hcmf 2011—from Scratch (2)

There are two chances to hear two different performances of the “from Scratch” concert this week—today, even. The first is the Huddersfield performance on BBC’s Hear and Now, and the second is the Basel performance at 22:30 Swiss time on DRS2. Though the Basel Sinfonietta is conducted by Manuel Nawri in both concerts, I’ve heard that the performances are quite different, and I look forward to hearing how that is the case, as well as to hearing another version of the whole, unbroken concert. I’ll also write about the wonderful concert given by University of Huddersfield’s own edges ensemble, which featured the five composers on the “from Scratch” program, as well a piece by Stefan Thut, a cellist in the Basel Sinfonietta and a composer in the wandelweiser collective, who initiated this whole project for the orchestra. An ensemble like edges provides a native environment for work that references the Scratch Orchestra as its legacy.

Influence is a complicated issue. There was discussion, during the Huddersfield festival and since then on the BBC broadcasts, of how much these pieces sound like Scratch Orchestra music. I’m not sure if it’s a useful exercise, despite the invitation implicit in the title. What I’ll try to do instead is to very briefly write about each of these composers’ smaller ensemble pieces, where possible, in relation to the orchestral work. It will not answer the question, “How does it sound like Scratch Orchestra music?”, but hopefully it will offer some glimpses of what these composers are doing. The fact that the pieces are each so different is, I think, more interesting than any overt correlation would be. Michael Parsons spoke from his own direct experience in the pre-concert talk about the fact that the Scratch Orchestra was “a rather loose gathering of experimenters, who came together to try out all kinds of ideas involved in both sound and performance.” The individual nature of each composer’s approach was brought out in the edges ensemble concert by the performance of all the pieces without a break. The juxtaposition was internal to the work, and the work is strikingly different in complementary of ways.

James Saunders’ imperfections on the surface are occasionally apparent sets up a kind of spatial listening that doesn’t feel all that separate from daily life. Different surfaces were played in different parts of the room. In this case, the consistency of the object that activates the sounds (a paper cup) highlights the diversity of the materials that are being played. (The photographs here set the scene far better than I could.) My experience of the piece was one of space and surface. The temporal and spatial distribution of sound revealed, not simply the room itself, but the stuff that was in it. With the wide distribution of each performer’s tables, it was a great opportunity for the audience to settle into the shared space of the performance and into everyday nature of the materials being explored—themes which continued in the rest of the concert. There is a short TV feature that includes, at 1:11, a very brief excerpt from things whole and not whole, offering a glimpse of what instruments the orchestra members have devised for the piece. The photo below was taken by James Saunders before the Basel premiere. (The photo links to his other photos of the event.) The orchestra players brought their particular skills on their instruments to everyday objects. The piece itself explores flocking behavior, based on research by Craig Reynolds. The sounds are produced as part of a rule-based interaction.

Stefan Thut‘s sieben, 1-4 set up a gentle and open landscape, defined by single, pitched articulations at various degrees of density. It provided another way of settling into that shared space together.

Christian Wolff‘s pieces on both concerts explore the interaction of performers. Grete (microexercises 23-36), performed by the edges ensemble, involves a combination of fully notated and indeterminate elements. Spring Two sets up what the program notes call “‘free unison’, in effect large scale heterophony.” A book came out last year, edited by Philip Thomas (the director of the edges ensemble for this concert) and Stephen Chase called Changing the System: The Music of Christian Wolff. I have a growing interest in Wolff’s work, and this book seems like the next step forward.

As a founding member, Michael Parsons is the composer in the group who has the tightest biographical connection with the Scratch Orchestra, and he had a number of insights to share in the pre-concert talk, touching on how the whole project came about and how some particular lines of influence were introduced. (You can listen to a recording of the whole conversation, which also included Parkinson, Frey, and Saunders, here. I’d suggest listening directly from the website. When I tried it, the download link did not produce the whole conversation.) Parsons has a longstanding interest in systems, as they play out in sound, and often sets one in juxtaposition with another. Independent Pulses was performed by the edges ensemble. Parsons writes in the program notes that the instructions “call for a performance which is both flexible and at the same time highly concentrated.” Pulse is strict, as it has to be for the hocketing to be effective. Timbre is much more fluid, especially since the number of sound sources is indeterminate. The juxtaposition of of one rigid parameter with another fluid one became, for me, the locus point of the piece. Paraphrase for Orchestra sets up a different juxtaposition in two contrasting sections that use the same pitch material. The first section is full of its own juxtapositions between instrumental groups, while in the second, in Parsons words, “the instruments are combined and integrated to a greater extent.” The task is a clear one, and it is very well executed.

Tim Parkinson’s orchestra piece was broadcast on Hear and Now last week, and I wrote about it then. His song for many involved pulsed shouting and banging in abundance, and got a committed, deadpan, and completely hilarious performance from the edges ensemble. (The text came from a consumer survey questionnaire.) Remembering it a month later brings a huge smile to my face.

Jürg Frey‘s Un champ de tendress parseme d’adieux (A field of tenderness strewn with farewells) had a similarly strong, though very different effect on me. The title is a quote from a book by Edmond Jabès’ Le Livre de l’Hospitalité, which, as Frey writes, “opens a wide range of questions about the transparency of saying goodbye.” As the dry leaves and small stones were dropped, or allowed to fall on the floor, I felt (heard?) a parallel to my own remembered and anticipated goodbyes, not just to people but to experiences. Something is in motion, and then at a point of impact it becomes more static. It may be part of why I write–to try to reactivate recent experiences that have been especially meaningful to me, to try to keep them in motion for longer by speaking about what made them moving. Frey’s orchestra piece, Louange de l’eau, louange de la lumière is not described in the program notes. Frey opts instead to write briefly, as in the piece for edges, about the text. I’m also finding that writing about the music itself may be counterproductive. So I’ll go back, again, to my own experience of it. When I heard the piece live, I was sure that the middle section was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard. The first time I listend to the radio broadcast, I completely missed that part. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to listen back and find it again. It’s gone in a moment, but it needs its surrounding, more solid sounds, in a way to protect it. This is a work that demands (and rewards) concentrated, peaceful attention.


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