CAITLIN ROWLEY
composer

One evening, four songs

Research is all very well and good, but whether it can be applied outside of the research context is the real test. I think that the work I’m doing is leading to better understanding of how a piece functions, and that it’s helping me to work faster, but how can I really, really tell?

A couple of weeks back, I got the chance to put it to the test. Every February, Trinity Laban runs a fantastic college-wide programme called CoLab, ‘Collaboration Laboratory’. For two weeks, all regular classes stop and everyone (except doctoral students and 2nd year MFA) works on collaborative projects.

I did CoLab last year and found it a really interesting and useful experience. I made new friends, I learned how to solder and I had to think deep thoughts about the role of a composer in a collaboration when that role isn’t going to be just going off and writing notes on your own.

This year it was optional for me but when on meeting up with a friend she mentioned that her project needed a composer, I volunteered and joined ‘The Other English Song Project’ led by Jess Walker. The group consisted of 11 singers and 2 pianists with a brief to explore English-language vocal music. I joined on the second day at which point the project had focused itself on songs which explored the concept of ‘home’. I headed home at the end of that first day with four texts about ‘home’ written by four of the singers, and a brief to write some fragments of music that they’d have a bash at singing the next day.

Challenge 1: Write four songs in less than 24 hours (yes, I could have got away with only doing one or two, but I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could do all four).

Challenge 2: Find a way to write these songs in the time available (and while actually getting a reasonable night’s sleep!) that might sound polished enough to be considered a complete piece.

I also wanted to provide properly typeset scores for all the songs. Mostly this is just a point of professional pride, but I do like to always give performers clearly notated parts, even at rough stages. This turned out to be by far the most time-consuming part of the whole process although one of the singers did thank me profusely and in tones of wonderment for doing it, so I think it was worthwhile 🙂

My first step was to look at the texts I’d been given. These were all different lengths and differing levels of poeticism. I decided quickly that I didn’t want to just set a phrase from each text and throw away the rest of the words. What had been written was heartfelt and very personal and it seemed disrespectful to not try to convey a sense of the whole of what had been written.

So I reworked all but one of the texts – shortening, rearranging phrases, trying to keep as much of each writer’s own words and turns of phrase as possible, while condensing them down to four haiku-ish blocks of prose.

After doing this, an approach became clear which I felt I could pull off in the time available and produce a solid result: to set a phrase or two from each, but couched in the context of the whole (shortened) text, with a simple piano accompaniment running under both speech and song parts.

So this was the single idea I was exploring, and the next step was to find the actual notes. Having found using a cipher so helpful in my most recent Crossing Dartmoor song, I decided that was the way in. I used each writer’s first name for the cipher and encoded it into pitches using Honegger’s cipher.

From that point I worked intuitively but found that the work proceeded very quickly as there were so few decisions to make – I had limited pitch material to draw on, I’d already chosen the phrases I wanted to set and I knew it was going to be necessary to make both piano and vocal parts very easy to read and learn, and that I was going to leave a lot of freedom in the music to make it easier to put the parts together, working towards pieces which rely heavily on the two partners responding to each other rather than needing a lot of precision to synchronise their parts.

Was it a success? Well, I rather think it was! Our project leader was thrilled and said it was exactly what she wanted. The singers and pianists seemed happy with their pieces and – incredibly, to me – three of the four singers had their parts off-book (along with several other pieces) for an informal concert in the college cafe 24 hours after receiving them – and all four for the following day’s official concert in the Old Royal Naval College Chapel. With Jess’s expert guidance, the spoken and sung text blended well and I feel that the approach created a distinctive and satisfying result.

I do feel that without the work I’ve done on my project – specifically thinking about exploring single ideas and using cipher-generated pitch material – there is no way I could have completed these four pieces in the timespan I had available. I could probably have done two, but definitely not four. And without these approaches, I also think that the set would not have turned out as coherent as they did – or as rhythmically interesting because my focus would have been (as it usually is when left to my own devices) somewhat obsessed with finding the right notes.

I would like to thank everyone on ‘The Other English Song Project’ but especially Jess Walker and my singer-authors Melanie Harikrishna, Amon-Ra Twilley, Deborah Miller and Lucy Miller-White who did such a fantastic job learning and performing my music in such a short timeframe.

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