the shape distance :: did it work? [3]

DECEMBER 27, 2013 [updated 14.02.2015]
‘the shape distance’: Did it work?

Sketched moment from ‘the shape distance [7].

Did it work?

In short, yes!

In December 2013 I travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, to work with Chamber Cartel as they gave the premiere and made recordings of ‘the shape distance’ [1-7] for seven players.

‘the shape distance’ is a collection of independent pieces, solos mainly, brought together in the one ensemble piece to be played together in an unsynchronised fashion; by this I mean that each of the solo lines plays independently of one another, each having fully notated material written in different tempi and baring structures. There are cues to start the material but after beginning there is no further vertical coordination or alignment; the way the solo lines relate to each other in the performance represent a unique iteration of the piece.

The pieces are composed to be free-standing works, performed as a part of a mixed programme. On this occasion all seven pieces were premiered in the one live event.

In my research preceding the composition I ‘calculated’ the range of outcomes available allowing for ‘natural variation’ or deviation from my ‘ideal’ outcome scenario [this occurring if all musicians followed my metronome markings with complete accuracy]. Of course, musicians are human beings and not metronomes, so I anticipated that the ideal scenario or iteration would never be achieved, as each performance would yield different interpretations of speed with each musician varying their rendition somewhat with each play-through. The variables would be many and this was, in part at least, the attraction that has drawn me to this manner of composition, therefore each performance was the right performance but of course, some would feel more ‘right’ than others.

Players were also given a target duration for the length of their material. This overall timespan allowed the soloists to gauge their speeds across the length of music and acted as a limiting factor that would ensure greater cohesion of the parts in relation to my ideal outcome scenario. Within this, the players could interpret the music fully. Compositional material is [largely] derived from a series of distant variations that unify all sections with thematic landmarks. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure to the work. All the instrumental roles are written to a high degree of virtuosity and most contain extended techniques and quarter-tones. The music itself [through the simultaneous bringing together of these individual parts] forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.

Like Russian Dolls, the seven pieces all ‘nest’ within ‘the shape distance [7]’. The ‘unpacked’ material represents ‘the shape distance’ pieces. The notated music within all of ‘the shape distance’ parts [solos] remains exactly the same from [1-7]. For example, Flute 1 plays the same music in each of the seven pieces but due to its changed context within the variable instrumental combinations and the unsynchronised nature of the vertical alignments, the Flute 1 material takes on a different relationship and contextual significance within each instrumental combination; in short, it sounds different in different contexts. This applies to all other solo lines as well and is the device that brings aural variation to the set.

As this project developed it also became clear that there was potential to develop more than the 7 originally conceived pieces. What resulted were 14 pieces under the collective title of the shape distance, most of which have now been recorded by Chamber Cartel

the shape distance [1] flute 1 / clarinet
the shape distance [2] flute 1 / clarinet / piano
the shape distance [3] flute 1 / clarinets 1 + 2 / viola / harp / piano
the shape distance [4] flutes 1 + 2 / harp
the shape distance [5] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / percussion (1)
the shape distance [6] flute 1 / clarinet / harp / percussion (1)
the shape distance [7] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / harp / piano / percussion (1)
the shape distance [11] harp / piano
the shape distance [12] Clarinet / viola / harp
the shape distance [13] flutes 1 + 2 / Clarinet / viola / 2 harps
the shape distance [14] flutes 1 + 2 / Clarinets 1 + 2 / Violas 1 + 2 / harp / percussion (1)

All the above represents my research – my theoretical understanding around how to compose music that would have the unsynchronized freedoms previously mentioned yet still produce a cohesive and satisfying musical experience for the composer, performers and audience.

More rehearsals at 800 East

The musicians took to the idea of unsynchronised playing immediately. It became clear that playing an independent line as part of an unsynchronised ensemble did not present any major issues other than getting the overall duration of their material correct as per the composers indications. For performers who had practiced intently this did not present a problem as they were familiar with the tempi with which they rehearsed the material in their own practice sessions and this was easily transferrable into the ensemble context. It also became apparent that individual musicians benefitted from being able to ‘play off’ each other within the ensemble and this live generation of sound and their spontaneous reaction to it enhanced the expressiveness of their own performances. This is not improvisation as all the material is fully notated and flexibility lies only in the vertical alignment of each of the parts with musicians given very clear and detailed instructions around expressive markings which needed to be followed precisely at all times for the piece to work. This is of great importance because the aural layering and internal communication governing the parts is as much to do with dynamic markings as it is with tessitura and rhythm. The ‘playing off’ aspect cannot affect dynamic relationships [such as several instruments are playing loudly and my part is marked very quiet so I’d better play it a bit louder to be heard] otherwise the foreground, mid-ground and background of the music’s spatial integrity would be lost. The ‘playing off’ that the musicians referred to enhanced a sense of confidence and musicality that perhaps enabled them to contextualise their performance moment to moment as the inter-relationships unfolded, and amplify their interpretation making it more three dimensional and meaningful. This represented a new and positive experience for the musicians.

Rehearsals at 800 East

As predicted, this nature of music involves a great deal of personal practice to master the demands of the notation but relatively little time in ensemble rehearsal. For ensembles who are often pushed for rehearsal time, especially when performing more challenging music, this unsynchronised format offers many advantages.

Interestingly, a number of the musicians commented that the music sounded vertically through-composed even when a group practicing their own parts independently in the same space were each starting at arbitrary points in their respective scores. This came as an added bonus and can only be due to the interconnected relationships between the materials in all the parts that cohesively binds them together no matter how they are combined. This was perhaps the greatest vindication that my research had worked in practical terms.

Audience feedback was also extremely positive. Considering the unfamiliar and to some, ‘challenging’ nature of this music such reactions were a bonus.

Finally, out of this rehearsal process came another ‘the shape distance’ piece; number 11 for harp and piano. I had not originally considered this as a combination to join the set. I cannot offer a reason for this but when two of the players suggested that they try their two parts together and see what it sounded like I was very interested to explore their idea. And they were right, it worked and sounded like another addition to the set of pieces. Another Russian Doll had been discovered in the set offering further evidence that the material of ‘the shape distance’ can yield many possible outcomes only some of which have been ‘captured’ here.

‘the shape distance [11]‘ represents one of the calmer combination of the material.

Recordings and downloads of the full set of pieces will be available in Spring 2014.

Marc Yeats is composer-in-association with Chamber Cartel.


the shape distance [2]

MARCH 18, 2013

‘the shape distance’ [maps 5-8]

A greater confidence and liberation of gesture and colour are increasingly apparent as I continue my journey into painting to ‘capture’ moments in sound from my own compositions onto the two-dimensional surface of white-borads [at least, that’s the intention – the reality may prove rather more elusive]. You will need to judge for yourselves just how ‘musical’ these paintings are as it is difficult for me to be objective once the processes of assimilation [making the painting] takes over, all other concerns become secondary.

My intention remains pure enough, but the excitement of working with pigment, texture, colour and modeling form tends to dictate its own dynamic on-goingly. This ‘non-temporal’ media is quickly so much more responsive and pliable in ‘real-time’ than writing down music, making the act of composition feel laboriously painstaking. [maps 5-8] sees a further exploration and extension of the initial mark-making in [maps 1-4] and tackles a broader repertoire of ‘sound-initiators’ [the sound or combinations of sounds in aural gesture I employ to initiate the mark-making from my imagination]. More extreme sound-events now shape my painted outcomes. The resultant work reflects these polarities.

‘the shape distance [map 8]‘ Oil and mixed media on mounted board 24×18 inches | 2013

‘the shape distance [map 7]‘ Oil and mixed media on mounted board 24×24 inches | 2013

‘the shape distance [map 6]‘ Oil and mixed media on mounted board 24×18 inches | 2013

‘the shape distance [map 5]‘ Oil and mixed media on mounted board 24×18 inches | 2013

the shape distance [1]

MARCH 10, 2013
the shape distance

I haven’t painted for six years.

This week I completed four new paintings. They mark a radical departure from the work I finished in 2006. This radical departure is due in part to various developments in my music compositions but also due to much deliberation about the associations between music and painting in general and how, specifically, my work as a painter can be brought closer to that of my music. Writing in VISCER-ebr-AL combined with the many conversations I have had with my dear friend Ian Talbot have helped shape ideas, culminating in a burst of work that draws together many of the threads pondered and discussed.

‘the shape distance’ [map 1] 30 x 23.5 inches Oil on mounted board.

Before talking about my intention within the paintings, it will help to outline my most recent thoughts in composition as these directly impact upon this series of paintings; indeed, they reference each other through a shared title.

the shape distance are a series of seven pieces constructed somewhat akin to ‘Russian Dolls’ in that each contains the same or similar core material that is ‘enclosed’ by other layers of material.

The core music is represented by two solo pieces that although composed in isolation contain strongly related material. This music for flute and clarinet, either together or individually pervades all subsequent pieces in the series.

the shape distance [1] flute 1 / clarinet
the shape distance [2] flute 1 / clarinet / piano
the shape distance [3] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola
the shape distance [4] flutes 1 + 2 / harp
the shape distance [5] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / percussion (1)
the shape distance [6] flute 1 / clarinet / harp / percussion (1)
the shape distance [7] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / harp / piano / percussion (1)

Percussion set (1 player):
5 differently pitched temple blocks ranging from high to low, 4 differently pitched suspended cymbals ranging from high to low, 1 timpani drum 29″-28″, 1 large, deep, resonant bass drum, 2 differnetly pitched suspended tam-tams

all works circa 12 minutes in duration.

The instrumentalists play independently of each other. Music is cued to begin only, with no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the instrumentalists. Whilst the relationship of each instrument is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and variability. To this end it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible although the composer appreciates that it is the various interpretations and practicalities inherent in the realisation of tempi that contribute to the richly unique nature and interplay of each performance.
There is only one instructions to the players; to begin together and play until their material is finished.

Compositional material is [largely] derived from a series of distant variations that unify all sections with thematic landmarks. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure to the work. All the instrumental roles are written to a high degree of virtuosity and most contain extended techniques and quarter-tones. The music itself [through the simultaneous bringing together of these individual parts] forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.

The score and parts:
I have not produced a score for these pieces; difficulties and variables associated with displaying the musical material in vertical alignment as represented in real time are considerable. Each performance will yield different results, interplays, gestural and harmonic references and outcomes. As a result, the material contained within the pieces can only be read via the instrumental parts. Consequently here is no definitive performance of these pieces.
Music in the shape distance can only be realised through performance [as opposed to comprehended by reading through a score; this is the nature of the music – it has to be experienced to be ‘known’.

A note about the title:
‘The shape distance is part of ‘the shape context’ and is intended to be a way of describing shapes that allows for measuring shape similarity and the recovering of point correspondences. The basic idea is to pick n points on the contours of a shape. For each point pi on the shape, consider the n − 1 vectors obtained by connecting pi to all other points. The set of all these vectors is a rich description of the shape localized at that point but is far too detailed. The key idea is that the distribution over relative positions is a robust, compact, and highly discriminative descriptor.’


This process of describing shapes through their similarities resonated with my ambition in these pieces, especially regarding the recognition of shapes [this time shape and gestural recognition in sound rather than physical objects] within a complex, multifaceted fabric of un-synchronous sounds, believing that it is the recognition of these elements that brings both context, excitement and meaning to the music.

It is perhaps this last paragraph that can be used for the jumping-off point into my paintings.

‘the shape distance’ [map 2] 25 x 24 inches, Oil on mounted board.

My intention in this work, as stated above, was broadly to bring connectivity from my music into my paintings in a way that at least, resonated with me.

I know it is impossible to ‘paint music’ in any real [truthful] sense and have observed that when most visual artists cite a connection between their visual work and music it is through affectation [a purely emotional, indulgent or even nostalgic response], illustration or pure fiction.

I felt it necessary, as far as I was able to avoid these pitfalls.

In starting the paintings I had a very rough idea of where I might be heading but the detail was unknown. I was very anxious about making marks on my virgin whiteboards. Initially, I was scared to commit. A six-year gap in painting leaves both a desire to paint again as well as a void that has been filled by uncertainties around one’s abilities to actually paint anything of worth ever again.

My first attempt took me straight back to where I left off. I put that one aside. My second attempt [the first to be finished] immediately showed the way forward as I recognised within it many of the ideas I had previously thought about. It was this painting that became the measure for the others. I removed the surface from the first painting and started again. This process of assimilation between the works continued until I felt I had left the past behind sufficiently and had indicated the way forward. I wasn’t sure I ‘liked’ what I had produced, but on a subconscious level the work resonated and I ‘knew’ this was the right direction. I took me a few days to acclimatise to this new work. Now I am enjoying it and my mind is stimulated with more to come.

‘the shape distance [map 3] 30 x 24 inches. Oil on mounted board.

Yes, I needed to bring ‘music’ into the visual, but how had I intended to do this.

I took an approach based very much on mapping ‘gesture’ in music. In sound, a gesture can be a flourish of notes, a sudden loud to quiet, a phrase or technique, a crescendo, a musical shape – a moment. All these gestures have physical counterparts. Rather, they can all be represented through a physical movement [we may call this dance, but I have something less formalised in mind], single movements that capture the kinetic energy that the gestural sound produces. It is this movement that I wanted to capture through the gesture of mark-making, solidifying ‘a moment in sound’ through line, colour and texture.

These paintings, called ‘the shape distance’ are mapping exercises; they ‘petrify’ a moment in time, an event or gesture[s] from one of my scores. They are not illustrative or affective; they translate a gesture in sound through a related gesture in line, the impetus and guide being the kinetic energy needed to bridge this gap. Therefore, the mark making in these paintings is pre-conceived, experienced and spontaneously translated into the mark in one [or several] bold gestures.

As mapping these gestures is central to the work, my titles reflect the connection: ‘the shape distance’ [map 1], ‘the shape distance [map 2], and so on.

Other elements are at play, too.

These paintings have taken their elements of form, texture and colour to the minimum necessary to effectively express my intent. This is where the radical departure from my previous work is centred. I had produced large works of an ‘epic’ intensity [by comparison], full of rich colour, deep texture, impasto and complex forms. Now, the paintings are set upon pale, delicately textured backdrops that have an almost [slightly grubby] clinical feel – a bit like setting the mark-making, the gestures against a background of white-noise, or indeed, silence. This juxtaposition only serves to heighten the mark-making and minimal colour present in the work. The focus has been sharpened towards what is vital for the form of the piece to work.
These pieces are not minimal in any sense like ‘minimalism in music’; on the surface and in comparison to my previous work there has been a significant paring down of content and spectrum of expression, but what I am left with is in no way minimal. If anything, the reduction has increased the intensity of the gesture and spontaneity of the work making it more potent. It may not have the initial visual ‘wow’ factor of my previous work, but upon deeper inspection reveals a passionate dynamic that reflects its origins in music.

Additionally, these ‘reduced’ backgrounds, these settings for the gestural mark-making provide a platform akin to derelict internal walls that exude the beauty of ‘domestic erosion and decay’, or external urban walls that call for graffiti. There is a sense in which I view this new work as a kind of graffiti with the board being the wall. Perhaps I could call the work I am producing gestural graffiti?

‘the shape distance’ [map 4] 30 x 24 inches. Oil on mounted board.

Having said all of this I shall close by stating that I am fully aware my intentions in this work, all that I have written, thought and made, may not be apparent to the viewer who has no knowledge of my previous work, connection to music or given intent. Does that weaken the work? I think not. The intent of the artist is paramount; it gives the context and raison d’être for the work. These ideas resonate with me and will resonate with others but with those for whom such resonances are not apparent, my hope is that the dynamic of the work will ‘speak’ to them in other ways.