Saturday, 3 July 2010

Interrobang: Steve Peters - The Webster Cycles

Two months ago, i reported that my ensemble, Interrobang, was to perform Steve Peters' remarkable ambient work, The Webster Cycles • It's a work that's entranced me since 2008, when it was released on CD, more than 25 years after its original composition date • It gets its name from the fact that the musical material originates in the Webster dictionary; Peters has taken all words that include just the letters A to G (being musical notes), arranged them in alphabetical order, & given them to players as a musical score • The words are grouped into seven columns, according to their first letter, & the result looks like this (click to see full-size):


Essentially, each player begins in their own time, playing each word on a single, long breath, followed by a pause; the same letter appearing concurrently is played in a different register to avoid repetitions • That's essentially it; except to say that Peters has—clearly due to experience—accompanied the score with a lengthy collections of Qs & As, together with suggested solutions to issues that may arise in performance (it's interesting how the simplest pieces on paper raise highly complex questions in practice) •

When Peters revived the work in 1998, he specified the work should be played either by a wind quintet or multiple trombones (this latter featuring on the CD); for our performance, with Steve's permission, we opted for a brass quintet comprising trumpet, flugelhorn, horn, trombone & bass trombone • Over the course of about six weeks, we shaped the piece into its final form; Peters specifies a durational window of 15-40 minutes, & we quickly found it 'wanted' to last in the region of half an hour (i suspect this would be the case with whichever ensemble plays the piece; attempting to make adjustments to the overall duration is very difficult due to the aleatoric nature of each player's performance) •

In all, we played the piece twice, first (its UK première) at the ensemble's evening concert at the Birmingham Conservatoire on 6 May, & again the next day, at the nearby church of St Martin's in the Bullring • On balance, i found the latter performance the more engaging, in part due to the fact that the players were dispersed around the church building, rather than grouped together as a quintet; the practice of dispersing the players & thereby filling the space more convincingly seems very much more in keeping with Peters' installation work •

i recorded both performances, & also made a third recording, of the final rehearsal that took place earlier in the week • That recording, being made in a relatively small room with a dead acoustic, i treated with some gentle reverb, resulting in a version not unlike that heard on the CD • All three recordings can now be heard on the ensemble's Bandcamp page, here • It doesn't matter how many times one hears the piece, it always seems to reveal something new, & engage the listener in a fresh collection of sound shapes that are mesmerising & very beautiful •

The CD is still available, very cheaply, from Amazon, & a lot more of Steve's music can be downloaded free of charge from his Bandcamp page • For more information & to hear yet more snippets of music, visit his blog • & last, i'd like to recommend once again his amazing work Here•ings, reviewed on 5:4 here, & essential listening for anyone interested in field recordings •

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