The Continuous Now

2003

Peter Hatch's musical vision and coommunity presence
BY James Harley
summer 2003 | #86 musicworks 29

 

PETER HATCH , A COMPOSER BASED IN THE community of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, an hour outside of Toronto, has been strongly influenced by the notion espoused by Gertrude Stein (among many) of the 'continuous now. ' This concept conveys the sense of experiencing time as it unfolds, through the combination of memory and expectation, of repetition and change, of past and future. One can apply this notion to the structure of music; one can also apply this notion to creative renewal;one can even apply it to active engagement with one's social and cultural environment. Peter Hatch is committed to all of these.

background

According to Hatch (quotations from correspondence with the composer are given in italics), his formal musical training didn't begin until age seventeen. Prior to that, he played electric guitar in a rock band;in high school, he played guitar in a jazz quintet. He started university as a performance major on bassoon, and considers this performance experience to have been formative:'traditional classical chamber and orchestral music are definitely in my blood from these years. 'At the same time, and equally important for the development of his compositional style and aesthetic, Hatch was a voracious listener to music of all kinds, a habit he continues.

"When I was a teenager I used to borrow library cards so I could check out stacks of records from the local library. Having not gone through any formal musical training, my listening was pretty wide open'I discovered J. S. Bach, Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton, and Charles Ives all at about the same time. I find inspiration in classical musics of various world cultures, avant-whatevers, and pop and folk if it is done well and I'm in the right mood. I find the fact that I can sit down and listen to this range of music in one afternoon incredible."

Hatch went on to music studies at the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, completing his doctorate in 1986. In 1985, he began teaching at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, where he is now Coordinator of the Composition Programme section of the Music Department. The first piece still listed in his catalogue dates from 1980 ('Dog'-Three Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for reciter, tenor sax, piano, bass, drums), reflecting his early interest in jazz. While Dog evokes the style without the improvisation, the combination of spontaneous creation with fixed musical structure has remained an ongoing, albeit occasional, concern for this composer. Hatch's desire to explore a renewal of classical performance traditions, has, over the years, resulted in new scores, such as The Dice are Loaded (1989), for Hemispheres, a new music jazz ensemble in Toronto, and Music Is a Beautiful Disease (1999), for Standing Wave, an eclectic ensemble in Vancouver. This interest in the notion of crossover also led to an important gathering, The 5th Stream Festival/Conference of Contemporary Music, which Hatch convened in 1989. He co-edited the proceedings, which were published in Can-Mus 6 (1990), with elder statesman of Canadian music (and Hatch's mentor from his days at the University of Toronto), John Beckwith.

In addition to stylistic elements, and the tensions and cross-fertilizations produced by combining improvised elements with predetermined ones, Hatch was particularly attracted by the performative energy that could be drawn upon and explored in such music. Improvisation engenders a focus on the now, while fixed notation directs both listener and performer to elements that came before and to others yet to come. I tie this energy [of performance] to the idea of the 'continuous now'. . . Many of my scores demand strong concentration and no blinking:it is really important to stay in the moment'much like reading Gertrude Stein. I don't intend this as a mechanism of control but as a thrilling ride through time that any are welcome to join. Not all of my music is high energy, but I think the idea of'awareness of moment'runs through much of what I do.
Gertrude Stein

Prior and parallel to Hatch's discovery of the remarkable writings of American-in-Paris Gertrude Stein, he was reading (and continues to read) other authors concerned with time and the expression of time (and the present) in their writing (see table 1). Decidedly, Hatch is an avid reader of contemporary literature'in addition to the writers and writings listed, he has also admitted an attraction to the works of Jorge Luis Borges (Hatch's Undr, 1999, for orchestra, shows this), Alain Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Italo Calvino, Paul Dutton, and Christian Bok.

The particular revelation from Stein for the composer was the use of repetition to create new syntactical structures. As the author sought to find a means to express the essence of, say, Picasso's cubist visual works in language, so Hatch saw a way to use varied repetition as a means to express 'multiple views'of a musical object. Each repetition, slightly varied or set into a varied context, is different but also the same. A tension is created between stasis and change.
The elements of repetition and non-linearity were also connected to composers I was inspired by at the time, especially Gyorgy Ligeti and Louis Andriessen. I think, also, Stein's intuitive bravery was/is an inspiration'you can feel her own epiphanies arriving at (sometimes rather bizarre) ideas as you read her. As someone who had been trained for a rather formal approach to composing (i. e. , being expected to justify everything on the page), this was a revelation and inspiration.

Hatch has written a number of pieces based on, or inspired by, texts of Gertrude Stein (see table 2). The most ambitious is Mounting Picasso, an eighty-minute music theatre piece written for the Blue Rider Ensemble, based in Kitchener, with whom the composer was able to work very closely.

The textual focus on syntax enables the composer to concentrate his efforts on formal and rhythmic structures. As Hatch wrote, in an article published in 1991 (see Musicworks 54) that was based on a lecture-performance he had given at the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music the previous year:
A phrase can be taken
A phrase can be taken and scanned repetitively
taken and scanned
can be taken and scanned repetitively, changing
and scanned repetitively, changing the starting point
the starting point and length
repetitively, changing the starting point and length
point and length of the scan
can be taken and scanned repetitively, changing the starting
point and length of the scan
length of the scan.

A piece such as 'When do they is not the same as why do they', which can be heard on the Musicworks 54 CD, as well as on the Centrediscs CD Alternate Currents, by Beverley Johnston (CMC-CD 4592) adapts a specific Stein text to a rhythmic structure of repetition and variation in a very direct, concentrated way. Other works incorpo-rate different concerns-musical (vernacular or otherwise) and theatrical. Interestingly, in a similar way to Stein's writings, the syntactical play of the rhythms in the solo percussion work proves to be highly dramatic. This is more apparent when reading Stein aloud:a breathless quality is produced through the repetitions of words and phrases liberated from ordinary sentence length and punctuation. What Hatch has done in When do they is not the same as why do they is shift the attention to pulses (drum-strokes) and rhythmic patterns rather than words (although there are some of those, too), with the percussion performed at rates approaching the boundaries of the possible. The resulting energy, built from syntactical structures that are ever novel, as well as the sense of virtuosic speed and technical risk that is asked of the performer, is breathtaking in a way similar to the effect of reading Stein aloud.
Numus brochures and pamphlets, various years.

numbers and Cage

Hatch has expressed an attraction to (even obsession with) the Fibonacci Series and the Golden Mean as sources for creating formal shape for his music. Most of his pieces involve formal schemes on multiple levels based on Golden Mean proportions, and rhythms and durations based on units of time drawn from the Fibonacci Series.
An extreme example of this is the opening of When do they is not the same as why do they, where I have groups of continuous streams of sixteenth notes based on Fibonacci numbers (from 1 to 233) interspersed with silences that are also derived from the same set of numbers in a kind of on-off setting. To me, the proportions between sound and silence is all that there really is, and they are beautiful.

The influence of John Cage (who, as is well known, was also quite interested in Gertrude Stein) can be found in this fascination with proportions, into which musical material of all sorts can be placed. Hatch has not followed too far along Cage's path toward indeterminacy, where anything at all can be inserted into the formal framework (the most radical example of this being Cage's 4'33', an elaborate architecture of silence). Nonetheless, the notion that structural design can be filled with all manner of content has been important to Hatch, and in part explains the ease with which he has embraced the incorporation of found objects into his music. In addition, I believe that Hatch has taken heart in the courage Cage showed in carrying on with what he believed he needed to do, and in Cage's attitude toward the creative life (art is life, life is art).
the joys of postmodernism

As Hatch admits, he was trained for a formal approach to composition, directly out of the modernist tradition. Concern with formal proportions is allied with various algorithmic processes involving random numbers and other elements 'you won't hear too many twelve-tone rows in his music, although there are some to be found (perhaps most obviously in'Dog'- Three Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from 1980, which combines serial pitch structures with a jazz rhythmic and instrumental texture).
But, perhaps because of his eclectic listening and his late start on his studies, Hatch has embraced what might be termed a postmodern attitude toward his material. He has welcomed the vernacular, the familiar, into his music. Further, he has had fun doing this. His is a radically different approach from that of a slightly older postmodernist such as John Rea (see Marc Couroux's article in Musicworks 84), whose music often exhibits a self-consciously ironic stance towards the material and the cultural context within which it finds itself. There may be humour in irony, but there is rarely joy. Hatch unabashedly communicates a joy in exploring the wide world of music. This is perhaps part of what he has taken from the Cage legacy. His engagement with the material and the context is no less deep or thoughtful than other postmodernists. My sense is that his embracing of the external and referential is natural rather than deliberate (or more so, at least), growing out of his eclectic listening and his exploration of Zen Buddhism and Taoism (and the related attitude of creative resignation, acceptance).

In a Vernacular Way (1990), for example, places the solo harpsichord into an ahistorical context in which the traditional dance suite is jazzed up by incorporating contemporary stylistic references. Even Jimi Hendrix makes an appearance (so to speak) in the last movement! Of course, Hatch is aware that typical Baroque suites themselves would often have included references to popular music, spicing up the piece with homages to the (as it were) 'rock stars'of the time.
muzak

While Hatch had made numerous references to pieces, composers, and styles in his music throughout the early part of his career, he began to engage with musical history in a more deliberate way in 1995'96. One of the things that touched this off was a consideration of the effect that 'muzakization'has on our relationship to well-known musical works of the standard repertoire.

"Daily we are confronted with these 'masterpieces' in elevators, shopping malls, doctor's offices, behind bad television movies'to the point where hearing them in the concert hall is often a strange experience 'both inviting and repelling the listener . . . This kind of exposure to these works gives us an interesting relationship to them: we have in some ways become highly acquainted with them, while at the same time we have developed skills to tune them out, to put them in the background, to 'unlisten'to them."

The first piece to explore these issues was Endangered Worlds for wind sextet, completed in 1996. The work it is built on is The Planets, by Gustav Holst, one of the more colourful, blatantly dramatic, and most recognizable works of the orchestral repertoire. The rich instrumental palette of the original is drastically reduced, casting the music in a very different light. There is something quite Stravinskian about Endangered Worlds:the clarity of the textures and instrumentation is one reason;the light touch of the 're-composition'is another. It is a very strange experience to listen to the Holst recast in this way, and one is led, gently, to reconsider one's relationship to the original:What is it we know, exactly, when we say that we know or can recognize The Planets'

Madigan for orchestra, from 1998, carries on these concerns, this time focusing on Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (the title comes from the Bo Wideberg film, Elvira Madigan, which used the Mozart piece prominently). In this case, the piece is primarily built from materials drawn from the Mozart, but the music moves farther from the original than is the case in Endangered Worlds. The classical character and the strongly familiar elements slip off now and then into digressions, moments of reverie.

This 'not in Kansas anymore' element is even more apparent in Hatch's next piece in his 'Muzak'series, Il Cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione for double string quartet, from 2000. The title is drawn from the subtitle of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and the music is drawn from that highly recognizable source as well. The title refers to the also well-known reason-intuition, thought-emotion dichotomy, and the music is pretty well balanced between source material and fantasy. Echoes of familiar gestures turn into pattern music a la minimalism, and sustained layerings of the pitches of familiar phrases turn into texture music a la Ligeti. In this case, Hatch is engaging in a more sophisticated deconstruction, referring to styles that are known to listeners familiar with new music but not necessarily known to the vast listening (or more, non-listening) public who would recognize the Vivaldi.
dreamtime

This fantasy quality, in which music flows from one kind of material or style to another, is apparent in others of Hatch's pieces. Music Is a Beautiful Disease for small ensemble, from 1999, tries to do this without drawing upon external, musical-cultural icons. One of Hatch's aims is to' defy our usual sense of logic, 'an attitude that calls Gertrude Stein to mind again (as well as John Cage). This piece includes motivic rhythmical elements and texturally based controlled aleatorism. It rests on a structural foundation of proportions arrived at through using the I Ching as a means of access to the unconscious.

"My intention is to create an atmosphere which is both beautiful and disturbing at the same time, which both embraces and defies our 'normal 'sense of reality, slipping into and out of a dreamlike state frequently."

There is a 'dream' element to Hatch's pieces that combine text with music. In spite of his fascination with the writing of Stein and others, he has actually written very little vocal music. More often, the text is recited. The percussion work already mentioned, When do they is not the same as why do they, is one such piece, as is A Chopsticks Fantasy ('Mildred's Thoughts'). Ida, My Dear (1995) for trumpet / actor and tape, is another, combining a text from Stein with references to 'Ruby, My Dear' byThelonius Monk, as well as to the trumpet style of Miles Davis.
remix

An even more radical combination of quotations and/or stylistic references with a sense of disturbed beauty can be found in Hatch's recent string quartet, Gathered Evidence (2002). In this piece, the quartet, amplified, is set against a collection of recorded interjections:spoken phrases, fragments of all manner of music, commercial jingoes, clips, etc. The composed music includes modern-sounding materials along with historical references.

Gathered Evidence is like a snapshot of our art form in the present tense.
The second violinist doubles as DJ, controlling mixer, CD sample playback, and signal processor. Not all string players would be at ease in this role, but Hatch worked on this piece in a collaborative process (as he usually does) with the performers' in this case the Penderecki String Quartet, which commissioned it (and who are colleagues of his at Wilfrid Laurier, as quartet-in-residence there).
The juxtaposition of live string quartet and gathered samples is perhaps jarring, but the composer's sense of humour is strongly evident, as is his care in exposing this unusual performance paradigm.
' The piece opens with an announcer declaring, 'The sounds which you are about to witness were the object of the concert. '
' The strings enter, quite mysteriously, with tapping sounds (col legno battutto). High modernism.
' 'Listen closely. '
' More battutto.
' The music continues.
' 'The evening started with the electronic equipment distributed throughout the concert hall. Bodies operated various gadgetry producing the sounds. '
' The texture shifts to plucked sounds (pizzicato), more focused in rhythm and profile.
' 'Records and previously recorded tapes as well as radio broadcasts are mixed in. '
' The pizzicato continues, and background recorded samples enter, with short clips from commercial radio broadcasts.
' The profound voice of the elderly Marcel Duchamp is heard, saying, 'Through the change from inert matter to a work of art an actual transubstantiation has taken place and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the aesthetic scale. The creative act is not performed by the artist alone. '
' The strings continue their plucking all the while, and a background rhythm track beats out a pulse (unrelated to the live music). . .

And so goes the first section of Gathered Evidence.
"I thought it would be fun to reference referencers, so there are many quoted who are known for quoting others."

activism

Peter Hatch is one composer who, although he does teach at a university, does not live in an ivory tower. He has worked with boundless energy and determination to ensure that new music' and Canadian music in particular' has an important place in the education of all music students at Wilfrid Laurier. Hatch and his colleague Glenn Buhr have built up one of the most admirable undergraduate composition programs in Canada. Every piece that every composition student produces is performed and recorded. The other students, and many of the performing ensembles, are involved in this process by default (but not really by default;as a result, rather, of much proactive work behind the scenes).

This new music activity spills out from the university to the community. Hatch discovered early on that the Kitchener-Waterloo area is strongly musical, from its many church choirs to its fine symphony orchestra. He founded the new music society NUMUS in 1985. Its mandate, in large part, is to present new music by Canadian and international composers and to showcase accomplished performers and ensembles in the region.

From there, Hatch began working with the Canadian Chamber Ensemble (made up, basically, of the principal players of the K-W Symphony) to program a series of new music concerts. He also acted as host for the concerts, speaking to the audiences to put the music into context. From there, he became New Music Adviser to the K-W Symphony, helping with the integration (always difficult) of new music into the symphony's season (he more recently served as Composer-in-Residence). Out of this activity there grew, along with an impressive series of orchestral scores, the Open Ears Festival, launched in 1998, with its fourth edition occurring in May, 2003.

Five days shared by a community of open-eared individuals, crossing over a wide range of aesthetics, all celebrating the art of listening.
Hatch's eclectic musical, literary, and social curiosities are given full rein with Open Ears. The programming includes concerts, electroacoustics, musique actuelle and improvisation, sound installations, music theatre, multimedia, dance, soundwalks, and more. The venues are mixed, including concert halls and churches, outdoor courtyards and parks, and abandoned buildings and other alternative spaces. Hatch has also made sure to include educational components, open to the public, that provide opportunities for young people and others who may be curious to learn more about music and sound. A symposium held concurrently with the festival brings together various guests to discuss, from a variety of perspectives, the subject of listening. The festival has brought together many elements of the community (and far beyond) and has helped in the revitalization of the downtown area. All in the cause of new, living music!

I feel we are on the cusp of a real revolution in art music, one that will take the creative work that is going on out of the margins and more into the popular consciousness (where we definitely have not been!). I don't think this will be through 'popularizing' what we do but by establishing a resonance with the rest of the world that has perhaps been lagging . . . I think the major work to do be done now could be described as 'curatorial''working on presenting things in an advantageous context, from conception through to marketing and presentation. The problems now are not with audiences not wanting to accept new ideas, but with presenters, promoters, and often performers (and I include new-music types here) stuck in old-fashioned approaches to their art form.

back again to here and now

Which all brings us back to where we started:the continuous now. Peter Hatch, to summarize, is interested 'vitally interested' in living in the present, or in trying to as much as is possible, and in expressing his experience of this life of continual questing. He is also trying to live 'here''in a place, a community. That community begins with his students and colleagues at the music faculty where he works, expands to the city and region within which he has made his home, and continues outward to encompass his country (as so many channels of communication and support are national by nature) and beyond. It is interesting that Hatch, while he has spent time abroad and does have foreign performances and fans (British composer-musicologist Christopher Fox, for example, is an admirer, and wrote an essay on Hatch's music for Hatch's first CD), has relatively little exposure and activity 'out there' in what might be termed the global market. That is perhaps because 'out there' is not 'here';'they' are not 'us. '

I see my community work as an extension of my creative work as a composer. Designing a well-thought-out series / festival or discovering new ideas that seem to fit the moment, and implementing them, are similar to things I do as a composer.

Hatch's activism is self-serving to the extent that he is trying to create venues within his community to present his own work as well as other activity he finds interesting. The assumption, always, and the challenge, is that others find it engaging as well.

And, they do. We do.

James Harley is a composer and researcher now based in Minnesota, where he teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Harley has written on Iannis Xenakis and Richard Barrett in previous articles for Musicworks.

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