Rambler Roundtables: ELISION ensemble

What goes on when a composer writes a score, a performer learns it and plays from it, and an audience listens?

It’s certainly not a straightforward process of communication, although it is often described as such. But what do performers and composers really think happens in the process? What would they like to happen? And where are the points of determinacy and indeterminacy in a work’s production and reception?

Because of the particularly close way in which Australia’s ELISION ensemble work with the composers that they perform, the relationships between composer, performer, score and audience have been thematised in the group’s performing and commissioning practice. That then feeds back into the way that composers think about writing for the group. Some of that feedback is through obvious channels – selection of instrumentation, innovations in technique, etc – but some of it is less obvious – such the musical inscribing of a particular composer’s personal history with a particular performer. The effects of both may be heard in the music that results.

ELISION therefore present themselves as a fertile testing ground for exploring questions such as those above. Their methods and results may be highly unusual, even esoteric, but that doesn’t mean that the questions they are grappling with as an ensemble are any less important.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been chairing a small series of online discussions with composers and performers associated with the group. This is all in advance of the group’s next London appearance, at King’s Place on 8th February. I’ve trimmed those conversations down to three separate threads, on Interpretation, Klaus K. Hübler and ‘radical instrumentalism’, and what I cheekily call ‘The New Programme Music’, and will be posting the results over the next couple of days. (Parts 2 and 3 may be found here and here.)

The discussions are, I think, interesting for a number of reasons, but I was particularly interested in the frank way that the composers – Richard Barrett, Evan Johnson, Liza Lim and Timothy McCormack – spoke of their working methods and reception aspirations, both in general and with respect to the pieces that they are having performed on the 8th. The input of three performers – Séverine Ballon, Daryl Buckley and Benjamin Marks – counterpoints this with different considerations to do with the practicalities of realisation and the processes by which they communicate some or all of those aspirations to an audience.

The topic of interpretation and the role of the performer in realizing the composer’s vision kept returning, so we begin with this very question.

Roundtable 1, ELISION ensemble: Interpretation
TimR-J: What space is there for interpretation in music like this? How important is the performer as an interpreter, rather than a reproducer?

Evan Johnson (composer): I can only answer this for myself, of course, but for me the whole point of instrumental music as a polymorphous sort of encounter between subjects (composer, performer, score-reader, listener …) is in the interpretation. The communicative gaps that form between composer and performer (or score-reader) and in turn between performer and listener are a large part of what interests me about composition.

The notational practice of my recent work – particularly the pieces for ELISION, who allow me to get away with all sorts of questionably practical things – is calibrated to force interpretation in all sorts of ways. The notation is almost always impossible to transmit aurally – either through the fact of there being simply too much on the page to do all at once, the use of impossibly specific rhythmic and articulatory information, the deployment of notational devices that have no direct bearing on the aural result (the studied repetition of expressive indications, for instance, or the use of fragmented tuplets over a single attack), and so on. The result is a space for interpretation. I don’t mean this precisely in the old mid-century graphic-score or open-form sense, though, because that space in my work is generated specifically through over-specification. It’s sort of the fundamental aesthetic/performative idea behind Ferneyhough’s 1970s works, I guess, filtered through the more ‘playful’ or purely ‘aesthetic’ approach to the writing down of music that you see in Satie, certain works of Cage, even Schumann and the medieval ars subtilior.

In short, what I want out of music has to do with muscles, breath, a shared space of resonance and mental experience, and the joint work of interpretation itself.

Benjamin Marks (trombone): It is (mostly) what it is and always has been. There’s a score (a written articulation of a sonic landscape), the performer uses the information provided, plus anything else they can get (i.e. talking to the composer, books, notes etc.) to create the music (a score, in itself, is not music). The creative act is not ‘over’ once the score is written. The creative act happens again and again with each performance, for the composer, the performer and the audience. Interpretation might be seen as a problem with highly detailed music if you subscribe to a more top down view of the process i.e. composer sets the ideal, the performers tries their best, the audience receive the product. I don’t subscribe to that view!

Evan: Benjamin writes:

There’s a score (a written articulation of a sonic landscape), the performer uses the information provided, plus anything else they can get (i.e. talking to the composer, books, notes etc.) to create the music (a score, in itself, is not music). The creative act is not ‘over’ once the score is written. The creative act happens again and again with each performance, for the composer, the performer and the audience.

I have no problem with the first sentence here, but for my own purposes I don’t accept the second or third. For me as a composer the creative act is indeed over when the score is written, and the creative act engaged in by the performers and then by listening audience is of a different order. It may be a primarily semantic distinction; but I see my role in this process – i.e. the creation of the score proper – to be one of setting the boundaries, the parameters, though not the ‘rules’ for the subsequent creative acts.

To put it more precisely: the boundaries and parameters of my own creation are those of style, conscious (or cultivated) and unconscious (or unspoken); the results of that act are the boundaries and parameters of the performer’s creative act; that in turn results in the setting of boundaries and parameters for the listeners’. This is not to say that I am any ‘freer’ in my decisions than the performer or the listener–it is not a question of a progressive winnowing or narrowing of a creative ‘field,’ but a more free-form transformation of its extent and nature. But whatever happens, I consider my role as composer to have most emphatically ended, in that sense, once the performer steps on stage.

Daryl Buckley (artistic director and electric guitar): Evan, I wonder though if you were to work with the same performers on the repeat of a particular work, over time come to hear different things in what you had written and then were to write a second piece using the same performer … I wonder in this instance whether or not the creative act would be more ongoing? I’ve just been listening to a live performance by ELISION of Negatives from HCMF 1996 and surprised yet again about the depth of history surrounding ELISION and Richard Barrett. In some instances I think ongoing relationships and dialogues between composers and performers are invaluable.

TimR-J: Are we then talking about two different creative acts? I don’t know how the composition of Negatives took place, precisely, or the exact nature of the collaborative effort between Richard and ELISION, but my understanding of what Evan says above is that when he draws that double bar line, the score is done, and one particular creative act ends right there. That doesn’t necessarily preclude working with the players in rehearsals, after concerts, at subsequent performances, recordings, etc – but that is maybe a separate ‘creative act’ from the one Evan is referring to? (ie – the same boundaries/parameters set out by the score continue to apply)?

Richard Barrett (composer): This may be tangential, but as far as I’m concerned the process of composition is indeed actually a constant one, rather than beginning and ending at a certain point, and for me a double bar line is more like a comma than a full stop. Negatives, since this has been mentioned, evolved over quite a long period such that some important aspects of the completed version were crucially influenced by the experience of working with the musicians on the performance of the earlier constituent elements; that is to say, it isn’t a ‘portrait’ of the ensemble at a specific moment in time but a ‘moving picture’ as both the composer and the performers evolved and changed. (Of course it isn’t only that, I hope, but that’s the aspect Daryl is talking about I think.) Which led to Opening of the Mouth, which led to DARK MATTER, which is leading to CONSTRUCTION, with various other more or less connected points through which we passed on the way like codex IV and IX. The fact that none of this would have been possible without this ensemble is only partly to do with the excellence and imagination of their playing; it’s also the product of a long-term commitment from both sides.

Evan: I certainly don’t want my comments above to be read as denigrating the importance of the process of long-term collaboration, mutual influence, and so on; I’m not saying that my responsibility for the work, or my interest in it, or my commitment to it ends with the double barline! All I am saying is that, for me, the goal of writing music down is to present a textured and bounded space for interpretation for a performer – excluding what is outside that frame, as much as determining what is inside it – and that the ambiguities, contradictions, and unsolved problems that inevitably remain are things that are not mine to resolve. That is not to say I do not enjoy, or do not see the utility or importance of, fostering a dialogue about a completed work, or hopefully using it as a springboard to a longer-term mutual project, only that as of the moment of the double bar my role as composer shifts, and insofar as I participate in the creative processes that ensue it is as a co-navigator of the internal space, interpretively speaking, of the work.

To turn this back to Tim’s original question, summarizing the above: interpretation is all there is, and the style of notation or performance practice can influence the directions in which that interpretation goes, but as far as I am concerned the idea of ‘reproduction’ of a score is a meaningless one.

Benjamin: I feel a bit like a cheap shock-jock – making broad statements that are easy to agree or disagree with! Evan, I certainly understand why you see your creative act as finished once the performers take the stage. I mean, what can you do then, apart from sending countless positive vibes towards the stage and out into the audience, or find interesting new things in the performance which might be the start of a new idea or composition? But, is it not possible to see the whole event of the performance as a continuance of the creative act (and I don’t mean a different or secondary creative act but a primary one)? That the ‘creative act’ hadn’t stopped anywhere, and for as long as the piece is played (we’ll do our best here!!!) it never will? When you wrote the score did you imagine it as performed? I’m not saying we don’t each have our areas of speciality and deliberate creative concern – I couldn’t give you an Alto Trombone ‘Tune a Day’ and expect you to perform a heart wrenching ‘Ave Maria’ – but I hope we share a primary common interest in making your incredible sounds and processes come to life. Also, for those who haven’t seen the score, there are deliberate ambiguities, contradictions and unsolved problems composed in the score so Evan is being very generous in providing this space for a performer to ‘interpret’ his piece. Despite the general impossibility there is great freedom.

Evan: Certainly, of course it is possible to see the whole event of the performance as a continuance of the creative act. But that is a creative act of a fundamentally different sort, in a thoroughly different (if, of course, related) medium, acting upon – but not necessarily, I wouldn’t think, continuing – the object of the previous process. I fear I am on the verge of hair-splitting, semantics-games territory here, but I hope the distinction is somewhat clear!

Séverine Ballon (cello): What is the role of an interpreter in the development and first performance of a piece?

First, there is the work with the composer on ideas and sketches. At the genesis of Invisibility, Liza contributed the idea of a guiro bow (the wood of the bow around which the hair is wound), and I explained and demonstrated my research of cello multiphonics.

After Liza sent me the score, I learned the piece very quickly whilst trying to remain as faithful as possible to the text. The first meeting, in order to work together on the composition, was important to understand the central ideas and the energy of the piece. I was impressed that Liza has a exact conception of the music, she has a precise idea about the texture of sound and at the same time allows a lot of freedom to the interpreter e.g. the guiro bow, the sound cannot be predicted for it is different every time. This is one of the integral aspects of the work.

Then came the time to take time, for a few weeks I worked on a few bars every day, to contemplate and leave them again, like one would ponder over a select few flowers in a garden.

There is also the time one have to connect the music one is studying to one’s own sound memories and to one’s own bodily gestures.

There is also the time one needs to understand how the piece behaves, develops its own structure and points where the composition demands peace.

At the end of this process, one has to leave the music be, allowing the music to exist on its own terms, whilst being present as the interpreter: the facillitator. One always has to come back to the score, there are so many elements that one can rediscover, or that one didn’t understand musically before. In my preparation, I also like to focus on different parameters (rhythm, dynamics, structure etc.) to give me more freedom in the moment of performance.

Invisibility is a piece with a meaningful power, the day of the premiere I was deeply touched in discovering and sharing this music with an audience. I am looking forward very much to playing it again in London on the 8th of February.

(merci Richard Haynes for translating my froggy english)

Liza Lim (composer): Thanks so much for this Séverine. You really offer a picture of how a ‘work’ can be a confluence of so many creative impulses – how the making of a work can be a manifestation of a ‘distributed creativity’ (which I think Ben is also talking about in his comments above). I’m really interested in the ways in which music (not just the composition part) is shaped by ‘performance practice’ in its fullest sense – taking in the performer’s personal history of other repertoires/performance practices/& the sonic/ bodily memory of performing and how that embodiment meets my own histories/body memories/listening culture.

Séverine brings so much awareness to her playing and she is really developing new approaches to ‘cello technique and the instrument’s sonic resources through her own improvisation. Working with improvising musicians is such an inspiration to me. I love spending time with musos and waiting for that moment when they let on some ‘secret knowledge’ about their instrument – something very idiosyncratic that belongs very much to them and which they offer so generously to a composer.

Séverine’s contribution and presence as a musician is absolutely embedded in Invisibility in a primary way and directs how the piece will continue to evolve over time as it gets played (both by her and others).

I experience composition as an ongoing flow, a conversation with the world, which just happens to be divided into discrete pieces. In a sense everything gets drawn into what is composition – there’s a kind of transparency, a movement to and fro between ‘life’ and music. but it’s not autobiography either, no ‘one-to-one’ correlation between events and work. It’s somehow more alchemical than that where things, feelings, perceptions are transformed at a subtle symbolic level, where concrete things are forgotten and then re-emerge (perhaps ages after) quite abstractly as forms of intensity, as ‘behaviours’. I look at a performer’s engagement with my music as a kind of attunement, as a way of discovering resonances in the work – different ones each time and hopefully ones that I wasn’t aware of before!

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