Ted Coffey composes an ever-changing score for Bill T. Jones

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With only a few hours left until the curtain goes up, you are seeing the score for tonight’s show for the first time. This could be a performer’s recurring nightmare, akin to that dream where you show up to a test unprepared or the one where you suddenly find yourself naked in front of the entire high school auditorium. But for UVA music professor and composer Ted Coffey, it’s a position in which he deliberately places himself before each performance of Story/Time, a new piece that finds him collaborating with world-renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones.

Composer Ted Coffey just wrapped up a few East Coast performances of his latest collaboration, with choreographer Bill T. Jones. Said Coffey of his work: “I feel like I’m using all of my wits and capacity and sensitivity.” Photo by Cat Thrasher. 

After the two met last February during UVA’s “Design Thinking Mashup” symposium, Coffey began working on the score for Jones’ Story/Time during a series of subsequent residencies, including stints at UVA last spring and fall. Inspired by John Cage’s “Indeterminacy,” Story/Time draws from both that formal structure of Cage’s piece—a string of consecutive minute-long stories—and its use of chance to govern how things unfold. A performance of Story/Time features around half of the 140 or so one-minute narratives that Jones penned for it, and Coffey’s score draws from a similarly large arsenal of musical possibilities that he has at the ready, from processed audio samples and thematic vignettes to live performance and interactive manipulations. Which of those elements will be included in a new performance of Story/Time, however, aren’t determined until shortly before the show starts.

If Story/Time adhered rigidly to Cage’s rules of indeterminacy, it would be an easy but erratic piece—just a matter of rolling the dice and letting the Fates choose what stories, choreography and sounds will populate its 70 minutes. Instead, Jones and Coffey assume a more complex relationship with chance. “Bill is more interested in dramatic arc than that,” Coffey told us after wrapping up the final performance of Story/Time’s world premiere run at New Jersey’s Montclair State University. “We’re not just going to inherit that piece and make one of those. So we’re in this negotiation between that situation on one hand and full on meddling on the other, forming what we hope to be a compelling dramatic arc.”

While chance is central to Coffey’s Story/Time score, he applies and shapes it with his own discretion. Using a computer model of Cage’s favorite composition tool, ancient Chinese divination text the I Ching, Coffey randomly selects and generates different pitches and sonic textures in real time. “But I can constrain that randomness and have certain kinds of tonality and intonation from which these instruments choose,” he said. He also uses the I Ching to determine where to place material within each of the piece’s one-minute segments, as well as when his score will support Jones’ choreography and narrative or follow its own logical tangent. “That adds another dimension to the piece’s total objects,” he said. “So either I come back into the fold or I’m opening up the field.”

When Coffey is in the fold, the music makes tangible connections with Jones’ stories. “Bill talks about ‘Blossom Dearie,’ then all of a sudden I make three vignettes of ‘Blossom Dearie,’” he said. “Or when he talks about ‘John Henry,’ I am playing stuff on guitar that’s keyed to ‘John Henry.’” Conversely, opening up the field produced one of the most intense and abstract moments of the Story/Time performance that we caught in New Jersey. About two-thirds of the way through the piece, Coffey unleashed a low, floor-shaking rumble that filled the theater and drowned out Jones’ voice. The inclusion of that dissonant and powerful element in the night’s score was determined by chance, but its placement wasn’t random. “We didn’t want to spend that thunderous stuff in the first 10 minutes of the piece,” Coffey explained. “On the other hand, we didn’t want to have that at the very end either. So then we think, where can we fit it? It’s like a puzzle.”

As each performance of Story/Time progresses, Coffey makes a host of similar in-the-moment decisions, reacting to chance determinations and assembling the pieces of that night’s sonic puzzle. “On the whole, it’s definitely taxing,” he told us. “Performing the music is very demanding of me, because I’m doing a lot of actions, and there’s a lot of opportunity to make a mistake. But at the same time, it’s really exciting and really fulfilling. I feel like I’m using all of my wits and capacity and sensitivity.”

Coffey will create many more unique scores for Story/Time, as the piece has a growing string of national and international engagements on the horizon, with Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center and the University of California Berkeley coming up later this month. Charlottesville got a sneak preview with a work-in-progress performance at Culbreth Theater back in November, but we hope Story/Time returns to town for a more formal showing. When we asked about that possibility, Coffey said that nothing has been planned yet. But then he added, “I could see it playing at the Paramount.”

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