Blattwerk: composition / improvisation / collaboration


Blattwerk is a composition of approximately 25 minutes’ duration for cello and live electronics, which I conceived as a duo for the cellist Arne Deforce and myself and completed in the summer of 2002. The electronic part was realised at CRFMW in Liège, in collaboration with Patrick Delges who wrote the MaxMSP program used in performance. Blattwerk combines highly-precise musical specifications (both in the notation of the cello part and in the inclusion of prefabricated and fixed electronic passages) with free improvisation for both performers, as well as the aforementioned computer program which samples and plays back its materials “automatically” with variable degrees of randomness. The combination of precise notation with improvisation made previous appearances in my work in transmission for electric guitar and electronics (written for Daryl Buckley and completed in 1999) and in the large-scale ensemble works Opening of the Mouth (with the Elision ensemble, 1997) and DARK MATTER (for a combination of the Elision and Cikada ensembles, 2001-03). In all of these cases, the expansion of compositional horizons to include improvisation was a natural and logical development of an ongoing long-term collaboration, and so it is with Arne Deforce. I have always considered notation first and foremost as a means of communication between composer and performer(s), that is to say neither as a set of instructions or demands, nor as some kind of end in itself (although I take seriously the fact that any means of communication will have its ambiguities, imperfections, contradictions and so on, which constitute what might be called the “poetry” of notation). An important aspect of improvisation too is that of communication between participants. Blattwerk is, in a certain way, an attempt to make structural/dramatic “sense” out of the various modalities of communication which can exist between musicians, between musical materials, between musicians, instruments and sounds. It thus embodies a kind of relationship between composer and performer which has the potential to break with the “accepted” 20th-century model, which I think is an important thing to try and do, for reasons I shall return to at the end of this essay.

Blattwerk also continues a line of development from my first solo for cello, Ne songe plus à fuir of 1986, through three intervening cello solos (not to mention those for other instruments) in which an insistence on the concrete and material aspect of music, free of metaphysical obfuscation, is simultaneously an attempt to point somewhere (?) beyond itself.

In Ne songe plus à fuir I made a first attempt to make a composition purely out of the encounter between an expressive/structural “vision” and the instrument itself, without mediation by an abstract concept of musical materials and relationships. Thus it makes less sense to speak of “pitches” in such music than “locations” on the instrument - locations which in themselves are special cases of the movements which excite it and generate its sounds. I find here a point of contact with various forms of improvised music, and also with musical traditions of the Far East, especially Japan.

Where Japanese music for the koto or biwa uses a modal structure as the tabula rasa upon which its intonational, timbral and articulational complexities are inscribed, Blattwerk evolves out of an “objective” view of the cello as a box with four strings stretched across it, which is then minimally “primed” by a system of glissandi which form its basic (pitch) material. In the electronic prelude foreshadow, the four strands of this material - one for each string - were recorded, superimposed and processed as a basis for its amorphous, “embryonic” sound-texture; in the final electronic part of fossil, the turning points of these same glissandi - now “petrified” into stable pitches - are superimposed into a homophonic canon. Thus the archaeologically “oldest” level of Blattwerk is to be found in these passages. The notated music for cello, which dominates less and less as the work continues, extrapolates these same materials in more sophisticated and indeed multilayered ways; the “automated” activity of the computer picks up from this stage of the material, reordering and recombining it. Finally, all of the preceding proliferations themselves form a germinal environment within which spontaneous improvisational directions can be taken.

Spontaneity is by no means something that “just happens”. It depends to a crucial extent on external and internal conditions, which of course can include a very specific musical framework as in jazz. Improvisation cannot take place without a sense of situation, of situatedness, even if (as in the improvisational work I prefer) there is a constant feedback between the music and its framework, such that the shape of the framework responds to the music which it is itself shaping, rather than being fixed by tradition. For this reason I am not generally interested in a half-baked approach to combining composition and improvisation, by which I mean the various attempts to create notations which are missing one or other of their usual characteristics, which one associates with the avant-garde of the 1960s, not to mention “graphic notation” which I consider to be largely a refusal to engage with the communicative function of a score. In Blattwerk some areas of the music are notated and others are not. There are no “half-notated” passages or any “directions for improvisation”. I assume that the musical context of the improvised areas of the work, together with the musical intelligence of the performers, is all the “direction” that is required. Thus every performance (and, needless to say, every performer) should bring forth a different approach.

Nor is the inclusion of improvisation an attempt to create a parameter of “aleatoricism” within a compositional schema, as if the “organisation of delirium” mentioned decades ago by Boulez were actually possible. Delirium is what lies outside whatever boundaries of “reason” one cares to set up: one must be prepared to exceed these boundaries rather than try to colonise them. The “open forms” of the 1960s mostly look somewhat coy these days: to switch metaphors, the door is open a crack but one sees the heavy chain preventing anything disturbing from happening. Nevertheless, Blattwerk is not some kind of dialogue between “open” and “closed” form. It is a composition in which different performative approaches are invoked for their sound-form-generating potential. It has taken me some years to realise that this is how simple the situation actually is, but that realisation is no doubt the result of those years having been spent intensively cultivating collaborative relationships with musicians such as Arne, as well as developing a compositional identity through the evolution of my work which (I hope) gains in poetic strength from such situations. In any case, on a first hearing it will not always be possible to tell the difference between the notated and non-notated music; and there is really no reason why it should always be, unless the listener’s aim is academic analysis, which I shall assume it isn’t.

The journey into the instrument begun with Ne songe... of course leads naturally to a different kind of relationship between composer, composition and performers. To understand where the music “comes from” involves a certain interest in or indeed engagement in improvisation. Many of the most idiomatic performers of my notated work are also committed to improvisation as an integrated part of their musical activity. This implies the possibility of collaborating in ways which do not so much open the door referred to above, but remove the wall in which it is embedded. The collaboration with Arne in Blattwerk is one possible “division of labour”. The rôles of composer and performer are retained, but as an efficient use of the skills involved rather than as a “chain of command”; neither Arne’s experiences with the cello nor mine with the passage from imagination to notation need be compromised.

Ne songe... was written without a precise “image” of a performer in mind, although it was originally associated with Alan Brett, who gave its first performances. Subsequently it has entered the repertoire of a number of further cellists. Some of these have in turn brought performance of the work to a new level, in the course of which my other solos have come into being; each collaboration has emerged from the same source, as it were, and each has produced music which is deeply conditioned by that experience: Dark ages and praha for Frances-Marie Uitti, von hinter dem Schmerz for Friedrich Gauwerky and now the present work. One important difference this time around is that my collaboration with Arne has encompassed various kinds of improvisational as well as interpretational work, for example our duo performance of Stockhausen’s Pole für zwei, live music for experimental film and participation in other improvising collectives. Therefore it seems completely natural that this aspect, as well as the other aspects of my experience of his playing which have been sublimated into Blattwerk.

Blattwerk also extends the technical vocabulary of the instrument beyond that of my previous work for solo cello, including such phenomena as “subharmonics” , although I should add that my primary concern has been firstly to create a continuum between the various playing possibilities of the instrument (rather than treating them as separate “sound-effects”), and secondly to extend the range of these possibilities only in response to the impulse of the music. The result is that the technical range of the piece is not “encyclopaedic” - for example Blattwerk contains very little double-stopping (while Ne songe... is almost full of it), the reason for this being connected to the use to which the material is put by the “automated sampler”.

The poetic origins of Blattwerk are almost childishly simple: I imagined the path taken by a leaf as it falls from a tree and is then moved in impenetrably complex trajectories by the action of the wind, or just as suddenly laid temporarily to rest by a moment of calm, or set quivering by the merest movement of air; and I imagined this path as taking place not outside the window but in the multidimensional “configuration space” of the cello, leaving a sonorous trace as it goes. Again one might catch a faint echo of a Japanese orientation here: images of nature as symbols of transitoriness. But actually the word Blattwerk comes from Paul Celan, in whose early poems (along with seasonal, and particularly autumnal, references almost Japanese in their ubiquity) it stands for the “leaves” of his written poems.

To give a brief overview: Blattwerk consists of five main parts, which, though playing continuously, succeed each other like “scenes” in which the cellist is confronted by a sequence of different sound-environments.

The first (foreshadow) does not involve the live cellist at all, while the second (folio) is for amplified cello alone, and most directly embodies the “falling leaf” idea mentioned above. In the third (foliage), the cello is surrounded by fragmented and transformed “images” of itself generated by the MaxMSP computer program, which begins with a recording of the second part as its sound-material, gradually replacing this with material from the third part, which already contains “lacunae” in which the player may react spontaneously to this environment. In the fourth part (foliation), the “lacunae” become more extensive than the notated material; at the same time a third element is added in the form of an active part for the live-electronics performer - the environment becomes as it were conscious, with various consequences both obvious and subtle for the poetic evolution of the music. The fifth part (fossil) returns suddenly to precise notation for the cello, which is now “fixed” within an ensemble of prerecorded cellos.

foreshadow, as mentioned previously, is based on an “exposition” of the pitch-material of the whole piece. This consists of four lines, one for each string. Together the four lines consist of 72 pitches, in which each of the 24 quartertone pitch-classes is represented three times, so that at this level no emphasis on particular pitches occurs. (There is however a certain emphasis in the way these pitches are distributed across their respective strings: on the first string they are concentrated more on the upper positions and on the fourth more on the lower, with the other two strings containing intermediate kinds of distribution). The line for the first string consists of 24 pitches, that for the second string 20, for the third 16 and for the fourth 12, which, superimposed in the durational ratio 10:12:15:20 (so that their beginnings and endings coincide) and with glissandi of various lengths between the pitches, produce the material of foreshadow. (I don’t want to dwell on which pitches they are, since this has no relevance to the kind of description I am trying to make.) Each of these lines was recorded twice, once molto sul ponticello and once sul tasto, synchronised with a clicktrack rather than with one another so as to encourage slight discrepancies, especially in the course of the glissandi. Each pair was then subjected to cross-convolution, comb-filtering and reverberation, so that the original recorded material becomes somewhat shadowy and obscure at this stage. The final process generated a four-channel sound-object which begins spread between the rear loudspeakers (that is, behind the audience) and ends centred between the front speakers, coinciding with the position of the cellist, who begins playing folio at a specified point shortly before the end. Here and elsewhere, Blattwerk represents a development and extension of the compositional and technical ideas of transmission for electric guitar and live electronics. A prominent similarity between the two compositions is the fact that their “basic materials” are elaborated in two distinct ways: by technical means (using a recording of the materials) and by “compositorial” means (using the various compositional techniques described in more detail below).

folio for cello solo, which is fully-notated throughout, actually consists of four different “pieces” which I called sequences, which were written separately and then intercut, together with various kind of intercalated transitions and silences, to produce the composition as it stands. (Of course there is a strong connection here with electronic-music practice.) Each sequence is extrapolated from the same materials (as described above) and is related to the others also in its formal proportions (all four have exactly the same overall duration and are divided into six sections each consisting of six phrases). The sequences can be summarised as follows:

Sequence I: rapid movements both along and across the strings, using one or other of the four basic glissando-lines to indicate a hand-position, with the extension of the left hand between first and fourth fingers (between 6 and 12 centimetres) and the degree of shifting between strings controlled by sinusoidal probability functions. The reason for this highly systematised approach was to produce rapid but idiomatic movements over the entire range of all four strings without at this stage invoking particular preferences of my own. These were brough to bear in the following stage of work: “composing into” this stream of notes in order to specify different states and transitions for the various gestural/timbral behaviours appropriate to it. Sequence I develops from homogeneity towards heterogeneity in terms of these behaviours.

Sequence II: alternations of sustained pitches and glissandi, always following one or other of the four basic lines. These are also “internally sculpted” into more elaborate sound-processes similarly to sequence I but evolving this time from heterogeneity towards homogeneity, ending up almost exclusively using “subharmonics” where a particular kind of bowing produces a pitch approximately one octave below the fingered pitch, and with a particular harsh kind of timbre.

Sequence III: again derived from the same materials, but at several removes, so that the result is a scatter of “points” across the whole range of the instrument. The evolution of the material is also more complex, resulting in a situation around the middle of its duration where almost every sound is produced using a different technique, to the situation at either end where sounds produced by the same technique tend to be more clustered together.

Sequence IV: a “melodic” process (from homogeneity to heterogeneity and back) in which the basic pitch-materials proliferate into complex networks of recursive self-similarity and “ornamentation.”

There are also four fundamental kinds of transition which can be described as follows:

  1. a transition (in any or all “parameters”, however those might be identified) between two segments from different sequences, between a sequence and another transition or even between two transitions.
  2. an “intensification” (likewise) from the previous or following segment.
  3. a “dissipation” from the previous or following segment.
  4. a “freeze” from the previous or following segment, which may take the form of a simple sustain or might involve “looping” a small fragment.

Together with more or less long silences, these eight types of musical element and their interactions generate the structure of folio. Obviously the actual composition process involves much more than the few outlined evolutions I have described above, since it consists at every stage of a total interweaving between deterministic, random and “intuitive” processes of generation. The ways in which the sequences are cut into segments, the kinds of transition which are allowed in different regions of the piece, the available dynamic range, and many other important features, are structured to produce a single (though highly internally-differentiated) musical Gestalt. Also, the evolutions of all of these materials often leads to a situation where their musical characteristics become “tangled” with one another, so that the result is by no means a straightforward sequential collage, but a music in a state of accelerated change, almost constantly except for moments when it slows or stops at a particular point along its twisting itinerary, as when one or other of the strings has a brief “solo”, when a series of “unrelated” fragments “just happen” to all be centred on the same pitch, or when a seeming perpetuum mobile becomes “stuck”, and these “phenotypic” features contribute at least as much to its character as the “genetic” material behind them. folio is in a sense a sound-image of a musical “organism”, in which sense it differs from the “monologue” character of for example Ne songe plus à fuir, although this is a question of degree and emphasis rather than a fundamental difference of approach or poetic intention: an “organism” is not necessarily always blossoming in harmony with itself and its environment. I at least am not.

While I have used the above-described strategy of making a composition out of a number of quasi-independent “sub-compositions” in a number of previous works (most prominently ruin for 6x3 instruments, Trawl for quintet and the fourth act of the music-theatre piece Unter Wasser) this is the first time I have applied it to a solo instrument. Because this medium necessarily involves a certain linearity in which elements are organised sequentially rather than simultaneously, the approach had to be altered, most obviously by adding the “transitions” - these are intended to serve the function of creating a higher “dimensionality” , which in an ensemble piece might be achieved by creating multilayered textures and processes.

In foliage, which follows, the solo cello is confronted by an “automaton” (the MaxMSP program) which is able to record, play back, filter, spatialise and reverberate whatever sound material is fed into it, in ways which can range from completely random to completely controlled, with variable degrees of speed, density, recognisability and so on. Interspersed between the notated passages of foliage are improvisational lacunae, whose duration is given in terms of the prevailing tempo (and ranges between less than a second and over 40 seconds) but which otherwise specify nothing at all except that the cellist may improvise within them. The computer program gradually replaces a pre-recording of folio with real-time recording (thus including the improvised elements), all the time replaying its material in various ways specified in the score as “live” changes (abrupt or gradual) in the playback parameters, controlled by the electronics performer, although without a sense of “responding” to the cello. The notated material of foliage behaves in an analogous way. It is all derived from the music of folio either by applying the aforementioned transition processes or by simple “reproduction” (but always in reverse), generally giving the impression that a small element of the foregoing music is subject to a “microscopic” examination, revealing layers of detail which couldn’t previously be discerned. The processes are applied to a chain of moments from folio , starting at its end and working backward towards the beginning. For example, bars 12-14 of foliage form a transition between the second half of bar 130 and the middle of bar 129 of folio, transforming a high sustained sound (with vibrato over part of its duration) into a timbrally-differentiated group of five lower sounds. Other treatments of folio material are clearer and/or more obscure than this. The time-structure is however much simpler than folio (being based on “self-similar” proportions of sound and lacunae) and much more deterministic. The instructions given in the score to the cellist are as follows:

The “silent” bars marked with ∞ (in the place of a rest symbol) are lacunae in which improvisation may take place, in response to the sampled and processed sounds from computer I, not necessarily filling the available duration, which may even be left silent. The idea is that these improvisations (and/or silences) should attempt to make connections between the notated sounds (which, it will be noticed, are entirely derived from the music of folio), and between these and the computer sounds. The high degree of discontinuity of the notated music is intended to create structural/expressive “questions” which can only be answered (if at all) by improvisatory actions. On the other hand no kind of musical material should be excluded a priori on grounds of consistency or taste. One could imagine a context for anything. Nevertheless the musical context of this work is the issue. The durations of the lacunae should be as close as possible to those given in the score (which add to 50% of the entire duration of the section), although a certain amount of variation according to improvisational considerations might be appropriate.

The second electronic layer, which enters in the fourth section, foliation, uses the “instrument” I have been developing for some years in both compositional and improvisational contexts, which consists of a synthesizer keyboard and various other “control surfaces” which (mediated by another Max program) access the LiSa sampling software, which is provided with sound-materials derived from cello sounds (including some from a recording of Arne playing Ne songe..., although hardly recognisable as such). At the same time, the MaxMSP program continues, now with its playback parameters more or less randomised while the sound material is gradually replaced by silence. The notated (cello) or prerecorded (electronic) material takes the form of four musical “blocks” which expand in duration from 15 to 60 seconds and alternate with improvisations expanding from an initial duration of 45 seconds, so that the “climactic” passage before the section ends is a completely free section of about three minutes’ duration, by which time the MaxMSP program is playing back almost only silence. The cello part for the blocks returns to the sequences of folio, whose material is now radically “reinterpreted”, just as the electronic parts involve more extreme processing of the same sound-materials as are elaborated elsewhere in Blattwerk. They are bound together in the first instance by the way in which each block is emphatically divided into seven equal subdurations - thus the tendency towards increasing strictness and simplicity in proportional structure continues with foliation, while of course at the same time the structural weight allocated to improvisation increases further. The first block takes material from sequence I and connects what were originally widely-separated parts of the sequence with glissandi. The second block reinterprets the material of sequence III, reduced to consist only of finger-percussion and pizzicato, but with independent parts for the left hand (on strings I and II) and right hand (without the bow, on strings III and IV). The third block uses sequence II-like material, but now with double-stopping and being gradually substituted by increasingly “marginal” sound-producing techniques, ending with a long quiet sound produced by bowing the tailpiece of the cello. The fourth block applies the “fractal” procedure of sequence IV to a repeating set of twelve pitches (those allocated to the C string in the original materials). Thus the four blocks create an even more disjunct set of “snapshots” of an imaginary process which again must be completed by improvisation.

This is interrupted by the electronic part of fossil, which returns to the original pitch-materials, now in a four-part homophonic texture without glissandi, into which the glissandi of the live cello are rhythmically locked. This time the four parts played by the computer were recorded note by note, so that the synchronisation and durations are the result of hundreds of edits, producing four “impossible cellos” (each with only one string) whose players can not only synchronise precisely with the constantly-changing rhythms, but also make instantaneous leaps to any point on their respective strings. The processing of these sounds was relatively simple, involving mainly the “movement” of each cello (-string) between a different pair of speakers, which was then preserved in a four-channel soundfile.

Thus the cello and electronics of Blattwerk progress through a structural dramatisation of their possible mutual combinations. Previously, in transmission, the dramatic relationships between electric guitar and electronics tended to be somewhat antagonistic; Blattwerk presents not so much a reconciliation between the constituent elements but an expression of their deeper symbiotic relationship. Apart from exploring different strategies for combining composition, interpretation and improvisation, Blattwerk is intended to express a belief that both “acoustic” and “electronic” instruments can continue to have a vital role to play in progressive music, and that this involves a particular attitude with regard to the “acoustic” side: anything an instrument(alist) can do which a computer can reproduce or improve upon should be excluded, in order to concentrate on those inexpressibly complex sound/form/presence phenomena which, perhaps even in principle, require a human mind and body for their realisation. In the same way there are some musical phenomena which may only be realised by means of an intensive process of composition, and others which may only be realised through (equally intensive) improvisation.

Finally I would like to return to my reasons for wanting to explore regions beyond the purview of the 20th century composer/performer relationship. My reasoning could be summarised as follows:

  1. My personal experience of listening to contemporary music is that, with few exceptions, the art of composition, as it is “understood” by the institutions which purportedly exist to promote and nurture it, is moribund in comparison with what is being achieved and developed in the context of improvisation.
  2. I believe this exhaustion in the world of composition has straightforwardly political roots in the way that the accepted social model of this art mirrors the structure of the society which generates it, that is to say, it is characterised by dehumanising economic/power relations. It is therefore no wonder that composers (to name only these) seem to have only two choices before them: to capitulate to commercial interests and become small-business entrepreneurs in the music industry, or to turn inwards, towards a “group-solipsism” where they and their peers can convince each other that their creative impoverishment is actually something vital and significant. I feel it is necessary to reject both of these standpoints as different forms of fin-de-siècle pessimism, neither of which can produce a visionary art worthy of the potential of human imagination and intelligence.
  3. Nevertheless, there is nowhere else to go; and, as I hope to have made clear, I believe that the art of composition in the widest sense is not exhausted. Most of the work I have done in recent years has had as a fundamental motivation a search for ways to “make it work”, in the context of various collaborative and collective musical activities. This isn’t the place to enumerate these activities, nor is it yet the time, at least for me, to assess them. For the present I would merely like to suggest that Blattwerk is intended to take its place in this process, or at least in defining some potential directions it might take. Every musical score embodies a question, to be answered by its performer(s). (Most composers seem only interested in receiving the answer YES.) What I am trying to do here is put that question in the musical foreground, in the hope that when the performer makes his/her music in response to it, some opening-out of the imagination comes into being which might not have occurred in other circumstances, and in the hope that this process communicates itself to activate the imagination of the listener. This may seem like a tall order; but in the words of Edward Bond, “clutching at straws is the only realistic thing to do.”

Berlin 2/8/2002

This essay was originally published (in a Dutch translation by Yves Knockaert) in contra. vol.2 no.5 (November-December 2002). It has not previously been published in English.