Self-portrait, 1996



instrumentation: piccolo/alto flute, contrabass clarinet/E-flat clarinet, quartertone horn, cello
date: 2020
duration: 14’30
details: 36 pages, including performance instructions; A3 portrait, full colour

Programme Note

Self-portrait, 1996 is the second in a pair of quartets based on the self portraits of the painter Gerhard Richter—along with Self-Portrait, Three Times, Standing (15.3.1991–20.3.1991)which together form the collection A way of making ghosts. 

Richter’s 1996 self portrait is based on a photograph (from his sprawling Atlas collection), and I’m fascinated by the way in which the cropping and rotating of the original image completely alters the emotional state that is projected in the painting. As with so many of Richter’s more intimate portraits, the subject’s gaze is deflected, hidden, obscured. The face and its details are all just out of reach, present but not visible. What I love about the self portrait is that it is personal and vulnerable but also somehow quite distant, not least because of the blurred, smeared surface, and perhaps even more because of the strange, overlaid grid that partially obscures the image, which reveals the physical ‘surface’ of the paint on the canvas and distances it from the ‘image’ of the painting.

That this is a self-portrait is important, particularly when viewed through this layered, uncertain stacking of realities. Richter’s approach shows the self-portrait both as a reality and a fabrication, a replication and a sleight-of-hand misdirection, a jumble of truths around which of its layers is the real ‘material’ of the work. Both of these quartets explore similar issues, dancing between the representational and the abstract, between obliteration as covering and obliteration as revealing the reality of instrumental and bodily material, between intimacy and separation, between vulnerability and otherness, between layering as stacking/extending and layering as concealing/hiding. And both new pieces continue a path I’ve been exploring in my work in recent years, rethinking where ‘I’ sit in my work, and reimagining the personal, the evocative, and the expressive aspects of how and why I make pieces.

Unlike Richter’s many self portraits, here I haven’t used/re-used any existing materials, but this new quartet aims to re-examine and repurpose some of the spaces I’ve opened up over the last 20 years or so. It’s not so much a return or re-use as it is a kind of provocation to myself, a reminder that there’s unfinished business with some of what I’ve made in the past, and also an acknowledgement that there remains a gap between what I’ve made and what I wanted to have made. The piece is a ‘working through,’ a ‘trying again’, but then is also an effacing of those older materials, and that effacing is its own reality and its own ‘self’. (The Richter work is not dissimilar—there is, in fact, a slightly earlier Self-portrait 1996 using a different photograph as a starting point.)

The work is written for and dedicated to Ensemble Musikfabrik, and was supported by a generous grant to the Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM) from the University Research Fund at the University of Huddersfield. Many thanks to Musikfabrik’s Helen Bledsoe, Carl Rosman, Christine Chapman, and Dirk Wietheger for their invaluable assistance in the development process of many of the materials and techniques used in this work.

Gerhard Richter, Self-portrait, 1996 [Catalogue Raisonné: 836-2]


Live performance, world premiere. Ensemble Musikfabrik (Aaron Cassidy, conductor). Cologne, Germany, 9 March 2020


A way of making ghosts. Ensemble Musikfabrik, ELISION, JACK Quartet, Line Upon Line. Joshua Hyde, alto saxophone (ELISION). Includes A way of making ghosts, A republic of spaces, String Quartet, a/grammatical study for three (quasi-)independent players, and three solos from The wreck of former boundaries. Kairos 0015073KAI, December 2022.



Photos from the premiere & recording sessions with Ensemble Musikfabrik:

Recording for Kairos with Ensemble Musikfabrik, Cologne (with Tonmeister Stephan Schmidt)


Testing mute setups with Dirk Wietheger, March 2019

Ensemble Musikfabrik / Aaron Cassidy, conductor. Mediapark, Cologne, Germany. March 9, 2020.

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