a column by
Stuart Broomer

Left to right, Jean Martin, Christine Duncan and Veryan Weston                          ©2018 Veryan Weston

“There’s nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished. Or an old address book.” Carson McCullers, The Make Project

Veryan Weston’s composition series Tessellations is among the great structures for improvisation, as if something like Slominsky’s Thesaurus of Scales became the basis of a singular work, a vast expansion on a formal idea that might be linked back to Miles Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches,” improvisation based on a series of scales. In its latest incarnation, it expands to take in language and an improvising choir as well as mutating scales. It can sound Japanese, like free jazz, or like Gregorian chant that has moved to a female range and become mobile, and it’s conjoined to a millennium of texts that make it a kind of humanist (and feminist) cathedral of sound.

Weston has been working on materials related to Tessellations for decades and began recording versions of the work in 2000. Essentially, it’s a series of 52 pentatonic scales that shift incrementally one note at a time: in its original form, as a solo piano piece, each scale occupies a minute, resulting in a 52-minute work. The first available recording is Weston’s 2003 realization on Luthéal piano with stops for harpsichord and harp-like effects (Emanem 4095). Different Tessellations (2010) includes a different version of the first half of Tessellations I, performed by the pianist Leo Svirsky, and a wordless vocal version of it, Tessellations II, performed by the a capella Vociferous Choir (Emanem 5015). For those who might enjoy a 2400-word discussion/ interview about the piece with charts of the scales and the modulations, there’s the Ezz-thetics column in Issue 35, June 2011 (http://www.pointofdeparture.org/PoD35/PoD35Ezz-thetics.html).

There I wrote, “... Tessellations II ... expands the tonal range of Tessellations, taking in the microtonal practices of African, South Indian and Siberian singing as well as beat-boxing. The vocal piece is consistently wordless, emphasizing the expansive, pan-cultural nature of its content ... Tessellations is a piece and an improvisatory practice that can reach across generations and across cultures.”

Following that vocal Tessellations II, Weston composed an as-yet- unperformed Tessellations III for string quartet called Inspector Montalbano's Holiday. Tessellations IV returns to the idea of the choir but makes a radical shift into language, with Weston developing a way to apply texts to the underlying permutational musical structures. Some of the elements are included on Weston’s The Make Project with Christine Duncan and Jean Martin (Barnyard Records BR0344); others are available at Weston’s web page. On each, there’s a crucial text on the history of the word “make” provided by Weston’s friend, the late poet John Gibbens, revealing that the word both blurs parts of speech and a host of meanings:

“The first definition of ‘MAKE’ in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary is as a noun (obsolete, except in dialect):

1. An (or one's) equal, peer, match; one's like.

2. A mate, companion. (occasionally the opponent with whom a fighter is matched).

3. Of animals, especially birds: A mate (male or female).

4. Of human beings: A mate, consort; a husband or wife, lover or mistress.

There is a medieval English lyric about the Virgin Mary that begins ‘I sing of a maiden/ That is makéless ...’ (The last word is pronounced as three syllables. The first is pronounced like ‘Ma’ rather than ‘May’; the e is short like the e in belovéd.) This is a pun, meaning both that she is without peer or equal, and that she has no mate, in a sexual sense. This is the oldest sense of ‘make.’ It is related to our modern word ‘match,’ and it lies at the root of the modern sense of the verb ‘to make’ because ‘to make’ originally meant to put together, to match the parts of something. You can see the common root of ‘match’ and ‘make’ in the German verb machen, to make. So making is about assembling things that already exist, rather than causing them to spring into being from nothing. This therefore has a direct relevance to the use of statements, quotations and musical content in this project. So a poet is really a ‘maker’ (which is the old English word, before we took on the Greek ‘poet’), because the poet puts together materials that already exist, i.e. words.” http://veryanweston.weebly.com/make.html

Tessellations IV (Make)
, is a kind of verbal partner to Tessellations II, developing from Weston’s longstanding interests in language and poetry reflected both in his previous works with choirs and his long collaboration with Phil Minton, including the group Four Walls. That history of the word “make,” its evolution and varied meanings takes a special turn in Weston’s imaginative approach, as he begins finding quotations from women writers through the centuries that include “make,” assembling 52 quotations to correspond with the 52 pentatonic scales. As they appear in the CD booklet, each has “make” in bold.

The earliest comes from the 12th century, writer/composer Hildegard von Bingen: “Just so, the breath of the air makes the earth fruitful. Thus the air is the soul of the earth, moistening it, greening it.” The 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich is represented by, “I may make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well, and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.” Many are focused on creativity. Gertrude Stein provides, “Putting down on the paper words which dance and weep and make love and fight and kiss and perform miracles.” Simone de Beauvoir writes, “On paper, I make time stand still.” Emma Goldman offers a pithy commentary on the ballot box: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”.

The piece then follows the 52 pentatonic scales with the scale changing with the appearance of the word “make,” creating a complex pattern in which the harmonic and scalar shift appears within the quotation and at a semantically determined point, creating a structural link between word and music that creates a dynamic counter-pattern to the syntactical form of the sentence.

The first form of the piece is called Hidden Meanings and it was first recorded as a multi-track piece by the Austrian singer Iris Ederer. The piece is about four-minutes long and can be heard on her Bandcamp site. It can be reached through Weston’s Web-page, where he describes the organization of the piece:

“The piece is an experiment in two ways. The first is by using language as a means of generating rhythm as opposed to solely generating meaning. The purpose was to create mystery by concealing the meaning of each individual message and to overlay them with each other. Words could then be seen to become a poetic abstraction in sound. The second way is to use music as a means of generating meaning, where sound unifies the separate voices. It was realized that five simultaneous statements would be enough to mask any clear linguistic message. The statements are sung using one pitch. Because there are five statements, there is a chord of five notes, i.e. a pentatonic chord/scale. This idea was carried over as part of The Make Project.”

It's a brilliant blurring of meaning that begins to treat language as music-generating. The Hidden Meanings piece also appears with an a capella choir of ten female voices on the CD The Make Project, becoming a work so musically dense that one may not initially notice an absence of instruments.

That initial work employs just a few of the texts. Tessellations IV (Make), also heard on the CD, includes all 52. It’s realized in conjunction with choir leader Christine Duncan and producer/drummer Jean Martin. Duncan first assembled her Element Choir in 2007, a conduction group that she has been developing ever since, employing signals and techniques of her own as well as those developed by Phil Minton in his Feral Choir projects and the late Butch Morris. The group has stretched to over sixty voices at times and has worked with other distinguished instrumentalists, including bassist William Parker. In the past couple of years Duncan and choirs of various sizes have worked with the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, with an accompanying band that includes Martin.

As realized on The Make Project, Tessellations IV (Make) is a major work of composition, conducted improvisation and improvisation, realized by Duncan and a 45-voice version of The Element Choir with vocal soloists and an octet that includes Weston, Martin, the violin-playing brothers Josh and Jesse Zubot and bassist Andrew Downing, it’s a 33-minute work that combines solo singing of the texts, massed accumulations of simultaneous text, instrumental interludes, sustained drones, and moments when they will suddenly break into the pure vocal overlay of the original exercise, Hidden Meanings. It’s a complex construction in words and music that’s filled with a history of wisdom, some revealed in high relief, sometimes masked by sheer density, sometimes singing forth as multiple messages made meaningful by prior familiarity. It’s one of the great works of contemporary music as well as a work in which dynamic complexity is both expanded and realized in the processes of improvisation.

Weston remarks, “Both Jean and Christine put an enormous amount in to this project ... such time, energy, creativity and commitment. The structures and layering were hugely about them ... Jean's expertise in the studio ... and Christine was so effective with her rehearsing the Hidden Meanings choir and the Element Choir as well ... and she overlooked and supervised the session, following the score, adding comments and corrections. It was truly a three-way collaboration, the concept and the written part of the music were very much only part of a much bigger picture.”

Stuart Broomer © 2018

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