seems to me anyway comparing the tone row version and the aggregate section.

One reason I tried using this more indeterminate approach was to see why Lutoslawski didn't (I haven't seen any evidence of him composing like this anyway however I may find some when I look into it properly.) Perhaps using this many pitches per voice would require a fully scored approach to maintain the 'atonal equilibrium'.

I thought I would upload it here anyway just in case anyone finds it interesting or is researching this themselves also, I learned something from it anyway (what not to do, more or less).

I intend to look into this properly when I have finished looking at African polyphony/polyrhythm.

Also please bear in mind I have only been playing the flute for a year and a half so it's a bit ropey here and there, particularly the higher notes which are a bit edgy. I should also state that I had to pitch correct the higher flute part slightly in the aggregate section as it was sharp compared to the lower two (I performed each part without listening to the others, as Lutoslawski recommends, implicitly at least, in some of his score notes.) In retrospect I should have used a reference tone to play to however a 'natural' performance wasn't necessary for this test, I just wanted to see how the texture sounded.


Anonymous said...

Your 3-flute lines sound a little like Alan Hovhaness's The Spirit of Ink (for 3 flutes in unisonal canon). Coincidentally, in the 1940s he invented what later become known as the 'ad libitum' technique, as more famously used by Lutoslawski from c.1963. Dozens of Hovhaness works from the 1940s and 50s use this controlled aleatoricism - shame the music text books are only just beginning to catch on more than half a century later!

Anonymous said...

Your 3-flute lines sounds a little like Alan Hovhaness's The Spirit of Ink for 3 flutes in unisonal canon.
Coincidentally, Hovhaness invented what later became known as 'ad libitum' as used by Lutoslawski from c.1963. there must be over 30 Hovhaness works using the technique between 1944 and 1960 alone. Shame the text books are only just beinning to catch up, more than half a century on!

E.L. said...

Thanks very much for that comment. I know next to nothing about Hovhaness and didn't realise he came up with any ad lib/aleatoric techniques ('Spirit Murmur'??)

I'll look up that piece too.