Extremes Within Limits

Extremes Within Limits
– Vancouver, June 8, 1996

Within music, silence is extreme. It’s the blank bit of canvas, the void into which all sound disappears – the death that follows life.

When I write music, I am aware that the work has around it an aura of silence; I am aware that silence is an accompanying atmosphere, that even just a few notes give the piece life, and draw it out of that mist.

In the same way, I am aware that life is surrounded by death – the great emptiness – and that life gives death definition. Silence – death – these are ultimately the great extreme.

But within silence, what could be more extreme than a sound?

No, it is life which is extreme. And death is the limit.


My starting point is that sound itself is already extreme – sound emerging from the plane of silence. From the idea of silence. Something out of nothing – a mark on the canvas – a life.

I am thinking in terms other than the usual musical parameters. There are so many forms of extreme music: Morton Feldman’s ultra quiet works, or his 4-hour long pieces; the experimental works of Rudolf Komorous, with their few notes which exist as objects of profound beauty; Maria de Alvear’s obsessive repetition of single notes; Giya Kancheli’s extraordinary range of quietness and loudness; Gerald Barry’s speed; Anton Webern’s brevity. In some way each of these composers has taken something as far as it can go. Speed, loudness, duration, density – push any of these past previous limits and you have a new extreme.

But I’m interested in something else, another direction these composers have explored, one which has not so much to do with these measurable parameters. And that is to go further into the material. Rather than take one or another characteristic of the music to an extreme, I want to take the material of the work itself to a deeper understanding – not as high or as low or as loud or as soft as I can go, but as deep. I’m talking about a form of variation. So that the material continues to reveal itself, like some kind of unfurling spiral; a journey not leading further and further outward to extremes, but to, as the writer Milan Kundera says “the infinity of internal variety concealed in all things”.

It’s a form of extreme intimacy.

What I’m talking about is compositional thought or approach. If sound itself is extreme, then a kind of extreme awareness must be brought to the process. Perhaps what can be called extreme in my work is what I call the compositional attitude. A compositional approach through listening deeply, to the detail and potential of the material. Material not ideas, as composer Howard Skempton says. There are no ideas, really, in my work – only images. I listen and wait. Observing the material. Taking the same few notes and evolving them, shifting them, varying them, uncovering possibility after possibility within the material. Giving the work time. Taking time to write it. Allowing silence to submerge it. Allowing the piece to age, to sink down into itself, to crystallize, to burnish.

This requires a kind of active reflection. And a sense of what the material is capable of. In my orchestra piece Memory Forms I was focused on a few orchestral images – very high violins with very low double basses; a few piano notes strewn throughout like shards of glass; a low flute; a single violin; silences; transparency; fragments of melody; bringing back something for a second look – not to forget it was there; silence recurring, but never the same silence. Looking for that moment where the violins are high, the basses low, and I can place the piano and vibraphone in what feels like a centre. The bow on the string, the lip on the mouthpiece, the finger on the keyboard. Time passing.

I want to hear every moment. I want to hear sound intimately.


The writer Helene Cixous speaks of works of art and works of being. I’m not sure I make this distinction any longer.

I am motivated by sound. I want to create sound which engulfs us like air. I want to sink into a form of continuity not too pointed or directed towards an end. We don’t have to worry about continuity – As Thoreau says, ” Music is continuous. Only listening is intermittent.”

I am motivated by experiences of time and memory and forgetting. I want recurrence to add richness, dimensionality, a work’s own sense of its own history. I also want to allow the work its own amnesia.

I want to hear music fully.

I’m interested in the experience of it.

I’m interested in the simple presentation of possibilities.

I want to move toward clarity.

I want to make time larger than it is.

I want to write music I don’t understand.

Concentration. Consciousness. I want to live each note.

We listen, we experience, with our own various levels of attention, perception, and imagination.

Music is extreme. And we are the limit.