As I write this I have just come back from a rehearsal for my latest piece, Laughter Studies 2, with Alice Purton. During the rehearsal of the piece, in which we both listen to manipulated sounds on headphones and react to them in real time, she asks “How do you want me to act? Do I stay sad or go back to neutral for those 2 seconds?” It’s a small but important detail in the piece, one which, admittedly, I hadn’t thought about, and it instantly reminds me of one of the reasons I love making music with really good performers – to have those types of interactions which provide a totally fresh perspective on your work, making you see things that you didn’t see before.
Alice is the dream performer to work with. Whether playing cello strings or other objects, singing, making declamatory statements on stage, or unrolling sellotape in a huge hall, she’s someone who cuts through all the bullshit and wants to get to the essence of the piece – what it’s doing, how it’s doing it, and why she should care. Which, in turn, makes you care when she performs. Working with her, there is always an element of collaboration, even if I’ve been a Composer with a capital C and written everything down (or, in this case, recorded everything in sound), there are ideas concerning what we’re supposed to be thinking about when we do this, whether we should look at each other here or not, and what that might mean; ideas that end up affecting the piece creatively and aesthetically.
Not content with just playing the notes, there is always an impulse to go deeper into the music. Not an insignificant part of our rehearsal time is spent talking about atheism and its reliance for validity on truth-fetishism (this is spurred by John Gray’s Straw Dogs, a book I thoroughly recommend for anyone interested in human pretensions of moral superiority over other life-forms). Which reminds me of another reason I love working with really good performers – when you end up talking about all sorts of weird stuff that may or may not connect to the music you are making.
One of the best and most memorable concerts I’ve seen in recent times was by Alice’s group Distractfold, who played a programme of Hanna Hartman, Christian Winthers Christensen, Daniel Blinkhorn, Steven Takasugi, Mauricio Pauly and Sam Salem at Swedenborg Hall in December. The venue, an 18th century Grade II listed townhouse in an unassuming street in Bloomsbury, was refreshingly unusual. Chosen because of William Blake’s link to Emmanuel Swedenborg –Blake’s London was the theme of Sam Salem’s piece not one can pass away –, it made for a great listening experience. What would amplified metal rods and handheld electronic devices sound like in this intimate and antiquated space? The answer is: pretty fucking great. And that’s mainly because the attention to detail that this ensemble has is hugely impressive. Every sound is alive with presence and clarity. It’s an ensemble whose sound makes sense in and of a post-HD world; who embraces super high production values and works with them creatively.
Which, when I think about it, fits perfectly with Alice’s boldness and directness as a performer. The first time we made music together was in a performance of Jonathan Harvey’s Advaya at the Royal College of Music in 2011, a piece requiring more than a touch of boldness from the cellist. Sat behind the desk triggering the Max patch, I remember being bowled over by the sheer amount of it that Alice exuded. Since then we’ve worked on a variety projects of which Laughter Studies 2 is the latest; I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.
– Louis d’Heudieres