I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between performance and the performative gesture, and the acousmatic. I have spent most of my composing life in the realm of mixed music and live electronics. I have always taken inspiration from performers in two (related) ways. Most importantly as living and life experiencing individuals – I listen to their performances, interpretations, personalities and try to engage with these. This may be why I have never written anything for forces larger than a small ensemble and have focused a great deal on working with solo performers. The interesting paradox is that if I look back on earlier works the greater I succeeded in relating to a specific performer’s skills and personality, the greater the chances of other (later) performers ‘getting the point’ of the piece. I guess this is somehow related to being true to the instrument. But an important second strand is based more directly on imaginative and technical expertise, focusing on a balance of purely sonic quality and their relation to gesture and performative ‘play’.
For Wind Clouds Showers written for Heather Roche (B flat concert and bass clarinets, pre-recorded and live electronics) our recording session caused the work at several levels directly. The sheer beauty of the sound created the sonic world of the piece immediately and totally with nothing further needed. I also found myself entrained to the breathing and hand movements that interconnect person and instrument. As a consequence breath length (the Wind) became an embodied unit of time. An idea as old as the hills but somehow (for me) rediscovered … Also the way the hands interact with tube and embouchure led us to a systematic exploration of key noise excitation (the Clouds and Showers).
I periodically return to the studio to compose a completely (I won’t say ‘purely’) acousmatic work. I love the engagement with sound quality and its expressive dimensions. But I have increasingly found that I do not want to release the performance world so easily – I think of this as a kind of ‘embodied acousmatics’. A nuanced reading of Pierre Schaeffer’s writings does have some vocabulary for this – his notion of facture – something ‘made in the world’ lies behind many of his ideas on ‘what might communicate’ in sound. ‘Embodied acousmatics’ is a subset of this where the sense of an agent ‘forming’ the sound is retained. Perhaps not exclusively a human performer but an agency ‘within the world’ – could be a force of nature. So with Aeolian the flute sound is readily recognisable most of the time but I hope translates the energy of performance gesture to wider domains of composition. The programme note suggests a ‘programme’ but I don’t want the piece to be ‘about’ (a literal painting of) a scene from the Odyssey – but in truth I hope the atmospheres, emotions and morphology of this embodied story remain.
In Memory Machine the embodiment is more to do with an approach to the world, in this case the way memory both creates a sense of a present but also interferes with it – so strictly there cannot be the ‘same memory’ remembered twice. Hence the piece is a mobile in which many different combinations of ‘the same’ sound memories create contrasting meanings. The website version found here is alas fixed – but the original ran continuously as an installation for five iterations lasting an hour in total – to my surprise many listeners remained for the entire time, especially for one performance in a non-directional ‘bean bag’ space!
Simon Emmerson, April 2020