Cy Twombly: Smudges and smears

Feeling somewhat overwhelmed at the prospect of needing to write a piece a week for the next couple of months as fodder for my Cy Twombly project, the answer seemed to be to pick a starting point and write about what I wanted to explore to see what came up.

I knew I wanted to explore a facet of white space in music and decided to start with a drone, but I also wanted to pick an aspect of the Twombly pieces that was peculiarly Twomblyesque to work with.

Smudges and smears

One of the distinguishing factors of Natural History: Part I: Mushrooms is that all ten images resemble pages from a rather battered sketchbook. There’s nothing neat about these works, they are covered with scribbles and smudges, clearly distinguishable repeated elements enlivened with apparently random smears.

It occurred to me while thinking about these marks that in music we tend to edit away all the detritus of the composition process. A smear on an artist’s sketchbook page remains there, but our sketchbook pages and their blops and bad decisions tend to be filed away until some future-age musicologist brings them to light to study them. Slips of the pen don’t create notes that make it into the final piece – and if they did, they’d be somewhat sanitised by the rehearsal process and the practice of ensuring that the notes performed fit in relation to one another.

We composers don’t generally work directly on a single fair copy that goes out into the world as-is – there is generally no evidence of previous versions in the final work, which appears to have sprung fully formed from the head of its creator. The wrong chords, clunky melodies and bad choices get left behind in drafts for future generations to pore over, but they don’t make the final piece.

There’s always the possibility that Twombly’s smudges are intentional, and if this is so then they no longer reflect the creation process, the accidental, but become part of a repertoire of gestures that recreate a feeling of looseness and improvisation. These marks don’t fit any kind of formal grid, yet they balance with the more ‘official’ elements of the work. They are carefully considered but give a feeling of spontaneity.

The marks are small, placed here and there on the paper – never large enough to dominate the piece. If I choose to consider Twombly’s approach as deliberate, then this could equate to a particular articulation or technique, rather than a melodic or rhythmic figure with a fixed, repeatable and identifiable form.

Repetition then becomes a very important aspect – while there are strong similarities between the smudges and smears, they are not similar enough that we recognise a particular smear as being a clear-cut element of the works as a whole. The smears in the bottom left of II are related to those on the lower mushroom in VI but they don’t feel repeated in the same way that the scribbled mushroom motif does (III, IV, V, VII). While giving a stylistic coherence to the full set of images, the smudges and smears seem to relate specifically to the needs of each individual piece.

Returning to the possibility of these marks being spontaneous, perhaps they could be considered to be equivalent more to artefacts of the performance process rather than the composition process. If, as Sarah Kirk Hanley says, “Twombly was… attuned to the role of chance in his work” then these could be legitimately considered in the same area as accidental overblowing, muddled notes as a consequence of playing a complex passage very fast, impure tones, broken notes, the scratchiness of bowing as hard as possible at the frog – elements indicating a loss of control.

This raises questions, then, about how feasible an approach this might be, given that musicians are trained to overcome these types of out-of-control moments. Beginner flautists regularly overblow by accident, professionals rarely. Perhaps the answer lies in the realm of those things the orchestration books tell us to avoid – attempting to play high notes on the flute very softly, placing percussion instruments in such a way that they are NOT conveniently placed.

Additionally, there’s a whole arsenal of noises which may be generated in performance while not officially being part of the performance – taking a breath, key clicks, the noise of turning pages, creaking chairs, the sound of a bow being put down on a stand for an extended period of pizzicato. Perhaps something could be made of not disguising, or even enhancing these noises as a part of the piece.

Another avenue of thought along these lines is the prospect of writing a piece intended to be sight-read. Twombly’s acceptance of the role of chance in his prints reminded me of Frederick Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, with its instruction “if you get lost, stay lost”. If you rehearse this piece to get it “right”, you are doing it wrong. If you get it “wrong”, you’re doing it right. The point of Les Moutons de Panurge is an acceptance of whatever happens, for just as it is most likely that someone will get lost at some point (and probably most of the group, given the complexity of calcuation required to play the piece), there’s always the chance that everyone will get it right. You never know till you play it.

Obviously, Les Moutons already exists and there isn’t much point in trying to recreate it with new notes, but it has raised a question in my mind about how you go about constructing a piece with the express aim of losing performers en route. The difficulty of the notation in Les Moutons does this: while the notes themselves are simple, the performance is complicated by the instruction to play the notes in sequence, but additively: 1 – 1 2 – 1 2 3 – 1 2 3 4 – 1 2 3 4 5 etc. till the end when you start to subtract notes from the beginning of the sequence. The music also accelerates over the course of the piece to double its initial speed, and the nonstandard time signature changes about 2/3 of the way through the piece. There’s quite a lot going on for such a simple one-line melody!

I’ve started work this week on the first piece, which is exploring whitespace as drone, a simple and perhaps obvious concept but I had to start somewhere! I’ve settled on cello and percussion as my ensemble, and lined up performers to start workshopping the pieces after CoLab is done, in 3 weeks’ time. I also have a working title for this set of pieces, A Sketchbook of Mushrooms. Here’s hoping the pieces mushroom into something worth listening to!