ELISION: transference (4)—Aaron Cassidy

I spoke with Aaron Cassidy about his piece, And the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth, before ELISION’s performance of it at King’s Place, London, in March 2010. It is the culmination of a project with the ensemble that also includes three studies—two solos, one for trombone (Ben Marks), one for trumpet (Tristram Williams), and one duo. The performance on the transference CD has a vivid, raw energy, as if a malleable surface is being shaped by all of these vigorous forces and efforts simultaneously. The perception of it is malleable too. For me, the type of experience changes not only from one listening to the next, but from moment to moment within a single listening.

The program note includes quotations from Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. I looked up the referenced Francis Bacon paintings in the hopes that they would in themselves give me further insight into the piece. They did not—at least not directly. The route from these paintings to Deleuze’s commentary to Cassidy’s work involves reframing, destruction, and re-creation. One of the Deleuze quotations included in Cassidy’s program notes reads, “… these marks … are nonrepresentative, nonillustrative, nonnarrative. They are no longer either significant or signifiers: they are a-signifying traits. They are traits of sensation, but of confused sensations … It is as if the hand assumed an independence, and began to be guided by other forces, making marks that no longer depend on either our will or our sight.”


One of Cassidy’s studies that led into this ensemble work is titled with a sentence from Deleuze: Being itself a catastrophe, the diagram must not create a catastrophe. A normal understanding of the word catastrophe is less useful than this Oxford English Dictionary definition: “subverting a system of things.” In the musical result, the systems map onto several of the performance parameters, which are visually pulled apart and laid out on separate staves, but which in fact not only affect, but disrupt and even negate one another in the performance. In the performance notes for the oboe part, Cassidy writes, “The degree of timbral, gestural distortion here is intentionally high, resulting in a wide and highly unpredictable range of squawks, multiphonics, breath sounds, unintentional harmonics, glissandi, etc. In particular, the approach to the embouchure is intended to remove (or at least dramatically destabilize) the connection between the mouth and any prediction/expectation of sounding pitch results.”

This is part one of that third study, as played by Richard Haynes and Peter Veale of the ELISION ensemble. You can click directly into the second part at the end of this one.

The intention behind these dynamic and disruptive relationships is clarified by Deleuze, who writes, “…the change of form is a deformation, that is, a creation of original relations that are substituted for the form … The diagram has introduced formless forces throughout the painting.” Each parameter is disrupted by the others: It creates, distorts, and is distorted all at once. Systems are perpetually being subverted. You’ll see more discussion of this approach below in the response to my question, “Tell me about the tempo staff.”

What does it mean, then? “Being itself a catastrophe, the diagram must not create a catastrophe” In Deleuze and Guattari: Deleuze, Gary Genosko writes, “According to Deleuze, every actual thing is subject to an infinite set of continuing and open-ended transformations and recreations that can be expressed in art.” In Cassidy’s work, these transformations are written into the relationships between performance parameters, which are consistently dynamic and even subversive. (In researching this question I also came across quite a thought-provoking article by Barbara Bolt, called “The Exegesis and the Shock of the New.”) The result of all this disruption and distortion is not annihilation, but a new and actual presence. The disruption itself supports and creates the new result. To let Deleuze clarify this point in his own words again, “It is violent chaos in relation to the figurative given, but it is a germ of rhythm in relation to the new order of the painting.” In this case, that result is not a visual but a sounding result: ELISION’s performance of this work on their CD, transference. Deleuze writes of “a series of accidents ‘mounting on top of another.'” By creating three studies, each of which involved these procedures, and then combining them into one ensemble work, Cassidy multiplies those layers of disruption exponentially.

Here is my transcription of the interview:

How and when did your relationship with ELISION get started?

Informally, the connection began with a number of relationships with individual players from the ensemble going back at least to 2002, when Carl Rosman premiered my bass clarinet piece. The first formal connection was from the beginning of 2005, when Daryl [Buckley, ELISION’s Artistic Director] first talked about me writing a new piece for electric guitar, as well as the possibilities of an additional piece for ensemble. So I guess the first request for that piece came in January 2005. We had a few exchanges about possible instrumentation, and I started work on it in February 2005 and finished it, I don’t know, December 2009, whatever it was, and also wrote the electric guitar piece for Daryl, which I finished in 2007. My first trip to work with the ensemble was in May of 2007. I went to Melbourne and they did two solo pieces on two different concerts, and during that trip I started doing the more nitty-gritty work on the ensemble piece. I had really, really useful and very intensive sessions with Tristram [Williams], Ben [Marks], and Rich [Haynes] over the course of a week in Melbourne. That was the first time I actually worked with the players as part of an ELISION project.

I know it was all leading towards this ensemble piece in some way. Did you know what the three studies would be and how they would figure in?

Yeah, absolutely.

Did you know the details of the measure mappings? Was that worked out?

Yeah. That was already done by the time I went down there, and I had already done quite a lot of sketching and had an idea about what the piece was. And little things like the seating plan, which is almost exactly what it ended up as in the end, I had done. I had also done some work on the instrumental mechanism materials, and then the work with the players was about clarifying what worked and what didn’t work, and how the notation might work.

So there was a real architecture in place from the beginning, and not much of that changed.

No, none of it. It’s a little strange. Because of the way that the pieces have been premiered, it sort of looks like— Well, in fact I even talk about the two solo pieces and the duo as being extracted from the large ensemble piece, which is totally bogus. It’s actually of course the other way around. I designed the full ensemble piece and there was a layer of material for each of those instruments that could then be pulled out. Except in composing it was done the other way around. The actual material for those solos was written before any of the other material in what ended up as the ensemble piece. So, they were extracted in a kind of architectural sense, but all the actual musical details were done for the solo pieces before the rest of the ensemble piece, if that makes sense.

So you’ve got the trumpet, trombone, and the instruments of the solo pieces. Would you consider going in and extracting a string piece or a percussion piece or a harp piece?

Oh, I see, in the same way? No, and that’s a really difficult question to answer. In part, the harp and percussion material is a completely independent layer. It’s quite closely interrelated to other things that are happening, but its function was different from all of the other instrumental functions within the ensemble. With the string material, it would be totally viable in principle to generate some extracts, but— This is a bit of a strange answer, but the way I was writing for strings in this piece is so closely connected to old stuff, to things that I’d been doing going back to 2000, 2001.

That’s ancient.

Well in fact, for this piece it’s ancient. It’s the only relic from older approaches to instrumental writing, whereas the wind and brass parts were totally new. The reason I had to write those solo pieces first was because it was figuring out what was in fact feasible. They really were studies. They were thought of as being test pieces, which is why they also have a life of their own.

So is there a foregrounding of those instruments because of that?

Yeah. And in fact it’s built into the seating arrangement, as well. Those instruments sit in a semi-circle at the front of the stage, and the string players are one layer behind them, and then harp and percussion.

So the layering is visible.

Although, that said, the string parts have the same three structural relationships that the wind and brass parts have. They have soloistic material, they have ensemble hyper-instrument material, and they have elongated, stretched resonance materials. It was written in exactly the same way. It’s just … yeah, it was more a kind of autobiographical layering for me as well.

Tell me about the tempo staff.

tempo staff

[laughs] There are a number of issues. The first is that it’s something that I’ve always wanted to try. The simplest explanation is through the connection with Bacon paintings. So, built into the idea from the very beginning with this piece, and its connection to the Bacon triptych, was my interest in the smearing that happens in Bacon’s work, and often quite literal scrubbing, like rubbing: a rubbing out of something that’s already been generated. And so the three extractable pieces all have the same tempo marking, and the tempo is fixed all the way through the piece. I had this idea of taking this “painting” and then going through and distorting a kind of smearing which happens in the simplest way through the tempo and then some other ways as well. That’s the first thing. The second is that I had decided quite early on in the project, in part because of the size of the ensemble, to limit the metrical possibilities. As compared to, say, almost all of my other music, the meter is really simple: always some eighth-note pulse, and a very limited frame of possible kinds of bar lengths. So the idea was to mutate the frame of the bar based on this constantly fluctuating tempo, rather than mutating it through more complicated metrical relationships from bar to bar.

Does that also have something to do with your conducting experience?

Yeah, yeah. I mean, it comes from me sitting at the desk and wanting to conduct a piece that does this. In fact, the other issue is that I wanted a kind of prioritization of the physical. One of the things that I did with the physical gestural modeling was design very limited collections of possible movements, and I wanted a way to include the conductor in that. So the kinds of changes you can see in the score, the lines indicating changes of tempo, match the kinds of lines that appear in the other instrumental layers and come from the same basic palette of gestural actions.

That sort of rubbing, that distortion is happening within the instruments as well. So it’s on all kinds of levels.

Yeah, that’s exactly right.

In terms of the modular nature of the piece, how did you figure out how those things were going to stack? Is that something you can talk about?

Well it’s the other way around. So, the very first level of sketching was determining foreground and background relationships. I was looking at creating these, I think, quite “present” shapes. The way the piece works, there’s a consistent dynamic floor of three p’s that runs through the entire piece. Something is happening all the time at three p’s, and each of the three material types are allowed to peek out of that three p’s by different degrees, and those degrees are constantly in flux as well. So what I was trying to do was to create a perspectival set of relationships between these three structural layers, three formal layers, that would include receding into the background, coming up to the foreground, but always moving. That was the first thing that was sketched out. All of the metrical relationships, all of the tempo relationships, and the instrumental roles and their degree of foregrounding was the very beginning of the idea and the sketching process. And the solo pieces are all of the most foregrounded stuff.

So you’re getting the silhouette of it, tracing the top of it.

That’s right. It’s almost like … if you could imagine a sort of background, middle ground, foreground, and we’ve done a kind of cross-section, we’ve just lopped off the top layer of these peaks, and that’s what appears in the solo pieces. It’s not quite this simple, but it also explains the weird pauses that happen in the solo pieces. Those are, in a sense, gaps that happen between the peaks.

But those take on a life of their own, especially in the trombone piece.

Yeah. And as I said, it isn’t actually that simple, because material gets folded in on itself, some gaps are bridged, and there are gaps here in the ensemble piece where there aren’t gaps in the solo pieces. The structural pauses in the three extractable works come from quite deep substructural relationships in the ensemble piece. They are the result of fissures that happen in the ensemble piece that rupture their way through to the extractable pieces.

Is it possible to at least partially describe the impact of ELISION on the piece? I’m looking at your dedication. [“This work is dedicated with utmost thanks and friendship to Daryl Buckley and the astonishing musicians of ELISION.”]

Well it would be impossible to overstate the role of the ensemble. I mean, it was written for these people, for these players, and that’s something that Daryl has cultivated for, well, decades, and it’s part of the ensemble’s identity. In part, it’s also that there aren’t many people around who are capable and willing to take on a project like this. I’ve been in awe of the whole situation. To be able to set the bar this high, I think comes from the attitude of the ensemble, the attitude of Daryl, the not just willingness, but the determination to do something that’s, pick your cliché, pushing boundaries or breaking barriers, or whatever. It sounds tacky, but it’s important. So many other groups define what’s possible by what they already know how to do, but there’s a very freeing, permission-giving attitude with ELISION.

I think we talked about the fact that the individual players—not just their personalities but their playing methods—figure into the solo pieces, but also, I’m assuming, into the ensemble piece.

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And I think that in part came from these pieces emerging from the ground up with the ensemble. The ideas for the piece were years old by the time I actually met Tristram and Ben, for example, but that reasonably brief interaction—I think we had a couple of hours or something—getting to know them a bit and working with the group a bit, doing some other projects around the group. I did some producing work on their Ferneyhough disc during that initial Melbourne visit, for example, so got to know them better through that. Their personalities do certainly get embedded.

The notation and the deliberate defamiliarization, the decoupling of things that results in unexpected sounds and things happening that are unstable by nature—if you could call that a defamiliarization that you’re putting in—how does that square with the growing familiarity of ELISION with your work?

I think that that level of defamiliarization really easy to overstate. I think what the pieces are doing, or what I hope they’re doing, is building a new vocabulary of instrumental gesture, which requires a certain defamiliarization. At a certain point it’s possible to learn that language, and that’s in fact what’s happened for the players who’ve played these solo pieces and the duo. It’s not that it stays unfamiliar. It’s that the familiarity allows them to then start to sculpt and develop interpretive approaches to the notation. But that interpretation includes awareness of the separation and independence and friction and instability that’s inherent in the material.

So that’s all to the good. It’s progressive.

Yeah, absolutely. Let me tell you a little thing about the piece that you wouldn’t otherwise know, that doesn’t get talked about in program notes or anything, that might be interesting, thinking about the modular aspect, since that’s I think what you’re most interested in. These simplified gestural models are very limited. There are sliding motions, there are button motions, there are pressure motions. All of the material in the piece comes from some very simple palettes of types of movements and types of activities. That’s where the material from the soloistic layer comes from—the extracted pieces and the more soloistic material in the three string parts. There’s a second layer in these three strata. The second layer is ensemble hyper-instrument gestures, where there are rhythmic unisons from between two and, at one point, all nine players. In those moments, the physical motions are transferred physical gestures that have appeared in another instrument in the previous substructural section. So, for example, you might have a motion that starts off in the trombone slide, and in these hyper-instrument sections that might appear in the viola. The original trombone action has now been transferred to left hand motion up and down the viola fingerboard, mapping exactly the same physical motions.

Oh, but it’s affecting it differently.

Yeah. Or material that might appear in the left hand of the clarinet or oboe becomes fingering patterns in the strings or changes in embouchure or lip tension in the winds might become indications of bow pressure in the strings. So, taking these physical models and transferring them from instrument to instrument across families in these hyper-instrument gestures, what’s happening is they kind of open up this very brief reappearance of material that’s already been heard, but now in a totally different context, revealing it in these kind of quick, aligned sheets of sound.

Do you find yourself hearing that? Or not hearing it, but referencing that?

The goal in part is that those things are visible. What I’m interested in is that identical physical motions are going to have completely different sonic outcomes as they get transferred from instrument to instrument.

So partially it’s a matter of choreography, and the motion that’s seen.

Yeah. Something as simple as a glissando, seeing that motion, there’s an obvious connection between the physical movement and sound. For the things that are happening with fingerings, that’s much harder to trace, but I think there’s still a connection between the physical act and the resulting sound that becomes apparent through the piece. Then there is the final layer, that “deep background layer,” where there are also mimicked physical gestures, again from this kind of memory queue. So, on that layer, the gestures sift back through the history of the piece. The same physical gestures that have appeared in, say, that player’s own instrument several subsections earlier now reappear, with a single physical motion stretched out per bar, and that’s the very quietest layer, a kind of distant recollection of motion. But now it’s not these spasmodic gestures. It’s instead quite steely and almost microscopic. It’s a kind of analysis of that motion and the interaction between the decoupled layers … say, the embouchure in the trombone and the slide motion, as those things get pulled apart and stretched. And because the dynamic level is then low, or the physical results are even more unstable than they were before, or they’re more immediately unstable, they’re audibly unstable, rather than being unstable because of the frenetic energy.

That approach seems to relate to stretto.

Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. It’s another layer of the modular idea. There’s very limited material, and all of the material in the piece comes in some way from the physical gestures of the most soloistic passages. Only the soloistic passages are “newly generated.” They then get pulled and stretched and borrowed and swapped in different ways, but otherwise there’s no new material in the ensemble piece, with the exception of the harp and percussion, which serve a completely different purpose. Those parts help to articulate the hyper-instrument gestures through attacks, aligned attacks with tutti “chords” across the ensemble, though occasionally the harp and percussion also have a bit of independence as well, often with noodly, pretty, melodic material, mostly in the background. The goal was always that the resonance and shimmering of that deep background would act as a textural glue that would smooth the seams between all of the other structural layers in the piece.

A portrait disc of eight Cassidy works (including the extracted solos and duo from the Figures at the base of a crucifixion series), also performed by ELISION and recorded at Radio Bremen, will be released on the NEOS label this winter. Live performances of the first two studies are also available on strange forces, the third CD on the Huddersfield Contemporary Records label.

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