Reflections on Event Score, with responses from Eric KM Clark
By Jesse Gotfrit
After Event Score, Western Front’s three-day, Fluxus-oriented festival that took place from November 14 – 16, 2013, Los Angeles-based sound artist and violinist Eric KM Clark shared with us some elaborated thoughts on the works he performed, as well as on his influences and the effect of his own compositions on listeners.
During Clark’s Friday night performance, the sounds that emerged from within the darkness of the stage, which was occupied at times with bodies’ unfurling forms, felt ritualistic and esoteric, futuristic and strange. The visceral and uncanny effects of the pieces silenced the room. In conjunction with Clark’s performance, the audience members were encouraged to participate in a piece by Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, Unfurl, which asks anyone involved with or observing the performance to unravel to the extent that they can whatever they may have brought with them (scarves, sweaters, etc.) onto the stage.
The four solo pieces Clark presented, as well as the fifth piece of the evening, which he composed himself and had performed by the Now Orchestra Workshop participants, demonstrated Clark’s dynamic technique and style and, ultimately, gave the audience an auditory peek inside his mind. The works also offered some perspective with respect to his career and provided an introduction to the composers – all of whom he has had the opportunity to work with personally – who inspired his interests and direction as a performer.
The first piece Clark performed was James Tenney’s Koan (1971) for solo violin, which was part of Tenney’s Postal Pieces (1965 – 71) series. It reflects an acute awareness of intonation, left hand finger movements, and bow speed. The performer bows eight to ten duples (pairs of notes) per bow, then moves the lowest note of the pair approximately one-eighth of a tone up. It finishes on a held E double octave, which eventually dissipates into nothing as the bow inches toward the bridge. The composition is essentially a series of instructions that call for particular bowing speeds while the performer completes various patterns that move up along the fingerboard. The character of the piece could be taken as ambient and entrancing. Clark used the words ‘thoughtful’ and ‘meditative’ as useful descriptors, considering the definition of the term ‘Koan’: a paradox for meditation used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.
Clark admits, “I lose myself when playing this piece, and also pay quite a bit of attention to left hand finger movement and bow speed; relaxing while completely focused. One can see the piece perhaps as an extreme simplification, as if the composer were using a microscope to isolate a repetitive element.”
The second piece Clark performed was My Lai 1968, written by Canadian composer Wolf Edwards, with whom Clark began working in 2002 while both were studying at the University of Victoria.
“Many of the sounds created during the Edwards piece I played were different from our conditioned notions of how the violin should sound. It is just because it’s another sound quality that perhaps some people are not accustomed to … [My Lai 1968] is specifically notated with pitches and when to perform certain effects and noises, and even suggests a rather concrete timeframe – Edwards indicates a rhythmical or metrical stress or ictus – which I go from abiding by to ignoring if I want the piece to go a certain way. Also, it would be nearly impossible to interpret the pieces played, especially graphic or involved scores like Wolf Edwards’ piece, in a convincing fashion without technical training on an instrument. Even the sounds Edwards asks for are derived from the classical tradition, and though many classical musicians would find that comment surprising and possibly disagree, I believe that every composer of all time has helped evolve musical direction and sounds.”
The third work of the evening was Percussion Sculpture No. 1, composed in 2007 by American composer Lisa R. Coons. Clark put aside his violin and actually played Coons’ sculpture, which was devised out of scrap yard metal, as an instrument, utilizing many different objects as well as his violin bow.
“I programmed the Coons piece for two reasons,” Clark states. “The fact that it was a merging of visual art and music, which I find to be part of the Fluxus tradition, and I wanted an amplified work to contrast the Edwards piece. I’m also fascinated with different forms of notation, and in her case there was no notation – the instrument itself is part of the composition. In fact, the instrument has the same title as the piece I played – Percussion Sculpture No. 1. I’m also a huge fan of Lisa Coons and have worked with her extensively. She has taught me hands on many different sound worlds to explore via different techniques.”
The fourth piece was another Tenney composition, written in 1964, called Ergodos II with Instrumental Response. The piece involves two components, the first being a score in which the notes are points in all four quadrants of a grid. The second component is a tape, which plays certain notes and sounds from the grid. After hearing a note from the tape, the performer must then respond with the corresponding note opposite the one played, enabling the performance of the piece to be almost completely spontaneous. The sounds from the tape are clearly of electronic origin and could be described as reminiscent of early technological sounds, as if they had been emitted from a ship’s sonar system or a science fiction film’s spaceship control panel.
According to Clark, “The definition behind the piece is very important, and definitely supports an argument for the music having basis in mathematics – at least it does with this piece.”
The term ‘ergodic’, from which the piece’s title derives, refers to two common definitions: (1) of or relating to a process in which every sequence or sizable sample is equally representative of the whole; and, (2) involving or relating to the probability that any state will recur, especially cases in which there is zero probability that any state will never recur.
“Music is definitely based on mathematics, even if people don’t realize it,” Clark informs us. “From the harmonic series, which became a huge influence on James Tenney when he first started exploring the world of just intonation, to exploring basic chord progressions and where harmonics or overtones appear on instruments. One can see the direct influence of mathematics is this ergodic model and the grid having sound and reaction.”
“I really enjoy the human element added to the concrete,” Clark continues. “I actually had never done a solo version of this piece before but I think it works very well as a solo, or duet if you count the tape part as another performer.” Clark possesses very detailed parts for this piece for most members of the instrument families, meaning that the piece could be performed by an entire orchestra.
The fifth and final piece of the evening was Clark’s own Deprivation Music. For the performance of this work, Clark called upon participants of the New Orchestra Workshop, a 15-piece improvising ensemble which employs a number of instruments ranging from accordion to guitar, and asked them to wear blindfolds and noise cancelling headphones which dispelled white noise. Much of the orchestra’s contributions were drone-like, with most holding a single sustained note for long periods of time. One of the ideas embedded within the piece reflects the composer’s curiosity about what quality the music takes on when the performers cannot see or hear each other, or listen for intonation or pitch. The only prescribed instructions: over a period of time, perform between five and eleven long tones, with only occasional mention as to the desired length of silence between notes.
When asked about his fascination with spontaneity, Clark responded: “Any piece has elements of spontaneity, except I suppose tape pieces, and from my program I’d say the Coons piece, the second Tenney piece, and my composition most fit the indeterminate designation. And I love uncertain outcomes, with the key being that they’re given devotion and taken seriously. In my Deprivation Music, I’m curious to see how people will interpret the direction and when they’ll do certain things. To me, the mistakes (things the performers didn’t necessarily mean to do) are just as interesting as random chords building up. I’m most impressed when silence develops, since it seems to be becoming rarer and rarer in that particular piece. And I adore silence, or what happens during moments of inaction.”
When asked about a singular intention or theme behind all the pieces presented, Clark replied, “I don’t like or try to evoke a specific response when programming or performing. I have interpreted many works from the Fluxus tradition over the years, among many other styles, and do have a fondness for the thought involved as a composer and performer. Yet, I can’t say I have any singular intention in creating music. With the concert you witnessed, you could see my love of interpreting different situations. I like how every piece I presented was different from the other, sometimes in an extreme way, yet to me putting them all together made a lot of sense. As every single piece from the program had a very human element involved – be it the solo pieces I performed, or the individuals who performed my deprivation piece – every one of them was removed from being influenced by the others, yet all of the indeterminate sounds built upon each other randomly to harmonize with each other. So I’d say the spontaneity of human nature and interpretation was a very important part of the entire program: from bow strokes and eighth tones in Koan, to Wolf’s sound world and my interpretation of the timing, to the Coons piece and how I was interpreting from things she’d shown me, to the other Tenney piece, where what I heard and quickly moved around the graph to interpret in real time caused almost an auditory look inside my brain.”
To elaborate on Clark’s roots in the Fluxus movement, it would be important to note that the night before his own show, he participated in a round table discussion at Western Front with Graham Christofferson (who performs under the solo project WORKER), local drummer Anju Singh, and Wolf Edwards to discuss the legacy of George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto of 1963. The initial intentions of Maciunas’ manifesto were to “purge the world of professional and commercial culture, and purge the world of dead, imitation, artificial, abstract, illusionistic, and mathematical art.” These intentions surely have relevance today, yet during the round table discussion, Clark suggested that after being offered gallery space and opportunities for exposure, the original Fluxus members perhaps contradicted their own manifesto. Many of the sound artists who associated with the Fluxus movement were classified as abstractionists and were typically only appreciated by dilettantes and the bourgeoisie.
Clark finds his compositions to be less urgent and anarchistic than those expressed within the Fluxus Manifesto, while being very thoughtful and personal. “I hope the pieces I write and perform cause people to think and even zone out, then come back to reality. And with a program such as the one I presented, I fully expect the same person who really enjoyed one piece to perhaps completely dislike one of the other ones. I just like them all, and I guess the Event Score concert was also, in a way, a recent retrospective of things I enjoy performing and experimenting with.”
Jesse Gotfrit is a first year English student at Simon Fraser University. He has written articles for the counter current online magazine The Tyee, and the youth-run online magazine Lotusland. His other endeavours consist of creative writing, including short stories and poetry, performing slam poems, and playing music on guitar and piano.
The accompanying videos are excerpts taken from Eric KM Clark’s performance on November 15, 2013, as well as Dissonant Disco’s performance of Copious Flow and Quasar Saxophone Quartet’s performance of Wolf Edwards’ Predator Drone MQ-1, both of which took place at Western Front on November 16, 2013 as part of Event Score.