The Adapter

The Work of Annesley Black

by Michael Rebhahn

In the mid-2000s, a term began to circulate that – not least because of its spectacular phonetics – found a firm place in the cultural discourse: ‘serendipity’. Introduced as a neologism in the mid-18th century by the English writer Horace Walpole and revived by the sociologist Robert Merton in the 1950s, the word describes a form of knowledge that comes about not so much through scrupulous empiricism as through finds based on ‘wisdom and luck’ (Merton). At the start of the 21st century, when the ubiquity of the Internet turned associative research into an everyday cultural technology, ‘serendipity’ became a fashionable word intended to valorise the dis-order of ‘diffuse’ creativity and at once question the rigour of an instrumental goal-awareness. ‘Serendipity’ softens the hardness of the normative, and defines seeking and finding as a process substantially characterised by the unintended and unplanned.

When Annesley Black speaks about her music, she repeatedly refers to precisely this mode of seeking, finding and discovering – of things unexpectedly unearthed, of paths and turnings with unknown destinations. A glance at her list of works is sufficient to gain an impression of the enormous rage of these productive twists: tightrope artists, badminton and curling players, kung fu fighting techniques, the Apple founder Steve Jobs or László Moholy-Nagy’s light-space modulator appear in relation to her pieces alongside budgetary reform in South Sudan, texts by Gertrude Stein, desert landscapes in Nevada, Surf Rock or Asian shadow theatre. At first glance, there is almost nothing primarily musical here, but one should not be fooled: Annesley Black is a virtuoso of adaptation – and there is hardly anything that is not made to sound when she touches it. 

Her actual compositional practice is not infrequently erratic, following a logic of its own that initially seems anything but systematic. One would be doing Black’s work an injustice, however, if one took it to be based on a purely intuitive bricolage. Just as ‘serendipity’ does not come to the seeker without cause, but can only reveal itself if there is already an inkling of a possible provision of meaning, Black’s music is not wholly the product of happy coincidences. Here the drift of knowledge always requires judgement and presence of mind to become conceivable – and thus conceptual. In that sense, the central aspect of Annesley Black’s compositional work lies in gathering together scattered signs to form a unified ‘narrative’ and interpreting them as if they had always been connected.

That work is grounded, first of all, in a firm discipline. For despite all its associative openness, Black’s willingness to be guided is not some directionless motion, but always follows a form of alignment, a structural framework in which she first ‘inscribes’ all those things that will generate the compositional translations and filtrations. Surplus is a deliberate part of the equation: Annesley Black is not a composer who only sits down to work once her ideas have reached their final form. On the contrary: for her, finalising her pieces always also implies documenting the byways and wrong turns, the insecurities and lapses. 

With each composition, then, Annesley Black once again enters an open-ended experiment; certainty about the concrete form of a particular piece results from a constant interplay between experimentation and reflection. Though the material can still mean many things at the start of that process, she progressively rules out many things. And then, at some point, everything becomes clear: the piece ‘is there’. The paths leading to this point ultimately contain a paradox: ‘At the end,’ says Black, ‘everything comes together, even if it didn’t seem at the start that it would.’ – There is surely no greater ‘serendipity’ than that.

Translation: Wieland Hoban