Rutger Zuydervelt – composition, electronics
Gareth Davis – bass clarinet
CD on Edition Wandelweiser Records, released 30 Nov 2018
1 – Sileen II
In 2016 I was commissioned by Musica, to compose a piece for their sound/art festival OORtreders (in Neerpelt, Belgium), and to perform it with 50 members of a local music school. So I wrote ‘Sileen’, a piece based on three groups playing a set of swelling notes; overlapping in different combinations each time. A fairly simple score to play, but one that asks a lot of concentration from the performers (and a lot of breath for the horn players – one kid fainted during rehearsals). A recording of that performance can be found here: soundcloud.com/machinefabriek/sileen
I’ve been thinking of recording a studio version of this piece for a long time, and finally decided to do so, with the help of bass clarinetist Gareth Davis. I decided to not go for a big orchestral version like at OORtreders, but to approach it in a more intimate way, using only Gareth’s clarinet and some electronics for extra colour. The radio static and field recordings of the original were also abandoned, to make the whole thing more transparent and focused.
Compared to the busy, slightly chaotic performance in Belgium, this new version is almost intimidatingly sparse, even more so ‘cause at the last minute I decided to slow down the new version to half its speed, which gave way to more details like intriguing overlaps and beating frequencies.
The structure of the composition is very simple. There’s three groups, and each have 4 or 5 sets of repeated chords of exactly one minute – fading in and out like a wave. Each set of repetitions is followed by a silence of the same length before presenting the next set. Since the amount of repetitions is different for each group (2, 3, and 4 times), the overlap shifts and differs each time.
More then forcefully composing a beautiful piece of music, the structure of Sileen II is more about simply presenting these different, isolated combinations of tones. When all the options are heard, there’s a point where all group have a minute silence at the same time. Then the peace ends with a final (long) chord. I guess that finale is my composite touch to an otherwise automated composition.
While the original Sileen piece was written for a big group of musicians, I wanted this new version to be more compact and focused. I started with creating the piece with electronic sounds, and then ask my regular collaborator Gareth Davis to record the different notes of the piece, for me to have a library to work with, and to add a more human touch to the composition.
Originally, the piece was actually half it’s length (and an octave higher). After spending some time mixing Gareth’s bass clarinet with my electronic tones, I still wasn’t convinced. It was felt hard to actually turn this into a piece that was pleasant or intriguing enough for me to listen to. I really liked the systematic aspect of the composition, but despite the slowness of the piece, it still felt too hushed and uncomfortable. But then a too-simple-for-words idea came to the rescue. By simply slowing the piece down to 50% I suddenly felt the click. This was it. Now the chords where sustained long enough for the listener to actually engage with them, to have time to sift through the different tones, focus on the beating timbres or simply ‘float’ on tone-clusters. Lowering the pitch also gave the piece a much warmer and deeper sound. Great how such a simple intervention changes so much. The piece was finished.
a closer listen
Sileen II is as much a formal composition as a studio work. To my mind, it falls under the same grouping of Machinefabriek works as Deining (2015), with violinist Anne Bakker, works which are defined by a very clear structure. Deining, for instance, consists of four sections, each focusing on one violin string, as upward and downward glissandi interact, producing a sustained drone at the point of intersection and ending with a minute-long low drone at the end. Sileen II has a similarly simple structure that produces a kind of complexity through interaction, akin to an audible moiré pattern.
Zuydervelt describes the structure in detail:
There’s three groups, and each have 4 or 5 sets of repeated chords of exactly one minute – fading in and out like a wave. Each set of repetitions is followed by a silence of the same length before presenting the next set. Since the amount of repetitions is different for each group (2, 3, and 4 times), the overlap shifts and differs each time.
As the title suggests, this isn’t the first composition to bear the title Sileen. The work was initially composed as a commission by Musica for the festival OORtreders, held on 22 October 2016 in Neerpelt, Belgium. It was performed outdoors, with 50 students from the Academie voor Muziek en Woord Mol (Academy for Music and Words) in Mol. The live recording below, in which the 50 person orchestra is augmented by Zuydervelt’s manipulated radio static and field recordings (and a very audible baby in the audience), is lush and maximal.
For Sileen II, Zuydervelt took a rather more minimal approach, abandoning the radio static and field-recordings and working with a single instrument and with a single performer, longtime collaborator Gareth Davis. Personally I just love the bass clarinet, and Davis’s particularly breathy and textural approach to the instrument compliments the simplicity of Zuydervelt’s score. The stripped down version of Sileen as realized by Davis is a strong fit for Edition Wandelweiser Records. The term Wandelweiser refers to a loose grouping of composers (such as Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, and Michael Pisaro) whose work dwells in an interstitial space between silence and sound, compositions which are often very slow and fragile and seem to be indifferent to the expectations of the listener. The results are certainly not to everyone’s taste, but they represent one of the most unique and creative networks of experimental composers working in recent decades. In addition to Wandelweiser Records, such works can also be found on other small labels including Another Timbre, Erstwhile, and Gravity Wave. It is a pleasure to see Zuydervelt represented amongst their ranks.
img_1296Some collaborators seem to improvise the “raw” material with which Zuydervelt works, but this composition is a bit different in that regard. So what in particular did Davis bring to this iteration of Sileen? “At first I made this studio version using only electronics but it was way too clinical,” Zuydervelt recalls. “There needed to be a human aspect, something more irregular and ‘alive’. The bass clarinet seemed like a nice choice; the sound is deep and pure, but also quite full.”
Here Zuydervelt ran into some problems, finding it difficult to mix the multi-tracked bass clarinet without interference between the parts. “By accident I found out the the trick was to slow down the whole thing to half speed; this gave air to the piece, and subtle details like beating tones became much more alive.” Beyond the additional space and texture of the slowed down version, the depth of the bass frequencies of a woodwind at that speed is simply gorgeous. The radio static and field recordings of the original served an important foundational role in a piece with 50 players, but they would have contaminated the purity of the piece built on one instrument. Finally Zuydervelt used an oscillator to add some additional contrast.
Since Sileen II is multi-tracked and edited in post-production, any live iterations with Davis would necessitate a reworking. “It would be a different, adapted version of the piece” in order to work around the nine multi-tracked layers. If Davis does perform Sileen II live, perhaps with effects, it might not be enough to designate Sileen III. Then again, Zuydervelt adds that “I think the piece would also be very nice when performed by a group of strings… Maybe someday…”
As one might expect, Sileen II bears the name of Rutger Zuydervelt (and Gareth Davis) rather than Machinefabriek. Perhaps we may read this as a confirmation of the piece’s distinction as a composition, although Deining bore the name of Machinefabriek. Why are some works Machinefabriek, and others Rutger Zuydervelt? “I must confess there’s no really clear explanation,” he tells me.
At least, not always. In the case of Sileen II it felt natural, cause it’s such a composed piece, and on a label like Wandelweiser, it just feel better to use my real name. And in the case of the soundtrack of Astroneer, I used my own name because it was such a departure from my Machinefabriek stuff… But then again, it’s the same with Sahara Mixtape, but there I used Machinefabriek – partly because Sileen II was released at the same time. And some times a label requests to use my given name. So in the end it’s simply very unclear. Sorry.