Commissioned by the Crash Ensemble for the Cikada Quartet with funds form the Arts Council of Ireland
The Japanese have a word 'wabi', meaning 'voluntary poverty', which implies 'emptiness '– in the Zen sense that to be 'empty' or 'thingless' is to possess the world. A striving for emptiness, or reductionism, is a recurring theme in the art of the West as well as the East. Less is more, we are always being told.
Yet the music of the 20th Century is strikingly elaborate, busy even, when compared with painting. There was no shortage of painters who rose to the challenge of Malevitch's white and black Suprematist Squares of 1915. Amongst many others, Mondrian, Yves Klein, Barnet Newman, Ad Reinhard, Robert Ryman, and several Martins have all, in their various ways, not been afraid of a nearly blank canvas.
There are few major composers, by contast, who have not shunned emptiness. Only La Monte Young, Phil Niblock, Alvin Lucier (and the odd work of Cage) spring to mind immediately as examples of composers who have advocated minimal interference in the sound material itself. A good! composer, it seems, is not an absent one.
Like all composers, I have my own personal agenda. In the 70's I was determined to counter what I saw as 'historicism' – the (then very prevalent) idea that this or that was forbidden on the grounds of precedent. In the 80's a number of us were concerned with 'overcoming form' or at least going beyond form. In the 90's, the problem seemed to be eliminating style, or at least stylistic consistency. Now I find myself concerned with content. How does one make a piece 'empty' without arriving at 'nothing'? How does one follow Morton Feldman's insistence on presenting music as 'pure material'? Maybe it's a pipe dream.