An “aporia” is a problem, a state of puzzlement, or a rhetorical gesture based in a lack of information. A few of the reviews in this series on the Metropolis New Music Festival have ended in aporia. I have argued that urban centers present both problems and solutions to environmental and social problems. As such, I am unsure of how to interpret twentieth-century music representing cities. Does the triumphalist evocation of skyscrapers in Copland and Higdon sound optimistic or cynical to me? Maybe it is too early to tell. Maybe it is too late. I was also unsure of how musicians should approach the explosion of sexual norms that urban centers make possible. Is a focus on sexual extremes necessary, or will a potted history of sex in music suffice? Admittedly, I was using aporia to shut down hurriedly-written articles, but to post-structuralist philosophers like Jacques Derrida, a situation in flux was a creative space. Michael Kieran Harvey’s Piano Sonata no. 3 “Aporia” also uses this space of uncertainty as a creative tool.
The aporia of Harvey’s piano sonata is the uncertainty between intuitive and systematised writing. Philosophical subtexts of musical compositions can sometimes be disappointingly reductive, such as when a piece tries to depict a concept that lives and breathes in a complex world of abstract language. Consider if Harvey just wrote a piece that meandered about uncertainly for a while to depict the philosophical impasse of an aporia. Instead, Harvey uses “aporia” to describe his compositional process. As any composer or music analyst of systematised music will tell you, this is the musical aporia. A system may give you a series of possible structures, but how do you actually fit them together to make a piece of music? When do you change the results of your system to suit your tastes?
Another reason title “Aporia” is so appropriate is that it captures the audience’s (or at least my) thought process while hearing the piece. Inspired by the incredible sound of the trams that rumble past the home of the piece’s commissioners Graeme and Margaret Lee, “Aporia” is based on the harmonic series and its inversion. One catches snatches of the harmonic series at the beginning of the work, but one largely has to take the composer at his word. Harvey’s brute physicality as a pianist adds to this aporia. The sonata’s thunderous clusters and showers of filigree may well be predetermined, but at times they slip into the realm of sheer physical gesture. At one point Harvey pauses, stares at the keyboard, and begins attacking it with sweeping glissandi. Where is the system? Does it matter? These are perennial, undergraduate questions, but sometimes the most basic questions are the most important and in this case, they actually bring the piece to life.
The rest of the program was occupied by extended prog-rock keyboard solos that a better critic will have to describe. Harvey’s recitation of a poem by Saxby Pridmore about the massacre of Jews by Arrow Cross militiamen provided a moment of supreme gravity amid the synthesized bacchanal.
City of Snakes
Michael Kieran Harvey
Metropolis New Music Festival
20 May 2016
Michael Kieran Harvey, Piano Sonata no. 3 “Aporia”, City of Snakes, From the Walls of Dis, Deaths Head Mandala, N Chromium, 48 Fugues for Frank (Zappa), The Green Brain; No. 6 ‘Beetles’, Budapest Sunrise, Kazohinia