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Cary: Trios (1971)

Listening exercise – Tristram Cary's Trios (1971)

Listening exercise

There are definitely more accessible works by Tristram Cary out there.

After all, Cary earnt much of his living from composing film and television soundtracks and a significant proportion of his catalogue is comprised of chamber and orchestral works. All of this is to say that ‘Trios’ may not necessarily representative of a large amount of the music he spent his life composing, but it is a great example of his later period work for electronics.

‘Trios’ utilises chance-based procedures to determine each performance, with a recommended duration of at least nine minutes. As such, for this listening exercise select a starting point at random in the audio file and have a listen to nine minutes worth of audio – it won’t be quite the same as an actual live performance but it will give us an overview of the sounds we want to discuss in this exercise.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

So, what is going on here?

I’ve selected this piece because it showcases Tristram Cary’s interests in sound synthesis and turntable manipulation in a single piece. ‘Trios’ is for the VCS3 Synthesiser and two turntables. It consists of 48 short events, composed on the VCS3 Synthesiser. 32 of these events have been recorded to acetate disk, and the turntable performers are each tasked with selecting 16 of these 32 events by throwing dice. Then, in live performance, the performers perform these selected 16 events by moving the play-head to the correct location. This enables quick cuts between material in-the-moment, something not so easily done with magnetic tape.

So, the audio you’ve listened to is just the collection of potential audio that might form the piece, not the piece itself. The VCS3 Synthesiser meanwhile plays back the remaining 16 events successively. When all of these elements are combined, an original version of the piece is realised. In addition to all of this, performers are free to repeat or spend longer or shorter amounts of time on any event, which can add further variation to the performance.

‘Trios’ was first performed at the Cheltenham Festival in 1971, and subsequently in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1972. The Guardian’s Hugo Cole wrote:

Tristram Cary’s ‘Trios’, pure electronics, for two turntable players, and one performer on live synthesiser, uses recorded events in sequences and combinations determined by random choice. This is a tougher work for the audience, but also very clearly the work of a composer first and electronics expert second.

So, this listening example contains no formal structure – that can only come about in performance. As such, we can listen to this recording and divorce our experience of electronic sounds from any concerns with musical form. This recording demonstrates the variety of sounds that were produced from the VCS3 synthesiser, and the kinds of electronic materials Cary was interested in working with. While there are pointillist bleeps and bloops here, I think the most striking element is the emphasis on texture. This is an element that is prominent in his electronic soundtracks, but I think these textures are given a new life here, and a different purpose in the context of a live performance.

Over to you

What is your immediate response to this piece? What are your thoughts on its chance-based structure? Does this help us find new ways to hear these sounds or does it get in the way of a more musical experience? Have you heard these sounds before outside of this course and, if so, where?

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