card-game composition ritual

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(c) Zachar Laskewicz 1989

Published in 1996 by Nachtschimmen Press

updating the 1989 edition


Background Information

Is this composition in actual fact a musical game?


Or would it be more correct to say that this card game is a musical composition?


The most fitting description would be to say that this is a performance composition involving an exploration of the ritual function of 'games'.  When we play games, we allow a ritualised series of movements, events and words to take place, involving the use and manipulation of certain objects and based on a strict set of rules which affects how the performers interact with one another and treat the concerned objects.  The fact that these 'social performances' are cyclical and repetitive, structured by socially determined rules, makes the system comparable to that of a ritual.  When players allow themselves to be involved in such a social performance, they are already aware of the sorts of interactions that will be taking place as well as the system of rules which will be shaping the performance.  Without this awareness, they simply wouldn't be equipped to take part.  


Although each 'performance' of a game produces alternative results, the events within the whole occur at a predetermined pace and involve a predetermined amount of interaction. Although the path through the game event is not strictly determined, the general shape of the path most certainly is, and although the final result of such a game performance (the winner of a single performer or group), the essential structural function of game events remains the same:  the performers become involved in a social ritual which allows them to enjoy contact with one another, to fill up time in a social manner and (perhaps most importantly) to compete. 


The results of this composition are also ultimately the same. Those involved are dealt cards, must follow strict rules of play and get the chance both to 'fill up time' and to compete with one another.  The primary result, however, is the creation of a vocal composition created by the same stochastic rules that result in a game event.  Although every 'game'-performance is different in its own right, the general structure remains the same, and is expressed as the basic underlying feature of this game/composition. 



The formal rules that must be followed not only enact to 'structure' the musical flow of the composition, but to demonstrate that 'musical' structures govern even the most benign of social circumstances.  We are given an insight into the structuring nature of musicality.  A performance of this composition should, therefore, exaggerate the 'ritualised' nature of human performance, and performers should retain a sense of seriousness in the tasks they are involved in; the performers become reflectors for a basic social discourse.  This includes the dealing out of the cards, the choosing of the first performer and maybe even the reading of the rules so that the audience is aware of the way the composition is structured.  This work is far more than simply a 'musical' composition, it is a complete social event that should be considered as such. 


It should be noted at this point that the composition could be interpreted as a parody of games in Western society: sports and events perhaps evolving from events of ritual significance that have been reduced to competitive events or frivolous 'free-time' activities, reduced of any ritual significance.  At the same time, the compositional structure of the work emerges from a cyclical structure in which the performers make the sounds for their own enjoyment (and not for that of the audience).  Although, like the performance of classical music, the performers are following strictly defined socially-based performance rules, the emphasis is taken off technique and put back on the enjoyment of being involved in the performance.  This contrasts with classical music, being involved absolutely in the players and their desire to complete the ritual they are involved in.  


The rules of the game are included below, in addition to a page containing six of the cards from the deck.  The work itself with a complete deck of cards can be ordered via Nachtschimmen Products.



Rules of Play




(cyclical) VOCIPHONY is a card game for 6, 8 or 10 players, 10 being the preferable amount.  The function of VOCIPHONY is to create a vocal soundscape that changes gradually in cycles as the game is played.  Initially it can be played using the cards as a competitive game with the sounds suggested by the cards remaining a mystery.  During a performance in front of an audience, however, the exact sounds made by the players should be worked out beforehand, and play streamlined so that the vocal part is distracted as little as possible by confusion, allowing a clear cyclical flow.  The element of chance which structures the work should be allowed to remain, the difference being that each player should be aware of every sound, having practised them before the performance so that the paired sounds can be easily recognised, both by the other performers and the audience.  Players are encouraged to think carefully and concentrate on the sounds they are making, preventing them from being distracted or rushing.  Only when it is their own turn should they be silent and listen to other players.  Those players with quiet voices should be encouraged to vocalise louder, while those with louder voices should be softened.   No performer, unless allowed so by the composition itself, becomes a 'solo' performer throughout the work.  No words are to be spoken during the performance and player interaction is to be kept to a minimum where possible, even when exchanging cards.  Movements are to be as stylised as possible.  The performance includes only the movements involved in playing the game and the sounds written on the cards.  Of course, events leading up to the performance of this composition such as the dealing out of the cards, the choosing of the first player and even the reading of the rules or other explication of the 'game' structure aimed at the performers but heard by the audience, are welcome.  The performance becomes highly 'formalised', however, when the ritual of the game begins.


The deck of cards


There are two types of cards in the deck: 10 cards headed by a Roman numeral (which do not have matching pairs) and 48 cards headed by Greek letter cards, each of which has a matching pair.   This forms a maximum deck of 58 cards. 


Summary of the game


The game itself is quite simple.  The deck is shuffled and arranged in a specific way, and then dealt out to each performer who stands in a circle equidistant from the others.  Each of the performers holds a certain number of cards in his/her hand, and  a 'replenishing' deck is positioned on the floor in front of him/her.  The performers each choose an individual sound, and the performer whose 'turn' it is (chosen before the performance begins) has to listen carefully to the other performers to see if he/she can match the sounds described on the cards in his/her 'hand' with the sounds made by the other performers.  The deck is made up of matching pairs, although each of the performers has a single unmatchable card which he/she will end up with at the end of the performance.  The taking of a 'turn' becomes a ritualised event.  The performer whose turn it is makes a designating movement by standing up from a sitting position or taking a step forward into the circle, and on performing this movement becomes immediately silent.  This has to occur just after the last performer has stepped back into the circle, or after the composition has begun (which is signified by this movement of designation).  The composition ends when a performer steps back or sits down and each of the performers is holding only a single card. On this cue every performer is silent, and the composition has finished.  The winner is the performer who has collected the most cards during the performance.


Pre-performance preparation


During performance of the composition, the players should be situated in a circle so that the players are as far away from each other as possible, but so that the symbol on the cards can still be read across the diameter of the circle and so that the sounds of the voices are easy to hear.  During rehearsal, performers can be seated in chairs, although it is of course preferable during performance for the players to be standing.  The players are to be situated directly opposite another player, taking specified points on the circle.  There should be an equal distance between each of the performers on the diameter of the circle.  Performer places should be marked by a chair or a tape mark for each performer position.  The central position should also be marked so that the players will have a place of convergence when cards are traded.  The Roman numeral cards are separated from the Greek and each of the two decks is shuffled and placed in the centre of the performance space. 

Performance preparation in front of the audience


All of this setting up procedure, which should be accompanied by a feeling of ritual inevitability, is to be completed on stage and not before the audience is subjected to the performance.  The performers begin in the centre of the performance space performing the first 'ritual': determination of the player who takes the first turn (hereby known as the starter) and the player who will deal out the cards (hereby known as the dealer).   Each performer takes one of the Roman numeral cards in turn.   The player with the highest number will be the player who becomes the starter and the player with the lowest number will become the dealer.    The Roman numeral cards are given to the dealer and reshuffled by him/her.  At this point, the other performers move to the predetermined positions in the circle, except for the dealer who remains in the centre.    For the 10 player game, the dealer places each of the (Roman numeral) cards into a separate pile.  For the 8 player game, two cards are taken randomly from the pack and turned face upwards.  These cards are left in the direct centre of the performance space.  Four cards are discarded for the 6 player game.  This procedure means that each player will end up getting only one of the Roman numeral cards in his/her hand.  The Greek letter cards are dealt out as evenly as possible onto the already laid out Roman numeral cards.  The dealer shuffles each of these decks individually and places one of the decks in front of the feet of each performer.  The dealer then moves to his/her predetermined position, placing his/her deck in the same way.  On a cue given by the starter, the players take the top three cards and privately examine them.  Cards are made up of two parts, the large black symbol and the description of the vocal utterance beneath this.  If the players already have pairs in their hands, formed by two identical Greek letters, they place these cards face up on the ground and replenish their hand to three before the performance begins.  When everyone is ready, the starter  will be able to begin the performance.


Examples of the cards

Basic rules for performance


Beginning the game 


Before the starter delivers the cue to begin the performance, the players must already have chosen a card from their hand which they will bring to life vocally.  The starter performs the necessary cue by stepping forward into the circle if all the players are standing, or simply standing up if all the players are sitting on chairs.  During rehearsal, the performers can be seated, although it is naturally preferable for them to be standing when the piece is performed before an audience.  When this cue is given, each of the performers begins to make his/her chosen sound.  The players must keep making the sound they have chosen until it is taken from them by another player, or until it is their turn and they stand up or step forward into the circle. Whenever a player steps forward (or stands) to deliver a card or to have his/her turn, he/she must be directly silent.  When he/she steps backwards into place (or sits again), he/she chooses directly a card from his/her hand and begins to vocalise it.  The movement of ending a turn should be synchronised rhythmically with the player who will be beginning his/her turn, and these movements can therefore be performed both slowly and stylistically.



Holding a turn 


-The player whose turn it is (from here known as the 'active' player) listens carefully to the other players. 


-If he/she thinks another player has the pair to a card in his/her hand and is uttering it at that time, he/she must show the card to the player (from here known as the 'chosen' player).  The chosen player will nod or shake his/her head as necessary. 


-If the active player is incorrect and the chosen player shakes his/her head, then the active player sits/steps backward and play moves directly to the left.  The next player stands as the other sits down. 


-The player who sat down/stepped backwards chooses a card to vocalise and the player who stands up/steps forward is silent. 



-If, however, the active player is correct and the chosen player nods his/her head, both players stand and move quietly to the centre of the playing area.  In the centre the chosen player hands over the matching card and both move back to their places.  The active player places them face upright on the ground in a pile next to the replenishing pile.  The player who has sacrificed a card to another player is silent until his/her next turn is completed, the deck replenished and a new card chosen for vocalisation.


-When the active player sits, play moves immediately to the left as players are allowed only one pair per turn.  It also is important to note that when a player sits after his turn he can replenish his hand to three from the replenishing pile on the ground if necessary.  In this way, if a player begins his turn with no cards (because the rest have already been taken), he/she will start his/her turn by making the necessary designating movement, but then will be forced to end his/her turn immediately by stepping backwards or sitting down.  After this,  the performer will naturally have the possibility to replenish his/her hand.  This should be performed in a stylised manner.


-When the players are to trade cards they are to move quietly and meet in the centre, and slowly return to their seats.  As little noise should be made when doing this, so if it isn't being played in a carpeted room, the players should wear socks or soft shoes/slippers.


-To retain the cyclical element, as soon as a player reaches a standing position or moves within the circle to begin a turn or to exchange cards, he/she is directly silent.


-When a player holds only one card and all the cards from his pile on the floor have been used, he/she must keep making the sound on his card until either it is his/her turn, where he/she stands up and is silent, and sits straight down again, continuing to make the sound on his/her card. 


Ending the performance


-The game continues in this cycle until each player holds only card.  If all goes well during the performance, each of these cards should be one of the non-matching Roman numeral cards.


-When a player has only one card left, he makes it clear to the other players by holding it in front of him. 


-The composition ends when a player stands to take a turn, and every other player only has one card.  This is the cue to end the composition and highlights the necessity for rehearsal. 


Continuing the flow


There is a possibility that play will get 'stuck'.  If it goes around the cycle twice without a successful card exchange, this may be the case.  If the number of players is less than 10, it may be that the players should start with a hand of four or five cards, and this is the number of cards the players replenish to during play.  Experiment  as necessary during rehearsal.  If play gets stuck during a performance before an audience, let it run twice around the cycle, and on a signal from the starter  as he/she moves to take a turn, each player takes another card from his pile and adds it to his/her hand.  Play continues as normal after this unless the performance becomes stuck again.  In case of this eventuality, the same process is followed.


Who wins?


Incidentally, the player with the most pairs at the end of the game wins, but if all the players work together to keep cyclical constancy, everyone has won.




May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

Last modified:
May 30, 2008