In 1964, the Czech musicologist and universally admirable intellectual Eduard Herzog published a list that was something akin to the holy grail of twelve-tone music theory. To complete it, he needed only his head, pen and pencil, and probably the help of Jan Rychlík, another excellent figure of Czech music. At around the same time, the same list was calculated in Germany – using the brute force of a computer and without full comprehension of the essence of the problem. The subject of Herzog’s brilliant feat was discovering all 1928 permutations of twelve tones that contain among them all eleven intervals of our tempered tuning system.
During the heyday of dodecaphony, tone rows with these characteristics were discovered by trial and error (achieving this is highly difficult). Only a few were known and no one knew how many there would be in total. It is hard to judge the extent to which their attraction was determined by structural possibilities or esoteric interests (some figure of Madame Blavatsky’s ilk can often be found peeking out from behind modernist art). What does seem certain, however, is that despite the revolutionary character of Herzog’s labour, it was a discovery that came too late. Classical dodecaphony was a thing of the past and the then-current musical styles that came in its stead had other interests and fascinations.
I knew about Herzog’s list and had it at hand – the anthology in which it was published was a prized antiquarian discovery for those interested in new music. In the summer of 2006, I noticed that the list is, de facto, composed of clusters of similar rows. I began exploring these similarities, or rather the various ways in which rows can be organised based on the criterion of similarity. I wrote through Herzog’s list “across” – in entirely non-dodecaphonic fashion, I used these clusters of rows simultaneously. I sorted my way through the nests of repeating notes and I enjoyed how this created fragments of music that seemed familiar, only to disappear again immediately, unpredictably replaced by others. My meeting with the list was a happy coincidence – I liked the music I found with its help. I wasn’t driven by the urge to “make something out of it”. I worked with the list like a found object to which I had, by chance, discovered the key that brought it back to life. It wasn’t the original key, but it fit and it turned. I enjoyed my adventurous explorations of this faded dodecaphonic palace – where our ancestors didn’t really want to move in; where the heating has been off for decades. I knew I had it to myself – nobody had poked their nose in for ages. I was somewhat proud of being able to breathe new meaning into Herzog’s list, to return it to living reality for a moment, but I always realised that my use bore little relation to its original intention, disregarding it. How much does the character of the music I made this way (its “colour”; “mood”) depend not on the statistical reality of the list (which can be easily described, as can its consequences) but on its most intrinsic principles (the esoteric aspect, if you will)? I don’t know. I only propose for consideration the idea that as those 1928 rows are a minute fraction of all possible permutations of twelve notes, and the criterion for their selection is anything but trivial, it will probably manifest itself in some way.
Along with my String Quartet no. 1, Usableness represents the climax (and also, in fact, the conclusion) of my work with Herzog’s list. After pieces that make use of dozens or hundreds of variously reorganised rows, in these two compositions, I used the entirety of the list in its original ordering. The manner and audible result are different, but in both pieces, the focus is, once again, on exploring similarities between the rows. Usableness makes present the similarity of each row with the two rows that follow. The loud note of the nth row is “compared” to the corresponding note of the (n+1)th, which is quieter, and (n+2)th, which is very quiet – as in the print-through on magnetic tape or a badly pressed gramophone record, you sometimes here a “pre-echo” of music that will only be heard in full volume and concreteness in a few moments. This is the origin of the prominent trios of notes passing into the background. It is crucial that in Usableness we hear the list in incomplete form, as if perforated – not all the notes are actually heard. Perforation is another method of highlighting similarities: only thanks to the absence of about half of the notes does the constantly ticking time allow us a moment to examine the emergent constellations of notes and become aware of them. Other pitches, however, had to be sacrificed. The original dodecaphonic non-hierarchy – all pitches are equal because there is an equal number of them – is erased by the non-hierarchy of perforation: every pitch can be heard, but it does not have to be. However, those we do hear acquire an importance proportional to how much emptiness is around them, how much similarity, and how they combine with other tones to evoke flashes of the “familiar music” mentioned above (in technical terms, how passages suggesting tonal contexts appear). The entire list, then, is present in the input, but the resultant score is composed only of its fragments, with the extent of perforation changing in waves that are similar but never the same. Though the fragments only suggest the whole, at the breaking points, we can see the inside, usually invisible under the compact whole. There is no silence in place of the notes that “fell through” – thanks to the pedal, we can hear, for a moment, music in a cross section of its linear flow. The list, originally order itself, comes to life through an unpredictable growth in the gaps of its memory, with which it is now swarming. To return to the palace metaphor: I knocked through many partitions and opened new perspectives – in fact, I demolished the palace a little; it makes sense to me and I believe that this way, given its age, the building looks plausible, but it is no longer the original building.
Both the title and the long subtitle of the piece refer directly to the text with which Herzog introduced his list in print. After presenting several examples of its use, which do not go beyond the practice of twelve-tone technique at the time, he wrote: “Providing more evidence to prove the list’s usableness is perhaps not necessary.” With a subtle irony, on Herzog’s account, I intended to construct a small monument to my own pride at having used the list on a scale and in a manner that no one, perhaps, had thought of. However, what I did was instead to memorialise my own lack of courage: without the explanation you are now reading, the title is incomprehensible. I only let my tongue slip once – the very first piece I made using the list is called For Eduard Herzog. Other than that, I consistently withheld the background of my Herzogian pieces in fear that any mention of dodecaphonic music and the like would reliably bring out prejudices that I wanted to spare both my music and myself. (For decades, everything twelve-tone has seemed perfectly passé, and has above all been discredited by those who did not realise it was passé for a long time. Years ago, at an informal meeting, I wanted to outline my use of Herzog’s list in For Eduard Herzog. After about two minutes, an important Czech composer gave me a fairly brash “warning” that time marches on and it would be adequate that I, too, move on. Only in 2016 did I publish a short text about my work with the list in an academic periodical – I was perfectly satisfied by the fact that the issue was recorded but no one had any knowledge of it.) I no longer want to presume any prejudices, so I am now at least partially correcting my unseemly concealing of Eduard Herzog.
Portfolio is a piece composed from a single idea – my only idea, you could say. It came to me early in 2010 and I did not give it much space at first. Until then, it had made itself known indistinctly, though in hindsight, it seems clear that it was already there, doing its work, and since then, I have based on it almost all the music I have written – however, in variants that are more or less distant derivations; variants that are hybridised, often complex, hidden under the surface. In proportion to how I gradually realised the scope of the idea and accepted that more and more, I could not resist travelling down the paths it offered me, my desire to exhibit it in its original form (of which I have known for some time that it points to something very personal) and in a large format grew. I knew I wanted to go back to it but I didn’t know how. When, after ten years spent with this idea, I figured out how, it seemed it would all go easily enough; that it would suffice not to stand in the idea’s way. But it surprised me again: it took me over a year to set up all the variables – a small alteration would have a considerable impact on the sound of the music –, to try (and reject) the unpleasantly large reservoir of possibilities that still remain, even after what seems like cutting down to the bone. I wrote many openings to the piece that looked very similar and were all binned because “it wasn’t there”. The notional energy I sensed in the idea (or, perhaps, that I wanted from the idea?) kept being hampered by something. When I finally came across a solution I was satisfied with, I discovered that Portfolio is the piece I spent the longest time writing, even if I leave out the ten-year latent phase. Its principle is present in most of my preceding pieces and will probably be contained in the pieces I am hopefully still to write. It is truly the sum total of my “artistic assets” – I can’t do much more than that, hence the title (which also relates to the fact that the performer can choose the pages from the score freely, as I mentioned above).
While Usableness arises from a very specific ordering of the basic material of twelve tones, that minuscule and important segment of the universe of sounds, that “piano ruler”, in Portfolio, the same material is presented literally straightforwardly, arranged as it stands – straight lines in one direction. Everything is simple and clear: passages played quietly alternate with loud ones, the quiet ones are chromatic (adjacent keys), the loud ones whole-tone (skipping one key, i.e. also regular, equidistant). Like zooming in and zooming out. What is quiet is small, what is loud is twice as large – just like with a magnifying glass, objects are not only larger but also further apart. The loud whole-tone segments are, of course, of two kinds: the notes you choose and the ones left over. These groups alternate irregularly and thanks to the sustain pedal, they come close together and scrape against each other. The polar dynamics (soft vs. loud, nothing in between) and the specificity of the sound of the piano ensure that the music has an almost physical palpability – as if you could run your finger across what is happening. All that was left was to resolve a few details: how the segments would follow one after another, the number of notes that would appear in each segment, how far up the lines would go before turning back, and where they would restart. These details are, as I mentioned, decisive, but I believe solutions do exist – and you can listen to one of them on this album.
Unlike Usableness, Portfolio contains no references to musical history, and, generally speaking, there is nothing much “behind it” to speak of. It is a celebration of creation from zero; from pure material; from elementary forms and situations. Such a perspective would be well described by the term utopian (after all, what is the source of all this, of the equal-tempered tuning, the piano, the wires inside it; the peculiar habit of writing pieces like that ?), but I will leave that label up to you. From inside my experience, that utopia seems like a real and experienced possibility. I am very glad I had it.
Petr Bakla, January 2021
Petr Bakla (born 1980) dedicates himself to composing notated music for acoustic instruments. In his compositions, he often employs basic pitch material, typically chromatic and whole-tone scales. He is interested in constructing situations and structural contexts in which these frugal musical elements can acquire a unique expressiveness and energy. A frequent feature of Bakla’s work is a simultaneous course of two musical/sound layers which, although usually markedly differing in dynamics to allow for a sense of “figure and background”, are not mutually subordinating – they are of equal importance, their “friction” creating specific tension and ambiguity. Petr Bakla composes orchestral, chamber and solo pieces. He has cooperated with performers such as Ostravská banda, esemble recherche, Quatuor Diotima, PHACE Ensemble, soloists Daan Vandewalle, Mike Svoboda, Uli Fussenegger and Emanuele Torquati. He lives in Prague.