1. Fires & Conifers
2. Memoire de Cezanne
3. This has already had a history (2b)
4. 360 Sounds
5. you have not been paying attention (again)
6. for six
Patrick Farmer: open cd players, loudspeakers, objects, dried mango
Bruno Guastalla: cello, carrot
Sarah Hughes: zither, yo yo bear for kids
Dominic Lash: contrabass, banana
Samuel Rodgers: piano, electronics, apple
David Stent: guitar, banana
Paul Whitty: electronics, crisps
Purchase stopcock here
Since forming in 2010, The Set Ensemble have tackled works by composers such as Antoine Beuger, Manfred Werder, and Michael Pisaro. In 2012, they contributed five tracks to the fantasticWandelweiser und so weiter box set released on Another Timbre. But it's with stopcock that they make their first grand statement as a group. This isn't to say that their contributions to Wandelweiser were poor (they weren't) but this record is particularly special because each of its six tracks were composed by members of the group themselves. And considering that all of its musicians are also composers, stopcock proves valuable for its presentation of the synergy and creativity of all its members—both on a performance level and a compositional one.
In interviews with Seth Cooke and Jennie Gottschalk, Sarah Hughes expressed how she tries to find a balance between improvisation and composition with all of her works. This is achieved by setting up a basic framework for performers that still allows for variability. "Fires & Conifers", the first track on stopcock, does this by providing each of its six performers with two different actions they can take. One or both options can be taken but there's often an overlap in theme or idea for each person. Player one, for example, contributes short sounds regardless of the route they take. One of player three's options involves "making a continuous sound that creates an indent to the space." However, the other choice would provide a similarly noticeable effect on the overall piece. Because of these connected actions, each person is essentially designated a role that helps to maintain a consistency in the song's mood and texture.
The cohesiveness of "Fires & Conifers" is surprising, though. Players five and six are tasked with reacting to the other four in a way that would presumably impede harmonious interplay. But because of the way Hughes has arranged this composition, their actions never feel at odds with the rest of the instrumentation and the title feels incredibly appropriate. Player five has to make loud, prominent attacks and the plucked cello near the beginning of the performance is one of them. However, it functions much like player one's handclaps and, near the end of the performance, player two's piano chords. Likewise, the generally meditative tone of the piece—a result of the soft pulses from player one, the sparse piano notes from player two, and the contrasting sustained notes from players three and four—allows for player five's enforced periods of silence at 7:40 and 14:45 to feel like natural extensions of what the group is playing. That these passages may not actually be the result of player five's mandates only attests to how thoughtfully this piece was composed.
Bruno Guastalla's "Memoire de Cezanne" follows and its score is comparatively straightforward. It's split into three sections—the second passage contrasts the first while the third is similar but 'slightly different' to that same first passage. This structure is not dissimilar to basic sonata form but it seems more appropriate, given Guastalla's interests, to say that it resembles a minimal superpermutation. In a nutshell, a 'minimal superpermutation' of a number 'n' is the shortest string of numbers such that all possible sequences of positive integers up to and including that number would be listed. Therefore, if n=2, one such minimal superpermutation would be 121 (which is analogous to the structure of "Memoire de Cezanne") since the sequences 1,2 and 2,1 are present. If n=3, one minimal superpermutation would be 123121321 since all available sequences (123, 231, 312, 213, 132, 321) are listed in the shortest possible manner.
Like Paul Cézanne himself—a painter who understood the function and elegance of basic geometric forms—Guastalla sees the importance and potential of mathematical applications in art. In the recent issue of Wolf Notes, we're given insight into how incorporating superpermutations into his scores reflects his interests:
I am a bit ambivalent towards the beauty of sound, cherry-picked-slice-of-life. In my work on instruments, doing daily sound adjustments for players, what seems desirable, rather than the beauty or character of a sound, is a sort of grace, and ease (or sometimes unease) in the movement from one quality to another.
When a piece is played, the chaos of sound, of life, is soon enough full of infinite precision.
While later scores are considerably more complex, "Memoire de Cezanne" is appealing in its simplicity and manages to display that exact beauty in movement. It's a long-form, textural piece that neatly transitions between its three sections. And it's in this palindromic structure that each individual passage is recognizably colored by what precedes and/or follows it. The instruments all coalesce into an impressionistic blur and an overarching mood develops linearly across its ten minutes, feeling both tense and introspective throughout; it's a truly enjoyable realization of Guastalla's score.
The most peculiar track on stopcock appears next with Patrick Farmer's "This has already had a history (2b)". In Farmer's score, he asks that each performer "initiate[s] the decay/transformation/disintegration" of a particular object and "must not stop until the end result is achieved". Amusingly, The Set Ensemble explore this 'decay' by eating various foods. "history (2b)" brings to mind Christian Wolff's "Drinks, 1969", a piece comprised of performers pouring, sipping, and slurping drinks. It's a humorous piece that explores the whimsy in bubbles popping and the tapping of glassware. In comparison to Farmer's piece, it has a decidedly theatrical bent, a knowingly 'unnatural' presentation of its quotidian sounds.
The sounds on "history (2b)" are similarly familiar—we know the hard crunch that comes with eating a carrot, or the crisp bite of an apple—but The Set Ensemble don't try to embellish them in any major way. And perhaps unexpectedly, the recording proves consistently engaging. This is accomplished, in part, by the intimate nature of the recording. We're up close with these performers and we hear the different timbres of the foods being eaten and the rhythms with which they're chewed. And along with that, small details—the sound of food being swallowed, the tiny exhalations thereafter, and the ensuing gurgle of stomachs digesting—ornament the primary chewing process.
The delightful "360 sounds" comes afterwards. In it, Dominic Lash asks six players to play one sound per second for sixty seconds. The catch is that that they must play "without exactly synchronising the beginning." Because of this imprecise matching of sounds, the piece has a charming, child-like quality to it that contrasts the rest of stopcock. Each noise occupies its own space in the mix, allowing one to shift his or her attention from one instrument to the next. But when engaged with plainly, they all converge as an amorphous mesh of constant pulses. It's a simple conceit that's slickly executed. Despite how short the piece is, it happens to be incredibly memorable.
The vibrancy of "360 sounds" quickly contrasts with the bleak "you have not been paying attention (again)". Paul Whitty's score requires performers to provide an array of sounds that are "extremely quiet" yet "as abrasive as possible". These sounds are separated into two distinct categories defined by length. One involves shorter sounds between 1 and 7 seconds that can be played multiple times but not consecutively. The other involves longer sounds between 28 and 73 seconds that can only be played once. This framework distributes the weight of each sound's 'abrasiveness' somewhat equally and allows for a sense of constantly renewed stimulation. But even more, there's a perceptible distance between these individual sounds that allows for each action to feel distinct. Consequently, the sonic qualities of these noises are capitalized on without diminishing the effects of others, all of which ultimately combines into a layered whole.
stopcock concludes with Dominic Lash's "for six", a composition that displays the ingenuity of Lash himself as well as the cohesiveness of The Set Ensemble. Three pairs are formed, two of which are based on pitch (Guastalla's cello and Lash's contrabass, Hughes' zither and Stent's guitar) while the third finds both Whitty and Farmer working with electronics. Each person has three possible behaviors: be in silence, play a continuous sound, or play an irregular sound. Based on what one person plays, the other member in the pair reacts according to the unique score he or she has. With this set-up, there are essentially three separate duos simultaneously performing in their own respective space. The decision to tune the instruments to their corresponding extremes (e.g. the cello and contrabass are tuned to the lowest playable pitch) grants a vastness to the entire piece. This is valuable as it makes the interplay between the individual pairings, as well as the entire group, discernible.
In Wolf Notes #8, Dominic Lash describes the score for a composition he wrote entitled "for four". It's a significant piece for Lash in many ways, but perhaps most interesting is that through it, he became comfortable with the idea of writing scores for specific people. It led to a freedom from self-imposed notions of what scores "should be" and he expresses deep gratitude of this realization in writing. He states that composing scores with people in mind should be seen as opportunities in which one tries to get the most out of a collaboration. "for six" was composed two years after this understanding and it contains the names of the six people who perform it here. As the final track on the album, it's a beautiful representation of The Set Ensemble's strength as a group. Which brings to mind how the title of this record feels incredibly appropriate. A stopcock is a valve with a binary functionality—it either prevents or allows water from flowing through pipes. When The Set Ensemble come together, it's like a stopcock has opened and the ideas, compositions, and performances of each member converge harmoniously.