03 November 2009

Son of Ambiguous Strategies

While pursuing my doctorate in Buffalo, I wrote a few pieces essentially as zone-stretchers. The head of the composition faculty chided us graduate composers for being too cautious in our presentations on the graduate composition recitals.

(To be fair, we graduate composers were only given one recital each semester on which to present our work. It is both natural and obvious that under such circs, a composition student is likely to follow Andrew Carnegies advice: Put all your eggs in one basket and Watch That Basket. More accurately, since the Music Department provided only that one basket, there was nothing for it but to Watch That One Basket.)

But, as I had already done undergraduate study and a Masters elsewhere, I had enough experience writing that I had no particular need to be over-precious with my writing while in Buffalo . . . so I thought, You want experimentation? All right, Ill give you experimentation.

Gentle Reader, you must understand that even in this waggish defiance, there was not the least willingness to lower musical standards. I still had an eye (or ear) on the musical Result; I only felt that I had license to make free with the process. And in all events, as there were six of us graduate composers who felt (likewise in something like defiance of The Mans strict wishes) that we wanted to continue as performers as well, we made a group of ourselves . . . so however I might fiddle around with compositional process, I was eating my own cooking (and cooperating with fellow diners).

So, no, I wrote no pieces for portable hair-dryer, contrabassoon, macaw and eggplant-o-phone.

I got the idea for one piece from Walter Ross in Charlottesville. While at UVa, I played in a small chamber piece of Walters in which each player was provided a menu of several musical passages, and the player was at liberty to play them in whatever order he liked. The piece was thus a balance between the composer having control over the material being played, and the performer exercising some freedom in execution. No two performances of the piece would (probably) be the same.

That experience was fun, but I wanted to expand on the idea. First of all, I was writing for a sextet, and so for a significantly larger ensemble. As a result, where in Walters piece each player could operate under his own sense of tempo, I felt that coordination of the sextet would depend at last on there being a common tempo from section to section (immediately, I suppose, an instance in which I was exercising Compositional Control). While emulating Walters example of giving each player a bucket of material, I thought, How do I give the overall piece a shape? When you have a chance, or aleatoric, or improvisatory, piece, how do you known when it ends?

So, I designed the piece as a five-part arch form (ABCB'A'). The brief A sections were actually composed to be played as scored, no chance element to them, and there was a tempo specific to the A sections; for B, I gave each player (I am trying to recall) 13 musical excerpts, each excerpt a different number of measures, each player was to play the excerpts in any order he liked, should play each excerpt twice (though never the same excerpt twice in immediate succession). In principle, the six players could each have played out his game with his excerpts, and everyone would end the whole section at the same double-bar. So (again, I am piecing things from distant memory) I believe I shorted the violist (maybe I only gave him 12 excerpts), so that as the remaining ensemble were finishing the B section the violist was independently phasing into C.

C was distinct both by tempo, and by instrumentation, as I decided it would be a viola/piano duet. And by material (of course) on a similar principle to the B section, I wrote a number of excerpts for each player, of different lengths, &c. We decided on some strategy so that the pianist would signal to the rest of the ensemble when the C section was drawing to a close.

B' was the same material as B, maybe (?) at a slightly different tempo, and maybe (?) each excerpt was only to be played once. Similarly, one player was elected to cue the rest of us when we should be prepared to move to the A' section, which like the opening was composed through, was (as one might suppose) a fairly clear variant of the start of the piece, and a section which ended with a clear event.

Thus was born Ambiguous Strategies.

One benefit of going to Buffalo to do my doctoral work was, that I was again in comparative proximity to an old Wooster classmate, Jeff Wallace, who was in Cleveland at the time. Jeffs passion was (and remains) the dance, and particularly a creatively spontaneous dance-interpretation. It seemed to me (in the first place) that this type of dance would go best with live performance (which even with a purely through-composed piece, will be different each time); on top of that, I was inspired by the thought of the synergistic spontaneity of interpretive dance, to a chamber ensemble piece incorporating elements of chance.

Jeff came on over to Buffalo; we must have had a sort of rehearsal (though it is not the sort of event which quite rehearses, in a traditional sense). And Jeff brought video gear, so there is a document of the event.

Although I dont think Ive actually watched the video more than once (and that, a long time ago), Ive always felt some comfort in knowing that the piece is thus documented. I was really pleased with Ambiguous Strategies musically, I felt that it was a compositional success in ways which frankly surprised me. On top of that, Jeffs dance added a further dimension of artistic success and the piece remains to date my only adventure in spectacle.

At times I have wished that I could review the piece. As you can tell, Gentle Reader, from my description of the piece, it did not exist as a score; but only as six separate parts (and a paragraph of rules). Even before I left Buffalo, I was unsure where all the parts were; at this time, I dont think I know where even a single part might be.

In ways perfectly apt for the milieu in which I produced the piece, it furnishes a Cageian example of allowing oneself to be free of possession of the musical score. I suppose it were theoretically possible, from close attention to the video document of the performance, to reconstruct the piece with some accuracy. Though honestly, at this point I should simply write a new piece.

Last week I had a very nice chat with Jeff, and he will prepare a DVD of Ambiguous Strategies. I look forward to watching, and smiling.

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