A Journey to Aaron Cassidy’s Second String Quartet

Take a conventionally notated score—Bach, Beethoven, whomever.

Let’s agree that when a performer looks at that score, they are being asked to imagine and reproduce a particular sound. Sure, the score only suggests (due to the imprecision of Western notation), but its sonic intention is tolerably precise. Interpretations may differ between performers, but an individual performer reading that score for the first time has a pretty clear idea of what it should sound like, which they discover and concretize as they become more familiar with the piece. That process, from a mental impression triggered by symbols on the page, to something precisely reproducible over and over, is borne along by the tastes and beliefs of the performer—the product of years of training within the restricted tradition of the Western canon. That is, the mark on the page conveys a historically sanctioned idea of the correct and the beautiful that the performer has been taught to read and strives to reproduce.

That process—score, imagined sound, created sound—takes place only because of the physical actions of the performer: rehearsing is partly about fixing the necessary muscle memory so that the music will come out right even under the bright lights of the auditorium. Although there are circumstances in which those actions may become part of the musical material without the need for notation (as in some improvisations), or they may not be a consideration at all (electronic music, for example), once you make a score that you expect people to rehearse and to get right, you are prescribing actions—the sounds are, in a sense, a secondary phenomenon to this.

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American-born, British-based composer Aaron Cassidy
Photo by Ralf Brunner

In reality, however, the actuality of sounds has become prioritized over their earthly creation. There are exceptions—pianist John Tilbury emphasizes the important role of touch in Feldman’s piano music, for example—but on the whole composers think of their performers as intellectual interpreters rather than manual laborers. Yet the American-born, British-based composer Aaron Cassidy is one of a growing number making productive strides towards rethinking this attitude. For him the primacy of sound is a particularly 20th-century phenomenon, deriving from the fact that most of our listening experiences come from loudspeakers or headphones: we now regard sound as an entity that is immaculately conceived and born into the world without let or hindrance.

Pierre Schaeffer, the composer, theorist, and pioneer of musique concrete, invented the term “acousmatic” to describe purely electronic music that is intended for loudspeaker listening and exists only as recordings. Almost all our musical experiences are now acousmatic: sounds are heard in isolation, at our desks, on our iPods, in our living rooms, detached from their source. We are told, through marketing and through the results of staggering research and development investments, that each of these new technologies represents a better way of listening. Thanks to the scale and power of the recording industry, we live in a world that has more music than ever before but less music-making. Listeners, renamed consumers, can have access to any music they desire without the burden of performers, instruments, or a training culture.

It is a tenet of Cassidy’s composition to resist the acousmatic “ideal.” His credo for more than a decade has been that “the way in which a sound is made, and the sound it makes, are fundamentally intertwined.” This is more than an echo of the UK Musician’s Union slogan to “Keep Music Live,” and it’s more even than a resistance to that commercial impulse that has—from sheet music to vinyl to CD to mp3—driven music technology into areas of increasingly low fidelity for the sake of consumer convenience and more efficient sales. (Although he does not work with electronic sounds, Cassidy is hardly a Luddite, as the computing power behind his sketches will attest.) It’s a belief that when we don’t attend to the role of muscle and sinew, we are losing a substantial layer of what makes music what it is: a human art, for playing as much as it is for listening. If we give that up too easily we risk losing a lot.

Before this starts to sound like a crusade, here’s an observation I can make having spent some time in Cassidy’s company talking about music: he’s also really, basically enthusiastic about finding out what happens when music is turned on its head like this. Even deep in discussion about the procedural nitty-gritty of a certain multi-parametrical operation, you’re never far from a “look—isn’t that awesome” moment. Yes, there may be a purpose, but there’s also the pleasure that comes from creating something new.

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Sample taken from The Crutch of Memory (2004) for indeterminate solo string instrument, an example of Cassidy’s earlier tablature style

For years Cassidy, along with a number of other composers, had worked with hybrids of staff and tablature notation. Drawing on previous innovations by Richard Barrett, Brian Ferneyhough, and Klaus K. Hübler, composers like Cassidy, Franklin Cox, and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf have devised methods of instrumental “decoupling” that separate the individual performance actions that make a sound (breath, embouchure, and fingering, for instance), notating them on different staves so that a polyphony of actions might be composed.

But although this notation had provided a remarkably versatile and productive tool through which Cassidy could work out his compositional ideas, there were underlying limitations; his Second String Quartet, composed last year and receiving its first US performances this month in Los Angeles and Buffalo with the JACK Quartet, represents a big step towards a truly new approach.

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Cassidy and the JACK’s John Pickford Richards in rehearsal
Photo by Ralf Brunner

First, as more detailed performance actions were specified, tablature scores were becoming too hard to read. Pieces like Mahnkopf’s The Courier’s Tragedy for solo cello had grown to spread themselves across ten staves for a single instrument and, even taking into account a tolerable degree of performance inaccuracy, it was simply no longer possible to play this music from the score: it could only be learned and reproduced as muscle memory. Second, and more importantly, for all their radical appearance, the scores remained wedded to a set of cultural norms that allowed for a dialogue between “correct” and “distorted.” Whether based in a particular organization of pitches, or even the “natural” position of a bow on the string, a “ground” is established and then ornamentalized and distorted with layers of supplementary performance information. The Courier’s Tragedy is a case in point: at the bottom of all that performance information are two more staves—like a piano reduction—which show the pitches that should result.

So, discard everything. Start from nothing. No pitches. No dynamics. No “natural” sound. No “correct” way to play the instrument, no tradition. No ground, no decoration. There is no normal anymore. What is left? Up, down, left, right, on, off. Instruments, and ways of making them sound. Simple things.

The sound, look, and feel of Cassidy’s Second String Quartet may be extraordinarily intricate, but its origins are found in extremely basic materials. This is the paradox and fascination of the truly complex in art and nature: when set in the right kind of motion, the interactions of simple things can generate unendingly rich results. As Cassidy talked me through the many stages of planning, sketching, and composing the quartet, it occurred to me that each step was carefully designed to advance the music’s richness without, first, sacrificing the structural propositions of the previous step and, second, requiring him to resort to the limitations of his human imagination. The process appears laborious and highly restricted, but it is designed to generate maximum variety and force innovation, to see the world beyond what we think is visible.

Here’s an example. Because of Cassidy’s rigorous deconstruction of the technical principles of his instruments, at every moment in the piece there are a large number of performing motions available; factor in the many combinations of those motions interacting together and one quickly arrives at an unmanageable pool of possibilities. Cassidy explained that one crucial stage of the sketching process is the drawing of a moving, continually changing “window” of these available options. At some points the window is large and admits many motions or types of motion from which the composer can select; at others it is very small. “So if you know the piece is going to be, say, nine minutes long,” I ask him, “do you just draw these geographical shapes over the top of that nine-minute line,” thinking it would be the easiest thing in the world to freehand draw a series of shapes and contours from which to work. Cassidy laughs. “Well, there are about six stages in between …” The goal, you see, is to create something multi-dimensional, unstable, and extraordinary that couldn’t otherwise have been dreamt up. “When I’ve made attempts to design shapes, I tend to design two-dimensional shapes,” Cassidy admits. “It’s so easy to fall back on these things that are immediately identifiable.” Those elaborate systems of constraint aren’t, therefore, about limiting possibilities but about inspiring the creation of new things never before seen.

In one instance that he is keen to show me, the window narrowed itself to just two gestural options; at the same time the player (the violist in this case) was restricted to using just the frog of the bow. The room for movement was thus extremely tight, but the compositional solution (and striking aural result) Cassidy was forced to devise would not have been found in any other way. “The most exciting bits for me are the places where I’ve somehow backed myself into a corner,” he admits.

Deriving such highly volatile, never-before-heard formations is one thing. Writing them down so that someone else can play them is something else. In many ways this is the heart of the story of the Second String Quartet.

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Ari Streisfeld, Aaron Cassidy, Christopher Otto, Kevin McFarland, John Pickford Richards
Photo by Ralf Brunner

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Excerpt from Aaron Cassidy’s Second String Quartet performed by the JACK Quartet. Audio courtesy of Südwestrundfunk SWR-2

As the work’s first performers, the JACK Quartet were brought in to help. The group were already comfortable with Cassidy’s style and methods—they’ve played his first string quartet enough times for it to become almost repertory, and their familiarity is such that violist John Pickford Richards was a seamless last-minute replacement when Cassidy’s extremely demanding ensemble work And the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth was given its premiere last year.

Cassidy prepared several alternative notational systems for his Second String Quartet, and spent sessions with the players trying out what did and didn’t work well with each. A lot of this time was spent trying to devise intuitive ways to notate certain physical actions, such as left hand finger placements. The players would test out the different notational options Cassidy presented, and the one that they could figure out fastest and most intuitively made it into the score. In the case of the finger placements, the solution arrived at was a small box with four columns for the strings and numbers to indicate the finger to be used on each string, a big advantage of which was being able to indicate the spacing between fingers by the vertical space between the numbers.

All this experimentation resulted in an almost entirely novel notation. However, there are one or two precursors from previous attempts to prescribe multi-dimensional performance movements. A notable point of comparison is Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I, although Cassidy says any similarity is a complete coincidence. In that piece, sound produced by the tam-tam player, the distance of the microphone from the tam-tam, and the control of bandpass filters and potentiometers to transform the electronically captured sound are written on three separate staves. The notation is very graphical—a pair of zig-zag lines indicate the movements of the sliders on the two filters, and the distance of the microphone from the tam-tam is similarly indicated by a line that moves between boundaries of near and far. However, whereas Stockhausen was working without precedent with regard to notating live electronic music, Cassidy is engaging with the traditions and expectations of acoustic instruments.

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Sample from the second violin part of the notation Cassidy used to create his Second String Quartet

Unlike Cassidy’s earlier works, with their multiple staves per instrument, his Second String Quartet compresses all the performance directions onto a single band of information. The four-line “stave” is in fact a map of the instrument, the lines representing bridge, end of fingerboard, top of instrument body, and nut. Two lines of information are then drawn over this map: left-hand finger placement (in black) and bowing position (in red). As the lines sweep and slide over the stave, so do the fingers and bow move up and down the strings of the instrument. The black lines may come in sets of up to four, depending on the number of strings to be fingered; the boxes described above indicate which fingers are to be used. In another echo of Mikrophonie I, intensity in the red line (that is, bow pressure on the string) is shown by relative thickness.

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Sample from the first violin part of the notation Cassidy used to create his Second String Quartet

A third line of information is supplied by a single green line. This indicates up and down motions of the bow (as well as elements such as tremolo). The bow is divided into five numbered zones, from 1 (tip) to 5 (frog), and the line indicates the movement up or down from zone to zone, with bow speed inferred by how quickly such transitions must take place.

What the score represents, then, is a radical analysis of performance actions into separate, independent parameters, and their reconstitution into an extremely fluid and flexible musical continuum. For although the level of parametrical distillation and resynthesis in the Second String Quartet is analogous to the workings of early integral serialism, there is nothing pointillistic about this piece: it is marked by continual transitions between states, a perpetual instability that never affirms a here and now or even a dot on a page, but a continual bubbling of new sound and activity. Normal space doesn’t become distorted but has somehow been bent, folded, and stretched before we even arrive.

Recounting his experiments with the tam-tam during the early stages of composing Mikrophonie I, Stockhausen recalls the anticipation he and his technician had when sitting down to listen to the recording of their experiments, since neither had heard exactly what sounds had been captured by the microphone, or how they had been transformed by the electronics. Likewise, neither Cassidy nor the players can know in advance exactly what sound will result from the various interacting movements that are prescribed. Ari Streisfeld, first violin with the JACK Quartet, says that “when we play this piece, we aren’t necessarily thinking about each individual sound as it is happening, we are thinking about the exact actions that Aaron has notated on the page. While we were learning it we worked to hone each gesture and make each action as elegant as we could. Of course, we are listening to the resulting sound and most definitely reacting to it; however, we don’t really know what the sound is going to be until we start playing it.”

So put aside that Bach or Beethoven for a moment and take this unconventionally notated score instead. The sounds are still there, hidden and unimaginable, but now the performer must make their own way towards discovering them. It is a call to action.

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Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes on contemporary music for the Guardian, INTO, Tempo, and his blog, The Rambler. He is currently preparing the 6th edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music.