Richard Karpen: Processes universal and human

[Notes for the Neuma CD release of Richard Karpen’s Elliptic (Strandlines II) and Aperture II, performed by The Six Tones and JACK Quartet]

Strandlines are the delicate results of immense forces. The ocean moves back and forth under the influence of the gravitational interaction between the Earth and the Moon. The water creeps up the sandy incline of the shore, whose sand itself is the delicate result of other immense forces that have ground rocks down to tiny grains. The water moves a little further up the sand, then gradually recedes—pressing forward, falling back, over and over again, at the slow pace of the sea. At the point of their furthest reach, the waves leave subtle lines of sand, bits of plants and shells. These are the strandlines we see when we walk along the beach after a high tide. They are ephemeral gestures recording the slow passage of tides and time.

The energy of Richard Karpen’s Elliptic (Strandlines II) moves in similar waves—pressing forward, falling back. A signal is started and then reinforced by the seven instrumentalists, gathering power and pushing forward, only to reach its furthest extent and then pass away into silence again. As listeners we become keenly aware of the arising and passing away of these musical phenomena. They remind us of the slow pulse of the waves, the slower pulse of the tides, or, at the other extreme, the much tinier pulses of our own breath and blood. By the end the music comes to a resting point, and we hear it as the waves of some signal that is propagating itself through limitless time and space. It has always been there, but we can barely make it out as it drifts in and out of the range of our sensibility.

We experience a similar intuition of process in Aperture II, but with more monumental forces in play. The sense of scale is larger (in part, perhaps, because of the fuller sound provided by the electronics that replicate and expand the live instruments) and the crests of activity within the piece are more explosive, at times almost overwhelming. But as with Elliptic (Strandlines II), the changes in these sonic masses do not feel like development or even movement. Instead, they seem like actions and events precipitated out of a saturated condition, like the sudden shifts of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Aperture II is not static, but it presents a force that moves slowly. Towards the middle of the piece the electronics provide a compressed view of this timeline, showing us in a flash where we’ve been, and then the world of the music changes. It is no longer earthbound; a mysterious tonal world slowly shifts in front of us, pulses, then moves away and disappears.


I have described these pieces in terms of world of nature and the large, impersonal forces that we encounter there. But one of the beauties of Richard Karpen’s work is the play between the scales of the universal and the human: while both of these pieces tell of timeless energies, they were made in exceptionally personal ways. When I took on the job of writing these notes, among the first things I asked for were the scores for the pieces. Richard informed me that these particular compositions had no scores. “I hate writing down music,” he told me. This desire to work with sound directly, unmediated by notation, resulted in his early fascination with computer music, and it has led him to experiment, in the works presented on this disc, with a new way of making music for people. He sees compositions like Aperture II and Elliptic (Strandlines II) as collaborations with minds and bodies, not plans for abstract sonic architectures; here he writes music for string players, not stringed instruments.

The details are necessarily somewhat mysterious, but put simply, Karpen works with the musicians to discover the piece that they will play. For him, the musicians should fully embody the music, should be the music, so that, as he puts it, “the piece is what they play when they play the piece.” He points the way, but it is their bodies and minds that are the basis for what is played. In a way, the piece was always there and the players and Karpen just found it while working together.

As a result, when Karpen works in this way he produces pieces that are written for specific people, are not generic, are not transferable. The first pieces made in this manner were for individual performers. The precursors of both works on this disc (the original Strandlines and Aperture) were for soloists (guitar and viola, respectively). Karpen has found that extending this intimate and personal way of composing to ensembles like The Six Tones and JACK Quartet has been a different and interesting experience. Ensembles like these that play so often together become like families, and composing with them requires an attention to group dynamics as well as individual personalities. Bringing the two “families” together and blending their personalities in Elliptic (Strandlines II) brought yet another social dimension to the music.

All of this might make Karpen seem more a coach than a composer, and one might be tempted think of Elliptic (Strandlines II) and Aperture II as instructions for group improvisation. But make no mistake about it: Richard Karpen is a composer of pieces that have their own specific identities, clearly visible from performance to performance, and which bear the unmistakable imprint of his vision and style. The result is an unhurried music that arises organically, like a phenomenon of nature, from the space of Karpen’s imagination and through the concentrated musicality of these particular people and their instruments.

By focusing on the deeper meanings of this musical imagery, Karpen has no need for the intermediaries of notation, scores, or even written instructions. Just as with his earlier work for computer-synthesized sound, the work exists in a completely concrete, self-sufficient way. Karpen and the players have made an inner contact with the true nature of the piece, and now they are able to bring it forth without recourse to any kind of outer plan or description. Karpen compares what he’s done in this music to the films of Mike Leigh, who focuses on the characters and lets the actors largely improvise the words. As with Leigh, perhaps we should say that the music on this CD was “written and directed by Richard Karpen”.