Controlled Indeterminacy in Text Scores (4): Sarah Hughes

This is the last post in the series of interviews supporting the “Controlled Indeterminacy in Text Scores” project commissioned by Sarah Hughes is a composer, artist, and performer based in the UK. She is a founding member of The Set Ensemble, co-editor of Wolf Notes, and co-founder of the curatorial platform Compost and Height and the publication platform BORE. (Take a look at Wolf Notes #8, a print edition that was just made available yesterday. It looks like a great collection, and I’ve ordered myself a copy.)

A reward is given for the best inframmary fold will be performed in Chicago on May 31st by the ensemble, and a different version of it will be performed in Los Angeles by Dog Star Orchestra on June 1st.


Often stopwatches are used to synchronize activity. In this case it seems like they are being used to make sure that the sections are not synchronized. There seems to be a deliberate lack of alignment between the parts. Was that your intent? There are not many simultaneous entrances or exits, and each player has a very different pattern of when they are playing/not playing.

This score is a reworked version of a composition that was written for solo zither (I Love This City and its Outlying Lands, 2014) and has here been broken down into different sections for a quintet, with fairly significant changes along the way. It was originally part of a commission to accompany an exhibition of work by Fernand Léger at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Nantes. The original score involved a fairly long process of deciding what should go where and how that could be written as something to be read and understood in a live situation. I decided to rewrite the score for this commission as I’m interested in how things get translated from one medium to another, and a different set of instrumentation is like working with a different set of materials. The position of each section contributes to the overall composition, so whilst they aren’t synchronised the qualities of each section are contingent upon the activity that surrounds it. I wanted the composition to sound improvised whilst being tightly structured and for the score to hold together and to sound composed, but as an emergent activity.

I Love This City and its Outlying Lands, 2014. Commission for composition written in response to exhibition of Fernand Léger’s work at Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes.

I Love This City and its Outlying Lands, 2014. Commission for composition written in response to exhibition of Fernand Léger’s work at Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes.

Are there other examples you can give of translational/reworking processes in your work?

The translation/reworking is present in most of my work, and filtering through an idea by reworking it a number of times is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. This could be reworking sketchbooks as screenprints, using the same sculptures in various installations or using the same sections to rework a composition. These are becoming more and more interrelated. A recent exhibition with David Stent (Objects of Conjecture) intentionally played with the role of a sculpture, image and text in a similar kind of way, and I’ve just been appointed composer-in-residence at South London Gallery which should provide a good platform to play with these kind of ideas even more. I’ve also been in touch with Basil Beattie recently and had a good conversation with him about re-working his Janus Series into a series of compositions (either sound or sculpture, likely both). Then there are things like Joseph Clayton Mills’ recent release on Suppedaneum – Sifr. Joseph composed a piece of music and then sent it to a number of composers to write the score for its realisation. Seven scores and the original audio composition are available as one release. This reversal and multi-realisation is exactly what I’ve been interested in recently. 

Objects of Conjecture 2015. Hardwick Gallery, Cheltenham

Objects of Conjecture 2015. Hardwick Gallery, Cheltenham

The material that each player is interacting with is shifting somewhat unpredictably with the stops and starts of sections around them, and also with the intervals of activity within each of those sections. Is that structuring something you set in motion to call for a high level of responsiveness/contingency?

The composition is a conceit to a certain extent. In order to sound improvised a certain level of unpredictability needs to remain in place, yet the the structure and sounding events are outlined beforehand – the situation set up between the presence of the performers and the composer is crucial. The composition will have been rehearsed ahead of the live performance and the performers will know what to expect. The indeterminacy in the performance comes from the level of contingency written into the score. As much as informing the performance of the composition, indeterminacy (which was outlined as a key part of the commission) is central to the writing of the score itself. For example, how a composition changes according to the performers and instrumentation available, limitations to duration etc. Since this score was written as a piece for solo zither it has been rewritten as a solo for Ryoko Akama, and now two versions have been written for the ‘Indeterminancy in Text Scores’ concerts organised by, premiered in Chicago and then performed by the Dog Star Orchestra in Los Angeles. The series becomes discursive as each rewriting of the score creates a very different, indeterminate, realisation.

There is an interesting balance struck on a number of levels in this piece:

– between part and whole: each player is playing from their own part, but the playing qualities of parts 3, 4, and 5 are very much dependent on what is happening around them. (“loud enough to weave the other sounds together,” “must not overpower,” “sitting beneath”)


– between text/visual image and sound image: the relationship of the title and list of phrases on the third page to the rest of the piece introduces an interesting type of tension into the performance process. One question for a performer, I imagine, is how those texts should inform their performance choices. Is that a question you’d like to keep as open as it currently is, or is there anything you’d like to say about it?

The forty-nine phrases at the beginning of the score came about as a result of renaming all the of paintings in the Fernand Léger exhibition, for which the original score was written. Each time the score is rewritten it will be given one of these phrases as a title, and the list will feature in each score as a constant. There is nothing written in the score that would enable these phrases to be used directly in the performance, so its clear that they are there are something to be considered, reflected upon, used to inform the attitude of the performance, etc. The title of each score is listed so one may assume that the score they are performing is one in a series of variants which echos the interrelationship of the qualities in the score – between the part and whole.

Sarah Hughes_A Reward is given for the Best Inframmamary Fold_v1

– between structure and indeterminacy: section start and stop times are given, and pitches and general playing instructions are given, but the players have a fair amount of latitude as far as when to play and for how long within each section. Is that type of relationship between more fixed and more fluid elements resonant with your other work? I was looking at your Architectural Model Making project on Another Timbre just now and it seems very relevant, though the framework is quite different. (I’d be interested to know about how this structure/indeterminacy relationship connects or doesn’t to your work in other art forms as well.) I know it’s also part of the commission for this piece, so of course that plays a role.

Yes. The play between improvised and composed is pretty central to my work. This is true of performing and composing, and in my sculpture / installations. The process of working is much the same for each, and the different media creates different opportunities to explore the tensions and resonances that result. It’s important for me to have something to work with, this could be a performer, artist or architectural space – the relationship between me and this other figure is always roughly similar:

The performance of a score is most successful when it retains the character of the composer and the character of the performer(s); an improvised performance is most successful when it retains the character of each performer (I don’t usually like to improvise solo, when I have done this successfully it is in a space that has an acoustic quality that can be considered a second performer. The recording of Criggion on Accidents of Matter or of Space (Suppadanum 2013) is a good example of this); an installation is most successful when it takes into consideration the architecture of the exhibition space.

The work is always contingent, and in that sense is always subject to a certain level of indeterminacy.


Is your experience playing in ensembles (Set Ensemble, Loris, others) something that you consciously refer to in making a piece like this, or is it something that sits more in the background?

I refer much more to how I work with physical materials in installations and sculptures. I consider the different sections in A Reward is Given for the Best Inframammary Fold as very physical things. The duration of the score is much like a physical space that is filled with these materials and when this space seems (to me) to be well composed the piece is finished. In this sense the compositions are very much like architectural models for a temporal event (hence the title of the Another Timbre project). I visualise the composition in space before I can imagine how it sounds in time. When I’m writing compositions I’m normally working on a visual counterpart. I have a number of prints/sculptures in progress (Bums, Fannies, Tits and Tongues) that correspond to this composition and they may come together at some point.

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