Composing or improvising, or… (I)

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Each composition is built upon a computer program governing interaction between performers and the system, and creates situations rather than set pieces. The performers have options rather than instructions, and the exploration of each situation as it unfolds is up to them.

— notes for David Behrman’s Interspecies Smalltalk

When it comes to a theoretical approach to music, the one thing I’ve taken away from Morton Feldman is how he worked within contradictions. He kept setting up mutually exclusive expectations of what he wanted his music to do; from there, composing became an act of constant negotiation with paradoxes. He made concessions, then made new demands, never reached a settlement.

A few weeks ago I went to the David Behrman residency at Cafe Oto; two nights of pieces ranging from early 1970s to more recent. He played duets and trios with fiddler Cleek Schrey and cellist Anton Lukoszevieze. These were pieces composed for live musicians performing with computer-controlled electronics – the computer interacts with the musicians as much as, if not more than, the reverse. What impressed most was that there was no flashy display of technical or technological virtuosity. On both nights, the music could have been comfortably plugged by a promoter as “ambient”. Lukoszevieze and Schrey listened and responded; Behrman’s computer was equally sympathetic. They were making music together.

(“Nobody’s trying to impress me with how difficult it is to do whatever it is they’re doing.” Something I don’t remember writing, about I gig I don’t remember going to.)

We’re back at that famous quote from Barthes’ The Grain of the Voice, “that the harpsichord playing of Wanda Landowska comes from her inner body and not from the petty digital scramble of so many harpsichordists.” John Tilbury picks up on this quote when talking about playing Feldman’s piano music.

Tudor and Cardew were virtuosi, which has nothing to do with velocity or petty digital scramble (Barthes), by virtue of the extraordinary sounds they drew from the piano. Their performances steered a hazardous course generating risk and excitement: the phrasing and articulation ‘situational’, determined spontaneously by the idiosyncrasies of individual sounds at particular moments, by ambience and acoustics, by the imperfections in the instrument and the dimensions of the room.

I’ve been listening to a lot of this type of hazardous music-making lately, both in composed and improvised situations, live and on record. A week or so after hearing it at the Behrman residency, I was back at Oto listening to Ora Clementi play. This duo work with what is almost the standard mix of devices for improvisers these days: stray instruments, found objects, cheap electronics, raw voice. With very different means and material, they achieved an effect similar to Behrman et al., of sounds blended together, alternately revealing small details or combining in complex ways. Very different music, but they shared a focus on using their instruments to achieve a particular end – not even a type of sound, but a particular way of listening. If Ora Clementi pushed the sounds, it was just a little bit, and only to see which way they might go.

The next night I was at St John’s in Hackney to hear what was apparently the penultimate performance by Marginal Consort. Their improvisations work on a larger scale, in time (three hours), in space (four musicians, each at their own corner of the church nave) and in equipment at their disposal. Their aesthetic approach was also writ on a larger scale: both regard to themselves and to each other a kind of thoughtful thoughtlessness prevailed. At various times each performer would drown out another, fade to near-silence, draw attention to themselves or withdraw, dwell on a particular sound of pursue a particular activity. Things came together by chance while some events were evidently planned. Overall, it was as though a number of smaller, self-contained compositions were presented serially and simultaneously to produce one hyper-work. Contradictions arose throughout and were always resolved by a seeming indifference to them. It was reminiscent of an enlightening interpretation of Cage’s Cartridge Music played a few years ago, which leaped back and forth from delicate to abrasive through a virtuosically disinterested performance by Marginal Consort mentor Takehisa Kosugi and… David Behrman.

This post is too long already, so now I’ve closed the loop I’ll post the rest separately tomorrow.