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Looking for Greater Possibilities: Derek Bailey’s “Ping”

Posted June 23rd, 2016

This weekend the Ars Nova Workshop presents hcmf//anw, a British Contemporary Music Festival, featuring the US premieres of compositions from free improvisation luminaries Derek Bailey and Paul Rutherford, as well as a performance from renowned contemporary improviser John Butcher. The series of performances are presented in conjunction with the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the UK’s largest international festival of new and experimental music, and will bring together key members of the British improvisation scene with some of Philadelphia’s most accomplished and versatile musicians to realize these remarkable works. The festival kicks off on Friday June 24th here at FringeArts with an evening of Bailey and Rutherford’s compositions, including a piece by Bailey based on Samuel Beckett’s short story Ping, and continues through Saturday with two events at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, one of which is free. Click here for tickets (Fri. and Sat.) and more info about the festival.

Samuel Beckett’s short story Ping is a challenging one. In fact, some may even contest its distinction as a story. Considering its lack of any discernible storytelling elements readers are trained to look for, defending its categorization is an uphill battle. Still, it’s hard to deny the presence of a deft craft that propels the reader through this dense, surreal, yet impossibly transformative work of art.

Derek-BaileyThough there are various speculations regarding the subject matter of Ping, to dive in with the hope of discerning what it’s “about” can prove maddening. There’s a room, there’s a body, there’s largely an absence of color, there’s a memory . . . maybe. Without clear contextual markers we are left with nothing but a series of impressionistic images, yet they are pointedly wielded. Beckett attempts to represent consciousness as it is experienced by subtracting any sense of omniscience. He relies on an incredibly limited vocabulary and in turn a great deal of rhetorical repetition to achieve this goal. As such, each slight tweak to a particular image or phrase becomes all the more significant. This cycle of repetition and rework has a cumulative effect and by the end there’s a strong sense of finality and change, even if the particulars of that change remain obscured. Though Ping is challenging, heady material to draw inspiration from, it makes some sense that free improvisation pioneer Derek Bailey decided to compose a piece of music around it at the time that he did.

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