Another November, another //hcmf. And this year, my first as a member of CeReNeM - the Centre for Research in New Music at the University of Huddersfield. As this year's festival comes to a close, I thought I'd shed a little contextual light on my activities during its ten exciting - but exhausting - days.
betê gabriel-rufael | bet golgotha
Monday [23.11] saw Paris-based Australian/Canadian saxophone/percussion duo, scapegoat (Joshua Hyde and Noam Bierstone) bring my piece betê gabriel-rufael to Huddersfield, in what was listed as a UK-premiere (although they actually gave a little preview performance in Manchester the previous Wednesday). This was actually the eleventh outing of the piece, the previous taking place in Canada/the USA. Josh and Noam are exquisitely committed to new music and deservedly rising stars in what might be called 'the scene' - and above and beyond all of that they're just darn fun to work with!
Tuesday, by way of (in many senses) a sequel, saw the premiere of my even newer piece bet golgotha (for ensemble), written-for and performed-by new-to-me (and absolutely superb) Mexican ensemble, CEPROMusic (based in Mexico City). Again, a joy to work with and many new friends made.
One of the things I have come to accept about my compositional practice in recent times is the fact that I'm always on a journey. The 'from' or 'to' isn't ever really very important, if even known, but there is always a string of connections that link my pieces together into their chronologies; periphery interests in one piece become the foreground of another, ad infinitum. Whilst I acknowledge that betê gabriel-rufael is part of my larger ongoing series the chruches of lalibela, begun back in 2011, I am also more than aware that is something different as well. A starting point, maybe I'll one day come to say, for something new?
I've become interested in the past year or so in a thinking about the music I am making in terms of creating musical organisms of one kind or another. And, to be honest, at this stage I'm not really even sure what I mean by that. Really, I suppose, I'm looking to create sorts of characterised sound-masses that lurch, reach, creak, crawl and stumble - like something alien trying to move itself over a ground. I was lucky enough to have dinner with 5against4's Simon Cummings during the festival and I found myself re-articulating the space I have found myself in as 'trying to freeze-frame the gait of a walk'. In part, these new(er) words came from my recent reading of Paul Virilio's Negative Horizons (1984, trans. 2005, Continuum Press). Virilio's words in his foreword were really interesting in trying to clear my own mind.
"My first life drawing was of a woman walking down the pavement on the rue Saint Jacques in Nantes [...] human movement, for my first subject was less the woman than her gait, a transcription of the gait like those first films that rendered the human gait in movement, a white phantom outlined against the black base of a chronophotographic image. At the time, I wished to do animated drawings and I could see the future of paining as forms put to movement [...] This is how I came to understand the contribution of the technology of photo-cinematography to the old art of drawing." [Virilio 2005 pp.24-25]
The friction is between the static and the mobile renders itself visible to me here. At one and the same time, the character of a gait can be understood as a set of tropes - maybe even a static set of tropes (although at this time this is still hazy to me) - which themselves recombine, collide and emerge as the gait through movement (and therefore through time). The gait is a sort of anti-form (again, words from Virilio) that is at any moment something and something else.
And I suppose it's this sort of idea that I'm trying to create in both the pieces exhibited at the festival this year. Both pieces present limited pallettes of gestural patterns - or tendencies toward certain gestural patterns - which unfurl and combinatorialize in other limited ways - forming metapatterns, I guess (the sideways reference to Gregory Bateson is deliberate). Through the perpetually repetitive statement of these patterns and metapatterns - or maybe thinking of it more poetically as some kind of occupation of the world of these particular patterns and metapatterns is more useful - in the musical time of the pieces, it is hoped something of a sense of a gait emerges. A sense of a non-thing.
Scored for tenor saxophone and thundersheet (played with upturned plastic soap dishes) betê gabriel-rufael (the saxophone/percussion duo) was my first attempt at something like this way of thinking. The two instruments have the same gestural activities mapped into various instrument-specific parametric areas. The gestural palette occupying the saxophonist's tongue position, for example, which is used to control gradations of control of pitch spectra (i.e. the extent to which a given articulation is smashed into a multiphonic) is mapped into the vertical pressure exerted on to the thundersheet, which itself chokes and frees the overtones of the metal as it shrieks and wails under the frictive motions of the plastic. At one and the same time, the duo are governed by a computer-controlled click track, which accelerates and decelerates each player (independently), again following patternistic certain tropes. The result is an intense burst of sound that oscillates in every moment between pitch and noise. Always busy, never the same, yet locked/imprisoned within a narrow bandwidth of unfurling gestural language.
bet golgotha, by contrast, is quiet. The work is flexibly scored, with generic parts for wind/bowed-string and percussion players. The piece may be performed by any number of musicians , providing that the ensemble contain at least one player covering each part. In this first performance, the instrumentation chosen by CEPROMusic was bass flute, bassoon, two violins, double bass and percussion. There is no 'score' as such, each player is presented with an interconnected matrix of modules which they may move between freely (following the governing rules of the matrix, like a London tube map) in performance. The material is gestually congruent for equivalent modules across instruments, although the material itself is designed to react differently with each instrument which may come to play it. Pianianissimo (ppp) trills in the highest possible register, for example, speak cleaner on a string instrument than on a bass flute, for example (that latter will cracks and squeaks in quite a glorious way under such a situation). The conductor too has a series of modules, each containing different patterns of rall and accelerando. This human 'click track' is superimposed over what 5against4 eloquantly described as a 'hubub', sculpting all instruments simultaneously into an elastic but common present - the tempo itself having a timbral effect on the gestural materials themselves, as they respond to the (sometimes extreme) shifts in density of material. Again, the result is a layered densely shifting gestural stasis. Maybe a gait is visible here too?
To bring the story to a close, I think it's exciting to me to mention that, as always, these two pieces are the opening traces of a journey. They're first steps, not a grandiose map. All I need to work out now is where exactly their heading next. I've got to write a solo flugelhorn solo for Tristram Williams next, maybe that will help show me a little more.