[r-t] Construction and Architecture in Compositions

Philip Earis Earisp at rsc.org
Tue Mar 8 13:29:27 UTC 2011

I increasingly believe the future of composition can be outlined in simple terms: architecture instead of construction.

Both now and in the past, the huge majority of compositions are primarily "constructed". The starting point (building blocks if you will) is a selected method or group of methods, and the composer tries to arrange these into as satisfying assembly as possible.

Examples would be compositions of Grandsire Caters, or a new delight royal method, or a defined group of 8 surprise major methods - the composer tries to put together the building blocks (leads) to as to maximise certain types of music, or properties like method balance, and so on.  This is "construction": the word is not intended to be pejorative.

The intrinsic nature of the "construction" approach was brought home to me at the weekend in a (failed) peal attempt of 5-spliced royal methods in a cyclic 9-part composition. It was a reasonable stab at getting some cyclic music from the base components, but was always going to be restricted by the pre-ordained methods. I've mentioned the joke about the traveller in Ireland asking for directions before.

By contrast a fundamentally different way of doing things is what I will call the "architecture" approach - layout out the overall framework from the start, and choosing the components (methods or indeed blocks of notation) needed to best achieve the design.

Whilst the construction approach means you can build an elegant, stable, sheltered cube from breeze blocks, you're never going to produce the Sydney Opera House or Colosseum without careful architecture.

Construction is reaching the end of the line with our current building blocks (tenors-together surprise methods, 21-parts of Stedman triples and so on).  Exhaustive computer searches are symptomatic of that. An open-ended architecture approach avoids this fundamental limit.

In the past, there have of course been a few examples of this "architecture" approach. At the dawn of change ringing in the 17th Century,  many things were by default "architectured" as there were no previous blocks or design plans to construct from. And more recently, the first 7-part peals of 23-spliced major, for example, were arguably close to the architectured approach.

Compositions based on extents can be harder to classify - there is the potential for a supreme architecture approach, but more frequently they tend to be a special class of constructed composition.

The future, I feel, lies in architecture.  The ground-breaking compositions in the mould arrived in the 1990s with DJP's cyclic 6-spliced maximus, where both the framework was designed and the methods like Deimos sculpted, to maximise music in their designated locations.

More recently, Rob Lee's magnificent 12-spliced cyclic palindromic major is a great example of the architecture approach. Interestingly, this has a superficial similarity to some constructed compositions, given it contains "standard" surprise major methods.

In the months and years to come, I feel architectured compositions will become much more prevalent, and moreover that there will be a step change in the adventure of the design they exhibit.  Future architectures based on less familiar shapes and symmetries, with blocks of principles incorporated, will appear and unleash a multitude of possibilities.

This is the way forward.


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