Circle Music

Tuesday night, Dan Joseph (hammer dulcimer), Erin Rogers (saxophone), and Vita Wallace (violin) and I rehearsed for this Saturday, September 12th, 2015 program for Music for Contemplation. In the middle of the rehearsal, I had direct contact with the reason I make music. These moments are unpredictable, impossible to plan, and incredibly energizing.

The program is called "writing to, listening to each other"; each of us writes a new piece and each of us performs everyone else's piece. We take turns "being in charge", and being supportive. This is the first time we've tried this format, and not only is it very enjoyable to work in the group, it's been wonderful to hear what Dan, Erin, and Vita have written. We had our first workshop in April, where everyone tried out sketches. The pieces have evolved through sessions in July and last Tuesday, shaped by each musician. Saturday we'll perform all four new pieces.

Working effectively in creative groups has been an area of interest for me for a few years now. Music for Contemplation has also explored this on the double quartet (June 2013), brass sextet (November 2014), and saxophone quartet (April 2015) programs, where four composers pitched in to pay an ensemble. This is the first time where the performers switch roles into the composer role. It means that each of us "listens" 3 times as much as we "speak", and there is an atmosphere of free sharing.

My piece, Circle Music 4.1, goes deeper into this. The piece is made up entirely of long tones. Each musician chooses whichever pitch he or she wishes. It is a rotating duet; one musician begins a long tone; at a certain point, a second musician enters and both sustain their tones. The first musician ends his or her tone and the second musician continues alone. After a pause, the first musician begins another long tone, and the process repeats.

Throughout the piece, this basic form remains constant: one tone -> two note chord -> one tone -> pause. At any given time, there are two musicians performing; the other two support them in silence. At a moment of his or her choosing, the first musician "passes" the tone to the third musician, and the process repeats. Again at a moment of his or her choosing, the first musician "passes" the tone to the fourth musician, and they repeat the process. Again at a moment of his or her choosing, the first musician indicates that he has finished, and the second musician initiates a tone, passing it to the third musician. This process continues around the circle:

| 1 2 | 1 3 | 1 4 |

| 2 3 | 2 4 | 2 1 |

| 3 4 | 3 1 | 3 2 |

| 4 1 | 4 2 | 4 3 |

The music unfolds from this process. Musicians repeat as many times as the moment calls for and the ultimate length of the piece results from listening and following what the next decision is. At some point, the fourth musician decides not to continue, and the piece ends.

Tuesday night, the process lasted 50 minutes.  We were all surprised that so much time had gone by; it felt like 20 minutes. I noticed that the leading musician really shaped the music. When Erin led, the piece had a clear "Erin" quality, when Vita led, it had a distinct "Vita" feel. And when Dan led, it took on a very "Dan" character.

Although I didn't think about this when I was writing the piece, it turns out to have a lot in common with Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing pieces. He writes a set of instructions on how to draw one of his works. The work doesn't exist until another artist draws it. LeWitt's role is no longer that of the artist in the traditional sense, instead as someone that initiates and shapes a collaborative work.

In a similar way, my role here is not that of the traditional composer, who defines pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, and form. While I define a loose rhythm (long tones), the rest of the compositional decisions are up to the other musicians, who determine pitch, rhythm, melody, and harmony. When it works really well, everyone listens, and a fifth voice enters the group, guiding the decisions.

There is a significant amount of trust involved, as my colleagues may or may not be able to or care to take responsibility for the rest of the details. And that is uncomfortable and thrilling. I'm very grateful and honored that Vita, Erin, and Dan have both great performing chops, but also sensitivity, imagination, and enough self-confidence to get out of the way and let the process (or moment or "muse") lead.