New music preview: An assembly premieres a big new work by Charlie Usher

Monday 24 September 2018

The new music year has started; the Proms are over and I’m sitting at the latest 840 gig behind two punters agonising over whether to go to the Kammer Klang or City University concert next Tuesday. You can usually get to the former just in time for the start, after leaving the latter. The City Uni gigs, besides being free, present a lot of great musicians, both local and visiting, and new music that extends to the more adventurous end of contemporary composition.

The first gig next Tuesday evening is by An assembly, a local ensemble I’ve written about before. In addition to the latest in Louis D’Heudieres hall-of-mirrors Laughter Studies series, the programme features two new works commissioned by the ensemble. Rowland Hill has worked up a combined film/live performance based on Stravinsky’s Agon. “Based on”, as in “trying to recreate Balanchine’s ballet with nothing to go on but an old review of it.” I’m a sucker for this sort of approach, acknowledging and exploiting transmission of information as a form of cultural distortion. Jack Sheen, An assembly’s director, describes it as the “silliest piece I have ever commissioned”.

The other premiere is a long work by Charlie Usher, titled An assembly. It goes for about 45 minutes and, according to Usher, is mostly made up of pieces that are 13 seconds long. We’ve been exchanging some thoughts online about what it means to make music like this. I’ve heard the fragmentary nature of some of Usher’s earlier, shorter works and wondered how this approach would work in an extended timeframe.

Composing is now a routine, diligence, a way of moving through the week, and a practice… so making these small pieces has been uncomplicated. I’ve gathered a large amount written during a certain period into this 45-minute work, and that’s where the title comes from; An assembly – it’s an assembly of 122 pieces, activities, states and practices. Some of them stand alone, some of them end up in a series of pieces made from a common concept, and some of them are just self-declared filler; they were all just something to do and share.

Usually when hearing about a long piece made up of short, unrelated fragments, the result ends up either as a kaleidoscopic or mosiac-like work, or as a kind of diary. The form defines itself by its diversity or an implicit narrative. Usher talked about how some of the short pieces are reworkings or ‘lifted’ from other artists, some transcribe non-musical material into sound, others are “exercises in sensuality, making a surface that sags, bends or shifts in some way; something to seduce.” This approach, a miscellany of miniatures, seemed a familiar enough concept but then the twist came, when he went on to describe the work he put in negate the explicable interpretations of the music.

I didn’t want them played in the order that I wrote them, finding that too autobiographical, shapely, misleading. I grouped similar pieces together and, with the help of a program a friend made for me, spread them out as evenly as possible between the other evenly spaced pieces to create a sort of flatness, an avoidance of shape and drama and to put everything on the same plane, with no hierarchy.

“I’ve been conscious to avoid spectacle in my music for a while,” he added (the spectacle of miniatures?) “I’m not interested in disorientation, in sly tricks on the listener; it’s not a dynamic I find constructive. It’s the continuous present I enjoy more, a work being more a situation than a work.” I’d originally suggested ‘disorientating the listener’ to Usher when I was thinking of music that erased the anticipation of a climax or resolution, so it seemed we were thinking the same way.

I’m interested in sharing a sort of versatility, moving between active listening and passive hearing, and time not as something to be articulated but time as a place to spend some time. I thought that I’d rather spend 45 minutes with sound and friends than 45 minutes on facebook and youtube, so here’s 45 minutes set aside for that. An assembly, the title; there’s the social aspect too. Music is a public space.

I realised I’d been thinking of the continuous present, as experienced in music with more reductive means (the sixties minimal composers, Morton Feldman) and while Usher evidently shares their effacement of hierarchy in his musical material, there’s a more expansive, eclectic attitude at work here. John Cage, trying to say something nice about minimalists, suggested they were teaching us to be convivial; musicians reported that Feldman habitually dozed on and off when attending rehearsals of his late, long-ass pieces. It’s nice to know we can go to a new music concert without having to worry about getting it all, when just being there is the point.