Some recent writings

Last autumn, I was fortunate to be asked – separately, but serendipitously – to write essays on five of my favourite artists: Apartment House, Chaya Czernowin, Evan Johnson, Liza Lim and Timothy McCormack,. Although I enjoy most writing, it’s rare to be able to take such pleasure from it, and over such a sustained period – eight weeks through September and October in this case. It was a wonderful time. With the release this week of McCormack’s debut CD (on KAIROS), the events and CDs for which I wrote those essays have finally all come to fruition. I’m moved therefore to share a little extract from each here. I particularly like the fact that I have written about some of these musicians for a decade now: having them all together engendered a profound sense of ‘what next?’, but also felt like a victory.

The three liner notes below accompany CDs that I believe are among the essential releases of the last few months, and I recommend them to you as highly as I can.

A mountain’, wrote the Scottish novelist and naturist Nan Shepherd (1893–1981), ‘has an inside’. Like Shepherd’s ‘living mountain’, McCormack’s music also has an inside. To be in a landscape is to be part of it, to participate in its creation, evolution and destruction. We do not observe, we do not consume, we do not utilise, we do not inhabit or farm or pollute landscapes passively. They enter us as we enter them. For karst survey McCormack told the flutist Zach Sheets, ‘I really wanted to put the listener on the ground walking through it and not understanding the connections between its features. … I wanted to put the listener really in the middle of this landscape, and you’re only seeing what you’re able to see – you don’t see how the whole thing connects until you’ve walked through it all.’

From sleevenotes to Timothy McCormack, KARST, karst survey, and you actually are evaporating, released by KAIROS.

In the final movement of [Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus] is a remarkable sound, based on a real phenomenon: the ‘dawn chorus’ of coral reef fish that takes place in the changing light of morning; a mass of clicking, rasping percussive sounds, transcribed by Lim through the sound of Waldteufels and windwands being swirled in the air. As the music passes theoretically below the range of human hearing (thanks to a contrabassoon that has been extended with a metre of plastic tubing), we end listening to a song that we can no longer know nor understand, looking to a future perhaps no longer meant for us.

From sleevenotes to Liza Lim, Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, released by KAIROS.

A hyphen sits between. A hyphen is small. Its use implies the presence of two more substantial items – words, or parts of words – on either side, which give it its function and meaning. Those words constitute a sort of white or negative space, whose presence and influence can be inferred even if the words themselves are not spoken. It is an image articulated spectacularly in a favourite artwork of Johnson’s, the pen and ink drawing Der Hafen von Antwerpen beim Scheldetor (1520) by Albrecht Dürer. Dürer’s picture inverts the normal rules of Renaissance perspective by becoming more detailed the closer one gets to its vanishing point. At its centre, where the outlines of buildings and ships collide, it reaches a state of almost self-negating intricacy, the profusion of lines leading to less, not more, definition. But outwards from this point the picture tends towards white space, and indeed more than half of the page is completely white, including the large expanse of dockside pavement on which were are standing. Johnson’s music can be understood in large part in response to this picture – and it directly inspired his 2014 string quartet inscribed, in the center: ‘1520, Antorff’. The works on the present recording, written before this quartet, reflect alternative responses to the dialectic of compression and emptiness revealed by Dürer.

From sleevenotes to Evan Johnson portrait disc, also on KAIROS.

Despite a continual swinging between opposites – from art gallery to concert hall, from detailed notation to allusive text, from the heart of Europe to the fringes of New York, from the cutting edge to the historical – Apartment House have created an artistic identity that transcends those differences . . . In part that identity is guided by Lukoszevieze’s own tastes, contacts and performance opportunities. He has described a word of mouth aspect to the group’s artistic direction that is driven by enthusiasms and personal relationships rather than publishers’ catalogues or occasion-related prestige. The group’s direction is also driven by Lukoszevieze’s own reading of musical history (shared with Cage), not as a straight line going in one direction, but as a series of rivers, and Lukoszevieze delights in discovering or reviving works and composers – particularly from the 1960s and 70s – that have left only the faintest traces on history. Not even the early experimental or minimalist works that might be referenced in textbooks of the time, but those that were published only in small-run magazines, or were performed only once, or that for any other reason might have slipped beneath the floorboards of history.

In a musical world in which fragility and precariousness are countered by institutionalisation and formality, Apartment House have made flexibility into a virtue. The group’s name alludes to Cage’s Apartment House 1776, but more significantly to the idea of different rooms within a single building: rooms with different functions, rooms on different levels, rooms close or far apart, some rooms with people in, some that are empty.

From programme essay on Apartment House, for Rainy Days Festival, Luxembourg.

Falling in love is a huge risk. To share your life and your self with someone is to risk pain and suffering – and in extreme circumstances even torture and death. This is very rare, of course, although movements like #MeToo have made us all more aware of the amount of physical abuse that does take place. And even in a kind and caring relationship in which each partner is able to grow, to love is to lose something – other lives, other loves. It means giving up our autonomy and independence in order to become part of something larger. It is an opening up that is both physical and psychological. In Czernowin’s words: ‘In all this process of falling in love or opening your life to somebody else there are so many emotions, and they are all very focused, all very concentrated. It is almost like the whole body – and the whole body of the personality – know that they are going to undergo a huge change. And that change is described to us by society as something so idyllic: not many people talk about the risk, of opening an organism into another organism.’ Insofar as it tells a story – or describes a series of scenes – Heart Chamber does so in ways that engage us listeners aesthetically, psychologically and physically. As far as is possible, we are drawn into the same adventure into the unknown as the lovers themselves.

From programme essay, Chaya Czernowin, Heart Chamber, Berlin Opera. (Full text here.)

With EXAUDI, exposed


I’m chuffed to be hosting a couple of composer conversations at EXAUDI‘s next concert, on 4 May at the Only Connect Theatre, Cubitt Street, King’s Cross. Before the music starts I’ll be on stage talking with Matthew Shlomowitz and EXAUDI’s director James Weeks, and about midway through I’ll be hosting a roundtable discussion with Shlomowitz, Weeks, Aaron Cassidy, Stephen Chase and Claudia Molitor. A shedload of talent, moderated by a fool.

I’m not the reason you should go. You actually want to see EXAUDI themselves, who will be singing pieces by Shlomowitz, Weeks, Cassidy, Chase and Evan Johnson. They’ll also be launching their new CD, Exposure – the sixth release from Huddersfield Contemporary Recordings. I’ve been listening to it lots over the weekend, and it’s pretty special. It features pieces by Cassidy, Weeks, Chase, Molitor, Bryn Harrison, Richard Glover and Joanna Bailie. A really diverse mix, but somehow, and thanks to EXAUDI’s alchemical powers, a coherent one. Really beautiful too.

The concert should be great as well; get down to King’s Cross if you can.

2012 Kranichsteiner Musikpreis winners announced

Congratulation to the winners of this year’s Kranichsteiner Musikpreis, awarded last night at the closing concert of the 2012 Darmstadt Summer School: Johannes Kreidler (composition) and Ensemble Dal Niente.

In addition, Förderpreise stipends were awarded to the following:

For composition: Patricia Alessandrini (USA), Ashley Fure (USA), Jagoda Szmytka (Poland), Wojciech Blecharz (Poland), Evan Johnson (USA).

For interpretation: Patrick Stadler (saxophone/Germany), Heloisa Amaral (piano/Brazil), Vladislav Pesin (violin/Russia), Brian Archinal (percussion/USA), and the Mivos Quartet (New York).

I am of course pleased to see two Polish composers on that list, and personally delighted for Evan Johnson, a regular visitor to these pages and profiled here in 2010.

(N.B. Post updated, due to me mixing up the Kranichsteiner prize proper and the Förder stipends.)

The first essential new music CD of 2011?

Domink Karski: Streamforms
Brian Ferneyhough: Unity Capsule
Evan Johnson: L’art de toucher le clavecin, 2*
Malin Bång: Alpha Waves
Salvatore Sciarrino: Venere che le grazie la fioriscono
John Croft: … ne l’aura che trema
Richard Barrett: Inward**

Richard Craig, flute
Karin Hellqvist, violin*
Pontus Langendorf, percussion**

Métier MSV28517

There may have been a time, in the late 70s/early 80s, when Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule sounded like an unrepeatable new benchmark for modern flute writing. Yet programmed among works by Dominik Karski, Evan Johnson, Malin Bång, John Croft and Richard Barrett, even this radical classic seems to breathe the air of an older planet. Another modern standard, Sciarrino’s Venere che le Grazie la fioriscono, written 13 years later, paradoxically seems even more remote.

If Richard Craig has recorded some of Unity Capsule‘s descendants on this quite brilliant CD the resemblances are rarely straightforward. The thing about children is that you don’t get to choose which bits of genetic code get passed on. Stockhausen would advise his students ‘If you want to become famous just take a magnifying glass and put it to one of my scores, and what you see there, just multiply that for five years’, and if Unity Capsule has an inheritance it appears on this evidence to have taken this sort of select and zoom form.

The pieces by Karski and Bång are the closest sonically (apart from the Sciarrino they are also the only other pieces for unadorned solo flute); Johnson further problematises the role of notational (and musical) redundancy; Croft vastly expands the world within and without the instrument; and Barrett is, supposedly, one of Ferneyhough’s most direct descendants.

But one shouldn’t assume those sorts of contacts. Barrett’s piece Inward (along with the pieces by Johnson and Croft one of three heart-achingly beautiful tracks here) surrounds the flute in a fragile halo of percussion, a hint of the wider halo that the piece possesses in its other incarnations as the core of Schneebett, itself the third movement of the cycle Opening of the Mouth. The image is one of withdrawal or enshrouding, an almost spiritual internalisation, that is ultimately undone by a series of six monstrous percussion strikes. Something I’ve long admired about Inward, and this section of Opening of the Mouth, is how it employs East Asian sonic signifiers – flute, bell trees, bamboo sticks, Thai gong, temple block – but negotiates its way around a plastic, Orientalist presentation. The fact that Barrett invites such comparisons and then responds to them as part of his music’s expressive argument is the sort of thing that sets him far apart from the more aesthetically-minded Ferneyhough.

Karski’s Streamforms is the most melodic of all the pieces here, in the sense that it is concerned with exploring variations of a single parameter within otherwise stable fields over relatively sustained periods of time, which in a roundabout way will bring you a tune. I’m not sure that’s precisely the composer’s intention, but it is the effect of his piece, which in spite of its incursions and disruptions deals largely in extended lines and arcs. Malin Bång is a completely new name to me; her Alpha Waves borrows the metaphor of sleep cycles and switches sharply between a variety of events ranging from the calm to the violent (including some extraordinary growling sounds).

Richard Craig giving the premiere of Streamforms, live performance, Stockholm, 2009

The two best new works, however, are those by Johnson and Croft. Coming after the Sciarrino, which ends with a flat, focussed stream of tongue slaps and breath noises, Croft’s fantasia for alto flute and electronics is like stepping onto another world. The title alludes to ‘the air that trembles’ that Dante encounters in the first circle of hell, inhabited the ancient poets and philosophers, before crossing into the second circle, the realm of the excessively passionate and, rather like the Barrett, there is a sense of both withdrawing and projecting, an almost erotic play with a threshold. In its own way, Johnson’s L’art de toucher le clavecin for piccolo and violin similarly toys with boundaries. But here the path is more tentatively trodden; at times even the border itself seems to evaporate. The dialogue – hence the reference to Couperin’s instructional pamphlet – is between ground and ornament, but everything is ultra-cautiously proposed, bundled under fantastic layers of contingencies and securities. It sounds like the recipe for a health and safety nightmare, but Johnson’s skill is for extracting something rare and precious from out of such pressure.

And what of those two classics? Craig’s Sciarrino is much more reserved and less overtly dramatised than some others, such as Alter Ego’s 1999 recording. (The CDs title – Inward – seems more and more apt.) It’s less instantly captivating as a result, but I think gains a Pan-like mystery in return. His Unity Capsule is a full five minutes (nearly a third) shorter than Paula Rae’s premiere recording with ELISION from 1998 (which is too languid for my taste) and still four minutes shorter than Kolbeinn Bjarnason’s much tighter performance of 2002. The details fly by at a hell of lick, in fact but, crucially and miraculously, not at the expense of precision. This is a performance that is dense – high resolution – but not hurried. Craig instills the piece – so often caricatured as a Sisyphean struggle against an unyielding notation – with fearsome confidence, swagger even. Thirty-five years on its challenges may have been parried, absorbed, reflected and dispersed anew, but it speaks now with a commanding and often beautiful authority.

Update, 9 Sept 2011: This disc is now available on Spotify. If you have Spotify, you should listen to it.

(A shorter review of this CD, by Peter Grahame Woolf, is at Musical Pointers.)

Spirit Weapons – ELISION at Kings Place this Monday

It has taken a little while to get the programme finalised, but ELISION’s next concert at Kings Place (this Monday, 15th November) looks like a doozy:

Michael Finnissy Hinomi (1979), for solo percussion

Newton Armstrong Unsaying (2010), for solo violoncello and voice

Evan Johnson hyphen (2002), for solo crotales

Jeroen Speak Epeisodos (1998), for solo Eb clarinet

Richard Barrett Abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben (1992-96), for solo percussion

Liza Lim The Quickening/Spirit Weapons (2005/10), for soprano and violoncello

It’s quite a percussion-heavy programme, so a great opportunity to enjoy the skills of the amazing Peter Neville, and the appearance of Deborah Kayser in a Newton Armstrong premiere and a version of Liza Lim’s The Quickening reworked especially for this concert adds an extra special gloss. I’ve said it before – do not miss. Get more details and tickets here.

While I’m at it, ELISION-heads and fans of extreme notated music should be pretty excited about the release of two new ELISION CDs on Huddersfield University’s HCR label. Full disclosure: I wrote the sleevenotes for these, but that also means I’ve been listening to the tapes for a while now, and they are very special indeed. The CDs will be officially launched at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on 23 November.

Review of Mark Knoop at City University now online

My review of Mark Knoop’s piano and electronics recital at City University, is now online at Musical Pointers:

Despite torrential rain a good number made it to City University’s well-appointed Performance Space for a recital of works for piano and electronics.Newton Armstrong’s Three Windows explored the resonances of the piano – the second through silently depressed keys, the first and third through live electronics. The piano writing was atonal and rhythmically jagged, but in a way that allowed for drifts of sweeter colours, particularly in the overtone hazes of the second movement. The electronic treatment acted as an extended resonator, drawing the piano sounds out in unfamiliar directions, distorting them, microtonally altering their pitch, changing the timbre or adding glissando effects. This gave the hard piano sounds a softer, more organic afterlife (or magnified a hidden organicism). Although the pieces were short, Armstrong achieved an attractive balance between light and firm textures.

Continue reading here.

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

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!

ELISION – Invisibility

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, comes in two parts:

1. Get out your diary, turn to February 8th, and write down some or all of the following information:


Date: Monday 8th February
Time: 8PM
Venue: Hall Two, Kings Place 90 York Way
Price: £9.50
Booking and more details

Timothy McCormack: disfix (2008)
For clarinets, piccolo trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone

Klaus K Hubler: Cercar (1983)
For solo trombone

Liza Lim: Invisibility (2009)
For solo violoncello

Richard Barrett: Aurora (2010)
For flugelhorn and trombone

Roger Redgate:  new work (2009)
For bass clarinet, violoncello and trombone

Evan Johnson: Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum) (2009)
for quarter-tone flugelhorn and alto trombone

James Dillon: Crossing Over (1978)
For Bb clarinet

Richard Barrett: Codex X1 (2010)
For oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, electric guitar, cello and live electronics

The personnel list for the performance is-
Peter Veale | oboe
Richard Haynes | clarinet in B-flat, bass clarinet
Tristram Williams | piccolo trumpet, trumpet, flügelhorn
Benjamin Marks | alto and tenor trombones
Daryl Buckley | electric guitar
Richard Barrett | live electronics
Séverine Ballon | violoncello

2. Stay tuned for some great original material in support of this concert – composer interviews, free downloads, round table discussions, party balloons, cake!

10 for ’10: Evan Johnson

I’m more and more of the opinion that even most of those who claim to write about contemporary music aren’t actually interested in doing so: when people say ‘contemporary music’, even when they’re talking about composed/art/concert music, they mean music written 40, 50 or 60 years ago by composers who are almost all dead.

There’s plenty of room left for people to write about the major senior figures of today but really, when the world has only just caught up with Lachenmann in his 70s and while Saariaho is considered the bleeding edge of the avant garde in some quarters, it could be a while before you’re reading much about those composers currently in the vigorous maturity of their 40s or 50s.

There’s a blind spot about what ‘contemporary’ really means in classical music. This annoys me. It’s time to talk about about the real avant of the avant garde: emerging composers with massive talents who aren’t ‘bright prospects for the future’ but who are in fact contributing in original, imaginative and expressive ways to the reality of modern composition now. Those composers who are truly contemporary.

So welcome to a feature I’ve been meaning to introduce for some time. This year, 2010, I’ll be presenting 10 profiles of emerging composers who really excite me. The profiles will appear roughly one a month, and each will be connected as far as possible to a UK performance of that composer’s music. Each profile will include some downloadable goodies – score and sound – and a short interview with the composer. To keep things both interesting and consistent, I’ll be asking each composer the same set of questions (although, depending on responses I may not post all the replies here):

  • Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?
  • How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?
  • How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?
  • What is musical material for you?
  • 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?
  • What projects are on your desk at the moment?
  • Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

I’m delighted to begin with a profile of the American composer Evan Johnson (b. 1980; no relative). I first encountered Evan’s music in a performance by EXAUDI of his Colophons (“That other that ich not whenne”) reflecting pool/monument. I think even then I knew that I’d not heard a surer bet than Evan’s music. It takes fearsome intelligence and a worldview that recalls the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and combines them with a deep sensitivity to musical traditions, techniques and philosophies that are often seen as opposite, even aggressively antagonistic to one another.

Extract from Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum), 2009

At first glance, the music appears irrevocably tied to a heavy, European tradition of rich notational determination, formal complexity and hierarchy. But experience of the music in performance immediately reveals something else, something lighter, more intangible, more unpredictable, a willingness to push boundaries beyond the rational, and to do so for the sake of not knowing and of being simply interested in finding out. In the middle of Colophons the dense cobwebs of vocal writing stop, suddenly, leaving only a single, scratching tone on the violin in the air. It hangs there, precariously, for 10, 20, 30 seconds. Too long. And then the voices start again, as though nothing had happened. It’s an extraordinary moment that makes no sense at all in traditional discursive terms, yet it absolutely nails that piece for me.

Evan’s music is something like that: it carries with it an aura of irrationality and impossibility, a fantasy that almost (but, crucially, not completely) evaporates with its own expressive coming-into-being.

Londoners are in for a treat in February, then, with two concerts including pieces by Evan. The second, by pianist Mark Knoop, features Dehiscences, Lullay (‘Thou nost whider it whil turne’), 2005. The first, at King’s Place on 8th February, will see Benjamin Marks and Tristram Williams of ELISION give the first UK performance of Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum). A score extract of this piece is reproduced above; with the composer’s permission here is a short extract from the first section of the work:

Apostrophe 2, excerpt | score (pdf)

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

Evan Johnson: Well, it can’t be too anachronistic if there are even a few people out there who want to present and listen to the things I produce. Anachronism then becomes their problem, not mine! But – if by ‘composing’ you mean the act of writing down notated material for performance by others – yes, the whole notion may be in the process of becoming obsolete, especially now that the writing, publishing and promulgation of notated music has been thoroughly left in the dust by new technologies.

This question is particularly apt for me because I consider the writing down of music and the insistence upon its live performance as a polemical act. I believe passionately in the importance of music, and art more generally, as a framed experience removed from daily life, and in opposition to it – an opportunity to undergo a sort of perceptual and intellectual stimulation that infiltrates one’s life as an alternate narrative that promotes the possibility of the unexpected. In this sense, my work as a composer is that of a perpetual sceptic of the constant availability of music for consumption, and of the encroaching valorization of the infinitely customizable (and therefore predictable) more generally. I find that, without even intending it, I am calibrating my work more and more for live performance – through extremes of dynamics, slightly modified stagings for instrumentalists, an emphasis on musculature and breath, and other sites for musical content that don’t lend themselves particularly well to reproduction. The end result is a work that demands the sort of attention and framing that excerpts it from the rest of the audience’s experience. That, for me, is what the whole thing is about, anachronistic though I fear it may be.


TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

EJ: I haven’t had as much experience as I would like working intensively in the precompositional stage with performers, but I have been extraordinarily lucky in the past several years with the interest my work has received from performers who are both capable and enthusiastic about tackling whatever I throw at them. My music tends to exist at boundaries of difficulty, endurance and notational complexity (which not infrequently falls over into purposeful impossibility), and its appeal among performers, even new-music specialists, is understandably limited as a result. I don’t begrudge anyone that; it’s a natural consequence of the things that interest me compositionally.

TR-J: What is musical material for you?

EJ: I don’t know. Everything. Or, more specifically, its definition changes several times over the course of a particular project. I tend to start by thinking about duration, and more specifically about relations between durational ‘containers’; in other words, about proportional time structures. I have developed over recent years a strong sense of how specific proportional sets work in their particularity, and they have over time acquired for me a definite personality, the way instrumental timbres or harmonic vocabularies do. I’ve also developed a small array of transformational procedures that enable me to generate durational material on all timescales out of a limited set of basic proportional ‘ingredients’, while still preserving something of that initial personality. It’s only at that point that I will think about inserting pitches, gestures, and so forth, sometimes with the idea of emphasizing the various machinations of these proportional structures and sometimes with the aim of struggling against them.

I should add that duration for me is not at all a purely arithmetical construct; it is intimately tied to the experience of the performer and their lungs, muscles, and mental endurance. What the direct play with duration allows me to do is give certain material a sense of being ‘too long’ or ‘too brief’ not only for itself or for the listening audience, but also for the performers. Playing my recent music is always an athletic feat, which for me is absolutely fundamental to the meaning of the whole enterprise of music as a multivalent interpersonal communication. So, in a sense, ‘musical material’ for me is primarily duration and the relationship between a frame and its contents, or a figure and its ground; but at the same time it is also the sinews and lungs of the bodies on stage who are viscerally inhabiting those frames.

Finally, I insist on broadening the definition of ‘musical material’ beyond that which is heard by an audience. The end product of my work as a composer is not what is heard by the listening audience; it is the score, and the score I produce is more than merely a set of instructions for producing sound. The ideal notation, for me, is not the most ‘transparent’, the most recuperable by an ideally perceptive audience. I am much more interested in situations where there is an insuperable gap between what the performer sees, experiences, and projects and what the audience receives, because that gap is where the unexpected and spontaneous can occur. My job as a composer is not to narrow that gap as much as I can, let alone to eliminate it, but to shape it in productive and (for the performer) thought-provoking ways.

For this reason, I have an abiding interest in alternative approaches to notation, from the Cage/Feldman/Brown tradition in the US – which I consider my particular artistic ‘inheritance’ as an American composer – to Europeans like Kagel, late Nono, and (particularly) Sylvano Bussotti, and stretching back to Satie and the incomprehensible and incommunicable performance indications in his piano music.

TR-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?


EJ: There are always too many decisions; much of the time, I find the process of composition incredibly difficult, almost painful, for that reason. I don’t enjoy making up my mind!

I will say, though, that I regard the entire compositional process as a gradual accumulation of restrictions on myself, of various sorts. The initial compositional idea is a restriction in that it defines the field of inquiry, the parameters of the project I’m setting out upon in a general sense; in fact, that initial idea often comes in the explicit form of a restriction (What if this piece was limited to ____, or only did ____?). Then the imposition of restriction takes more specific form, in that a process of winnowing begins in which decisions have more and more local effects on a gradually ossifying structure. At some point – and my decision as to when this point has been reached often has a lot to do with my own perception of the success or failure of the result – I have accumulated enough materials, and the containers for those materials are small and circumscribed enough in their possibilities, that I can fill them, link them, and mould them at will into a finished result with the overall effect that I intend. At least, that’s the theory.


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


EJ: I have no idea how to answer this question! As I mentioned before, I’ve become thoroughly accustomed to thinking about duration, proportion, and the properties of diachronic relationships before I have any particularly concrete ideas about pitch. That isn’t to say I don’t have instinctual feelings about certain pitches and intervals; D flat and the perfect eleventh are particular favorites, which is why both are apotheosized throughout Apostrophe 1 (All communication is a form of complaint). I also have an instinctive tendency towards ‘open’, quasi-diatonic harmonies on the local scale. If I had to choose a pitch to follow that middle C, then, it would certainly have to be the F an eleventh above, probably significantly softer than the C, and perhaps with a low D flat to ground that F and give it a certain diatonic resonance and potentiality.

To give a more complete answer, though, I’d have to know (a) how long the C is held for, or at least how far away the next attack is, and (b) what relationship that duration enacts with the governing structural window …