SIX-FOUR is an ensemble and collective formed in 2016 by six students at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Their intention was to delve into contemporary chamber music – an area which is often neglected by the curriculum. After playing together for around six months, the group, led by pianist, percussionist and composer Alex Clayton, brought together a host of around twenty other instrumentalists to perform two landmark pieces of contemporary Western art music: Terry Riley's 'In C' and Karlheinz Stockhausen's 'Plus-Minus #14'.
Stockhausen and Riley are some of the only twentieth-century western art music composers to pierce the modern public consciousness. Whilst 'Plus-Minus' and 'In C' were written within a year of each other (1963 and 1964), the pieces emerged from starkly different musical standpoints. Stockhausen came from a background in serialism, and was a pioneer in the spheres of electronic music and aleatory composition. His works pushed sonic and compositional boundaries – heavily influenced by his desire to test new musical theory for which he was gaining recognition at the time. Stockhausen wrote 'Plus-Minus' with artist and partner Mary Bauermeister; it was, essentially, an improvisatory exercise for his composition students. It requires extensive interpretation from the performers – there is no specified duration or rhythmic material, with only elements such as pitch material, articulation, texture and timbre provided by the composer. These parameters are contained within cells through which the ensemble moves together.
'In C', the better known of the two works, was written as a response to the post-modern serialist techniques that dominated compositional discourse in the post-modern era. The piece contains fifty-three cells of pitch material, all based around modes of C, that each musician in the ensemble moves through independently of one another at different rates. The result is a slowly moving, globular texture in which each instrument blends with the others to form a holistic body of sound and energy.
In theory, these compositions seemed simple for us to perform. When there is so much room for interpretation and every performance may render an entirely different result, there is no standard to which an ensemble can adhere but their own. We discovered, after listening to many different recordings, how varied each iteration of the work could be, even from the same ensemble in two different concerts. From an ensemble perspective, the most challenging part about playing these works was to create something of sonic interest or worth for the audience. We found it so easy to slip into habits of playing what is written on the page, unconcerned about the trajectory of the piece as it is all spread out in front of us. Once we began listening deeper and externally to those around us, the music slowly created its own form and narrative. It’s not often that we find ourselves in the classical world listening to others around us more than we are listening to ourselves, and for pieces like 'In C' and 'Plus-Minus', this skill was absolutely paramount. Considering what sound one can add to the ensemble texture on their own instrument and to the direction of the work was a vital step for all twenty of us to engage in. As classically trained musicians, there are not many instances where we must draw from our knowledge in such a lucid way; however, these give us an opportunity to test our creativity and create chamber music in one of its purest forms.
- Chloe Sanger
SIX-FOUR perform their first public concert this coming Friday March 17th at Melba Hall, starting at 5pm and lasting just under one hour. It’s a free concert, but you must book online to secure your seats.