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An interview with Christine Burke on her piece “for 5+ performers”

by Kenn Kumpf

a•pe•ri•od•ic will open its 2018-19 season next Sunday night (Oct. 14th) at 8:30 p.m. on Constellation’s Frequency Series as part of a double bill with vocalist/composer Carol Genetti. a•pe•ri•od•ic will give the Chicago premiere of Christine Burke’s for 5+ performers.

for 5+ performers is a composition for any instrumentation that challenges the players to consider their role in the acoustic ecology of the ensemble. In order to join the current sonic texture, the performer must choose a sound, technique, and timing that allows for a hidden entrance – their contribution subtly emerges, takes prominence, and in turn allows for others to join the texture. The result is a series of cascading tones – punctuated by silences – and morphing unpitched sounds, each event a unique solution to the puzzle.

Christine was nice enough to share some thoughts on her piece with us via email; here’s some of our discussion:

Collaboration

Kenn: Your final instruction in the score is “The purpose of the piece is for the performers to create envelopes of sound that will allow others to enter.” I think that succinctly captures the fundamental interdependency of the piece: almost all of the interesting things we are allowed to do in the piece are at the mercy of someone else creating the window of opportunity for us. What drew you to this – an interest in social dynamics? Problem solving? Making players focus on the needs of other players? All of the above? Something else?

Christine: My first interest was in a sonic idea; an ever-evolving sound that changes (texturally, timbrally, harmonically) from the inside. The final instruction was a practical way to realize the sound concept, which then led me to consider how that could be achieved through listening and focus. I remember being particularly curious about the sense of responsibility it might create within a group and how that responsibility would ultimately be managed/interpreted.

K: It’s striking that all non-solo entrances (i.e. coming in when someone else is already playing) have to begin imperceptibly (covered by the existing sonic texture) through other peoples’ sounds. Can we draw extra-musical implications from this – or from any other aspects of the piece?

C: The rule about imperceptible entrances means that we probably won’t notice a change to the texture until after it begins. One performer can initiate change, and the more that participate, the greater the possibility for growth, for new textural/harmonic areas (which is the most exciting part of the piece for me), and for the creation of a space that everyone in the group can participate in.

As far as other aspects, I do find it interesting to think about how characteristics of certain instruments define their role in the piece. For example, a clarinet can do this kind of niente entrance incredibly well and without much effort (I should mention that my primary instrument is clarinet…), but it’s a much more difficult task for a bassoonist, especially in the lower range of the instrument. Theoretically, the clarinetist always has the opportunity to participate in the piece, but the bassoonist is much more limited, and even excluded at points. I like what that says about the value of patience and restraint, though it may seem unfair. That’s why the last direction of the score (“…create envelopes of sound that will allow others to enter”) is so integral to the piece.

So, with all that considered, I think there’s an implication that (idealistic) successful change can come about through awareness, a sense of responsibility to others, knowledge of individual strengths and limitations, and cooperation.

Virtuosity

K: This has the potential to be a really demanding piece, but that the virtuosity is both subtle and optional. It’s a piece that grows in complexity the more focused the players are and the broader their sonic repertoire – the potential shapes really expand. But it feels flexible; this could be performed by inexperienced players or non-musicians. Were you looking for this kind of range – how do you imagine the piece changing as the ensemble changes?

C: Yes, I was! Any level of ensemble can explore the concept of the piece successfully. Obviously the sound content is going to be unique to each group, no matter what level. As you mentioned, experienced players can give a very sensitive, sonically exciting performance. For an ensemble that is newer or has less experienced players, I think the focus becomes less about the sound content and more about developing the skills that are necessary to perform the piece, and learning to listen and connect with others while performing.

Ensemble/Duration

K: How did you settle on the minimum of five players, and why a minimum of eight minutes? Those are kind of general/bland questions, but I feel like there are sometimes little insights in each composers’ answer.

C: From what I can remember, it was only an intuitive choice!

 

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