Interloper: Menschenstoff Quartet, Ultima Festival, 2019

Menschenstoff quartet – Interloper (2019) at Ultima festival, Oslo.

I’ve just returned from Ultima festival in Oslo, Norway, for the premiere of a new collaborative work, Interloper, with Swiss improv quartet, Menschenstoff (Hyazintha Andrej – cello; Rahel Schweizer – harp; Florian Kolb – drums; Joan Jordi Oliver – live electronics).

The collaboration was interesting and a new and somewhat unusual process for me. Given Menschenstoff’s makeup as improvisers, it didn’t make sense to take the more traditional route of workshopping ideas and then to fix that in a score or rigid form — ‘composer writes music for performers’ — to do so would only undermine their agency as improvisers in a piece that we wanted to share.*

In April I spent a week in Zurich with the group, workshopping, talking and listening with them. We came out of that period with was a pool of fragments, processes and ideas. These weren’t fixed ‘sections’ so much as a set of approaches that they, as improvisers, might draw upon in the performance. In reality, there were some fragments that stayed relatively cohesive, and invariably became thought of as structural landmarks in the piece. As such, the fluidity of drawing from that pool of ideas may not have remained as free as initially planned. I recall that improv groups like AMM and The Necks instigate ‘no discussion’ policies after performances or rehearsals, so perhaps we talked about too much…

The performance itself was fantastic and the musicians were utterly brilliant. While we may not have solved that idea of improvised structure entirely (baggage I’m likely bringing from being ‘the composer’ in the room), I think our solution worked out well for such an unfamiliar approach.  

My thanks to Menschenstoff for bringing me into this project, and to Ultima festival and the Ulysses network for making it happen.

* Not that there’s anything wrong with that method of improvisation, of course. Richard Barrett’s codex pieces do a great job of structuring and guiding improvisation while still allowing that agency… it’s just still structured by Barrett. It’s a Barrett piece). For a great encounter with these pieces, see: Reardon-Smith, H. (2017). ‘Codex: Embodied communication in Richard Barrett’s scores for improvisation’. Directions of New Music