Essay – Assi Karttunen

Silence and Interruption – Present-Past-Future-Present

Graham Lynch’s new composition, Present-Past-Future-Present, has been written to fit in with our performances next September at the Helsinki Music Centre. The event is based around the poetry of Matsuo Basho (c.1644-1694), Japanese poet of the Edo period. It is a series of meditations on music, words, and sound, and is called in the wood, in the hut, in the mind.

In Basho’s travel sketch, the Narrow road to the North a fisherman’s boat arrives at the shore, and Basho describes the sounds he hears as they share the day’s catch. He mentions some biwa – playing heard from a distance – as well as the bells that echo in Shiogama Bay. However, the sounds and voices are remote and transient, and he allows them come and go in his mind.

Meditativeness related to sounds and silences can sometimes be detected in Western classical music; for example, in the early French non-mesuré préludes and the lamentations for solo harpsichord. It can also be heard in Lynch’s new harpsichord work: the rests, pauses, commas, decays, unexpected breaks, omissions, fragmentations or interruptions are all important parts of the mechanics of the music. These qualities also exist in an earlier harpsichord piece of his, Admiring Yoro Waterfall, which takes its starting point from a woodblock print by Hokusai. Lynch has practised meditation, and he has used these inner experiences of the mind to shape these harpsichord pieces in a distinctly non- Western fashion.

In the first movement, Present, the opening musical texture is a ”walking passage”, which is delicate and transparent. These “walking” movements are irregular and they sound as if even more voices are heard beyond the notated ones, which move in and out of each other in different tempi. In other words, the polyphony is elegantly incomplete and resembles an auditory ”reality” such as cars in the traffic or like ripples of conversation heard from a distance. These passages are interrupted by episodic textures that are like inner thoughts; free and flighty impressions – they appear out of the blue. At times they are flashbacks, a memory of previously heard music. The joins of different musical textures are often intentionally unprepared and unfinished; the musical material starts and vanishes without normal tonal conventions.

This kind of an interruption awakens our senses and transforms our musical orientation, confusing it in a way that makes a different, meditative mind set possible. At times, Lynch avoids cadential processes and instead creates long, “everlasting” phrases like the ones in the last piece, Future. These unexpectedly long gestures are also playing with our normal way of grasping phrase lengths, as something that happens during a single exhalation

The harpsichord’s sound articulates in a clear-cut way. It requires special skills to write for the instrument in a deliberately ambiguous manner that blurs the lines between the unheard and the heard. Usually one has to (paradoxically) write a group of voices that can be played like clusters, in a casual and sketch-like style. Lynch uses many ways to arpeggiate the chords, by writing both rhythmical, arpeggiating passages (Future) or sprayed, broken sonorities (Past).

These varied arpeggiations also deliver the music into a horizontal and floating sound world. The vertical chord pillars are realised in a variety of horizontal textures, in a lute-like way; luthé. The chords played luthé become functionally more ambiguous as the voices are heard one after another and are intertwined. This musical feature is typical also for the meditative preludes of 17th and 18th century France; it’s as if the harpsichord was thinking by itself. Lynch goes even further and lets the chords flourish within bitonal colours.

Pauses communicate many things – some of them occur after a slowing of the music; some after passages or motives that resemble birdcalls or wing strokes disappearing into the sky. One can experience aural spatiality between the movements and passages, inside the phrases, and in the particular place where the music is performed.


What is heard when nothing is heard?

Moments slow down, and our mind is at rest; the senses are aware and embrace the silence in an observant manner without the need to actually do anything, just yet. Our existence in the present is heightened, elevated, and tuned to the particular instant we are experiencing. The floating thoughts pass away without solutions. 

Assi Karttunen – Helsinki Academy