The first Lab of 2016-17 featured presentations from PhD composers Louis d’Heudieres and Luke Nickel, followed by visiting composer Michael Winter.
Louis d’Heudieres presented his work Laughter Studies 2 (2015), for two performers, realised by Leandro Maia and Marcus Day. In the Laughter Studies pieces, each performer follows an individual aural score delivered through headphones. The audio score contains not only the audio model – what the performers need to respond to – but also the mode in which they should respond: imitation or description. When imitating, each performer should copy vocally the sounds they hear in their own audio score; when describing each performer verbally describes the sounds they hear in the aural score. These two roles change throughout the piece. The instructions of when to change roles are given to the performers in the aural score itself, though the audience does not know the rules of the game.
Although the score asks for vocal imitation, in today’s realisation the performers projected a strong element of physical engagement using, in particular, hand gestures and facial expressions that attempted to clarify the aural intentions. At the crossroads of the purely sonic and the conceptual aural-verbal, it was interesting to note that the embodied choreography of communication (through expressive hand gestures and facial expressions) became an important safety net for both performers.
Describing the sounds posed the following questions: the performers opted to describe the origin of the sounds – a car going past – rather than the acoustic nature of the sounds themselves, raising important issues regarding cognition and representation; Leandro was describing his aural score in a second language, and the inevitable filter of the obstacles of bi-linguality became part of the reading one makes of the performance.
Both iPods have a synchronised start: the interaction between both performers is thus scripted by the composer with some degree of precision. Initially both performers’ aural scores seemed to be connected: the verbal description “people laughing” from one performer was accompanied by a loud laugh from the other performer. But as the piece progressed the descriptor and imitator seems to no longer match: the verbal description “ people running”, or “laughter”, could be accompanied by the imitation of someone crying or bird song. Later even, both performers became imitators, without any description. Both ended the piece crying.
After the performance of the piece, Louis asked for feedback from both performers. Marcus found it difficult (“unnatural”) to imitate rather than describe, while Leandro (operating in a second language) found describing harder than imitating.
The audience feedback session highlighted the challenge of trying to link both descriptor and imitator, even when they are slightly or completely divergent in content, which, from an aesthetic perspective, only adds to the richness of this work.
Louis presented a theoretical framework that underpins this work. The two simple instructions in the aural score (describe or imitate) forge an interaction between the composer and the performer that reveals an inherent theatricality in the performance situation, in which individual interpretations are valued. “It’s not about getting it right; it’s about what happens when you try.” The score is prescriptive, rather than descriptive. It is a “task-oriented and de-psychologised” score (Sara Jane Bailes). The choice of sound materials in the aural score – everyday sounds, with direct and meaningful references to both the performers and the audience – forces, through comparison, a clear opposition between the descriptions. These are received by the audience as conceptual symbols of a model of sound (on a Platonic level), and the imitated sounds, which carry a material reality of experienced sound. The words “people crying”, when uttered by a describer, are presented and received as referent symbols, while the sound of an imitator actually crying is received as an emotional reality. The experience of seeing someone crying (even if they are obviously faking it) resonates at an immediate emotional level (which is not necessarily empathetic!), while hearing the words “people crying” appeals to all my previous knowledge of “people crying”. These two readings are not always compatible with each other, even when they are in concordance. The cross-readings that result are, in my view as an audience member, a source of richness.
Luke introduced the Lab to his speaking quartets, a group of pieces that sit outside his living scores project. In Conversation Piece (2013) an informal conversation between a group of people is fed through a Max/MSP patch that tracks statistical speech patterns of each person. These statistical patterns become a video score for a second conversation. In this second conversation the performers’ contribution is governed by the amount of time they spoke for in the first conversation. In the second conversation the roles are switched such that those who spoke most must speak the least.
In String Quartet No.1 (2015) a recording of a string quartet in rehearsal is transcribed in order to produce a score in which all the music is removed and only the spoken events are kept. A group of four performers read this text, starting each line at prescribed times so as to produce a semblance of the original. The dynamic interaction of regular conversation is absent however, and the lines overlap in a more awkward manner. As with Conversation Piece, the flow of conversation is disrupted by external constraints.
In Literary Field Recording (2015) a literary text (Jack London’s White Fang)is scanned for sound-relevant words, which are read aloud by the performers. The intervening text is not read aloud, resulting in a sporadic flow of sound descriptions separated by long silences. In a group realisation, the difference in reading speeds across the performers results in a subtle patterning of echoes as a single word is repeated by performers in sequence. The piece has been performed a number of times, with realisations varying between a few minutes (one chapter) and multiple hours (most of the book). We discussed the strategies performers use to determine the extent of each description. In a Bristol performance, performers tended to include phrases surrounding the sound words (e.g. “the faint, far cry arose in the still air”), while other performances tend to use just the word itself (e.g. “cry”). Luke noted his preference to avoid speech descriptors such as “he said” in favour of more direct reference to the sound itself.
For the rest of his session, we worked on a new piece by Luke, provisionally titled after Glenn Gould. The piece involves a group of performers watching a film of Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and listening through headphones. The audience only see the performers and do not experience the source material directly. The performers mimic Gould’s mouth shapes and quietly echo his singing, but only when his mouth is visible. As with Luke’s other pieces, this brings a hidden layer to the fore.
We tried two versions of the piece: once with just the trio (James Saunders, Louis d’Heudieres, Caitlin Rowley), and once where we were joined by Michael Winter reading from a text, in this case White Fang again, using the same methods as in Literary Field Recording. The situation for the performer is complex, trying to distinguish the moments when Gould’s mouth is visible (he often turns away from the camera or ducks down behind the piano) in order to begin singing. Given the low volume level of both Gould’s singing and that of the other two performers’ sung echoes, distinguishing who is singing is also somewhat difficult. I was also very much aware that my experience of the piece was very different, given my exposure to the piano playing in addition to Gould’s singing and our group response. In this way, Luke and Louis’s work have some correspondence, presenting hidden materials in a way that makes their function clear for the audience. I like this element of translation very much.
(James Saunders/Oogoo Maia)