#[unassigned] (2000-9)

> complete list of versions of #[unassigned]

#ddmmyy* is a version of my ongoing modular composition #[unassigned]. The piece is flexible in its construction, with each version being formed by a combination of newly composed and pre-existing modules. Each version is different, composed for a specific performance, and normally only performed once.

* substitute for date of performance

Information about #[unassigned]

This short text was written in 2004. For a fuller discussion of the project and its context, please see James Saunders, ‘Modular Music’, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 46/1 (Winter 2008): 152-93.

Since 2000 I have been working on #[unassigned], an ongoing modular composition which takes Lacan’s notion of ‘rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings’ as a starting point. The piece is flexible in its construction, with modules being detachable, and appearing in different versions. For example, a version for violin, clarinet and cello may share common units with a version for cello and tuba. The generic title for the whole project is #[unassigned], however individual versions of the piece use the date in the form #ddmmyy to derive the specific title (for example, a version performed on 3 February 2004 is titled #030204). The title is therefore unique to the individual performance.

The nature of the project means that each version is entirely different, depending on instrumentation, available time, and the particular deployment of material, and composed for a specific performance. Each version is a bespoke composition for the performers, and it allows me to embrace unusual and interesting situations as I work (for example, using non-standard or rare instruments, different performance spaces, or variable levels of performer ability). There is no definitive score or version of the piece as all display different possibilities within the boundaries of the project. I am essentially writing one piece which is always different. The whole #[unassigned] project aims to explore how a change of context or synchronisation affects the way we perceive events, and how we derive meaning from this. I am interested in the listener gaining an alternative perspective of a piece at different hearings, with each reinforcing a global perception of the piece, and one that is subject to (at times radical) change.

The modules themselves are composed using a variety of different techniques, split into two main types: through-composed (often using a simple process) and actions:

  • Through-composed modules. The limit I set myself for each module is that it should not last for more than a single line on a page of A3 landscape paper. In practice this has resulted in a range of durations lasting from about a second to nine minutes, although most last between about ten and fifty seconds. These modules tend to be more gestural, and the shape and pacing of the material is composed.
  • Action modules. In contrast, action modules consist of one action, which normally results in a sustained sound, often for a longer duration than with through-composed modules. These might be static sounds with no internal change, or more unstable sounds where specified inconsistencies in playing techniques cause the sound to fragment, suggesting a rich micro-structure. These modules tend to be drone-like, and their shape is determined by the boundaries of the action.

Most of these modules have been developed through a process of experimentation with instruments and working with performers. They share a number of characteristics and define the soundworld of #[unassigned]: extremes of dynamic, normally approaching silence; extremely slow or small ranges of movement (e.g. bow speed, air flow, finger speed); extreme registers; uncontrollable physical movements (e.g. very rapid single finger tremolos); unpredictable responses from instruments, sometimes through alteration or preparation (e.g. coffee stirrer between the strings on a violin); and very long or short durations of sounds

These characteristics provide many ways of finding points of contact between sounds as described. For example, adopting similar ranges of movement with the slow drawing of a cello bow and the gradual scraping of a credit card along a bass piano string both result in a series of uneven clicks. This allows textures to be developed, altered gradually, or contrasted with different types of material when building a version.

The move towards working in an entirely modular way has many repercussions with regards to the compositional methodology and the identity of the resultant music. Conventionally composers produce pieces, which are discrete manifestations of their ideas at a given point in time. These ideas are continuous however (and separate from the pieces themselves) and often bleed across boundaries between pieces, but are necessarily constrained within individual works. With a modular approach, these boundaries still exist at the version level, but there is an additional segmentation of ideas and material at a modular level. The composition of a module is a bounded activity as there is a sense of completeness about it as an independent unit (a different situation to unbounded material in a non-modular piece). The potential for dislocation is clearly apparent then if modules used in the same version have been composed over a long period of time. The original purpose or idea behind a module will in all probability have changed somewhat during this time, disrupting the linear development of compositional thought over such a period. This destabilises a sense of linear development in a composer’s work.

There is a sense that the boundaries we make between any artistic objects are artificial or at least arbitrary. The distinction between concepts, aims, and an aesthetic on one hand, and discrete objects through which these might be experienced on the other suggests that they operate in different ways. There is a general feeling we get about a composer’s work that is separate from, but largely created or informed by, the work itself. The work is perhaps a convenient way for ideas to be articulated, but it is largely driven by external factors (e.g. the need to communicate ideas in a temporal domain, or through practical opportunities such as performances).

Both Terry Riley (in relation to his ongoing improvisations) and Dan Flavin (in his proposals for installations) hint at the main problems of modular work, and indeed any open form piece that might sound different from one performance to the next: what is the piece, how might it develop a sense of identity, and what is it which defines this? For different people, there are different answers to these questions. For me the whole#[unassigned] project is the piece, including both the realised versions and the modules. An individual version or module is not the piece however, simply a component of it. This situation has created a number of practical problems where writing separate pieces might not. Composers produce pieces and have a list of works. What happens if they produce a single piece, which is always different? There is a certain convenience to having a set of pieces, and many institutions are geared to this assumption. For listeners there is always the implication, as demonstrated with modular work in other arts, that they are missing something or only experiencing part of the piece. Whilst each version I hope exists as a workable structure in its own right, as with Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (part of his series Equivalents I-VIII) or a single permutation of Raymond Queneau’s 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, there are many more implied possibilities. For a single version, this might suggest an extra level of meaning for anyone who engages with the concept, but it equally well may not. Each version should therefore be musically self-sufficient and avoid the requirement to have experienced other versions. So for some listeners the sole version of #[unassigned] they have heard is the piece, for others the knowledge of the project transforms their view, whilst for a smaller group of listeners, hearing more than one version allows them to contextualise this knowledge through experience: they can make actual comparisons between versions. For listeners then, there is a range of possibilities as to what the piece might be. This is a very similar situation for performers, although it is likely that those in the category of having played more than one version might begin to make more active comparisons between versions and their reuse of material.

Since beginning work on #[unassigned] I have been researching links with modular forms in other disciplines. Many of the concepts are transferable, in particular to a manufacturing context. In Ericsson and Erixon’s Controlling Design Variants three levels of product architecture are suggested: the product range level (the complete #[unassigned] project; titling; methods for combining modules; considerations for future expansion of the project into new areas); the product level (individual versions or realisations); and the component level (individual modules). As they suggest with manufacturing systems, there is “a great potential for improvement if the right decisions are made at the higher levels”, and this is certainly the case here. Their specified advantages of adopting a modular approach can also be seen in this context: higher flexibility; reduction of product development lead time; parallel development of the product and production system; improved quality / easier service and upgrading. All these concepts are portable.

The open interface developed for #[unassigned] is however not so closely related to those that might be found in a manufacturing context. As Ericsson and Erixon comment, there should be a “minimization of the degree of interaction between physical components” in any efficient modular structure. In #[unassigned], although there is a fairly stable interface, the amount of interaction between the components is potentially infinite as there is no specified condition for combining them, other than that implied by the time structure (which has itself no conditions attached other than beginning and ending). It should also be said that #[unassigned] is an open modular structure. There are no limiting factors involved in the interface as, at least in theory, any modules might be combined with any other and there is no limit as to the duration of a potential version.

At the time of writing, I can see many possibilities for future extensions of #[unassigned] alongside developments in writing for concert situations. Whether this be through developing installations, recordings, computer realisations or any other media, I do not feel constricted by the precedents set up by the project. Pushing the modular format to see how far it might go has been one of the interesting challenges, and has opened up new musical possibilities for me. Modular music has become my working method, and I cannot envisage situations that it could not embrace.

James Saunders, January 2004

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