material or no material?

January 2, 2016 - workbook

Most of the pieces I’ve made over the past four years have offered performers a relatively high degree of choice as to the material they can use. The reason for this is that the pieces present processes that tend to transform basic elements, or deal with relationships between categories of sound (or action). Presenting fixed or highly detailed types of material – such as intricately worked gestures or carefully prescribed timbral nuances – reduces the range of transformations that can be applied. So, rather, using archetypal units of construction such as short sounds or drones or noises allows the process to operate on these resources to create material. As an example, in a piece like everybody do this the combined mass of sound for the cue ‘noise 8’ or ‘pitch 3′ is established by the players’ choices and the framing of this as a group action. In a number of these pieces, such as things whole and not whole or imperfections on the surface are occasionally apparent, I’ve tried to deliberately cede control over the choice of sounds to players, working with the premise that a lot of people making a lot of individual choices will produce such a varied range of timbres that a certain amount of homogeneity will result. As a result, a lot of the pieces end up with unusual objects, found instruments and appropriated materials.

PSinstrumentsBEST_webThis has been a liberating way to work. My hope is that the process is prioritised in the resulting music, and to a certain extent the choices of sounds or material are arbitrary as they serve only to articulate the process. This isn’t alway the case of course as the grain of the sounds and, in particular, any external references to the world creates points of departure. But I think it’s clear in these pieces that they are choices amongst many other possibilities.

More recently though I’ve been thinking more about making clear choices with regard to material. One of the problems with creating pieces that use distributed sound choices is that the very homogeneity this creates reduces the sonic differentiation between pieces. So they all kind of sound like pointillist music with recycled junk. I think this is fine if it’s a single piece in a concert, but when there are a few pieces in sequence it needs to be carefully managed. As a result I’m beginning to turn more towards specifying either clear categories of material or being more precise with the exact sound I want. In like you and like you I used categories (such as ‘wooden box with lid’ or ‘cannon’) but gave the performers a choice as to the way they sourced the specific sound. In the group of pieces I’m thinking through at the moment for instruments and objects, the material is likely to be more precisely specified. I’m coming round to the idea that there is room for both: to present an interactive process and highly characteristic material to articulate it.

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