Positive changes: Exploring the I Ching for composition

I Ching coinsYou may recall that when I was first working on Crossing Dartmoor, I experimented with dice and other chance techniques to create and develop musical materials. At the time I wrote about how unexpectedly liberating that experience was, and I’ve continued to use some of the systems I worked with at that time in my music. This week, though, I’ve pushed through to the next logical step – using the I Ching to help with composing.

I’m writing a new piece for solo flute for Jenni Hogan and while I’ve had an idea for what I wanted to do for quite a while now, there’s been massive procrastination on the actual composition because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the actual body of the work. I’d accumulated some pitch material using ciphers, but didn’t find anything much in there that I felt was going to drive the piece. I had an idea about outer sections being about wind/breath and a group of inner sections which are played or not according to the whim of the performer. But what was the nature of those inner sections going to be? I had no clue.

So I dug out my book on the I Ching and finished reading the introductory notes on what it is and how it works and how to do the casting, and gave it a go. One of the first things it came back with was:

“One can plan, try or ponder too much. Do not try, just do! Your inaction could bring embarrassment or disgrace.”

Words to live by, truly! But it also returned some interesting statements which gave me a framework within which to think about what I was working on. Not a clear statement of “do this” but a set of parameters to limit my thinking, thereby (as I found in my previous experiments with limitations) generating more creative ideas than just sitting around going “Argh” and gently panicking.

In particular I want to talk about the third central section of the piece. This one I was really a bit concerned about because the pitch material I ended up with feels totally uninspired – it’s an E major triad. Nothing more. No interesting semitones or tritones. Very little, really to work with. I’d pondered various ideas about using the bits of the chromatic scale that it didn’t return, or just picking another word to encode, but I wasn’t really satisfied with any of my solutions. And then I did a casting for this poor wretched thing, and what I came up with has quite changed how I’m looking at this limited material.

Now, I’m not saying I’ll necessarily stick with it, and I’m not saying that even if I do it’ll be suddenly transformed into an amazing masterpiece (although I reserve the right for it to be an amazing masterpiece 🙂 ), but what interests me here is how using the I Ching here has changed my thinking about this material from a dreary negative to a much more productive plane.

I won’t go through the whole casting here, because it’s quite long and would need some context, which I suspect it might prove a bit dull for others (although if you’re interested, just get in touch and I’ll be happy to send it to you) but just as a for-example, a couple of things:

First, in my doldrums I had been thinking about the excessive simplicity of the pitch material and thinking that this section would probably have to be quite short because so little to work with but not enough timespan overall to turn this bit into a durational extravaganza (often an effective solution for minimal material). But the casting suggested four interlinked phases. That in itself was way more complex than I had considered the material might support and while I think the section will still be quite short, the prompts for each of these phases are showing me a way it might be pulled off convincingly.

Secondly, the final hexagram came up with this little gem:

“Do not discard what you don’t want to hear”

This statement is in the context of asking advice, but I think it’s worthwhile as a general principle anyway. So I’m not going to discard my E major triad just yet – at least not before I’ve tested it out!

I’m obviously a total beginner at this, and still very much still finding my way, but my initial impression is that this could be a useful way to support thinking about a piece. Before I started to read about the I Ching, I’d had the impression that it would dictate something about the piece, but it’s really a lot looser than that. What it’s seeming to provide (so far) is a starting point or a context for existing ideas to bounce off, a way to raise useful questions about a piece rather than providing answers.

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