Sedimentation, modular construction, and the musical first person: A portfolio of 12 compositions, with an accompanying commentary

James Helgeson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis comprises a portfolio of twelve compositions written between 2016 and 2023, an accompanying commentary, and an electronic file containing recordings of the pieces included. It brings together solo works, pieces for ensembles of smaller sizes (including instrumental fragments from an opera in progress), and a characteristic portion of a completed double concerto for piano, trumpet, and orchestra.

My primary interest is the accretion of a style in music. How does music unfold through juxtaposing material produced at different times, creating a set of temporally marked, quasi-geological deposits—the alluviation of a musical first-person voice—from material drawing on a personal musical past and shared historical experience? I examine the function of three concepts: sedimentation; distorted quotation (of myself and others); and ‘inaudible counterpoint’ in my compositional practice.

The commentary begins with an overview of the portfolio and a glossary of terms.

In the Introduction, section 1, I examine the horizontal (temporal) and vertical (harmonic) aspects of my compositional practice, conceptualising them in relationship to historical models drawn from György Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

In Part I (sections 2 and 3), I look at counterpoint as a model for my compositional work, beginning with a set of canons I wrote during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, examining a practice I call sedimentation, the contrapuntal juxtaposition of materials written at different times, in several groups of pieces.

Part II (section 4) examines the juxtaposition of materials written at different times in dramaturgical practice, in modular disposition rather than contrapuntal invention, in three pieces (for solo cello, for solo violin, and for string quartet). The first of these pieces evokes my own work as a teenager, the second a short work by Telemann, the last a mass by Johannes Ockeghem.

In Part III (section 5) of the thesis, I examine how I have arrived at a concept central to my current practice: ‘inaudible counterpoint’ written against unexpressed quotations. From the direct evocations of older music described in the previous section, I move on to three pieces written in response to unexpressed but pre-existing sound material (either music by Sciarrino and Bach, or aspects of a soundscape, e.g. storm sirens).

In the Conclusion (section 6), I give a recapitulatory account of my results and suggest directions for further exploration of the musical first person as a subjective, biographical, aesthetic concept.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Bowden, Mark, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - 21 Jun 2024

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