A conversation between Coila-Leah Enderstein and Nicola van Straaten about scores, space, politics and grand pianos.
nicola: we’re sitting here with coila-leah enderstein who has tiny thumbs. so tiny that she made her phone password all the lowest numbers on the keypad… now I just told everyone.
coila: i feel like we’re on the radio.
nicola: we are. (both laugh) okay. tell us what we’re looking at.
coila: we are looking at a score. a publication from which instructions to make music can be read. a score of a piece called ‹Memories of You› by Cornelius Cardew, who was a British avante-garde composer.
nicola: in what time period?
coila: in the fifties to seventies. but what’s kind of interesting is that he worked for Stockhausen, this big figure in classical and electronic music in Germany, in Europe. he worked for him for a while. but later actually criticized him in a bunch of essays for basically not subscribing enough to leftist views, which is what Cardew did.
nicola: seems like political shifts are topical as of late.
coila: (laughs) ja. totally… it’s very easy to criticize those who don’t subscribe to your views when you feel passionately about them. he [Cardew] actually composed quite differently later on in his life. he’s renowned for is this collection of graphic scores, which he titled Treatise. historically a treatise is a body of work, which espouses theories about theory. later on, more towards the 20th century, composers would write treatises on their own style because there were so many divergences from traditional ways of composing in the 20th century. there was scope for things like that. so he’s famous for Treatise, a collection of 100 graphic scores, which may or may not be interpreted. they are more works of art than actual scores, although someone could well interpret them in a similar way to how someone could interpret a rorschach blotch or a piece of abstract art or any kind of graph or image at all.
nicola: were instructions ever accompanied with these scores?
coila: no. so they are sort of deconstructions of design elements of traditional notation. so…
nicola: wow. this dude seems pretty extreme and amazing.
coila: ja. I mean look at that one.
coila: it’s just the most beautiful commentary on the arbitrariness of traditional notation. it’s really…
nicola: wow. that one looks like a stage, it looks like a kind of orchestral…
coila: oh ja.
nicola: it’s very three-dimensional, like a theatre.
coila: there are literally hundreds.
nicola: so which one are we looking at now?
coila: okay, back to the one we’re looking at… whoah look at this.
coila: okay, back to the one we’re looking at… whoah look at this.
coila: one of my favourite ones is just this staff with a kink in it. like, staff lines, these parallel lines, with this curvy kink.
nicola: this is taking ideas of interdisciplinary art to a whole new level. I mean he was a musician by trade, but a lot of people would identify this as visual art or fine art.
nicola: it’s a very holistic approach to expression
coila: ja… anyway. we’re looking at Memories of You (the large image to the left of the screen). I’m not sure when it was written. (1) so Memories of You is a piece that is organized spatially around a grand piano, which is this absolute… what’s the word for ‘symbol’ but in linguistics?
coila: something with an ‘s
nicola: ah, I know which word you’re talking about. I forget now. (2)
coila: well, it represents classical music in such a strong way.
nicola: this is Saussure’s theory… (3)
coila: so. it’s quite a potent image to use if you’re doing anything around deconstructing things in classical music.
nicola: especially such big things.
coila: ja, it’s huge.
nicola: literally. it has the word ‘grand’ in its name. like – that’s how big it is.
coila: (laughs) ja! that’s a big part of the generative concept of our project that we did together. (4) so the instructions are here. basically it’s a grid of these images of a grand piano in a circle of grand pianos. so there’s repeated circles enclosing the image that looks like the shape of a grand piano. and on every circle, somewhere within the circle, there’s a little dot and it is either coloured in black or it is empty. so the dot simply represents where in space sounds must be made…
nicola: any sound?
coila: any sound. and the filled in-ness or not of the dot, represents at which vertical level the sound must be made. either above the floor, or at the floor level, oh – and there’s one that is half-filled, that is both on the floor and above the floor at the same time.
nicola: wow, there are so many layers to this image.
coila: so each grid has a letter and for that letter you pick a specific sound, so there are three letters and therefore three different types of sounds. and there are chains of these images for each letter. and where they intersect you play both objects at the same time; (both sound-producing objects at the same time.) the score is what really excites me at the moment, just the concept of it. so much of what I do centres around the grand piano, obviously. (laughs)
nicola: in your personal daily life, also.
coila: ja! (both laugh).
nicola: because you have a grand piano in your room.
coila: ja. I literally got a grand piano in my room so that I don’t have to hustle to get to a grand piano, which is the instrument I’m trained to work with. because when I was studying, I had access to a grand piano every day until midnight. and I would go into a practise room and basically occupy it for hours and hours on end. there were no windows, there was nothing. no décor…
nicola: what happened to that space? there was a whole space dedicated to that one object. what was the meaning ascribed to that? was it a positive thing or a negative thing?
coila: it was dependent on the actual piano because I had favourite pianos. even though the College of Music (5) got a whole bunch of new Kawai baby grands in either my final year or my honours year, I can’t remember. but even within those there was variation in touch. even though they were all the same model. and there was one room that only had the piano in it. and I didn’t want any chairs or other pianos in the room. I could project anything I wanted on to the space instead of having things projected on to me, which was such a great… it added to the luxury of the whole situation. so. when I left varsity I actually managed to procure a key for the practise rooms (laughs). and I would go practise at the College of Music at night if I needed to. but after a while, I’d spent so much of my time there I couldn’t actually handle being there, in the building in general. it’s almost like maybe part of it was just this deep familiarity which eventually repelled me from it.
coila: so anyway. finding a grand piano… because a grand piano is very different to an upright piano, it’s colour and dynamic pallets are much broader. and you know… playing an upright piano feels like mediocrity to be honest (laughs).
nicola: or maybe that’s how it’s been shaped to feel?
coila: ja. it’s definitely been shaped to feel that way. you don’t picture an upright piano on a big stage. it’s not glamorous…
nicola: or grand
coila: or grand. so there’s also something really striking about seeing these rows and columns of diagrams of grand pianos. even though the piece does not require an arrangement of 25 (or however many pictures there are) of grand pianos on a stage. upon first viewing, it evokes this image which is so overwhelming to conceive. all these countless grand pianos! and you know, a grand piano costs… a decent grand piano will cost 200k.
coila: ‹decent› is obviously a contentious term
nicola: fuck. so it takes so many understandings of classical music and grand pianos and all the various meanings that we associate to that entire universe that exists and has existed for so long. and it just kind of actively strips it down to this image, this stark one-dimensional image on a computer screen. and it evokes all these histories and narratives and reactions, which is exactly what art is meant to do. it does that in quite a profound way. do you have to be a classically trained pianist to perform a piece like this? you can literally be anyone.
coila: you can literally be anyone and part of Cardew’s whole view which was that music should not be an elitist bougie practise. he was part of these ensembles which involved people who were not musicians. I think in performance it would be particularly powerful for a pianist to do it. but actually, equally powerful for a non-pianist to do because you see, the piano being on stage is the anchor, the symbol that makes the piece.
and what is so great about this piece is that, even though some of the dots are above floor-level and above the piano, you could go this entire piece without actually touching the piano…
(2) afterwards we remembered the word: signifier (obviously)
(3) signifer – you idiots!
(4) referring to ‹tome› a piece we created in 2015 for the baxter dance festival
(5) at the university of cape town
–recorded on 13.03.2016. (transcribed by nicola & edited by julia and nicola and coila)