Thus, seeing it now, in a version of my childhood memories, it's not a building, rather it's all split up: a room here, a room there, and here a section of passageway that doesn't link these two rooms but has simply been preserved, a fragment. (...) It's as if the image of this house had plunged into me from an infinite height and smashed to pieces on the foundation of my being.
Rainer Maria Rilke : The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Why should we give importance to miniatures? Do our compositions say something about the world we are living in today? I like to share some thoughts with you about miniatures in modern times. Not that miniatures and aphorisms weren’t always there in history. The thoughts and poetry of some Greek writers came to us in fragments. There are the Pensees of Pascal. Paganini composed a whole set of guitar miniatures. Nevertheless, I think that in modern times things are different. I’m certainly no expert on all the issues mentioned below. However, I cannot escape the idea that in recent centuries matters became more urgent, so I'll give it a try.
It is as if the old neoplatonic dream of a unifying whole had lost its significance. Well known are the ‘masters of suspicion’: Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche. Especially Nietzsche became a master in dismantling science, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, art and music, seeing that it is ‘all too human’. Remarkably enough he wrote aphoristically, it is as if his clever thoughts made the world crumble apart. And so Nietzsche still strikes us with his impressive lack of coherence.
Much later Camus stressed the idea of absurdity. He stated that where man wants to find a unifying whole, reality denies it. Therefore man is left with a feeling of absurdity. Camus wanted to embrace this feeling of absurdity in a heroic way. His world is a manifold world. He gives us the example of Don Juan, with his many sexual conquests. And also of the actor, with his many stage roles.
Camus criticized the existentialists and the phenomenologist, because both movements still wanted a more profound meaning of life against all despair. Some existentialists wanted to believe in God, if only by a ‘leap of faith’. The phenomenologists tried to discover a deeper sense into a multitude of things, as if all those things had their own ineffable depths. Remember Cézanne, painting his mountain as if every shade had a meaning of its own. Not to mention Proust with his ‘madeleine moment’.
Not all ‘fragmentarians’ had such soothing thoughts. Rilke - who never managed to earn his own living - had much to fear for, especially about poverty, illness and modern life. In his one and only novel he tried the art of seeing, everything apart, over and over again, despite the fact that there is so much to be afraid of. But all must be seen, to give it a place. It also seemed to reveal unknown aspects of his subconscious, not unlike the things that are revealed in psychoanalysis. But is also led to identification with the sick and the poor in the streets of Paris. In Eliot’s The Waste Land we read lines like: ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust.’ It ends almost with: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’. And what to think of the unfinished novels of Kafka, and of his fragmentary writings.
Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is also made up of separate ideas, not unlike the aphorisms of Nietzsche. But Wittgenstein’s study is more like a labyrinth, it can be explored in many ways. Ideas blend into one another, suggested by the ideas of ‘language play’ and ‘family resemblance’. It reminds me somewhat of the open forms in the music of Cage, Feldman, Boulez and Stockhausen. I hardly have to explain the importance of Kurtág’s Játékok series: music reinvented by playing with tiny bits and elements.
Our fallible society could well be the best of all possible worlds. But it also invokes banalities, mediocrity and a denial of long-term effects. Here we could also learn from Nietzsche, his thoughts about the ‘last man’ and about nihilism. Already at a very early stage he analyzed how it infected our music culture. He cleverly observed how high culture also incorporates ugliness. And there is Adorno, and his thoughts about the music industry. Bach’s new score is crumpled in his pocket, thus said Brecht in one of his Hollywood Elegies. Some composers mourned so much, that they almost consciously lived in poverty. Their art is not always about miniatures, but it can be quite minimalistic. Think of Satie, or Cage. Also two composers who had a great sense of humour.
These are some of my thoughts about miniatures, circling around the guidelines of incoherence, absurdity, mysticism, fear, playfulness and poverty. As I said before, I don’t pretend to give you an overall view, I don’t even have the intellectual capacity for that. I can only give some observations, and it is quite possible that most of them are flawed. But that doesn’t matter, because everything I say is open for discussion.
It is often love on first sight. The same is the case with music. So tell us here what was the first piece by Kurtág you experienced something special.
For me it was his 'Perpetuum mobile' from the Játékok series. Here he treats the keyboard as a "found object" (objet trouvé). The challenge is often to make something of the most limited elements. Here Kurtág only uses glissandi to build up his piece with.
If your are a composer of miniatures, to what type do you belong? Are your miniatures playful and witty, like a Beethoven bagatelle? Or are they very condensed, à la Webern? Are they ascetic, like those of Boris Yoffe (see link)? Or are they poetic, intuitive impressions, à la Mompou. Something else? Something 'Kafkaesk'? Or something between?
I think most of my miniatures belong to the poetic, intuitive type. I have affinity with a certain type of zen drawings. Not the doodles that people draw at boring meetings. But the simple observations of everyday life, that are roughly sketched without almost any deliberate control.