Yesterday afternoon the 2016 Outsound New Music Summit began in the Capp Street Concert Hall with a Community Improvisation Workshop led by composer Brandon Evans, who performs primarily on various different members of the saxophone family. He has developed a music notation system called “Ellipsis and Elliptical Axis Systems,” which uses the five-line staff and at least some of the conventional note shapes as a point of reference. However, the system also introduces numbers to indicate how many times a passage should be repeated, along with a variety of less conventional shapes. Over the course of this afternoon’s workshop, Evans referred to his notation as playful; and he explained that the unfamiliar shapes had been invented to optimize the number of choices available for spontaneous decision-making.
The workshop was structured around a single “piece,” for which each each performer was given his/her own page of notation. The group, which, including Evans, consisted of five saxophonists and two percussionists (one with a drum kit and the other with bongo drums); and, for the first round of improvisation, they were instructed to play from their allotted pages with minimal explanation of what the notation “meant.” (“Minimal” meant that Evans would answer questions but not volunteer a general explanation.)
From my own vantage point as a listener, I chose not to try to get a close look at any of the score pages. What emerged out of my own ear-mind processing was a sense of how each wind player was contributing a relatively independent voice within a context of “punctuations” (rather than “rhythm”) provided by the percussion. However, as the playing progressed, the possibility emerged that individual players were making their choices of interpreting the notation based not only on the decisions available but also on the context for those decisions provided by listening. One result was that, at a certain point, the percussion began to allow the emergence of a rhythmic pattern, possibly picking up on some of the rhythmic gestures originated by the winds. The result was that the piece came to a conclusion with a relatively strong sense of beat around which the wind players organized their last round of decisions.
Evans then asked each musician to play from a different page of the notation and take a second pass at presenting those pages as a group. This time there was less of an inclination to fall into familiar patterns. However, there was also a sense that each player was more aware of listening to the others (possibly at least one of those “others” playing from the sheet that the listening player had used on the last iteration). In other words during the second go-round each player could now approach his/her contributions with some sense of expectation associated with listening to the others. One result was that the percussion became more fragmented and less inclined to fall into any sort of predictable pattern. This made for a somewhat paradoxical result that more familiarity with the notation led to less predicability in the listening experience.
Only after those two iterations did Evans then start to share his own thoughts about how he had intended his notation to be interpreted. At this point, as a non-participating listener, I felt rather the way I tend to feel when I am allowed to sit as audience during a master class. Fortunately, I had ability to leave my seat and look over shoulders to inspect the notation itself. Having given a more formal account of both the structure and the intentions of the notation, Evans then divided the group into four saxophones playing from one page and the remaining three players (one saxophone and the two percussionists) playing from another.
In this case I decided to stand behind the saxophone quartet and look at the page they were sharing. I must confess that this was not an easy matter. This was not a unison performance, since each player progressed through the page at his/her own rate. (Evans had also experimented with unison interpretations.) Because the four instruments blended so well together, it could be difficult to pick out how a particular player was interpreting the score page. Only a few of the notation features made for relatively easy recognition; but, even then, the features were embedded in a richer texture.
Ultimately, however, listening was not about the relationship between notation and hearing. For that matter it was not necessarily a matter of mind figuring out how to “parse” a fabric of sounds making their impressions on the eardrums. Rather, listening was about how the relationship between acts of interpretation based on all those numerous choices for spontaneous decision-making resulted in a social structure that embodied both individual and group personalities emerging from how those decisions were made. This is, of course, a far cry from the more traditional practices of responding to motifs, themes, harmonic progressions, or any of the other structural concepts that are associated with making music in any of the familiar genres of classical, jazz, blues, folk, or whatever.
John Cage used to like to talk about what he had learned from the study of Zen. He quoted a parable stating that, before the study of Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. During the study of Zen, the distinction gets confused. After the study of Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. What is the difference? There is no differences, except that the feet are a little bit off the ground! This afternoon provided a valuable introduction to the confusion of men with mountains, and this listener was impressed enough to want to continue following that path of study.