Uniting his dedication to both the visual and the sonic arts, Paper Pieces (2009) represents Jesse Stewart’s longstanding interest and creative practice in exploring found objects and found materials to discover their sonic and aesthetic potential. Through this work, Stewart combines elements of composition and improvisation, and explores the historical and contemporary importance of paper in the transmission of musical ideas.
In Paper Pieces, the pages of the score become the instruments; all of the sounds in the piece are generated using the very paper that the score is printed upon. Consisting of compressed cellulose pulp dried into flexible sheets, paper has been the primary medium for the transmission of musical ideas between and among Western composers and performers for over a millennium. Paper is, quite literally, the ground upon which the figures of Western musical history are written. Given the commanding and irreplaceable presence of paper in music, Stewart has found it surprising that so few composers and performers have explored paper itself for its sonic potential. Paper Pieces addresses this gap, serving as a meditative reflection not only on paper itself, but also on the history of written forms of music making as well as those that have gone unwritten, namely improvisatory forms.
For Stewart, composing in graphic notation is often a pragmatic decision. He regularly uses various forms of graphic notation in his work, often because there is no other adequate form of notation that can represent what he would like to accomplish musically. Frequently notating his work in written (literally in ‘graph’ form), Stewart’s scores generally describe the sonic gestures and techniques involved in a descriptive rather than prescriptive way. Thus, Paper Pieces establishes a number of musical parameters within which musicians are invited to create their own musical experiences involving paper.
Comprised of twelve sheets of 8 ½ by 11 paper in landscape orientation, the score includes a provision that allows for its reproduction onto paper of any size or weight. In addition, the score indicates that Paper Pieces can be performed by any individual, or combination of individuals, with or without musical training, including the audience. The piece thereby destabilizes received relationships and hierarchies between composer, musicians, and audience, giving performers (and potentially the audience) considerable agency within the work.
Each piece of paper contains written instructions that indicate possible trajectories for sonic action. Once each of the twelve sheets of paper has been performed, the remnants of the original score—that is, the pages that have been acted upon—become a part of the visual dimensions of the work. Paper Pieces thereby continues Stewart’s practice of blurring the boundaries between the visual and sonic arts, and between found objects and musical instruments.
Through its improvisatory, indeterminate nature, Paper Pieces continues the process of destabilizing the roles of composer and performer (and even audience), that can be found in the indeterminate works of John Cage and Christian Wolff, in the graphic scores of Earle Brown and Cornelius Cardew, and in the Deep Listening works of Pauline Oliveros. This destabilizing potential is one of the most powerful components of Stewart’s work, in that it challenges those involved to reconceptualize roles and relationships that have become deeply entrenched in Western musical performance. His work provides an opportunity for performers to look for musical sounds in unlikely places and to deepen their experience with sound, listening in both a more focused and inclusive way.
Paper Pieces was originally premiered in Huddersfield, England on April 25th, 2009 by The Edges Ensemble, with eighteen musicians performing this work simultaneously.