When Western composers began, somewhat controversially, to make greater and greater use of dissonance in their music around the turn of the twentieth century, their choice was often accounted for through reference to dissonance’s expressive potential. Only dissonance, so the argument went, was capable of adequately expressing the horrors of modern warfare, the clamour of modern cities, the shocks and upheavals of modern life in general. Later, so the story goes, some composers became interested in dissonance simply for the harmonic and psychoacoustic effects it is capable of producing, quite aside from any expressive concerns. It’s probably fair to identify Erik Carlson’s “Piece for 12 Violins (Parts 1 and 2)” as an example of the latter tendency.
As the title would imply, the piece involves 12 violins, playing block chords with pitches grouped very close together to create strong dissonances. The chord changes every 5-beat bar, aside from which there is little in the way of structural development audible across either of the two parts presented on the recording. The harmonic basis is different in each part, but the violins don’t wander too far from the harmonic centre established at the beginning of the part, with the same range of pitches being heard again and again. Due to the close pitch relations and perhaps the way the piece has been recorded and mixed, it’s difficult to pick out individual violins within the stereo field or follow a particular line — the overriding impression is of a single massed wall of sound.
This giant forcefield of strings is very effective at creating all kinds of weird and wonderful resonances and oscillations, so it sounds like much more than just a group of violins is being heard. Interesting though this is to begin with, the lengths of the two parts do make them feel like a bit of a slog — each is 30 minutes long, and both continue throughout those 30 minutes with the same relentless grind. Every time I listen, I do feel a bit relieved when it’s all over; more to the point, it seems that the piece’s intriguing concept could be effectively communicated in half the time. “Piece for 12 Violins” shows off all the resonating, ringing potential of dissonance as an acoustic force, but be prepared for it to test your endurance.