Composer-Curator: Q&A with Jack Sheen

An Assembly group performing for BBC Radio 3 at LSO St.Lukes
An Assembly

Jack Sheen's group An Assembly is one of six participants on our Composer-Curator programme this year. An Assembly will be touring work by Louis D'Heudieres, Rowland Hill and Charlie Usher, from 1-4 October. 

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What is your project about - in a nutshell?

Touring three works for large ensemble - including two new commissions - to Birmingham, London and Manchester.

What are you most excited about?

Having the chance to work closely with three fascinating young artists and perform the pieces in three different concerts, allowing us to really delve into each work and perfect their realisation.

There’s an interesting entanglement of notions of inside and outside, public and private, in the works that form your programme. Could you say a bit about how the different pieces approach this theme, and how these approaches intersect?

It feels as if the key idea which underlines all of the work we’re touring is transcription. Charlie Usher’s epic new 45’ work An assembly, was conceived as a series of real-time transcriptions of the sounds from outside his studio whilst he was composing, documenting these moments into a series of 14 second miniatures which are then woven together to create the piece (alongside some field recordings). Ultimately, the sources of these miniatures won’t be clear to the listener - there’s no obviously onomatopoeia in the piece - but instead, we see Charlie’s own musical personality coming to the foreground; perhaps it's actually his personality that is being transcribed via the 'outside world’ he was attempting to capture. 

Rowland Hill’s new work is a film and live performance which takes as its starting point Edwin Denby’s 1959 review of Stravinsky and Balanchine’s final ballet, Agon. The review is a crazy and incredibly stylised piece of writing, full of odd references to pop culture, pure cinema, and everyday gestures in an attempt to capture the radical choreography in words. It includes lines like: 'On the upbeat, a fanfare begins, like cars honking a block away; the sound drops lower, changed into a pulse. Against it, and against a squiggle like a bit of wallpaper, you hear— as if by free association—a snatch of “Chinatown, My Chinatown” misremembered on an electric mandolin.’ Rowland is treating this review almost like a script for a film, reworking Denby’s writing into a choreographed state (physically in film, sonically in instruments and found audio).

Louis D’Heudiere’s Laughter Studies 6b is a literal performance of transcription in many ways, with four vocalists listening to their own private soundtrack made up of midi-melodies and field recordings which they describe and imitate, occasionally accompanied by an ensemble that musically refracts their audio-instructions. What’s interesting, poignant and often hilarious are the connections that you - the viewer - make between different performers responding individually to (what you imagine to be) the same source of audio. As one person makes a saliva-soaked crunching sound with their mouth, another may start to frantically describe a fire crackling up close to your face, whilst another begins to slowly describe the sound of children running around on gravel. 

Across all the pieces, the subjectivities of the composer, source material or performers are highlighted as music is used to somehow try and capture material from outside of music itself. None of this work is simply a case of starting with some pitches and rhythms and seeing how things develop, they’re each an attempt to deal with extra-musical material and mediate it through music, film, and performance. 

Composer-Curator Jack Sheen
Jack Sheen

This is the first time An Assembly has done a tour. Do you think this way of presenting work presents certain opportunities (beyond trashed hotel rooms obviously)? For example, in understanding contingent relationships between the work, the performance space, the public?

I think it’s impossible to really predict the audience you’ll reach or how they’ll respond to the work you present, although obviously your own (loose) ideas about these things guide what you do and how you do it.

What’s important for me is that music doesn’t become an isolated medium. It should always remain in dialogue with conceptual, aesthetic and stylistic trends in other art forms, making use of its own truly unique ‘material’ (sound) whilst constantly challenging our ideas of where the boundaries of that medium are and pushing them in new directions. Having said that, I’m not interesting in territorially stating what is or is not music, even in an exploratory way: if it’s good, I’d like An assembly to be a way of getting it out there, whether it’s a piece of music for small orchestra, a choreographed piece of dance, or a feature length film.

I guess this opens up our ‘concerts’ to a wider variety of audiences, appealing to new music lovers alongside those interested in contemporary visual arts, film, performance etc. This seems very natural: I don’t know many people who have a singular interest in only one thing.

I’m particularly excited in performing Charlie’s new piece, affectionately entitled An assembly. We originally commissioned a 20 minute piece, but after a few weeks I spoke to Charlie who said it was becoming something else, and asked if it would be possible for him to write a piece that’s ended being over twice as long at 45 minutes. It’s incredibly rare for any composer to have the chance to make such an expansive piece - let alone one who isn’t already an established, tried and tested figure - and thus for audiences to experience a new, totally unfamiliar work of such a duration. 

As Charlie himself says, it’s much harder to remember where you ‘left off’ from after 45 minutes than after 10, or even 20. I have a feeling that a listener’s idea of a piece becomes more personal the longer a piece is. The more of a role our memories play in grasping a piece of music, the more it can fail us, or our imagination can come into play filling in the gaps, leaving everyone with a more distorted image than one would have from a contained miniature of just a few seconds. 

It’s fantastic to be able to explore these ideas and enjoy more substantial pieces when often we’re exposed to world premieres than fall into a regular scale of 3, 5, 10, or perhaps - if we’re lucky / unlucky - 20 minutes. I hope that in future An assembly can push further into this direction, commissioning, performing and contributing work which interact with a larger sense of scale.

Composer-Curator is supported by:

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