Work in progress: Cy Twombly & the amplification of white space

After a bit of a hiatus during which I finished (and had workshopped) a 5-minute orchestral piece, finished (and had shortlisted and performed) a 10-minute piece for large chamber ensemble and finally got my piece for two harps, Paint, Knives, Lipstick into rehearsal (that one’s being performed on Wednesday at 6pm at Trinity Laban), I’m back onto my Cy Twombly project.

I’m still contemplating ideas about white space and smudges and smears, and these are starting to merge with some thoughts I’d had about the frame as a concept and edges. So far I seem to be dodging the most obvious features of the artworks! I’ll have to tackle line and colour sometime soon, but for now I think I’ve got a fairly profitable line of thought going here, so I’m seeing how far I can push it.

I’m running rather behind with my composition for this project, so it’s my focus for this week and I’ve just finished a new sketch over the weekend ready for this week’s workshop session with my fabulous performers, Sarah James (cello) and Becky Brass (percussion). Next week I’ll be focusing on some new pieces to be workshopped after the Spring Break is over.

The first piece I wrote (for cello and 1 percussionist playing 5 temple blocks and marimba) focuses on interpreting white space as a drone. It’s a fairly simplistic translation, but I felt I had to start somewhere. I think it’ll work OK, but I don’t know how excited I am about this solution from a compositional perspective, and in thinking more about this and the even more simplistic idea of white space as silence, I’ve come to quite a different conclusion.

White space as silence is kind of an obvious choice – it’s the area of the picture that doesn’t contain any marks, but the more I thought about it, the more I became aware that if a Cagean perspective on silence is that it is filled with noise, why shouldn’t the same be said of white space? In any work on paper, the paper has a colour. True, it’s usually pale but as anyone who’s ever done any interior decorating will tell you, ‘white’ is almost never just white (makes me think of The 12th Man’s parody of cricket commentator Richie Benaud’s jackets: “the cream, the bone, the white, the off-white or the beige?”). On top of the colour issue, there’s the texture of the paper – is it rough or smooth? does the texture have a regular or random pattern to it? how are the edges of the paper cut? It occurs to me that the characteristic of white space in a work such as Twombly’s Natural History: Part I: Mushrooms isn’t actually it’s lack of marks, but its low-contrast nature. There’s a lot going on in the white space in these pictures, it’s just that you don’t notice it until you look very closely.

So what this leads to is low-contrast activity vs high-contrast activity (the bits of the artwork that we normally think of as being ‘the picture’). Low-contrast in music could mean a limited range of pitches, blurred edges such as those caused by the use of a piano or vibraphone sustain pedal, soft sticks on percussion instruments, or sliding between pitches, limited dynamics (not necessarily soft, but if we want to maintain contrast with the foreground material in respect of dynamics, then soft probably gives more scope to keep the foreground material in the foreground). It doesn’t preclude variation of articulation.

And the contrast issue got me thinking about the smudges and smears again. I admit to being fascinated by these elements in Twombly’s work. I have an intense desire to understand their role and I veer between thinking he just embraced chance marks or that they are all entirely intentional. I need to read more to understand that. What is pertinent to today’s thoughts though is that I think the smudges and smears perform a role of amplifying the white space.

What you see with these marks is not just the mark itself – the mark on the paper will colour the raised parts of the texture, leaving lower parts still white or not as darkly marked. If you consider a brass-rubbing where you put a piece of paper over an object with a raised or indented design and shade strongly with a pencil, you see not only the object’s design on the paper, but also the paper’s texture. The pencil shading, then, increases the contrast of the paper, amplifying the nature and impact of the white space.

Obviously, other marks will do this too, but I think there’s a difference between, say, a scrawl which is easy to identify as being a representation of the shape of a mushroom (has clear meaning) and a smudge which may have a purpose (visually balancing other marks, perhaps) by no easily identifiable significance. I’m not sure how this idea works in the context of purely abstract artworks, but I’m putting that to one side for now.

So the second piece in this set of sketches (for cello and 1 percussionist playing marimba, four tom-toms and a triangle) is looking at these things – firstly at whether a melodic part, using low-contrast techniques (sempre piano dynamic, limited pitches, limited rhythmic changes, short glissandi, use of the cello mute) can be effective as a musical equivalent of white space, and secondly at how this low-contrast material might be amplified by the other player, through duplication at pitch, at the octave, rhythmic duplication, to become foregrounded as the smudges and smears of Twombly’s mushroom images foreground the surface of the artwork.

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