Go back to article: The Hugh Davies Collection: live electronic music and self-built electro-acoustic musical instruments, 1967–1975

Gentle Fire’s 'Group Compositions'

From 1968 to 1975 Davies was a member of Gentle Fire, an ensemble that specialised in the performance of experimental music with live electronics (Davies, 2001; Mooney, 2016d). In 1970, Gentle Fire devised the first of six Group Compositions – pieces devised collectively by all the members of the ensemble, and described by the group as ‘environment[s] in which our […] group musical personality has a chance to resonate’ (Bernas, Davies and Robinson, 1973). For Group Composition II (1971), the six ensemble members produced ‘scores’ for each other, ‘which describe[d] the interaction and ensemble characteristics of playing together’ (Bernas, Davies and Robinson, 1973). These were not conventional ‘scores’ of Western classical notation; rather, they contained text-based instructions, graphics, and symbols, as well as tape-loops and other physical apparatus devised so as to shape the unfolding of the musical material. ‘[T]he individual parts,’ Davies later explained, ‘were composed as separate layers, without any of us knowing what the other layers would consist of’ (Davies, 2001, pp 58–59). Graham Hearn’s score for Hugh Davies – now part of the HDC (Figure 12) – comprised written instructions, a tape loop, and a set of five thick wooden pentagons whose sides were inscribed with musical notes and rests of various durations. The pentagons were to be arbitrarily arranged before a performance, such that they spelled out a rhythmic pattern of notes and rests. This was to be followed by Davies when applying live electronic transformation to the sounds produced by the other musicians on ‘two cellos, piano (interior), [and] electronic organ’ (Davies, 2001, p 58). Specifically, the rhythmic pattern was to be iteratively repeated by Davies (ostinato is the musical term), with periodic changes governed by the contents of the tape loop and the activity of the other players. The tape loop contained five different recordings of the sound of a telephone ringing, and was to be played silently throughout the performance, its volume raised only intermittently, ad lib. Whenever this was done, the telephone ring that happened to be playing at that moment determined which of the five pentagons had to be rotated, so that a different one of its sides – and hence a different note or rest value – substituted the old one. Whether the pentagon was to be rotated by one, two, three, or four faces was determined by what another member of the ensemble – assigned to that particular pentagon prior to the performance – happened to be playing at that moment: a high-pitched sound meant rotate the pentagon by one face; a low-pitched sound, two faces; medium-pitched, three; or if the performer was playing in several registers simultaneously, four. Thus, the five pentagons provided a variable score for Davies’s part in Group Composition II, which resulted in ‘a slowly evolving rhythmic cycle of electronic transformations (primarily filtering and ring-modulation) of what was played by the musicians’ (Davies, 2001, p 59).

Figure 12

Colour photograph of a score by Graham Hearn for Hugh Davies comprising five wooden pentagons and a tape loop

Gentle Fire’s Group Composition II > V (1971–2): score by Graham Hearn for Hugh Davies, comprising five wooden pentagons and a tape loop

The other ensemble members’ scores were different, but equally complex in their determinations, each influencing performer interactions in different ways so that the music would unfold in complex and unpredictable ways, despite the fact that each of the players was following specific instructions at any given moment. As Michael Robinson put it, ‘[o]ur movements are circumscribed but they’re not predictable’ (Bernas, Davies and Robinson, 1973). After Richard Orton left Gentle Fire, Group Composition II was reworked as a quintet, which was dubbed Group Composition V; hence, the materials in the HDC bear the handwritten inscription ‘Group Composition II > V’. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170705/007