Paul Whitty: thirty-nine pages
Darragh Morgan, violin; Mary Dullea, piano
For thirty-nine pages Paul Whitty has treated each individual page of the Henle Urtext edition of Franck’s A major Violin Sonata, arranging them into 38 short movements (two treat two pages each, and one treats all 39 pages together). Some of his interventions are more oblique than others (there are very few exact quotations) but, even if it’s rarely possible to hear the original source material, it is often possible to infer traces of nineteenth-century rhetoric through Whitty’s bleached re-readings.
A large number of the movements consist of simple figures, looped over and over. Some are exact repetitions, some are varied through changes in pitch order, register or shifts of rhythm. It’s not possible, on hearing alone, to be certain that the apparently exact loops haven’t themselves been tweaked ever so slightly in dynamics or rhythmic inflection. At the least, the tiniest variations in tone are foregrounded. In spite of its extreme sparseness – some movements simply rotate loops of single pitches in different octaves – this music doesn’t feel rarefied and inconsequential: one is made aware of the weight of fingers on keys, the pressure of the bow, the tension of notes landing precisely into their slots in the metric grid, the slow, inevitable descent of a chromatic scale. Despite distilling Franck to the faintest of vapours, Whitty still derives something with presence and palpable mass.
The 38 movements may be played in any order: Whitty is not concerned with developing a particular formal arc. Instead, we are presented the objective results of pre-compositional activity, laid out one after another in free sequence. In one dimension, the music is not active at all: all the usual verbs of development and motion that one usually considers apply only to the piece’s gestation, Whitty’s re-workings of his source materials, not its material existence.
Yet things do happen in listening to this piece: an accumulation of information – to do with Franck, to do with Whitty, to do with one’s relationship to the other. This sedimentation sets in motion chains of reinterpretation of what came before, piecing together enigmatic fragments so slight as to leave only the faintest, most untrustworthy trace on memory. The moment-by-moment design of the piece, with its focus on slightest distortions to repeating patterns, focuses attention on the present. The larger structure, however, works backwards, reconstructing memories, organising certainties and familiarities, rather than forwards, towards cadences, resolutions and so on. We aren’t dealing with expectation or movement towards a goal.
thirty-nine pages CD launch
Darragh Morgan and his concert pianist wife Mary Dullea
César Franck: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major
Paul Whitty: thirty-nine pages
Darragh Morgan & Mary Dullea
Schott and Co. London, 24 September 2009
The small performance space downstairs at Schott’s is becoming an essential site to catch chamber works from the interesting fringes of the British new music establishment; it’s a shame that the concerts aren’t more widely advertised.
It was certainly a pleasure to hear Whitty’s piece (previously reviewed on CD) in this context, performed alongside the Franck that provided its raw materials, and up close to the performers. Thirty-nine pages takes each page of Franck’s score, subjecting them to different processes of deconstruction (such as rearranging each note on the page in the order highest to lowest, or just playing all the As). The result is like a bed after the sleeper has awoken and left: a partial imprint, a scent, perhaps a hair on the pillow. It’s not enough to reconstruct the person, but you can tell that someone has been there.
But Whitty’s piece also has a reciprocal influence on how we hear the Franck, atomising it, remapping its material units, highlighting new aspects (registral strata, degrees of resonance, etc) while suppressing others (phrase structure, harmonic progressions, etc). In the small, tinny space of the Schott basement one became even more aware of tiny disturbance of tone than on the recording: the ring of an occasional open string in thirty-nine pages projected far out of the music, suggesting a whole new layer of material qualities within the Franck. Whitty not only seeks the essence of his Romantic material, but finds in that discovered essence things one may not expect, casting an interesting perspective on how we hear the nineteenth-century today.