Homo Ludens

(2019) 10-20' / for two teams of musicians


A version for violin, viola, trombone and clarinet, violoncello, and drum-set with a duration of ca. 15 minutes was written for and commissioned by the Camerata Variable with Karin Dornbusch (clarinet), Mike Svoboda (trombone), Lukas Niggli (drum-set), Helena Winkelman (violin), Alessandro D’Amico (viola), and Christoph Dangel (violoncello) and premiered by them on March 20th, 2019 in Fribourg, Switzerland.

Violin with Referee’s Whistle
Viola with Ratchet
Trombone with Cup, Harmon, and Straight mutes, and Referee’s Whistle
Clarinet in Bb with Referee’s Whistle
Violoncello with Ratchet
Percussion Drum-set and Slide Whistle

Composer's note

The process pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen, such as Plus-Minus (1963), Prozession (1967), and Spiral (1968) transfer to the performers a considerable amount of responsibility regarding the sound material and its transformations. In this context, one could say that the performers are co-composers, or at the least arrangers, since they determine to a great extent not only the content but also the form of the composition. Generally, the transformation of the material is notated using “plus” and “minus” signs indicating an increase or decrease of certain parameters of the sound concerning the previous one. I must admit that while performing these works myself, I was at the same time equally inspired and thoroughly frustrated. It is an amazing process to go through as a player, but very difficult, if not entirely impossible, to precisely realize the instructions in the score in the spontaneous context of a concert performance. Perhaps there is no need for the frustration here, and it might indeed be very much in the spirit of these works to not sweat the details, but instead to go with the flow and energy of the process, in the gusto of the 60s, when New Music was new, the time from which these pieces come. Wishing to give the performers a similar amount of freedom and responsibility in Homo Ludens, but wanting to largely avoid the chaotic soundscape that often ensues with that freedom, I devised a collection of five games and processes for the two teams of musicians to choose from, which can be combined in various ways. There are HUDDLEs, which incorporate the two teams together as a unit, and MATCHES, a series of duets between one musician from each team. SHUFFLEs are trios played within a single team. SOLITAIREs are soli played during MATCHES or SHUFFLES, both of which are based on Stockhausen-like “plus” and “minus” parametric permutations. Finally, the REBOUNDs are a kind of Butch Morris-style „conduction“ in which the ensemble reacts to the soloist standing on a special section of a playing field. Homo Ludens is inspired by game theory, and the title refers to the book by cultural theorist Johan Huizinga (1938/39) in which the author describes five characteristics that play must have, which I found inspirational in this context: 1. Play is free, and is in fact freedom. 2. Play is not "ordinary" or "real" life. 3. Play is distinct from "ordinary" life in locality and duration. 4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme. 5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. (Even though I often joke that I don’t work, but rather play for a living, point number 5 doesn’t apply in a professional setting, obviously.) As any American watching a cricket match or a German trying to follow a baseball game will tell you, the first 15 minutes might be fun. Still, boredom sets in fairly quickly if one doesn’t understand the rules. Since I don’t have the space here to disclose the rules of the five games played in Homo Ludens, I must trust that the interpersonal dynamic and musical content in Homo Ludens itself will hold the attention of the audience, many of whom will surely figure out a few of the rules. After all, it’s not rocket science. – Mike Svoboda, February 2019

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