Game and Earnest (1987/89)
16 chess-board modules for computer instruments, composed for the Concerto for Chess Players, Computer Controlled Samplers and Synthesizers, Grand Piano, Acoustic and Electric Guitars, Turntables, Tapes and Feedbacks, Alto and Baritone Saxophones, and Sound Director
The debate about order and chance goes through the whole of Western thinking. Do world events have an orderly structure developed in a logical succession of cause and effect? Do things occur through scientific necessity in an inescapable cosmic order? Are we humans perhaps simply puppets in this order? 'Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt' (the willing are led by fate, the unwilling dragged along by it). Are our actions initiated by pre-determined causes like the movement of a billiard ball through the nudge of a cue, or are they based on decisions of the free will? Is the future already fixed and principally predictable or is it principally open and able to be altered at any moment?
What does this have to do with music? The fundamental questions of freedom, order and chance received more attention in the music of the twentieth century than ever before. If earlier centuries concerned themselves with the character of musical movements, with harmonic problems and problems of imitation, so then did the issue of compositional freedom stand in the foreground of all compositional concerns in the twentieth century. How free is the composer, how free is the interpreter, what role does chance play - and can there still be anything at all like a work?
Chance finds many ways into music. The composer gives chance space either in the act of composition itself, in that for instance he throws dice or applies some other generator of coincidence, or, he leaves (entirely democratically) parts of the piece to the choice of the interpreter. With that he always abandons a part of his theoretical absolute power over composition and interpreter. 'Game and Earnest' combines, through a brilliant idea, strictest order and chance, removing at the same time in a surprise dialectic twist all considerations of order and chance.
The means for that is the chess game. On the one hand it offers through its relatively few, quickly learnt rules a model example of a clearly ordered system. On the other hand such a huge number of combinations can arise in this seemingly so simple game, that the course of play hardly bears predicting. Through few rules, out of a simple strict order, there comes into being here a completely open future.
In 'Game and Earnest' two chess players sit on the stage and play their kingly game. Nonetheless on a prepared chess board whose sixty-four squares function like control keys. If a chesspiece is placed upon a square of the chessboard, a particular composition written specifically for this square - a so-called 'module' - is played by the electronics. Four composers each composed sixteen such modules, distributed over the chessboard. When a new move is made, a new square occupied, the timbres of the next module can be influenced by the previous one. The chess game becomes at once like musical gamble.
A chess game usually begins fast and after a time becomes slower, the thinking pauses between the individual moves longer. The faster starting tempo leads to a situation where ever denser chords arise, as modules are continually broken off. This leaves already touched sounds 'hanging on'. Though in time complete modules also become audible or pauses can even occur. With this practice moreover, a further parameter of the piece, its length, remains truly undetermined. The piece is only over when one of the players is checkmated or quits.
In addition to this electronic music guided by the chess game four live musicians appear (partly the composers themselves) who each improvise according to their own concept, about which they have only vaguely conferred beforehand. These concepts extend to actual Early Music. Naturally the slower the moves become in the course of the game, the more the improvisations of the musicians come into the auditory foreground.
One could now believe that something like complete randomness would be forced to come out of all this, pure chaos. But the truly unbelievable happens: a sonic organism grows that is free from any noticeable randomness. If one were not informed about the structure of 'Game and Earnest', it could be taken to be a partly through-composed work with some improvised passages. It would never be perceived as a piece of music that had been made out of such disparate independent components. In the chaos of the countless combination possibilities lies a deeper order, even if it is an order that hardly allows for repetition, or leaves room for prediction. Out of the pluralism of the technical structure, the composition methods and the individuality of the musicians there arises a many-layered piece, that certainly contains witty passages - when perhaps the screech of a pinball machine is to be heard or one feels reminded of the music to early science fiction numbers à la 'Raumpatrouille Orion' (the German TV series Space Patrol from 1966). However, some material in the modules was composed strictly serially and was then - with considerable abandon - thrown into the chaos. So totally earnest as it all sounds on paper is audibly not how the whole thing was conceived - despite the technical and theoretical extravagance.
One may puzzle: do different orders interlock here that are simply inherent in our world or at least in the human mind? Is Einstein right when he says that God does not throw dice, that there is no chance in the world, nor in microcosm? Is there a secret string puller behind musical events and is it the structure of musical language itself which harmonizes the many factors of the work? Is there no difference between order and disorder, does pure freedom carry perhaps a certain harmony within itself? Is chance only another kind of musical order? Or could it be that the questions posed at the beginning (genuinely metaphysical ones indeed) are wrong or at least not applicable to music?
raises several questions, which considered in the light of day are not all
together so far from those pertaining to the puzzle of the world itself…
Harald Borges (TF), CD booklet "Game and Earnest" (oaksmus omH02)