First phase (December 2014 - September 2015)
I started out with a research period in which I pondered upon a variety of musical ideas and concepts concerning how to compose (or at least “create material”) for eight improvising musicians. Since I hadn’t previously worked with this particular combination of instruments — and thus the challenge of dealing with four strings and the many expressive possibilities of combining winds, strings, percussion and synthesizers — I listened to, and “analyzed”, a large number of recordings of music that could serve as an inspiration. Especially worth mentioning are Ligeti’s string quartet nr 2, Barry Guy’s New Orchestra works, various balaphone and gamelan ensembles, and John Carter’s “Castles of Ghana”. I was also revisiting Jimmy Giuffre’s work, and the recently released live recording “New York Concerts”, particularly for his way of creating nice transitions between written and improvised parts.
Ricard and me regularly corresponded on email and phone, discussing a number of questions that arose in the working process. We recommended music to each other and discussed in what ways we could adapt ideas from them. I sent him clips of musical ideas that were recorded in Ableton Live, for feedback on how they sounded and how they could be utilized with the octet. At other times I would encourage him to create a rhythmic idea that could work with a particular material I was trying out. Ricard also sent me his own ideas that I played around with, giving me important input in the process. Our interaction was invaluable to the composition process, and Ricard came up with quite a few ideas that proved decisive for the directions that the compositions would take.
I started composing in more disciplined ways around May 2015. Initially I intended to revisit several methods from previous work with Klas Nevrin Ensemble. For example, I wanted to retain the approach of using longer suite forms, in which transitions between different parts constituted an important aspect of the overall sound. This also included focusing on extended free improvisations - primarily in solos, duos and trios - in which the participants were given a lot of time to develop their ideas. Other features still of interest to me were microtonality, groovy ostinatos and overt influences from (contemporary) classical music and various “world music” traditions (for lack of a better word). All this I wanted to try out with a larger group.
Just in time for the first rehearsals, in September 2015, I completed a 4-page score on an A3-format, so that everybody would have an overview. This format also made it possible to include a variety of instructions and notations, concerning for example concepts for “(relatively) free” improvisation. I could also assemble several pre-composed passages or ideas on the same page (by cutting and pasting hand-written as well as Sibelius-printed score parts).
At first I had aimed at creating a collection of materials that could be combined and re-arranged spontaneously by the group. But I decided that it would probably give better results for a rehearsal if we tried out more precisely defined forms — for example with more or less specified transitions, instrumentations, roles, etc. — so that it would be easier to evaluate what would work with the group and how the musicians would feel about different concepts and methods. It also proved much more difficult than I had thought to create an open collection of materials; i.e., “open” in the sense that a particular material could be played by different instruments and used more spontaneously (freely interpreted as well as applied in different combinations). This was partly because I had a hard time creating material that could work in that way for these instrument combinations, but also because I hadn’t worked with all the musicians before and I was unsure to what extent they would be willing to to spend a lot of time trying “simple” ideas. Maybe it was just performance anxiety, but I really wanted the ensemble to feel that we could create some interesting music together, and I didn’t want to risk that the first rehearsal felt unsatisfactory.
Thus I ended up with a long suite that was more “strict” than I had actually wished for. But it was nevertheless not intended to be a finished work, nor necessarily close to what could become a finished product. It was however an experiment with a variety of materials — tonal, melodic, rhythmic, roles, transitions, sounds, concepts, etc. — so that I could get ideas for the future, including the possibility of perhaps creating a more open collection of materials after all.
When we started rehearsing I was already fatigued by the amount of planning and logistics that were involved. I had realized I was not just an artistic leader with some administrative duties, but actually a producer, travel agency, international employer, etc. - all in one. Nothing I had previously done was even close to this amount of work. I also found it challenging to work with a large group in which the members sometimes had differing needs, expectations and expressions, both artistically and practically. It was a real challenge to my role as a leader, since I usually want to keep the process rather open, allowing for others’ initiatives and contributions to the process. But I felt I had to take more control than I actually would have preferred. Maybe this was also due to expectations from the group that the rehearsals should be led by me in a more stringent way?
I had a lot of equipment to take care of, including of course my own setup (keyboards, mixer and effects) but also several audio and video recording devices because we needed PR-material from this first rehearsal period for future needs. This too demanded a lot of energy from me, and the recording felt somewhat out of place, considering that we hadn’t actually started with a more collaborative artistic process! The recordings certainly became useful in many ways, not least for the working process of finding out what we wanted to do, but nevertheless it took a lot of focus and energy away from other things. It would probably have been impossible to do it in any other way though, because we simply had to get as much as possible done when we actually did meet with the whole group.
It quickly became clear that some parts of the suite were not working as well as I had hoped, especially the ones that were more based on groove and polyrhythm. There were several reasons for this, but perhaps the most important one was that it was difficult to involve the whole group without actually composing more precisely for all instruments, whereas I was looking for more collectively improvised opportunities. I also felt that I wanted to move towards a more experimental sound, and the groove material seemed to produce obstructions to this. With “experimental” I mean that I didn’t want the music to be idiomatic (like “jazz” or “world music”), and instead more exploratory, not least by creating more room for reciprocal interaction within the ensemble. Similarly, some of the microtonal material I had prepared also seemed to obstruct the collective improvisation. There wasn’t enough time to experiment with intonation, nor was there enough time to achieve the intonational precision that I had hoped for. I also felt a pressure to “make things work”. Maybe this was due to expectations from the group that I should steer the group towards certain results that I had in mind, or it was simply because I lacked the tools for communicating my vision about an alternative working process.
Although all these circumstances might seem like negative experiences they actually forced me to find other methods for polyrhythmic and microtonal expressions that proved rewarding later on, and that probably wouldn’t have happened if it were not for the limitations and challenges that we faced. (Yet I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had been able to create a more collaborative working process from the start!)
I had originally intended to experiment more with various instrumentations, roles and transitions in the different parts of the suite, and see what would happen. But again the collaborative process didn’t really work as I had hoped with so many members, and three days of rehearsal was not nearly enough. Before the third day I therefore went through the scores and made some quick changes: I divided the suite into two parts, omitted some sections, and made certain decisions for instrumentation and other things, so that we could narrow our focus to fewer methods for improvisation and work on the interpretation of a selection of pre-composed sections. Although I was indeed frustrated at the time, and had some doubts, later on I would feel that this first rehearsal period had nevertheless revealed other possibilities, and during the second phase of composing these experiences proved highly useful.
The very first day we also did a free improvised concert in the evening at Glenn Miller Café in Stockholm. We decided to use two freely improvising quartets per set. I was originally inspired to do this when Per had told me about Barry Guy’s working method with one of his orchestras, in which Per also had participated. This was a great way to allow for more collaborative interaction to happen, and also to get to know each other. We had fun, the audience was enthusiastic, and we got to try out several different quartet combinations of the group, which was great for me, and everyone else I believe, in order to get an idea of what the ensemble was capable of. We threw ourselves into creating spontaneous music together, and this meant that we didn’t get overly stuck in a rehearsal approach. The second and third days of rehearsal felt more productive and enjoyable after this concert!