Rambler Roundtables: Music We’d Like to Hear 2

The second of my online discussions with the composers of Music We’d Like To Hear focussed on the relationship between people and places, and the perception of ‘tradition’. In particular, we focussed on the musical scene around the wulf., a loft space in Los Angeles dedicated to the presentation of new and exploratory music and art. the wulf. is curated by Eric km Clark, Gary Schultz and Michael Winter, and the second of Music We’d Like To Hear’s concerts this year is dedicated to music from the wulf. Catch it tomorrow night at the Church of St Anne and St Agnes, London.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Are there such things as traditions in experimental music? Do groups of like-minded people in certain places at certain times shape the direction of a music? Do those that follow them feel their influence in their work? How does a centre like the wulf. facilitate/shape the development of  musical relationships? Is there a shared ‘wulf style’?

Michael Winter: the wulf. is by no means a traditional establishment. That said, members of the wulf. community (both local and global) do seem to share a healthy reverence for composers they are influenced by and a genuine interest in experimentation.

Innovation and experimentation are nothing new in music. It is not a modern trend in any way. That is, the quest for new experiences is, in itself, not new at all. Or put differently, innovation and experimentation are the tradition. In a way, I often like to think that one ontology of the music making process is to learn. the wulf. is a group of people who care about each other and learn from each other. We constantly make music together and often share ideas before and after any given event.

I often tell people that the directors of the wulf. (fellow composers Eric km Clark, Gary Shultz and me) do not do much at all. We happened to find a loft that we can live and work in. It is a rather simple equation: open the doors and let artists do whatever they want. People perform and attend of their own volition. The environment is conducive to exploring ideas and certainly not a professional showcase. We often do not schedule far in advance so that when someone wants to try something out, they have an opportunity to do so. (Some of my favorite concerts here were scheduled just days prior to the event.) Further, everything is free. Nobody gets paid and nobody gets charged. Still, the wulf. is a community more than a space and I imagine will change with time. I would like to think that even if we lost our lease, the events would go on, just somewhere else such as on the streets or in parks (Mark So just presented an unbelievable event at a park in the desert called Vasquez Rocks as part of the Dog Star Orchestra Vol. 6).

Perhaps the wulf. was born out of what might be a rare confluence of composers/artists. Many of us met at CalArts and work (or worked) closely with people like Jim Tenney and Michael Pisaro (just to name a couple). However, the community of the wulf. is completely open and I am delighted to meet interesting people all the time both here and abroad. Those whom I consider our European counterparts (such as John Lely and Tim Parkinson) are just as much part of the wulf. community as anybody else. As much as I want to think that we are an influential, rare group, I am realizing more and more that times are changing in this regard. I somehow doubt there will be artists as famous as the likes of John Cage (especially those truly interested in totally new experiences). There are so many composers these days, the global population continues to increase exponentially, and both the amount of information (music) and its accessibility is also increasing exponentially. As I see it, this is a positive thing. Since we are buried in a sea of people and information, we work with total freedom (and even perhaps anonymity or obscurity). I have had the opportunity to experience so many events recently. I could probably not tell you the title of most of the pieces or even the people behind them sometimes, but the ideas in their essence and their most ‘other’ resonate immensely and are (at least for me) extremely influential.

Certainly, it is a wonderful time to make music.

Markus Trunk: I’m impressed by what Mike says about the wulf. – it sounds like a commune as much as a community.  Do you actually all three live at the loft?  It strikes me as typically West Coast, but that may well just be a cliché in my head.

I’m not aware of anything like it around here (or anywhere else).  We see each other at concerts and socialise occasionally – there seems to be a tradition developing of inviting composers visiting London to a dinner of pies and puddings at the Newman Arms (Tim, Laurence Crane and Matthew Shlomowitz are regular attendees).

I like your attitude, Mike, toward the proliferation of composers and the increase of accessibility, and how that makes for a lack of star composers but can serve to amplify ideas.  I just can’t imagine many colleagues here saying that it’s a wonderful time to make music.  That’s not only British reserve for you, most of them are actively complaining about how unjustly neglected they are – not a very attractive trait.

There is a kind of freedom that comes with anonymity and obscurity (along with the lack of funds).  Perhaps this is a specifically Anglo-Saxon thing, and a reason that I feel at home here.  As low-key (and low resonance) our events at St Anne’s are, I would be hard pressed to say what I would change about them.  It just wouldn’t be the same on the South Bank.  ‘Rational Rec’ went there once and I’m not sure it worked for them.  I’m looking forward to the wulf. event now, in the hope that the LA spirit can materialise in London EC2 …

Tim R-J: Michael – I’d like to know a little more about how the wulf. works. Do you, Eric and Gary consider yourselves as having any sort of curatorial role? Do you look for artists you’d like to have perform, pair certain artists together on a bill, or is it really entirely a case of artists contacting you and you just provide a space. What about promotion etc – how do people find out what’s going on and how to participate? What’s the network like?

Michael: Currently, Eric and I live in the wulf. The performance space is our living room. That is why we can keep it free and open, we have to pay rent for the space to live. We started having events the moment we moved in. Come August, Gary is taking over Eric’s room and thus becoming the third co-director of the wulf.

We try to limit our curatorial role, however, we do make the final decisions on who plays when. We also do not necessarily ask people to play, rather we simply keep our ‘doors open’. When a fellow composer friend tells me about something they are working on, I always say how great it might be for them to try it out at the wulf. when it is ready. It is not so much a request, but rather an open invitation. On the other hand, we do get several requests. Unfortunately, it is not really possible to satisfy all the requests, but they sort of pan themselves out. Most people who are here regularly supporting others are typically welcome to do events whenever they want. If someone who I do not know (and who has not been to the wulf.) sends a proposal, my first suggestion is for them to start coming to events if they are in LA. Again, it is an open invitation to join our community. We are not exclusive in any way.

Of course, while these are the general practices, there are occasional exceptions especially for our out-of-town cohorts.

Still, a few people have actually gotten upset when we cannot accommodate their proposed event, but that is rare. It usually stems from people who feel entitled to play here often using the excuse that since it is all pro-bono, why should we be making decisions at all. We reply kindly and tell them exactly how things work here. If we did everything that came through the pipeline, we would never be able to leave the wulf. Further, as in my last statement, we do have a kind of ‘mission’ of harboring a community that embraces experimentation and exploration. If something is not at all loosely connected with that very broad notion of a mission, we politely tell them so.

Again, I have to reiterate that even with our limited directorial role, the wulf. lives and breaths because of the artists here that are so, so active. We are fortunate to have an extremely prolific group of friends who help each other out. While there is not a wulf. ensemble, we are regularly performing with each other and in each other’s works. That is why we do not need to ask people to do things here. More importantly, those who are truly part of the community do not really need to ask our permission to do something here either, they just need to know when we will be home.

How do people find out about the the wulf?

1) we have a website <http://www.thewulf.org>

2) we have an email list that we post to for every event

3) word of mouth

Tim Parkinson: When I first moved to London I was surprised at how easy it is to put on a concert, and I hoped that more people would do too, which does happen. Because these events though were singular things here and there by various people, it’s not so visible as a thing which is happening. Which is partly what led to us deciding to coordinate some concert presentations and calling it ‘Music We’d Like To Hear’. The downside is that suddenly when you have a name people think you’re a big thing like a festival, so that can be mistaken, but the name becomes important as a focal point for a community, a piece of open time and space in the maelstrom. This has always been my feeling about these concerts, that I want to invite people to share in these things, to see if there’s anyone out there. Gathering the community in London has been quite difficult because of the size of the place and the amount of activity going on here anyway.

These concerts have also been pretty diverse but share the exploration theme. Though it’s difficult to say what John and Markus and I have in common, except very loosely, like a common attitude and similar musical interests I suppose. As well as my own programmes, I am genuinely excited by their programming, because it’s all new to me too, and I can’t wait to hear it all.

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Rambler Roundtables: Music We’d Like to Hear 1

I rave about it enough on these pages for Music We’d Like to Hear not to need much of an introduction. But this year, following up on my online symposia with ELISION in spring, I thought I’d gather a few of the composers involved in MWLTH 2010 to chat a little about what they do and how they think.

In this, the first of two posts (the second is here), Tim Parkinson, Markus Trunk and Michael Winter discuss Cage, tradition and the nature of ‘experimental’ music.

Tim Parkinson is a composer and co-organiser, with John Lely and Markus Trunk, of Music We’d Like to Hear, a series of curated concerts of experimental music in London. He is also a pianist and performer, both independently and also by invitation, and has played with Apartment House and Plus-Minus.

Markus Trunk is a composer and co-organiser, with John Lely and Tim Parkinson, of Music We’d Like to Hear .

Michael Winter is a composer, curator, music theorist and software designer. He co-founded and co-directs (with fellow composer Eric km Clark) the wulf., a non-profit arts organization that presents music free to the public in Los Angeles.

The next Music We’d Like to Hear concert is this Wednesday at the Church of St Anne and St Agnes, and features music from the wulf.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Do we still need Cage? More than 50 years after his seminal works and writings on experimental music, his aesthetic still seems the touchstone for many composers. Why is this? And when do we move on? Should we? Is there a danger that some branches of experimental music may atrophy and become ‘classical’ (as opposed to innovative or modern)?

Tim Parkinson: I can’t really talk for a we. I can only talk about me.

I don’t tend to believe in thinking of music historically. Any music is new music if I haven’t heard it before. Historical context is a kind of concept. When I hear any new music the question is whether it means anything to me.

A lot of Cage’s music and ideas are obviously still challenging to some people. I’m playing this piece [one5] because I’ve always wanted to, because it was important to me at one point. I suppose I could say that when I heard it for the first time, I discovered that I had a need for it. Now I have a memory of that experience and I’d like to have it again. Also within the context of the programme, it’s exactly the piece I wanted to display one particular aspect of the piano, which the programme is focused around. The piece by Craig Shepard is from another angle. The dismissal that arises out of having some background knowledge of the composer or the music is the lazy habit of believing in primacy of concept over experience – Cage on the programme, oh we know what that is. But the sound of a specific piano playing it at a specific time and place is not the recording on the CD. That’s where I heard it first of course, coming out of my speakers. But that’s a fixed and dead photograph of the music, not a living thing. So I would like to hear it alive. I don’t know that this piece is even played that much. One of the nice things about Cage is that I think I know what it’s gonna sound like, but then it’s always different and unique.

People don’t know what they might need, unless they’re given an opportunity to experience new things, to find out whether they need it or not.

Regarding your question ‘isn’t there a danger that some branches of experimental music may atrophy and become classical’ – I think this is certainly true. To me, I think some of those pieces from the 50s by Cage, Brown, and Feldman have come to sound very classical now. In other words, evidence of a past exploration, but now, to an extent, known. And there are people who play this music very well, specialise in it, but don’t seem to move on to either later or lesser known works by these people, or music with a similar stance from today. Perhaps for them there is still endless potential in these works. But I would still love to hear later Cage pieces that rarely get performed these days, like Etcetera or Renga or something. I don’t know quite what they are yet. They haven’t been allowed to mature by multiple performances in the same way that, say, Vertical Thoughts has.

Tim R-J: Does ‘experimental music’ mean something different today from earlier definitions provided by Cage, Nyman, etc? Is it a valid description at all? What isn’t experimental music?

Tim Parkinson: This is a tricky one for me since my attention is more drawn towards the activities of individuals, rather than the establishment of a category. In two recent video portraits I did, John White talks about experimental music as being a historical label now, whereas Michael Parsons talks about it as being an attitude, a starting from scratch. Both are true I think. Perhaps one of the reasons why it’s not well represented in education (and concert programmes and public broadcasting) is that the assortment of people and work involved in that which has been called experimental is in actuality too broad and diverse to be able to present it neatly. It’s not a Style. The English experimentalism of the 70s is very different to that of New York in the 50s; I know someone, an advocate of one, who finds the other very difficult to understand for example.

Disregarding history again, I feel closer to Michael’s description. Music that starts from nothing, from the basics. As opposed to that which starts from a style, or which already starts from a notion of what music is. There’s already a huge amount of historical baggage to have to deal with if you want to make a new piece for the piano. Michael talks about starting from a Tabula Rasa, Chris Newman talks about clearing all the crap out of the way, before starting to make a new piece. Kerouac made an analogy about turning on the cold tap and letting it run until it runs cold.

I also often think of Jasper Johns’ words ‘Sometimes I see it and then paint it; sometimes I paint it then see it’. I think this is very important also, the importance of the phenomenon, in our case, the resultant sound. Not the importance of Composition over Sound.

I’m very fascinated by the distinction between sound and music. When starting I know I’ll be dealing in sounds, but when finished it sounds like music. I don’t start out to make music, I know that music will take care of itself. The question then is whether it means anything to me or not. And in what way.

I very often really don’t know what music is, and I’m always fascinated to hear it when it happens. To marvel at what is it telling me, or what is it doing to me? What is not experimental music then is I suppose that which already thinks it knows what music is, which starts of by writing ‘music’. Of course that’s also why experimental music doesn’t rest comfortably within education, because once people have got to university they are supposed to know what music is and end up by mastering it. Noone wants to be told they can legitimately use pots and pans again like a child if they feel like it. What is definitely not experimental music is the mannerism produced by various academics which perpetrates a lazy unquestioning rhetorical style which simply ‘sounds like contemporary music’. It really bores me to death if I ever have to listen to something like that which goes through the motions, making references to historical models in order to justify its own pointlessness. There’s really nothing new about it at all for me.

So I often think of simply ‘new music’, rather than ‘experimental music’. For all of the above reasons. I’m really excited by something I haven’t heard before. I more often think that I explore, rather than experiment. I’m intrigued by something I never would have thought of as music before. The question then is not simply whether it’s any good or not, but rather throws the question back onto ourselves of what is the relation of one’s own self to the world of organised sound. Because music is a living thing, not a fixed historical art form tradition, it’s a living medium, a natural product of humanity, changing all the time with us in the present and in the world. If we allow it to.

Michael Winter: I agree with Tim P on many fronts and also claim that I am interested in new experiences and the exploration thereof. Also, I am not interested in ‘brands’ and how they are often defined and delineated. Still, as artists, we discuss these matters and the discourse is important. Writings by Cage and Nyman are wonderful and influential. Even now, the discourse is evolving. Joe Kudirka is currently working on a thesis where he, in a very deep way, discusses his approach to a definition of experimental music. Still, I hope that Joe’s writings (as seminal as I think the thesis will be), puts a nail in that coffin.

Sometimes I wonder why we are concerned with what is and what isn’t, who is and who isn’t. I have recently been looking at the Fluxus archive at the Getty. I have so much interest in the people, the ideas, and the work, but when you read their letters to each other about who and what is Fluxus, it is actually saddening. Fortunately, they did not let their grievances stop them from making art and they were so, so prolific.

At this point in music, anything goes: any material, any process, etc.. That is not the question anymore. As artists, we should not burden ourselves with how we sit historically. We should acknowledge our influences and just explore. I think Tim brings up a good point about people and their ideas. My favorite people, the ones I believe explore some of the most compelling ideas, are and were so knowledgeable about the past and about the people that influenced them. This enabled them to explore ideas that are truly new and set into motion unforeseen situations.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. I happen to be blessed with a bad memory, so situations often seem new to me. Regardless, learning as much about the past and keeping an open mind are both crucial in the pursuit of new experiences. Only then, can we ‘start from scratch’. In my opinion, making music is not necessarily about clearing one’s mind, but rather about filling it up to the extent possible. That creates the equilibrium of ideas and possibilities necessary to move forward and even provide a focus or limited scope that helps elucidate exactly what it is that we are exploring/experimenting with. We pursue the void, the cracks and crevasses that lie hidden in a wealth of currently known information. We only realize that we have arrived at a new experience when we are presented with it. Then, we continue on, tuning our actions and reactions every step of the way in hopes for even more new experiences. This is the attitude of exploration. Call it experimental music if you like.

Markus Trunk: I think both of you have done a beautiful job at answering/subverting the question.  So I may be mostly just echoing you …  I also feel like I’m the wrong person to ask – I don’t think I have described myself as experimental very often, and if I did only because it seemed better to have some description than no description at all.  But that term has come to encompass very different things, in some cases purely invoking a historical connection.

For example, I’m not sure how a John White piano sonata is experimental except by affiliation.  Similarly, the fact that I may not know at the beginning of the writing process what its outcome will be, or to find a different solution to what “makes a piece”, is maybe not enough for it to be classed as an experiment – many of those academic “rhetorical” composers so aptly described by Tim would lay claim to doing exactly that.

I think a focus on sound and process instead of historically grown syntax may be a more useful characteristic of much of the music we are thinking of than the model of the experiment.  On the other hand I’m sometimes wondering whether some of the Wandelweiser type composers aren’t themselves resorting to an already established syntax.

What I do like is the notion of the clean slate even though that is just another metaphor.  The main task always seems to be to free myself from preconceptions of what a piece of music, say for a particular combination of instruments, should be like (Tim P’s ‘notion of what music is’), not to pre-judge the ‘material’ at hand, or a particular performance situation.

Still, out of the MWLTH lot I’m probably the least experimental one.  I don’t normally perform, never developed a real interest in collaboration – I am very much old school at heart!  I basically produce definitive scores, and rely on specialised experts to realise them.

Tim R-J: As Tim P suggests, education (and broadcasting and other institutions) enforce ways of collecting and organizing disparate groups of people under certain banners – what we might call ‘experimental music’ is just one such banner. So resistance to such labels is obviously highly desirable.

But then, as Markus points out with his example of the Wandelweiser composers, those labels may grow internally (inevitably?), from the evolution and concretisation of common rhetorics, syntaxes etc. Setting out in a spirit of exploration is one thing, but is it also necessary to have a historical sense so that one can be aware of (and thus subvert/critique/avoid) any such inherited rhetoric? We’re back to the ‘classical’ again …

Tim P: Development of a syntax is probably organic. I mean we all end up acting like each other to a certain extent, people adopting phrases and ways of speaking from TV or films, the feedback loop of communication anyway.

I suppose because Wandelweiser is a name, it becomes synonymous with a brand, which is where the dangers lie. I am always very wary of generalisations because to a certain degree they are a lie. (And there I am; Generalising.) My comment when people talk about ‘Wandelweiser music’ is that it’s a very diverse group of composers. Some of them I feel closer to than others. Also it is just the name of a publishing organisation, so one might as well talk about Edition Peters composers for example.

I often think of de Kooning’s words: ‘You are with a group or movement because you cannot help it’.

It’s not anything I turn my attention to, I think being self-conscious about it leads one to a hall of mirrors. My concern is more focussed on authenticity than worrying about adopting syntax. I’m always interested afterwards when music has resonance with other music. I mean Beethoven is as much in my house as everyone else. I also often think of what Matteo Fargion said to me once: ‘Everything sounds like everything else’.

Rambler Roundtables: ELISION ensemble concluded

The third and final installment of these roundtable conversations takes the music of Klaus K. Hübler as a springboard to a discussion of the possibilities and implications of ‘radical instrumentalism’.

The previous two parts, on the subjects of interpretation and the limits of the musical, may be found here and here. And don’t forget that this Monday, 8th February, all the composers and performers featured in these roundtables will be involved as ELISION make their first visit to King’s Place of 2010.

Hübler casts only a light shadow in the corners of recent music history. Despite being the recipient of several major prizes (including Darmstadt’s Kranichsteiner Musikpreis in 1988) and in possession of a considerable European reputation, he was left out of the New Grove II (an entry is forthcoming for the online edition). Brian Morton and John Vinton also overlooked him in their dictionaries too (but not Laura Kuhn in the 1997 edition of Baker’s). Wikipedia has certainly never heard of him. He does have a website, somewhere – I’ve seen it – but I’m damned if I can find it again. He seem to have been overlooked even by Google. Nevertheless, his influence is felt extremely strongly by some and his music, the best of which dates from the 1980s, when Hübler was still in his 30s, has an almost cultish appeal. Serious illness prevented him from composing between 1989 and 1995 – one possible explanation for that shadowy presence – but the interest of a younger generation of composers in his innovations in notational technique, as well as a growing body of players able to meet his exacting performance requirements, may well presage a re-examination of his work.

Roundtable 1, ELISION ensemble: Klaus K. Hübler and ‘radical instrumentalism’

TimR-J: It’s great to have Hübler on a programme like this. How do composers and performers rate his importance, and his legacy on current trends in composition (especially in notational and performance practice)? And what do you think is the potential for exploring this legacy further?

Richard Barrett: I heard Hübler’s Third String Quartet at Darmstadt in 1984. This I believe is the piece in which his characteristic way of doing things was most fully-developed. At the time I found it very thought-provoking, one of those things one has to make one’s mind up about one way or the other. In retrospect (and I’m sure this was quite conscious on his part) I see it as a demonstration of the problematic nature of splitting instrumental practice up into (what one chooses to be) its constituent parts and composing/notating them in a quasi-polyphonic relationship to one another. The main problem for me is that if a composer “separates” a number of aspects of instrumentalism and then makes a point of keeping them separate, the machinations necessary to do so result in massive limitations in the structural/expressive potential of the music. What interests me, and I suppose this can be seen as partly a reaction to Klaus’s quartet ‘painting itself into a corner’, is to think of the disassembly of instrumental practice as a stage in a process, which is succeeded by a stage of reassembling those elements into a new configuration. If one must constantly be exposing the disassembled state of the instrument and its relationship to the performer, this closes off too many musical possibilities as far as I’m concerned, particularly those which might serve to create relationships between instruments and sounds.

TimR-J: Isn’t something of that reassembly that you mention always going to happen, in effect, simply by virtue of a performer playing the music? That a certain reassembly happens as a consequence of an individual bringing performative (and possibly interpretive) coherence to the disassembled bits on the score? I’m not sure – from the perspective of the listener, anyway – how far a notated disassembly can be maintained once a piece is learned, performed and heard.

Daryl Buckley: I first heard of Hübler in the late 80’s through cassettes supplied by my infamous Darmstadt correspondent and man on the ground, Michael Whiticker, then again through conversation with Richard Toop, and lastly in the early 90’s through materials from Robert Platz demonstrating his work as a conductor with Ensemble Koln. I do recall Toop telling me that Hübler was one of three German composers to watch (Wolfgang Rihm was also on that list!). Its quite curious but for someone who was at the time regarded as extremely provocative the music has lapsed and seemingly disappeared from continental festival and ensemble programmes. I have no idea why. However the work is not easy.

While loathe to construct evolutionary trees, pantheons and genealogies I do think over time that Hübler will be seen to have had an increasingly important, albeit individualised conception, of the composerly dissection of instrumental choreography and practice. There has been a resultant ripple from the Third String Quartet and this can be found, in my opinion, in the recent work of American composers such as Aaron Cassidy, Timothy McCormack (and yourself Evan?) and others where the notational parametricisation of the physical actions of players has been given a central importance. And I think these ‘ripples’ will continue.

As a guitarist I’ve never played Hübler.  But I have tackled Richard Barrett and am in the process of relearning transmission!!!   For a musician the nature of performance, of learning a piece, is inevitably as Tim has noted, drawn to some king of reassembly and I wonder how far this process can be defeated-at least in the domain of these extremely virtuosic pieces. The torrents of energy unleashed onstage are underpinned by hours of practice and integration of musical detail into streams delivered by the breath, fingers, lips and minds of the musician. Certainly when playing Richard’s music one is conscious, and often physically so, of the stress of competing and contradictory parameters and requirements BUT there is always the integration into a sonic whole- the interpretative coherence that Tim refers to is required.

Evan Johnson: My Hübler experience started with two graduate student colleagues of mine at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Aaron Cassidy and Carter Williams; the two of them were also my introduction to Hans-Joachim Hespos and much else besides.  For me, no doubt unfairly, Hübler is the idea of treating the right and left hand of a string player separately; seeing the scores for Opus breve and the Third Quartet were a sort of ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ moment.

Among the few composers I know of who rigorously pursue the consequences of Hübler’s approach to string writing, and its applications to other instrumental families, are Aaron and Wieland Hoban (and you, Tim? I don’t know enough of your work to say!).  I’ve never been particularly tempted in that direction, partially because my music tends to retain too much of a ‘lyric’ impulse for the somewhat marginal, unstable, flickering soundworld that such an approach tends to evoke to have much of a place.  What Aaron calls ‘decoupling’ does appear in my scores, but more incidentally, and certainly much less rigorously and thoroughly treated than in his, Hoban’s, or indeed Hübler’s own work.

Richard’s reservations are also well taken, although I’m not so averse as he is to the idea of the limitation of expression through formal restrictions.  Certainly, though, the more general idea of ‘writing from the instrument’ and its technique is something I know is absolutely fundamental for Richard, and I wonder if he sees Hübler as a ‘pioneer’  of any sort in this more general respect?

Richard: Hübler was probably the first to notate this ‘decoupling’ idea in a systematic way, but it’s been around in improvised music for a lot longer. I don’t expect Klaus would see his usage of it as emerging from the work of people like Malcolm Goldstein or Barry Guy or Evan Parker though. (I think on the other hand that the way I try to approach instrumentalism has at least as much to do with such musicians as with the tradition of notated music.)

I’m not ‘averse to the idea of the limitation of expression through formal restrictions’ at all. It depends on what the restrictions are. What I meant was that, if a music is constantly having to reaffirm its decoupledness (and often for reasons of notational elegance, I have the impression), its potential for audible structural articulation is greatly attenuated, and, more crucially, its potential for creating relationships between instruments (especially instruments with dissimilar techniques), between the sounds of those instruments, is reduced to the most simplistic of levels.

By far the majority of compositions which use this idea in an extensive way are for a single performer, they’re all fairly short, the activity in them is all uninterruptedly rapid, and the composer writes only one piece for the instrument in question. (Klaus Hübler’s Third Quartet sidesteps such issues by enacting its decoupling as a global structural process rather than beginning with that “ideology” already in place. But again that’s something you can only do once.) So the particular ‘restrictions’ we’re talking about here might be perfect for particular situations, but as a ‘way of life’ I think they constitute a straitjacket.

Daryl: As an Artistic Director of an ensemble I have the liberty of a different perspective here. I often think it is the weird straightjackets that composers don, the arcane and idiosyncratic sonic paradigms that make them interesting, even sometimes annoyingly so! For some reason Aldo Clementi’s endless obsession with the scavenging of musical fragments as debris and delivering them over to a good solid canonic pummeling springs to mind.  And in the mid-90’s Australia, a Chris Dench ripping off his burning shirt of Nessus, resiling from all of his previous notational exertions, and in an effort to get more performances consciously simplifying his existing scores (or at least talking lots about it)-eliminating the impeding ‘complex rhythms and microtones. The removal of what he perceived to be a straightjacket and notational dead end didn’t help his situation of course but this leads me to my next observation.

And that is that the moment a composer working with the idea of decoupling distils those ideas even further into a radicalised notational format that moment is one, which drastically shapes both the number and nature of performance opportunities available. There are few ensembles and few players who will engage with this and certainly most of the major new music ensembles that have to run seasons of activity will focus on pieces they can do in one or two calls. This music, as is much of the work ELISION undertakes, does not readily fit that mode of endeavour. So perhaps the repertoire outcomes are more about the available performance resources? The few brave souls who are out there?

In our final concert for this year at Kings Place I am hoping that we can do the oboe solo Grave e sfrenato with Peter Veale and I would also love to tackle Hübler’s ensemble work Feuerzaber.  It’s earlier than the Third String Quartet but it has, amongst other things, an absolutely fabulous instrumentation.

Richard: I hadn’t looked at it in terms of ‘weird straightjackets’ and ‘arcane and idiosyncratic sonic paradigms,’ to be sure. But more generally (and possibly quite off topic) I have a problem with those ‘musical philosophies’ which incorporate implicit rules about what can and can’t happen. I would prefer to see the music I’m involved in as characterised primarily by an infinity of possibilities, rather than primarily by its smallness in relation to the surrounding culture. If this kind of music has any place at all in the world, as far as I’m concerned, it’s as a demonstration of the possibility of imaginative freedom on a level which isn’t readily available to more commercially-oriented musics. I don’t think this is helped by composers staking out little aesthetic territories which they tend and defend and refuse to go outside.

Benjamin Marks: For what it is worth, CERCAR, while having its various split layers (harmonics, slide, mute, trigger, breath impulse), has other perhaps slightly more hidden constructions that might put some perspective on his work. CERCAR is from RICERCAR (presumably the RI missing would suggest it isn’t dedicated to a King!) and the prominent notes at the beginning are c, e flat, g, a flat and b natural (reference to Bach). I haven’t looked further than this into the correlation between realized pitch (i.e. working out what sounds the combination of slide and embouchure produce) and Bach’s music. Also the rhythmic material of the harmonic line is perfectly retrograded at a mid point, with the addition of a short wild coda and the inclusion of a vocal line (very much hidden behind other material). The vocal line articulates the acrostic – Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta (this is not really that possible to hear – try saying an ‘n’ and making your lips buzz!). I haven’t had a lot of time to fully analyze the piece (I have to play it after all!) but I’m sure the slide line would reveal other constructs, perhaps also Bach related. It may well be a mistake to focus too much on his notational practices, if you are looking for the guts of his music (unless the Bach is seen as just a kind of useful vessel, without any other import or significance). There are moments in CERCAR where he almost pokes fun at the notation – a sudden change from mute open to mute close and back to mute open, without any other activity (perhaps this a reference to a similar event at the start of Berio’s Sequenza V). Or you could be more serious perhaps and see this as necessary to visibly articulating the multi-layered process he is engaged with. Finally Aaron made a point that it is possible to work out most (if not all) of the pitch material in CERCAR (some of the pitches are suggested in the score too). Aaron was interested in using his notation in such a way that pitch couldn’t be worked out – that there was no other way of writing the score. As a performer I generally stick to a three part approach (was that articulated by Ferneyhough?) of i) reading the piece (a general feel, shapes, phrases, landmarks) ii) detailed work (in this case ‘working out’ most of the desired result combination by combination, finding all the interesting ‘cracks’ between the layers) iii) putting it all back with a sense of both (you then start to ‘read’ the notation as perhaps Hübler intended, rather than rely so much on the ‘workings out’). Sorry very general but I should be learning some music. Bye!

Richard: … to which I would add another intended resonance of Hübler’s title is carcer, ‘prison’…

Benjamin: Thanks Richard. It makes a lot of sense – the slide line is certainly struggling throughout to break free of the mirrored, closed structure of the harmonic line. Perhaps this is also indicative of this piece in that the new territory Hübler unearths by decoupling the physical elements is in conflict (perhaps internally) with received traditional practices (as suggested by the Bach references).

Richard: I found Hübler’s obsessively thorough dismembering of instrumental technique pretty startling when I first came across it, and it was something I felt it necessary to define my way of looking at things in relation to, but at the same time it’s important to note that the ideas weren’t without precedent – firstly in the domain of improvisational performance, as I’ve already mentioned, but also in the work of composers like Holliger (two examples: First String Quartet (1973), and Studie über Mehrklänge (1979), the latter being written in tablature throughout), Lachenmann (obviously), Kagel (the cello parts of Match) and even Berio (the harp and trombone Sequenzas). One thing that most of those examples have in common, which in the end I feel closer to (and indeed which I feel has greater potential in a more general sense), is a concern not just with the disassembly of instrumental technique but also then its reassembly into new configurations, “new instruments”.

One example of what I mean in the programme of this upcoming concert is the final part of Aurora, in which the two instruments have been ‘deconstructed’ into a particular set of compositional ‘parameters’, some of which (pitch, dynamic) are then held at a constant value (the D natural a ninth above middle C, pp) while the others (articulation, the “wawa” of harmon mutes, breathiness, pitch-fluctuation by random valve/slide movements while fpcusing on the constant pitch) alternate asynchronously between two states. The rate and relative regularity of these alternations articulates four parallel structural processes, with minimal ‘intuitive’ intervention. So, I conceive this as reassembling chosen elements into a new instrument (or pair of instruments), whose (drastic) limitations are coextensive with the musical identity of this area of the piece.

The rest of Aurora works in the same way, to one extent or another, so that the “partial instruments” in the resulting ensemble are interrelated and mutually complementary. Instrumental parameters, such as the ones mentioned, are placed in different relative perspectives in different areas of the overall structure (indeed these changing perspectives and their durational proportions are the overall structure), and they include concepts of pitch- and time-interrelationships. The intention is thus not (or not invariably) to negate such more ‘traditional’ perceptual modalities, but to generalise and expand them.

TimR-J: Does the sort of disassembly and reassembly that Richard describes chime with other composers here? What other potential areas for exploration are there once one has begun to think about instruments like this (is there more out there than taking apart and putting back)? And how does all this feel to the instrumentalists – presumably you break through to a new understanding of your instrument?

Daryl: I always used to joke with Richard about his 10-string guitar solo Colloid … the humour I recall was centered around the feeling of his dots almost composing the body-yes, a definite disassembly and a fascinating reassembly of the muscles and tendons!  Linking through to another thread Colloid I would venture is a really wonderful example of Richard’s links to notions of decoupling drawn from the improvisers’ language – I think Barry Guy would be a case in point especially as the piece works it way down towards the final and very physical phrases on the lowest strings. Let me know if I’m wrong here …

Richard, back to Aurora. What kind of role has your comprehension or sensibility towards the work of Jakob Böhme impacted upon the way you have thought about the processes of reassembly in Aurora?

Liza Lim: Great, Richard.  That’s so interesting to hear you describe so succinctly what a ‘decoupling/re-coupling’ approach to instrumental writing allows you to achieve.  It moves it beyond just another bag of ‘tricks’ – you can complicate performance all you like but does the compositional idea move beyond Paganini?  I guess my focus in instrumental exploration tends always to look at areas where I feel there there’s a lot of ambiguity and flux in the quality of the sounds – inbetween states, like between ‘solid’/’liquid’, ‘granulated’/’gaseous’ – a sense of potential for transformation that can occur very fluidly from any point in a continuum.  Stringed instruments lend themselves particularly to this kind of ‘3-dimensional’ extension of sonic flux and that becomes a point of reference for the way in which I hear other instruments when I’m writing.  I often look for technical analogues – the way certain kinds of multiphonics on wind instruments or split tones in the brass can offer a similarly nuanced mobile field of sound – to what can be achieved on say a ‘cello.  The zones I’m interested in are the ‘paradoxical’ places where the instrument flickers between a number of possible sounding outcomes – between harmonics/subtones/’real’ notes/distortions – so that you get a sense of colliding morphing layers.  But I don’t notate anywhere near the level of detail that Richard does – I rely more on the performer to nuance changing densities and qualities by using the gestural language of the music as a guide for moving energy through sounds.

Richard: Daryl: The kind of thing I was describing actually applies to most of what I do with instruments, so it isn’t confined to what happens when I think about Böhme! The passage in Aurora that I was talking about relates of course to the “higher unity” mentioned in my programme note, represented by the last minute or so of the piece being all on a single unison pitch, though the concept of “unison” is at the same time being questioned or undermined by everything that’s going on “inside” the sound so to speak.

The ‘disassembly/reassembly’ idea, I should add, is something that goes on between instruments as well as within them. The ways in which instruments can (or can’t) be combined to generate some kind of aggregate sound is also part of “instrumentalism” in history, performance practice and compositional thinking, and this is an important aspect of Aurora as well, as it is of my preceding duo Hypnerotomachia for two clarinets and the next one, Città del sole for flute and recorder. So none of these pieces consists of an encounter between two monadic entities – in a sense they aren’t just pieces for two ‘new instruments’ but also, and to varying degrees, each features a single ‘new instrument’ played by two players.

Timothy McCormack: I very much identify with most of what has been said here. However, in my own work I am starting to see the process less as ‘taking apart’ an instrument and then reassembling it, and more as enclosing the instrument within itself, creating a new directionality specific to that instrument’s unique properties. Perhaps it is, in the end, not all that different from what what has been said here already.

Dominik Karski, when asked about his unconventional usage of the harp in an in-concert interview (ELISION was performing his trio motion+form), said that he does not see his sounds as being strange or unconventional; they are ‘simply sounds that are available’. That is how I view the various ways I have performers manhandle their instruments in my music. The operations are simply available through the union of/interaction between the performer and the instrument. I do not consider an instrument to ‘become an instrument’ until it is in the hands of a performer.

A good example of an ‘available’ physicality that has been totally integrated into a piece’s aural, physical and structural fabric is a certain operation with the bass clarinet(ist) in Disfix, which you will hear on this upcoming ELISION concert. The performer is constantly altering his embouchure position upon the mouthpiece itself, causing the pitch material to jet upwards into the higher partials. The performer is typically fluidly transgressing between different positions on the mouthpiece, causing the sound to also be in constant flux. Pitches, ranges and timbres collide, issue from and morph into one another, yielding a multi-layered, contrapuntal, highly ‘vertical’ sound from a (primarily) monophonic instrument.

This is all informed by my interest in mediation. Finding ways in which numerous, defined forces exist in the same space (in an instrument, for example) and work to mediate each others’ influence on the resultant sound is a huge concern/exploration in my music and why that which is aural and that which is physical cannot be separated. Just as Richard indicates that his ‘dissassembly/reassembly idea … is something that goes on between instruments as well as within them’, my employment of mediation also interests me because it cuts across and exists in several performative strata, which then causes further mediation between those strata. The instrument’s ability to mediate itself; the instrument and performer both imposing their force of mediation upon the other; the constituent members of the ensemble mediating each others’ influence (I approach this not only through timbre, but also through counterpoint and, most importantly, density). Layers upon layers of mediation resulting in one final sound-object.

Richard: Something I was meaning to mention in connection with ‘unison’ was an anecdote I recently heard, about a musician from Uganda who was invited to work with some new-music players in the UK. On the first day he demonstrated the music he played on his wooden flute, and the British musicians worked hard with adjustments to their techniques – embouchure, microtonal fingerings etc. – to be able to play exactly the pitches that the Ugandan flute-player was using. When he arrived on the second day he had sawn the end off his flute so that all the pitch-relationships had changed (though, as far as he was concerned, the music he was playing was “the same”). So the ‘concept of unison’ can be narrower or broader depending on one’s viewpoint. I would like to think that my own viewpoint is considerably broader than that of the aforementioned British musicians!

Tim, I don’t understand your use of ‘mediation’.

Tim McC: I use ‘mediation” to characterize the nature and behavior of the relationship between various techniques/operations that I use in my music. I think of sound as a result of multiple physical forces being activated simultaneously. The fact that these ‘forces’ take place simultaneously and in the same space (the space of, for example, one instrument), means that their individual influence upon the sound may not be heard, but their composite influence is. They ‘mediate’ each others’ influence.

But enough with the flowery language. This mediation can take the form of keys being added to or subtracted from a ‘primary fingering’ to change timbre/pitch content, etc; the directional operations of the bow (side-to-side (speed), up/down (pressure), to-and-fro (position ie: sul pont, etc …)) changing independently of one another; the performer simultaneously executing multiple flutter-tongues (with the tongue and in the throat); the performer altering breath/air quality, embouchure quality or position on mouthpiece, etc … One can handle these in such a way that their shifting influence upon the other techniques becomes audible. It also allows for me to write contrapuntally for individual instruments using parameters other than pitch and register. In this way, I see it as being very similar to what Richard indicates as the ‘unison’ section in Aurora. It’s a way for me to work ‘inside the sound’, as you put it.

In a way, techniques (I think the term ‘operations’ is more fitting, actually) become ‘objects’ to me – they are independent of one another and have their own qualities and boundaries; but they can be combined with others, the act of which may cause them to lose some of their qualities, or be pushed beyond their boundaries. As a result, my music tends to employ a limited set of operations-per-instrument, and the piece is sustained through their proliferation and the constantly varying sound resulting from their mediation.

Since all of the techniques I use are yielded from the instrument itself, or the nature of the performer-instrument relationship, I see my handling of instrumentalism to be inward-looking, using what the instrument/performer apparatus makes available, rather than as a process of deconstruction/dissassembly. In the end, I think that what we’re all doing with instruments is very related, and I’m not suggesting that my approaching the instrument ‘from the inside’ vs. your approaching the instrument through its deconstruction are radically different. If anything, they are two sides of the same coin, the difference between them perhaps being one of syntax or mentality rather than of actual practice or philosophy.

I hope that helped clear things up, though, looking at how long it turned out to be … probably it didn’t!

Richard: I get the impression sometimes that composers use idiosyncratic terminology, to describe something they do or some way of doing it, as a means of announcing that it’s more different from what other composers do than it actually is. To a nonspecialist listener (which let’s hope most listeners are!) such territorial claims probably look somewhat overdone.

Maybe I could ask the following question to the composers here present: if you were asked by someone without specialist knowledge of contemporary music and its terminology (or that of critical theory etc.) to describe the way your music works with instruments and players, what would you say?

Evan: Off the top of my head, and perhaps more thought would reveal a more useful answer, I’d probably wind up saying something general enough that it certainly describes the quite different instrumental practices of the three of us at least, probably Liza as well given what she has said (although with different emphases and aims, I would imagine) and probably a good deal else besides: that I take the instrument itself and the physical act of playing it as grounds for ‘musical’ thinking and development, and that these approaches can often result in the player being faced with contradictions in what they are being told to do.

Richard Barrett: To answer my own question, I’m interested in a music which exposes the physical means and processes of producing sound and makes this exposure part of its sonic/structural/expressive vocabulary.

Liza: I get what Tim McC’s saying about the way various actions/forces combine so that one arrives at a more complex, probably unpredictable result.  Another thing that can happen though is that things cancel each other out and you get a less interesting outcome.

As for your question, I’m interested in creating situations of heightened attention for performers/listeners  (the musician is the first listener) – & to explore an erotics of performance – a kinaesthetic & ritual dimension for music.  The classic cultural reference for me is Chinese qin (zither) music which has a highly developed vocabulary of gestures and where the sensorial zone between sound and silence is expanded through a focus on incredibly nuanced inflections, rubbing sounds and other subtle noises that are considered to be the ‘breath’ of the instrument (ie: the instrument is alive).   Working with sounds that are ambiguous in nature or that sit at the margins between noise/’tone’/silence requires high level attention and finesse from the musician to keep the sound in a fluid state.  In a sense I’m setting up conditions for musicians to navigate a morphing, activated world of sound.
The performer’s body and instrument are the medium for registering the level of connection they have to this state of activation.  What I’m listening for is changing energy states as performers move through different phases of attunement (of which the music is just the means).

TimR-J: I’m interested to know, Liza, do you think in terms of de-coupling or disassembling instrumental technique when you’re trying to find these ‘paradoxical’ sonic areas, or is it for you a question of stretching/distorting a pre-existing performing tradition – or something else entirely?

Liza: I often focus on areas within an instrument that have some aspect of inherent instability built in but tend not to work with these from the point of view of ‘decoupling’ – ie: I don’t usually treat layers of action in a parametrical way where they might have different rates of change or separate rhythmic identities.   My approach has been more about exploring the ‘inner life’ of that sound, extending the transitional aspects of the sound by identifying component qualities from a broadly spectral point of view – eg: say a multiphonic effect on a ‘cello has a certain graininess overlaid with a flicker effect between a number of different harmonics and a fundamental pitch – these things form part of a vocabulary that I can combine in different degrees – the mix of noise in relation to harmonic content; faster or slower flickering between harmonics – so that the qualities of certain sounds become the basis of the musical language.

Richard: Is there possibly a contradiction there between saying that you ‘can combine in different degrees’ a vocabulary of (according to your own description) quite micro-detailed sound processes and what you say earlier about ‘setting up conditions’ and ‘relying on the performer’?

Re Tim McC’s statement: I just think it was introducing unnecessary terms and complications.

I find a lot to agree with in Liza’s last post – as far as I’m concerned, the issue of ‘decoupling’ is only one component of ‘radical instrumentalism’. Another way I could answer the question I posed earlier would be (as Ben has already hinted) composing for acoustic instruments is (filtered through notation, with all the limitations as well as opportunities it offers) a vision of how I’d play those instruments myself, if I could: that’s the kind of engagement with sound and physicality I’m trying to aim at.

Liza: I think no matter how detailed a composer makes their instructions, there is always the space for the performer (that’s the ‘interpretation’ question again).  Saying ‘the performer plays what the composer writes’ is only part of the story and sometimes very partial!  As Séverine said with respect to Invisibility, there is a process whereby the performer brings their whole cultural makeup to learning and performing music and that introduces a hugely mediating (!) factor into the proceedings.  I like that story about the Ugandan flute player and his concept of what gives a musical work its identity – different aesthetic prioritisations will produce different interpretations and you don’t have to go to some exotically distant culture to find this – just think of how differently an orchestral player in BRF or SWR compared to a musician in a British Orchestra compared to a specialist new music player operate in musical time and space.

Rambler Roundtables: ELISION ensemble continued

(This is the second in a series of posts. Parts 1 and 3 may be found here and here.) 

One of the things that intrigues me about complex music, the sort of music that stretches performers, listeners and notational practice to their limits, is its frequent contextualisation within systems of thought, constructional models and terms of reference that might be considered by many to fall outside the purview of ‘the musical’. Such contextualisations might work in two, opposite directions on a particular piece: as (one of) the means by which the composer arrived at or nurtured this musical idea; or as a possible way in for the listener, an interpretive toolkit.

The following discussion reveals that those two directions are not necessarily as opposite as they might seem. Complexity allows for networked associations, layers, multiplicities and ambiguities. Trying to unpick absolutes in terms of composerly intention or ideal listening is impossible. The musical work, heavy of import and light of being, hangs somewhere in tension between the two. In the end its phenomenal presence is all that can be relied upon.

The musical/non-musical dichotomy evaporates in these regions of uncertainty: in its expression through temporally organised sound, notated in such a way as to guide the actions of an interpreter, any idea, intelligently composed, can become musical. Or, rather, achieves a musicality that was always latent. Composition becomes, at some level, the process of finding and fixing that latent music.

Roundtable 1, ELISION ensemble: ‘The new programme music’?

TimR-J: With a lot of ELISION’s repertoire, including most or all of the pieces on this programme, there is often a considerable explanatory, philosophical aura that accompanies the music. Although this isn’t programme music, I find it tempting to think in such terms, whereby the musical constructions are being asked to take on considerable responsibility for extra-musical dimensions. I’m interested to know to what extent this seems like a fair assessment; and if it is fair, how far can this responsibility can be pushed and still remain perceptible?

Richard Barrett: I haven’t been too sure about how to go about answering this question, Tim, without something more concrete as a starting point, so here is my programme note for Aurora:

Aurora traces a trajectory from the natural harmonic spectrum heard at the opening (the first ten odd-numbered partials of a low C, subsequently distorted by multiphonics), towards an eventual unison which is internally sculpted into several timbral layers. Together with many of the other component parts of my large-scale project CONSTRUCTION, begun in 2005 and including the strongly-related clarinet duo Hypnerotomachia (premiered by Elision last November), Aurora refers in its title and form to a ‘utopian’ vision, in this case the writings of the German mystic Jakob Böhme and in particular their theme of cosmological evolution from ‘innocence’ through a differentiated and conflicted state into a higher state of unity. Aurora is dedicated to James Dillon on the occasion of his 60th birthday.

I suppose the ‘extra-musical dimension’ here is the allusion to Böhme (a frequent point of reference for James Dillon also, of course!), although, as I hope is clear, the structural idea connected to that allusion isn’t at all ‘extra-musical’. So the question of ‘responsibility’ doesn’t arise … or does it? The more I look at it, the less clear I am about what this ‘responsibility’ actually means.

Daryl Buckley: Tim, I am also not so sure about the question – in a sense of there being an absolute and clear division between musical and extra-musical dimensions. The composers whom I value, respect and have gotten to know over a period of time are clearly creative and extraordinarily intelligent people in the broadest sense. Obviously at some point in life their energies and efforts are framed and shaped by studies, professional experiences and encounters, and so their artistic responses and thinking resolve into musical outputs. But maybe there is also a level of abstraction which underpins the creative process, however briefly, before it settles into a sonic domain. With Liza, with Richard and with others there is too much thinking, reading and engagement (in their individual ways) in the broader world for me to see this as a clear and ‘extra-dimension’.

Richard, would Dark Matter have been conceivable without a decades long interest and consideration of physics, cosmologies and philosophy? And for Liza with her engagement with indigenous Australian aesthetics I wonder if the cello solo Invisibility could have been possible at all if we had not lived at 11 Cameron St with a senior Indigenous visual artist and activist living next door, without the friendship with other Indigenous Australians that developed over the 12 years or so we were in Queensland.

Benjamin Marks: I would be interested to know, from the various composers, if the programme notes evolved with the piece of music, or whether they were part of the primal material, or perhaps a way of defining a final product, or a summation of events? Programme notes, composer chats, or introductions seem vital in giving an audience a few clues as to the aural landscape they are about to encounter. You don’t want your audience, expecting to fry in the heat of Mercury, stuck on the polar caps of Mars … well you might want that, but it’s not always the nicest or right thing to do! I’ve always loved ELISION programme notes (read some early Dench!) as they generally articulate a very open, intelligent, associative space, that allows you to find your own way to or through the sounds. Matters very much to me as a performer – I crave ‘connection’ on some level and like to be ‘onside’ if I can (a positive audience ‘vibe’ always gives you an extra boost as well as inviting more risk).

TimR-J: What I’m getting at is how far the idea of the ‘musical’ can be stretched before a composer runs the risk that a neat bit of theorising can bring anything under that rubric?

Daryl talks about there not being a clear division between musical and extra-musical dimensions. What the question is aiming at is how far can that proposal be pushed? At some stage – when the work is actually performed and heard, eg – the notes have to bear the burden of transforming the conventionally non-musical (physics, fractal geometry, archaeology, etc) into the musical. To what extent is that sort of metonymic transformation sustainable? Does it come down to faith in the composer’s creative and intelligent engagement with the world? That’s what I’m getting at with the idea of the notes’ ‘responsibility’ – at some point they have to do the composer’s talking for themselves.

Or do they? Or are they completely inseparable from the surrounding context?

Richard: This isn’t the way I think about it though. For a start, I’d like to reemphasise that making any kind of boundary between the musical and non-musical is a problematic thing to do. In fact, I suppose a lot of what I do is concerned at some level with trying to imagine a situation where that boundary doesn’t exist, and I mean that both in terms of the relationship between sounds and ideas and in terms of what constitutes a musical sound in the first place.

Timothy McCormack (composer): I think that the idea of ‘musicality’ or of something ‘being musical’ becomes far more interesting once it is stretched to its limit, once it is radically and deliberately taken out of our general understanding of what these ideas signify. Please let me briefly cite two examples:

Though the work of Aaron Cassidy has not removed sound from its equation, it is largely communicated through the physicality behind sound production. Specifically, his notation typically employs an extended tablature system prescribing the physical actions/operations necessary for sound production on a given instrument (see the example given, from The Crutch of Memory). This is because Cassidy’s music operates under the belief that these physical actions are in and of themselves are already musical, and carry with them musical significance. This has been the primary informant behind all of his work for the past decade, and, in my opinion, has yielded gradually more intriguing results and consequences.

Secondly, the work of Peter Ablinger has, for quite some time, challenged our conception of what music is, or at least what counts as an aural experience, and to some very interesting and provocative ends. For example, his piece WEISS/WEISSLICH 26b: Arboretum is literally an arboretum he planted ‘according to acoustic criterias as, e.g., colour and intensity of noise’ and stands as the first act to his Landscape Opera (more information here: http://ablinger.mur.at/ww26ulrichsberg.html). He describes his series Seeing and Hearing as ‘music without sound; photographs, photo series, photos and chairs.’ These pieces, among many others of his, ask the question: Does a confrontation with a soundless object (a photo, for example) still present the possibility for a musical experience? Is ‘imagined sound’ sound? Is ‘remembered sound’ sound? I think the answer to this lies more with the perceiver/listener/experiencer than with the composer, who is just setting up the situation/environment for this possibility to be realized or rejected.

If the idea of the ‘musical’ is not being stretched by a composer, I do not believe the composer is engaging with the medium to a significant degree. I do not mean to suggest that a composer who is not considering the musical potential of non-aural forces, etc .., is therefore not engaging with musicality. However, these theories and practices, and the questions they raise, are absolutely fascinating to me, and are a large reason why I am a composer. The fact that music is a medium which allows for such varying relationships between theory, perception and sensation is why I engage with music, and why I listen. For me, it is not a question of what is being brought under this rubric, but why it has.

Liza Lim: I think there’s a bit of a value judgement in the question which pits ‘pure’ music versus a somehow more contaminated ‘programme music’ that can’t ‘speak for itself’.

I don’t define being a composer as just writing music as if it were some kind of ‘pure’ form. I don’t define being an artist in a single dimension.  My particular medium is music but I find correlations to compositional ideas in many different places – other works of art, philosophical thought, cross-cultural models etc.  Yet for me, it’s not so much about those things in themselves.  Rather, what always attracts my attention are certain kinds of internal structures where energies and intensities interact across a number of levels.  I might find examples of this say in the asymmetrical temporality of Japanese court music or the shimmer effect of Aboriginal art.  I’m looking for a certain dynamism, a relationship between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, that I find enculturated in different ways in different places.  So the ‘programme note’ points to this wider field of creative engagement – I’m sharing where I found systems of knowledge that have been drawn into the creative process.

Richard: Tim McC raises a couple of interesting examples, and that of Peter Ablinger is indeed quite relevant in this context, in that he comes closer than most people called ‘composers’ to what in a visual-arts context would be called the ‘conceptual’. While I find much of Ablinger’s work fascinating, my own commitment is to encourage listeners in the direction of the connecting and radiating complex of ideas around the music, if at all, as a consequence of engaging with it as sound/form/presence, because that’s been the nature of my own most important relationships with music.

Liza: Yes, I find Ablinger’s work very thought provoking – the clarity with which he frames a situation so that he foregrounds a way of perceiving it as a musical event is impressive. I wanted to add to my comment above though, that I don’t think that whatever a composer says about their work should necessarily be privileged in terms of the meaning of a work.  Surely the power of music/art lies in the way it can be refreshed in its impact and significations at every encounter between a work and the perceiver/listener.  When I write a programme note, it’s just my take on something at a particular time rather than standing in for ‘what the work means’.

Richard: It’s not just about programme notes, though. Personally I don’t tend to read them before or during the concert (and often not afterwards either, if the music hasn’t generated sufficient interest!), and I know plenty of others who don’t. So I’m assuming that at least some of the people listening to my work aren’t going to be aware of Tim’s ‘explanatory … aura’. However that may be, something that’s in the back of my mind constantly is the idea of an ‘uninitiated’ listener coming to the concert (it does happen!) without any particular expectations, and I’m hoping that, even if they leave at the end in a state of bemusement, their interest would have been activated rather than repelled. Daryl will confirm that he has to squeeze programme notes out of me these days: if I were left to my own devices I’d probably limit them to a couple of facts and acknowledgements …

TimR-J: Reflecting on the three composers’ posts here, I wonder if it is true to say that although there may be any number of non-note-based influences etc brought in during the compositional process, at some stage their importance falls away from the final, sounding result, which essentially ought to be able to stand on its own?

Looking back at Benjamin’s post, however: ‘I crave ‘connection’ on some level and like to be ‘onside’ if I can’ – is there a case to be made that performers might benefit from more priviledged access to the inspirational background to a piece?

Richard: It depends (as Mr Clinton might say) on what you mean by ‘importance’ and ‘final’… you could look at that the other way around, that hearing the music, for the listener, might well be the beginning of something, which might well be related to Ben’s ‘crav(ing) for connection’.

I know for a fact that not all performers share Ben’s feeling that knowing something more than the notes is a desirable part of developing an interpretation. Irvine Arditti, for example, is proverbially not interested in such matters.

Benjamin: Yes, there is the danger that knowing too much beyond the score can obscure rather than clarify, or the music can take on unwanted dimensions. I have to say it is also a frequent occurrence that I find out more about a piece at the concert, when everything is already rehearsed (thinking ensemble pieces not solo pieces), and I get a copy of the programme note. With ELISION we rarely play a piece where we don’t have direct contact with the composer, so developing an interpretation is a shared process anyway. I look for information when I don’t have that contact or feel uncertain about the context, mostly with much older music. It would also be extremely hard to approach Richard’s music without thinking of the way he performs i.e. it would actually take an effort to distance myself from that.

Daryl: I wouldn’t neccessarily share Irvine’s cited attitude on this. In most instances I do feel there has been benefit (at least with ELISION) to players and composers having a shared dialogue and access to knowledge of each other – and the band having an experience of the composer from rehearsal to the concert and in the various social situations surrounding the endeavour.  All of this form part of the connections that Ben is referring to and can be very helpful in generating and sustaining player engagement, interest and commitment. Rarely is it not positive. I think I can pretty confidently say that ELISION as an ensemble has an ethos which welcomes contact with and meeting a composer and tends to the inclusive.

I also note that in some instances the musicians are inherently and directly privileged within the creation of the work by the composer. I remember Liza for a long while saying that everytime she wrote for cello she heard the sound of Rosie (Rosanne Hunt) in her head and Richard’s composer drafts for ELISION have player names instead of specified instruments preceding his staves.

In this environment access to knowledge of a work’s inspiration can be very positive. Musicians will absorb this knowledge in different ways, at different times and rates BUT its all part of the overall osmosis.

Richard: In fact DARK MATTER has the names of the players throughout the published score too (as well as the instruments!).

Another aspect of the ‘dialogue’ Daryl refers to has become very immediate to me in recent weeks, working on the brass duo Aurora, and listening often to the ELISION recording of codex IX in which Ben and Tristram [Williams, trumpet] both took part, and to which they contribute their own musical imagination, this being a piece for improvising players. So there’s a complex interweaving taking place on a number of different levels, some of which (as Ben has pointed out) are more immediate than a discussion of formative ‘extra-musical’ ideas: what Ben and Tristram play in codex IX is conditioned to a degree by my fully-notated music as well as our mutual experience of improvisation, and certainly by the way the improvisational score is laid out, which is in turn partly an encapsulation of my own practice as a performer, and then the result feeds back again into thoughts which find their confluence in another fully-notated score.

Tim McC: I have always been of the opinion that, for me & for many of the musicians with whom I have a particularly deep relationship, the ‘non-note-based influences’ and the ‘sounding result’ are completely connected. Somewhere in the compositional process (before it? During it? Sometimes, afterwards.) the extra-musical influences and intentions become just as musical and the resultant sounds become just as semantic, physical, graphic, painterly, etc … That having been said, I have also always been of the opinion that, yes, the final, sounding result can stand on its own and, due to the unpredictable and divergent life experiences of the pieces’ perceivers, it has to.

But, as far as my music is concerned, I also believe that a listener’s experience of the final sounding result can also stand apart from any historical, traditional or lineagic knowledge. So I wouldn’t say that at some point in the life of a piece, these non-aural forces suddenly lose all importance/consequence. Rather, at some point the purely aural aspects of the piece are able to speak for themselves; they carry the influence of these forces without necessarily trying to communicate them.

Though the non-aural influences working to shape my music are significant to me, and may be of significance to a performer or listener, I am more interested in learning what a perceiver gathers from the performance itself (I am, after all, writing music to be performed live in front of a body of listeners). In this way, I very much like what Richard said: ‘…hearing the music, for the listener, might well be the beginning of something’. I would like to take that further: since my ideas, experiments and lines of thought, both extra-musical and primarily musical, are typically developed, altered, recontextualized or affirmed through the writing of many pieces, I would say that actually hearing the music might well be the beginning of something for me. At the least, it is a significant point in the middle (the ever-expanding middle…).

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!