The following text is the original English version of an article I wrote at the end of last year, and which will be published soon in German in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (3/2020; purchase here). Except for the addition of some links, the text is unchanged from my original. I will be writing more here about BA, and what they have been up to during lockdown, later this week. Stay tuned.
Bastard Assignments is a composer-performer collective that emerged around 2012 from among the student composers of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in southeast London. Since 2013, and led by two of those students, Edward Henderson and Timothy Cape, it has been at the forefront of London’s lively DIY new music scene (which also includes groups and concert series such as Nonclassical, Music We’d Like to Hear, Weisslich, An Assembly and the London Contemporary Music Festival), putting on concerts in derelict or off-grid spaces. These include a bombed chapel, a tunnel under the Thames, police cells, and, in 2014–15, a series of concerts given in friends’ front rooms. Many of their concerts have featured a relatively small number of like-minded composers (among them Neo Hülcker, Andy Ingamells, Josh Spear and Caitlin Rowley), and in 2015 Henderson and Cape were formally joined by Rowley and Spear – two more former Trinity students.
From 2016, the quartet began to work increasingly collaboratively, composing pieces as a group as well as performing them. The inspiration came from Jennifer Walshe and David Helbich’s composer–performer workshop at Darmstadt, which was attended by Henderson and Spear. ‘From that process we got some ideas about a much more feedback-intensive compositional process’, Henderson tells me. ‘I remember thinking that we’re not using each other as a compositional resource. We could be opening up pieces to different ideas, different ways of doing things. Rather than bringing the finished piece and saying “this is how you would perform it”, it was “here’s the idea, and let’s talk about whether it works or not”.’
Although groups of composers have called themselves ‘collectives’ before – one example in London is the Camberwell Composer’s Collective, whose most well-known member is probably Anna Meredith – these are usually ways of sharing resources, staging concerts together, and increasing promotional impact. It is rare for composers to work truly collaboratively, making their music together like a rock band would. Intrigued by what Bastard Assigments were doing, in April 2019 I attended one of their rehearsals in a studio space in East London, to interview the group and get an idea of their working methods.
When I arrived they had already been at work for two hours. Henderson, Rowley and Spear were seated on plastic chairs. Their teeth were clamped around bank cards, which they were twanging with their fingers. Cape was directing them. The piece they were rehearsing was in theory his, but the other three composers were all making suggestions – on different ways in which the cards could be flicked, how best to hold them to make a good sound, ways in which transitions between one sound and another might be made, and so on. The feeling was more like a laboratory than a rehearsal. Ideas were still being tested, the piece was coming together in real time with its performers, not in the composer’s study or ‘at the piano’.
On the studio floor were piles of objects. Some of them you would expect to see at an all-day rehearsal: instrument cases, sandwich bags, coffee cups, guitar amplifiers. Others were unexpected. There was a large cooking pot with drumsticks and glass bottles inside. A camera tripod. And a set of glittery hula hoops. On a large whiteboard on the wall was written a list of seemingly unconnected words: Popcorn, Car 1, Execution 1, American Werewolf, Dog, Foley, and so on. These were cues for Spear’s FEED, a 16-minute work involving all four members acting out scenes connected with horror and horror films.
During the course of the rehearsal, as the group worked on each others’ pieces they offered advice and suggestions to one another. ‘Don’t be too nice to the audience’; ‘Stick to your guns – stay wrong!’ There were lots of comments about pacing, in particular stretching things out in time so that they start to become uncomfortable and turn into something else; I was reminded of the routines of the stand-up comic Stewart Lee, in which a joke is told over and over until it stops being boring or annoying and starts to become funny again.
For FEED, the group video-recorded themselves giving a complete performance, which they then projected onto a studio wall and critiqued in terms of stage positioning, posture and action as they watched – a simple and effective form of self-directing that would not have been possible before the invention of digital video cameras, high capacity hard-drives and portable video projectors. It exemplified a combination of raw physicality and technological mediation that runs throughout Bastard Assignments’ work, and that is at the heart of its modernity.
‘We can be quite rude with each other, or very direct’, Spear explains, when I ask about their collaborative method. ‘The basis of trust and friendship that we’ve built up allows us to bypass that without people’s feelings getting hurt’, adds Rowley. ‘To some extent we’ve worked together so much now that we know the kinds of things each of us is going to like or dislike about a piece, and where something has come from.’
This love of directness – ‘Politeness takes up too much time’, says Henderson – extends beyond the group’s working method and into its compositional aesthetic. As in all great bands, all four members have their own distinct style. Several times in FEED the performers must lip sync to a scene from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) to increasingly comical effect. Rowley’s fierce vocal solo dot drip line 8918: EDGE confronts its audience with a vast catalogue of sounds and physical gestures made at the limits of the voice. Cape also writes vocal works for himself to perform: in his SUGAR CAGE, he performs a virtuoso duet with a digitally fragmented audio-visual version of himself. Of the four, Henderson is the closest to a ‘traditional’ composer, writing scores for conventional instruments even if, as in the case of his Flower – a slow-motion instrumental and electronic disintegration of a moment from David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ – that might simply be the instruction to play in a certain style or for a certain duration.
Yet certain shared preoccupations emerge between their works: experiments with duration, with the voice, with everyday or found objects and materials. All four composers avoid making things that are too artful, too commercial or too earnest, drawing on traditions of performance art, music theatre and video art, as well as concert music. Like stand-up comedians or cabaret performers, they are interested in creating and controlling audience expectations; yet working outside those more formal contexts allows them to be even more weird, even more subversive. In an interview with the journalist Robert Barry in 2017, Henderson observed that ‘the most direct thing is just if someone gets up and does something themselves. There’s no instrument. There’s no big load of scores. There’s no conductor or anything like that. It’s just them.’ Cape put it more forcefully when I spoke to him this year: ‘Total belief in notation – I think that’s the trap.’ In a new music culture which is often too cautious, Bastard Assignments are a welcome reminder of the value of risk in artistic creation.
Photo by Dimitri Djuric. Bastard Assignments performing Marcela Lucatelli’s Impossible Penetrations at Total Refreshment Centre, London, March 2018.