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Opening Night: Run Time Error

           Dynamic, driven, clear in its sights while taking in information from all over the place, the work of Simon Steen-Andersen has been one of music’s boldest entrants this century. It is music that refuses to be just music, music that focuses the eyes as well as the ears – on how it is played, the body language, the grip on fiber or metal, the action, the intensity, and precision of that action. It is music made for performance, in real time, within a certain space, but often open to elsewheres of time and space, by means of quotation, reference, recording, and film.

           Steen-Andersen (b. 1976) studied in his native Denmark with Karl Aage Rasmussen, and also with Matthias Spahlinger in Freiburg and Gabriel Valverde in Buenos Aires. By the time he completed his studies in Copenhagen with Hans Abrahamsen and Bent Sørensen, in 2006, he already had a strong output behind him, including the remarkable rerendered (2003), which has a pianist at the keyboard joined by two assistants working on the strings and body of the instrument, with the possibility also of a fourth performer, to conduct. The assistants assist, of course, in making complex amalgams of noise, pitch, and harmonics, but they also alter. The pianist is beset, too, by the requirement to play extremely quietly, with amplification bringing forward a music of shuffling and zigzaging brilliance, chiming repetition, and gradual decay. Steen- Andersen further suggests the performance be monitored by a camera over the piano and projected on to a screen above.

           Thus estranging the means, and engaging technology – amplification and projection – to reconnect, this piece gave Steen-Andersen a productive direction to pursue. He also began gaining important commissions, notably from the Ensemble Modern (Chambered Music, for twelve instruments and sampler, 2007) and ensemble recherche (Nothing Integrated, for extremely amplified clarinet, percussion, cello, and live video, 2007). In 2008, he joined the faculty at the music academy in Århus, where he had begun his training a decade before.

           Among his recent pieces is a piano concerto (with sampler and video) written for last year’s Donaueschingen Festival, and Black Box Music, a multimedia work recently performed at the Southbank Centre by the London Sinfonietta. This and many other works can be found online via YouTube or on his own site.

Run Time Error: version 1 (2015)

           The composer here becomes solo performer; the building, his instrument. Two normal categories of human agents and hardware are thus collapsed into singletons: one musician, one environment-instrument, which the composer-performer runs through, creating sounds as he goes using only objects found on site, while making an audio- visual recording.

           For Steen-Andersen, the site-specific nature of the piece is key. Each time it is performed – first in Brussels in 2009, then many times elsewhere in Europe – it grows and changes. For this evening’s performance, featuring a new version created here at Miller Theatre, he is joined by the four musicians of the JACK Quartet, who will be encountered again in the rest of the program.

           All this – the running and the sounding and the video-recording – will all have happened in advance to make two streams to be played back on a split screen. These streams relate to one another on the model of a two-part invention. One stream may follow the other after a delay, copy it in slow motion, or reverse it, exemplifying the classical techniques of imitation, augmentation, and retrogradation, but with material that is thoroughly non-classical and, too, chosen to make these techniques unusually apparent, since they operate on the visual plane as well as the aural. The remixing happens live, via two joysticks manipulated by the composer. Performance art meets venerable form.

Study for String Instrument No. 1 (2007)

           “Movement of the sound or sound of the movement?”

           Steen-Andersen begins his note on this piece, the first of three Studies for String Instrument, with a question raised by almost any of his compositions. Run Time Error is music-making made vividly visual; his Second String Quartet creates a new demeanor of performance as much as a new, unsuspected galaxy of sounds.

           He goes on: “One simple ‘sample’ is repeated over and over, and is slowly broken down into its individual elements in a process of autonomizing the movements themselves. The piece is notated only as movements (and can therefore be played on any string instrument and maybe even on other instruments), and it is just as much a choreography for the player as it is a sounding piece for the instrument. A choreographic game – or even a kind of dance, accompanying itself.”

           In a further correspondence with Run Time Error, the first study evolves into a kind of two-part invention – the two hands mimicking each other – with parts in this first study being played by the bowing arm and by the left hand sliding up and down the strings. Quickly combining at first to make continuous glissando waves, these actions become dislocated from one another, and other actions intervene.

           The piece may be played as a solo or by several musicians simultaneously, as it is this evening.

Obstruction Study No. 1 (2012)

           For the 2012 festival of new chamber music in Witten, in north-west Germany, Steen- Andersen worked with the JACK not only on his Second String Quartet but also on three video recordings, his Obstruction Studies. These change the nature of string- quartet performance differently from how the Second Quartet does, and to a degree more drastically. That work, for all its strangeness, is an original composition, a positive achievement, whereas the Obstruction Studies are deliberately made as defective versions of found music, which they, indeed, obstruct. In each of them, the musicians are discommoded; in the case of this first piece by having the ends of their bows restrained by rubber bands and weights that will interfere with muscular control. The music being obstructed comes from the first movement of Schumann’s A Major quartet, Op. 41 No. 3, Andante espressivo.

Studies for String Instrument No. 2 (2009)

           Where the first study is for the close coupling of musician and instrument, the second adds an electronic transformer, a whammy pedal (as developed to facilitate effects on the electric guitar), which in this evening’s performance will be operated by one member of the quartet while the others play their regular instruments. (Like the first study, the piece may be done as a solo or multiple.) Now the two-part invention is for instrument and modulator, the one switching between the same two notes two octaves apart, the other gliding between off and on (and in between), its effect in the latter position being to lift the instrumental tone up two octaves. Thus, when the whammy pedal is pressed down (fully on) and the instruments are producing their lower notes, the resultant pitches are those of the instruments’ higher notes, though of course with different colors. That is how the piece starts, with both sides, acoustic and electronic, sliding in contrary motion. Then things get more complicated. The instrumentalists introduce a wider range of techniques, resulting in a wider range of responses from the whammy pedal. Eventually, the pedal is left fully on, turning the instrumental sounds it registers into melodies, cantabile.

Half a Bit of Nothing Integrated (2007-15)

           The live music-video piece Steen-Andersen wrote for ensemble recherche near the beginning of his international career, Nothing Integrated, has had a life of its own, generating A Bit of Nothing Integrated in 2008, followed by Half a Bit of Nothing Integrated in 2012, and now a new version specially produced for the JACK Quartet and for this concert. The composer once more explores the relationship between sound and visuals, using relatively simple means. In this case, the video is created and performed live onstage, by Steen-Andersen, with a modified miniature analog camera.

Obstruction Study No. 2 (2012)

           Obstruction in this second study is created by subjecting the players to white noise over headphones and changing lighting that will get in the way of them hearing themselves, hearing each other, and seeing their parts, as they move on to the second movement of the Schumann, Assai agitato. Desperate skill is needed to hang on, and even end together.

String Quartet No. 2 (2012)

           A first string quartet stands among Steen-Andersen’s earliest works, written in 1999; this second he composed for the JACK, who performed it for the first time at the festival of new chamber music in Witten in 2012. It plays for about fourteen minutes.

           A wholly extraordinary sound world is brought into being here by a wholly extraordinary way of playing the instruments, as the composer’s note to the score indicates:

                      “This quartet shifts the perspective from the body of the instruments and the left- hand actions (normally activated by the bows) to the right-arm movements and the bows themselves (activated by the strings). By amplifying the bows one is able to get much closer to the friction between bow and instrument, and to the – otherwise completely overshadowed – acoustic qualities of the bow.

                      “The wood sides of the bows (actually carbon fiber in this case) are prepared in different ways with various materials, resulting in different sounds and textures, when drawn across the strings. Working with the fixed orders of these preparations on the bows and the execution of these by moving the bow from one point to another (an acoustic ‘step sequence,’ if you will) reminds me a lot of working with four-channel ‘tracker’ composition on my Amiga 500 as a teenager.

                      “The actual hairs of the bows are partly masked with tape – a preparation that could be seen as the string-instrument parallel to the idea of the Touches Bloqués in Ligeti’s piano study – Archet Bloqué....”

           Further into the score, Steen-Andersen stipulates the preparations and their positions along the bows: pieces of tape, card, velcro, and metal winding affixed to the wood side of the bow for the first violin and cello, and, for all four players, lengths of masking tape covering the bowstrings except in small regions. In addition, the second violin begins with two rubber bands around its strings. The score then indicates which side of the bow and which part of it is to be used, and also where the violin, viola, or cello is to be bowed (on which string, where, or on the wooden body) — though since the roles of instrument and stimulator are reversed, one might rather speak of the bow being “violinned.”

           Precision in the notation pays off. What is produced is a whole menagerie of small sounds, often animated by decisively pulsed rhythms. Though whispers of normal string sonority will occasionally be heard, the sounds are barely at all reminiscent of those one expects from a string quartet, even in our post-Xenakis, post-Lachenmann, post-Radulescu era – and yet some sense of the genre’s aura remains. The work is thoroughly composed, in form as in detail; it has themes, the most striking of them being a kind of heavy breathing heard first from the second violin and cello. And this is by no means the only place where we may feel that, arduous as the circumstances may have become, the string quartet still has its voice.

Obstruction Study No. 3 (2012)

           Arriving now at the Schumann slow movement, Adagio molto, the musicians find themselves dealing with prepared bows, as in the work they just played. As in that piece, too, a wholly new music takes shape around and above wisps of the old.

Study for String Instrument No. 3 (2009)

           The third study is a cello solo, again played with prepared bow – or, rather, a cello duo, for live performer and projected image. Thus visually and dramatically manifesting itself, the piece explodes any need for further explanation.

Run Time Error: version 2 (2015)

           The program’s symmetry is completed by a second run, exploring a new route.

Program notes by Paul Griffiths