In his 1986 book America, Jean Baudrillard discusses the absoluteness of the white horizontal surface spanning the Bonneville Salt Flats outside Salt Lake City, Utah, and observes that the local residents “had to invent the speed of prototype cars to cope with the absolute horizontality.” This white landscape’s fearful symmetry, Baudrillard suggests, in its unearthly, transcendental whiteness and flatness, is a threat to the mundane order of things—a threat that’s dispelled by our plonking high speed cars on top of it and making the Salt Flats a setting for sports. We make sense of this landscape by giving it a utility and meaning—something that reassures us that we know what it is.
You could say that commentators on recent art music—specifically avant-garde, post-tonal art music—have been obliged to do much the same thing. The absolute strangeness or, if you prefer, absolute purity (they amount to the same thing) of the acoustical surfaces proffered to our ears by avant-garde art music over the past century demands of us names and concepts by which to habituate, tame, and make sense of it. In this way we had Arnold Schoenberg pulling back from the alarming abyss of free pan-tonality by formulating the reassuring yardstick of the twelve tone method; we had Iannis Xenakis’s Musiques formelles, music as conforming to mathematics; we had the New Complexity, music as high intellectual pose; and here on this new monograph CD, the unifying concept of the multiplicity is presented as an appropriate concept for music.
Before turning to the music, a few details about its composer, Luis Codera Puzo (b. 1981), a Catalan based in Barcelona, where he’s the artistic director of the CrossingLines ensemble, with whom he plays electric guitar and live electronics. This new portrait CD comes about from Codera Puzo’s having been named one of the 2013 winners of the Ernst Von Siemens Music Foundation’s Young Composers Prize. Previous recipients of that award amount to a roll-call of the main luminaries at the moment in Central European art music composition: Thomas Adès, Marc-André Dalbavie, Luca Francesconi, Beat Furrer, Philippe Hurel, Michael Jarrell, Olga Neuwirth, and Rebecca Saunders, to name only a few. Without having even listened to the music, this Siemens award sets Codera Puzo up as a future big name – and it’s a view the album handsomely backs up.
Codera Puzo says that winning the Siemens award—each prizewinner now has a portrait album produced by Col Legno—was important in allowing him “to take a look at and review what I have done and to be able to record it.” That reflective process led to the selection of five compositions to be featured on the album, spanning four years, from 2011 to 2014. Part of the reasoning for the title Multiplicidad (“Multiplicity”) is the mundane fact that, Codera Puzo’s style having evolved somewhat over the period in question, the compositions do not, he thinks, sound all of a piece. “Multiplicidad is not intended to be a disc that offers unity of listening,” he writes in the sleeve notes, “but, rather, conceptual unity.” In this way the pieces on the album should not be listened to together, he suggests, but rather in isolation from each other.
This is one sense, then, of multiplicidad. But as you’d expect, multiplicity also plays a conceptual role, acting as a formal, even ontological signifier representing implicitly (im-pli-citly) the manifold qualities of the music. In this regard, two main things stand out for me in considering Multiplicidad: the superb music on the disc and the lengthy textual explanations in the liner notes. These texts introduce the music, as program notes should do; but further, they impose on the listener a privileged interpretation of the music, an interpretation framed in terms of the composer’s general aims and the specifics of what he’s trying to do in each piece. As is de rigeur in certain art music circles, Codera Puzo’s textual explanations are archly, unapologetically intellectual. And while I find the music compelling, I find the intellectualism of Codera Puzo’s conceit off-putting, mainly because it sets a reductive framework for listening.
Each of the five works invokes the notion of multiplicity in some way or ways. For the vocal part in aproximación a lo indivisible (2013) for voice and ensemble, Codera Puzo sets a “multiplicity” of textual material: a text by Baruch Spinoza (a letter in Latin, which exists in two versions, in which Spinoza discusses his notion of the infinite), a text by Irène Gayraud (contemporary French free verse poetry), and a text resulting from Codera Puzo’s having specifically invented “a numerical language system with a different base from the decimal,” invented in order “to be able to write recitations of numbers which [have] a logic in terms of sound.” The program note also discusses prime numbers, compositional research made in various languages, and so on, and indicates that Codera Puzo’s main aim in aproximación a lo indivisible is to test the viability of the idea of unity: how does unity emerge from heterogeneous elements?
All this is interesting, but it pales beside the sensory experience of the music. Stylistically, aproximación a lo indivisible is a sort of recitative. At the beginning the female voice is on its own and recites, or rather scatterguns, Gayraud’s poetry, in a manner similar to that of the voice in Beckett’s Not I. Then, when the text switches into Spinoza’s Latin, the ensemble joins in and the idiom changes, becoming faintly similar to the free improvisation of the likes of John Butcher—touches, scrapes, brushes, and fluttertongues emanating from the piano, bass clarinet, trombone, double bass, and other instruments. This is then followed by a drone section. Overall, aproximación a lo indivisible sees an episodic form change into a “spliced” form, as a succession of texts and idioms gives way to a simultaneity of texts and idioms. It’s a fascinating piece, not least in how it maintains your attention throughout; but for me, the need to couch it all in arch-intellectual trappings adds little. That the Spinoza text is in Latin, the erstwhile privileged language of scholarship, rather than in the vernacular, symbolically blocks out a general audience; whereas I believe the music does no such thing stylistically.
For me it’s one of the shames about contemporary art music—a music I love—that so often it has to come swathed in intellectual posturing (the main reason for which seems to be, a la Pierre Bourdieu, to generate cultural capital). I can illustrate my feelings here with an anecdote. Recently I caught a performance of a piece in London by a certain well-known contemporary avant-garde European composer. The program note was two pages long, very intellectual, and very serious. As I read and then listened, then read and listened, and finally just listened, I found I was getting nothing at all from the music—until such time as I deliberately purged my mind of all memory of the program note, and then what do you know, my enjoyment leaped upwards and resonated like a bell hit by the hammer of a strongman at a carnival. Free to make of the music whatever it wanted, my imagination could feed off the composition’s undoubted richness. So it is with Multiplicidad: its intellectual conceit is at times an imaginative barrier.
Another work here is called kaolinite [Al₂Si₂O₅(OH)₄] quartet (2012), a name that appropriately enough calls to mind a recent track by Autechre, “irlite (get 0)”. Being a string quartet (albeit an unorthodox one, featuring a double bass), this more traditional score presents another dimension of Codera Puzo’s talent, a fine balance being struck in each of its three movements between gestures, density, and tempo, occasional glimmers of harmonicity contributing to a certain traditional impression. Again, the conceit is as a coat of varnish daubed on the musical material (since it’s not really necessary, of course, to provide the tongue-unfriendly chemical formula for the material in question); and if one of the intentions of this is to signpost the music as “serious,” maybe such tension between map and territory is unavoidable. When Mallarmé was forced by his publisher to write a short preface for his typographically and syntactically unconventional poem Un coup de dés, he opened his note by saying: “I would prefer that this Note was not read; or, once skimmed over, was forgotten.” Maybe we need program notes and signifiers purely to be able to forget about them.
But what of the concept of multiplicity itself? In mathematics the term multiplicity—or in its usual English rendering, manifold (pli being the French for “fold”)—is a term associated with the differential geometry founded by Carl Friedrich Gauss and Bernhard Riemann in the 19th century. A manifold, or multiplicity (in German, Mannigfaltigkeit), is an N-dimensional curved structure the surface properties of which can be measured in themselves without the need to locate that object by reference to the surrounding space in which it’s embedded, as in the traditional measurement of geometrical objects in Euclidean space using coordinates from X, Y, and Z axes. The mathematical concept of multiplicity was subsequently adopted by Henri Bergson, who described consciousness as a qualitative multiplicity; by Proust, who uses Bergson’s concept throughout his Recherche; and by Gilles Deleuze, who uses the concept of multiplicité as a replacement for the traditional ontological category of essence.
In the ontological and mathematical themes of his program notes, Codera Puzo seems to encourage his listeners to pay attention to how the music engages with this concept of multiplicity. But he doesn’t refer to the mathematical heritage of the term, and in this way it’s unclear why, for example, multiplicity is more appropriate than plurality, diversity, polyvocality, polyvalency, or heterogeneity (related but distinct concepts). At times, for instance in aproximación a lo indivisible, heterogeneity seems to me a more appropriate formal descriptor. At other times, though, the image of multiplicity does indeed fit the music well; for example, in multiplicidad y relación (2011) for Pierrot ensemble, in whose three short movements the “same” acoustical material is presented successively at three different speeds, each of which produces different manifest interrelations between the surface dimensions of the material in question.
Codera Puzo again alludes to mathematical terminology in the most recent work here, π (2014). Written specifically for CrossingLines, π is scored for an unusual combination of instruments (trombone, electric guitar, glockenspiel, double bass, modular synthesizer, and live electronics). The music melds various influences: slight Sciarrino-esque gestures; anarchic Otomo Yoshihide-esque electric guitar; and glitching Ryoji Ikeda-esque electronica. The number π is invoked in a few senses. One is that the work brings together two “sides which have begun to clash” in Codera Puzo’s musical focus: on the one hand, free improv, noise, and drone music; on the other hand, notated, “serious” composition; a duality analogous, Codera Puzo says, to that of the number (which is at once unlimited and constant). But π is also here a metaphor: indicating in the music something constant and concrete yet at the same time transcendental and unknown. And in this sense π acts as a surrogate: a stand-in or space-filler that neutralizes the wild musical territory with a reassuring mark of our proud knowledge.
Here we come back to Baudrillard and the Salt Flats. Programmatic conceits like π, mathematical terminology in general, and abstruse Latin texts on the nature of infinity amount, you could argue, to efforts to banish the unknown by planting our flags on the threateningly strange territory of this music, turning the music into “meaning.” This isn’t to take away from Codera Puzo’s music, which, as I’ve said, is excellent. For me, perhaps the most interesting composition here is oscillation ou interstice (2013) for voice and bass recorder, a setting of seven poems by Gayraud. Unfortunately there’s no English translation of the French text in the liner notes; but if you can read French, the word painting is superb: the description of a household interior bestridden by a “porteuse de lance” (a female spear-carrier) is veritably stuttered out by the male vocalist (with chattering commentary by the bass clarinet) in a way that vividly evokes a curtain being shunted back and forth and the porteuse pattering up and down the floor. The imaginative force at work in oscillation ou interstice transcends the recourse elsewhere to mathematical imagery.
Reservations aside, Multiplicidad is a striking album and worth buying to hear one of new music’s latest prospects. The sound engineering is crisp and atmospheric, the performances (by Ensemble Modern, ensemble recherche, UMS ‘n JIP, CrossingLines, and Sarah Maria Sun) exemplary, and the variety between the compositions will keep the listener coming back. Commenting on Wittgenstein’s famous injunction that we should pass certain things over in silence, Maurice Blanchot wrote: “Given that by enunciating [this phrase] he has not been able to impose silence on himself does indicate that in the last analysis one has to speak in order to fall silent. But with what kind of words?” It’s a question of equal weight for how we talk about music.
Liam Cagney is an author, critic, and musicologist. His writing on music has appeared in The Daily Telegraph, Gorse, Sinfini Music, and elsewhere.