Dimitris Exarchos

Goldsmiths, University of London

On the Work of Modern Composition

This paper will examine the implications that modernist composition may potentially still have for contemporary musical practice. I will be taking my cue from Cavell’s essay of the mid-60’s, ‘Music Discomposed’ and Adorno’s (1969) seminal critique around music analysis; both identified composition (and its correlative, analysis) to relate to a problem. This problem, unique and irreducible, is the object of the work of composition, which I conceive in both its senses of process and product. The implications of such thinking will be explored in relation to aspects of composition such as notation, improvisation, form, structure, process, theory, and technique. I will make use of examples in 20th-century and contemporary work by composers such as Scelsi, Xenakis, Grisey, Ferneyhough, and Redgate. Lochhead (2016) argues that the modernist scientific research paradigm of the 50s and 60s, which ‘served as the foundation of compositional craft’, has come to a close. However, this post-war epistemic authority of the composer-theorist paradigm still influences music theory and analysis today. While composition has undergone a paradigm shift, analytical (and presumably compositional) theory still lags behind. Lochhead’s crucial turn focuses on temporality; thus structure is conceived as an emergent feature of the work. Such re-conceptualization problematizes the work of composition, which must not be thought us fixed, unchanging, but as a process of becoming. This ‘temporization’ of the work sheds new light to aspects of music composition. In this light I will re-examine Cavell’s theorization of the work, in relation to his concepts of composition, improvisation, and chance, as well as Badiou’s concept of the work as a fragment. In particular, composition is linked to intention, but Cavell argues that this intention is not fixed, as would be in the case of statements; on the other hand, Badiou (2005) conceives of the wrok as an instant within a larger configuration. Thus, under the light of temporality, the work can be conceived as a fragmentary becoming of intention.
The work of composition (and of analysis) conceived as a becoming around an irreducible problem suggests that compositional research must engage composition itself as its own subject. Beyond the Adornian idea of the work as a force-field around a problem, I argue we should enrich our conception of the work in its temporality. The work as becoming accounts for the paradox of a duality that occasionally takes the form of process/product (of composition), process/object (of analysis), performance/notation (as creative practices beyond communication), performance/recording (as archive, as object of analysis). To the extent that the work is conceived as the locus of tension of all these activities, analysis, performance and composition all may contribute to its becoming; each tends to explore new paths in different ways. It is the task of critique to identify the limits of these ways; in particular, each activity can be envisaged as an act of searching its own limits. As such, (sefl-)critical composition can be conceived as an attempt to identifying its own limits, to addressing the problem(s) of composition.

Keywords: work, notation, temporality


Dimitris Exarchos is a theorist and musicologist specializing in contemporary music. He has published in books and journals on twentieth-century composition, theory, and analysis. He has delivered talks in the UK and abroad, organised symposia (Xenakis International Symposium; Notation in Contemporary Music; Compositional Aesthet- ics and the Political) and curated concerts and events (Southbank Centre, Goldsmiths, Migrant Sound). His research explores the themes of temporality, notation, and materialism, on the intersections between philosophy, aesthetics, analysis, and composition; his analytical work includes computational and mathematical approaches. He is currently Visiting Research Fellow at the Contemporary Music Research Unit, Goldsmiths.