Open-Form Composition is, by Kent de Spain

“When I was in Arnhem the last time, we began my last day with a long discussion about how I understand open form composition and its relatives. The framework that I provided came out of my thinking over the week there. I talked about three related and often overlapping ideas:

Open-form composition – which to me relates to the historical use of the term in relation to Earle Brown and John Cage and others in the 50s, and refers to “forms” that are designed to give some sets of choices and freedoms to the “performers” be they dancers or musicians or whatever. An example would be a set of, say, 10 preexisting sections that, on any given night, performers would choose six of and order for that evening only. The next night it would be a different set and a different order. It might be done in the moment of performance, or it might be determined just before each performance.

Open-outcome composition – this is closer to what I most often do, in which the structure is basically set, but is built in such a way that forces a different outcome each time. My technology-dependent pieces Discourse and Intervention for Two are examples of this. The rules and technology are the same for each performance, but the result, while recognizably the same “piece,” is always quite different because of the random selection of digital audio samples (determined by the computer) and my improvisational response to those selections.

Emergent-form composition – these are very open structures in which the performers discover or create unique forms with each iteration of the piece. This tends to require an even higher level of improvisational awareness in the moment of performance to facilitate the recognition and development of emergent forms.

None of these ideas are mutually exclusive. New or altered forms can emerge during open-form or open-outcome performances. The underlying structures of emergent-form pieces might seem similar to the other two. It may, after just one viewing, be impossible to tell from the outside, where a piece falls along this conceptual framework, but these ideas can give some guidance about the kinds of freedoms and restrictions that can be built into performance works.”


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