The Set Ensemble · stopcock

The Set Ensemble · stopcock

Founded in 2010 in Oxford, The Set Ensemble is dedicated to the performance of experimental music and contemporary composition. All of the members of the ensemble are also composers and they often write for one another, using the ensemble as a testing ground for new ideas, developing and rehearsing pieces together. This process is a collaborative endeavour with the score acting as one material amongst many, directing or shaping actions within a complex field of activity.

This disc contains six such compositions by Sarah Hughes, Bruno Guastalla, Patrick Farmer, Dominic Lash and Paul Whitty, the scores for which are all text- or instruction- based. Running the gamut from tonal instrumentation to fluxus antics, sometimes even within one work, this collection refuses to sit tidily within one strand of contemporary music, reflecting the broad influences and practices of the ensemble’s members.

This album was released in conjunction with the fourth issue of BORE. BORE was founded in 2013 by Sarah Hughes and David Stent and publishes scores that are primarily text-based, but may encompass any form of notation or instruction intended for the realisation of musical performance, staged events, texts, images or objects. The fourth issue of BORE collects a number of scores by members of The Set Ensemble, including Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies, Patrick Farmer, Bruno Guastalla, Sarah Hughes, Dominic Lash and Paul Whitty.


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The Set Ensemble is a UK-based collective dedicated to the performance of interesting experimental music. Their repertoire draws heavily on the works of members of the Wandelweiser group of composers, but increasingly they have been focusing on compositions by their own members; the ensemble’s first dedicated recording, released after several years of performing together, collects six such pieces. On this occasion the performers were Patrick Farmer, Bruno Guastalla, Sarah Hughes, Dominic Lash, Samuel Rodgers, David Stent, and Paul Whitty.

The album opens with ‘Fires and Conifers’, a composition by Hughes in which a piano wanders in a daydream through galleries of sound-objects, many of them small and non-descript, some more imposing. The quietness and sparseness of this piece give way to thick, buzzing chords in Guastalla’s ‘Mémoire de Cézanne’. After a while, the buzzing moves underground, and resonances emerge from the solid subterranean cloud of harmonies; in a third section, the cloud lifts from the ground in a haze of evaporation. Farmer’s ‘This already has a history (2b)’ is a somewhat inscrutable piece, the group apparently munching on various snacks such as crisps and fruit; Whitty’s ‘you have not been paying attention (again)’ is only slightly less elusive, layering very small, detailed sounds that resemble the broken static of loose wiring and quiet avalanches of leaves or twigs.

Dominic Lash has two pieces on the album: the brief ‘360 Sounds’, in which the group bash out a broken musicbox line of repeated notes all out of time with and stumbling over one another; and the longer ‘for six’. Here a giant’s footsteps are heard from a long way off, gradually approaching, while high-pitched feedback, noise, and zither add a gleaming shimmer. Like Guastalla’s piece, the focus seems to be on harmonic interactions, juxtapositions of concordance and discordance and of rough and smooth timbres, delivered at a steady, unhurried pace. “Stopcock” gives a sense of the breadth and depth of approaches pursued by The Set Ensemble’s members, its diverse sounds held together by an openness and willingness to experiment; one can hear them begin to step out from under the shadow of the previous generation of composer/performers and start to speak with their own voices.

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.

The Oxford, England-based Set Ensemble first hit my radar as an integral part of the “Wandelweiser und so weiter” boxed set on the Another Timbre label, delivering sterling performances of pieces by Michael Pisaro, Anett Németh, member Dominic Lash, and others. What struck me about their contributions was the way they melded acoustic and electronic instruments into a collective whole, working in elastic ways within the forms of the compositions. The collective (Angharad Davies, Bruno Guastalla, David Stent, Dominic Lash, Patrick Farmer, Paul Whitty, Sarah Hughes, Tim Parkinson, and Samuel Rodgers), brings together musicians who share a wide ranging interest encompassing the intersections of improvisation, composition, sound art, instrument building, installation, field recordings, and writing.

While all of the members of the group are constantly active, both individually, and as an ensemble, performing works by the members along with composers like Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben and Pisaro, there hasn’t been any documentation since then. That has been rectified with a CD on the Consumer Waste label, focusing on performances of pieces by members of the ensemble. This was done in conjunction with the publication of a set of scores by the ensemble by BORE Publishing, a project run by ensemble members Sarah Hughes and David Stent, dedicated to publishing scores that are primarily text- based by individual composers, performing ensembles or specifically-chosen groups of artists, writers and musicians.

Studying the scores published under the title “Partial,” one gets a feel for some of the strategies that the composers utilize to provide open frameworks for the realization of ensemble music. Some, like Lash’s “motion-capture” provide a set of operating instructions. The musicians are given specific criteria of how to make decisions, leaving that process up to the ensemble during realization. For example “The length of each note and the pauses between are free, as are the dynamics, but they should be different for every pitch.” His “co-existence” sets up a strategy for the ensemble, broken in to sub-groups, to move from common structures to divergent realizations, ending when all of the players converge back to the initial state.

Paul Whitty’s score “stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before” outlines activities for preparation and performance, creating a form from a set of tasks to be executed rather than charting a formal outline. Patrick Farmer’s contribution takes a set of randomized recordings of a room sound and instructs the musicians to project those sounds through the room by placing speakers on resonant bodies of instruments. Angharad Davies provides transparencies which are layered on top of each other to create mutable graphic scores. Also included is “Rydal Mount”, a score based on photographs taken at her grandmother’s house after she died. In this case, the realization is a set of texts prepared by three writers, subverting any traditional notion of the execution of a score.

The recording, “stopcock”, featuring Guastalla (cello), Stent (guitar), Lash (contrabass), Farmer (open CD players, loudspeakers, objects), Whitty (electronics), Hughes (zither), and Rodgers (piano), provides a compelling document of how the ensemble puts the readings of the text scores into action. The CD begins with Hughes’ “Fires and Conifers.” The instructions for the piece provide each musician with a pair of parameters from which they can choose. One defines the velocity of the part (short sounds evenly spaced, 2-4 notes played as a chord infrequently, bowed surfaces for a long time ...). The other defines an action which breaks the course of the first action, and of the ensemble (clap loudly, interject a continuous sound that creates an indent to the space, instruct the players to stop playing and then resume, be disruptive ...). What ensues is measured ebb and flow, as voices intersect, overlap, and interrupt. The harmonious resonant undercurrent of Rodgers’ piano part often provides a focal point for the short attacks of the string instruments and the tarnished textures of electronics. But it is the collective unhurried pacing, broken by sections of silence that carries the piece with a natural sense of trajectory.

The score for Bruno Guastalla’s “Memoire de Cezanne” is a model of concision: one long chord/then one long chord distinctly different/then a long chord similar to the first one, though slightly different. What might come off as a drone study is transformed by the ensemble into quavering waves of harmonically rich overtones shot through with low end electronic rumble and natural string resonances. The rich tonal colors that are chosen makes for an engulfing listen. Patrick Farmer’s “This has already had a history (2b)” is probably the oddest on the disc, comprised wholly of the closely miked sound of the musicians chewing on fruit, vegetables, and crackers. The 10-minute realization causes one to reassess notions of decision making and action as music making, accentuated by the uncomfortable amplification of sounds that have an inherent social taboo. On the sprint through Lash’s “360 Sounds” which follows, the ensemble sputters their way through countervailing lines of insistently repeated notes which start just off from each other and, over the course of a minute, move further and further out of phase, again, taking a simple concept and short duration and transforming it into a compelling listening experience.

Paul Whitty’s “you have not been paying attention (again)” instructs the players to prepare a series of short abraded and distorted sounds which should be “extremely quiet and represent only a slight fluctuation in the ambient sound level of the performance space.” Utilizing these sonic kernels, the performers are instructed to place and repeat the sounds in any order, choosing gaps of silence to be introduced between each. The result is a rich field of static, crackles, pops, and creaks, with the vigorous velocity of sound and muted dynamic range providing a vivid tension to the performance.

The recording finishes out with Lash’s “for six”, which again, provides a beguilingly simple set of instructions which lead to rich results. Players are divided into three groups; a low pair (cello and contrabass), a high pair (zither and guitar), and an electronic pair. Each player has three possible behaviors: silence, continuous sound, irregular sound. Finally, each player is provided with a score that outlines a behavior to use and a choice of responses to move toward, based on the actions of the partner they are paired with. Here the instructions in the score of pitch range and pairings provides the foundational elements which frame rather than prescribe the piece. The dynamic route chosen by the ensemble leverages the groaning rumble of contrabass and cello, the high-pitched resonance of e-bowed zither and guitar, and the non-pitched rasp of electronics, meshing the mercurial path chosen by each into changeable striations as each voice resourcefully rises and recedes in the overarching ensemble voice.

Thinking about working from scores, particularly text or graphical scores, two things seem paramount. Does the intent of the composer come through, and does the score make the ensemble play in a way they would not without the score? In her interview with Seth Cooke (http://www.bangthebore.org/archives/5489), Sarah Hughes explains it like this. “I enjoy thinking about the point at which a composition becomes an improvisation, and what happens in between, both in music and in my installation work; what is the minimum amount of information necessary to compose a situation? How does the act of placing things together change between different modes of working? How much information is necessary to retain the character of the composer?” Taken together, the scores published in “Partial,” and the recordings captured on “stopcock” show not only how composition can guide the results of an ensemble, but how an ensemble can work together to examine and realize the multitude of points at the intersection of composition and collective discovery.

[...]

The Set Ensemble has been linked to the Wandelweiser set thanks to their past performances of work by members of the collective, but ‘stopcock’ (a tongue-in-cheek title from Sarah Hughes, the ensemble’s only female member) sees the ensemble turn their energies towards promoting their own work. Founded in 2010, The Set Ensemble is an evolving group of musicians who originally came together in Oxford, all of whom are composers, most of whom have a background in improvisation and five of whom have works presented on this disc. The collection of pieces, then, while contemplative and considered in general tone, has little to do with the origins of Wandelweiser and owes as much to Brechtian dadaism as it does Cagean minimalism. Sarah Hughes’s text score, Fires & Conifers, opens the disc. A summary could be that it asks some of the group to play traditionally, and others to disrupt proceedings: a gentle electronic warbling and a stately, repeated note from the piano are intercepted by loud bangs, heavy, ugly scraping and sudden chimes. A piece that continually contradicts itself, Fires & Conifers is perhaps better witnessed as a live, often theatrical performance but the recording offers a certain mystery of its own.

Bruno Guastalla’s Memoire de Cézanne is constructed of three, extremely dense, visceral chords held by the entire ensemble who utilise everything from the percussive qualities of opened, spinning CD players to guitar, double bass, cello, electronics and zither. A ten-minute study of timbre, density and the comparison of three similar but different masses, Guastalla’s piece reveals a whole world of interplay between the wildly disparate and yet carefully matched sounds.

The score for Patrick Farmer’s This has already had a history (2b) instructs performers to ‘initiate the decay/transformation/disintegration of one or more chosen objects’. His suggestion to the group was that they should each choose items of food, and so we listen to a mango, bananas, an apple, carrots, crisps and ‘Bear for kids’ yo yos being dispatched, close to the microphones, for more or less ten minutes. Beyond the obvious absurdism and inevitable abundant humour, there is actually much fascination to be had in listening to this: crunching teeth, slavering saliva and rumbling stomachs come and go in a manner usually politely hidden from the ear, and at a push it’s possible to hear something really quite musical in such a hilariously guttural performance.

Dominic Lash’s 360 Sounds asks six musicians to make one sound per second for 60 seconds, but ‘without exactly synchronising the beginning’. The work, whose inexactitude means it lasts one minute and nine seconds, is an oddly manic but curiously listenable passage of clockwork rhythm and erratic bleeping that achieves the feat of placing musicians only just out of time with one another. At the halfway point, the score seems to ask all performers to aim for one sound: a strangely loose coalescence emerges before slipping quickly apart again, resulting in a piece of oddly decentring, highly unusual and fascinating music.

you have not been paying attention (again), by Paul Whitty, asks six musicians to make four to ten sounds that are at once both extremely quiet and exceptionally abrasive, the intrigue here arising through that inherent contradiction. Whilst perhaps the least enticing of the pieces, what emerges is a curious layer of sonic detritus that denies any sense of authorship and feels decidedly inhuman.

Closing the album is Dominic Lash’s for six. This sets up a framework in which three pairs of musicians (here, bass and cello, zither and guitar, and a pair on electronics) simultaneously perform discrete works that are similar to but slightly different from one another; each pair is supposedly unaware of how their particular piece may differ to the others’, and some musicians are occasionally asked to be silent. Other patterns exist in the music that are hard to ascertain precisely just through listening, but a sense of symmetry appears as elements seem to mirror one another, even if not always coming from the same source. Again, the music has an odd appeal to it, as if driven by some agency independent from the musicians themselves.

These are two albums, then, that we might expect to be labelled Wandelweiserian, but that in actual fact have little to do with the near-silent minimalism associated with the narrowest sense of the term. They have nothing to do with each other, but each has much to offer.