This week I’ve had pieces played in a couple of concerts, firstly at 840 in London on Saturday, and then at RNCM on Tuesday. The performances gave me a chance to think about some of the variables in the work I’m making at the moment, especially in relation to their status as games and the way the pieces are paced.
For the past year I’ve been thinking about the work I’m making explicitly from a games perspective. Previously the pieces have engaged performers in activities that are interactive, with competition and the possibility of influencing the actions of others. But there has been a conspicuous absence of a goal. Most definitions of games have goals as a prerequisite (see this excellent summary of some recent and historical definitions by Jepser Juul), so I’ve been thinking about ways to work this in to my pieces. I did this for the first time in all voices are heard (2015), where players act as a group to try to achieve consensus when ordering a series of sounds, and then on a micro scale in like you and like you (2015) which calls for fast imitation by the three players.
My new piece, in which one thing depends on another (2016), puts group learning at the centre though. The two players each have 10 sound-making objects and 10 words. They work together to apply their own words to the other player’s objects to form pairs. They then reinforce this learning through repetition and testing until all 20 pairings are stable. I found it very interesting watching the two performances over the past week. The most immediate difference was the duration of the two performances. In the 840 performance, Nick Peters and Ruben Zilberstein too about seven minutes to complete the task. In the Distractfold performance, Linda Jankowska and Rocío Bolaños took about 18 minutes. This is expected, and there is no ideal or set duration for this piece. Its length is determined only by the actions of the players, the rigour and method with which they undertake the task, and their individual capacity to memorise two streams of information. The performances are very different indeed, but this is exciting for me. Like many games, there is a lot of variety in game play and player style or strategy that determines this (I can hear my mum and son playing Monopoly in the background while I write this, and they seem to be set for a while…). Both performances reveal different facets of the piece and the players.
This morning Philip Thomas sent me a lovely quote by Cage that relates to playing games and time:
It’s really amazing how many disciplined people are undisciplined. It’s quite amazing. Among musicians what happens is that all the three movements [speaking specifically of 4’33”] turn out to have the same length, because it would be the one they are just inclined toward if they don’t measure it. However, if they’re doing some actual work as in 0’00”, or if they’re playing a game, their mind is really taken off the question of duration and so they don’t go toward the durations they like.¹
I think this is partly what is happening here. Games require a certain kind of immersion for them to work. They need to generate flow. Being locked into the game space changes the experience of time, such that the activity overrides the sense of time passing. I’m not sure how that communicates to listeners and spectators though, but there has been an incredible surge in both passive and active spectatorship in games recently so perhaps this can work. But as Michael Baldwin asked me on Tuesday, the pacing of these pieces is something to consider: currently this is just a result of the process, but I’m going to look at ways to determine this through processes that move away from generating field-like situations.
I was also pleased to discuss the performances with people afterwards. Quite a few said it was like watching a game without knowing the rules. Again, this is something I’m really pleased to hear, and it shows – I hope – that the sense of an explicit goal is apparent. The players seem to be doing something concerted, but it’s not clear what. That might become clear over the course of the piece, or it might not. But the sense of them trying to do something that they both understand is a common feature of gameplay.
The other two pieces on Tuesday gave me a chance to have a new look at some existing ideas. Distractfold were joined by the RNCM Electric Experimental Ensemble to do the first performance of all voices are heard using pitches as the material. Previously I’ve used lists of words, but here the players were given a set of pitches which they order, eventually producing a stable unison melody or gesture. After some rehearsal to understand how this might work, the players really began to push the process. In the word versions, the rhythm almost always resolves to a pulsed and pedantic delivery of the words (which I like!). Here though, there was a lot more variation. While the pitches had the same function as units to be sequenced, there was more fluidity and variety in the final consensus. Some sequences ended up with a single pitch, others with a complex gesture, and once with only one player remaining as nobody would agree to play the same material. The sounding result was very different, but also exists within the boundaries of what the piece might be. It kind of felt like a reverse engineered Christian Wolff Exercise. Instead of a focused melody being blurred through heterophony, the chaos of the original statement resolves to a focused melody.
The last piece on Tuesday saw both groups joined by The House of Bedlam. They performed a new piece in my things to do series, we gradually have more things to do and fewer things to say (2015). It works in a similar way to everybody do this (2014), but instead players keep a list of the keywords they have responded to. Each player starts with one word crossed off. They can make this sound when someone else cues it, but may not cue it themselves. Once they have played this first sound, they add another, and so on so that the pool of sounds they can make grows and the pool of cue words they can speak shrinks. The piece end when one player has crossed everything off. Larry Goves made me laugh with his observation that this is essentially bingo! The players race towards completing their card, and then one player wins. It was gratifying to have such an explicit game analogy pointed out as it wasn’t in my mind while making the piece, and this gives me a lot of encouragement about the quite literal ways in which game mechanics might translate to music.
¹Nick Kaye, Art Into Theatre: Performance Interviews and Documents (London: Routledge, 1996), 19