Dominic Lash is a double bassist, improviser, and composer, based in Bristol. Like most of us he’s also a lot of other things, including in his case a writer, a cat owner, an organiser of concerts, a poor whistler, and fine company. But keeping just to his music, Lash has performed in more than a few countries of the world with a huge array of musicians ranging from Tony Conrad to Steve Reid with detours to take in the likes of Joe Morris and Evan Parker; in the course of this he’s recorded innumerable records of innumerable sorts, all of which contain music.
His main projects include The Dominic Lash Quartet, The Set Ensemble (an experimental music group focused on the work of the Wandelweiser collective) and The Convergence Quartet. More at his homepage here.
Each instalment of Bang the Bore’s Interviews With Composers series focuses on a single score – in this case Lash’s Chord Sequence with Interruptions, a recording of which can be found below. The score for the piece, along with other pieces by Dom can be downloaded here
Fade up, easy chat, coming gradually into audible focus…
Dan Bennett: … Ok so shall we start the conversation?
Dominic Lash: ok yep
DB: … Ok… Erm… Yeah.
DB: It would have been easier if I hadn’t done that and we’d just carried on.
DB: Do you want to describe the piece?
DL: Well it’s a piece for solo guitar, unamplified electric guitar. I can’t quite remember why I decided that rather than acoustic, but I think I liked the idea of the sounds being really quite small. There’s that intimate thing and the fact that if you play an unamplified electric, you the player can hear it quite well, because it vibrates against you. But it’s not so quiet that it’s…. Playing double bass in this kind of music, getting quiet can be really tense, and I like the idea that it’s not really tense, it just will be really quiet because the instrument can’t be loud so you just play it normally, you’re not even trying to be quiet. It’s not even that it’s quite quiet, it’s quite small.
DB: That’s interesting. I was going to ask about that. Because it is quite small, were you thinking that this is only ever going to be played in small rooms, or would you be perfectly happy for it to be played in a situation where it was verging on inaudible?
DL: It’s not meant to be that kind of … “are they playing or are they not?” … So, no, it’s meant to be audible! And I think could be played on an acoustic guitar or an amplified electric guitar, that’s not the most important thing about it. Realistically, where this music gets played, it is going to be a smaller room. But no, no, I think if it ended up being played somewhere where the room was big enough that at the back, it was inaudible, it should be amplified…
DB: Ok sure. I’m interested in that because when we were playing the Ablinger piece (Peter Ablinger’s Weiss/Weisslich 4) – and I think you gave me this a little while after we did that – one of the things you were interested in with that was it being so much on the edge of inaudibility. But that wasn’t a concern for this piece?
DL: No. But Ablinger, with the piano… He’s interested in that mechanical thing isn’t he, where you’re trying to play really quietly, and there’s this whole mechanism between your hand and what the hammer does. And he’s assuming that quite accomplished piano players will play it so he’s subverting their skill, because there will be a point at which it simply doesn’t sound if you do it slightly too softly, and I think even the most technically accomplished pianist with the most amazing touch is going to have some dead notes. Whereas with this, no, that’s not an issue. I didn’t want the player, in that regard, to be in a state of stress; whereas I think the Ablinger really does want to create a real…. Yeah, tension.
So really that’s not particularly important. I mean, it’s not unimportant, but, it’s not the focus. I can’t really remember where the idea started from but I had the idea of a series of pieces all for solo instruments, called “chord sequence with… “ And different things that could go “with …”. And the idea of the chord sequence as something quite… sort of impersonal, not quite found material, but kind of…
DB: … Not expressive in any way?
DL: It will be expressive but … not having constructed a lovely chord sequence that I really like, and not being either a demonstration of an obvious process.
DB: We should probably say, about the piece, that what you’ve got is, you’ve gone through the four middle strings of the guitar, within a span of four frets and rearranged the chords you can make there, first in a …kind of sequential manner?
DL: Yes, I haven’t described the piece, have I? So it has this chord sequence that goes throughout. At the beginning it keeps the same notes on the bottom and permutates the ones on top, then gradually works its way through until every chord on the middle strings with one finger per fret (different finger on each fret, first finger on the third fret) has cropped up.. I just went through like that, and then took exactly the same chords, but put them in a chance determined order, and then took the same chance determined order but transposed each chord according to a chance procedure. I couldn’t write music without random.org! Do you know it?
DB: No, I don’t know random.org.
DL: It’s one of these sites that claims that it gives you “real” random, it’s not an algorithm, it comes from atmospheric noise, or something wackier than that.
DB: But some physical phenomenon.
DL: So the claim that they make is that it is true randomness in some sense; it’s not simply an algorithm. I don’t know how true this is.
DB: so it’s “real” random!
DL: REAL randomness, I don’t want any of this fake randomness. That’s probably nonsense. But the site is quite handy, because you can kind of get random numbers in between any range and you can put in any sort of data field and get random permutations of it.
DB: Ok, because I was interested to know what the thought was behind the material – but it was purely that it was something that was intended to be non-expressive and kind of – non intentional I guess?
DL: (with reservation) …Yes.
DB: And so you made the choice of having these permutations, but beyond that…
DL: …yeah… But I don’t think I was so wedded to… I think I would have done something different if I hadn’t liked it. I don’t remember that I did, but I would have just run the chance procedure again. So it’s not a demonstration of a procedure. I can’t sort of write stuff like some people where the procedure has to be completely transparent, and it’s the procedure which is dominant, but I also wouldn’t… it’s odd, but I also wouldn’t cheat. So if I got a permutation that I kind of liked more, but there were two chords I didn ‘t like, I’d either leave them all, or get a whole new one, rather than just going “oh I ‘ll just fudge that bit”. It ‘s odd, but it feels like it would be cheating.
So anyway…starting with the chord sequence: between each section, only one thing has happened to the sequence, so the first one is, as it were, the “Ür-sequence” (laughs) which is then permutated, and then that same permutation is moved around. So that’s the chord sequence, and then there are the interruptions. The player has to play all of them, but they can play them whenever they want. . And there are two types of interruption, one is a series of four plucked sequences of notes, which are all in fact the same pitch classes, I think it’s even a tone row, isn’t it? Yeah. Each sequence uses the same series of pitches, though not in the same octave necessarily each time, but with maximum variation… so that the same pitch is never played in the same way.
DB: So it’s the same tone row, but arranged differently each time…
DL: I mean at the simplest it’s the same pitch on a different string or, you know, as a harmonic or – all these things, plus the idea of trying to contort the hand to get as much overlap as possible, to let them ring as long as possible. And all that stuff is a very deliberate Derek Bailey homage. I mean it’s not meant to sound as such, but it’s very influenced by his way of thinking about getting music from the guitar, the physical nature of – the tuning and…
DB: Because that was something that struck me about the chords as well, that again you’ve kind of…followed a logic with it, but it’s not a … neutrally musical logic, it’s a logic that comes from the structure of the instrument. So it’s a question of moving through frets rather than moving through pitches.
DL: Yes, so it wouldn’t make sense on a piano. I mean you could play the chord sequence with no problem on the piano … But it wouldn’t be that; and in fact I ‘ve written the piece for piano, but that has a different way of going about things. The other type of interruptions are long notes played by the ebow, where the first time it’s just sort of pure, the next time I wanted some whistling to sort of interfere with it. Which again is something I can’t do because, notoriously, I can’t whistle!
DB: Can you not!?
DL: No! … (all but fails to whistle)
DB: There was a bit of whistle there.
DL: Actually I ‘ve got better, I ‘ve been practicing
DB: That’s good to know.
DL: … And yeah the third time [with the ebow] I wanted a bit of a buzz against the fret. So … There’s these seven things which will interrupt. The plucked interruptions have to occur in the order they’re given, and the other ones have to happen in the order that they’re given in, but they can alternate in any way, and they can come at any time as long as there’s at least one chord in between, so you can’t just go straight from one interruption to another.
So this is “chord sequence with interruptions” this idea of having a chord sequence determined in some way by the instrument and slightly, as you say, “non-expressive”. But what I’m interested in is then the expressive things that sort of … crop up… Well that’s one of the things I’m interested in. And then on a guitar, yeah, having them interrupted is nice. On the piano one it’s “chord sequence with juxtapositions”, so there’s an ebow on one string which you can, if you’ve got a third pedal, you can just have it start, put the pedal down so it’ll take off lift up the hammer. So the chord sequence and the sustained tone can happen at the same time. And then I’m planning “chord sequence with distortions” for violin, which will be more like, actually the chord sequence will be carrying on but there’ll be things happening with the bow positioning and pressure, so it’ll be more happening –
DB: – to the chord sequence rather than with it?
DL: And I might do others if I can think of other things that could go after “…with”.
DB: I was interested in why “interruptions”. What was the appeal of having this? But that was a structural idea, that it should be this kind of … not monochromatic, but expressionless material and…?
DL: Well I’m interested in “monochromatic”. I wrote a piece about it for Wolf Notes, and it … does it crop up in my thesis? I think it does. I forget. It could in a sense be monochromatic. And I think I also quite like… I don’t know why … the linear sequence that goes on sort of inexorably that can have little detours, and then you come back, and it just carries on going forwards. I wrote a piece when I was at [Oxford] Brookes doing my M.A. that was much more for improvisers called Seamless/Palindrome, that had a forward sequence of events that happened in any order, but then at any time you could leave that and go to a different thing, which was just permutations of combinations of the players, sort of like Zorn’s game pieces. You could go to that at any time, and then go back. It sounded totally different, but it did have this idea one thing that’s continuing in a straight line and something that interrupts it, I don’t know why I like that, but it seems that I do!
DB: That’s something else that reminded me of the Ablinger pieces that we did, that I know you were keen on at the time, they similarly had these parts that would set up a logic of seeming to move up the scale and then halfway through would change the logic of the scale. Or the piano part was just initially going up the white notes, and then every so often you’d just have a completely unrelated note.
DL: I was talking to Tim Parkinson about some of this stuff yesterday, it happens in a very different way in his music, but something about … I quite like both knowing exactly what’s going to happen next, and not knowing at all what’s going to happen next. And I guess perhaps in the first bit of the chord sequence, maybe can you can even start to predict what the next chord is going to be. But then in the later bits you can’t. But on the other hand having heard four chords doesn’t give you any information about what the fifth chord is going to be, in a harmonic sense.
DB: That’s the interesting thing about having the structure come from the instrument rather than a musical logic; that you’ve got exactly what you’re saying I guess. You’ve got a sense of certain things proceeding in that you’re going [mimes fretting] 3, 4, 5, 6, 4, 5, 6, 3 … But at the same time the overall harmony you’re getting, it isn’t functionally…
DL: No, but then at times it will crop up – you’ll get a straightforward major 7th chord at one point, and how strong are those echoes … Does this stand out as a “musical” chord whereas these other things are collections of notes? Or can you hear the major 7th as just another collection of intervals within this little range? It’s quite hard for me not to hear it as something distinctive. But then there are other chords that also have echoes of something. And particularly from the second section when it starts to get permutated there are certain sequences where you go “oh, that’s a nice sequence”, and then another one you go “oh, I don’t like that one so much”. But why you feel that and whether it would be the same as what someone else would think, I don’t know.
DB: I mean how does that aspect of it relate to monochromaticism. Do you think that is there, or is that a connection I’m importing into it? Is that what the monochromaticism that you’re interested in is, in some way? The sense of … kind of – I don’t know how I’d express it? A kind of continuum, which doesn’t have features that you would pick out, but then within it you have these things like the major 7ths which really do prick up the ear, and are not in a sense monochromatic? Or is that a distortion of it?
DL: [unsure] yeah… I don’t think I was thinking about monochromatic stuff when I was putting it together, but I think it is something that is definitely there. But as far as I remember… If I remember back to … May? – It wasn’t consciously on my mind. But it does relate, because one of the things with that I was interested in – which actually this doesn’t really deal with but it’s something else I was talking to Tim about yesterday – but the idea of something where the form is so detailed that you can only really give an account of the form by giving an account of the whole thing. That’s the sort of sense in which something like Derek Bailey’s improvising, even though it doesn ‘t seem superficially monochrome, it seems quite colourful and eventful… but in a certain sense there’s something monochrome, at least structurally, because the only adequate structure is just the whole thing itself.
DB: So it’s tending towards noise in that sense, and entropy.
DL: Yes exactly. George Lewis says in the notes to one of the solo recordings – I think it’s the Concert in Milwaukee that was released on a tape ages ago that Incus have just bought out on CD a year or so ago – and he talks about exactly that, a sort of magnification thing. It’s white noise if you go back too far, but if you come right in it’s incredibly detailed, but there’s not really a… obviously there is a middle ground, but there’s not a middle ground that’s in nice units in between the extremes.
So this, obviously, structurally doesn’t have that, but it’s there somehow in the way that it’s so anonymous, just a series of chords. But because it’s not in time, if you actually had the transcription of someone playing it you’d have to have an entirely different length for every chord because you’re likely to play it –
DB: Because the timings are determined by the decay of the notes?
DL: Yes, so what did I say? (checks the score) “Every chord should be completely allowed to die away before moving on and pauses may be longer still”. That’s probably something where the unamplified electric is quite important – because even a slightly amplified electric will sound for longer. It lasts quite a while anyway, I didn’t realise it was going to go on that long! So in that sense it’s sort of monochrome by having a structure that’s so clear that you go “almost that’s not a structure that’s just a series of things”. But then of course if you get right into the details of, well exactly what does happen when this chord moves there? … But it doesn’t move according to sense that here’s the first bit where it’s building up tension and you can now say it’s moved to somewhere different.
DB: Because that’s one of the things that you do with the sustained ebow part, isn’t it? That you ask that it hangs around long enough that the memory of the piece up to that point is… obliterated … You don’t say “obliterate memory”!
DL: Yes. [reading] “long enough that the memory of the piece up to that point is almost forgotten”. I wonder whether that is… I was quite taken by a Matthias Spahlinger piece… can’t remember what it’s called … for ensemble… It carries on for the first however long it is, for the first 10, 15 minutes of its life, in this kind of interesting Lachenmann-esque, new music way , and then a percussionist, I think it’s a snare drum starts doing this: [begins beating a bare, slow pulse on table] and at the beginning you’re just like “ok it’s just doing that for a bit”, but then it just doesn’t stop, it just carries on for a ridiculously long amount of time, and by the time the music eventually starts behaving like it did before you’ve totally forgotten what it was doing before. But that’s a much more deliberately…
DL: Exactly, provocatively and dramatically stage managed. Whereas this is much more in a sort of “wandel-idiom” so I didn’t feel I wanted to do that kind of thing, but I think also, it’s also, it’s musically interesting in terms of what you can keep in mind and what sense you have about what just happened and what you anticipate might happen, and after a certain time of a long note, you’ve probably…
DB: I suppose to be a proper interruption it has to interrupt the flow of memory…?
DL: I suppose, yeah – You could be very short, that would be an interruption I suppose. If it’s interrupting … yeah, I hadn’t thought of that, but it has to be long enough to seem like the progress of the piece has been interrupted rather than that the progress of the piece is to have this different kind of thing happen next.
DB: There’s a difference isn’t there?
DL: I think so
DB: Is it partly to be able to understand the piece as a whole – does that come back to the monochromaticism thing – that the audience can’t have the whole piece in mind very easily as they’re listening to it?
DB: Because there’s this thwarting of any sense of the whole thing… which also perhaps comes in with the fact that you allow the performer to shuffle it around as they please?
DL: Yes, yes exactly… [tone suggests it might not be “exactly”] As a listener I like not knowing what’s coming next, but doing that without thinking “is the rug going to be pulled out from under my feet?” You could say it’s more conservative, but I suppose you could be pretty sure after 20 minutes of this piece that the player’s not going to stand up and start singing or something, and you’d probably have the got idea that, ok, there are these chords going on and occasionally they seem to play a long note, occasionally they do this plucked thing, but you wouldn’t know there wasn’t a third kind of…
DB: – you might be surprised by the whistling?
DL: Yeah exactly, little things, or you might think – or this is the kind of thing I might think – “I wonder if I ‘ve heard it now, or I wonder if there’s a fourth texture I haven’t heard yet?” You wouldn’t know.
DB: So it keeps a kind of tension to it
DL: Yeah, and things not happening can also be surprising, once you’ve got into the idea that “I’m sure there’s going to be something else”, you know?
DB: A 10 minute drum pulse that happens in the middle of the piece is surprising for about five minutes I suppose, but I guess at some point it stops being surprising.
DL: But then does it becomes surprising again, like, “this has got to stop, hasn’t it”? Are you constantly surprised that it’s still going on? So things can be surprising through…
DL: I suppose the title gives it away. You do expect the chord sequence to be interrupted.
DB: Do we need to preface this interview by saying that it contains spoilers?
DL: Yes, absolutely, if you don’t want to know who did it then listen to the piece before listening to the interview!
DB: One of the things I wanted to ask , because you’d said to me that this was your tribute to Derek Bailey in some way. The most immediately obvious thing I suppose you might pick out is the thing he took from Webern; the kind of Klangfarben aspect of rearranging the same tone rows, splitting them across timbres. And, maybe connected, I remember one of the things that you liked from Bailey was him saying that, if you think the second string open is the same note as the fifth fret on the string before then you’re not listening properly…
DL: He says it in his collection of things that he was assembling for the guitar book that he never actually finished. Yeah, something like “this book is not for anyone who thinks the C on the third fret on the A string is the same as the C on the 8th fret of the e string”, or whatever. I’m not sure if people do think that but I suppose it means that he…
DB: It stakes out his territory doesn’t it?
DL: Although I don’t know if you’d hear that it’s the same sequence of notes [in each of the plucked interruptions] – I don’t know if I would if I was listening.
DB: I didn’t notice that until I’d already played it through to be honest, and … I mean one of the things – some of the harmonics that are quite difficult to get to ring out, particularly play to that I suppose.
DL: Yes, it does go up to the 7th harmonic doesn’t it, on the first one? Which is quite delicate. But nothing like “Mind is Moving”, the Michael Pisaro piece that goes right up to the 13th or something, it goes very high, and you’re doing them in 3 note chords, and they’re not necessarily all the same one either, so you can’t necessarily just bar them, it’s very, very detailed, very, very quiet.
Returning to the Bailey-esque bits, as a kind of problem solving exercise it’s quite nice… Which sequence comes out if I’m not allowed to use any of the things I ‘ve used before.
DB: Sorry how do you mean?
DL: [picks up score for chord sequence with interruptions] Well, having written the first line, having got the tone row … I think it is the same tone row I used in a different piece, I think I probably thought I’d do that because nobody would notice anyway.
DB: It’s just a tone row you like, is it?
DL: I think it’s, yeah it’s my trademark, I think it is the same one – yes it is. Having done the first one, when I was writing the second third and fourth, you get a certain line that comes out through just going “ok, well, I’m not allowed to use that so I ‘ll put that one there. Ok, so, what would be interesting next given that I’m not allowed to use any of the ones I ‘ve used before?” So something comes out that…
DB: Which you wouldn’t necessarily have written if you didn’t have those constraints.
DL: Yeah, which is Derek’s way of thinking. One of his exercises is based on any straightforward scale. You’re allowed to jump octaves as much as you want, but you just take whatever pitch is coming next, and – if you think of three basic kinds of notes as being stopped notes, open strings and harmonics – you aim tomix these up as much as possible, and move them around, to get as much timbral variety as you can. It’s not at all like playing a scale in 4ths or something where you can work out the possibilities and just practice them all, there’s a vast number of possibilities.
DB: So it’s always going to be something new.
DL: I think for him it’s also a kind of improvisation exercise. It’s not something where you learn some patterns and just practice them, you don’t bother to learn the patterns. It’s a way of thinking, having to choose each note each time.
DB: That’s another thing that comes back to allowing the structure of the instrument to determine the piece as well isn’t it? That that only makes sense on the guitar and it kind of takes away a certain kind of performer preference. Because I remember when I bought that thing round for you to record – the triple double bass thing – I remember you saying that when you write music you never have an idea of some notes you’d like to hear; never “this is the chord sequence that I want to hear”, you’re much more interested in…
DL: I’m not sure about “never”. I mean maybe the things I write for my quartet, and other things where it’s more of a jazz-related form, that’s more about setting up particular problems that might be fun to improvise with. I don’t mean complicated structures to keep in mind, but things that will put you in a particular place and do something to the improvising.
DB: Sort of like heads?
DL: Yes so they look more… I mean it varies, I try to do different structural things, but I tend to not use these kind of process things. I might sort of use them, but I wouldn’t feel I was cheating then if I just went “yeah, ok actually I just don’t like how that’s come”, so that’s a little bit more about –
DB: – writing melodies that you like I guess? Closer to that?
DL: Yeah, I mean, about a sound I’m happy with, but that will put the improvisers in a particular place. But a piece like this, it has some flexibility, but it’s not about … improvising … no, but it sort of is. I mean a player could map out when they were going to do each thing or, I assume, most people would just choose it more on the hoof. But it’s not about that. Whereas the other stuff is starting from the position that there’s no reason why you can’t just improvise for a whole set. So it’s definitely not starting from the idea that you have to have some pieces to give it structure, because I like the structures you get in improvising; but it’s just – how about some things that wouldn’t happen otherwise? It’s something different. So really kind of a little can go a long way, you can just have a couple of bars and it’ll definitely have more of an influence.
DB: For the “jazz”?
DL: Yes, it’ll have more of an influence. It can have quite a strong influence. Whereas this …
DB: – you have to write the whole thing?
DL: And it’s for different contexts and different players as well. Obviously there are people who do both. I’m not particularly bothered about finding players who, what they really want to do is improvise and then seeing what happens when you give them lots of complicated stuff to play; or finding people who never improvise and forcing them to improvise, I’m not that bothered about doing that.
DB: They’re separate activities?
DL: Yes, that’s the main thing yeah I mean, they’re separate, but they’re not kind of… It’s probably for other people to say how related they are or aren’t, but the main thing is the context and the people who play them.
DB: You’re not trying to merge the two in any kind of… it’s not an interest of yours to merge the two?
DL: No, because I think they’ll end up being me, I probably can’t help it. Hopefully it’s not too… Well I don’t know, I suppose people will have different judgements on whether one is more successful than another one, or whether they seem too… Hopefully they’re not just “here’s this that rips off this tradition, and here’s this that rips off this other tradition” but yeah, trying to be really self-conscious about “I must try to do my things in any context”… I try not to think about that, because I don’t think I can help it.
DB: I mean for a start, I guess this is not a free improvised piece, but a lot of the ideas sound like they came from Derek Bailey, which is quite interesting.
DL: Well I don’t see a sort of binary division between… They ‘re just different ways of making music. I’m not bothered about making that difference the subject of the music. I might have been at one point. I mean when I was doing my PHD, the piece I wrote as part of that was definitely meant to be kind of mid-way between the two. But I think I lost interest in that. I wasn’t that bothered. Again it always comes back to being perfectly happy to improvise completely freely depending on … with certain people and… Lots of people have done lots of really interesting stuff linking them together, all sorts of really interesting stuff that I was really into for ages, and still am, but maybe I just didn’t think I had particular things to add.
DB: Is there anything else you wanted to say about the piece?
DL: Well … There’s the possibility to play these solo pieces at the same time, I had that in mind.
DB: All of the “…with – ” pieces? Because they’re all solo – “Piano piece with…”
DL: piano piece with juxtapositions, violin piece with distortions. There was going to be a flute piece. What was that going to be called? Anyway, the only ones I ‘ve written are the guitar and piano ones. There must have been some reason why I wanted to write some solo things… I had a problem for a long time with material, you know, I suppose that comes back to what you were saying before, about not being like “yes, I want to hear these chords”. Yeah, because there’s always a point where things are just, no matter how systematic your composition, something is like that just because you’ve chosen it and it could always be something different. And as an improviser you do those kind of things and that’s totally true, but it’s determined by this real-time thing. Like “of course I could have chosen something else, but I didn’t choose that”. But with composition, I don’t kind of – it’s not my… If that’s your main output, or your only output, then all sorts of things can go in. But there are also things that are covered by improvising, so… Unless the group seems fun, they’re the right players to put some written stuff in front of – but if it’s not that there’s always that question of, you know, why write a piece at all? And then why have that stuff rather than something else, you know, if the idea is that I’m interested in these structures, or these behaviours or these … sequences… happenings.
I mean like that for four piece, that I’m just working on the recording for…. I mean that’s only a couple of years ago, but that’s sort of [laughs] “opus 1” in a funny sort of way. I mean there was lots of stuff before, but for a long time I sort of stopped writing, after my PhD. I mean, after my MA I tried some things and just didn’t really enjoy hearing people play stuff I’d written. I was like, why sit here and have people who don’t seem to like doing it, and I don’t really like the feeling of being sat here… I’m often quite uncomfortable in that context, being sat there listening to someone playing something I’d written. I didn’t enjoy it. You sort of sit there and then you think the performers aren’t really… I mean we did some things with my MA where professional groups came in and played the pieces and they didn’t like it that much, or they were kind of larking about. And then it’s like, this isn’t really what the piece is. Then someone comes up and goes, “I really liked your piece”. Are you supposed to say “thank you, I’m really glad you did”, or “yeah, that really wasn’t what they were supposed to do”… And then improvising was really interesting, and I liked that, and that was quite satisfying. So I didn’t really write anything for quite a while, but then I discovered Wandelweiser. Or I discovered it but then I got into it a while after I discovered it – to begin with I thought it was fine, but… But somehow… I think it has for a lot of people, it seemed to sort of open up… It’s almost some sort of a punk thing. I mean there are lots of bad Wandelweiser type pieces , but there’s this thing where “here we go, you can have an idea and you can make some music which fits in a context”. And there are –
DB: – there are people who have this as their idiom, there’s a social structure to it as well.
DL: Yeah, which is really … and that’s important, that was the same with improvised music, y’know, just finding people that you liked playing music with who were interesting people to be around. Like anything. So yes, there’s a sense in which that for four piece, which just says “1,2,3,4” – it doesn’t even say “player 1, player 2 …” I imagine it could be played by a really big group divided into quarters – and it says “1) every ten seconds, identical, 2) every 25 seconds, converging .. .etc.” It doesn’t even say what it’s converging towards, or if it applies to the group as a whole.
So it feels as if it has a definite… You could tell if you were playing it right or wrong, but it doesn’t specify any material. But I felt I was kind of happy it had a kind of character, but it’s really open. I mean I wouldn’t be so happy doing – and I don’t really have graphic skills either, but – purely graphic scores. Not as in scores that have a graphic component, but things that really are playing a score that’s just a picture. Never been terribly satisfied with that.
DB: No, no I agree actually
DL: So, something like this, you definitely know you’re playing that piece. But then I thought I want to also be able to write stuff where I specify the material as well, and just have to deal with the fact that, of course it could have been entirely different, but I just decided that it was this. And I must have done other stuff, yeah there are other pieces, but these come out of that. Thinking: “yes, for a solo instrument that’s enough to deal with”, and then looking at the instrument itself as a way of getting some of the stuff. But also not doing some kind of incredibly complex…you know, these sort of pieces that say “you must bump the 15th fret with your elbow, and I’m going to draw a squiggle that means your right elbow”. I think maybe for a while I had fantasies of wanting to write those kind of pieces, but I don’t actually hear that, I don’t have these ideas for these things that are totally controlled in that way. I’d always be like “why that”? I mean, you’re writing so precisely. I like lots of that kind of music, I did and I still do, and haven’t stopped liking it. Maybe I listen to it less than I used to, but I still do. But you know if you’re Brian Ferneyhough and you write like that and you actually can hear it all in your head while you’re writing it, then that makes sense, but if you’re me you can’t do that, so –
DB: – so why pretend?
DL: Yeah, exactly, it doesn’t seem to make sense to write like that.
DB: There’s definitely something about that. I mean I didn’t write on paper for years, and when I did, I think I got a little bit carried away with the image of someone writing down a piece – with the changing time signatures cos I’d just been looking to a lot of Feldman scores – and there’s a certain risk of being seduced by the trappings of notation.
DL: Music that looks right!
DB: Music that looks right! Yeah, and that expresses a certain control without really needing to.
DL: Yeah, that’s the thing, you want to make it attractive enough that someone… if you’re going to write something and someone’s going to bother to do the work of playing it – even if it’s an easy piece it’s still hard work to play a piece of music – so you’ve got to make it not look like you don’t care about them. You have some horribly scribbled scores…. I mean I love these Richard Barrett scores done by hand that look amazing. But I’m not that patient, and I’m not that good at… my draughtsmanship is terrible. But yeah, bringing those things in, it’s not like you’re ignoring those issues, but… it’s a little bit like the stuff we’ve talked about a lot, about writing as well where you write something that’s all impressive flashiness on the surface, but actually you could have written it a lot more simply.
DB: Yeah, so then why wouldn’t you have written it a lot simpler?
DL: Yeah exactly.
DB: So there’s a certain degree of thinking about what it is you want to do. In this case say it was the continuum and the interruption of the continuum, and the neutrality – and it’s finding a simple way of doing that that’s interesting and yet not overly controlling, and didn’t have the elements it didn’t need I suppose?
DL: Yeah, I think it’s about efficiency I suppose. Hopefully not in some horrible [laughs] time and motion study sense of getting the most out of my wage labourers – who aren’t paid for playing anything that I might have written anyway. But in the sense of, you know, what needs to be there? Is it an influence of minimalism? Not in the sense of “is it a large M or a small m?” but I mean of what “minimalism” might mean; that you don’t need much. I mean that’s the lesson both from improvised music and from … well the lesson from improvised music is “you don’t need composers”; and the lesson of… well… Antoine Beuger’s music or whatever is that you can have one page with hardly anything on it and have music that lasts for hours. So there’s a certain sense of thinking that just to do that isn’t terribly interesting, to do things that have been done. You don’t have to be wanting to revolutionise things but…
DB: There has to be a reason to do it.
DL: There has to be a reason to do it. You know I could do a piece that’s just a C and it’s like: “play this C for 18 hours”, but that wouldn’t be an interesting piece now. I mean it does relate to communities and things as you were saying, you know “Wandelweiser”. Hopefully you can stop it being too much of a clique. Like all these things it does have a definite tendency to cliquedom, but there’s a certain thing about just…
DB: – I mean for a start you’ve got a performer, you’ve got someone who understands… a certain shorthand.
DL: Yeah. So I mean so long as there’s openness so that … I mean because a lot of people are going to hate this stuff, but so long as it’s open so that you can go “look you can come in, it’s not only for the initiated”… but still having people who have certain shared things that you know that you’re keen on. So sort of the opposite of Ferneyhough’s thing where his attitude is that “there’s no performance tradition of my music”. So you look at Bach and you know there’s so much stuff which isn’t notated, like there is with any notation really, but the idea that Bach didn’t bother to write all these tiny subtleties of tempo, etc. Because it was based on an oral tradition and a shared practice, so there’s no need, but he doesn’t have that for his music.
DB: Ferneyhough doesn’t have that so…?
DL: That doesn’t exist, so if you don’t put that then people probably won’t play it without those importations of a performance practice. They’ll just do it with an inappropriate performance practice.
So it’s sort of about efficiency, it is being able to rely on a certain performance practice. So I am sort of assuming that… This is something Antoine talks about, sort of, not trying to proof your piece against the performer, so they couldn’t possibly do it wrong if they bother to read everything. Whereas this, obviously I want enough information that the player is going to be clear, but it’s only ever going to be played by someone who’s already interested so… you can take some things for granted, and that’s fine.
DB: It is interesting. You said earlier about Wandelweiser having a kind of punk/DIY quality to it, and that being attractive. But another thing that’s in common with the punk/DIY thing is that both of them go against this idea of the person who’s writing music as the kind of maestro figure, who’s controlling everything about it, who has this pre-existing inspiration that he then has to notate as precisely as possible. All of these things are much more about community and thinking about who is available to do it.
DL: Antoine [Beuger] was quite inspiring about this sort of stuff when I saw him earlier this year. I mean, he’s quite hardcore about these kind of things. He says you should never go to a rehearsal unless you’re invited, as the composer; and he says he would never take the score because the musicians by that point should know it better than you anyway, assuming they’ve already been rehearsing it; and you should never say anything unless they ask you specifically, which of course they might well. They might say, “is this right?”. Again it’s very much not having the idea that you have to performer-proof your compositions – the performers are doing something quite generous by playing your music, and you have to give them a lot of credit for that. I mean, he’s particularly strong on that. There are also people who will claim to play someone’s music and not have bothered to read it beforehand; and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to get irritated with that if someone hasn’t actually bothered. But it’s really just about making things happen. If I hadn’t written this piece it would have been fine, but once you’ve had an idea if you don’t do it, then no-one else is going to do it.
DB: It’s interesting what you were saying there about not turning up and not instructing the performers, there’s another thing there it points to the thing that, and it touches on what you were saying about not having “inspiration” for a piece, that … I think there’s a perception, and I used to have it, that a score is a transcription of a thing, this kind of platonic object that then [as a performer] you have to do your best to kind of…
DL: So every performance is always a failure because it’s never as good as the score.
DB: Yeah, and that was something that when we did talk about music in philosophy lectures, it would be thought of in these terms. Whereas, certainly in this music, and you’d probably suggest going outside of this music, that’s not really how anybody functions.
DL: I think probably that’s not how any music should be thought about. I see a score much more like a play script; with a play script you know that most of it isn’t there…
DB: Unless you’re doing Beckett!
DL: But even then, even then! Even in Beckett, when you start to put a production together there are so many things that he doesn’t tell you. I mean that’s this whole thing of the “realisation” – “realisations” of pieces, that people talk about – which occasionally irritates me because occasionally I think it’s become a little bit of a jargon word. I think there are certain scores where it’s appropriate to talk about realisations, like Manfred Werder’s text scores and things which don’t really look like scores. But I think there’s also nothing wrong in talking about a “performance” of a piece. I have a slight reservation because it’s sometimes like the right word to use in a Wandelweiser influenced context for a performance, is a “realisation”. I think the word “performance” is fine, but the reasons why that word started getting used at all probably goes back to earlier experimental music: Cage and things. I mean lots of Cage pieces are like that aren’t they? These sort of kit form things. They tend to be much more complicated than what people are writing now, or that we encounter. Things like Fontana Mix where you have lots of transparencies and you lay them on top of each other and you measure, and you end up with a score – probably if that’s the way you work.
DB: They’re kind of equipment to build a score.
DL: To build a score. So there’s a sense there in which “realisation” is quite a good word. But with a piece like this, you just perform it, and of course you “realise” it, but I don’t think it’s any different from playing Bach, which is always… you know. But this difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar, where prescriptive grammar says “here’s the right thing to say” whereas descriptive grammar is: anybody speaking any language is using grammar. And I remember saying to one of my teachers at secondary school “oh, because you can’t have a double negative in English”, and she said “you can, you can just say: “I didn’t do nothing.”, “But that’s wrong.”, “But no one ever misunderstands anyone when they say that!” So there’s a certain sense in which scores like this are more interested in a descriptive grammar, even though the scores are being prescriptive, saying “do certain things”. But the transcription of a performance, if the performance were transcribed onto paper, it would look nothing like the marks on paper which have generated it. Whereas with other music there’s an idea that the transcription would look quite like what the player had to work with. When I went to see Antoine he had just got the mix of Cantor Quartets that Simon put out on Another Timbre with me, Jürg Frey, Radu Malfatti and Sarah Hughes. The piece is just a simple series of notes, played as a sort of round, but with Antoine’s standard thing that you can play them in any octave, or any tuning, so a C can be anywhere from a B to a C#. So one of the things that happens is, all these great kind of, Niblock style beatings and things. But the score is so simple, it’s almost like you look at it and it’s nothing. Its some semibreves on little bits of treble clef and that’s it. But when he put the recording on, he was remarking on “oh isn’t it interesting, the third harmonic is so strong in Radu’s playing. I didn’t think of third harmonics being so strong in the trombone” – talking in these technical… I mean that’s quite advanced, technical hearing, listening in that way, but for him that’s just … descriptive; it’s a thing that’s going on but it’s not what it’s about.
DB: So while he’s got the chops…
DL: Exactly, he’s got the chops, so he’s not worried about it, it’s just like “oh that’s an interesting feature”, but he’s not insecure about proving how many chops he has in that department. It just struck me because… I don’t know… I think maybe people would be surprised to hear that. Because lots of the writing about his music is all about “wonderful calmness” and “peacefulness”, which he’s certainly very interested in, it’s not that that’s a misrepresentation of what he’s trying to do, but there’s maybe a sense in which technical musical discussion gets left in the cold… and also there are a number of people who are interested in Wandelweiser things coming from a less technical background.
DB: …differently technical
DL: …otherly technical, otherwise technical. Or from a fine art background or whatever it is. Which is fine, again that’s what we’re calling “the punk thing”, that it’s open to that. Whereas Xenakis is open to that as a listener, but it’s not open to you as a performer if you don’t have the necessary skills. But the fact that it has that, maybe there’s a tendency too much to think that those technicalities have been superseded or something. Or that Wandelweiser is… I think maybe people who don’t like it think they are heavily conceptual – which of course it is – but this idea that, “oh it’s not really about music, it’s the musical version of conceptual art, and these ideas, and that’s all very arid”. I mean I’m interested in the ideas, but I don’t think there is an exclusion between ideas and music, a feeling that they’re somehow mutually exclusive. I mean if they’re boring ideas or if it’s boring music, it’s boring. I’m interested in the ideas, but I wouldn’t be interested in Wandelweiser music if it didn’t sound interesting. I mean it’s like improvising as well, I mean Derek … people are now writing phds about sponteneity and community in improvisation which… I’m sure some are quite interesting. I think maybe I was more interested in that kind of thing a while back.
DB: Derek Bailey?
DL: Derek Bailey said that he didn’t see why anyone would be interested in it who didn’t like the sound it made. Of course, if somebody says it just sounds cacophonous, or that a piece didn’t work, your response can be: “well, no, but one of the things in improvising that could be interesting is that a piece doesn’t work, because you’re listening to the way they’re relating, but that doesn’t mean you’re not listening to it as music”. And so, with Wandelweiser and similar music, the sound it makes is quite important! [laughs] Maybe it sounds really stupid to say it like that but I think sometimesit gets neglected.
DB: One of the interesting things that we’ve not mentioned about this is that you have – I think unusually for this… whatever this is, this kind of music – you have a TAB, you’ve TABed it. Is that because you knew there were going to be idiots like me who don’t read music especially well, or is that…
DL: There are two reasons, one is for preparing for idiots like you, and the other is because… I suppose to some extent reveals a little bit of the methodology of how it was generated, but also, if you didn’t put that there, there are other places on the guitar you could play these chords…
DB: – you could say fourth position?
DL: You could just give the position, but there was a certain thing, pragmatically. I thought it means it’s accessible to people who don’t read confidently – and it is a bit of a pain reading four note chords on a guitar, because it’s not like the piano where each note is always in the same place. So I didn’t want to exclude people. So that was probably the main practical thought, but I think also it actually emphasises that in a certain sense it’s those fingerings are what’s important. And I could have said “standard tuning” and then left out the actual dots, but then for another kind of player they’d probably want to have an idea of how it might sound just from looking. So it just seemed the most… catholic way of writing was just to include both. Every notation does either imply a performance practice or even if it’s very subtle it changes the way you feel about the piece, I think it maybe gives an emphasis to the physical. It’s kind of arbitrary; the guitar is tuned this way for historical reasons. And I wasn’t interested in changing the tunings of the guitar or anything. Maybe that’s, again, another nod to Derek, who said something along the lines of “whoever came up with that is a genius, standard tuning is brilliant; there’s lots of other tunings that do particular, fantastic things, but for a single tuning that does almost everything, you can’t improve on standard tuning”.