Thirteen Rectangles Version 2 [Composition No. 51c]

The first version of this piece, Thirteen Rectangles For Quintet, was written for SFQ in September/October 1999; it was commissioned by The Termite Club with funds provided by Yorkshire Arts, and was given its first performance at the 1999 Termite Festival in Leeds. This second version was prepared in early 2001. I have described Thirteen Rectangles 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. My intention is that during this piece there should be very few moments when composed material is not being expounded, whilst at the same time, there should be almost no moments where improvisation is not also part of the texture; the only exceptions are the opening and closing frames (see below) and the ‘frame interjections’ which are a part of Version 2.

The structure of the work is derived from the 1930 painting by Wassily Kandinsky known in English as Thirteen Rectangles; 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 led to the piece having a very specific character: restricted registers, neurotic rhythms, and an absence of thematic material and its development. In Version 1 the intensive hysteria of this material was bookended by more conventional material taken from an earlier piece inspired by a Kandinsky painting (Soft Hard), composed freely without reference to mathematical principles.

Version 2 was prepared in response to Simon Vincent’s departure from the group and the arrival of Steve Noble; since this music is intrinsically constructed around the particular performers involved, any change of personnel involves a major rethink. In this case I took the opportunity to introduce one or two ‘humanising’ elements into the structure of Version 2, in the form of fleeting references to the more conventional Soft Hard material. Two years working with Thirteen Rectangles has resulted in many discoveries and new techniques, along with considerable advances in my ideas about composing for improvisers. I consider it a significant piece in my musical development; I hope you’ll find it of interest.

I can’t let this opportunity pass without paying tribute to the musicians who have made this work, this recording, and many other exciting developments possible. My colleagues in SFQ have consistently risen above the impossibilities, improbabilities and contradictions which I’ve put before them, and actually created fine music in the process. For example, it’s worth mentioning that all the music you’ll hear on the CD version was recorded in one take...

© Simon H. Fell 2002

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