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Do, re, mi

Do:  This sounds interesting. Want to know more?

Re:  Our man Daniel Beliavsky’s playing at the NYPL. Get the details.

Mi:  And here’s a message from the Frolicsome Composer from Hell:


In his late set of works called The Number Pieces, John Cage used a very original device for coordinating parts, called “flexible time brackets”. In these pieces, there is no score, no conductor, and players use stopwatches. Players are given parts which contain some musical material, and a flexible set of time points within which they can place this musical material. That way, there is a clear composed structure for each of these pieces, but the structure allows for considerable freedoms and almost-improvisational type of flexibility
in performance.

I was completely intrigued by this flexible time bracket technique, and in 2002 I organised a concert in Amsterdam devoted to some of the Number Pieces. We presented a few works by Cage, but I decided that his notations and his ideas would probably be relevant not merely to Cage’s own musical style, but that it could be used by other composers as well, as a more general form – just as fugues can appear in many different styles.

So for that concert, 6 new pieces were written that each were using flexible time brackets in very different ways. Among these works was my piece “The Weather Riots” for at least two and at most a few thousand high instruments (flutes, oboes, violins, clarinets, pianos, harps all can play this piece). At the S21 Concert, it will be a trio of violin (Jeffrey Philips), oboe (Matt Sullivan) and piano (yours truly).

One of the central things I’ve been interested in in the past few years was to fill up some musical space in some way with motion. I sometimes call such textures “panoramas”. Often I like to have different versions of the same motivic material superimposed, so that you get a kind of heterophonic mosaic of personalities. If two instruments play the same sort of motivic material at the same time, but each “colours” it as befits the character of their instrument; or, if they each articulate the same material slightly differently, or do it at slightly different speeds, these differences set up a musical space
within which the instruments find their own niche.

Now in most traditional forms of heterophony, there’s a single melody, unfolding linearly over time, that every player is more or less playing, each with their own nuances. In “The Weather Riots” however I do not give players one line. Instead, in each section, I give them a whole family of motives that they’re free to interpret and put together in their own way. The result is always some kind of mosaic of little motives and gestures that happen at the same time and that gradually shifts in character over the course of the piece’s eleven minutes.

The way these motives are distributed, imitations between any two parts is more or less guaranteed. Basically every performer is playing a personal version of the same basic part. So you always get a ‘cloud’ of motives, of a density that depends on how many players you have, with a lot of imitation going on. So there’s activity all over the place, and it’s full of incidental connections. The similarities in the motivic material help make the complex resultant textures transparent for a listener – you can always sense a relation between what two performers are doing, even if they seem to be playing their
material entirely independently.

To me, these relations between parts that play similar melodies but that bring different shades of playing to that one same thing are themselves a musical resource – something like an extra musical voice, an invisible instrument between the other instruments, that is not played as such but that results from the panorama. Also, I feel such effects give more depth to the sense of time. And I hope that from this, a listener can get an experience of space, movement and possibility.

Fa:  Just felt like adding a halfstep.