Decontamination 6: Good behaviour/bad behaviour (the music of James Saunders and Tom Johnson)

Decontamination 6 is happening on Tuesday the 8th of March. This is a huge concert for the series. We have extracts from two seminal works by American composer Tom Johnson and three pieces (including one hot off the press) by the essential British composer (and RNCM alumni) James Saunders. This concert is also distinguished by the calibre and number of performers; this includes Phil Thomas (for the Tom Johnson), Professor of Performance at the University of Huddersfield; Manchester based experimental music supergroup Distractfold; the recently formed RNCM Electric Experimental Ensemble; and my group The House of Bedlam. There will be a pre-concert talk by James in the form of a research presentation (more on that below). These events serve as the inaugural event of the RNCM Experimental Music Research Hub; I’ll be posting on future events soon.

James Saunders
James Saunders

So the full programme is:

Decontamination 6 – Good behaviour/bad behaviour, Studio Theatre, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 20.00, info/tickets here.

All the five note chords from The Chord Catalogue – Tom Johnson
in which one thing depends on another – James Saunders
all voices are heard – James Saunders
we gradually have more things to do and fewer things to say – James Saunders
All the ten note chords from The Chord Catalogue – Tom Johnson

Philip Thomas – piano

Linda Jankowksa – violin & objects
Rocío Bolaños – clarinets & objects
Daniel Brew – electric guitar & objects
Mauricio Pauly – artistic co-director

The House of Bedlam
Kathryn Williams – objects
Carl Raven – objects
Michael Perrett – objects
Tom McKinney – objects
Larry Goves – artistic director

RNCM Electric Experimental Ensemble
Bofan Ma – piano & objects
Xu Han – euphonium & objects
Nate Chivers – electric guitar & objects
Juan Serranogarcía – euphonium & objects
Harry Fausing-Smith – saxophone & objects
Jamie Stockbridge – saxophone & objects
Mauricio Pauly – tutor and artistic director

Philip Thomas
Philip Thomas
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson

Characteristic of this series, the concert presents contrasting music complemented by features of the compositional enquiry. Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalogue presents, in its complete twelve movements, every possible chord within one octave of the piano (all 8178 of them, you can view the score here) and in Music for 88 he applies mathematical theorems to the 88 keys of the piano to make pieces. James Saunder’s recent music is, perhaps, diametrically opposed to Johnson’s ‘rational’ compositional approach being concerned with, in part, group behaviours. However both composers are connected by the rule-based restrictions in their music making. James will be talking about his music at 18.00 in the RNCM’s Carole Nash Recital Room.

His presentation will be:

playing games, playing music

The notion of playing music is a familiar one, whether it relates to cueing a track to listen to on an iPod, or performing in a brass band. Yet play has other resonances for us in negotiating the way we encounter the world: children creating narratives in adventure playgrounds, corporations gamifying routine tasks to increase engagement, and five minutes of escapism on the train home through an app. This broader sense of play is also found in music, where rule-based compositions govern decisions made by the players in response to environmental cues to shape the resultant sound. We can use rules in this way to make music that parallels our experience of games and social interaction more generally. Composers working with rules use constraints to propel players through the game space of the music, with gamelike interaction becoming the material of the piece. This is play in the literal sense of a game, one that can have winners and losers, dominance and submission, tactics and strategies, individual and group purpose.

In this paper I will discuss ideas drawn from game studies and heuristics, and consider ways to apply them to compositional processes. I suggest such approaches might allow us to make music that has a tangible relationship with the world, where social interaction is integral to the way we experience it as participants and listeners. 


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