As we explore our history and our future in celebration of our 20th birthday, through this FUTURE RETRO series we will also explore some of the recurrent themes appearing across our programming history. In this issue our recently award-winning Co-Artistic Director and composer Damien Ricketson talks about the ethos of ‘Open Music’.

“Openness” is a theme that has consistently pervaded Ensemble Offspring’s programming. At a broad level open-mindedness has been a core value in the pursuit of music-making that does not pre-conceive what may or may not constitute the experience of music. More tangibly, openness can be found in many of works we have commissioned and performed that are deliberately open to radically different interpretations. Mobile forms, unconventional notations and game-pieces are just some of the strategies that composers have used to entrust the performer with critical creative decisions.

On one level Ensemble Offspring’s pursuit of open works has been philosophical: the world is not made up of fixed truths but wondrously diverse perspectives. At another level the pursuit has been about empowering our musicians. Musical scores that treat the performer as machines to execute the singular will of the composer are arguably not as attractive as scores that invite imaginative evaluation and sense of collaborative ownership on the part of the musicians. Open scored works can also be very pragmatic for programming. With the historical challenge of getting players with diverse individual careers in the one place at the one time, works with flexible instrumentation have saved many a gig from falling through.

It’s impossible to talk about openness without mentioning the gentle but influential sensibility of John Cage. I personally credit him for teaching me how to listen and his works, in particular his latter ‘number pieces’, have featured in many of our performances including the ‘Cage Uncaged’ festival in 2007 in the then newly opened Carriageworks and more recently in 2013 as part of the 100th birthday celebration at the Sydney Opera House where we performed with the Bang on a Can All Stars.

Listen to “An hour of Cage with biographer David Nicholls, prepared piano by Nigel Butterley, a number piece by Ensemble Offspring and vocal histrionics from Jessica Aszodi” on The Music Show 2012. Ensemble Offspring perform John Cage Three2 and talk about the number pieces at 45 minutes in.

Another strand of Ensemble Offspring’s open works have been ‘game pieces’: musical works that are sets of rules that govern the way in which performers interact without necessarily dictating how they should sound. Such works have played an important part in developing improvisational chops among our musicians. Numerous programs have featured renegade performances of John Zorn’s Hockey and Cobra, and we have a raft of works in this vein written especially for us such as the recent Musify+Gamify event in this year’s Vivid that featured premieres by Cor Fuhler, Julian Day and others.

Game-like environments and graphic scores have also been a useful vehicle by which Ensemble Offspring has been able collaborate with musicians from varied backgrounds, particularly within the local experimental and impro communities. A memorable event comes to my mind was at the Red Rattler in 2011 where we joined musos associated with the NOW now and the Splinter Orchestra to perform Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise (score excerpt right). Naturally Ensemble Offspring has contributed to new graphic and Score excerpt for 'Treatise', but Cornelius Cardew unconventional forms of notation that have been enjoying something of an international renaissance in recent years. For example, our premieres of works by David Young or new animated scores such as Steffan Ianigro’s Elastic Evolution and our Hatchling Dan Thorpe whose live-generated score will feature in the FUTURE half of our birthday event this October.

Score excerpt, David Young 'To Keep Things Reasonable' Score excerpt, David Young ‘To Keep Things Reasonable’

With interactive technology increasingly able to interface organically with musicians in diverse areas, from participatory crowd-composition to live animated scores, fluid and open works that can play out in a multitude of ways will undoubtedly feature as a major characteristic of the cultural forms of tomorrow.

—Damien Ricketson