Performing Temporal Processes: RMA Annual Conference Session

In September, the study group will present a session at the RMA annual conference, titled: Performing Temporal Processes. This session also represents a co-authored article by members of the Study Group that will be published in 2018 in the New Sound International Journal of  Music.


Session outline: 

All process music deals with time as a part of its material. However, in the case of this music, the experience of time in music is not simply the experience of music as Zeitkunst (in Adorno’s terms), but the experience of time itself. Where many musical works offer an experience of time as an experience of change or development, process works offer the opportunity to experience time as time. That is to say, these works offer the expression and experience of units of time that are defined by, and enclose, processes. Where the duration of a non-process work might be defined by its form, here the work’s form is defined by its duration.

This experience of musical time has been described by Lawrence Kramer as ‘vertical time’ (1981/1988): the extended perception of a single moment. Such an experience of vertical time might be easily identified in Steve Gisby’s Iterative Music and Alistair Zaldua’s Foreign Languages. Both works are entirely prescriptive—even to the level of moment-to-moment duration in the case of the Gisby. Yet, in their performance, the moment-to-moment sonic details of the work remain undefined and are discoverable only as they unfold highlighting an unexpected characteristic of highly prescriptive music: its unpredictability.

Henri Bergson’s (1889;1910) Time and Free Will outlines the distinction between a ‘scientific’ understanding of time—as units of duration understood as a spatial metaphor—and ‘real duration’ which is the experience of time passing in the present. This is expressed as a differentiation between a quantitative and a qualitative multiplicity. In the latter case “several conscious states are organised into a whole, permeate one another, gradually gain a richer content.” (1910, p.122). By enacting such ‘scientific’ processes of spatial duration in their approach to time in their works, the composers featured in this session conversely allow the experience of ‘real duration’ through the reification of the quantitative multiplicity of time on the surface of their music. In Mathias Spahlinger’s eigenzeit the duration of the piece is clearly determined by the duration of its processes, although these durations remain undetermined until they are enacted. In foreign languages time is determined by a series of actions that have no duration until they are enacted. Sophie Stone takes this further in “As sure as time…” by imagining each performance of the piece to be a unit of duration in a theoretical meta-performance of the work, and hearing the spaces between them as silence. These composers, then, show how the performance of temporal process “un-mixes” space and time through making concrete the quantitative nature of units of duration and shifting the focus of the listener to an experience of vertical time.

This session foregrounds the experience of these works, first presenting them as compositional research outcomes. Each performance involves the piece’s composer, excepting that by Mathias Spahlinger which will be performed by members of the study group. The performance will be followed by a round table discussion of the temporal processes and issues in the music, bringing out the common research themes and interests between the composers.

Programme Notes

Iterative Music is an ongoing series of pieces that Steve Gisby has been composing since 2014. There are four in the series so far, which are all identical in terms of both structure and duration. They were created using a simple mathematical process that involves gradually assembling and then superimposing five layers of audio material, with each layer building up in the exact same way. The process itself is fundamentally very simple but, even if it has been correctly perceived by the listener, there is no possibility of predicting exactly what musical material each new step in the process will bring – meaning the piece is simultaneously predictable and unpredictable. The project has now been developed for live performance. Using pre-prepared audio material, Ableton Live and MaxMSP, a piece can be created that follows the same mathematical process. It is impossible, from the outset of a piece that uses this process, to conceive of the composite patterns that will emerge as a result. A key feature in the approach to performing the piece live has been the incorporation of a degree of indeterminacy in regard to the rate at which the process progresses. In Music As A Gradual Process, Steve Reich stated that “One can’t improvise in a musical process – the concepts are mutually exclusive.” Gisby believes this depends on where one sets the parameters of a process: what material, or elements of a piece are determined by the process, and what aren’t? This juxtaposition of performer autonomy as a counterpoint to strict, logical systems has been a feature his work.

foreign languages for solo percussion and live electronics was inspired by reading both Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence which is a short novel in two cryptically related parts, and Jacques Derrida’s commentary on Blanchot’s text. This work is not representational in any way; Zaldua’s interest was to foreground the problem of translation in a work for percussion. More than works for any other instrument percussions pieces define their cumulative ‘instrument’ anew with almost every piece.

The composer will be performing the 2nd part of this two-part piece, for solo cymbal and live electronics. The deliberately curtailed notation presents the performer with a map of the cymbal with a set of directions for the beater to follow. The rhythm used is the rhythm of the performer’s own (internally) spoken voice (derived from the original French and translated English of the Blanchot text) which is tracked by the computer to trigger changes in the compressor and filter settings. While playing, harmonics are accessed using simple paper beakers, and this, as well as the tracked spoken rhythms, in turn influences the filter settings in the electronics.

eigenzeit is one of over 25 concepts contained in Mathias Spahlinger’s work (written in 1993) vorschläge (suggestions). The instructions read:

“find or invent possible objects or performance methods that are barely modifiable regarding their tempo, rhythm, and total duration; and which, once they have begun, cannot be further influenced; and whose processes cannot be reversed.

examples and suggestions: circling plates and cymbals, falling ping-pong balls, pendulating giant feathers, buzzing/snapping a ruler held over a table-edge, marbles thrown over a marble lane, rubber balls thrown down the stairs, etc.

each player decides by themselves when to play, and how they ‘stage’ their unique, and unmistakable sounds, bearing in mind their approximate duration. frequent accumulation of density and vain repetitions are to be avoided.”

“As sure as time…” is part of an ongoing series of performances that use the same score. It is a spoken word piece that can be performed by one to four vocalists, and includes a variety of structural elements, sound/vocal techniques and movements. The score consists of a quote from Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (London: William Heinemann, 2015): “As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lesson”. The work allows for performer interpretation with the vocalist performing an individual compositional process; where there are several performers, several compositional processes occur simultaneously. Rather than a traditional concert performance, the listener should experience the work as an installation in a gallery or other environment, allowing them to explore the environment as they wish to, talk and enter/leave when they like. When observed in its entirety, the series presents a new sense of extended duration with long silences separating the performances and the totality being the performance of the work itself. The work also highlights the numerous interpretations of silence as silences of unpredictable length are used within the performances and between each performance; the interpretation of silence is thus questioned as it never truly exists.

Composer Biographies 

Steve Gisby is a composer, bassist and educator based near London, UK. He holds a PhD in composition from Brunel University and his music has been performed across the UK, Europe and the USA. Two of his works appear on Symmetry | Reflection, the recent CD by US percussion duo Novus Percutere, alongside music by Steve Reich, John Psathas, Chrisopher Adler, Ivan Trevino and Luis Rivera. In May 2014, along with pianist Michael Bonaventure, he gave the world premiere performance of Tom Johnson’s Intervals.  He has given papers and presentations at IRCAM, the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Furman University in South Carolina, California State University at Long Beach, Canterbury Christ Church University, the University of Surrey, the University of Birmingham and the University of Huddersfield. He is on the committee for the Society for Minimalist Music. He also works as an examiner for Trinity College London on their Rock & Pop syllabus, having conducted exams in the UK, Northern Ireland, Italy, India, Vietnam, South Africa, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Hong Kong and Macau. /

Alistair Zaldua is a composer and conductor of contemporary and experimental music who currently teaches at Canterbury Christ Church University. His work has been performed both internationally and in the UK: Huddersfield Festival (2014), Sampler Series Barcelona (2014), Borealis (Bergen, Norway, 2014), Leeds New Music Festival (2013), UsineSonore (Malleray-Bevilard, Switzerland, 2012), Quantensprünge ZKM (Karlsruhe, 2007 & 2008), Música Nova (Sao Paolo, 2006). Alistair currently works with Lauren Redhead in performances for organ and live electronics, and improvises in a duet with film maker Adam Hodgkins (violin and live electronics).

mathias spahlinger was born in frankfurt in 1944. his father was a cellist. from 1951, he received lessons from his father in fiddle, viola, recorder and later, violoncello. he began piano lessons in 1952. from 1959 spahlinger developed an intense interest in jazz, took saxophone classes and wanted to be a jazz musician. in 1962 he left school and began an apprenticeship as a typesetter. during the apprenticeship he took private classes in composition with konrad lechner. after completing his apprenticeship he continued his studies with lechner at the städtischen akademie für tonkunst (state academy of music) in darmstadt (piano classes with werner hoppstock). in 1968 he took up a teaching position at the stuttgart musikschule (music school), teaching piano, theory, musical education for children and experimental music. from 1973-1977 he studied composition with erhard karkoschka at stuttgart’s staatliche hochschule für musik und darstellende kunst (state academy of music and performing arts.) in 1978 he became guest lecturer in music theory at the hochschule der künste (arts university) in berlin, and in 1984 professor for composition and music theory at the staatliche hochschule für musik (state academy of music) in karlsruhe. from 1990 to 2009 he held the position of professor of composition and head of the institute for new music at the staatliche hochschule für musik (state academy of music) in freiburg. he currently lives in potsdam near berlin.

Sophie Stone is a PhD student in music composition at Canterbury Christ Church University working under the supervision of Lauren Redhead and Matt Wright. She received her bachelor and master of music degrees at CCCU specialising in composition. Her research interests include extended duration music and the compositional and performance strategies that surround this genre.