Each one cancels the last (Hector)
Jack Sheen. Photo by Laura Hilliard
7.30pm, Tuesday 18th January, 2022 (Bar open from 6.30pm)
Blackheath Halls, London
Each one cancels the last (Hector) is the second collaboration between Octandre and Jack Sheen, following the recording of his Sub last summer (CD scheduled for release later this year). It is an installation piece: during the one-hour span, audience members are free to move around the large space at Blackheath Halls where, in conventional concerts, they would be seated. Six solo instrumentalists will be distributed throughout the space, dancer Eve Stainton responding to their sounds and quiet, background electronics; a string orchestra will quietly intone blurry memories of Berlioz's Requiem from the stage.
Jack writes about the impulses and aesthetic issues behind the work, in response to questions from Octandre.
Each one cancels the last (Hector) is a performance-Installation – what is your attraction to installation as a format?
It’s debatable how well suited the word ‘installation’ is to a work that is ultimately time-based and has to be temporally curbed by the stamina of the performers. Each one cancels the last (Hector) is the third in a series of pieces that have been realised first as hour-long performances, which most audiences commit to in their entirety, and have then gone on to be realised again as a loop that can last much, much longer using multiple performers in relay.
Whatever it is, over the last few years my concert music has become increasingly sculptural as I’ve tried to avoid discursive, linear forms. When I was a student I’d describe pieces to my tutors as being ‘installed on a stage for 10 minutes’ and things like that. It felt like a natural and inevitable next step that these ideas should spill out of concert settings into longer durations and spatialised formats, where the various elements that make up the music can be isolated and dispersed across space rather than contained on/around a stage that’s viewed from a fixed perspective.
Trailer for the Porto realisation of Sheen's Croon harvest.
Video: Laura Hilliard
Really, I think I’m trying to find the line between a ‘concert work’ and an ‘installation’. Or more specifically, I’m playing with the balance between making music that feels static enough so that your movement through the space feels necessary to instigate dynamism, whilst also inserting elements that feel utterly special because of their unique placement within time, creating structural moments around which looser ‘static’ material orbits.
Within this format you also open up more room for other mediums and artists. In this case, Eve Stainton will be performing at points throughout the piece, responding to a score we’re developing together that sits alongside the rest of the musicians.
How does Berlioz fit in in 21st-Century performance-installation?
I really love Berlioz! In this piece he snuck in through the back door. Each one cancels the last (Hector) takes as its starting point a piece of mine for viola, prepared piano and audio called Each one cancels the last. The audio part of that piece is a collage of white noise and field recordings that ends with the sound of an interview with the choreographer Yvonne Rainer.
I can’t remember where the interview’s from, but basically it’s a video of Rainer on stage talking with a curator, and there’s this moment where they play a video of her early work We shall run, in which performers mark out shapes on stage by running around soundtracked by the Dies irae from Berlioz’s Requiem.
Without looking at the video, the sound alone is this bizarre collage of people marching alongside this super grainy, old, soupy, slow recording of a choir singing, and then two women gently talking and laughing just out of audibility. I thought it was amazing and really moving and I basically just had to knick it, so then all of a sudden there was Berlioz’ music in my piece.
In this (Hector) version the onstage string ensemble play these misrememberings of the music from the Dies irae, going around and around it in different ways, stretching the chorale to try and figure it out.
Trio A (1978) - one of Yvonne Rainer's early films
What are the inspirations behind your music? Do you see yourself as part of a contemporary-music tradition?
I think one of the key things I aim for in every piece is uncertainty and unclarity. If things get too legible – formally and materially – it becomes too didactic, which, to me anyway, is at best cringe and at worst boring to the point of brain damage. I’m most excited when I’m experiencing music – or any art really – and my first response is ‘what the fuck is going on here?’. The longer that is sustained the more I enjoy myself (sort of – it’s obviously more complicated than that).
So in my music I tend to use harmonies that are slightly bent out of recognition from the perspective of ‘standard tuning’. I like to distort and blur the sound with non-standard instrumental techniques. Often things get very saturated, even if the sounds themselves are fragile. And increasingly I’m thinking a lot about expectation and what that means in different kinds of contexts. All of this is obviously indebted to a number of musical traditions both within and outside of ‘western art music’.
I’m very attracted to aesthetics that are seemingly opposed to one another. I love ‘deep listening’, drones, quiet sounds etc. ‘as much as the next guy’, but am equally enamoured with hyperactive, precisely detailed and virtuosic music, both notated and improvised. I need both and I try to unlock both in my music in some way.
It’s to do with energy, I think. I just want to be on the edge of my seat at all times: you can do that by tightrope walking along gentle sustained tones or by intricately acrobating around. I’m not really interested in chilling out or any of that stuff, even if my music is aligned in some ways with ambient music on a structural level.
Is there something that we should listen out for on Tuesday, or do we just immerse ourselves?
Going back to this point of illegibility, in all my music I try to flatten things out so that there’s not obvious foreground or background to latch on to. This is taken to another level when performers are spaced so far apart that there’s no single spot where you can hear everyone playing at once. What you focus on is really up to you and how you choose to engage with the space and the music. So yeah, just do whatever.
Hollow propranolol séance - Jack Sheen. Video by Laura Hilliard
Something I’m personally interested to learn about is how everyone’s memory interacts with the space and the music to construct an impression of the piece in their mind. A lot of the sound around the room is very similar, yet on the micro-level it’s constantly in flux. I’m genuinely curious as to how a listener’s impression of the music changes over time as you become more familiar with the sounds whilst trying to hold them in your head. Rather than following a narrative, it’s about storing and assimilating information to create an overall image of the environment you’re in.