Did it work?
In short, yes!
In December 2013 I travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, to work with Chamber Cartel as they gave the premiere and made recordings of ‘the shape distance’ [1-7] for seven players.
‘the shape distance’ is a collection of independent pieces, solos mainly, brought together in the one ensemble piece to be played together in an unsynchronised fashion; by this I mean that each of the solo lines plays independently of one another, each having fully notated material written in different tempi and baring structures. There are cues to start the material but after beginning there is no further vertical coordination or alignment; the way the solo lines relate to each other in the performance represent a unique iteration of the piece.
The pieces are composed to be free-standing works, performed as a part of a mixed programme. On this occasion all seven pieces were premiered in the one live event.
In my research preceding the composition I ‘calculated’ the range of outcomes available allowing for ‘natural variation’ or deviation from my ‘ideal’ outcome scenario [this occurring if all musicians followed my metronome markings with complete accuracy]. Of course, musicians are human beings and not metronomes, so I anticipated that the ideal scenario or iteration would never be achieved, as each performance would yield different interpretations of speed with each musician varying their rendition somewhat with each play-through. The variables would be many and this was, in part at least, the attraction that has drawn me to this manner of composition, therefore each performance was the right performance but of course, some would feel more ‘right’ than others.
Players were also given a target duration for the length of their material. This overall timespan allowed the soloists to gauge their speeds across the length of music and acted as a limiting factor that would ensure greater cohesion of the parts in relation to my ideal outcome scenario. Within this, the players could interpret the music fully. Compositional material is [largely] derived from a series of distant variations that unify all sections with thematic landmarks. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure to the work. All the instrumental roles are written to a high degree of virtuosity and most contain extended techniques and quarter-tones. The music itself [through the simultaneous bringing together of these individual parts] forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.
Like Russian Dolls, the seven pieces all ‘nest’ within ‘the shape distance ’. The ‘unpacked’ material represents ‘the shape distance’ pieces. The notated music within all of ‘the shape distance’ parts [solos] remains exactly the same from [1-7]. For example, Flute 1 plays the same music in each of the seven pieces but due to its changed context within the variable instrumental combinations and the unsynchronised nature of the vertical alignments, the Flute 1 material takes on a different relationship and contextual significance within each instrumental combination; in short, it sounds different in different contexts. This applies to all other solo lines as well and is the devise that brings aural variation to the set.
the shape distance  flute 1 / clarinet
the shape distance  flute 1 / clarinet / piano
the shape distance  flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola
the shape distance  flutes 1 + 2 / harp
the shape distance  flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / percussion (1)
the shape distance  flute 1 / clarinet / harp / percussion (1)
the shape distance  flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / harp / piano / percussion (1)
All the above represents my research – my theoretical understanding around how to compose music that would have the unsynchronized freedoms previously mentioned yet still produce a cohesive and satisfying musical experience for the composer, performers and audience.
The musicians took to the idea of unsynchronised playing immediately. It became clear that playing an independent line as part of an unsynchronised ensemble did not present any major issues other than getting the overall duration of their material correct as per the composers indications. For performers who had practiced intently this did not present a problem as they were familiar with the tempi with which they rehearsed the material in their own practice sessions and this was easily transferrable into the ensemble context. It also became apparent that individual musicians benefitted from being able to ‘play off’ each other within the ensemble and this live generation of sound and their spontaneous reaction to it enhanced the expressiveness of their own performances. This is not improvisation as all the material is fully notated and flexibility lies only in the vertical alignment of each of the parts with musicians given very clear and detailed instructions around expressive markings which needed to be followed precisely at all times for the piece to work. This is of great importance because the aural layering and internal communication governing the parts is as much to do with dynamic markings as it is with tessitura and rhythm. The ‘playing off’ aspect cannot affect dynamic relationships [such as several instruments are playing loudly and my part is marked very quiet so I’d better play it a bit louder to be heard] otherwise the foreground, mid-ground and background of the music’s spatial integrity would be lost. The ‘playing off’ that the musicians referred to enhanced a sense of confidence and musicality that perhaps enabled them to contextualise their performance moment to moment as the inter-relationships unfolded, and amplify their interpretation making it more three dimensional and meaningful. This represented a new and positive experience for the musicians.
As predicted, this nature of music involves a great deal of personal practice to master the demands of the notation but relatively little time in ensemble rehearsal. For ensembles who are often pushed for rehearsal time, especially when performing more challenging music, this unsynchronised format offers many advantages.
Interestingly, a number of the musicians commented that the music sounded vertically through-composed even when a group practicing their own parts independently in the same space were each starting at arbitrary points in their respective scores. This came as an added bonus and can only be due to the interconnected relationships between the materials in all the parts that cohesively binds them together no matter how they are combined. This was perhaps the greatest vindication that my research had worked in practical terms.
Audience feedback was also extremely positive. Considering the unfamiliar and to some, ‘challenging’ nature of this music such reactions were a bonus.
Finally, out of this rehearsal process came another ‘the shape distance’ piece; number 11 for harp and piano. I had not originally considered this as a combination to join the set. I cannot offer a reason for this but when two of the players suggested that they try their two parts together and see what it sounded like I was very interested to explore their idea. And they were right, it worked and sounded like another addition to the set of pieces. Another Russian Doll had been discovered in the set offering further evidence that the material of ‘the shape distance’ can yield many possible outcomes only some of which have been ‘captured’ here.
‘the shape distance ‘ represents one of the calmer combination of the material.
Recordings and downloads of the full set of pieces will be available in Spring 2014.
Marc Yeats is composer-in-association with Chamber Cartel.