Whitespace: Learning from repeated performance

Over the past few months, my piece Whitespace has had eleven performances, and while I’m not quite done with it yet – it seems to be the piece that is perpetually redefining itself – I feel it’s time to start drawing together my ideas about it and seeing if I can make some sense of it all.

I’m not going to summarise all the versions that have been performed so far – I’ve talked about all these over on the vlog (episodes 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 so far, if you’re keen to review). Instead, I want to think more broadly – what I’ve gained from doing all this and what larger ideas have emerged that might go somewhere else.

Whitespace has been a piece that’s really surprised me in the amount I’ve learned from it and how far it’s gone – it started from ideas about my notebook as a form of studio (something which keeps coming up in discussions with my supervisors), and from there thinking how the space of my studio could relate to the space of a piece of paper. At the start, I had it firmly in mind that it was a solo piece, for me, in my studio. As opportunities arose to test it in other locations and other ways, it began to expand though, becoming an ensemble piece, finding sound in it, taking it outdoors, and now, returning to the studio, invigorated with new ideas about the space and its potential relationship to the score.

It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that this piece is also a research instrument, a way for me to understand my working spaces better. As such, moving it out of the studio and into other locations and onto other people’s bodies, has been extremely valuable. The first time I performed it (solo, in the studio), I became aware of how many obstacles there were in my room – furniture, stuff lying about on the floor – that wasn’t apparent from my normal paths across the space. The most recent performances have focused in on the sounds made by the actual things in the room, and I’m much more aware now that I have longstanding patterns of efficient movement in the studio which have been brought to light by performance.

Returning to the studio after eight performances in other locations also made me more aware of the levels of ambient noise in my working space (single-glazed windows looking out onto a main road, sounds from activity elsewhere in the house) and its position as a space within a space (studio within home within neighbourhood). It doesn’t stand alone as a space – it cannot, because these surrounding spaces leak through and form part of my sonic working environment. I’ve become aware too of my own presence in my studio – initially was I so focused on what was in the room that I wasn’t thinking at all about who was in the room. But my presence is what makes it my studio – otherwise it’d just be a room at the top of the house that contains some specialist equipment.

I’ve been diligently filming all these performances, and this has been vital to identifying ideas about space, and performance within a physical space in relation to the space that is the frame of the video camera. Questions about position, distance, visible detail, identification, being in and out of frame. Also questions about who and where the audience is, and whether they really matter in a participatory piece like this which is more about performing than it is about observing or listening. The recording has been almost as important as the performing in these respects.

But where to go from here? There’s been so many ideas prompted by this piece that it’s hard to choose what to focus on. Whitespace has already led to a new project, which is in progress – an altered book, using an existing (printed) book as a notebook. The early performances of Whitespace made me realise that while my studio is almost always a mess, the pages of my notebooks are lovely and blank when I go to work on them. My physical working environment is filled with noise, but the notebook is (visually) quiet. So I began to wonder how my working process might be affected if my notebook was as noisy and chaotic an environment as my studio.

Altered book, spread 33

I’ve been working through drawing, collage, writing and overwriting to try out new approaches and consider my responses to this new noisy environment. I’m not sure yet whether this will be an ongoing project or a short-term experiment – mostly I’m using it to challenge aspects of my process that I’ve been taking for granted up until now.

My latest work with Whitespace is to work out how it can be accessible to other people. It’s very much a participatory piece – it’s more about doing it than watching it, even in public spaces – so I’m trying to figure out how to create an overarching score for it that allows for the variety of variants I’ve already worked through, as well as ones I haven’t yet thought of. The challenge is to be precise about what needs to be done, while being as vague as possible about how to do it, I think…

Taking the private public

NotebooksThere’s something rather odd, really, about making a decision to share private material in public. It’s a process which is attended with questions like ‘why would anyone care?’, ‘but what if people are mean about it?’ and of course ‘what if people think I’m a raving narcissist?’

These are all quite possible of course and perhaps, with what I currently have in mind, even probable: what I’m currently considering is publishing my composition notebooks online.

Perhaps some context is needed. My notebooks pretty much ARE my creative life. Those of you who visit here often, or follow me on various forms of social media, may already be aware that for the past 6 months I’ve been creating video blogs of my composition work – regular updates where I talk about what I’ve been working on and how pieces are developing. Just about everything I talk about in the vlog episodes started out in the notebooks. It’s where I make notes of peculiar ideas, develop my thinking around those ideas, build them up with notes on things I’ve read or listened to or watched, paste in photographs or screensnaps of related image-based work, and generally develop my thinking. It’s also where just about everything in my professional life gets noted – meetings with Bastard Assignments, meetings with website clients, lists of library books I want to check out, lists of what I’m reading and listening to, great long rambles about how I’m tired and stressed and don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Everything.

I write a lot in these books – normally I go through one 250-page notebook about every 2-3 months, although this current book I’ve had for 3 weeks and am already 115 pages in… So we’re talking about serious volume here.

At this point, perhaps we need to address that last question above: ‘So, Caitlin, are you in fact a raving narcissist?’
Erm… no, I really don’t think so. The idea behind this plan isn’t that I think I’m so very special everyone’s going to want to read everything I ever wrote. It isn’t that I think this stuff needs to be preserved for posterity. Instead, the purpose is transparency of process and to see what effect this private-work-in-public might have on how I work, the quality of work produced perhaps, how I feel about my work, where my own boundaries are, and other questions that are being raised as my PhD research investigates the line between public and private.

Something I really need to work out though as I try to fathom how to go about this, is the question of redaction. I feel quite strongly that as little as possible should be removed from the books – too much editing and the whole enterprise would lose its purpose. But it’s a tricky line to tread – where do you stop? At what point does discomfort with openness become actual redaction? I feel there needs to be solid, objectively constructed rules so that mere embarrassment doesn’t decide whether something is hidden.

A recent spread from my current notebook
A recent spread from my current notebook – click to view larger

At the moment, the key to redacted content seems to be to protect the people in my life who are a significant influence on my work (Bastard Assignments and my supervisors, for a start). I’m considering obscuring or perhaps coding names, and I’m considering a blanket rule to remove the notes I take in my supervision meetings because I’d rather my often quite scrappy note-taking didn’t have the chance to reflect negatively on my supervisors. Most of the things raised in these meetings end up being discussed in other forms afterwards as I get around to looking at them in detail, so nothing of consequence should be lost as regards process.

After the question of content comes that of logistics. And much of that will rest on what level of engagement with the content should be facilitated – the setup to just allow browsing of pages is much less complex than that which would allow, say, viewing of all content relating to a particular piece or topic. And of course, the whole system has to be able to be streamlined enough that I’m not spending hours and hours and hours redacting and categorising content which may – realistically – never actually be looked at!

Are you aware of other creative artists who routinely post their working notes online? Do you have any suggestions for software or approaches I might consider? I’d love to hear them!

Interpretation, personality and non-rehearsable music

I have a half-baked idea that I want to talk about in this post. It’s about interpretation, non-rehearsable music and my recent piece Community of Objects. I’ve been working on an article about this piece recently, and doing a lot of reading to try to gain a better understanding of my own context for this composition. One of the articles I’ve read has been ‘Vexations of Ephemerality: Extreme sight-reading in situative scores – for makers, performers, audiences’ by Sandeep Bhagwati (references linked at the end of this post in case you’re interested).

Bhagwati’s article is focused on ‘situative scores’ – scores that are produced in real time and therefore need to be sight-read onstage. At one point he talks about the problems of interpreting such scores and it occurred to me that Community of Objects seems to differ from other pieces that demand ‘extreme sight-reading’ in that it kind of replaces interpretation, in the traditional sense, with personal emotional response.

Taking a step back, let’s start with Bhagwati’s definition of interpretation:

‘Interpretation’ is a term used in the context of fixed scores to describe a process in which practise, repeated readings, analysis, comparisons with other scores, information about the musical or cultural context as well as non-musical concepts and imaginaries are condensed into the moment of performance. (Bhagwati 2017, p. 2)

While overall accurate, this definition rather sidesteps what I feel is a crucial element of interpretation, which is that it is personal to a performer. It is a manner of performing something which has been developed by an individual (using repetition, etc.) which may reveal something of the performer themselves – if not their personality then at least their stylistic preferences – in their performance.

However, as Bhagwati points out, with situative scores, there can be no repeated readings, no rehearsal in the usual sense. And because repetition and time spent with the music lie at the heart of interpretation, interpretation therefore cannot exist for music which must be sight-read on stage.

Which I am finding interesting when considering performances of my own situative piece (because while the score of Community of Objects is not generated on the fly, it is kept a mystery to the performers until the very moment of performance, and so could perhaps be considered to be situative) because the displayed personality of the performers is an essential part of the piece.

If we consider that interpretation is principally an individual’s performed response to a score (which may be developed through the approaches listed in Bhagwati’s definition) rather than the tools used to reach that response, then a version of interpretation could indeed be possible in a piece which uses extreme sight-reading by changing the priorities of the piece.

Bhagwati’s examples all seem to create a tension based on a need for accuracy in performing the situative score – the challenge is all about ‘getting it right’ (or – more likely with extreme sight-reading – ‘getting it wrong’). Accuracy will usually be the first part of learning a piece of music – get it right then develop your personal approach once the technical part is under control. But what if the expectation of accuracy were bypassed? In a sight-read piece where technical accuracy is not important, there is scope for personality perhaps.

In the case of Community of Objects, the element of accuracy is bypassed by using commonplace activities and a free timescale – opening boxes, following simple instructions, tearing paper, etc. Most people will have internalised these from an early age. They don’t really require any thought. Instead the challenge in this piece is emotional: it focuses on eliciting genuine emotional responses and the performer’s challenge is to allow themselves to be open and vulnerable, sharing any emotions they feel, whether surprise, disgust, boredom, etc.

My feeling is that the performers’ approaches to the unknown content – driven by that vulnerability which has them just be themselves – convey their personalities in performance, the way a rehearsed interpretation might do for a fixed score. And just as personal interpretative gestures usually have an effect on the audience’s understanding of the music (whether to clarify or confuse), as described in Eric Clarke and Jane Davidson’s ‘The Body in Performance’ (another recent read – see ref below), the individual responses may provide a ‘way in’ to the piece for the audience.

Consider these two moments from Community of Objects performances – the first shows Alice Purton (on the left) in the Plus-Minus Ensemble performance, who discovers some buttons in her box; the second shows Tim Cape (on the right) in the Bastard Assignments Snape Maltings performance, who has been given some beach pebbles. Both have the instruction ‘play with these’:

These are very different interpretations of the same instructions and similar materials – but they aren’t rehearsed. For both performers, this was their first encounter with the piece. Instead of an interpretation gained by repeated exposure to the composition and developed over time, their personalities come through and drive how they interact with the material they have been given.

Sandeep Bhagwati, poor chap, seems to be quite disillusioned with the effectiveness of situative scores to create meaningful musical experiences. His sorrowful conclusion to the article states that ‘the ephemeral score… vexes us with its aggressive absence of meaning, of connection, and of sense’ (p. 6) but I wonder whether this is less a factor of the need for ‘extreme sight-reading’ and more to do with crushing the performer’s personality under the pressure of ‘getting it right’. Is openness an answer here? To leave some space for the person performing it to be a real person, not just a performing machine?

References

Bhagwati, S. (2017) ‘Vexations of Ephemerality. Extreme Sight-Reading in Situative Scores – for Makers, Performers, Audiences’, in Third International Conference on Technologies for Music Notation and Representation, A Coruña, Spain. Available at: http://www.udc.es/grupos/ln/tenor2017/sections/node/15-vexations_ephemerality.pdf (Accessed: 31 August 2017).

Clarke, E. and Davidson, J. (1998) ‘The Body in Performance’, in Thomas, W. (ed.) Composition, performance, reception: studies in the creative process in music. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Composition vlog – new venture!

I’ve been blogging (intermittently) for several years now about my creative process, and this week I’m launching a new approach which I’m thinking may be more useful/successful/helpful/interesting (or not) for being a little less formal. I’ve started a composition vlog to talk more specifically about my process when composing – and to look more closely at things like the sorts of things that get in the way of the composing (often while simultaneously enabling it), what sort of time periods are really involved in the gestation of a piece, what sort of things influence the development of my ideas.

So not so much a “how to compose” vlog, but rather “what does a composer do?” one that will look more at the frustrations, failures, excitements, setbacks, breakthroughs and conceptual dead-ends that are part and parcel of the composer’s life. The sort of stuff that doesn’t really get discussed except with other composers.

So this is episode 1, which as you’d expect is largely an introduction to the project and what I’m working on now. A starting-point. I’m aiming to create new ones every 2-3 weeks (every week being likely to drive everyone, including me, insane and ensure little actual composing gets done; once a month probably being too long a time-span so that I’ll lose track of the ideas which have been tested and discarded in the interim).

I’d love to hear any constructive feedback you have on this project, so please leave a comment or thumbs-up(/down) on YouTube and subscribe to the channel if you’re interested in seeing how this progresses.

Roland Barthes, composition and the public/private creative continuum

There now, that’s more the sort of title you’d expect from a PhD student, isn’t it? Don’t take this as a sign that I know what I’m doing now, though, because I really really don’t, and part of the reason I’m writing this post is to get my thoughts in order because I think I’m on the verge of being able to tie a bunch of stuff together to at least give me a vague direction to follow!

The other day I got hold of Roland Barthes’ Image Music Text and finally read his tiny essay ‘Musica Practica’. And then I wanted to give good old Roland a hug because (a) he writes beautifully and (b) there were a couple of things in this piece which seemed to be particularly relevant to what I’m doing.

Have I even talked about what I’m doing? Maybe I should, just to give you a quick context to what comes next. The topic I proposed originally was (*deep breath*):

Questioning the division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ creative spaces through an interdisciplinary approach to composition derived from a performative interpretation of visual art processes.

The plan was to investigate the working process of the German artist Anselm Kiefer from a performance aspect, drawing ideas from that to explore through composition but limiting the application of those ideas to the exploration of public and private spaces (and especially the idea of normally-private things being public and normally-public things being private) to keep it all manageable. Over the course of the past few months, Kiefer’s role has shrunk and shrunk until he’s but a glint of an idea that started the whole thing, and the public/private idea has taken centre stage. Somehow the interdisciplinary composition thing has also increased in importance, even though it’s really just how I work.

So when I read the opening of ‘Musica Practica’ –

‘There are two musics (at least so I have always thought): the music one listens to, the music one plays. These two musics are two totally different arts, each with its own history, its own sociology, its own aesthetics, its own erotic’ (p. 149)

– I pretty much squealed with joy (although very quietly because I was in a library). And when I got near to the end of the piece, I silent-squealed again, because Barthes’ definition of composition seems to me to be wholly open to the idea of interdisciplinary – or indeed postdisciplinary – composition. New Discipline FTW.

‘To compose, at least by propensity, is to give to do, not to give to hear but to give to write’ (RB’s emphasis, p. 153)

Squish these two together and there’s my project really.

So in thinking about all this, I worked my way towards a diagram of a creative continuum which moves from the private area of studio, score, rehearsal and performing towards the public arena of performance and exhibition of varying types.

Barthes continuum of public/private creative spaces
(Click diagram to view full size in a new window)

Because of the inter/postdisciplinary nature of what I do (still trying to work out whether inter- or post- is the more appropriate prefix here) I’ve tried to look at this continuum from both a music and art perspective to see how and where the process differs. The aim of the diagram is to consider what results if the private process is made public at certain points and the names at the bottom indicate some artists/composers who engage with crossing the public/private divide. For example, one we’re all used to is the private act of performing happening in public which results in a performance that other people are listening to – but how about the other end of the spectrum? Visual artists routinely send their work into the public arena directly from the studio because they are creating a physical finished artwork. But in music, the type of work that goes public from this point tends to be pieces that perhaps don’t need live performers – fixed media pieces, for example – so there’s a question right there of what sort of work could involve a live musical performance in the studio and how to send that out to the world.

As it’s early days for this work yet, there’s no doubt gross generalisations and my examples are just who came to mind instantly – I make no claim to any of this being thorough! But of course I’d be delighted if you have suggestions of work to follow up that might be useful/interesting – please leave me a comment if you do! Since originally creating this diagram, I’ve also developed ideas a bit further to acknowledge that the studio location may also be a stage, especially for visual artists (e.g. Nauman, Acconci, as the location where they performed alone for the video camera), as well as the wall of the gallery (a public stage as opposed to the private stage of the performer playing the tuba for a houseful of people – the difference being that the artwork is complete when it goes up onto the gallery wall while there is an ongoing private act of creation still happening with the live performance) but this is still a bit hazy.

Similarly, the line about unseen/unheard/seen only by performer/heard only by performer is the tentative beginning of what may or may not be an actual idea regarding levels of privacy. More work required here!

The deep sea of ignorance

Three weeks ago I started my PhD. I knew that there’d come a point when I felt adrift on a sea of ignorance, but frankly I hadn’t expected it to happen quite so soon! I think all research projects go through this stage. You start out, full of eagerness and anticipation, reading everything in sight, you start to develop some ideas and then – BAM – confusion and disorientation. And somehow I’ve reached this point within a mere three weeks of part-time study.

To be perfectly clear, I actually don’t mind this. This sea of ignorance thing is just fine by me – I usually find that it’s a moment where so many possibilities have opened up that it’s hard to pick a direction and while it’s a bit daunting, it’s also very exciting. Especially given that I’ve got the time to pursue these different directions, which is something I need to keep reminding myself of. In previous research projects, time limitations have meant that while I’ve enjoyed the research process, there’s also been an underlying sense of panic that I might not get through everything I want to. I’ll probably still not get through everything I want to, but at this point I have the time to explore these different avenues and decide whether to pursue them further.

So while I don’t have any particular topic to talk about today, I think it might be useful to drivel on a bit about all the different things that are rattling round in my brain at the moment:

  • Having discovered that when I talk about art, the terms I use are actually music terms, I’m investigating the art-meanings of words like ‘gesture’ and ‘space’ which is actually kind of blowing my mind and making me look at all the things I do in a whole new way
  • I’m reading Allan Kaprow’s Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, which is fascinating and one of the best-written books I’ve read in a long, long time. Beautiful use of language + interesting content = reading-nirvana
  • I’m carrying on with reading Anselm Kiefer’s Notebooks, Vol. 1, which I’m enjoying but not finding it as enlightening as I’d expected to. I’ve also read a number of interviews with him and while I’m finding much in there that reinforces my existing interests, I’m not really seeing anything that’s opening up new paths in the way that the Richard Long research did at every turn. Possibly it’s just that I’ve matured as an artist since first looking at Long, possibly it’s just that what I have from Kiefer isn’t connecting as well with my thinking, but at the moment it’s looking like the Kiefer aspect of the original project1. may be dissolving away to be a sideline rather than the project’s focus
  • Most of what I’m currently looking at is art-based, which feels a little unbalanced but is also clearly the deep-sea trench of ignorance for me right now. It’s catch-up time, really. So I’m attempting to redress this imbalance by developing ideas for the cello piece further and thinking about some fixed-media stuff I could work on in the interim. For a while I’ve had this idea to include visual & audio elements from the composition process within the finished work, so I’ve been working through some ideas on how to do this – how to deal with the circularity of the concept and also how I feel about the necessarily artificial nature of presenting my creative process in this way, given that it’s not possible to display the entirety of what goes into a piece, and what role the curating of the process will play. Also how to draw links between this material and the material which results from the process so that the relationship between them is strong and it’s not just a piece with some background stuff layered over it.
  • In relation to that, thinking about ways of documenting my process: photographs, having a permanent setup to video myself working, video up close and centred on the work, video that considers the space in which I work too (this one goes back to point 1 and considering how artists define ‘space’), recording sounds, drawing diagrams, perhaps? I suspect I’m going to need to be a lot more structured about how I record work on a daily basis if I’m going to go through with this. I also suspect I’m going to need to buy a simply massive external hard-drive to store all this stuff… Possibly a new scanner too, given that mine seems to be refusing to scan anything.
  • Reading really is very time-consuming, isn’t it? I’m not a particularly slow reader, but to read something, really understand it, and then contemplate how it may or may not apply to one’s creative work really takes a frustratingly long time. I never noticed this before. Possibly this has something to do with everything I read and every conversation adding another 15 items to my want-to-read pile…

1. return The title of my proposal is “Questioning the division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ creative spaces through an interdisciplinary approach to composition derived from a performative interpretation of visual art processes” where Kiefer was to be the ‘visual art processes’ part that I was going to be performatively interpreting.

Note: Amazon links in this post aren’t affiliate links – it’s just a good spot for finding reviews.

(Re)writing for radio

Recently I’ve been through the process reworking an interdisciplinary piece to be suitable for radio. I found this to be intriguing, challenging and much more useful than I thought it would be, so I feel that it’s worth identifying the steps I went through to do this.

The piece is Fortune Favours the Brave, a very visual, even theatrical piece for flute and objects that I wrote for Jenni Hogan this year. Fortune Favours the Brave centres around a unique score – handwritten and made out of 4.5 metres of shot silk and rice paper and presented in the form of a Chinese handscroll – and significant moments in the piece are conveyed using ritualistic gestures. The subject matter of the piece – about decision-making in performance – depends on the gestures and score, which is fine in the performance situation for which it was designed, but how do you remove key visual elements from an interdisciplinary composition and still end up with a piece that works?

Performance detail, Fortune Favours the Brave

I have to say, it wasn’t an easy process. Several things required attention, including the score, the gestures, the coin tossing/dropping, the limited time allotted (Fortune in its natural state is variable in duration) and the need to fit in with a radio show’s predetermined length.

The easy bit came first. Clearly the gestures weren’t going to work on radio and would just result in an unexplained hole in the music and needed to be dumped. Also quite clearly, the score object needed to be discarded for this performance – it wouldn’t have any impact on an audio-only audience and as it’s quite slow to scroll between sections in it (much slower than turning a page), again this would leave unexplained holes. In both these cases, while I didn’t mind the idea of silence mid-piece, with the limited time available it seemed better to tighten things up a bit.

The problem with all this discarding though was that with the gestures and the score gone, what happened to the idea of choice that is central to the piece?

The only one of the choice-indicators left at this point was the coin-tossing, which I was keeping as a way of separating movements and because I was concerned that removing all the decision mechanisms of the piece would just leave it as sounds without a real concept.

However, during a group workshop day we (Bastard Assignments) held to work through our pieces for the radio gig, it became apparent that the coin toss wasn’t working as strongly as I’d hoped. As a separation device between movements it was fine, but it was pointed out that the sound of a coin toss comes with a bunch of semantic baggage and also that due to the need to predetermine the sections played because of the time limit, there was actually no choice being made. So the implications of the coin toss sound were false, making it an insincere gesture – the coin toss became just a sound which had no relationship to the music except to separate and could just as well be replaced by something else which might be less semantically burdened. Clearly, the coin toss was doomed but as the last thing which connected explicitly with the work’s purpose of exploring decision-making, I had a lot of trouble letting it go.

Another thing which came up in the workshop was that the breathing in the piece was a mix of intentional, scripted breaths, and more relaxed “I’m just taking in oxygen” breaths and the latter diminished the impact of the former. So I focused on the breathing while I considered the problem of the coin toss and ultimately it provided an answer.

It became clear to me that what the scripted, audible breathing provided in the piece which the more relaxed breaths undid was to create a line of tension throughout each movement. I worked with Jenni over a couple of sessions and we plotted out the breathing across the entire work so that each movement’s breathing was fully scripted to use audible, intentional (almost sucking) breaths. In this context, the dividing signal which ultimately replaced the coin toss was a relaxed version of a tense-breath gesture used several times across the piece – in-out-in – purposefully drawing in the relaxed breathing that had been the apparent problem before and giving Jenni a chance to ‘come down’ and recover a bit between movements.

Obviously, this still didn’t solve the issue of the theme of decision-making, but in my mind this tension/release situation helped in that the increased difficulty of the radio edit version moved the location of decision-making so it was no longer a question of deciding whether or not to play the next movement, but whether or not to engage with the piece at all. Because not only has it become quite a difficult and physically demanding work, but it does so many things (with the breathing in particular) that go against ‘proper’ flute training that it poses a challenge to people’s perception of the flautist’s technique. It’s a little bit ironic perhaps that a piece that requires a flautist of extreme technical prowess to perform should put them in a position of potentially sounding like they don’t know what they’re doing…

And so we turned up at the Southbank Centre and did our live gig on BBC Radio 3 (which you can hear over on iPlayer until 24 October!) and that all went well, but what interested me in particular as a follow-up to this process was the effect that this work had on the piece in its original interdisciplinary state. Jenni performed Fortune Favours the Brave again the following day for a private event and I could really see immense improvements in the way the whole piece worked based on the changes we’d made for radio. The tension in the played sections created a much more dramatic space for the gestures and overall I felt the radio-edit process had significantly strengthened the entire work.

Rejection gesture - Fortune Favours the Brave, Jenni Hogan

For me it’s still an interdisciplinary piece (hey, even on the radio they were talking about the score and we weren’t even using it!), but the experience of focusing solely on the sound of it was a hugely valuable experience and one I’ll be returning to in future.

The radio edit of Fortune Favours the Brave was performed by Jenni Hogan at London’s Southbank Centre for BBC Radio 3 Hear and Now on 24 September 2016. Hear it as part of the Bastard Assignments live performance on iPlayer until 24 October 2016 »

My most heartfelt thanks go to Jenni Hogan for asking me to write Fortune Favours the Brave and for her amazing technique and patience while developing this piece. Hear more of Jenni’s work on her SoundCloud »

Score: Fortune Favours the Brave

All photographs in this post are by Alejandro Tamagno and were taken at Jenni Hogan’s performance of Fortune Favours the Brave at Cake Club on 25 September 2016.

Zero to Infinity: Fear of the ephemeral

I was visiting the Tate Modern a couple of weeks back and came across an artwork with the following sign:

In keeping with the artist's intentions, this work is re-arranged at 10.00 every day by staff members. Please do not touch

I’ve been interested in in public and private spaces in composition for several years now – I find works which open up private aspects of themselves to be public particularly interesting – but this one grabbed my interest because of how the rearranging of the work is public – yet not public. I was intrigued that the participatory element of the work was restricted to being handled by experts, and scheduled for a time of day when the gallery was at its most empty (Tate Modern opens at 10am). Reading the notes on the work on the Tate website connected this in with another topic which I find of immense interest – the prioritising of longevity of the artwork over the artist’s vision.

So here we have a work, positioned in the Tate’s new participatory art display, which is intended to be a work of public participation, and which has become a work of publicly private participation in order to preserve it for as long as possible by ensuring that only trusted experts actually handle it. I find it particularly intriguing that the sign is worded “In keeping with the artist’s intentions” – but the text on their own website makes it clear that this conservation solution only preserves one aspect of the artist’s intentions.

Sure, it’s better to have somebody move it than just set it up and leave it, but it assumes that this piece is only for looking at, which it isn’t. It’s for feeling the texture of the structure, the heft of a cube as you lift it. It’s experiencing how the separate cubes might be connected. It’s a sonic experience as you listen to the sounds made when the cubes connect. The artist’s original intent – to have the cubes manipulated by the public – also means that it’s not only participatory sculpture, but also kinetic sculpture – theoretically at least, the interaction of the public with the sculpture could/would be continuous, meaning that the sculpture is perhaps intended to be viewed as constantly in motion and constantly in interaction with human bodies. It is, in fact, performed rather than simply viewed.

Of course it saddens me that works of art deteriorate over time, but my feeling is that the art world’s obsession with the value of the singular art object fails to take into account the strength that can be lent by ephemerality. Musicians and music-lovers get this – experiencing a great live performance is an amazing thing that can never truly be repeated, even if it’s recorded – but I feel that the temporary almost terrifies the art world. We musicians may continuously reinterpret Bach, but an Old Master painting is an Old Master painting and must be preserved exactly as it is.

A more extreme example than the Tate’s relatively sensitive Zero to Infinity solution comes from a review of ‘Mindfuck’, a 2013 exhibition of the work of Bruce Nauman which included a ‘conserved’ version of Nauman’s Carousel:

And as I look at the words on the wall, the carousel keeps turning. Yet there is something missing. Those rotating, dangling body parts were originally intended to be dragged around the concrete floor, with a terrible sound of screeching. All they make here is a quiet shush as they revolve on a floor constructed from MDF which acts as a sort of plinth. It’s less a Mindfuck, more a lullaby.

This, I was told by someone at Hauser & Wirth, is a conservation issue – the sculptures risk being worn away by their interminable circular journey – but the work’s imminent auto-destruction is, I would surmise, an intended consequence of what Nauman originally had in mind. Where the work was once aggressive, it is now muffled, pathetic… I want to hear the metal scream.

YES! My sentiments exactly. Without the scream, it’s Nauman through a filter of curator. Without the scream, it’s only half a work.

Update 28 October 2016: Today I found the following video on Tate’s site of Rasheed Araeen talking about how the human intervener becomes part of the work, which I feel is relevant to what I’ve said in this post:

Positive changes: Exploring the I Ching for composition

I Ching coinsYou may recall that when I was first working on Crossing Dartmoor, I experimented with dice and other chance techniques to create and develop musical materials. At the time I wrote about how unexpectedly liberating that experience was, and I’ve continued to use some of the systems I worked with at that time in my music. This week, though, I’ve pushed through to the next logical step – using the I Ching to help with composing.

I’m writing a new piece for solo flute for Jenni Hogan and while I’ve had an idea for what I wanted to do for quite a while now, there’s been massive procrastination on the actual composition because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the actual body of the work. I’d accumulated some pitch material using ciphers, but didn’t find anything much in there that I felt was going to drive the piece. I had an idea about outer sections being about wind/breath and a group of inner sections which are played or not according to the whim of the performer. But what was the nature of those inner sections going to be? I had no clue.

So I dug out my book on the I Ching and finished reading the introductory notes on what it is and how it works and how to do the casting, and gave it a go. One of the first things it came back with was:

“One can plan, try or ponder too much. Do not try, just do! Your inaction could bring embarrassment or disgrace.”

Words to live by, truly! But it also returned some interesting statements which gave me a framework within which to think about what I was working on. Not a clear statement of “do this” but a set of parameters to limit my thinking, thereby (as I found in my previous experiments with limitations) generating more creative ideas than just sitting around going “Argh” and gently panicking.

In particular I want to talk about the third central section of the piece. This one I was really a bit concerned about because the pitch material I ended up with feels totally uninspired – it’s an E major triad. Nothing more. No interesting semitones or tritones. Very little, really to work with. I’d pondered various ideas about using the bits of the chromatic scale that it didn’t return, or just picking another word to encode, but I wasn’t really satisfied with any of my solutions. And then I did a casting for this poor wretched thing, and what I came up with has quite changed how I’m looking at this limited material.

Now, I’m not saying I’ll necessarily stick with it, and I’m not saying that even if I do it’ll be suddenly transformed into an amazing masterpiece (although I reserve the right for it to be an amazing masterpiece 🙂 ), but what interests me here is how using the I Ching here has changed my thinking about this material from a dreary negative to a much more productive plane.

I won’t go through the whole casting here, because it’s quite long and would need some context, which I suspect it might prove a bit dull for others (although if you’re interested, just get in touch and I’ll be happy to send it to you) but just as a for-example, a couple of things:

First, in my doldrums I had been thinking about the excessive simplicity of the pitch material and thinking that this section would probably have to be quite short because so little to work with but not enough timespan overall to turn this bit into a durational extravaganza (often an effective solution for minimal material). But the casting suggested four interlinked phases. That in itself was way more complex than I had considered the material might support and while I think the section will still be quite short, the prompts for each of these phases are showing me a way it might be pulled off convincingly.

Secondly, the final hexagram came up with this little gem:

“Do not discard what you don’t want to hear”

This statement is in the context of asking advice, but I think it’s worthwhile as a general principle anyway. So I’m not going to discard my E major triad just yet – at least not before I’ve tested it out!

I’m obviously a total beginner at this, and still very much still finding my way, but my initial impression is that this could be a useful way to support thinking about a piece. Before I started to read about the I Ching, I’d had the impression that it would dictate something about the piece, but it’s really a lot looser than that. What it’s seeming to provide (so far) is a starting point or a context for existing ideas to bounce off, a way to raise useful questions about a piece rather than providing answers.

RPM Challenge album complete!

You may recall I mentioned at the start of February that I was doing RPM Challenge this year. Well, February’s over and – true to my word – I now have a 35-minute-55-second-long album of electroacousitc work to show for it! It’s been quite a ride, and I want to talk about that a little, but first here it is to listen online, or to download for free, because I like you 🙂

So there it is – the result of a month’s work. Four tracks of wildly varying duration, demonstrating – I think – significant improvement in my understanding of how to record stuff, how to listen to stuff, and how to (intentionally) make stuff sound nothing like it actually did when I recorded it.

The whole thing (as documented in fragments over at One Creative Thing) was dogged by technical issues, and I’m dedicating the album as a whole to Stuart Russell, without whose extremely generous assistance, it would never have been completed.

This project was a series of experiments – so what did I learn from it?

1. Nightbirds

Essentially an exercise in trying to find ways of using sub-optimal recordings of sounds I really liked, this piece also highlighted the fact that my lovely little Bang & Olufsen headphones are far from ideal for monitoring this kind of work. The loan of a pair of small studio monitors made a vast difference to how I heard this piece, and how I approached later tracks.

2. Negative Space

This is a conceptual/experimental piece which I freely acknowledge is influenced by Alvin Lucier’s great I Am Sitting In A Room (go and listen if you’ve never heard it!). It’s the realisation of an idea I had a while back but didn’t know how to approach. Technically, it got me practising recording my own voice through my Røde M3 microphone (which I’ve done before but without really understanding what I was doing), and exploring the possibilities of automating aspects of EQ in Logic to achieve what I wanted.

3. 1200RPM

While 4th on the album, this was the third piece composed for this project. I didn’t have a lot of time left and I also wanted to experiment with using a very limited palette of sounds across quite a long duration. The final version correspondingly uses only two basic sounds from a single recording, using time-stretching, reverb and notch EQs to draw out specific frequencies from the time-stretched recordings. Really quite pleased with this one. It’s my favourite track on the album.

4. Random Study No. 1

The last piece composed, and pulled together in the final hours of the challenge as I raced to meet the deadline. I decided to use that time-limitation to make myself work with things I haven’t really worked with before in electroacoustic tracks. The short time available meant that I just had to throw things together and see if they worked, rather than thinking too deeply about whether or not they should work. The result is a study which is pure sound-in-and-of-itself – everything is out of context, and there’s no point trying to identify what the recordings are of and trying to make connections, because there are none! Previous musique concrète work I’ve made tends to use sounds all from a single location or source. I’ve avoided using comprehensible speech or musical fragments. I’ve avoided using loop effects and overtly rhythmic sounds. This piece goes against all of that, and I found it really very rewarding to work on. It combined recordings from a range of different sources – from a recording made at Borough Market the previous week with my new Tascam DR-40 recorder, to sounds recorded on my iPhone at the Kent County Fair and in Pompeii last year, to snippets of practice/workshop sessions from college and close-miked sounds recorded at home. It made me think differently about my material and how it could be used.

This idea of a study to randomly throw things together in a short period of time and see what happens is, I think, a very useful one. I ended up using sounds which I had thought would be unusable because of the low quality of the recording, thinking of new ways to combine things, paying more attention to the location of a sound in the mix (something that really becomes foregrounded when working with a variety of location and close-miked recordings) and just generally trying to put my preconceptions to one side to get the work done. I suspect I may end up making several of these Random Studies simply because they challenge the way I think about pre-recorded material.