The premiere of The Pleats of Matter is now just under two weeks away. Diego Castro and I have been meeting regularly — generally once a week or so — for the last few months, sometimes working through small practical details, sometimes working to focus and streamline the electronics, sometimes making decisions about gear (we’ve been through at least four options for one of the foot pedals, the tremolo bar has been held up with an effective but decidedly lo-fi method of a cluster of rubber bands, and the limits of the piece’s detuning setup have been tested after a snapped string cut a rehearsal short), and more recently working towards full run-throughs of the piece to clarify some of the shape and architecture.
Diego’s work has been astonishing. His attention to detail is exceptional, working through the dense choreography of the work with meticulous precision. The nature of the work’s approach to the instrument — in which both hands can potentially occupy any location on the strings or fingerboard, either hand might be plucking or depressing or striking the strings, and either hand (and, occasionally, the elbow!) might have responsibilities for moving the tremolo bar — means that there are logistical questions and fingerings to untangle in almost every bar.
Occasionally the answers to that problem solving are present in the score (in the example above, the left hand actually is meant to be above the fingerboard, rather than below, so it was an easy quick fix — the result can be seen in the video below), and often the discussion has revolved around questions of the angles of elbows and wrists to best capture the gestural shapes and energies of each movement/event. For various reasons, Diego has made the decision to ‘transpose’ the piece up by four frets via a capo — the compression of space has, on the whole, made the movements across the fingerboard more manageable, but it also means that the movements are now squeezed into slightly smaller fret spaces further up the fingerboard, which occasionally has raised issues in passages in which the two hands occupy similar or even identical physical spaces on the instrument.
The piece also includes two foot pedals (a pitch-shift pedal and an expression pedal), plus a footswitch to move between effects settings. The addition of (independent) movements of feet has been a novel additional obstacle for Diego as a classical guitarist. The piece’s choreography is a full-body choreography, and these activities are, in a sense, made even more strange by their frequent absence of direct connection with sounding results. Because of the nature of the instrument and the approach to the electronics employed in the piece, the link between action and sound is often indirect, uncertain, displaced, and occasionally obliterated. It’s a strange phenomenon for a performer — the piece requests a precision and extremity of gesture, but the aural feedback resulting from those gestures often lacks the immediacy of similar gestures on acoustic instruments. (Much of Diego’s practice time has been purely acoustic, not only without the electronic processing but in fact also without amplification. He has remarked several times that the experience of playing the piece with the electronics is entirely different — in some ways, the piece comes alive with the electronics; in other ways, he has to almost ignore them, relying entirely on muscle memory, due to the gaps between his actions and the sounds coming from the speakers.)
As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the unusual difficulties in preparing the piece has been the fact that I finished the piece eight years ago (and started it almost exactly ten years ago!). There have been questions that have arisen (and the occasional mistake in the score) that have required trawling through old sketches to find the right answers/corrections. In some ways, it feels like preparing a piece by another composer, not unlike the kinds of preparations that I might do as a conductor. On the other hand, because the details of the electronic processing are intentionally left unspecified in the score, I have had the unusual opportunity to now, a decade later, decide what the piece is going to sound like. The electronics have undergone numerous revisions over the past few months — I’ve added or changed something after every rehearsal we’ve had — but I think we now have a soundworld that I’m happy with for the premiere. In the approach we’ve taken, the gulf between the physical and the sonic gets wider and wider as the piece progresses. (The fact that it also gets noisier and wilder might have something to do with the fact that we’re the opening act for Kasper Toeplitz for this particular concert.)
As an aside … one of the interesting small technical shifts that we’ve made has been to slightly minimise that physical/sonic separation by including a small amount of unprocessed, clean guitar in the mix (though a bit less than appears in the video below). In some of our earlier rehearsals, I found that the separation was so extreme that I stopped connecting with Diego’s presence on stage (even when sitting only a few feet from him in Huddersfield’s Interactive Studio). The physical disconnect was a bit too substantial, so the gestures lost some of their energy. An alternative might perhaps be to ‘amplify’ the movements via video — probably with separate cameras for arms/torso, feet, and face — which we might try for a future performance.
We’re really looking forward to presenting the piece on the massive setup of the Huddersfield Immersive Sound System on Friday, 20 February 2015, as part of the Electric Spring festival. There are plans for some fairly extensive video documentation of the premiere, which I’ll post here, as well as the beginnings of plans for some follow-up performances further down the line.