Changing the System: a documentary

Dave Smith holding hocket page of CTS score

This documentary follows the rehearsal of a compostion by the American composer Christian Wolff. As a teenager Wolff spent some time studying with the doyen of avant-garde American music, John Cage, and the score of Wolff’s ‘Changing the System’, published in 1973, is an example of the approach to modern compositional practice championed by Cage known as ‘indeterminacy’. The score contains ‘material’ for quartets of singers, instrumental and percussive players, but only minimally co-ordinates these quartets with one another. Within each quartet there are various ways in which the playing of the musical material is co-ordinated by the players themselves. These ways of playing together, and organising that playing, involve the musicians in a dialogue of sorts, which the score sets up but leaves open (‘indeterminate’), so that the music itself is generated by the way in which they respond to one another in performance.

The film itself is structured around the score, which is its central point of reference. (Its second and third sections, for example, ‘making a line’ and ‘cueing a chord’, are explicitly focused on the two different forms of notation in the instrumental pages of the score.) The implicit question the film starts from is: ‘How do you get from those symbols on the page to the performance?’ By means of interviews with key players from four of the six quartets involved in this performance (David Ryan, Ian Mitchell, Michael Parsons, and David Smith), a bridge is thrown between Wolff’s graphical notations and the discussions that take place among the musicians during rehearsal.

It is these rehearsals themselves that are the focus of the film, because the process witnessed in them, being of crucial importance to an indeterminate score, is its real subject. What this documentary aims to show is that the process of trial and error, of debate and negotiation that is passed through during the rehearsal, is not a matter of the musicians getting closer to a reproduction of the score, but is actually what generates the music itself. In the rehearsal process a gap opens between the score—which is also the ‘system’ of Wolff’s title—and its realisation. So by focusing on the variations on the material Wolff supplies the musicians with, this film places in the foreground the events out of which such music arises.

The footage was shot between Autumn 2003 and Summer 2004, and the film was edited between Winter 2006 and Summer 2007.

Directed and Edited by Andrew Chesher.

cc 2007