Interpreting Angharad Davies’ “Cofnod Pen Bore”

Some notes from Extradition Curator and Director Matt Hannafin:

Angharad Davies is a Welsh violinist working in the fields of free-improvisation, composition, and performance. Her official bio says: “Her approach to sound involves attentive listening and exploring beyond the sonic confines of her instrument, her classical training, and performance expectation. Much of her work involves collaboration. She has longstanding duos with Tisha Mukarji, Dominic Lash, and Lina Lapelyte and plays with Apartment House, Cranc, Common Objects, Richard Dawson's band, and Skogen. She has been involved in projects with Tarek Atui, Tony Conrad, Laura Cannell, Jack McNamara, Eliane Radigue, Juliet Stephenson, and J. G.Thirlwell. She has released records on Absinth Records, Another Timbre, Potlatch and Confrontrecords.”

Translating from the Welsh as “Morning Records,” Cofnod Pen Bore (2012) consists of one brief page of instructions and eleven small transparencies marked with single irregular black lines, all of them different, all of them dated in both English and Welsh. Performers are instructed to create a performance score by arranging these transparencies, either singly or in superimpositions. No instruction is given as to how the lines are to be interpreted musically, leaving all such decisions to the performers.

One of the joys of working with open scores is their malleability in terms of instrumental color and texture, which is invaluable when trying to create a concert program that feels holistic and balanced. At the same time, these scores’ internal logic guides performers toward approaches that can be wildly different from piece to piece, helping to maintain audience interest.

The developing contour of Extradition’s 2019 Summer Concert was varied, with some pieces having a very electronic character and some involving more natural sounds. I decided to arrange this piece for the most elemental of instruments – voices and percussion – but with the expectation that both the vocalists and percussionists would be able to extend their techniques to form a middle ground between the concert’s electronic and naturalistic pieces. I was pleased that singers Margaret McNeal, Stephanie Lavon Trotter, and Annie Gilbert agreed to bring the vocal roles to life, while the percussion would fall to myself and multi-instrumentalist/composer Branic Howard.

Angharad Davies

Angharad Davies

Beginning work on the piece, I first created an arrangement of the transparencies, interpreting the score’s directions about overlaps with two crucial rules: (1) the instructions do not specify that the transparencies needed to align at their corners, allowing much more leeway in their horizontal and vertical placement, and (2) the consistent placement of dates on the transparencies suggest a defined top and bottom to each image. After considering several arrangements, I settled on this, with the two sections broken only for the purposes of fitting legibly on one printed page.

Angharad Davies,  Cofnod Pen Bore  - Extradition Series arrangement, July 2019

Angharad Davies, Cofnod Pen Bore - Extradition Series arrangement, July 2019

Rehearsals for the piece were lively, with the musicians bringing strong, inspired ideas and opinions to the table. As is frequently the case at Extradition, we were shooting to toe the delicate line between improvisation and composition: allowing each musician the personal freedom to bring her/his creativity to the performance (forming a de facto partnership with the composer) while also following a pre-defined aesthetic that flowed from the characteristics of the score. A few of the ideas and decisions that surfaced:

  • Individual lines were assigned to individual performers.

  • Rather than approaching this as a tight ensemble, we’re approaching it as five individual quasi-improvisations that exist both separately and together.

  • The overall length we’re shooting for is 20 minutes, but each performer is free to approach it at their own pace, lingering on some sections, speeding through others.

  • All players will keep an awareness of the other players, and may choose to react subtly to what another player is doing.

  • Each player has full discretion regarding how their contribution is structured and spaced within their lines (e.g., using staccato vs. legato sounds, using sound vs. silence, etc.).

  • We discussed as a model the elements of a forest soundscape – birds, wind, blowing leaves, burbling water, etc., all existing and making their sounds individually, following their innate rhythms, while adding up to a complete sound world.

  • We passed around the original transparencies as a way of seeing the individual components of the piece. Though they are clearly more jagged than Zen calligraphy, they share some aspect of that in the fact that they’re each a single line, created with a single brush-stroke. That suggested simplicity and directness of character.

  • The arrangement of the transparencies suggests topography, which in combination with the “single line” observation suggests a Zen approach: Since the line moves upward, I also move upward. Since the line moves down, I also move down.

  • Words and terms that were mentioned to guide the performance included spaciousness, clarity, and parallel play.

The result was magic.

You can hear Cofnod Pen Bore at the Extradition Series 2019 Summer Concert, Saturday, July 27, 7:30pm at Performance Works NW: 4625 SE 67th Ave., Portland. Also on the bill are works by Alvin Lucier, Lo Wie, Eva-Maria Houben, and Brian Moran & Linda Austin.

Matt Hannafin