Alex Ward‘s musical activities are still as not as well known as they should be, despite over a quarter century of extraordinary work. As a clarinettist his virtuosity and imagination are pretty much unrivalled, and his electric guitar playing doesn’t lag behind. He’s worked with plenty of famous names (Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne, Thurston Moore) but, while as musically uncompromising as any of your favourite avant-gardists, he also lacks the kinds of restrictive intransigence that actually lead to marketability. His current activities include much improvisational work, as well as the rock duo Dead Days Beyond Help (with Jem Doulton), and the quartets Predicate and Forebrace. He runs Copepod Records with Luke Barlow. The following conversation focuses on his composition “Glass Shelves and Floor”, written for the Alex Ward Quintet (which comprises Olie Brice on double bass, Tom Jackson on clarinet and bass clarinet, Hannah Marshall on cello, Rachel Musson on tenor sax and Ward himself of clarinet and amplifier – and which is sometimes expanded to a sextet with the addition of Steve Noble on drums). The text is based on a conversation between Ward and Dominic Lash that took place on a Norwegian airport bus on 1st March 2015.
It should also be mentioned that the quintet is playing an album launch gig on Sunday May 24th at the Hundred Years Gallery, 13 Pearson Street, London E2 8JD: 3.30pm start, £5 suggested donation.
DL: Could we start with what I suspect might have been the end, which is the title?
AW: Yes, the title was a bit of an afterthought. It’s perhaps not tremendously relevant to the piece, but it does have something to do with ideas of transparent structuring and stacked horizontal layers…
DL: Are titles in general necessary evils?
AW: Very occasionally things come together and I’ll know that a title not only fits with but adds to the music, but that gets rarer and rarer. It’s the same with album covers – sometimes you have an idea and it seems to actually enhance the music, and it’s great when that happens but that’s only about ten per cent of the time and the release of Glass Shelves And Floor definitely illustrates this! Various people have questioned whether it was right to go with quite such unadorned packaging, but no image seemed appropriate to me.
DL: It’s your only minimalist streak, perhaps. But let’s not talk about minimalism, perhaps we can talk about modernism. I’m interested in the thoughts you might have about the distinction between modernism as an approach and as a particular body of techniques. There are people composing now, such as Ferneyhough, who are sometimes talked about as late modernists, but whose actual compositional techniques are clearly distinct from those that the original modernists used. Whereas I get the sense that some of the compositional strategies behind a piece like this do represent a continued interest in some of those older techniques. But you also, I would have thought, have a certain level of identification with modernism as an approach, rather than a sound.
AW: Okay. I think it’s pretty problematic to refer to what I do, and maybe to what anyone does currently, as modernist. I think the wish to do so comes mainly from an understandable desire not to identify oneself as postmodernist. I don’t think you can really recapture a time when the impulse behind modernism could exist in the same way – but even if one considers examples such as the new complexity or certain strands of improvised music as being extensions of a modernist aesthetic, I don’t think that what I’m doing could really be placed in the same category. Even in a work like this, which probably has fewer aspects that might seem traditionally based than is usual for me, there are still certain elements and approaches to vocabulary that I think someone who identified themselves forthrightly as a modernist might not indulge in or allow themselves. In terms of specific musical techniques used in the piece that one might associate with original modernism, there’s a reference to the twelve-tone method, although it’s not a serial work. There are also some elements of vertical pitch symmetry which might be reminiscent of what you’d find in someone like Varèse. One of the few things I remember being told at university which stuck in my head and seemed potentially useful was the idea that a through-line in twentieth century music, or one of the things that came in around the time of modernism and from which there’s been a line of development since is the concept of the bass moving to the middle; so that, rather than having the harmonic foundation at the bottom and then stacking stuff on top of it, you start from the middle of the pitch range and things radiate out in both directions from there. That’s an insight which has stayed with me, and there’s definitely a use of that principle in this piece and in other pieces that I’ve written for this ensemble and subsections of it. But besides those particular features, there’s the thing of using permutations or hidden processes or mathematical techniques to generate developments of material, and I guess that could be thought of as something that was a modernist trait and has been intensified by people who see themselves in that lineage, but I’m not sure it necessarily… You know, you have comparable things in previous music. I think I view that characteristic in a somewhat traditional way even if it’s using techniques associated with modernism, in the sense that the impulse is the impulse to create coherence, to generate a lot of material from a little, and I don’t think that’s a modernist principle, I think it’s a very traditional one.
DL: I suppose particularly at the opening of the piece, the gestures and the surface texture seem to me to have a more direct relationship on a sounding level with some 50s/60s compositions than I think I’ve heard in much of your music.
AW: Well, is it really… can you call it modernist if you’re referencing a period that is now fifty years ago?
DL: That’s kind of what lay behind my initial question.
AW: I don’t think there’s a way that you can avoid going… Without wanting to be retrogressive about things, I think I and probably several others have a sense that there’s a degree of unfinished business in various areas, and that there are tools which have been evolved which are still useful now. And that can apply regardless of whether you’re dealing with things which might seem to evoke something to do with the “classical” tradition or other traditions. And which traditions are evoked might have more to do with the instrumentation and possibly the people who are playing than with any consciously defined aspects of style. So with this piece, I think it’s the fact that there are no drums, and there are instruments like the cello, and the double bass is often played arco and you have the clarinets – this all tends to reference that type of soundworld more than a jazz- or rock-derived soundworld. I think the evocation of that aesthetic might have as much to do with what isn’t there as what is there.
DL: And I suppose that’s a compositional thing, making choices of who to invite. And then it’s something you don’t have to concern yourself with when actually constructing the piece presumably…
AW: Actually, in terms of talking about that kind of absence of things… if you compare, say, something like the first piece on the first Predicate album, “The Denied”, which people have perceived as having a certain type of atmosphere, how much of the way that piece comes across is a result of the writing, and how much is to do with the improvised drum part by Mark [Sanders] that goes through it? I think that if you had that same writing and took the drums off it, it would sound very different, and particularly if you then removed the instruments like saxophone and electric guitar with the associations they have – if you had Tim [Hill] playing say a bass clarinet rather than a baritone sax, had the guitar part played on a piano or vibes or something, and took the improvised drums out, you’d probably start to perceive it in stylistic terms closer to the ones that are evoked by “Glass Shelves And Floor” than the kind of free jazz thing which Predicate can often be associated with.
DL: In fact people are a little bit depressingly ready to read genre into details which are, really, fairly superficial. You’ve mentioned in passing the pitch structures which you go into in some detail in the liner notes, with the excellent phrase… What’s your excellent phrase?
AW: “Octave-specific twelve-tone generative modality”… was that it?
DL: That sounds right. I don’t think you say anything, or if you say something you don’t say much, about the rhythmic structures.
AW: The rhythmic writing is basically free, as far as I remember… There may be some passages where I’ve used permutations, where a freely composed rhythmic structure in one passage was then reused or transformed, or taken as a basis to generate ideas for another section. I can’t be sure at this point.
DL: But even if they’re freely composed they have a particular flavour. There seems to be an interest in layering up… an economical use of layering up different subdivisions, to get a certain complexity but without going into something that would be unrehearsably complicated.
AW: That’s where practical and aesthetic factors to do with the players and their interaction come in, because it’s both expedient and aesthetically appropriate, I think, to have some blurring or continuity between the types of rhythmic structures you get in the written sections and the ones that might emerge in the improvised sections. And in a lot of improvised music in general, and particularly in some music that I’d heard various members of the quintet playing and music that I’d played with them in similarly drummer-less contexts, there’s a certain kind of rhythmic approach that I was keen to draw on, which is non-metrical and multi-layered and can move quickly between a type of free counterpoint and a more pointillistic approach, and so I wanted elements of that type of rhythmic vocabulary to inform the written material; but then I wanted the compositional ideas to be developed through the improvisation as well, which as you suggest also obviates the necessity of burdening the performers with pages and pages of dauntingly complicated notation. Often with the written material there is just enough of it to establish a certain rhythmic or interactive feel, and then the use of a sort of crossfade technique where different people move into improvisation at different points, so that the written material will lend something to the way the group is working without really restricting it. And also to some extent the use of rhythm in the piece, by its quite variegated nature, is what gives articulation to the quite circumscribed pitch structures. So for instance in the very opening section of the piece, where you have that twelve-note pitch stack, the writing was just done with the idea that you would get as many combinations of those notes and ways of moving between them as possible, so that the overall sound is uniform without being repetitive. And then the idea that the improvisation could naturally extend that.
DL: Perhaps the most initially obvious thing when listening to the piece with the score is the nature of and relationships between the different strategies: fully notated material, spaces for free improvisation, spaces for improvisation that’s guided in various different ways. One way that a listener – even a listener without the score – could approach the piece would be to take those strategies, or the following of those strategies, as the subject of the piece: attempting to follow those things through, make educated guesses about how different sections of the music have been constrained and in what ways… Is that something that you’re interested in people doing, that you’d like people to do, or you think perhaps that might be a certain specialized but perhaps mistaken way of approaching the music which might miss the point?
AW: No… I think that’s kind of a natural way to approach things, not just with a piece like this but… With most music I tend to listen with some attempt to work out how it’s been arrived at and what’s going on, and I think that people who listen to improvised music naturally do that as well. Maybe there are some people who just listen to improvised music as pure sound, but… it seems to me like a strange thing to do, I find it hard to imagine an interest in improvisation without an interest in the, shall we say, behavioural aspects of it. And so what I would say is that I’ve tried to give rise to something which is rewarding, intriguing and unusual on that level. That doesn’t mean that I think you have to listen with those sorts of concerns in mind. It means that if people are looking for that kind of information – and as I say I imagine many listeners might be to some extent – then there’s stuff to find there, and hopefully interesting stuff. But that’s a long way from thinking of that, as you say, as being the subject of the piece. That’s certainly not how I would look at it.
DL: This is possibly a chance for you to say something about the motivation for including two different versions of the same composition on the one CD, because of course that gives a lot of material for someone who is listening in the way we were just talking about.
AW: Yes, I thought that was a preferable way to impart some of that information than by detailing it in the liner notes. It’s better to illustrate that aspect of the piece than to explain it, I think. But also I didn’t really want to put any other pieces on the album alongside this one. It would have been purely a matter of convenience without any aesthetic rationale to combine this piece with anything else. For me “Glass Shelves And Floor” wouldn’t have been illuminated by standing next to any of my other pieces, and I would still have expected people to take it separately in a way that I think presenting it like this… I mean, maybe some people might listen straight through to the album with both versions back to back, but I tend to doubt it. It’s sort of a way of saying that in this particular case the work is the thing, not the album – whereas normally, when I put multiple pieces on an album you are meant to consume the album as a whole and to think about the relations between those pieces. There is no other piece that I wanted to put in that sort of relation to this piece. Plus I just happened to really like both these versions, and if I could have only presented one it would have probably had to be the studio performance for reasons of it being a more strictly accurate reading and a slightly more “pro” sounding recording… but then I would have been sad not to include the Vortex version because, as you might expect from a live performance, a lot of the improvisation goes further in some ways and has that extra degree of excitement and tension to it.
DL: I’m interested in accuracy and what accuracy might mean. Obviously there is some fully notated material with notes and pitches, that’s perhaps fairly uninteresting what accuracy might mean in sense, although in the context of improvised material there’s the question of how much you might be concerned about that… But structurally, tell me if I’m wrong, but it sounds to me in the live version that the beginning of the clarinet and cello duo, Tom and Hannah’s duo, when they played sustained pitches for an extremely long time, that possibly there was a slight structural confusion. Because the piece has them going down to two people, and then improvising, and then coming back to sustained pitches. And they hold the sustained pitches for such a long time… it just sounds to me like possibly they’re waiting for something to happen, and then realising that they’re supposed to be improvising at that point.
AW: That’s interesting, I would need to listen to it again to try and remember. I don’t remember that as being the case, and I do think of Hannah in particular as someone who is quite happy to let things take longer sometimes than a lot of players might be comfortable in doing. Which is great. I can’t really speak about that moment in particular, but I would say in general that if you’re involved in this kind of endeavour you should be prepared for things like that to happen. If you don’t have first of all a few contingency plans for how to deal with things going off the rails, and secondly the ability to view it as at the very least an acceptable risk and possibly even an interesting and productive one, if you’re not prepared to think like that then I think you’re probably in the wrong business, and should not be trying to create pieces which basically call for performers to switch between very different and somewhat incompatible mindsets. Even for people who are equally at home with notated and improvised material, of whom there are not that many… [Norwegian bus announcement interrupts.] Even for people who are equally comfortable with both kind of endeavours, the types of concentration which are required for realising complicated notated material and engaging in fully committed improvisation are very different, not to mention being in the midst of either of those things and simultaneously reacting to visual cues. In having to leap from one mode of brain engagement to the other, even the best people are going to make mistakes. There’s no point in trying to eradicate that, or not being ok with it.
DL: But it is also potentially actually an advantage as well?
AW: Yes. This is a slightly different point, but it connects, and it’s certainly a way in which these kind of mishaps can sometimes be advantageous, in so far as what has always been the big stumbling block for me in attempting to work with composition and improvisation together is the fact that, almost inevitably, a lot of the structural decisions get made in the compositional stage, and so the improvisation can respond to the composition but the composition can’t respond back. I sometimes get round that in studio work by restructuring and overdubbing and combining recordings of improvised performances after the fact, but this was very much conceived as a piece which wasn’t about that, it’s a live performance piece, and it’s always been a problem for me because I think that the structural decisions improvisers make are often a lot of the most interesting things about improvisation. The last thing that I want to do is to come up with a compositional structure and then access some “improvised-type material” to put in it. I’ve always wanted somehow to do something where the improvisers can affect aspects of the structure. Obviously in a piece like this they can’t really affect the succession of things, but they can certainly affect the proportions of things and the nature of the transitions. So for instance, with that moment in the Vortex performance that you describe, after that in the piece there’s a little bit of semi-notated material but mostly a succession of elements based on pitch sets, and the way the ensemble dealt with and moved through that material I think was definitely influenced by the slowness with which that duo passage had developed.
DL: Shall we talk about the players in the group, because we’ve only just touched upon that. Why them?
AW: All of them were… as with a lot of things it’s hard to remember exactly the sequence of thought processes. Various ideas and impulses coincide to bring something about, and you can’t always remember what all of them were. But the types of things I was thinking about with this group for this piece were… well first of all, and this applies to all the things I’m doing of this type, like Predicate or whatever – my wish to write for improvisers is because of all the great improvisers who are involved in the scene which I’m also a part of. It’s not really to do with having a type of person in my head and thinking who around most fits that bill, it’s about thinking who around is inspiring to me and would I like to work with and what would be the context I’d like to work with them in. And so with this there was a sonic idea, which was that it would have no drums, be primarily acoustic, and that it would perhaps involve instruments that suggest more of a sort of chamber music-type thing, and that came partly from not having written anything like that before and wanting to tackle that challenge, and also from the fact that everyone in the group is someone that I had either heard or played with in an improvised context which evoked or touched on some of these kind of areas – they’re all people that had impressed me in an acoustic, drumless interactive improvising mode.
DL: It wasn’t part of your intention to take someone with a lot of experience with notated music and then see what happens when you get them to improvise.
AW: No no no, very far from that. The choice of people was based on their work as improvisers, but also on the knowledge that they could and would be willing and happy to work with notated material as well. There was also, and this is a practical thing but also has to do with wanting to draw on the community of players that I was hearing, there was the idea – and maybe it was a slight reaction to the situation with Predicate where we all live in different parts of the country – of putting together an ensemble where everyone lived in London! And of course time has altered that situation…
[Hannah Marshall, as Bang the Bore fans will know, has since moved to Bristol.]
DL: The gravitational pull of Bristol is too strong!
AW: Can’t be resisted for long… But what I’m getting at is that it’s to do with looking at who’s around me, in a number of senses. And as I say it’s also to do with the contexts I’d heard and maybe played with them in… so for instance Tom and I had done a lot of clarinet duo improvisation work prior to this, and that was one thing that inspired it, thinking that those kind of materials could interestingly be put into another context. Beyond that, I can only say more or less vague things… or not so much vague as not especially informative, which is just to say that they’re all great! I put together a group of people that I think are really good.
DL: You don’t need much more reason than that, I suppose.
AW: Also, and this is the vague part, but at the time that I was putting the group together, my dim sense of what the composition was going to turn out to be was something that I felt would interact interestingly with the way they… I had a feeling that the things I was going to want to ask people to do were the kind of things that it would be good to ask these people to do.
DL: We’ve been talking about the acoustic group, but then it’s not an entirely acoustic group because there’s your use of the amplifier, which I very much enjoyed. Is there anything you want to say about it, particularly in relation to this piece? Does it render anything possible that would be difficult otherwise?
AW: Not in terms of the techniques or structural material. I just heard… When I’m writing for a certain combination one thing I do is to try and accumulate a selection of sound images in my head, just by thinking about the instrumentation and the people and then trying to imagine a moment with a certain orchestration or a certain relation between the available sounds – a sonic-textural image. And possibly because I’d been starting to work with the amplified setup again anyway, that was just in my head – ideas of that type of electric sound penetrating through the rest of the acoustic texture kept coming to me. And I also liked the idea that, given that there are two clarinets in the ensemble unlike all the other instruments that there’s only one of, each of the clarinets should have an adjunct or extension – in Tom’s case it’s the bass clarinet and in my case it’s the amp – so you have the possibility for the ensemble to be very dominated by this overt sound of two clarinets, or alternatively to have the conventional clarinet sound as a sort of ghost, which is suggested but has been transformed in some way.
DL: I was going to ask you about language, I mean actual language – you know, words – in the piece. There probably would have been a time, or there would be a certain type of composer who, if they’d written a piece a little like this, it would be prefaced by three pages of symbols, but actually to have some text, because you’re not reading it in the performance, it means it’s slightly less sexy as a score but it’s a better way of achieving what you want.
AW: For me, number one, sexy or not, I just don’t like graphic scores. My heart generally sinks when someone puts one in front of me. It’s not something I find appealing. I guess you can use individual symbols which are assigned a very clear meaning, which is maybe different from a graphic score, but with this piece, I didn’t think there were enough different things being called on of that type to necessitate symbols. I don’t think the amount of written word in the score is unwieldy. And given that, I didn’t see any point in putting those extra demands on the players’ memories. I didn’t see any reason why the rehearsal process should be bogged down by people coming to a symbol and going, “what does that mean again”, when you can just say it. And the instructions with regard to cueing and with regard to the use of the pitch sets for improvisation I think are perfectly clearly and concisely expressible through words, and the things where it is more descriptive – and it doesn’t get very descriptive, but there are a few bits of somewhat onomatopoeic or technical description, along the lines of… let me see if I can find one. [Looks in score.] “Improv: Arco, primarily non-pitched – scrapes, slaps, etc. Average dynamic f.” You know, that’s the kind of description I’d give someone face-to-face, so it seems fair to do so in the score as well. I suppose the only exception to this is something which isn’t a feature of the score, but there’s one section where I conduct, and I guess it’s close to being a human graphic score, in that I don’t give much guidance about how it’s to be interpreted, I just do a bunch of this [waves arms] and it seems to achieve the effect. [laughs] I’m not particularly adventurous in this regard. I tend to think that if you want to write stuff which is notatable traditionally, then standard notation serves the purpose; if what you want is not notatable traditionally then the best thing to do is to explain it.
DL: You wouldn’t get into those things that Lachenmann does which lot of people have taken over where he’s invented a clef for strings, I don’t know what he actually calls it but there’s a visual representation of a bird’s-eye view of the bridge and the strings, so going lower on the instrument is going lower on the page, so it’s a kind of graphic score, but a precise one – time can still operate from left to right on the stave, but gestures can be indicated graphically.
AW: If at some point I write – which I would like to do, I feel it’s one of the things I need to tackle next – some completely notated compositions for, quote-unquote, classical musicians to perform, I will need to think about this issue quite seriously. But when I’m writing for improvisers I have no desire at all to compose in terms of extended techniques, beyond the most basic occasional descriptive thing. I think they can handle that end of things through their improvising. I think that – just to take the people in this ensemble – Hannah Marshall and Olie Brice know far more about how to get interesting and unusual sounds out of string instruments than I could possibly begin to.
DL: You don’t even – I think I’m right – notate specific multiphonics for the reeds. The whole idea of in what sense a technique is extended… I don’t like the term very much.
AW: Firstly it would be inappropriate for this piece, because the compositional method wouldn’t generate that kind of material. If I’d been extremely lucky I suppose that, having worked out a certain transformation of the pitch material, I might have found there was a reed multiphonic which happened to get exactly the notes I wanted in all the right octaves… But what are the chances? Also, the flipside of what I was saying about finding that the structural decisions improvisers make are some of the most interesting things about them is that, conversely, when I get frustrated with improvised music it tends to be more to do with it gravitating towards certain usual types of material, while other materials don’t often or possibly can’t happen in an improvised context, and so what I want to do when I’m composing for improvisers is to inject types of material which won’t occur otherwise and see what happens to the improvisation with those in the mix. I’ve no desire to try to compose stuff which sounds like the sort of stuff which people might create when they’re improvising. And so, for Rachel and Tom, they make plenty of interesting use of multiphonics in their improvisational languages, I don’t need to get into dictating that to them through the composition.
DL: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that people need to know about Glass Shelves and Floor? Or that people shouldn’t know about it…
AW: Other than that hopefully by the time this is online I can say “It’s out now on Copepod Records!” No, I don’t think so.
DL: Presumably you’re planning gigs for when it does come out? I mean we can put that on…
AW: Yes, the quintet will be doing gigs, and we’ll be playing this piece which is something we haven’t done for a while… once the album was finished which was about a year ago, I didn’t really see any point in our keeping on playing it because I knew we would start performing it again anyway once the album was out. It seemed more pertinent in the meantime to work on developing new material. It will be interesting coming back to it after a year… For me it might perhaps be a little weird to be playing a piece which is meant to be improvisationally open and able to go into many different directions when I have in my head these two versions which I know pretty much by heart because I spent so long agonising over the mixing of them. It’s perhaps not an ideal situation, but with any luck the other members of the group will have not spent quite so much time listening to the album and will be able to put it out of their thoughts a little more easily!