Last weekend, sfSound — a very active Bay Area new-music collective — put on a three-night festival exploring graphical scores. I missed the first night, which included new works by sfSound members Kyle Bruckmann and Matt Ingalls. But I did make it to the final installment, featuring classic works by some big names.
The centerpiece was Pierre Boulez’s Domaines (Dominoes), a through-composed work broken into modular pieces that can be rearranged, within some strict rules.
It happened to be the longest piece of the evening, but it was also a highlight for its use of space, which made the piece feel sprawling and epic. And it was a workout for clarinet soloist Ingalls.
Domaines pits a solo clarinet against six ensembles, each numbering one through six members. These small ensembles were spread out around the theater space, including the 1-person bass clarinet sitting in the central aisle in the audience.
Boulez’s instructions have the soloist play a segment with each of the ensembles in a prearranged but arbitrary order. Ingalls started with segment number 4: He played his part, alone, followed by the 4-person ensemble playing their part.
The modular part comes not only from the sequencing of the six segments (Boulez called them “cahiers” — notebooks), but in the clarinet solos, which are divided into segments that can be played in two different ways.
4 was a good place for Ingalls to start, because that clarinet solo featured raspy, brash tones — a personality that would turn out to really stand out from the others. To accent this, the 4-person ensemble consisted entirely of trombones, keeping that same raspy sound going.
Here’s the fun part: Ingalls had his own music stand next to each ensemble, so for each segment, he stood in a different place. As the piece progressed, in the order 4-5-2-6-3-1, Ingalls had to walk the room.
As I mentioned, the sequences were predetermined, so as one segment ended, Ingalls or the next ensemble could start the next segment, often overlapping the two by a bit. That was a nice effect, kind of like cross-fading in radio.
But wait, there’s more! That was only half the piece. The second half, subtitled “Miroirs” (“Mirrors”), consisted of each ensemble playing a segment, followed by a clarinet solo — the opposite concept of the “Originales” segments, but with different music. sfSound played the “Miroirs” segments in the order 5-2-3-4-6-1.
And of course the music, while through-composed, is Boulez: spikey, poking phrases, huge leaps, swooping slashes, and the occasional bit of extended playing as indicated in the sheet music. Exciting stuff, augmented by the effect of Ingalls and the ensembles playing from different regions of the room.
I also happen to enjoy geeking out on things like permutations. If I’m using combinatorics correctly, there are 518,400 ways to arrange the six segments. Factor in the two choices for each clarinet solo, and I think it multiplies to more than 2 billion possibilities.
Every concert is unique, even if the music is through-composed, but I really like to geek out about the uniqueness of a permutation. We heard one possibility out of 2 billion that might never arise again, and I found that really appealing.
Graphical Scores and Improv
The rest of the concert featured pieces that allow many more degrees of freedom to the musicians. These ranged from the box notation of Morten Feldman’s “Out of ‘Last Pieces'” (excerpted at right) to the modular segments of Earle Brown’s “Available Forms” to Pauline Oliveros’ Fluxus-like “The Inner/Outer Sound Matrix.” The latter, written for sfSound in 2007, instructs the performer to “listen inwardly for your own sound” and play it — or not — at the right time.
In most cases, the effect was like an episodic large-group improvisation. That is, the basic sound was similar to symphonic improv, but there were definite spikes and surges, as well as group drop-offs. Each piece came across boisterously, like a pot boiling, with clusters of activity coming from different parts of the group.
Oliveros’ “Matrix” was loud and brash, which surprised me. I’d expected something more meditative. But the volume built up quickly, and it seemed at times as if players were forced to out-shout each other to be heard.
The group also performed Oliveros’ a capella “Sound Patterns,” comprised of vocal sounds including vowels, tongue clicks, and various buzzes and barks. It’s a mostly non-improvisational piece, and while it’s not a virtuoso turn, it requires organization and an ensemble that takes the idea seriously.
Hearing groups of people making the same nonsense sounds in unison turned out to be revelatory. Even though there’s an absurdity factor (a couple of segments seem designed to get a chuckle from the audience), and even though the ensemble was clearly having fun, their professionalism made this into a piece to be taken seriously. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.