Composition Camouflaged: On the Relationship between Interpretation and Improvisation
Interview with Roland Dahinden, Günter Heinz & Thierry Madiot on the World Premiere of GoingPublik

Franziska Martinsen


GoingPublik, a piece by the Swiss-based American composer Art Clay, is a voyage of discovery for three trombone-playing media performers. These carry out exploratory operations while moving through a given space, and render the results of these endeavours in acoustic and visual form for the benefit of the audience. GoingPublik is based on an "instant score", with the result that the piece takes on a new and different form depending on the place in which it is performed. Each of the three performers travels along a predetermined route of their own choosing, using their instrument to mark out the individual journey in tonal form. Unexpected events carried out by the trombonists en route incorporate the city as a sonic domain into the performance. The transformation of visual perception into acoustic signals makes possible a kind of "score system in real time", consisting of a portable-computer and specially developed software created by a research team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) in close collaboration with the sound artist: geographical coordinates, established via satellite, create an electronic score for the performers and define both the content of the composition and the instructions that the performers receive. The interpreters view the score via a projection onto a pair of head-up display glasses; so that they are able both to make out the path before them and at the same time can see the score unfold before their eyes. The direction taken by the composition corresponds in the most literal sense to the actual path followed by each trombonist, with the path coordinates being the axes North, South, East and West. The further a player finds themselves from a certain area defined in advance, the starker the transformations in their playing with regard to register, tempo and performative actions. Roland Dahinden (CH), Günter Heinz (D) and Thierry Madiot (F) were the three performers who made GoingPublik public for the first time and who continue to play the work internationally. The world premiere took place as part of the festival organised by the Association of Swiss Musicians in September 2004 in Monthey in the Swiss Canton of Wallis. Clothed in quasi-military camouflage attire, the three performers seemed to embody a strange, mixed breed of instrumentalist and infantry soldier. In this way, the ambivalent nature of culture and technology was highlighted - after all, many of the world's greatest inventions have their origins in the technology of warfare.

The first performance took place in the foyer of the local theatre. Kitted out from head to foot with equipment and cables, the musicians began their advance through scattered trombone parts - the scene was reminiscent of some great catastrophe. They moved through the room like soldiers on a reconnaissance mission. Whenever they changed position in space or pick up a piece of their instrument for reassembly - in other words gave a reason for the computer to interact with them - there were changes in the digitally generated score which it was the trombonists' task to transform into music. At the same time, they gradually gathered together the various parts of their instruments and were then able to lend their full concentration to the surrounding space, and their musical occupation of it began to be established. In this manner, they explored the staircases, corners, and corridors of the foyer and presented the audience with an acoustic showcase of the external reality as filtered through the score and projected onto their display glasses. The flexibility and will to experimentation of the three interpreters, all internationally active as performers and all composers as well, was put particularly to the test during the second performance, which took place outside in the town centre of Monthey. All three started off from the theatre and then followed the routes they had each chosen through the town. Their common destination, visible to all in the blazing sunshine of a Sunday afternoon in late summer, was the castle, towards which they noisily charged, again in their full battle dress of cables, equipment, trombone and camouflage trousers.

For this performance, the audience was the entire town. Individual groups of people followed the trombonists through the streets, around street corners and across the squares up to Monthey Castle, where the three presented a sequence of the composition together before separating again and pursuing their individual musical meanderings back through the town to the theatre. Occasionally, a passer-by would stop and scratch their head. The three trombonists - hooting, squeaking, resounding, then whispering, mumbling, hissing and finally issuing piercing fanfares -caused much bemusement among the usual throng of Sunday day-trippers on their way. At one and the same time, the trombonists acted as a disturbing and also as a mediating force in the hustle and bustle of the town: they took control of the public space by drawing out their musical interpretation from the lay of the land around them. In this way they injected tension, movement and life into the sleepy town of Monthey, which will never be quite the same again.

After the performance of GoingPublik, the three trombonists were asked to comment on the rehearsals and how the performances had gone, and also to share their opinions with regard to the conceptual framework of the piece and the nature of the relationship between art and technology. In their responses, Günter Heinz, Thierry Madiot and Roland Dahinden also make reference to their own works. Their remarks, which clearly reflect their individual characters, spawned a lively exchange on the relationship between music, the individual and society - in both a narrow and a broad sense.


(above left & right): from GoingPublik, (middle): view from a helicopter gunship in iraq


Franziska Martinsen: Roland, Günter and Thierry, you are all active not only as interpreters who have worked with various composers, but also as improvising musicians and as composers yourselves. When we think of improvisation, we normally imagine that the person improvising goes "into themselves", to see what can be brought forth from there to the outside. When it comes to the interpretation of a work, on the other hand, we suppose that the point is to uncover and realise the composer's intention and thus make it available to the audience. Which way of working do you feel closest to? Does the one perhaps supplement the other?

Roland Dahinden: When I improvise, I don't need to notate the music. The music is created in the moment of performance, from whatever resources I found within myself. But when I compose, I'm writing for third parties, and the question of communication naturally arises. That's just the way it is, I'm not a special case. I don't have any particular preference as regards being a composer or a trombonist or, as a trombonist, as regards being an interpreter or an improviser - and then there are all the grey areas in between, which can also be interesting and enriching. And that's what is most important to me - whether it is interesting and enriching or not. And that is why I agreed to this project. Working with Art and the team from ETH in advance of the performance was interesting in itself, and the performance was a confirmation of everything that had been thought out, tried out and rehearsed. I got on well with the two other trombonists, Günter and Thierry, from the word go. We have very different styles of playing and come from very different backgrounds. That was exciting. So for me it's not really a question of whether it's a composition or an improvisation, a separation of the two or a mixture - the content of the music is what matters.

Thierry Madiot: It is always presumed that there is an opposition between the written work and improvisation. On the one hand the "I", whose chief aim is self-expression, on the other the work of an artist, often on paper, an absolute, a thing to be respected and revealed. In my opinion, there is a continuum between the two. There is no longer an opposition between the written and the unwritten. There are simply two different levels, which co-exist and work together. Society always seeks to catalogue, to separate, to dissect and to put everyone in their proper place - the audience (the people), the interpreter (the servant) and the composer (the Godhead). The sound exercises the dichotomies, nothing more. I personally need to alternate between working on my own and in close collaboration with other artists (musicians, dancers, performers, artists and composers) and each person and each situation can be absorbing, incisive and enjoyable. I connect with this in order to contribute my own pinch of salt to this mixture.

Günter Heinz: For me, these ways of working are of equal importance and they complement each other in the most fruitful manner. The mode of working with which I am particularly closely involved (particularly with the trombone) has come to be known as "free improvisation". The roots of this music lie in free jazz on the one hand and in contemporary composition on the other. It was particularly influenced by composers working with the legacy of the Second Viennese School, and by the musical thinking of John Cage. Cage's influence can be seen particularly in the emancipation of noise and of silence, while the influence of free jazz can be felt in the "freedom from the beat" (Tony Oxley). Today, improvised music in Europe has established its own tradition, expanding the formal principles typical of jazz and using structures related to those found in contemporary composition. This is typified by what Misha Mengelberg called "instant composing". As an interpreter, I personally prefer compositions that allow me a great deal of space for my own creativity. This can also take the form of researching new playing techniques. Many of the "special features" of my mode of expression were in fact developed from the interplay of improvisation and specific demands made by composers

F.M.: Apropos John Cage and free jazz - it's not much of an exaggeration to say that until now, librarians and the like have been able to unite the opposing poles of both schools by sorting them onto one and the same bookshelf bearing the inscription "New Music". How do enthusiastic practicians of improvised music go about creating this connection? Do you start from the presumption that the stylistic features of serial music in the Darmstadt tradition or the chance music of the New York School can be developed further by "instant composing"? Or has Boulez, who has suggested more than once that improvised music always sounds the same, already united these under his concept of 'alea'?

G.H.: Robert Dick responded to this anecdote as follows: "You hear better than anyone, but you don't always listen". I mean, when I consume tinned foods, it doesn't really make much difference to me how they were produced. I think the music of Boulez and Xenakis, and particularly of Varése, is wonderful, especially when played by excellent musicians. The music of Cecil Taylor, for example, sounds to me very similar to certain piano pieces by Stockhausen or Boulez. What I notice, however, is that the playing of improvisers seems much more relaxed. I think that the mutual influencing and intertwining of both types of music has become very advanced, even that they have come closer together. As Art's GoingPublik has shown, for example.

F.M.: The idea of improvisation is not alien to the musical traditions of the West - one thinks for example of the New York School of the 1950s. Some works of John Cage (Variations I-VI, Ryonji), Christian Wolff (Duos for Pianists, Burdock) and also some works by European composers, for example Karlheinz Stockhausen (Kurzwellen, Aus den Sieben Tagen) incorporate both degrees of freedom, notated in very different ways, and - to different extents - compositional decisions (including things which are clearly impossible) which must be interpreted. In the work GoingPublik by Art Clay, whose first performance you gave at this year's festival in Monthey (Switzerland), you are also confronted with freedoms of this kind. A question on this work specifically: how can the structural thinking of the composer be combined meaningfully with the improvisational options given to the interpreters?

R.D.: We don't have to travel so far west to observe this: here in Europe, we have a rich tradition of improvisation, in Switzerland as well. I think Europe has an incredible amount to offer in the field of improvisation, and has contributed a lot to the development of this music, again including contributions from many Swiss musicians, at least a generation before myself. There are improvisational aspects in the music of Christian Wolff, I'm not so sure in the case of John Cage. "Ryoanji" for example is a very precise graphic score which is to be realised as clearly as possible, there's no room there for interpretation. If the interpreter is given the freedom to make certain decisions in a work, things that they can interpret one way or another, that's not improvisation. Improvisation goes a lot deeper and a lot further. It requires other "skills" of the instrumentalist. With GoingPublik, Art chose an interesting form of communication: he composed an interactive, time-and-place-and-person-and-situation-specific graphic score. I had never worked with such a finely structured electronic score before. It was a constant source of excitement for me. In addition, we discussed it a lot, also with Jürg Gutknecht. Art's score and the intellectual impetus for the composition were precise and clear, and thus inspiring for me as an improviser - it was a real collaboration.

T.M.: A score does not have any absolute authority, and regardless of how carefully produced, it cannot describe everything.. If it could, no interpretation would be required. In the case of GoingPublik, that means the following: Firstly, the will to understand the essence of the artistic conception. Secondly, attempts to understand what exactly is required of me, for example through asking myself some questions such as - why was I chosen as interpreter? why a trombone trio? what connection is there to the physical space, what connection is there to modern technology? what philosophy lies behind the piece? how far does the graphic score actually go? And - attempts to discover what lies at the heart of the conception, and where. Where does most of the energy have to be concentrated? It's an attempt to follow as closely as possible the composer's train of thought, to understand his way of seeing, of acting, of working. My freedom no longer has to do with being able to play a particular sound in such or such a way at a particular moment: rather, I have the freedom to illuminate a certain aspect of the com(pro)position with my trombone. Like a torch revealing different animals engraved at the same spot on the wall of a prehistoric cave, depending on the position of the torch and the angle at which the beam of light strikes, we three musicians were able to use our "trombone torches" to reveal particular possibilities of the score of GoingPublik.

F.M.: How can the structural thinking of the composer be united meaningfully with the improvisational options of the interpreter?

G.H.: The structures in GoingPublik by Art Clay are extremely complex. It seems to me that the composer made a very good choice in exploiting to the full the capabilities of the interpreters, who themselves all have a vast amount of experience in the field of composition, and to involve them in the decision-making process. This creates the optimum conditions for the finding of forms, including unconscious ones.

F.M.: GoingPublik makes use of the latest in communications technology and works with the possibilities of portable computing. But during the performance, what the public hears is purely acoustic music. Do you see a contradiction in the fact that the work is generated for the most part from live electronics, but the sounding music is perceived to be acoustic? Or is that perhaps the whole point? Does this fact influence the acoustic result, since you have to work very intimately with the electronics?

G.H.: For me there is no contradiction, on the contrary I find this phenomenon completely absorbing. The electronic component of this composition is structured in such a way that the supposed "rigidity" of the technology disappears. I think that when you are very accustomed to the electronics, and that was made possible through the whole collaboration process (which is how I perceived the rehearsals), then you can approach the electronics just as you would a "normal" score. The acoustic result is, quite naturally, defined to a large extent by this score.

R.D.: I also see no contradiction. I myself am active as a composer in this field, although my approach is very different to Art's. Electronics is a "tool", we work with it and Art thematicises this work to a very great extent - developments in this field, what fuels these developments, how best to approach them, what "best" means in this context, and so on. The acoustic result of GoingPublik is of course directly dependent on the three trombonists and how well they can cope with GoingPublik, its background, and so on. I think it is a very difficult piece for the interpreters/inprovisers, it requires a fair amount of experience with new music, improvisation and electronic music. We are three individuals, at this particular time and place, confronted with this particular situation, with the electronic score, which in turn reacts to us... That's not a bad situation to be in.

T.M.: The fact that the electronics used, no matter how refined, are made audible by acoustic instruments, by trombones, appeals to me. From a political point of view and also as a sort of aesthetic coup, this reversal of the normal situation seems to me to be fundamental. I have a horror of people who refer to their instruments as meta-instruments if the origins of that instrument are in IT: by doing this, they linguistically transform their instrument into a super-instrument, an instrument of power as it were. It was for this very reason that I ceased working with electroacoustic composition eighteen years ago, by deciding to realise all my music by purely mechanical means and not by using electronics. The aim was to deny technology and its ideologies any form of absolute dominance. With GoingPublik, a tool (Q-bic), however revolutionary it may be, is positioned at a point where it can be mastered by humankind, and not the other way round. Taking it to extremes, this computer that I carry in this belt could simply serve to stop my trousers falling down if they were too big for me.

F.M.: The problems that arise when the score is no longer visible, for whatever reason, are familiar from a whole range of different situations. For example, when a gust of wind has blown it from the music stand, or the interpreter has accidentally got the pages in the wrong order. Although the composer Art Clay had thought out a number of contingency plans for the event that the electronic score was no longer visible on the glasses, there were almost certainly moments in which you were faced with this type of blackout ...

T.M.: That's exactly what happened to me in the afternoon performance: the computer stopped working after five seconds. It took twenty minutes to diagnose the source of the problem, a faulty contact, irrepairable for the time being; the computer had to be left behind in the workshop, and then there I was, off to the castle, the high-resolution display glasses perched on my nose, thinking the whole time about the score but unable to actually see it, now and again imagining possible instructions, but forced to play without them. It is sufficient to convince oneself that all technology can be revoked at any moment and that our thinking is all that we really require to go on our way.

F.M.: There are few chances to experience music festivals in the open air. There's a photo of Günter showing him at a rehearsal in Zürich for the Q-bic computer. You are standing with your feet covered in water and you just carry on playing. For the performance in Monthey, you had a performance inside in the morning, in the foyer of the theatre, and one outside, in the town. One for a specific audience, one for an "accidental" audience. What was the difference - for you as players, for the public as listeners?

G.H.: I love connections between nature and music in any case, and look for them in my own work. Unfortunately, nature is often merely used or even abused. Even classical music is used in this way - loudspeakers are erected, the birds are chased away, the listeners have to pay in order to get through the barriers and listen to the music. But it's so much nicer when a flute or a drum sounds with nature, and in nature. When I was on Malta I experienced how a five thousand-year-old temple was badly damaged by the erection of loudspeakers. The performance in Monthey showed me that it doesn't have to be like that, that highly advanced technology can make possible a more natural approach, with electronics for example. The two performances of GoingPublik represented very different versions of one piece, of one composition. One took place in a more or less closed space, which at the same time could be explored from many angles, with an audience which listened and watched. The other took place in a space which in fact had no limits, with its natural and strange sounds and noises. People, trees, cars ... these all became participants in the piece, and they understood that and enjoyed it - that was a wonderful experience.

F.M.: Roland, you have experience with military music, which, for nostalgic reasons, is very popular in Switzerland. Were there moments while you were working on GoingPublik that reminded you of it?

R.D.: Yes, I did my military training in the area of military music. Afterwards, I went abroad to study. That was a long time ago and military music is very distant to me, it always was. In those days, it was the only way of doing my military service. Of course I thought of the military while working on GoingPublik, but not military music - that's something quite different.

F.M.: Jürg Gutknecht, Professor of Information Technology at the ETH Zürich and closely involved in the creation of GoingPublik as a researcher, gave an interview on the subject on the role of technology in our lives. To paraphrase, he said that technology is an integral component of modern society and that it has many unavoidable consequences, positive and negative in equal measure. Technology, he said, is simply a manifestation of the polarity of our life on earth, which we should accept as a challenge: GoingPublik, he continued, would after all not have been possible without research in the field of military technology. Nevertheless, the project posed the public the ambivalent question of whether the artistic event is a kind of thinly disguised war, or if war is merely art in another disguise. Given that the three of you as performers actually wore camouflage trousers, what are your views on Jürg Gutknecht's comments?

R.D.: Well, I think he is right and it would be sheer fantasy to believe otherwise. That is the reality, and dealing with this reality responsibly is the great challenge for everyone coexisting on this planet. But it's nothing new - the military has always been the driving force behind the most different kinds of development imaginable, developments that we use in civilian life (hopefully creatively, and respectively). That is an important aspect of GoingPublik.

G.H.: I think there are two aspects to this statement. First of all, an acceptance of the reality of the effect that human beings have on their environment, with its good and bad sides; and then there is the question of the responsibility of the scientist and of the artist. Provocatively formulated questions are very useful here. For myself personally, it was something of a challenge to have to wear the camouflage trousers, never in my life had I worn something like that. That obviously had an effect on the music. It certainly made for a stark contrast.

T.M.: I suspect that, by equating the two terms "War" and "Art", Jürg Gutknecht is trying to provoke reflection on them both. I understand his comments to be a play on words: War + Art = wart, in other words a growth. I suspect that most technological developments are only rarely conceived with military usage actually in mind. But researchers allow themselves to be lured by the promise of power and money. Technology itself is not directly responsible for this situation. The ideal situation would be for the political sensibility of scientists to be such that the possibility of misuse is reduced, or at least kept in check as far as possible. Art in general does not necessarily need technology. But art that deals with technology and uses it should reflect this fact. Art and war often have a virtuoso intelligence in common, they can resemble each other in the way they apply tools, and both often necessitate heroic technical and physical feats which are fascinating to a great many people, regardless of whether these capabilities are applied in the service of war or of art. GoingPublik therefore presents a very good opportunity to reflect on these facts and to bring what is a central aspect of our work as artists to the general public once more.

Thierry, Günter and Roland, many thanks for your responses.

Translation from the German: M. J. Grant


Franziska Martinsen holds a M.A. in Philosophy, Political Theory and Music Sciences (2002) from the Humbold-University in Berlin, Germany and is a Doctoral Candidate at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Basel. During and after her studies, she worked as a dramatic adviser and text writer for various music theatre productions based in Berlin and Basel. In 2000, she organised an international touring exhibition about female philosophers. In 2003-2004 she worked as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Philosophy, University of Basel and lectured there on various topics. Her research interests lie in political theory and ethics with emphasis on global justice.









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