In 2013 I received 2 grants from the Australia Council. One was to compose Chaconne for Voices and Saxophone, and the other was to create this unusual set of ten bagatelles for the unusual group The NOISE, a string quartet that usually plays its own fully-improvised compositions but decided to start working with composers as well.
Three of the ten bagatelles can be heard using the Spotify player above. The complete recording can also be purchased here.
I welcomed the opportunity to work the four magnificent players of The NOISE (Veronique Serret, Mirabai Peart, James Eccles and Ollie Miller) because it’s so rare to encounter classical musicians completely fluent in improvisation. And it was a chance (every pun intended) to write a work that drew inspiration from one of my all-time heroes, John Cage.
There’s a quip that most people would struggle to hold a conversation if it weren’t for the weather. So I’ve given the string quartet (a conversation between four reasonable people, as Goethe called it) the easy way out – we’re starting with the weather, and a nice game of cards.
Smoke Weather Stone Weather walks the tightrope between acceptance and action. You know the one. There are times you have to accept circumstances whether you like them or not. Other times you must change the course of events, because not doing so is about timidity rather than acceptance. Only your honesty can tell the difference, between, say, the weather and climate change.
The title comes from a set of 37 colour prints by John Cage. “Weather remains the weather no matter what is going on,” he wrote.Cage dissolved so many barriers, you’d think he was universally accepting of everything. Except, he didn’t care for improvisation. Cage saw improvisation as antithetical to aleatory. Aleatory’s purpose was to eliminate personality from the creative process, whereas improvisation, he wrote, ‘gives free play to the exercise of taste and memory.’ This was unacceptable and it would spur him to action, even reprimanding Leonard Bernstein for improvising before playing Atlas Eclipticalis.
Life brings forth the ‘unforeseeable’, that’s for sure. It’s what improvisation originally meant.
Smoke Weather Stone Weather chooses not to believe in a conflict between improvisation and aleatory.
The quartet plays a game of cards (the American bridge-like ‘500’, but using Australian rules). The result is ten ‘tricks’ or sets of four cards, arrived at through both chance and skill. This is the musical score. I’ve given rules to the quartet members on how to interpret each card, accounting for the card’s suit and whether it has pips or pictures – rules for improvisation so simple the players could have arrived at them without me.
The ten tricks create Smoke Weather Stone Weather‘s ten bagatelles. In music, a bagatelle is a short character work usually part of a collection. In gaming, the bagatelle is a billiards-like table game with wooden obstacles, a predecessor of the pinball machine.
The word ‘play’ is used for both games and musical instruments. Things which seem different aren’t. All conflict is illusory. Reality is harmony.
Postscript: during the recording sessions, a cartoon character emerged. Improvisation does bring forth the unforseeable. I’ve named it Ryoanji.
You can download a free track or purchase the complete recording here.