braneworlds reflections, part 1

Liam Flenady reflects on his new piece "braneworlds", which Kupka's premiered at our last Judith Wright Centre concert on October 7...

On Friday night, Kupka’s Piano performed my new braneworlds as part of the ‘Tautologies, Transitions, Translations’ concert, alongside wonderful works by Hannah Reardon-Smith, Michael Mathieson-Sandars, Alan Lawrence, and Eric Wubbels. In the interest of gathering my thoughts about this, and documenting the entire creative process (including the reflection-assessment stage) for the PhD, here’s the first of two more or less stream-of-consciousness reflections on rehearsing and performing my piece.

kupkas_braneworlds_oct7.jpg

That’s us playing braneworlds at the Judy on Oct 7 (thanks to Kathleen McLeod for the photo).

The first thing to mention I guess is the fact that I played guitar with the ensemble for braneworlds. This is the first time I’ve done this, and the first time I’ve performed ‘new music’ at all, really, having come from a rock and jazz background, and having more or less quit the guitar about 7 years ago when I seriously began composing.

The experience was an interesting and very enjoyable one. It changed my perspective as a composer somewhat. Being less exterior to the work, I felt I was more able to treat the performance as a performance, and less as a score to be represented. In this scenario, the ‘simplest’ parameters of dynamic definition and balance, and cleanliness of entrances and exits of sections, became the most important elements, rather than the pitch and rhythm elements internal to the sections, for example.

Having practiced this piece about four times as much as the others in the group (since their capacity to wing it in this style far outstrips mine), and having played most of the work very well in rehearsals, I nonetheless had the inevitable freakout when I came to perform it. In the first section in which I play, I was distracted worrying about whether the clicktrack for Group III (clarinet and piano) was actually working. This entirely threw me, and I was pretty much all over the place in the first few sections. I likewise was distracted thinking about the balance of the piece later on and heard my count-in wrong in my chordal section, and entered early, which again threw me somewhat… Having said all that, I held up ok in most of the rest of the work, and nailed a couple crucial passages, so not bad for a first go.

So being a composer performing their own music comes with difficulties. One thing that really intensified these was the specific construction of the work and its technological dimension. The fact that there isn’t a score for the work, but only four parts, and the fact that everyone was buried in their own part and clicktrack meant that performers (myself included) had very little awareness during many sections of what was happening around them. This week I’ll be drawing a graphic representation of the whole piece as a kind of ‘study score’, but in retrospect it would have been much better to try to have this available during rehearsals.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting, and I think effective, way to rehearse: only a very vague amount of attention was paid to ensemble coordination, dynamics, balance, etc, during rehearsal itself (though clarinetist Annie Larsen very kindly came to two rehearsals just to give some basic feedback). A recording was made during rehearsal that I later listened to and took notes. I then read out to the ensemble before the following rehearsal, and we tried to then be a little more conscious of those aspects. With more rehearsal for future performances/recordings, I think we will reach a really powerful performance of the work.

I really enjoyed the confidence that the clicktrack lent to the performance. It meant that entrances were (almost) always completely bang on target, and people were able to play with a lot of confidence in some essential aspects of the work, and could therefore stress more about getting their own parts right, and getting more clarity to gestures, etc. We don’t have to worry about who is cueing whom, and we don’t have to have a conductor. (Obviously it also enables a performance in multiple tempos and time signatures as well, and the shifting between temporal stratification and temporal unison across different groups, which is one of the key ideas of the piece.) In the end, for this concert we ran the work about 5 times in total in rehearsal, with a couple of sectionals for each group. That was sufficient for the premiere. With a score of this complexity, without the clicktracks (even if everyone was in the same tempo, and even if there was a conductor), rehearsals would have been much more complicated and time-consuming just to get together basic elements like coordinating entrances, not getting lost, etc.

Obviously this takes out the conversational, ‘chamber music’ aspect of the piece. (Although not entirely. With more rehearsal and comfort with the various parts, and with clicktrack performance, each musician would be a little more freed up to explore the interrelations between parts). A year or two ago, I would have discarded it for this very reason. The kind of Adornian idea, however, that this kind of non-hierarchical chamber music, where the time is controlled collectively and internally to the subject of performance, is somehow more free than a music where the performers are ‘dominated’ by an external technological device, which controls their time (above which stands the authoritarian composer), misses a couple things. Firstly, the clicktrack makes possible musical relations and experiences simply not possible without it, and thus is a vehicle for our aural liberation. Secondly, the collaboration involved in the creation of this kind of music (amongst the musicians, and between the composer and the musicians), is very far from a model of authoritarian structures. In fact, I felt this was the most egalitarian piece I have written, partly because I was also subjected to the performance experience, and partly because it was my most thoroughly prepared piece, with a lot of logistical stuff sorted out in advance.

Creating the clicktrack itself was a time-consuming process. After I had determined the number of pulses and tempo of each group for each ‘region’ of the work (as I’ve described in an earlier post), I created a click-track via midi in Logic for each section at the point of beginning to compose it. I then bounced that and dropped it into the overall click file, which included each group as a separate channel (sometimes I had to time stretch the region slightly to fit its intended length, since the tempo I wrote in the score was sometimes rounded slightly from the value I determined mathematically).

I then bounced each click separately, so there were four independent clicktracks. I had initially thought of having just one computer, which would play a 4-channel file, which would then go through a multi-channel DAI and perhaps into wireless headphones, but the cost was somewhat prohibitive. Fortunately, my friend Vincent Giles in Melbourne provided me with a Max patch that creates a server-client situation so that sending a bang from one computer will start the clicktrack on all four computers. Obviously a network connection needs to be established across the four. I was initially going to go through the Judith Wright Centre’s wifi, but was advised against that by the Judy technician (it just wasn’t reliable enough in his opinion), so I decided to buy my own router and lan cables. This made it very easy in fact, once I had fixed some weird connectivity issues on some laptops. Anyway, once all connected, the laptops just needed some headphone splitters and headphone extension cables so that two people could access each laptop. To make sure that the audience couldn’t hear our click, we got headphones with noise-reducing rubber earbuds, and taped up each of our spare headphone with toilet paper and electrical tape.

Now that I have all the gear, this piece is actually a fairly straightfoward thing to perform, so perhaps we’ll be doing it again soon. The plan is also to record it very soon for Kupka’s very first album… which will be an interesting process unto itself.

Ok, that’s it for this post. In the next post I’ll take up some specific aspects of the composition that I thought were either particularly effective, or are in need of revising…