Feb 22, 2013

strikethrough me & you – Battle Pieces

Tag cloud datafile battle_drawing

“Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.” — Ice-T

The Battle Pieces are a series of pieces composed, and performed, with Sam Andreae (as strikethrough me & you) which focus on complex games, improvisational etudes, and competition. The idea for the Battle Pieces came about during a rehearsal of a free-improv duo we had been developing where we decided we wanted to expand on what we were doing together, while still retaining improvisational freedom. This eventually took the form of the Battle Pieces. Essentially each Battle Piece is a game, but beyond being an improv game, it is also competitive, and generally deals with an aspect of improvisation that we want to explore further and/or improve on.


Battle Pieces

So before I get into the Battle Pieces, it’d be foolish not to start with a yo momma joke.
Yo momma is soooo bad at improv endings that…

strikethrough me & you is a duo with Sam on tenor sax and me on drums. We had each been working on setups that involved solo improv on electronically augmented instruments but wanted to explore something using only stripped-down acoustic instruments. We initially began with just free improv, but during the compositional process of iminlovewithanothergirl.com Sam and I began testing out some of the formal materials (A/B/C pages) from that piece in a duo context. Some of the motivation to do this was to move away from the established canon of tenor sax and drums in free jazz. Those instruments just screamed “FREE JAZZ!” And as we all know, jazz is stupid. This exploration led us to expand and exaggerate the challenge/etude nature of iminlovewithanothergirl.com until the point that it became a competition – a battle.

This led to the idea of a “Battle Piece”: a musical game/challenge where winning and losing had material consequences in the piece. Much like in iminlovewithanothergirl.com, the actual content is not prescribed in any way. In these, the interaction is the composed material of the pieces. It is the idea of interaction as content.

The implementation of game theory in music has a history. Xenakis‘ implementation of game theory in pieces like Duel, although groundbreaking, lacks legibility in terms of the audience perceiving the actual interplay composed into the piece. The mechanics of the piece are primarily focused on balancing the zero-sum characteristics of matrices rather than aesthetics or non-mathematical interplay (Xenakis 1971). That isn’t to say that legibility (of the rules) is terribly important in Battle Pieces, but even the more complex methods of interaction produce legible artifacts, primarily in the form of visible emotion. Much like how it is not necessary to understand the rules of an unfamiliar sport in order to enjoy the game in some manner, the mere fact that there is visible interaction produces a kind of legibility which can be appreciated on its own merit. As Sam put it, “If we work hard enough on the interactions themselves so that we’re clear in them–clear on what our roles are–then it should generate quite strong musical results regardless of whether we tell people how we’re doing it” (Andreae 2013).

An example of possible tactics in Duel (Xenakis 1971, 115)

An example of possible tactics in Duel (Xenakis 1971, 115)

The general approach used in Battle Pieces has more in common with Zorn‘s game pieces than they do with Xenakis’. Zorn says of his motivation to create game pieces, which formed most of his compositional output from the late 70s to the early 80s, culminating in Cobra, that he “wanted to find something to harness the personal languages that the improvisers had developed on their own” (Duckworth 1999). So the solution for him was “to deal with form, not with content, with relationships, not with sound” (Duckworth 1999). This idea of relationships, or interaction, is a central concern in the Battle Pieces.

Guerrilla system Tactics in Cobra (John Zorn © Oct 9 1984 NYC)

Guerrilla system Tactics in Cobra by John Zorn

Although I was not directly inspired by the work of Christian Wolff, there is some similarity to the tension and confusion he worked with in his ensemble pieces of the 50s and 60s. Wolff’s use of relational notation, instructing performers to begin before/after a sound they have heard, or play a sound lower/higher in pitch to an existing note, gives the music a sense of immediacy and tension that would not be possible to arrive at another way. Even the pacing of the music is affected by these types of ‘games’, or more simply put by Philip Thomas (a long-time performer of Wolff’s music), “confusion is [used as] a rhythmic device in Wolff’s music” (Thomas 2014).

All Battle Pieces are composed collaboratively during rehearsals, with both of us contributing to the concepts, gameplay, rules, and mechanics of each piece. Although some close friends have tried the pieces out, they are meant to be performed only by Sam and me. The identity of each piece is made up of not only the rules/game/instructions and the type of material we improvise around, which can evolve over time, it is also made up of our personalities. As musicians, performers, and human beings, our personalities and general sense of play make up a big part of the Battle Pieces’ identities.

The core ideas for many Battle Pieces emerge from discussions following free improvisations during strikethrough me & you rehearsals. We sometimes end up finding something about the improvisation that could have been better and link that to tendencies or behaviors that we have as improvisers/performers. This leads to the creation of a piece, or pieces, that tackles that specific aspect of improvisation (endings, space, synchronicity, memory, density, etc.). Through learning, rehearsing, and performing those pieces we improve on the improvisation skills that we had originally found lacking. This process often leads to pieces becoming obsolete as they are no longer challenging or have become part of our general improvisational language and skill set, making the conception/composition/performance/obsolescence of Battle Pieces a microcosm of the feedback loop and intertwinement of my general practice.

The scores that we play from are the instructions for the pieces scribbled onto A4 sheets of paper, as can be seen in the sketches included with each commentary. Since we write the pieces for ourselves there is no need to create thorough notations for each piece, but rather, we jot down a compact set of instructions that we can quickly read to remind ourselves of the rules of the game. A long-term goal, once we have 78 compositions, is to have the instructions for each piece printed on Tarot cards, so that we can shuffle them and pull out cards (pieces) at random during a performance.

In the next section I will present the instructions, sketches, videos and recordings, along with explanations of the instructions, compositional thinking, and performative insight, of the following Battle Pieces:

  • yo momma – the creation and baiting/trapping of improvisational endings
  • glitch beat – variation/exhaustion, internal/external learning, and repetition
  • flurries – spectromorphological acoustic sound masses with fixed compositional elements
  • switches – unison playing with encoded/decoded musical information
  • eat, eat everything – memory, special events, and in/out/frozen time performance
  • sausage fest – space, silence, trajectories, and collective gesture playing
  • strains – rock, paper, scissors meets polyrhythmic memory games intertwined with improv
  • elbows – the creation of rapid shifts in musical material
  • AB(B)A – discovering and transplanting a spontaneous musical games
  • pop song – repetition, memory, and form in a freely improvised context

Continue reading »

Jan 14, 2013

Snare + Microphone

Before I talk, here is some sights and sounds:

During my summer tour last year I improv-ed my way into using a condenser mic as a friction implement. The sounds were harsh, but very controllable and with a great continuity between vastly different types of sounds/playing. I instantly knew I was on to something, and wanted to explore this further.

Fast forward to one month ago.
I was starting to plan/conceive my next composition, having recently started a PhD at the University of Huddersfield, and wanted to explore this microphone/snare thing further. At the same time, I had decided that I was going to move away from the “middle man” of writing a composition, for myself, to perform. (More on this, and the implications of it in a future post). I decided to use this very limited mode of playing as the backbone of this exploration. No other implements, no electronics (other than amplification/distortion), no “easy” solutions to the problem I was trying to solve.

This video is not that solution. It is just a document of some of the sounds and playing techniques I’ve been exploring.

Nov 22, 2012

Solo drums + electronics

So I went on a UK tour recently doing solo drums + electronics.

Here is a ‘showreel’ of sorts, documenting some choice bits from the different performances.

This was the first tour I’ve done since moving onto a laptop as my performance setup. The center piece of that is The Party Van, my all-in-one laptop performance solution. It was nice doing a bunch of (relatively) back to back gigs to really get ‘inside’ the mechanics of my patch/setup.

The footage was shot and edited by my wife, Angela Guyton, who shoots most(all) of my videos nowadays. There’s a longer (10minutes) sort of documentary on me in the works covering my live stuff, instrument building, bands, composition etc… Very much looking forward to that.

Nov 16, 2012

Weak Without You (new composition)

Weak Without You is my latest composition commissioned by Distractfold Ensemble.

It looks and sounds like this:

It’s written for three female performers who sing and clap (with a bit of a pitched instrument at end). The performers (Linda Jankowska, Emma Richards, and Alice Purton) did a great job with the piece, particularly considering the nakedness of just singing/clapping.

This is the first piece I’ve composed since starting my PhD at the University of Huddersfield and it’s probably one of my simplest/cleanest pieces. The materials are super stark, and I think it really works.

‘Underneath the hood’ there are some further explorations into some of my ideas about ‘fake’ time. Sections B/C/D in the score make use of these ideas, and during the rehearsals the term “real time” and “fake time” were thrown around a lot (to the initial confusion of the performers).

Here is the full score:

Oh yeah, and it’s a ‘cover’ of Survivor by Destiny’s Child….

Oct 18, 2012

Musicianship Drills

Here are a couple videos I made for the Art of Teaching project of my favorite drills for working your time and ears.

Aug 27, 2012


C-C-Combine is a corpus-based audio mosiacing application, built in Max/MSP, based on concatenative synthesis.

It sounds like this:

And looks like this:

Click here to read more about it and to download the patch.

Jul 11, 2012

A Greater Horror – Debut EP release

So here it finally is. The post-jazz trio that I’ve been working on with Mauricio Pauly and Alex Tod (A Greater Horror) has finished our debut EP. As always the artwork is by Angela Guyton though this time we’ve gone with a commercially duplicated full-color sleeve type thing.

I’ve very happy with the integration of my software The Party Van into the recording, as all of these tracks were getting gigged before I had even started programming again. You can see/hear more of it in action with the live video we made a bit ago by clicking here.

You can listen to, or buy a download of physical copy of the EP on the bandcamp page here:


Jun 24, 2012

Trio with PA Tremblay & Sam Andreae

Had a gig the other night with two of my favorite performers (Pierre Alexandre Tremblay (we just finished recording a followup album) and Sam Andreae.

You can see The Party Van in action on my side, with some more Max/MSP goodness coming from PA. Sam? He kicks it oldschool with some ciat-lonbarde digs, some general DIY grunginess, and with a new school twist, an Arduino.

Jun 21, 2012


I am what I am today because a series of teachers who inspired, challenged, and believed in me. Today I received the Positive Impact Award in the Student Led Teaching Awards at the Royal Northern College of Music, where I teach Musicianship.

It is a massive honor to be nominated for, and receive this award. I have been very fortunate to encounter some amazing teachers in my life and I hope I can do for my students but a fraction of what they have done for me.

Many thanks to Thomas Trenkler, Joseph Bragg, Jo Foster, David Weissbrot, Jane Pyle, and all teachers who inspire students everywhere.

Jun 9, 2012

In the studio

Spent the last three days in the studio with Pierre Alexandre Tremblay for our second album together. Some crazy amazing stuff. I’m very much looking forward to this one coming out. If all goes well it should be later this year.

As you can see in the photo The Party Van is in effect, along with Old Mr.Grassi, the Specty, and my monome/arc.

Jun 6, 2012

New Instrument – The Specty

Finally finished the Specty, the more compact and portable version of my Specto instrument. It looks and sounds like this:

For more info including build pictures and all of that click here.

May 25, 2012

A Greater Horror – Bastard Video

So been doing this group with Mauricio Pauly and Alex Tod (A Greater Horror) since last year, but more recently it’s started picking up steam. We’ve got a gig at the Manchester Jazz Festival coming up in July and I’m quite excited about it as I finally incorporated my monome/arc/software setup (The Party Van) into the setup.

Here’s a video we made a few weeks ago filmed by Angela Guyton.

It’s pretty brutal.

May 17, 2012

I Rock the Party that Rocks the Party

So as you may know from some of my previous posts I’ve been doing lots of Max/MSP programming, moving my previously hardware-centric performance setup into the laptop.

I recently put out the v05 version of my Party Van software, and it is looking/sounding great if I don’t say so myself.

Here’s a performance video using solo snare + electronics:

Continue reading »

Apr 24, 2012

Spring Tour + Festivals + Releases

So I’m doing a solo (drums+electronics) tour across the UK hitting up a bunch of classy cities (details below).

In addition to that, my post-jazz trio, A Greater Horror, is playing the Manchester Jazz festival, as well as releasing our debut EP at the festival.

Speaking of festivals, there’s also the Chorlton Art’s festival, and BEAM festival gig dates in the mix.

Speaking of in the mix (erm, kind of stretching it eh?), my string quartet + computer hard drive piece (It’s Made From Pieces Of From Pieces Of My Skin) should hopefully be premiered by the Distractfold ensemble in a couple of months too, with Angela Guyton making a documentary about the piece/performance.

In addition to the AGH EP release, I’m back in the studio with PA Tremblay to record a follow up to our last CD. Also have some studio time booked with Phil Marks, for a smoking drum duo we’ve been working on, and some more studio time with Richard Knight for a peculiar guitar+no-input mixer thing we’ve been kicking around.

All in all, some rather busy next couple of months. Do stop by some of the gigs and see the new setup/instruments in action.

5 May 2012 – Birmingham – Solo Drums+Electronics
9 May 2012 – Sheffield – Solo Drums+Electronics
10 May 2012 – Manchester – Solo Drums+Electronics
22 May 2012 – Manchester – The Noise Upstairs Ensemble
23 May 2012 – Chorlton – Solo Electronics
25 May 2012 – Manchester – Takahashi’s Shellfish Concern
30 May 2012 – Kent – Solo Drums+Electronics
6 June 2012 – Leeds – Takahashi’s Shellfish Concern
19 June 2012 – Manchester – A Greater Horror
22 June 2012 – Manchester – Drums with PA Tremblay
23 June 2012 – Manchester – Takahashi’s Shellfish Concern
24 June 2012 – London – Solo Drums+Electronics
29 June 2012 – Manchester – The Noise Upstairs Ensemble
5 July 2012 – Manchester – Takahashi’s Shellfish Concern
7 July 2012 – Sheffield – Drums with Federico Reuben
12 July 2012 – Manchester – Drums with Federico Reuben
14 July 2012 – Manchester – A Greater Horror
19 July 2012 – Manchester – Takahashi’s Shellfish Concern
26 July 2012 – Huddersfield – Solo Drums+Electronics

Apr 17, 2012

A Machine – New fixed media composition

Finished a new piece a couple of days ago. This one was quite difficult as it required me to work in a very different way than I normally compose.

First, here is the piece:

Continue reading »



Rodrigo Constanzo
-makes music and art
-lives in Porto/Manchester
-is a crazy person

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