CAITLIN ROWLEY
composer

Cy Twombly: Making a mess

A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: IV

A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: IV

Every artist has their failings, some we don’t realise and some we know about. Of the ones we know about, we need to make a choice whether to face these problems and try to overcome them, or we accept them and work around them.

One of my principal failings as an artist is a tendency towards perfectionism and the need to create a finished, balanced piece. I know, to a lot of people this isn’t a problem, but for me, it holds me back, prevents me from experimenting, taking risks; it hinders my learning process.

I’ve been aware of this for a while, and it’s been one of the aspects of my craft I’ve wanted to focus on while doing this Masters degree, and I’ve composed quite a lot of music that tackles this – Paint, Knives, Lipstick for 2 harps, which has independent parts; Lines of Sight, which is designed to fail; Times Four which is all about improvisation.

Currently my big focus (apart from the String Quartet of Doom, of course) is my Cy Twombly project. I wrote 2 pieces for it a little while back and while I was moderately pleased with aspects of them as pieces, it was bugging me a little that I felt I wasn’t really connecting with the artwork that is their source. It was like I was raiding the Twombly works just for source material, but not really creating work that related strongly to the art.

It took me ages to get them workshopped due to clashing schedules of my performers, but when I did, I was pretty pleased with the result – things I’d thought might be dull actually worked OK and there were some moments that I really, really liked. But without an explanatory essay, it’s impossible to see the connection with Twombly’s work.

So my supervisor suggested a different approach and set me a task to work more visually – I had to spend some time (about 5 hours in the end) making a new piece that was a lot more experimental in its notational approach and which reflected the things that really drew me to the Twombly work in the first place – its looseness, sketchbooky nature, mixture of lines and collage.

I’ve often thought about working like this but never really had the guts to follow it through. It seemed kind of silly and self-indulgent, to make a picture and call it music, but in the process of working through this, it feels right for this project.

My most recent research has been reading Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane, which has sparked some ideas in me regarding possible correspondences between how Kandinsky refers to different types of angles, lines vs points and so on, with elements of music, specifically tonality/modality and intervals.

To make the new piece, I chose one of Twombly’s artworks (no. II of Natural History: Part I: Mushrooms) and decided to create material that used these Kandinskyan equivalents but just to create snippets of music for each bit. In the second part of the process, I cut and pasted these fragments in various ways, focusing in particular on overlapping and obscuring elements. One of the fragments was too big, so I wrote it out on a separate piece of paper and just cut out part of it, in a similar way to Twombly’s process with his larger paintings, where he’d cover all the walls of his studio with canvas, paint away like a mad thing, then chop out the bits he decided were actual paintings.

A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: III

A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: III

I’m quite pleased with the result, but the thing that amazed me was how interesting I found the process. To start with, I really enjoyed working with my hands and with physical stuff, rather than just pulling things out of my brain. The physicality of the process made me think in different ways and make different choices than I think I might have done, even doing the same thing on the computer. Positioning elements in slightly different ways made me consider different ways they might be performed and using the Twombly original as a layout template for the score made me really consider the balance of the piece and its connection with the original artwork.

My supervisor was quite delighted with what I’d done, but immediately pointed out that it was all very tidy. His response to this was to say “do you have an hour to spare now?”, load me up with random stationery supplies – whiteboard marker, drawing pins, a highlighter, electrical tape, staple remover thingy (he offered me a tin of sardines but as I was going to the library I pointed out that they might not be too keen on that. I think ultimately my performers were grateful too to not have to musically interpret the smell of tinned fish…) – and send me off with orders to “make a mess”.

Making the mess was pretty interesting actually (you can see it at the top of this post), and really made me think about what I needed to rebel against in order to make the mess:

  • Did everything really need to be stuck on straight?
  • Did it matter how clear or obscure the notation I put on the page was? (I nicked some random pieces of music out of the photocopier rejects box)
  • When selecting bits of music, did I really need to limit myself to parts specifically for percussion or cello?
  • Does everything even need to be permanently stuck down? Does it matter if it falls off/comes adrift?
  • Does it have to be beautiful?
  • Does it have to make sense?
  • Do I even have to like it?

The answer – of course – to all these is a resounding NO. The resulting work uses torn fragments of music, scribbles, a rather dirty manuscript post-it note with doodles on it, holes bitten out of the paper with the staple remover, notation made on a hand-drawn stave by randomly stabbing a drawing pin through the paper, then scoring down the paper with the point and scribbling over it in pencil. Yup. It was a mess 🙂

And my supervisor was over the moon 😀

On Friday (9am! ugh!) I had a session with my fabulous cellist and percussionist to play these messy curiosities, and it was an absolutely fascinating process. They went from deep scepticism through to (apparently) real enjoyment over the course of about half an hour. We played all three – in the end it seemed easiest to just play through them and talk about what happened.

Interesting points (for me, anyway):

  • the tidy one (Mushroom III) was the shortest and least flexible, no doubt because it consisted almost entirely of fairly normal notation. The players tended not to repeat bits or go back over it. I was pleased with the sound though – it felt like my piece, probably because I’d composed all the fragments myself, specially for this, and had put thought into what went where. My cellist, at the bottom of the page, played across fragments (two two-line fragments side by side, so playing across the page rather than playing one fragment then another) which I rather liked
  • the big messy one (Mushroom IV) raised the question of whether they were expected to sing (because one of the bits I’d stolen out of the photocopier reject box was a fragment of a pop song and still had the words attached) and ended up very free indeed. Sometimes I could work out which bit they were playing, sometimes not.
  • the little messy one (Mushroom V, which I made entirely out of the scraps left over when I was done with IV) prompted the interesting question of which way up it should go, probably because some of my raided notation fragments were upside down.
A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: V

A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: V

All very interesting indeed, and I’m super grateful to my musicians – Sarah James, cello and Becky Brass, percussion – for being open to trying such a radically different approach from last week’s tame pieces!

So the next step in the plan (although I’m probably going to make some more intentional messes along the way – it was a really interesting and liberating process) is to create a collage-piece that I will then reinterpret myself to create a notated score. I’m sure to some people this feels redundant, but to me it’s actually a necessary step to ownership of the piece – with the mess-pieces, I felt that the scores were mine, but the pieces belonged to my performers. I’m theorising that if I interpret my own messes then the resulting pieces are mine. However, the process of getting these mess-pieces performed has been really invaluable in giving me ideas as to how I might interpret such a thing.

Onwards and upwards! Only two and a half weeks to go!

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