Morning after silences


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.


‘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.


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:

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


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:

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.

Watch and listen to Charlie Sdraulig’s hush

If you were intrigued by the extract from Charlie Sdraulig’s hush that I posted last month, then hopefully you’ll love this video of Martino Panizza and Alice Purton giving its first performance at the RCM playing it at City University after the premiere:

There’s also a recording on Soundcloud, although given the ephemeral nature of the work I would recommend watching as well as listening if you can.

The Contemporary Notation Project

To celebrate the Rambler’s arrival on Facebook I am launching a new feature: the Contemporary Notation Project. The idea is simple: the Facebook page needs a nice header image; lots of new scores look simply divine. Why not combine the two? So each month I’ll be posting a snippet from a contemporary score that has caught my eye, accompanied by a short post here explaining what it is, who it’s by, and a little of what I like about it.

The first month’s image is taken from hush, by Charlie Sdraulig. Composed in 2011–12, hush is written for harpist Martino Panizza and cellist Alice Purton (of Trio Atem). According to Sdraulig’s website, his music

explores interaction based on a player’s perception of others, their own and their instrument’s actions whilst simultaneously examining the physicality and individuality of human performance.

hush is one of several recent pieces in which this exploration takes the form of extremely tenuous sounding activities. That is, performance actions that only just, if even that, produce audible results. In hush, these include instructions to bow the cello at various distances above the string, for example. At a greater distance there is no sound at all, but just above the string the player’s trembling musculature comes into play, and accidental contact is occasionally made. Similar processes are at work in the harp, which is mostly bowed using a wooden drumstick. This imprecision is communicated by hand-drawn lines on the score which are themselves written with the pen just above the page and subject to similar physical fluctuations. I find that quite a lovely way of using notation to bring composer and performer closer together. Notation that directly traces the required result.

Update: I’ve just received word that hush is receiving its world premiere next Tuesday at the Royal College of Music. Details here. Concert also includes pieces by Jonathan Cole, Joanna Sy, Nicholas Moroz and others.

P.S. If you too book your face then please visit our page. As well as images from the Contemporary Notation Project, there are links, videos, shares etc that won’t make it to the main page. If you’re a composer who would like your music to feature in the Contemporary Notation Project then please get in touch through Facebook, Twitter or email.