ensemble for contemporary music


Trio Abstrakt: spotlight is a concert series for concert-length compositions of contemporary music. In close collaboration with a composer, an approximately one-hour work is created in the form of an immersive chamber music experience. The series presents new works oscillating between chamber music, electronics, and music theater.


On 3 December 2022, Michael Edward’s 69-minute work in competence was premiered and the first edition of spotlight took place at the Alte Feuerwache in Cologne. Following the premiere in Cologne, the complete works were recorded and filmed at the Kubus of the ZKM Karlsruhe and will soon be released on Elektramusic label.

Michael Edwards
In competence (2022)
for saxophones, piano/keyboard, percussion, electronics
world premiere

Trio Abstrakt
Salim(a) Javaid – saxophones
Marlies Debacker – piano, sound file triggering
Shiau-Shiuan Hung – percussion

sound direction
Florian Zwissler

Roman Sroka

Programme note

The word competence appeared in the English language in the 15th century. As far as we know, its antonym incompetence first appeared in 1595 and had the meaning of being not legally qualified. Late in the same year, the first performance of William Shakespeare’s Richard II was given in London. Some of its scenes play at Flint Castle, a few kilometres from where I grew up:

ACT II SCENE III, A camp in Wales, Captain: ’Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay. The bay-trees in our country are all wither’d And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven; The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change; Rich men look sad and ruffians dance and leap, The one in fear to lose what they enjoy, The other to enjoy by rage and war: These signs forerun the death or fall of kings. Farewell: our countrymen are gone and fled, As well assured Richard their king is dead.

It can be argued that, amongst other things, Richard II thematises competence in its opposition of a King’sDivine Right with his mundane human weaknesses, as well as his strengths. Some commentators have made a connection between the play and Queen Elizabeth the I’s reign in England—she was old when the play was written and sentiment amongst some was that she was perhaps incompetent and needed to be replaced. These are timeless issues and thus also clearly of our time (think of Boris Johnson, Prince Andrew, Elizabeth II in the UK, but also the still recent antics of Trump in the US, Modi in India, or Bolsonaro in Brazil).

Competence is, of course, of vital importance in many fields. The question of a musician’s competence is fundamental, as technical competence on a musical instrument is the very least we expect from professionals, even students. But musical and artistic competence begins where instrumental competence is mastered and assumed. The public’s expectations and estimations of competence are often a diversion, mired in myths surrounding virtuosity, artistic vision, even measures of sanity. In the arts, there is cultural capital in both insanity and technical wizardry. Artistic merit is often overshadowed by an audience’s, or perhaps more apt here, a consumer’s preference for short-lived, faddish qualities, often utterly unrelated to art. On the other hand, a concept of competence is not something that is usually thematised explicitly in musical compositions, yet in this piece it plays a central role, not least in the title, with its deliberately confusing conflation of in competence and its homonym incompetence.

What would or could it mean to examine competence musically? Do we question the musicians’ competence? Question the composer’s competence? Question technical, in particular music-technological competence? Question the listeners’ competence even? (Think of that that lovely story of Beethoven’s anger when his secretary Ries criticised the horn player’s entrance (“too early”) at the recapitulation of the Eroica’s first movement during its premiere.)

More concretely, can we present musical structures multiple times, with different ‘competence levels’ required of both the musicians and listeners? If so, to what effect? And what is the role of noodling? Is that itself an example of incompetence, i.e. an inability to come to the point? How can we explore and perceive seemingly impossible hocketing in the context of deliberately over-stretched manual dexterity? Or the playing of chords tightly together, and perhaps failing? Or juxtaposing impossible sequences of, e.g. fast saxophone slap-tongues against the comparable ease of playing the same from a sampling keyboard? Or music-technological failures against the supposed perfection of sound-file playback, and the perception, in some quarters, of the latter’s musical-expressive poverty?

All of these questions and more are interrogated in this through-composed work lasting approximately one hour, where the durations and structure— alternating instrumental (+/- electronics) with solo electronics interludes— are derived and scaled from an old recording of the Captain’s speech given above, with all of its competently-delivered tonal shadings and expressive pauses at the ends of, or in the midst of, its eleven lines. N.B. All sounds recorded/processed/synthesised/mixed by the composer except for some commercial synths and one highly processed sound made by user stormpetrel of an iceberg recorded in Antarctica in 2009. Thanks for making this freely available.

Michael Edwards


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