Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Aaron Cassidy: Composing Physicality

The Center for 21st Century music is delighted to welcome PhD alumnus Aaron Cassidy for a guest lecture and masterclass on Friday, February 16. Currently Professor of Composition at the University of Huddersfield in England, Cassidy serves as Director of its Centre for Research in New Music. After completing his PhD at UB in 2003 under the tutelage of David Felder, now artistic director of the Center for 21st Century Music, Cassidy has gone on to notable successes not only as composer, but also as a pedagogue and arts administrator.

His compositions have been performed, commissioned, and recorded widely. Many of the world’s most highly regarded new music specialist ensembles have performed his works: ELISION, Ensemble SurPlus, Ensemble Musikfabrik, EXAUDI, Ictus Ensemble, ensemble recherche, Talea Ensemble, and Kairos, Diotima, and JACK string quartets. Since his doctoral student days at UB, Cassidy’s music has been presented and commissioned by prestigious cultural institutions, most notably the Bludenz and Donaueschingen festivals and PRS Foundation’s 20×12/London Cultural Olympiad 2012 project; the latter project received mainstream press coverage reaching far beyond the art music scene. Much of Cassidy’s output has been released on CD, including on a portrait CD on NEOS, with additional works on the NMC, HCR, and New Focus labels.

As Professor at the University of Huddersfield, Cassidy has played a key role in building its Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM), of which he is now Director, succeeding Liza Lim in 2017. From its beginnings in 2006, the Centre has grown to be a major presence in the international new music scene, including running its own record label, a peer-reviewed journal, and an international research network. Cassidy has played a crucial role here, for instance in curating a concert series with guest artists and ensembles in residence, running the post-graduate seminar and lecture series, organizing symposia, and cultivating partnerships with Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Electric Spring, and universities across the globe. The video below gives a brief impression of CeReNeM’s activities.

Over the past two decades, Cassidy’s music has methodically and exhaustively explored what it means to make music when:
1.     The primary content of musical sound is closely bound up with the physical process of producing that sound (“the way in which a sound is made, and the sound it makes, are fundamentally intertwined”).
2.     The physical process of making a sound (bowing, fingering, embouchure, etc.) is fragmented into its component parts, which are “decoupled,” or treated temporally and morphologically independently of each other.
In this music, the notated score does not codify a sound object as much as it initiates unpredictable collisions between independent layers of instrumental or vocal sound production.
This is music that takes delight in the embodied, live nature of musical performance; it is written as much for the performer as the listener.

Cassidy's The Crutch of Memory for solo bowed string instrument

In this project, a key challenge for the composer is how to best communicate musical substance to the performer. Over the past two decades, Cassidy has refined his approach to notation in a variety of ways, above all by seeking out a notational image that prioritizes the physicality of performance.
In early works, Cassidy strove to move beyond descriptive notations—conventional Western notations describing an ideal sounding result—towards prescriptive notations (AKA tablature) specifying physical actions. While his 2002 UB PhD dissertation String Quartet notates fingering in traditional Western pitch notation, his 2004 work The Crutch of Memory created a prescriptive tablature notation diagramming hand position, finger spacing, and fingerings independently. In the latter piece, pitch results from interaction between these autonomous physical phenomena; as such, it could not be notated in another way.

Having more overtly foregrounded music’s physical process of production, Cassidy then moved to simplify the visual layout of his scores. While most of his early works notated different layers of physical motion on separate staves, the composer writes that “in the Second String Quartet these movements are compressed onto a single, multi-coloured stave…My goal with the notation of Second String Quartet was to maintain the same level of gestural independence in the physical, choreographic, sound-production component of the work while developing a much more unified, integrated approach to the notation of that physical material.” As a solution, Cassidy arrived at “a multi-coloured stave that indicated the complete length of the string…[with] all indications of movements of both left and right hands are given graphically.” Color is used to distinguish between left (black) and right (red) hands; other parameters like bow pressure and finger pressure are shown graphically via line thickness and line darkness, respectively.

Cassidy, Second String Quartet, excerpt from second violin part

At this point, Cassidy had discarded conventional descriptive notations for pitch and volume; in the quartet, pitch is a resultant of hand position, finger spacing, and fingering, while volume is a byproduct of bow pressure and movement. However, in the domain of rhythm, the Second String Quartet’s notation was more conventional, with its basis in sequences of regular impulses, albeit whose speed changes frequently.

Frustrated by the limitations of this approach to notation, Cassidy began to investigate alternatives. A recent talk unpacks his process of arriving at what he calls a “non-geometrical rhythm,” a rhythm based not on regularity, but upon tactile physicality of gesture:
In my rethinking of my rhythmic language over the last few months and years, I’ve tried to force myself to really return to first principles, to thoroughly interrogate what the most fundamental characteristics and properties of rhythm actually are. For me, ‘beat’—and, even more so the repetition of beats through ‘pulse’—is actually only a fairly small subcomponent of rhythm. It is true that rhythm is about pattern, repetition, and regularity, but it’s also about speed and slowness, and compression and dilation, about waves and clouds, about stasis and absence, and about vibration and dissipation.
The research is still in its early stages, but these inquiries may turn out to be hugely consequential for the entire field of notated music, opening up entirely new avenues of compositional research. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, composers have sought out meaningful notational representations of non-geometrical rhythms, but with highly limited success; as his talk outlines, Cassidy’s attempt to build a rhythmic language from first principles steers clear of many of the pitfalls of earlier notational methods.

Cassidy, The Wreck of Former Boundaries, excerpt from clarinet and electric lap steel guitar parts

These rhythmic researches bore fruit in his recent work The Wreck of Former Boundaries for ensemble and electronics, commissioned and premiered by his long-time collaborators ELISION. This 35-minute work—two years in the making—will be the subject of Cassidy’s artist talk at the Center. Interweaving electronics and instruments, notation and improvisation (the astonishing improvising trumpeter Peter Evans joined ELISION for the project), the work both extends lines of inquiry opened two decades ago and opens new possibilities. At the Center, we greatly look forward to hearing about Cassidy’s exciting latest work.

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