Composing or improvising, or… (II)

Thursday 16 June 2016

For the last fifty-odd years there’s been a grey area between what is composed and what is improvised. At home, I’ve been listening to some more new CDs from Another Timbre. Goldmsiths is a neat collection of four pieces for an ensemble of exceptional musicians equally adept at playing from a score or making it up. Everything is new, from last year: a piece each by Jürg Frey, Sarah Hughes and John Lely, and an improvisation. The pieces here alternate from being governed by a relatively strict, reductive principle of organisation (Frey, Lely) to music which opens up room for wider interpretation (Hughes). The improvisation is, theoretically, entirely free, but here the situation is not so simple.

The musicians take the same “hazardous course” described by John Tilbury in yesterday’s post (and Tilbury is the pianist on this disc.) They respond to the immediate circumstances of the musical situation with keen awareness of mood and a sureness of touch. Their performances of Frey’s Circular Music No. 6 and Lely’s First Page for Five are subtly coloured with a sustained sense of atmosphere.

Although it is more diverse in its material, the improvisation could easily be taken as a composed work, of a piece with the rest of the programme. This feeling is compounded by the opening work, Sarah Hughes’ A Reward is given for the Best Inframammary Fold No. 4, which sounds as though it may be a companion improvisation. The piece is in fact composed, with a determined structure, contrasts, gestures and harmonic material all specified. How the contents of this structure are to be presented is left to the musicians. Here, the music flows and ebbs as though through a spontaneous collective activity, even though these elements and overall scheme were determined in advance by the composer.

In the improvisation, with no hierarchy, the musicians must find their own constraints. They do a remarkable job of falling into the background when needed, providing tiny but essential shading that gives the music life. This becomes particularly clear in the strange, affecting coda.

Marek Poliks’ new CD hull treader sounds, at first, like another type of electroacoustic improvisation. There are two pieces, separated by a minute’s silence. In each, the sounds are amplified or entirely electronic. Music appears as large blocks of timbre; typically moving from one block to the next in sequence. The sounds are complex, verging on noise; extended techniques prevail. In an interview, Poliks talks about his interest in industrial goth, dark ambient.

Strangely, closer investigation reveals the situation to be more complicated. Firstly, it’s significant that Poliks himself doesn’t play on this disc: the performers are the ensemble Distractfold the duet of John Pickford Richards and Beth Weisser on violas(!?) and electronics. I haven’t seen the score for these pieces, but others I have seen suggest that these works are fully notated, at least down to details of techniques motifs and finer points of phrasing.

Despite the often harsh and unfamiliar sounds we’ve returned, in a roundabout way, to a type of composition from the classical era, where notation sought to preserve and then mimic the spontaneous flow of improvised music. The techniques, means and materials are however very different, after the intervention of a century or so of new thinking. Poliks’ music takes some unexpected twists and turns, as though following some internal logic beyond the knowledge of the performers. There are sudden, decisive shifts in tone, like the ominous rumble that suddenly appears a third of the way through the viola duet treader always in station and then refuses to leave. It’s like taking in a landscape – industrial, or post-industrial, in this case – only to discover the scene is in fact a vast organism with a mind of its own.