Notes on The wreck of former boundaries

Notes on The wreck of former boundaries

My current project—indeed the project that has been at the center of my compositional thinking for most of the last two years—is a piece entitled The wreck of former boundaries, a conglomerate of works—each sharing the same title—that includes a range of solo works, small chamber works, works for electronics, and a 35-minute ensemble work for two trumpet soloists, clarinet(s), alto saxophone, trombone, electric lap steel guitar, double bass, and multichannel electronics.

It has been, at its core, a project that has been driven by an effort to upend the basic premises of what I do as a composer, or at least how I have tended to work as a composer over the last 15-20 years.

I have spent the last several years assessing the state of affairs that presented itself after the completion of 2012’s A painter of figures in rooms. In many ways, And the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth, completed in 2009 but started four years earlier, was a summation of work that began in the late 90’s; the Second String Quartet of 2010, and perhaps to a lesser extent A painter of figures in rooms, opened up interesting new compositional spaces that I have been very excited to explore further, yet despite significant shifts in approaches to instruments, notation, and material, both works also seemed wedded to a compositional methodology that had its roots in my earliest student pieces. This methodology grew increasingly intricate and tailor-made (and, not coincidentally, substantially more labor-intensive) over the years, particularly in its approach to gesture, shape, articulation, timbre, etc., but its fundamental building blocks—its givens, its presumptions—particularly with regard to the organisation of time (structure, tempo, meter, rhythm) were too thoroughly intermingled with my earliest work for the newer approaches, innovations, and discoveries to really break free … to, in a sense, ‘become themselves’. I set about on a project to explore my approach to rhythm, which led to this lecture and a companion article that will appear in the not-too-distant future.

But it wasn’t just rhythm. It was everything I did at the very beginning of the process of making a piece. As I wrote here, the set of compositional approaches, structures, techniques, and presuppositions that were embedded in the starting point for any piece already limited the range of possible outcomes for that piece, and as I’ve looked to explore new expressive spaces and new soundworlds, I’ve felt the need to obliterate those earliest methods, those earliest givens. Which is to say, the only way for me to make a music different from the one I’ve been making for the last 20 years or so is to completely rethink how I start a piece.

To that end, the principle constraint I’ve set for myself for The wreck of former boundaries is that I’m not allowed to do anything I already know how to do. The project is designed to put me in unfamiliar and, frankly, uncomfortable spaces. At 35 minutes, the piece is nearly 3x longer than my next longest piece. It is my first piece to combine instruments and electronics. It is my first work to integrate improvisation (the work is being written for the astonishing improviser Peter Evans, Tristram Williams, and ELISION, an ensemble with an exceptional collection of inventive improvisers). But more importantly, it is a piece in which I’ve set aside all of my normal ways of working, which, in particular, has meant that all of the pre-planning, mapping, sketching, organising, and shaping of structures, forms, roles, instrumental behaviours, etc. that have controlled material in previous works has been jettisoned. I have intentionally started the project, and each of its component parts, as blind as I can make myself. I knew the piece’s rough duration—it was always intended to be half a concert—and I knew the instrumentation. Beyond that I knew nothing, other than that the piece would emerge slowly, and that its methods, materials, and structures would grow, purpose-built, out of local, immediate demands and aims.

This approach developed largely out of my recent work with electronics, particularly through the reactive, reflexive, sculptural, trial-and-error methods that evolved through the process of making APOFIR-REDUX. Throughout the composition of The wreck of former boundaries I have repeatedly and progressively approached my own work as ‘found material’. All of the electronic material comes from recordings of earlier pieces of mine written for ELISION (and, in particular, several of the players who will be involved in the premiere), which are processed/distorted in a variety of ways, including through my own improvisations with several gestural, touch-sensitive digital interfaces. That processed audio is treated as found material—almost, in a sense, severed from its previous identities and histories—chopped up, rearranged, repurposed, layered, and superimposed to create new (predominately fixed media) audio. For the components of the work that combine instruments and electronics, this new audio is, again, treated as found material, the acoustic/instrumental work written in reaction to the fixed media electronics, again through a trial-and-error approach not dissimilar to the methods used to create the electronic material in the first place. Similarly reflexive approaches are used for the purely acoustic solo and chamber works. Once completed, those works then take on the role of ‘found material’, rearranged, mosaic-like, to form the overall structure for the larger ensemble work, around which a variety of accompanimental materials will be written. The approach is bottom-up, emergent, and contextual.

sketches from The wreck of former boundaries for electric lap steel guitar and electronics

sketches from The wreck of former boundaries for electric lap steel guitar and electronics

I was nearly a year and a half into the project before I allowed myself an opportunity to start figuring out the larger-scale form, to decide which components went where, to start to decide how the various pieces would overlap and interact. And those plans were, for me, still decidedly malleable and provisional—those first jottings from late-November 2015 have been reworked countless times since, as new materials and musical opportunities have come into focus.

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The overall form of the work beginning to reveal itself — sketches from Nov 2015

I don’t in any way mean to suggest that this is remotely novel as a compositional strategy. What was important here was that it was personally novel—I have never worked in such a flexible, open, exploratory, un-targeted fashion, and, if anything, I have gone out of my way in previous works to ensure that this level of improvisatory, intuitive, responsive compositional practice has always been confined exclusively to the final step in a compositional process that is otherwise about system, constraint, and resistance. The notion of starting a project with such openness has been anathema to my compositional world-view. But what I have found in the process of writing The wreck of former boundaries is that unfamiliarity can operate as its own ‘constraint scheme’, and, in many ways, the uncertainty and discomfort of my current compositional process has led me into much more unfamiliar territory and even more unforeseen solutions than perhaps my much more stringent, methodological approaches of previous works were designed to do. That is, my view was always that positions of constraint enabled me—or indeed forced me—into unknown, unfamiliar spaces and into an approach to compositional problem-solving that couldn’t have existed for me without that unfamiliarity. Through this current project, my (provisional) discovery seems to be that it is that unfamiliarity and uncertainty that is important to a process of discovery, more than the strictures and mechanisms that led me to those points of uncertainty in previous works.

There are a few interesting consequences to this approach.

The first is that the notational approaches for the various components of the project are much more open, more flexible, more bespoke, and probably less dogmatic than many of my earlier pieces. The notational approaches employed at any moment in the work are specific reactions to the particular compositional materials and aims at that moment. In earlier pieces I have always aimed to construct highly self-similar, self-consistent notational approaches, but here various approaches come and go, intermingle, and overlap, and there are elements of notational practice that I had more or less left behind—not least pitches (!), which I haven’t really worked with in any significant way since 2002—that play important roles here.

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Pitches (!) in the sketches for The wreck of former boundaries for solo clarinet

The rhythmic notation experiments discussed earlier of course play an important role as well. The two distinct approaches presented in the lecture linked above are both active in the work, and those two approaches are sometimes active simultaneously, with various subsets of the ensemble interacting through the ‘force/resistance’ model and others interacting through the more proportional, quasi-metrical model. Those rhythmic approaches are contingent upon the particular approach to material, and indeed to the particular approach to instrumental mechanism/behaviour present at any given moment in the work, and as such those notational approaches are deployed in a reactive rather than imposed way.

The second is that, for whatever reason, the material in the component works is somehow more direct, more singular, more unified, and probably also more predictable and more readily repeatable than most of my work from the last 15 years or so. I am not yet certain if that is cause or effect. That is, I don’t know if this is the result of the working method (if, for example, this more open, improvisatory approach has resulted in less abstract, more integrated, more tangible materials), or if the working method itself emerged out of a desire to make something perhaps more immediate, more direct, and indeed perhaps more personal and expressive. I suppose it is not surprising—the approach here is less architectural and more sculptural, more hands-on, so the musical/sonic object that is being made is more immediate, more identifiable, less scrambled/ambiguous.

The wreck of former boundaries (electric lap steel guitar & 5.1 channel electronics)

The wreck of former boundaries (electric lap steel guitar & 5.1 channel electronics)

This is also, in part, due to some of the instrumental materials that I have been working with in the project. For example, in the work for electric lap steel guitar and electronics, I worked closely with Daryl Buckley to explore a specific, extensive setup of outboard analog and digital effects pedals. We discovered—by accident, really—that certain pedal combinations had a life of their own and required shockingly little input from the guitar to produce quite extraordinary results. Or, similarly, in the work for solo B-flat clarinet, in early development work with Carl Rosman we explored a collection of unstable double trills that, when combined with relatively small adjustments to the embouchure or variations in articulation, would produce fantastically intricate and unstable distortions. My aim in working with these kinds of materials has been largely to get out of their way, to allow them the compositional space to reveal their own inner logics and unpredictabilities.

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The wreck of former boundaries (2016) for solo B-flat clarinet

Finally, a note about the title. Each work in the network of pieces, and indeed the network itself, is titled The wreck of former boundaries. I’m aware that this will cause some logistical problems, not least for performers or presenters who will need to find some way to clarify which of the seven works titled The wreck of former boundaries is being performed. (My hunch is that some sort of informal nomenclature will eventually emerge, but I’ve intentionally avoided assigning one myself.) There are a few reasons for this approach. The first and most important is that all seven of these works are iterations of the same project, the same set of problems, the same propositions, the same processes. Despite the wide range of materials, instrumental forces, and durations, each of the seven works is an effort to work through the same limited set of compositional issues, which, for me, is the very definition of ‘a piece’.

I went back and forth with regard to titles for months—including exploring independent titles for each of the smaller component works, or adding some sort of numbering system—and finally felt justified in going forward with a single, shared title after visiting the Gagosian Gallery ‘Francis Bacon Late Paintings’ exhibit in New York in December 2015, which included numerous independent works that repeated similar or identical titles.  Crucially, many of these paintings’ titles were examples of Bacon’s frequent use of the word ‘Study’, and it struck me, through seeing the repetition of this approach to naming, that these were of course not ‘studies’ for some later, more refined, more finalised product but were instead ‘studies’ through the very idea of repetition, iteration, ‘working through’ … the ‘Study’ as making, and with that act of making inseparable from that which is made. (There were, for example, perhaps as many as half a dozen works with some version of the title ‘Study for a Self Portrait‘.)  That seemed a perfect corollary to my own approach.

(The title itself is one I’ve had in my back pocket for many, many years, waiting for the right project. It comes from one of the subheadings of Robert Smithson’s “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” first published in Artforum in September 1968 and reprinted in Smithson’s Collected Writings. In truth, the conceptual and aesthetic links to Smithson—with its discussions of the jumbled, broken, incomplete, ‘de-differentiated’, displaced, etc.—are actually much stronger in my earlier work than they are here, but there is one passage that perhaps addresses the titling conundrum: ‘Without appeal to “gestalts” or “anti-form”, it actually exists as a fragment of a greater fragmentation. It is a three-dimensional perspective that has broken away from the whole, while containing the lack of its own containment’. In any case, I found the title still had considerable resonance even as the connection to Smithson’s work and writings has slipped further and further away over the years.)

The complete conglomerate of works is:

The wreck of former boundaries (in progress) [ 2 tr solo, cl, sax, tbn, elec lap steel gtr, double bass, 5.1 channel electronics ] 35’
The wreck of former boundaries (2015) [ contrabass solo ] For Joan Wright. 6’
The wreck of former boundaries (2016) [ solo B-flat clarinet ] For Carl Rosman. 6’30
The wreck of former boundaries (in progress) [ alto saxophone and live electronics ] For Timothy O’Dwyer.
The wreck of former boundaries (2016) [ piccolo trumpet, quartertone flugelhorn, and trombone ] For Peter Evans, Tristram Williams, and Benjamin Marks.  7’
The wreck of former boundaries (2015) [ fixed media, 5.1 ch electronics ] 11’
The wreck of former boundaries (2015) [ electric lap steel guitar and 5.1 ch electronics ] For Daryl Buckley. Commissioned by the RMIT Gallery Sonic Arts Collection. 8’

The project is supported by the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL) at RMIT University and considerable support through the School of Music, Humanities & Media at the University of Huddersfield, including the incredible studios of the Huddersfield Immersive Sound System (HISS).

The first performance from the collection of works will be at the Metropolis New Music Festival at Melbourne Recital Centre, 10 May 2016, where Daryl Buckley will premiere the work for electric lap steel guitar and electronics. The extended ensemble work will be premiered in Australia in September.

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The wreck of former boundaries (2016) for piccolo trumpet, quartertone flugelhorn, and trombone