#180700 / #091200

March 28, 2016 - workbook

#180700 was the first performed version of #[unassigned], although it was not given that title when it was played by Suono Mobile in Darmstadt on 18 July 2000. It emerged out of an approach to writing very short pieces which I had been exploring from 1996-2000, and was the last piece to be produced in that format, with the title Twelve pieces.

#[unassigned] came about as a result of working with time structures to space short pieces in Scanning trees (1999) and Fingers barely touching (1999/2000) and flexible combinations of material in Compatibility hides itself (1998) and 511 possible mosaics (1999). I began exploring possible ways of combining pieces on a larger scale, something that would eventually lead to a modular approach to composition. Modular music was something I had already experimented with in a limited way in both Compatibility hides itself and 511 possible mosaics. The main difference between the two pieces was the interface. Compatibility hides itself had a more open interface, and could produce an infinite number of realisations as there was no time-limiting factor (no overlap was required). 511 possible mosaics was more tightly controlled and closed as there are only 511 possible realisations of the piece. I wanted to take these aspects of my work further however, drawing together this more open way of working (and the way it was susceptible to the occurrence of unplanned events and coincidences taking place) with the performance context I had been trying to establish for composing short pieces. Even since the untitled pieces I made from 1996-7, I had envisaged a performance context where groups of short pieces could be played together in sequence, with each performance featuring a different grouping dependent on the players involved. In pieces like Scanning trees, I had also begun to fix the timings of pieces within the span of the performance as a way of combating the problem of performances being too evenly paced and the resultant predictability this created for the listener.

A further impetus was gained through a quotation from Lacan in relation to signifying chains, in which he talks of ‘rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings’. [1] This image really defined what I was trying to do, and I began trying to work out ways of constructing linked series of pieces. I was trying to find an extendible way of combining material that might be flexible enough to cope with any possible direction my work might take in the future. I tried and rejected two different solutions before settling on a third, and it was this that would eventually mutate into my modular composition #[unassigned].

The first of these approaches involved star constellations. My plan was to compose individual short pieces for lots of different stars that could then be combined in accordance with their placing in particular constellations. This might involve performances featuring single constellations, small groups (some constellations have common stars, which made a clear link with the Lacan quote), or ultimately the entire night sky. Crucially, this provided two key elements of establishing an effective performance context (and modular structure): an interface, and a clear nomenclature. The placing of pieces in time might be derived from their relative positioning in space, and both the stars and constellations had interesting names that might work well as titles. As a result I began work on Draco (the dragon), a meandering line of fourteen stars with a cluster of at one end representing the head. Working with star data, I began looking at ways of deriving material to create each star piece, but it was at this point that the limitation of the proposal became apparent. There were two main problems: firstly the project was limited as the possible structures would be defined once the global decisions had been made, and secondly the associations with an extra-musical context were not something I felt worked (these were not pieces about stars). As a result, I abandoned this attempt.

My second attempt was somewhat more successful, and resulted in a completed piece called epello. Drawing on the format adopted for Scanning trees, I developed a time structure into which short pieces for a variety of combinations of instruments could be placed. Some of the material had already been composed, and new short pieces were added to create a set of 17 pieces. There were many similarities with the star proposal, and the existing material was derived from early sketches. The main differences were with the structure and approach to titling. The use of a time structure was an attempt to remove the problems of framing that I had found with performing short pieces. By specifying the amount of silence around a piece, it makes it possible for the performers to present the music in a less predictable way (as opposed to allowing gaps to be specified by the performers during performance, where a mean duration tends to result). In epello there were 17 separate pieces to be played in a time structure that lasted 9’36”. The shortest piece was 2.5 seconds and the longest 24 seconds. The space between the pieces varied from no gap (i.e. continuous music) through to 64 seconds, so the predictability was fairly low. The lack of an extra-musical justification or control over the structure would also allow me to work with each realisation individually: the interface would allow me to position pieces at any desired interval rather than those prescribed by a predetermined system.

Additionally, the policy adopted for titles started to look beyond each short piece as something that existed in its own right, and more towards being a component of a larger structure. I had long been interested in the music and titles of Franco Donatoni and was intrigued by the way he linked the titles of pieces that shared common material. For example, the pieces Rima (1983) for piano, Ala (1983) for cello and double bass, Alamari (1983) for piano, cello and double bass, as well as Lame (1982) for cello and Lem (1982) for solo double bass share near anagrammatic titles and material. Fabio Sartorelli comments that ‘Donatoni’s titles are thus pieces in an endless mental puzzle, and at the same time demonstrate (as does the musical language of the works themselves) his belief in the conservation of energy: everything is transformed, nothing is created or destroyed.’[2] I was interested in the way that titles could derive lexically from the way the material interlocks. In my own work therefore, material within each short piece could map to a letter or set of letters that combine to form its title, which could then be recombined with the titles of other pieces to form titles for the larger groups of pieces. So with epello, for each sub-piece I created a series of strings of letters with between one and four characters, with at least one of these being found in the title for the overall piece (i.e., a letter e, l, o, or p). These component titles would carry over into future realisations, for which the title would consist of the common letters of all constituent modules.

Whilst this was ultimately more successful as it avoided the two principle problems of the star approach, it still was not flexible enough as a long-term solution. For example, although the titles seemed to work well for this piece, I mocked up some future possibilities and quickly found that after only a few versions, the overall piece titles evolved into lengthy streams of unpronounceable or unmemorable letters, or a situation where there were barred combinations of sub-pieces as they broke the rules I had set up. The only apparent solution was to do away with titles for these sub-pieces, or at least break any connection between them and the titles of the larger pieces. I decided to revert to naming sets of pieces based on the number of pieces they contained. So if there were 17 short pieces, the piece would be called Seventeen pieces. This solution allowed me to structure pieces in many different ways, to combine any material, and have a clear way of titling the music.

epello was ultimately never performed, and I began work on this new series of numerically titled pieces, the first of which was a set of Five pieces (2000) for trumpet and percussion. There were three duos and two solo pieces lasting between 1.75 and 17.5 seconds, separated by gaps of between 8.5 and 42.5 seconds, with the piece lasting 2’24”. This was followed by Twelve pieces (2000) for piccolo, trumpet, piano and percussion. Four of the trumpet and percussion pieces were included in this set, along with eight new pieces. The set was slightly longer at 3’45”, with the pieces occupying the same range and the gaps ranging from 2.75” to 45.5”. Both of these groupings were structured in the same way, based on a proportional durational series that split a time span into a number of different length durations that were then split further into smaller durations using the same proportions. This approach was used by Cage and is well documented in Christian Wolff’s paper ‘On Form’. [3] The method takes a sequence of relatively small numbers and squares their sum to produce a total duration. So for example, the proportions used in Five pieces were 3.5 – 2 – 1 – 5 – 0.5. The sum of these numbers is 12, and treating each as one second gives a total duration of 144” or 2’24”. From this series, all durations are multiplied by each other and arranged in a grid.

In Five pieces each piece was positioned at the beginning of the five sections, with the duration of the silences being the remaining time in each section. In Twelve pieces a sequence of six numbers was used, with two pieces being placed in each section at one of the time points derived from the. This was a successful way of working, and solved the problem of combining pieces independently in larger performable sets and generating a simple title. It did however raise the question of the status of each sub-piece. At the time I found it difficult to talk consistently about pieces, as there was a sense that the piece was both the group of individual short pieces, and these individual sub-pieces themselves. I definitely considered the sub-pieces as separate entities rather than modules in a larger piece, but this changed after the composition of a further set of Twelve pieces (2000) for oboe, piano, percussion and double bass – the piece that I would later retitle #180700 as the first version of #[unassigned]. I decided to develop the simultaneity of Compatibility hides itself by giving each instrumentalist three solo pieces (twelve in total) which would overlap in performance. This was an important change to the original concept of combining short pieces, which sought to link them sequentially with no overlap. I wanted to explore how desynchronising parts across a longer span of music might work, and whether we hear them as short pieces or a more fragmented longer piece containing blocks of silence. As with the other sets of numerically defined pieces, I used a grid-based time structure but each time point became a short time bracket during which an individual part might enter. These windows ranged from four to fifteen seconds in duration, so the potential for unplanned coincidences between the parts was quite large. The result was surprising for me at the time. Immediately after the performance, I could see members of the audience looking at each other waiting for further pieces: the overlap between the solos had created enough of a continuity to blend them together so that the twelve pieces sounded like only six, even given the contrast between each piece. This changed my view of the sub-pieces considerably as it questioned their autonomy in this new performance context. Instead of having separate identities that were reframed by placement in a vitrine of silence, they might operate as lines in a texture, subject to change through synchronisation with widely different events and capable of creating continuities. Their role switched from being sub-pieces to modules in a larger composition. This was the first version of #[unassigned], and it was subsequently retitled as #180700 to recognize this fact. I had effectively stopped composing short pieces.

#180700 was performed by Suono Mobile as Twelve pieces at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse on 18 July 2000, in the wonderful Orangerie. It was the early evening concert, and the group also played pieces by Philip Blume, Michael Maierhof and Matthias Spahlinger. I remember at the time being pleased with the performance (they were a great group), but less happy with the piece. The sense of it being these short, pointillist moments was not enough any more after working with this kind of material for the past four years. The overlay worked well, and the contingency of the combinations was effective, but the language just didn’t suit me any more. I wanted to explore instrumental timbre more deeply, and was less satisfied with carefully placed pitches in these kinds of Webernesque textures. So the first specifically composed versions of #[unassigned] started to include drone based material played both by instrumentalists and electronics. Suono Mobile repeated the piece as #091200 at NeueMusikNacht in Freiburg in the December, and this also made me consider the non-repeatable aspect of the project, where each version was a one-off, made for a specific set of musicians to play at a specific time and place. I largely managed that throughout the whole nine years, although on a few occasions I bent my rules a little.

  1. Jacques Lacan, ‘The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud’, in Écrits: a selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977), 153.
  2. Fabio Sartorelli, ‘Franco Donatoni’, Franco Donatoni, trans. S. Hastings, Dischi Ricordi S.p.A CRMCD1013 (1991), 9.
  3. ChristianWolff, ‘On form’, in Cues: Writings and Conversations (Köln: MusikTexte, 1998) 38-50.

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