Prose Scores, Concise Elegance, and Ethan Hein’s Convergence/Divergence

I love a good prose score. I love how a few direct lines of text can unfold into a rich, varied piece.

My favorite is possibly La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #10:

“Draw a Straight Line and Follow it”

With this piece, Young trusts the performer to start with their own theme, musical motive, or gesture and then expand it in a linear fashion that makes sense to them. The audience is guaranteed a changing experience because whatever the performer deems to be the core concept of the piece will progress.

(Other prose scores have made appearances on this blog, including Jeffrey Agrell’s improvisation exercises and Stockhausen’s opus “Music from the Seven Days.”)

My OTHER favorite thing about good prose scores is how they can can reduce a complicated musical concept to just a few concise words.  Christian Wolff was a master of this; the instructions for rhythm in his piece “Stones”   (“for the most part discretely; sometime in rapid sequences”) guarantees the existence of two repeating (and therefore unifying) elements that will never sound exactly the same, due to the nature of the “instruments:”

Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colors); for the most part discretely; sometimes in rapid sequences. For the most part striking stones with stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not break anything.
– Christian Wolff

There is a similar graceful efficiency in this week’s Disquiet Junto project, which tasked participants with creating a solo rendition of Ethan Hein’s piece Convergence/Divergence.

With Hein’s permission, here’s the full score:

* Each performer loads a short, shared sample. It should have a distinct attack and decay, for example a bell or gong. It can be pitched or unpitched, musical or unmusical.

* Each performer triggers the sample repeatedly, either as a steady loop or at any arbitrary time interval.

* After a few repetitions, each performer manipulates the sample as they see fit, via pitch shifting, time stretching, filtering, or other effects. Transformations should be gradual and clearly perceptible.

* Once the entire ensemble is playing altered versions of the sample, the performers begin to undo their manipulations, preferably in the reverse order that they were originally applied.

* When all performers have resumed playing back the original sample, the piece ends.

I love the efficiency of this piece because Hein guarantees the statement, development, and final restatement of a theme–which is pretty much a staple of common-era classical music and also jazz–in a just a few words.

I couldn’t help but imagine how a group performance would provide constant evolution and change, much like how a classical composer would move a theme through various accompaniments and tonal centers, or how jazz musicians play a song’s melody, improvise over the melody’s chords, and then restate the melody at the end of the tune.

And in fact, I didn’t have to just imagine it!  Hein has a blog post about the piece, including a recording of a performance, on New Music Box:

And you can hear my rendition here:

And you can hear other peoples’ versions here:

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