Huddersfield 2009 (3/5) — questions of intention

I had a general idea of which pieces I would talk about in this next post, but I found it unusually difficult and interesting to figure out a method to my grouping. First I thought I would refer to silence. Then I realized that is really not applicable to all the music I want to talk about. Then I defaulted to American experimental work. But this whole blog is about experimental music, so that’s a given, and national divisions are seeming less and less relevant to me. It may seem ironic, and it’s certainly not a coincidence, that it was a relatively short time after discovering the American music that interests me the most that I started traveling to European festivals. Once I found the locus point of my interest and honed in on the reasons for it, everything around it became interesting for how it did or did not connect to that particular intersection. And as I mentioned in the Huddersfield 2009 (1/5) post, the relationships between these works are multi-dimensional. And easily answered questions like “Where was the composer born?” become much less interesting than “What questions is the piece asking?” I finally realized that all of these pieces are asking questions around the overall topic of intentionality.

Richard Glover’s Gradual Music (played by MusikFabrik on November 28th) has, in Glover’s words, an “uncontrolled surface layer.” The shifts in the sound are subtle, but they occur within a process that is so clear and unobtrusive that the ear is drawn to those subtleties and seeks them out. It is a piece that invites the listener to hear the interactions between the sounds more than the sounds themselves. Though it is otherwise a very different sort of piece, Anthony Braxton did something related to that with his continual use of the sustain pedal in Composition No. 32 for solo piano (played with great involvement and endurance by Geneviève Fouccroulle, who recently released a box set of Braxton’s Piano Music 1968-2000). The pages can be arranged in any order by the pianist. The pedal acts as a kind of watercolor wash over them, connecting the harmonic worlds of each page and in that way imposing a relationship between them that may or may not exist otherwise.

On Tuesday, Philip Thomas did a concert called Small Preludes, Aytoods and other new music from America. Joe Kudirka’s fidelity was the result of a single intention. There was no process. There was no chance operation. There was not even (to my perception) an attempt to direct the listener to differences in surface detail. The whole piece sat on one thing [a chord played at regular intervals] for its entire duration of six minutes. I’m not sure if it would have been a different piece if it were much, much longer. In his program note, he writes, “The line itself … exists in only one dimension – as limited as a thing may be, but also potentially infinite – as long as one wishes to measure; as long as one wishes to uphold this fidelity. In this way, the line is always new. It does not back-track. It simply progresses; unending exploration of one dimension in one direction.” This is one of the few instances in which a program note latches onto and enriches my experience of a piece even long after the fact. It doesn’t refer to the materials of the piece at all: the piano, the chord, the durations. It is purely about intention.

On the same concert was Doug Barrett’s Derivation III, which, he writes, “is part of a series in which a single piece is the result of a transcription of either a field recording, usually made on a city street corner, or a recording of another Derivation piece.” Instrument sounds are “often sparse and easily overtaken by the environment in which they are performed.” The focus is on a different time and place, but there is an intentional transparency to the circumstance of the performance, leading to the experience of being in one place and another, one time and another–and probably more present in both than usual. It is an overlay of the intentional reproduction of past, unintentional sounds with raw, present, unintentional sounds.

Michael Pisaro’s fields have ears involves several different types of overlay. The field recording of a mountain field in (sunny, dry) Val Verde, California had an immediate, almost tangible effect on me for its contrast with what I can only remember as a gray and rainy day in Huddersfield. The 20-minute recording was cut into four five-minute segments which were rotated through the four speakers in each corner of the room. Depending on where an audience member was sitting, they would have a more focused experience of one of those recordings, while the others were still going on. These recordings each include a portion of “a kind of ascending scale” of sine tones. The piano part includes “a very soft harmonic/scalar grid” that relates to the sine tones and an interlude. I have had to rely on the program notes for a description of what went on. It has taken me some time to put my finger on the fact that the play with these various layers and levels of transparency was such that although I have a very clear and wonderful memory of my experience of the piece, I have little to no recollection of how the components of it operated and interacted. I can always look at the score later. I remember having a conversation with another composer and friend and landing on the idea that when you listen, you can be given what the piece (and the performance) has to offer. When you look at the score, you can see what you have been given. In my experience, the two activities rarely coincide.

That being said, there are two more pieces to talk about in which the construction is described in a fairly complete and very helpful way in the program notes. Pisaro’s pi was performed by Philip Thomas over the five consecutive weekdays of the festival at 11am. These performances appeared to be so self-similar that all of the micro- and macroscopic differences between them took on increased weight. The first 2,954 decimal places of pi are presented. Each digit appears within a five-second unit. Each unit of each decimal place occupies half a second, on a single pitch that remains constant for the whole piece. (There are 15 pieces in the collection.) Whatever remains of the five-second unit carries over as silence. Each piece has a different pitch and a different duration, ranging from 5 minutes to 54’10”. These performances became a kind of home base for me, a resting point–even more so than the brief time at the guest house between the last event of one day and the first of the next. I started to be alert both to how well I was listening and to how much I was hearing. Some registers of the piano were more audible than others. Some revealed small differences–what Pisaro calls “the subtle shadings of piano timbre created by minutely different patterns of repetition”–more than others. The performances all took place in the atrium of the Creative Arts Building, which offered plenty of its own sounds. Wind turbines were banging, coffee was being ground, people were (hardly ever quietly) going in and out of the building. And yet this other thing was going on in the same time and place, and there was no boundary set up between the sounds that were part of the piece and all the other sounds that were happening around it.

In A Few Silence (performed on Monday as one of the hub shorts) Doug Barrett drew in those kinds of incidental, other sounds as the actual content of the piece. For five minutes, the audience watched and listened as the six performers transcribed what they were hearing. No sounds were placed deliberately for those first five minutes. As the audience (including me) became more aware of what the performers were doing, I sensed an increased alertness, a collective keying in to whatever sounds were occurring. I think it was around the four-minute mark that someone coughed rather loudly. By then, most of the audience, as far as I could tell, knew to landmark that sound. In the second five minutes, each performer played his or her own transcription. There were points (like that cough) where their performances lined up. Most of the time they did not. I found that really wonderful. Since they were spread across the front of the room, and they were tracking sounds that had no built-in hierarchies, they each had and were performing a different listening experience. The sounding result made those differences clear. It made an enormous difference that the audience was present for both the transcribed event and the performance of it. We were very much a part of the whole experience. I’ll put one of two available performances below. You can watch the other one and download the score here.

Now I need to backtrack for a moment. Four paragraphs of this post are about pieces that were played by Philip Thomas, and I haven’t yet said anything about his playing. That’s not a coincidence: it does have something to do with him. But I mean that in the best possible way. His whole approach revolves around presenting the music as effectively as possible, and really being an advocate for it. All of the work I have talked about here is best presented as transparently and as unobtrusively as possible. Thomas made it very clear at the end of each pi performance that no applause was expected or wanted, as he gathered his music and made a very directed exit to the stairwell and up the stairs. It became clear to me by the second day that if we had applauded, it would have placed a kind of temporal boundary between the event and the non-event which was very foreign to the piece. Many of these pieces seem quite modest in their technical demands. They are not. To play them well requires tremendous sensitivity, consistency of tone, a solid mastery of time, and a clear conception of the ideas and possibilities intrinsic and extrinsic to the work. Thomas achieves all of this with a calm focus. He explains his own approach quite elegantly in this video, which is embedded on the hcmf site. I’ll include a brief quote from it and then let you see the rest for yourself.

What I’m most interested in is somehow having an experience which somehow changes me, changes my understanding, the way I relate to the world around me…. I wouldn’t want to advocate one sound or another. It’s just music that invites me in some ways to listen with fresh ears.

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