Morning after silences

allone

So, I’ve curated my first concert. I’ve contributed something to new music greater than just carping from the sidelines. How does it feel the morning after? A few quick thoughts:

  1. No surprises here, but this stuff is much harder than it looks. Even when you’re going through a professional venue like Kings Place, who handle all the tech, the venue, the front of house and half the marketing, it’s a lot more work than you think. Like putting together a wedding, you find you need to have a definitive view on things that you never thought you would before. (That really sunk in during the production phase, when I had to give a firm number of how many music stands, musicians’ chairs, etc. we would need.)
  2. I haven’t cracked the fundraising conundrum, and I need to if I’m going to do this again.
  3. Am I going to do this again? Two weeks ago, I’d have given you a firm no. Yesterday, a probably yes. Today – not sure.
  4. People came – lovely, lovely people came. A lot of whom I didn’t know, so thank you especially. I hope you enjoyed your afternoon.
  5. How a programme works in your head is really different from how it works on stage. I think my programme showed up a few interesting things, but they weren’t necessarily the interesting things I had in mind at first. Relative proportions are way more important than I’d realised, for example.
  6. Mathias Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke is a great piece that should be performed 100x more often than it is. There was some talk yesterday that this may have been its London premiere. I must admit I didn’t check, given that the piece is 37 years old, but it’s possible. Anyone know?
  7. Working with people is awesome – nothing you can do as a writer quite compares. Especially people as talented as were involved yesterday. Huge thanks to everyone for their skills and hard work: Anton Lukoszevieze, Tom Jackson, Lore Lixenberg, Philip Thomas, Greg Emfietzis, Ben Isaacs and Charlie Sdraulig.
  8. Oh yeah, and work out in advance how you’re going to get a bow in at the end. Otherwise it won’t happen … 🙂

Pic: Philip, Tom and Anton rehearsing Ben Isaacs’ allone.

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‘The risk of sound being produced’: Charlie Sdraulig

 

This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.

When I started to put this concert together, I knew early on that I wanted a piece by Charlie Sdraulig. I’ve written about his music, briefly, once before on this blog, and the sense of theatre (that isn’t really theatre, it’s just people playing their instruments), the aura of risk and failure, the downright peculiarity of what he does, was something I wanted to get on stage.

But Charlie didn’t actually have a piece yet that fitted the line-up that I was starting to settle on. So he very kindly agreed to produce a new version of close, his trio for shakuhachi, voice and bowed string, that replaces the shakuhachi with a clarinet. And I’m thrilled that we’re getting the first performance of that version.

In the interview below, Charlie talks a little about risk and failure, as well as the relationship of his very quiet music to its surrounding environment. In the performance instructions for the vocal miniature, few, there is a line that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a score before: ‘If the environment changes in a way that makes it impossible to finish the score, abandon the performance.’ Composing in the possibility of abandoning a performance seems such a peculiar idea, but it captures something of the values at work here.

Charlie Sdraulig

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

I never really considered composing to be a career choice, let alone an anachronistic one. It always was and remains a compulsion. As soon as I began to take piano lessons, I began composing and haven’t stopped since! Why do I continue to compose? I am interested in writing music that allows a particular type of human interaction to take place in sound. I aim to create a sound world that is constantly redefining itself, negotiated and under discussion, which potentially allows the fragility and ambiguity of the act of perception to become audible. I hope to create a listening environment of heightened intensity that explores predominately soft sounds in subtly differentiated detail, a situation that may in turn potentially empower a listener to approach their sonic environments in an aware and sensitive way.

TR-J: What role does silence play in your music?

Although my music often takes place at the threshold of audibility, very rarely do I actually compose silences. There is always the potential for sound to occur to a greater or lesser degree. For example, if a performer holds their bow one to two millimetres above a string, their trembling musculature will cause occasional non-intentional contact to be made. However, often no contact takes place at all, leaving only a physical gesture and silence. Manipulating the various parameters involved, such as bow height or speed, will change the risk of sound being produced. As a result, silence often arises when the intention to produce a sound fails and so momentary silences permeate my work. I propose that these fluctuating ratios of sound to silence allow a particular expression of humanity to be communicated by approaching the space between performer and instrument with the utmost care and sensitivity: an acceptance and celebration of human fallibility and individuality.

The more I explore extremely soft sounds, the more I am acutely aware of the ever present ambient sounds in any given environment. Occasionally, my music may have the propensity to act within its own bubble, oblivious to the sonic environment that envelopes it. Composing an extended silence, as an absence in the intention to create sound, could highlight this environment. I am still working out exactly what my relationship with ambient sounds could be and how I could enter in to dialogue with them. Potentially my music could open itself up to interacting with its sonic environment via cues. That said I have also experienced occasions when pieces of extremely quiet music drew me in to the extent that I selectively prioritised what I perceived to be important sounds in the performance space, so that I was largely unaware of sounds extraneous to what I perceived to be the musical text.

In any case, the distinction between sound and silence can be somewhat difficult to determine when listening to sounds at the threshold of audibility. The perceptual ambiguity of these sounds allows each listener to actively construct this distinction, amongst other things, or not.

TR-J: A lot of compositional work concerns ways of proceeding, of extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

The majority of my recent work has primarily explored interaction, such as the interaction between a performer and their instrument, as well as the interaction between one performer and another. I have also been particularly interested in investigating and extending the role of physicality and perception in these interactions. Consequently, many of my compositional decisions relate to specifying the exact nature of the interactions in a given piece.

I always work closely with a performer to find ways of making sounds that allow that particular expression of humanity, which I described earlier, to emerge via an often tenuous interaction between a performer and their instrument. I define physical boundaries that explore the relatively greater or lesser likelihood of a sound actually being produced. Ideally, subtle parametric changes within these boundaries would then create a vast number of micro-variations in that sound.

trace

If I am writing for a small ensemble, the following questions arise: how can I organise sounds created by the unpredictable interaction between a performer and their instrument? How can metre delineate temporal relationships in a context where sounds may be imperceptible or simply not occur at all? Furthermore, beyond purely practical considerations, what do I want the nature of performer to performer interaction to be in my music?

Working as an accompanist, I would occasionally reach an under-rehearsed ritardando, the predictability of the prevailing metre would fall away and a highly contingent form of moment to moment interdependent interaction would occur due to not being able to exactly predict when the other player would act. Essentially, we would aurally cue each other. I found these to be extremely satisfying experiences as a player and, when I perceived them in other people’s performances, as a listener as well. After encountering and experiencing the work of Christian Wolff as well as playing as an improviser, I became more and more interested in the performative alertness and flexibility engendered by sonic contingency.

As a result, I now tend to use various types of cuing that allow temporal and parametric relationships between the parts to be flexibly shaped in real time by each performer’s perception, their listening. Many of my compositional decisions in this domain relate to finding means of cuing between performers that are as tenuous and unstable as the interaction I set up between a performer and their instrument. This could take the shape of something as simple as a question such as ‘is the timbre of the sound of the other player changing at a faster rate than mine?’ and altering different parameters depending on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. In my recent work, I tend to treat time as a context where these interactions mediated by perception (cues) occur within a physical frame (breath or bow lengths).

TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

At the moment, I very rarely think about pitch with reference to equal temperament. I tend not to specify exact pitches but employ a tablature of some sort. In fact, I usually think about pitch as being relatively high or low, dependent on another element. My pitches generally serve an interactive, physical or perceptual function. For example, at times I use the pitch direction of glissandi as the basis of a cuing system or explore a variety of high breathy whistles due to their inherent sonic and physical instability. So a middle C could potentially occur in the context of a glissando that has a function in a particular cuing system or it might not. Ultimately, I don’t think it would matter very much. Personally, I would rather start by attempting to create an interactive framework that could lead to an environment where active and sensitive listening is prioritised. Everything else would flow from there.

Here are the previous posts on Gregory Emfietzis and Ben Isaacs.

If you have enjoyed what you have read here, or elsewhere on the blog, and would like to make a small contribution towards the costs of this concert your interest would be very welcome. Please send your donation (of whatever size) via PayPal to: ramblerconcertfund@gmail.com

I don’t usually ask for money on this blog, but here’s some information on why I am on this occasion.

If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.

Close to the edge: Ben Isaacs

Ben Isaacs studied composition at Huddersfield with Aaron Cassidy and Bryn Harrison. His current work includes a new piece for flautist Richard Craig and a three-glockenspiel piece for the line upon line ensemble.

As Ben says below, silence doesn’t actually feature in his music much at all – but allone gets the nod for this concert because it sits right on the edge of inaudibility and, what’s more, crams that tiny band with a whole lot of activity. It’s a sort of nearly-imperceptible virtuosity that might carry Beckett-like connotations of futility and waste if it weren’t so damned beautiful in its own right.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Ben Isaacs: One of the things that most appeals to me about composing (in the sense of producing musical notation for musicians to interpret) is the particular way it combines individual creation (each score I produce is very much ‘mine’ and no-one else’s) and collaboration (I am completely reliant on others in order to actually hear the music). To me this specific balance is significantly (albeit not entirely) distinct from other forms of music making, and I imagine that this distinction is part of the reason it endures as an art form, and won’t seem too anachronistic any time soon (even if the question does occasionally get asked!).

TR-J: What role does silence play in your music?

BI: Almost no role at all! Or at least it’s not really an aspect I explicitly consider whilst composing. However, over the last five years I have focused on writing extremely quiet and fragile music, so for an audience it does quite possibly draw attention to the act of listening in a similar way to music which does deal with silence (however the word is understood) more overtly. For me, this is a wholly welcome outcome of the work as I’m very much attracted to the sense of ‘live-ness’ musical performance can engender, though I tend to avoid pauses of any substantial length in order to maintain a continual fragility of sound. I often write in my performance instructions that the sound should be ‘barely there’, with the implication that it is ‘there’ nonetheless.

TR-J: A lot of compositional work concerns ways of proceeding, of extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

BI: Aside from their volume, my pieces typically work within a number of other constraints. Most commonly, this involves severely restricting both the range of pitches used, and the physical gestures with which the performers produce sound. Once these have been established, it becomes a question of emphasising the volatility inherent in the combining of the constraints (for example, various trills and tremolos swelling from niente to pppp and back again using only the top seven notes of the piano). Often these gestures will be repeated, with their various constraints ensuring different results each time, or the range of pitches will gradually expand and contract, affecting the variety of available gestures. In any case, the focus is on the minute. I aim to create dynamic and intricate music that presents a constantly shifting surface whilst remaining extremely constricted.

I have also begun to work with longer durations. In February Kate Ledger performed an hour-long version of my piano piece too expanding and I recently finished a glockenspiel trio for line upon line percussion that can last up to two hours. The combination of concert-length durations and extremely constricted music is one I’m very intrigued by.

ben-isaacs-allone

TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

BI: Firstly I imagine I’d transpose it up a couple of octaves, or maybe even three or four. I’m drawn to both the instability inherent in playing winds and strings at low volumes in the upper register, and the thinness of sound and short decay at the top end of a piano or pitched percussion instrument. I’m also keen on homogenous ensembles so perhaps I’d have a string trio drawing their bows too slowly to produce clear pitches, playing very small glissandi towards the top of their highest string, and with an occasional trill in there too. Probably there’d be a number of repeating patterns, with the fragility of the bow strokes cracking into different rhythms with each repetition. I wouldn’t need to add much to that.

This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.

Here is the previous post on Gregory Emfietzis; coming up: Charlie Sdraulig.

If you have enjoyed what you have read here, or elsewhere on the blog, and would like to make a small contribution towards the costs of this concert your interest would be very welcome. Please send your donation (of whatever size) via PayPal to: ramblerconcertfund@gmail.com

I don’t usually ask for money on this blog, but here’s some information on why I am on this occasion.

If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.

Composing with silence: Gregory Emfietzis

Gregory Emfietzis was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, and studied in Macedonia and at Huddersfield and Brunel universities. Recent works include the wind quintet Fear (not), winner of an international competition hosted by the Wiener Konzerthaus to mark its 100th season, the chamber opera The Darkness of Mistico and the puppet theatre piece Music Impossible.

I’ve chosen a piece by Greg to include in my Kings Place concert because I wanted to include something music-theatrical. Not over-bearingly so, but enough to open a corridor between ‘standard’ music-music, and non-standard music-theatre. And Greg’s music fits the bill perfectly, drawing on Kagel and Jani Christou, but retaining a light and often humorous touch. In DIY 1: the pianist and the lamp, the interactions between the piano soloist and an on-stage lamp play with our symbolic interpretations of light/dark, sound/silence and content/emptiness.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Gregory Emfietzis: Well … if you consider the size of the advertising and cinematic industry in our day it certainly feels like a very ‘contemporary’ career choice, strongly related to and heavily employed by our modern world. In our particular field, however, I am not sure I can see it as a career rather than (just) as a choice … Despite the many years of studies, countless working hours (not to mention money spent), it still feels more like a professional hobby, which I (just) need to do.

Tim R-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?

Greg E: Composing itself can’t have changed too much for ages. Yes, different periods could possibly mean different tendencies or trends, the development of instruments and advanced technology in the hands of more composers, even different types of notation; but I see that like any other more or less expected development of any other profession… The ‘logistics’ of being a composer have changed considerably though, because of the considerably greater opportunities to gain experience by working with amateur and professional players from all over the world, and the even greater opportunities to document your work and present it to a wider audience through the Internet.

Tim R-J: What role does silence play in your music?

Greg E: An equally important role as non-silence I’d say. Rather than a moment of emptiness and/or inactiveness, silence feels to me more like an extremely ‘loud’ acoustic timbre, which often carries very strong dramatic elements with it.

DIY 1: the pianist and the lamp performed by Nao Maebayashi, London 2010

Tim R-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

Greg E: I’d say I’m more interested in stretching time over ideas, in such a way that an audience loses its sense of time. And since ideas don’t appear as ‘just sound’ to me, the theatricality of live music performance comes in too – so I’m very often dealing with time over dramaturgy over sounds over ideas.

DIY 1 extract

Score extract from DIY 1: the pianist and the lamp

 Tim R-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

Greg E: Surround it with many many many other notes of different sizes. Then circle all of them and draw a vertical line downwards; finally add four shorter diagonal lines downwards: two starting on each side of the vertical line’s middle, and the other two starting at the very end of it. Entitle it: SSSSSSSSShhhhhhh

This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.

If you have enjoyed what you have read here, and elsewhere on the blog, and would like to make a small contribution towards the costs of this concert your interest would be very welcome. Please send your donation (of whatever size) via PayPal to: ramblerconcertfund@gmail.com

I don’t usually ask for money on this blog, but here’s some information on why I am on this occasion.

If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.

I’m curating a show (and shaking a tin)

Exciting times here at Rambler Towers. As well as putting together plans for my first full book, I’m also curating a show at Kings Place in September as part of their autumn OutHear series. I’m thrilled that the amazing Apartment House will be playing.

The concert will be on Sunday 22nd September, starting at 4pm – a very civilised late afternoon sort of time. More details, ticket information and all that jazz to come, but in the mean time please check out the Facebook page.

I’ve called the show ‘Some Recent Silences’, a title borrowed from the Cage tribute article I wrote for NewMusicBox last year. The article itself was an inspiration, but the concert follows some angles of its own:

G. Douglas Barrett – A Few Silence
Gregory Emfietzis – DIY 1
Mathias Spahlinger – 128 erfüllte augenblicke

INTERVAL

Ben Isaacs – allone
György Kurtág – Dumb Show
Charlie Sdraulig – Close
Michael Pisaro – Fade

There are some nods to the post-Cage/conceptual work discussed in the NMBx article, particularly in Barrett’s A Few Silence, which begins the concert with five minutes of silence, followed by a five-minute transcription of that silence played by the four musicians. Pisaro’s Fade for solo piano takes us slowly back to silence through a series of long, slow decays.

In between, however, I’ve shifted the emphasis slightly towards more music-theatrical uses of silence. The Isaacs and Sdraulig pieces thematise, in quite different ways, the production of sound at the edge of silence. In Sdraulig’s Close this often leads to ‘sonically redundant’ gestures that are composed, and have a musical content of a sort, but that don’t result in the production of an audible sound (bowing slightly above the string, for example). Isaacs’ allone is more effortful and activity-filled, but drawing on a similar repertoire of performer/instrument interactions. Kurtág’s very short Dumb Show, from Book 1 of his Játékok series, takes this a step further into the absurd, notating a complete piano miniature, including dynamics and articulation markings, but with the instruction to touch the keys only very gently, without depressing any of them. In another piece for piano (or pianist?), Greg Emfietzis uses an on-stage lamp as a silent partner in the music, contributing to and interfering with its development.

And at the heart of the concert is Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke, among other things a study in the relationship between silence and sound at the extremes of musical fragmentation. With the wonderful Lore Lixenberg singing, this will surely acquire a certain dramatic aspect too.

Over the coming months I will be posting quite a lot of material related to this concert; there will be some 10 for ’10-style composer profiles of the four younger composers in the concert, as well as some new entries to the Contemporary Notation Project. Probably one or two other surprises along the way.

Of course, putting something like this together costs money, and in the UK at least funding for one-off concert projects – particularly ones that are devised around an idea, rather than to showcase brand new commissions – is hard to come by. After some consideration, I am taking the step of asking you, my readers, for your help. I’ve always resisted on principle the idea of monetising the Rambler: I write here for the love, I get a lot out of doing it, and I don’t feel obliged to any standard of professionalism, which frees me up to write stuff that would be difficult to place elsewhere.

That principle hasn’t changed, and isn’t going to. However, if you do enjoy what you read here, and particularly if you come to enjoy the various posts I’ve got lined up in relation to the Some Recent Silences concert, then it would be a massive help if you would consider a small donation towards the costs of putting this show on.

Any money raised will be exclusively reserved for the players; none of it will end up as profit for me. In the event that I actually raise more money than the players are asking for (you never know …), it will still go to the players; they’ll just get a bonus. In the interests of transparency, I will of course make the accounts available to anyone who asks to see them.

If you would like to make a donation, of whatever size, please send it to the dedicated PayPal account at:

ramblerconcertfund@gmail.com

If you would like or are happy to have your name included on a list of donors, please make a note of this with your payment.

Thank you.