To be on the ball, to have your head in the game, to be in the groove: Whether you’re an athlete racking up points or a writer cranking out chapters, that channeling of focus is not just about product, it’s about self-satisfaction. The work is neither too hard nor too easy; the mind and body are completely focused and absorbed in the task at hand.
Though the concept is familiar, the psychology behind it—that state of “flow”—and the psychologist/professor most associated with its study, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, is probably a bit more foreign to most people. Csíkszentmihályi’s work spoke to composer and pianist Richard Carrick, however, and after long applying the ideas to his teaching, he realized the potential they had when it came to the composition and consumption of music—particularly very complex music for the concert hall.
While living in Tanzania during the summer of 2005, Carrick began work on what would become the first piece of a five-part cycle. “Every day I was writing these very different musical ideas,” he recalls. “They didn’t make sense with each other, and I needed to find a way to put them together into a piece. All of the techniques that I was comfortable with weren’t working, so I needed to come up with a new approach.”
That’s where flow theory came into play. Carrick looked for a way to create a fluid exchange between many different materials that would carry the audience through the piece without losing their attention. To aid in this process, he sketched out a series of what he terms “flow filters”: the gradual change of dynamics and tempos, rhythms that moved between active and passive, motivic material that shifts between clarity and ambiguity.
The techniques helped him find a way forward. “I like music that continues for a while; I like music that goes,” Carrick explains. “I like music that establishes a sound and lets that sound live and breathe and expand and contract and evolve and die. I’m not so interested in lots of disjointed sounds, in creating momentum through the friction of restraint or negation.”
Flow theory both helped him compose the work and resulted in music that served his audience in the way he was seeking. Carrick, who studied with Brian Ferneyhough, is no stranger to the complexity camp. And he acknowledges that the music he writes is very difficult to perform, “but in The Flow Cycle in particular, it’s not very difficult to listen to,” he says. An important distinction to him.
“In a way, I wanted to be very focused about leading the listener through the experience as opposed to putting up lots of barriers for the listener to go through. I wanted the music to go through all these places with the listener.”
Though the individual works can each stand on their own, the premiere of the full cycle was given earlier this month, presented by Roulette in New York City and featuring the talents of a small roster of musicians: Eric Bartlett (cello), Kuan-Cheng Lu (violin), Andrea Schultz (violin), Dov Scheindlin (viola), and Alex Waterman (cello). For Carrick, the performance was a milestone years in the making. On the surface, the cycle forced him to confront a very practical challenge: how do you sustain a musical idea over the course of an hour in an engaging way? Carrick had never completed a work of that scope before. But it was also a particularly personal project, something returned to in between the completion of other music, on his own schedule without a commission deadline looming over it. It allowed him to really dig into the ideas he was developing over time.
But at a certain point, he knew the work was completely finished and had nothing more to give. He attempted to revise the last section of the piece before the premiere of the full cycle, planning to add eight minutes to the end. When that didn’t work out, he decided on five minutes, then three minutes, then 30 seconds, and finally he struggled to add just two beats to the penultimate measure. Eventually, he gave up. “I said, you know, this cycle is over. I can’t touch it; I literally cannot go in there and mess with it. So it’s done. Of course I’ll be influenced by what I did, but I think the things that are going to happen next will be in a new direction.”