There's something about calling Bastard Assignments a 'quartet' which feels like is missing the point.
It's a word emblazoned with the conservative history of classical music, one which conjures the stiff silence of a multi-million pound concert hall or the weighty texture of a church pew during a lunchtime concert. These are relics of a genre Bastard Assignments have left far behind.
Their unique approach to performance in general - works that often involve music, but also place emphasis on performance art, staged theatre and absurdism, has been spearheaded since 2013 as a regular series of nights in London, but only recently has Bastard Assignments coalesced into the foursome of composer-performers you see below (Edward Henderson, Josh Spear, Timothy Cape and Caitlin Rowley respectively).
Ahead of their performance at VIRTUALLYREALITY presents: Bastard Assignments, SHOAL, artistic director Michael Brailey spoke to them over e-mail about their individual work, working together as a group, embracing a family-like vibe to composition and what they hope Bastard Assignments will become.
'Yes, Schiperol' by Neo Hülcker, performed by Bastard Assignments at Asylum (Peckham, London) in April 2018.
"I feel our differences are one of our
strengths ... we learn a lot from each
other, just without homogenising our
- Caitlin Rowley, Bastard Assignments
[MB] To each of you: tell us a bit about the work you make and one thing in your artistic practice that has changed as a result of being a member of Bastard Assignments.
[JS] I make stuff that would be easy to describe as theatrical. It's performative, it's sci-fi, it's movement, it's light and it's dark, it's music or uses music. Because I was able to have a platform as part of Bastard Assignments with literally no questions asked, I was very free since around 2014 to do whatever I wanted. I never really showed the rest of the group what I was doing, just sort of showed up and did this thing I'd worked very hard on. Often, these were solo pieces, but I now make almost exclusively ensemble pieces for the four of us and they are often quite bold, almost never with instruments. I also now open up my work completely to the group, which has been very valuable. Being a part of Bastard Assignments led me to take a lot of workshops in physical theatre, live video, puppetry and so on to learn more. I love lip-sync and mime and foley and pre-existing material that provides a structure or genre, even.
[CR] My work is playful and often draws on everyday things, experiences and situations - 'making pieces out of little bits of nothing at all' is how I sometimes describe what I do. I often create scores which are one-off art objects and the score is very important to me, even for pieces designed for me to perform. It's a way for me to understand what the work actually is. Working within the collective has really encouraged me to explore my own possibilities as a performer; without it, I doubt I'd have started writing for myself because that outside feedback makes it so much easier to assess what is or is not working in a piece.
[EH] It created my artistic practice! Initially, I worked quickly and with very little rehearsal to realise these fluxus-type pieces I was making after my Masters, and now I make much more elaborate instrumental pieces that we realise together. I wouldn't have made that kind of work in another context. I am currently making instrumental pieces that we perform together. The material I use is often banal, consonant material that I often get from pop songs which I pile up/juxtapose/stretch. I am particularly interested in form and playing with/subverting formal expectations (composer Johannes Kreidler calls my work "disappointing"). The way I work with the group is to bring a form or structure with rough timings and some pitches, and basically, we realise it and fill in all the details as a group. Lots will change within a relatively fixed structure. Josh had five bass clarinet notes at the beginning of my piece 'Flower' and we changed four of them.
[TC] I make performance pieces that are born from sound and listening, often very connected to text that I write or find, or - of late - phone films which I've recorded. I often obsess over tiny details before I know what a piece is, and then the piece comes out of an accumulation of lots of those details. I make loads of stuff and wait for things to click or to ask to be in the piece. It takes time. My work has changed through being in Bastard Assignments because I had to start performing stuff myself, make stuff quickly, and later on because of our feedback process.
[MB] It's interesting that Tim and Edward talk about the quickness of creating work. I read a piece of text by Edward in response to Jennifer Walshe's bit of writing 'The New Discipline' where he spoke of the necessity to create work quickly when putting on brand new events every three to four weeks in London. What did that teach you about making music, either on your own or together?
[CR] That it's better to do and learn than just think about doing! I still struggle with this - I'm a terrible procrastinator. I'm coming to the realisation that actually I'm a very slow composer!
[EH] It taught me that composition could be quick and fun and totally within our control as artists, as opposed to working in a more traditional way with ensembles. It was great because at that time, we had loads of ideas that needed to be realised quickly and we just did it. It would have been terrible at that point to be given nine months to write a ten-minute orchestral piece. It also meant that we had to decide what kind of artists we wanted to be and what kind of work we wanted to make, an important step which a lot of composers seem to miss out as they get bogged down with commissions and the traditional structures of classical music. After I wrote that article, I went on Jenny Walshe's Composer-Performer workshop with Josh in Darmstadt, and she basically said: "that quick stuff is all well and good but it's a start. What's next?". What we've done in the last few years is much more in the Jenny mould of working our butts off, rehearsing, doing courses, practicing and trying to get better at dancing, lip-sync, improvising et cetera.
[JS] I haven't made a solo piece since we visited Darmstadt! Working quickly is great when you have to, but we are now focusing on spending time and having rigour and intent. Also - as Ed says - there was a decision to be made about what to be, and it felt inevitable and organic to make it in this way. I think my authentic voice is in the area I'm in at the moment.
[TC] I think I have various gears - or would like to think that I have! I can make stuff fast and rough or go through a long, long process. Maybe in my longer processes I should force myself to be faster in parts. It definitely ends up with different results.
"I think, in performance, the fact that
we've spent so long working together
comes across; there's a weird family
vibe that we often lean into."
- Edward Henderson, Bastard Assignments
'EXTENDED PLAY' by Josh Spear. Filmed and Recorded at Bath Spa University, performed by Bastard Assignments.
[MB] After working for so long with each other, what do you consider to be your skills as a group? I guess they exist between a lot of disciplines.
[TC] As a group, our skills are in the process of making as much as performing. We give lots of feedback to each other constantly, and are hard on each other sometimes. The pieces that come out of that process are constantly demanding new things from us performatively, but the great thing is that we can be in control of our limits as well as pushing them as far as we want. It's more of a band approach rather than a composer-y thing.
[EH] Like Tim said, we get really involved with each other's pieces and are very direct. I think this makes the work so much stronger. I think, in performance, the fact that we've spent so long working together comes across; there's a weird family vibe that we often lean into.
[CR] Yes, definitely a family vibe! We're very critical, but with a strong basis in trust and friendship. I feel our differences are one of our strengths - we all have different abilities and interests and experiences so we learn a lot from each other, just without homogenising our approach.
[EH] It comes across especially with pieces like 'Impossible Penetrations' by Marcela Lucatelli or 'EXTENDED PLAY' by Josh. I think we're just finding out what we can do performatively. When we started working on Thick and Tight's piece for us 'A Happy Birthday', I thought we would never be able to do it as there were so many cues and an incredible amount of detail, but fairly quickly it just slotted into gear. This made me feel like anything is possible.
[CR] Yes, 'EXTENDED PLAY' felt like a real turning point for me. I felt like it was where we really started working together rather than just turning up and doing stuff.
[JS] Knowing how people perceive each of us is very important to me. Caitlin can be completely inexplicably devastating in performance, so that has to be managed in my work, and with that comes a short-hand in working together. Knowing each other's skills is also a skill I have learnt. For my latest piece, 'FEED', a section of the work involves us acting out a car journey which I'd already made the sound for. I brought it to the group to figure out how to enact it on stage, but before I'd done anything or even switched the camera on, the other three had decided the way to do it and we were rehearsing it in about forty-five seconds - I honestly hadn't really done anything.
[MB] The transition to this group with a 'family vibe' from a regular monthly night in London - how did you do this? What was the moment when you knew that these four people were going to be Bastard Assignments?
[EH] I don't think there was a moment, specifically - it was more of a case of not leaving. The four of us had pieces in a Bastard Assignments gig Tim organised in Deptford in 2013, and we all just stuck with it since. The transition to being a group happened fairly organically, and two things created that transition. One was getting booked as 'Bastard Assignments' for shows, as it meant we had to create Bastard Assignments as an act to do them. I don't think me or Tim had really expected the kind of bookings we got in the early days, we were just being responsive.
[JS] For me, only when we had worked hard on my piece 'EXTENDED PLAY' after receiving the Snape Maltings Open Space did I realise that we were going to be Bastard Assignments - the Snape Maltings programme forged us together.
[TC] In reality, the moment which forged us together was before then. Being a performing group was always a part of Bastard Assignments. At the first gig outside the Trinity College of Music where we all studied, we formed a scratch choir with other friends and did our own pieces and those of other composer friends.
[JS] I guess Tim asking me and then Ed to rehearse his piece 'No New Ideas' quite extensively in Berlin and London was also the start of this feeling. It went quite nicely so we realised that working together was possible.
[CR] 'EXTENDED PLAY' felt like a real turning point for me. I felt like it was where we really started working together, rather than just turning up and doing stuff. I agree with Josh that 'No New Ideas' was probably the start of that, but I've never performed that piece.
[MB] How would you like to see Bastard Assignments grow in the future? What haven't you attempted which you would like to do?
[JS] I would like to see us do things other 'classical' people can't do. Like commission choreographers for large-scale pieces, or create large-scale pieces in interesting performance situations like for just online, 360° video, or works that have no one author. I look to bands and groups like Forced Entertainment as models of how we could be.
[CR] I'm also interested in us exploring other modes that the gig or set format - more work for video, long-form pieces et cetera - like Josh said.
[TC] I think I'd like us to develop more as an act and do less event producing. I'm attached emotionally to our London nights but producing events is a drag and not very creative, really. We probably won't stop anytime soon though, although we will slow them down and get more help. I'd like us to collaborate with various performers and artists to keep things open and fresh, and to push us in directions we wouldn't go by ourselves. I'd also like another residency away from the city because Snape has been an absolute treat!
[EH] I think we are all keen on more international shows and festivals. I would like us to use Bastard Assignments to keep growing and developing as composers and performers. Increasingly, I'm less worried about the other stuff and more concerned on making the work as good as it can be.