On C (2011) began with an experiment. In a single rehearsal session with the CCCU Scratch Orchestra director – Sam Bailey, one of his students – Lauren-Louise Riley, and myself, I outlined a simple idea. The practice room was very small but happened to have two pianos – an up-right and a grand. I asked Lauren to play a repetition of two specified chords in alternation in a slow fixed tempo, whilst I played a middle C on my viola using mostly long slow bows, varying the timbre, expression, volume, sometimes phasing into tremelos of varying speeds, and occasionally playing it in octaves with the C above. Whilst Lauren and I sustained these two simple textural layers, I asked Sam to free-improvise on the grand piano. He quickly came up with many contrasting decorations to go on top of our layers, including his own personal interpretations of various expanding interval series played as rapid spread chords, or grace-notes in relation to Lauren’s rhythm, and sometimes completely independently. After about fifteen minutes of solid group improvisation, Sam made the remark, “…it’s like Messiaen-meets-Satie!”.
Having established the three main textural layers, I asked Sam if he might consider taking on these ideas with his Scratch Orchestra, even though by this point I was no longer able to be a regular member of the group. To my extremely happy surprise, Sam went on to rehearse and perform the resulting piece, which became known as On C. The orchestra performed it as part of its concert programme on several occasions between October 2011 and October 2013. Although there was a general rule established about the overall structure, the performers were all participating in improvising at some point during each performance so each individual date saw a different result.
Meanwhile, I wrote a fully notated version of the piece for a fairly large chamber ensemble based on the same basic layers and I was strongly influenced by the sound of Sam’s improvised decoration ideas when I wrote mine. It was half way through composing my version, when I decided that I wanted to be quite conservative with the decoration layer for at least the first couple of minutes so it was fully apparent to a prospective audience that the piece was made of such layers. Therefore, I sustained the middle C for a few bars,then added the chords and had them repeat for a short while longer with only a modest amount of decoration, before breaking off these layers completely and bringing all decoration ideas to the foreground in a much higher concentration. During this time the chords would resurface when least expected and, as a reference to the sustained C, the strings would play a swell on a rich C major chord under cover of the intense activity from the winds. All this activity would then reach a climax and cut off completely before the unison middle C returned, articulated by a loud, resonant tam-tam strike.
What both versions had in common was that, unlike the initial practice room experiment, two of the main roles were shared by all the players involved at different times. That is to say, everyone had a turn at sustaining a middle C and everyone contributed to the decoration. Sam tried using the tam-tam both at the beginning and in the middle of his performances.