Pushing and Pulling the Envelope

Envelope

I mentioned last week that we were preparing to have a couple of special guests visit campus—composer Paola Prestini and violinist/composer Cornelius Dufallo. Besides having a successful concert and residency, one idea that percolated up during our many conversations had to do with the creative process. Neil and I spoke about our own composing after hearing Paola describe the process behind her imaginative, expansive works, and we realized that the underlying concepts upon which she created her compositions were coming from a relatively different direction than ours. After some back and forth, we came up with the idea that the difference was on which side of the creative “envelope” each of us tended to start when we made our art.

What fascinated me about Paola’s musical ideas was their scope—she admitted that she rarely dealt in smaller chamber genres—and how she seemed to be very successful incorporating her love of collaboration into these larger-than-life musical creations. A stalwart proponent of the use of multimedia, she seems to thrive by dreaming up elaborate constructions, which she can see in her mind’s eye, but that neither she nor any of her collaborators may understand how to achieve at the outset. Over time, however, they figure out ways to advance the technology, build the physical environment within which the musicians will perform, and allow the performers to take part in the creative process. As far as the creative envelope is concerned, I think of Paola as coming at her work from the “outside” and working in—“pulling” the envelope, so to speak, so that it conforms to her dream.

Compare that to the more traditional concept of “pushing the envelope” from the “inside” where both Neil and I agreed that our methodology seemed to reside. What I mean by this is to look at the limitations inherent to whatever situation a composer happens to have in front of them (professional string quartet, high school band, solo violin with electronics, etc.) and then imagine how far one can “push” these limitations in order to create their work. By starting at the point of “what’s possible” and then imagining where to go from there, the risk of creating a work that is unplayable or overtaxing is greatly reduced. However, and Paola’s works made me realize this, by starting from “inside” the possible, it’s much harder for a creative artist to invent something truly new and groundbreaking—by starting from the dream and making it happen through sheer force of will (which of course can be very risky), the composer can make something that no one has ever seen or heard before.

The beauty of this is that neither one is less valuable than the other. There are many creative artists who begin their journeys on either side of that “envelope,” and the successful ones figure out how to make it work no matter from what direction they are pushing or pulling. But by understanding whether or not one habitually works from the “outside” or the “inside,” a composer could expand their own horizons by endeavoring to work from both sides at once.

2 thoughts on “Pushing and Pulling the Envelope

  1. Philipp Blume

    I appreciate this fresh take on the envelope analogy. A couple of years ago I devised a microtonal saxophone piece, and instead of looking for a notation to expand our existing vocabulary of quarter tone sharps and flats, I simply notated all pitches with cent-frequency deviations. The result was excessively, quite absurdly precise, really, but then the performer (Nathan Mandel) later mentioned how much he appreciated knowing exactly what note was intended, making his performance, he alleges, much more relaxed.

    No matter how small our smallest increment is, be it a semi-, quarter, eighth, or even twelfth-tone, players still must guess intonation from the given context. Also, they have to guess whether perfect (whatever that even means) quarter/etc. tones are intended, or something more of an inflection. Or, possibly, just one or the other form of mind-f*** (which is itself a legitimate movens for notational decisions).

    Also, Paola Prestini wasn’t on my radar until just now, so thanks for writing about her work. I’m curious to find out more.

    Reply
  2. Ali Hossaini

    Thanks for the the insightful essay. As one of Paola’s longtime collaborators, I am struck by the accuracy of your description. You capture her creativity, ambition and limitless energy beautifully!

    Reply

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