A small group of people sit at a table on the stage, wearing white cotton gloves. In front of them, on the table, is a pile of white boxes. Each performer chooses a box, feels it all over, observes it closely, listens to the sound it makes, before opening it to see what is inside.
This is the beginning of Community of Objects, a musical composition for two to four performers which interrogates ideas relating to private spaces, intimacy, ephemerality and subjectivity. It is a piece which aims to create a rich and memorable experience for its performers through evoking emotional and imaginative associations within the private space of the score – which in this piece takes the form of a collection of paper boxes.
Two statements from French philosopher Roland Barthes’s ‘Musica Practica’ are relevant to this work. Firstly, his declaration that ‘there are two musics […] the music one listens to, [and] the music one plays’, which differentiates the experience of the performer from that of the audience. Secondly, his definition of composition as ‘to give to do, not to give to hear but to give to write’, which prioritises action over sound.
Community of Objects responds to these statements by prioritising the performer’s private experience of performance, making it the subject of the piece; and by embodying the idea of composition as a ‘gift of activity’ in a single-use score comprising a set of handmade boxes containing instructions and small objects.
The boxes of the score are constructed from a variety of types and weights of paper – light/heavy, soft/sturdy, handmade/machine-made, etc. – which share a colour palette of whites, off-whites and creams. They may appear more or less uniform to an audience seated at a distance, but reveal their differences to the performers who see them up close. The boxes are the principal instruments of Community of Objects and the varied papers provide a subtle variety of sounds when handled – changing levels of volume, crackliness and approximate pitch.
The performers may not open the boxes before the performance – the piece is ‘sight-read’ on stage – but instead receive performance notes which outline the terms of their interaction with them - selecting, opening, and ultimately destroying them.
The experience of performing Community of Objects is shaped by three aspects of the score, bound together by a process of transformation through destruction:
The form of the box. Boxes are associated with presents, secrets and surprises, making them a trigger to the imagination - ‘there will always be more things in a closed, than in an open, box,’ states philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. More than that, though, opening a box reveals a hidden, intimate space and transforms the object itself: ‘the outside is effaced with one stroke, an atmosphere of novelty and surprise reigns. The outside has no more meaning. And […] even cubic dimensions have no more meaning, for the reason that a new dimension - the dimension of intimacy - has just opened up’.
The score as ephemeral art object. Each performance requires the creation of a new collection of boxes which will differ from previous sets in materials, contents, and possibly form, so the performers are aware that their boxes are unique and have been made specifically for their performance. The emotional response to this uniqueness has two elements to it: an experience of beauty in seeing and handling these handmade objects, and the experience of destroying them, which may equally trigger distress or delight. Comprehension of the boxes’ ephemerality may heighten the emotional experience of interacting with them.
The first-time experience. Bachelard states that objectivity results from repetition - that objectivity at the first encounter with something is impossible. It follows that the first encounter, then, is subjective and more likely to trigger a stronger emotional response than subsequent interactions. Reserving the first interaction with the boxes and their contents until the performance should maximise the performer’s onstage emotional response. Whether delight, disgust, confusion or something else, the performer’s response is genuine, unfiltered by repetition, and provides the audience with a ‘way in’ to the performer’s experience.
At the start of the piece, all the boxes are closed, untouched - they belong to ‘the general community of objects’, in Bachelard’s phrase, which I have appropriated for the piece’s title. However, as stated above, to open a box is to transform it; once the performer has seen inside, that box is fundamentally altered for them. It could even be said that it can never really be closed again while they remember its interior - the box that was picked up is already destroyed.
The physical destruction of the boxes, then, extends and makes permanent this transformation, changing each box into papery trash and a memory. The destruction does not indicate that the boxes are used up or worthless (although there is a clear connection with Bachelard’s statement that the ‘outside has no more meaning’ after opening) but emphasises their preciousness by rendering the experience unique, unrepeatable. It makes clear that not only is the performer exploring this box for the first time, but for the only time, whether for them or anybody else. This holds true even in the face of multiple performances as even if contents are repeated, the details will differ - perhaps the tiny bells were in a box made of semi-translucent 230gsm imitation parchment for one performance, but now they are in one made from softer, lighter-weight cartridge paper stained with tea.
As Community of Objects evolves through its performances, it is raising questions for me - especially regarding repetition: How can a group of performers re-perform the work without significantly diminishing their ‘first-time’ experience? How might the piece be rehearsed to allow performer familiarity with the instructions, answer their questions and refine visual presentation ideas? And (how) can I perform this piece myself, given that I invent, make and select the content of the boxes so that for me there can be no true first-time experience? These questions are leading me into new territory – experimenting with games as rehearsal, contemplating ways of refreshing the piece for repeat performances, and reconsidering my own position as a composer-performer both in this piece and other compositions.
Caitlin Rowley is a composer, artist and performer. A PhD candidate at Bath Spa University, her research investigates public and private creative spaces through interdisciplinary composition. http://caitlinrowley.com
Roland Barthes, ‘Musica Practica’ in Image, Music, Text, selected and trans. by Stephen Heath (Fontana: London, 1977), pp. 149-154 (p. 149).
Barthes, ‘Musica Practica’, p. 153.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas, with a new Foreword by John R. Stilgoe (Beacon Press: Boston, MA, 1994), p. 88.
Bachelard, Poetics, p. 85.
Bachelard, Poetics, p. 156.
Bachelard, Poetics, p. 85.