Thirteen Rectangles for quintet [Composition No. 51]

Thirteen Rectangles was written for SFQ in September/October 1999. I have described it as a ‘mobile form jazz composition’ because, although the piece uses extremely complex notated material, it is used with a mobility of structure which is intended to ensure that this material never restricts the musicians’ ability to invent, alter, pervert or ignore the notated elements. Musicians form smaller, mobile synchronisation units within the ensemble, which allows some musicians to realise complex notated duet/trio material, whilst others improvise, or realise different notated materials in a different time stream. During the 60+ minutes of this piece there are very few moments when composed material is not being expounded. But at the same time, there are almost no moments where improvisation is not also part of the texture; my hope is that (except for the opening and closing frames - see below) the work will present a genuine through-going amalgam of these two practices.

The structure of the work is derived from the painting Thirteen Rectangles by Wassily Kandinsky; this painting concerns the disposition of blocks of colour in space, and I have used a literal reading of these blocks to determine the disposition of written material in time, the pitch range utilised, and the tone colours used. This has lead to the piece having a very specific character: restricted registers, neurotic rhythms, and an absence of thematic material and its development. Rather than being possibly problematic, I regard this ‘non-representational’ nature as being the key strength of the piece, and is why I consider it a significant piece in my musical development.

The intensive hysteria of the piece proper is bookended by more conventional material taken from an earlier piece inspired by a Kandinsky painting (Soft Hard), and composed freely whilst lounging on a beach in the Outer Hebrides (during a heatwave in August 1999). Whilst this earlier piece owed much more to older composition methods, the presence here of extracts from Soft Hard during the Start Frame and End Frame sections of Rectangles is analogous to the conspicuously 19th century (and inappropriate) gilded frames one would often find put on key modernist paintings of the early 20th century (such as the works of Kandinsky). By its very familiarity, it serves to underline the disconcerting modernity of the work itself... I hope. Good luck!

© Simon H. Fell 2000

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