My whole generation (…) was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minutes piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy–just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece–it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they’re like evolving things. 1
Dans les arbres’ and Huntsville’s performances are usually between 55 – 75 minutes, a lot shorter than the pieces Feldman talk about. But still, I see a typical performance by our ensembles more as evolving objects, and that the construction of these objects exist along a scale. Scale with sections, rather than parts that succeed each other and create form. I don’t think I am listening form and parts when I perform with these ensembles. I am listening large scale.
The idea of evolving objects is also relevant for my solo work within this project. I have, however, experimented with more detailed premeditated decisions when working solo.
Improvising dancer Kent de Spain talks about tracking form in his book Landscape of the Now: A Topography of Movement Improvisation:
There is often a sense that you just ”know” how long you’ve been going, or that you haven’t been downstage yet, or that it is time for a change of energy or quality. In that way, the messages from the tracking realm might enter the moment through desire rather than conscious awareness. That desire can be toward or away from certain choices.
I recognize this from my own practice. After such and such amount of time with this or that type of material, I receive a message from the tracking realm to change this or that.
I believe though, that these messages from the tracking realm also can be a result of conscious awareness. It is as if there is a constant negotiation between different realms in me; the listening department; my mind; my memory; my fingers; my tools. It is a constant negotiation between intuition and conscious awareness.
it is almost as if I can look forward
into this evolving scale.
But what I see,
what I expect to happen in the near future,
often is not happening at all.
In an improvising ensemble the music evolves, it is a process. Sudden collective change in direction, abrupt collective turning points may easily be planned and rehearsed. We don’t do that in our ensembles. I think that is because it too easily comes in conflict with the process of evolving, and that such changes often complicate the process of building a coherent piece of music. In our ensembles’ music, evolving seems to have a greater focus than splitting our music into parts. A natural consequence, I believe, is that we rarely arrive at sudden and collective pivots.
On the other hand, I do recognize what Cornelius Cardew says about different phases of an improvisation: “This kind of thing happens in improvisation. Two things running concurrently in haphazard fashion suddenly synchronize autonomously and sling you forcibly into a new phase.”2 This is happening in our music, too.
A lot of improvising ensembles are splitting their music. Parts end and new ones begin all the time, as if the change in direction, itself, is a goal. I too often find that this compromises coherence. There are too many parts. They don’t fit. It is too much information. Too much change in direction. I am losing track of the evolving. I am losing interest.
The improvised music of Huntsville and Dans les arbres evolves as it does, much as a consequence of trust and responsibility. I hear a similar engagement in evolving objects when I see concerts with The Necks, AMM, Supersilent and many more. I do not at all pretend we are the only ones.
In my view there is also a wish to have a certain “control of the piece”, like Feldman says above. Not in the sense that I need, or even want to know what is going to happen. But rather in the sense that everything that happens when a piece evolves, is being tracked and stored. It is stored somewhere in the space between my listening department; my mind; my memory; my fingers and my tools. Perhaps it is more an awareness of the piece? An awareness of how the object evolves? An awareness that “requires a heightened kind of concentration.”
4. Ensembles on stage
Much of my focus in this project is on the dialogical relation between improvisations by an ensemble, thus the referentiality between improvisations. The idea of the referential relation also applies to musical form. I would for example claim that we have a tendency to begin a Dans les arbres concert sparsely. We build gradually more and more complex combinations of materials. Usually, at some point we delve into a couple of dense and loud sections, and we often have sparse endings. When performing, we usually play one continuous piece, and if the piece has sections with pauses, the pauses are always part of the piece. We rarely have pauses that join pieces.
We rarely play short pieces.
Short sequences with a clear ending,
except whenever there is an encore.
The very few times we have done this,
it has always been at the beginning of the concert.
2-3 or so minutes of playing, full stop, pause, (no applause), new start.
It is always very refreshing, a healthy and welcome wake-up call.
Why don’t we do this more often?
These tendencies, and the awareness of our own inclinations concerning form, inevitably influence us when we play. My experience is that in both Dans les arbres and Huntsville we are accepting the tendencies we have. We confirm them. We look for variation and nuances within well-known patterns, rather than trying to escape them. It is as if we are massaging well-known patterns just enough to avoid clichés.
However, despite similarities between performances, the evolving scales seem to be one of the elements in Dans les arbres’ music that varies the most. I find that there is a great variation when it comes to how our music evolves, which elements are in focus, and when. Perhaps form is the component in our music that is the most unforeseen3?
The infinite number of possible combinations, the discrete infinity that I am referring to in Referent, illustrates the vast number of possible ways to treat and combine materials. To evolve. The treatment and the moulding is a dialogue – it is a wordless negotiation between the band members; our memory (referents); our aesthetic preferences (referents); the instrument; the room and what not. Each performance has its own inner “logic” when it comes to form and dramaturgy.
But why don’t we play more short pieces?
Why don’t we play short pieces in the middle of a concert?
We could easily plan shifts, stops and pivots. Splitting parts. But it seems like we still prefer to let our music evolve without this when we are on stage.
5. Solo on stage
For the solo concerts at my final artistic presentations I tried to challenge my own inclinations and oppose to the ensembles’ way of working with form and scale.
In the Video Ensemble, most of the material, form and sections are fixed. Some of the material for each section is predetermined, either as points of departure and/or as points of arrival. For example: the second part of Video Ensemble, beginning around 06:30, has a general trajectory towards fixed elements, towards a predetermined point of arrival: loud and massive moirés of short and abrupt loops on the side screens. I decided upfront which material should be included on the side walls, and that it should be combined with gong-like, repetitive guitar, looped and projected on the back wall towards the end of the part. How to begin the part, how to go in to the next, and how to evolve the material I played on my guitar and how long the part should be, was decided in the moment. What I play on my instrument is evolving, and sets off into a less known territory. The pre-recorded material is fixed and has its own trajectory. I find that there is a compelling friction to manoeuver in the space between these different trajectories, in the space between the known and the less known.
The solo concert on 21 April 2015 is an evolving object. However, I decided upfront to begin on maximum, dynamically, with pre-recorded material, and to reduce. The piece evolves from a fixed point of departure, into something less known, although I have decided what the dynamics should be like at the end of the piece. The first part has both fixed and evolving material. In terms of form, the second part that begins around 10-11 minutes has more in common with the ensembles on stage.
6. In the studio
Recording with Huntsville and Dans les arbres can be different from our live performances when it comes to form. Often we end up recording shorter pieces and put them together so they make a consistent large scale form. Before recording a piece, we may make vague decisions such as: “Let’s begin with the same material as a previous piece, but make it end up somewhere else”; “Let’s try to reverse the order of those parts”; “Let’s end up in the same place as the previous piece, but begin with something else, something more complex”. This has also been the method for Stop Freeze Wait Eat.
1 Morton Feldman quoted in Paul Griffiths, Modern Music and After. Oxford University Press (2010), p280
2 Cornelius Cardew, Towards and Ethic of Improvisation, from ”Treatise Handbook”, Edition Peters (1971). http://www.ubu.com/papers/cardew_ethics.html (11 September 2015)
3 Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of improvisation: from Latin improvisus ‘unforeseen’