February 25th, 2014 | Published in Articles
Sarah Hughes is a composer, improviser and sculptor currently based in West Sussex. She is a founding member of the Set Ensemble, a group dedicated to the performance of contemporary composition; she publishes primarily text-based scores through BORE (with David Stent); co-edits the Wolf Notes journal (with Patrick Farmer); and curates a label, project space and concert promotion activities via Compost and Height (also with Patrick Farmer). Hughes plays zither, piano, and sometimes other things too.
Each instalment of Bang the Bore’s Interviews With Composers series focuses on a single score – in this case Hughes’ (can never exceed unity), a recording of which was released in 2013 on Suppedaneum.
The diagram is fascinating – how did you decide upon the positioning of parts relative to each other?
This is the first score in an ongoing series that makes direct reference to my sketchbooks. This one is taken from an entry made around 2006/2007 – a drawing which has a vertical line running the length of the page, breaking it up into half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth and so on, with a short note at the bottom reading: ‘Convergent Series leads to atom (can never exceed unity)’. Another line at the top of the page reads: ‘one material affects the next’.
I wanted the diagram at the top of the score to refer back to these sketchbook pages as well as emphasising the importance of placement and the spatial aspect of sound. I hoped it wouldn’t be read as a direct instruction but instead make clear that the duration for players 2-5 could be divided up into objects of time, rather than being played continuously. There is also a wider interest in how a visual schema translates to a form of musical composition in terms of material, time and space, and what alterations might need to be made in order to carry what is in the sketchbook into another medium. I find this process useful as a way to interrogate initial images, ideas or research.
So if the diagram is suggestive rather than literal, is it also intentionally suggestive in terms of where the ‘Player 1’, ‘Player 2’ tags are situated?
The times for each player are known before the performance, so, for example, if the performance is 20 minutes, player 1 plays ten minutes in one block but doesn’t announce beforehand where that will be, but the other players know when it starts it’ll sound continuously for that period (player one is the only player with a continuous sounding section). The instruction for the other players is much more open, so player 2, who would be playing for 5 minutes, would be playing in any variety of fragmented parts, so it’s a cumulative duration. They could choose to follow the diagram but I would think it preferable to play in response to the other players, in fact it would probably be best to play without the score in front of you. The possibility for improvisation is written into the score. Since writing (can never exceed unity) I have added instructions to play without a time keeping device so as to blur further the composed and improvised. I enjoy thinking about the point at which a composition becomes an improvisation, and what happens in between, both in music and in my installation work; what is the minimum amount of information necessary to compose a situation? How does the act of placing things together change between different modes of working? How much information is necessary to retain the character of the composer?
Have there been performances of (can never exceed unity) since including the instruction to play without a time keeping device? Is it a perceptible difference for an audience – either in their perception of duration, or producing side effects in other qualities of the performances?
Not that I’m aware of, though I wrote the instruction into new scores, rather than rewriting (can never exceed unity), so it would only be passed on as a verbal instruction at this point. Fires and Conifers was the first to have ‘no time-keeping device’ written in. This has been performed live a couple of times (though I wasn’t in attendance) and has been recorded for release. I was part of the recording and I think the instruction frees the performer to listen more, and to concentrate on placement or displacement. Playing without a time-keeping device inevitably leads to inaccurate time keeping; one player’s ten minutes will be another’s eight or twelve minutes and removing the stopwatch can make the players consider the thingness of a composition in a different way.
I don’t think primarily about the listener when I’m working on a score. I’m writing from the point of view of a performer. How an audience listens to a composition, either live or recorded, doesn’t really affect decisions I make when writing.
Is the relationship of image to score constant throughout the Sketchbook Series? Or looking outside that series, to a composition like Architectural Model Making?
There is constancy, but it isn’t necessarily predicated on images, the sketchbooks include images, notes, diagrams, quotes, references etc. The sketchbook page that led to Repetition/Variation #1 (sketchbook series #2), for example, is all text, which is typed out at the bottom of the cover page.
I find the compositions and the process of composing quite sculptural, and the translation of an image or text (etc.) into another medium quite physical, not in a sense of exertion, but very material, and whilst I don’t really think of an audience when I am working on a score I do think of the performer (though not an idealised realisation), and of the situation in which it is performed, whether as an abstract space or an actual present space which is in some way defined by the performance.
Architectural Model Making came about after a series of talks with Simon Reynell and a series of realisations are due to be released by Another Timbre in February 2014. The score is related to a work on paper that Simon had seen on my website. On returning to the original image (which was untitled) and thinking how it could be re-worked as a score made apparent the parallels between sculpture, works on paper and composition. The constancy is more relevant here, as the works becomes parallactic, and each work reframes the next.
There’s a sense, with some artists and composers working across multiple media, that the work both exists in each instantiation and elsewhere, with each instantiation being the visible/audible components. Where do you position the piece?
I’m interested in what is extracted from a work when it is documented or performed and what capacity the documentation or performance has to create its own instantiation. It’s interesting to think about how this relates to composition as mediation is written into the nature of scores, through the performer, which changes the situation. The viewer/listener’s relationship with a score is in some ways more akin to their relationship with the photographic documentation of, say, an installation – which is somehow retrospective as the consequence of the score, the performance, becomes primary for them. In my mind the pieces are most securely positioned at the point between being written and performed, but disrupting that position is integral to the work.
Do you think it’s important for the audience to have a relationship to the score?
I think there are four main aspects to this; the audience, the score, the mechanics of the score and the realisation. The audience for this sort of music is approximately made up of performer-as-audience, musicians, composers, general listeners (whatever that is), critics, the abstract audience and the suffering family members, or the accidental audience members who stumbles across a performance and have no idea what is going on.
Except for the first and last type of audience, I don’t think having a relationship with the mechanics of the score is important to the reception of it’s realisation, but knowing that it is a scored piece of music is crucial – and personally I like to have an idea of duration. My compositions intentionally sit on the edge of improvisation and composition and knowing that a performance or realisation is scored is important for a number of reasons.
The exceptions I mentioned above, the performer-as -audience and the suffering friends and family, are exceptions for a different reason. If the performer of the score is thought of as a primary audience, then the relationship they have with it is obviously important to the realisation. On the other hand, the person who stumbles across a performance is unlikely to be enlightened by the knowledge that what they are witnessing is scored, only further perplexed, and perhaps irritated that it was pre-planned! I was performing George Brecht’s Solo for Violin at an event in Oxford a couple of years ago, the score is comprised of the word ‘Polishing’, and a woman asked me, mid-performance, if I had to clean my violin often. Having the score at hand doesn’t help in that situation. However, the audience for this sort of music is expanding (I think) so occasionally that listener must find the performance engaging.
I feel like I’ve complicated the question.
Accidents of Matter or of Space – which includes three distinct instantiations of (can never exceed unity) – is out now on Suppedaneum. Sarah Hughes has two imminent releases; a number of instantiations of Architectural Model Making will be made available as part of Another Timbre’s Online Projects; and Untitled for four, to be released by Cathnor, is a 2CD set containing two realisations of a Jason Kahn graphic score performed by Kahn alongside Patrick Farmer, Hughes and Dominic Lash. An extensive discography, including several free downloads, is available at her website sarahhughes.org.