2015: My Year of Fear

Many people have rituals for each New Year. Those famous resolutions, so often doomed to failure after a few weeks, used to be mine, until I realised they didn’t work, so now every year I write two blog posts. The first is a list of 10 good things about the year that’s past, to focus on achievements and gratitude rather than beating myself up too much over the stuff I didn’t get done, and the second is a list of goals I want to work towards over the course of the year ahead to clarify what’s most important to me.

Invariably, writing up these two posts leads on to further thinking about my work and life and reorganising of stuff and ideas, and musings on potential changes of approach. Which brings me right here.

As you may know, a significant component of my MFA project involved investigating and addressing creative fear, both as a concept and in practice. I did quite a lot of reading around this topic and ended up in a place where most of what I did in the second half of the degree was driven by a mantra:

FOLLOW THE FEAR

By ‘follow the fear’ I mean that if something scared me – really scared me – then I took that as a sign that it was something I had to do. Worried that a piece of music in video format shouldn’t really be considered music? Do it anyway! Scared that using chance procedures will result in music which doesn’t sound nice? Give it a go! Fearful that a non-aural recording that relies entirely on the imagination of someone looking at a piece of art might be considered self-indulgent and pretentious? Won’t know till you try it!

Unexpectedly, though, following the fear seemed to reduce the amount of fear I actually felt and converted what had previously been fear into exhilaration and a sense of daring. I realised through writing my annual blog posts that following my fear had in fact led me to a new ‘safe’. It is now easier for me to work on crazy experimental stuff that borders on performance art than to work on conventionally notated music. Partly because I’ve become accustomed to challenging the borders between creative disciplines, partly because I have  friends and colleagues who are very enthusiastic about this work and encourage me to take it further, and partly because those same friends offer me opportunities to get this work performed/presented easily and regularly.

Which is grand except that now I realise that I feel fear around other areas of my work – fear that was there before but which was so overshadowed by my fear of challenging disciplinary boundaries that it felt like safety.

So it seems that I need to not only follow the fear, but chase the fear – seek out what things still scare me about the work I want to do and actively pursue those things. Previously the fear seemed to be in one direction, but now I see that it is all around me.

Right now, I can see two specific areas I’m going to need to focus on: Notated music now raises the (irrational) concern that it will be unoriginal, dull, that I will get stuck and that nobody will like it when I do finish it. And fundraising (particularly applying for grants for composition projects) is a mire of fears about rejection, project management ability, responsibility and originality of ideas and so on.

Daring!So I’m declaring 2015 my Year of Fear. My lovely sister-in-common-law (who is herself a specialist in stage fright in her Alexander Technique practice) gave me this beautiful journal (right) for Christmas, so I’m planning to use it to track this exploration, as well as blogging my progress and ideas here.

I’m hoping that if my experience last year is indicative of what generally happens when you follow your fear, I should be able to reach a point where these things too are a new ‘safe’, after which either shiny new fears will emerge to be pursued, or perhaps my various safe points will merge and new scary ideas develop from that!

How do you deal with fear in your creative work? Do you think much about it? Do you have a particular strategy or process for dealing with it? What do you think of this idea of following your fear? I’d love to hear what you think, either in the comments here, or to @minim on Twitter.

Considering improvisation

For many years, improvisation has been a bit of a bête noir for me. Ask me to improvise and I would make the sign of the evil eye and edge away from you. As a mediocre instrumentalist and also a perfectionist, improvisation took me about as far from my comfort zone as it was possible to go. I was terrified of ‘getting it wrong’, not realising that if I played with confidence then – rather than a ‘wrong’ note being the end of the world like I was convinced it would (or should) be – it could mean a whole new direction for the music, a new idea for others to feed off.

Right now I’m in the throes of Creative Pact, for which I’m finishing Manifesto (begun as part of my MFA project), a piece rooted in learning-as-I-go and taking risks, and I’m finding it rather amusing how casually I have embraced improvisation as a key strategy of this project. True, I’m not improvising with other people, trying to pick particular notes; true, I don’t need to show anybody else an improvisation which I think is poor. But also true is that there’s rarely been an improvisation I’ve done for Manifesto (with the exception of the first improvs for the very first piece when I was still trying to work out what I could do with Max/MSP) that I’ve felt was actively bad and which I wouldn’t even consider putting out in public. I’ve had a little difficulty with picking out which version of the last two pieces would be the one that would be used in the final format of the work, but it hasn’t been because I thought they were rubbish or was embarrassed about them, but because I found that pretty much all the versions I had made were Good Enough to use.

I think Good Enough is a key concept here. Not that I’m not striving for the very best version I can produce, but because a line has to be drawn somewhere. I could keep making versions of these pieces forever, just as it’s all too easy to keep on tweaking and refining a piece of notated music, but what I want to do is to move on, to apply what I”m learning in Manifesto to other pieces. Good Enough means that what I’ve produced fits the aim I have for the piece, that it’s satisfying for me, that anything I feel is not perfect doesn’t mar the whole.

Voltaire (the internet tells me) said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Maybe one of the things I should take away from this project is to pay more attention to when I should simply say “that’ll do, pig” and move on, rather than obsessing over trying to achieve perfection in every tiny detail.

Manifesto is a piece which draws on ideas explored in my MFA research, of amateur activity as a valid part of professional creative work and to that end consists of working with recordings of my own vocal and body-percussion improvised recordings in Max/MSP (which I had never used before starting this piece) along with video material both specially-filmed and pre-existing, to create a composite audio-visual work which explores an assortment of dualities which have become central to the way I think about my work. To follow my progress on Manifesto (updated every day in September 2014), visit my Creative Pact 2014 blog.

The first improvisation for the video section of Manifesto I’m currently working on. It’s not quite ‘Good Enough’, but there’s a lot I like about it.

Adventures in amateurism

One of the aspects of Richard Long’s artmaking practice that has me totally intrigued as I’ve been researching his work for Crossing Dartmoor, is the aspect of the amateur that is almost fundamental to his gallery work. By this I mean that the work he displays uses media and formats (photography, mapping, graphics, text) which are not his primary area of training (sculpture).

In particular I love that his earliest mature work – from A Line Made By Walking onwards – was created not as ‘art’ but as documentation. I suspect that if he’d set out to Make A Photograph of A Line Made By Walking, his entire career would have been quite different. Maybe he wouldn’t have done it at all if he’d felt he couldn’t create a good enough photo; maybe he’d have found a photographer to team up with. But because he did it himself with whatever camera he had and had the image processed at a local chemist shop, this has kind of set the scene for a sort of DIY approach to his work which, while meticulous and professional, also gives a different perspective because his images probably aren’t what a professional photographer would have done; his textworks aren’t what a poet would have done; the way he uses maps definitely is not what a cartographer would do. So his being a sculptor permeates everything and allows him a freedom in these works that possibly he might not have had, had he started from a point of learning how to do these things ‘properly’.

I don’t mean for an instant that he doesn’t know what he’s doing – obviously, over the years, he’s become an extremely good photographer, wordsmith, etc. because he’s done a lot of it, but he is first and foremost a sculptor and I think that liberates his non-sculptural work to be something a little different.

So I’ve been thinking – for a few months now – about what amateurism could mean within my own practice. What are the things I do or could do that are not my principal area of study? How could exploring these areas result in new work, possibly more exciting work, or work which sheds light on my Main Thing, which is notated art music?

A few weeks ago, I was giving a presentation on my working process and our head of department asked me “how would it be if you stopped apologising for your art and just called it art and let other people make up their minds whether they think it’s any good?”. Of course, he’s absolutely right, and one of the outcomes of this has been a realisation of how much work I’m not doing because I feel, for example, that my singing voice is untrained, I don’t practice the flute enough and I don’t feel I have enough experience with field recordings and other recorded forms of music to know whether what I am producing is OK or actually the electroacoustic equivalent of Comic Sans.

And I’m beginning to think that if I’m to really embrace these ideas I’m researching, then I need to be embracing my own amateurism and making use of the skillset, even if limited, that I have in areas other than notated composition.

This is, of course, also bound up with the thread of fear and embracing uncertainty that runs throughout this project. I’ve been researching this topic and exploring different ways of handling my fear ever since the year started and it’s starting to pay off, to the extent that lately I’ve been finding myself just doing things that normally I’d shrink from on the grounds of being an amateur without even really thinking about it. With the result that I’m now creating artworks intended for gallery display – even for sale! – for an exhibition in the summer; and a couple of weeks ago I sang solo in front of an audience for the first time ever – sight-reading two pages of John Cage’s Aria, no less! at a workshop in front of an audience of singers and composers.

It seems to me that even just thinking about this is resulting in my using more of my ‘amateur’ skills, making me more inclined to jump at opportunities where previously I might have hesitated. So now I feel it’s time to start consciously integrating some of these things into the work I’m doing. I’m starting with pieces that use field recordings, live electronics, vocal performance, and video. Who knows what else may end up being included…

Justifying normal

Recital de Canto, on FlickrOne of the many things I love about studying composition at Trinity Laban is the attention paid to not only the music you write, but to how that music is presented. For Masters students preparing their final recital, this means consideration not just of organising players and getting programmes printed, but designing the performance space: how will the chairs be arranged? what lighting will be used? how will you use the quite vast space of Blackheath Halls and create an appropriate experience for what will probably be a small audience (because of happening at odd times during a weekday) in a large hall?

While nerve-wracking, this is a great process to go through. And there’s no falling back on a standard recital format because however you decide to approach it, you need to be able to justify your decision. And “couldn’t be bothered” just won’t cut it 🙂

And so, in the context of a general contemplation of visual aspects of Crossing Dartmoor, I came to consider performance presentation. I thought about the subject matter and the critical aspect of movement (walking) in Richard Long’s art practice: should my singer move around the stage? Around the whole venue? Should I specify that the scores should be set up at various points around the room and the singer to move around them, with the audience able to view the scores by wandering about the space or even looking over the singer’s shoulder as he performs?

That last idea felt a bit too ‘Stations of the Cross’ for my liking – it seemed contrived and at odds with the very natural-world focus of Long’s art. The other ideas also seemed to trivialise the aspect of walking in Long’s work, so I dismissed those too.

The answer I finally came to brought me right back to the standard recital format: singer in front of the piano, on a normal stage, using classic stances. Why? Why present what is turning out to be fairly experimental music in an overused, traditional format?

I was at the Tate Britain the other day, mostly ensconced in the library doing research on Richard Long, but when I emerged I did my customary wander around the gallery in the hour that remained before closing time. And I found Long’s A Line Made By Walking.

I hadn’t really noticed before how much of its “artiness” is conveyed by the way it is presented: its frame, mount and neat hand-lettered title.

When you examine the work itself, while striking, technically it’s not that great. A photographer intent on making A Photograph would almost certainly have done it differently. Not chopped off the tips of the trees at the top, for instance, or focused entirely on the line to the exclusion of its surrounds. But creating A Photograph was not Long’s intent when making this work.

Dieter Roelstraete’s book Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking examines the work and its genesis and impact in detail.[fn1] This piece was a turning point for Long. The photograph, developed at a London chemist shop, was not created with a view to gallery display, but instead as a mere archival document of work completed. Not created as ‘art’, it has nonetheless become art through its display in galleries, and by means of the constructs of frame, mount, white wall, etc.

The duality of Long’s work is one of the things I find fascinating about it, and something which I feel has very strong parallels with the work of composers of notated music such as myself. The artwork on the gallery wall is not the ‘original’ artwork: it is a representation, documentation, archival material that allows the general public to experience the original in some way. It is accessible archival material presented so that it is art. Similarly, for composers, is the score the piece? Or the performance? Long’s response (as mine) is that the answer is ‘both’, in different ways. The in situ sculptures and the walking are at the heart of his practice as the creation of a score is at the heart of mine – without them there would be nothing to look at or hear, but the representation shown in the gallery or performed in the concert hall is also, in its own ways, art.

Which brings me (finally!) to the point because, as I see it, the vast majority of Long’s created-for-display work – photographs, maps, textworks, mudworks – is designed specifically for the ‘white cube’ gallery space. Possibly this seems obvious, but there are many ways to display work, yet Long generally chooses presentation formats which embrace the white wall, the separation of works one from another, the enforced focus of the standard modernist gallery structure.

Brian O’Doherty, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, says “The ideal gallery space subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art’. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself”[fn2].

In this, I see a reflection of traditional recital conventions: separation of performer from audience by means of a stage, formal clothing and standardised positioning onstage. Rituals of accepting applause, silences before and after performance. And the restrictive behavioural expectations of the audience: to sit in their seats, quietly listening, to applaud when the work is done, not to talk, not to sleep, not to get up and walk around or do anything to pull focus from the performers on the stage. This is our equivalent of the white cube of the art world.

And I think viewing Long’s work within a white cube gallery also highlights two aspects which are possibly relevant to what is turning out to be a fairly experimental song cycle. One is that his presentational preference to work with the conventions of the white cube does – at least in some measure – ‘legitimise’ the work presented as art. The frames, the positioning on the wall, these are things that clearly say to anyone familiar with convention that “this is art”. The other is that even while the work’s status as art is being reinforced by its display environment and mode of presentation, it is also clearly displaying its difference. This is not just a wall-painting, it is mud; this is not just a photograph, it is a record of something that was made somewhere else and this is the only fragment of that original work that I will get to experience.

To put these ideas in the context of Crossing Dartmoor, for one of the pieces, the singer does not sing but instead taps two small granite stones together, in reflection of a line drawn through a contour map of Dartmoor. If I asked the singer to tap his stones while walking round the performance space, it would probably seem quite normal – experimental music has often gone hand-in-hand with new and unusual approaches to the space of performance. However, if I stand him on the stage, by the piano in the usual manner and have him tap, what does this mean? If I align stone-tapping with artsong tradition rather than experimental-music tradition, how does this then affect how my piece is received? what does it say about traditional artsong? about our recital conventions? about our expectations as audience members and the way we listen?

Footnotes

Click on the footnote number to return to the text…
fn1: Dieter Roelstraete, Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking, London: Afterall Books, 2010.
fn2: Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, expanded edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 14.

Chance vs choice: Composing with dice

Composing with 12-sided diceOne of the pieces I’m working on for my song cycle Crossing Dartmoor is based on Richard Long’s Two Continuous Walks Following the Same Line. The basis of the artwork is that Long walked the same path in 1979 and again in 2010 and each time recorded the things he came across. This work’s incarnation in Crossing Dartmoor sees the piano part work with the landmarks, the things that are still there 31 years later, while the singer’s text is the transient things that change position or were only observed on one of the walks.

The idea is to have this piece exist in two versions. In each the piano part is essentially the same while the vocal part changes (except for the final “Railway Line” which will be in both pieces). However, having an identical piano part for both versions disturbed me – while fixed landmarks such as rivers and “old china clay workings” will still be in position, they won’t be exactly the same as they were thirty years previously – they can’t be. Simple principles of erosion forbid it. Whether by rain, wind, animals or people, small details will have changed. Possibly beyond the determining of the human eye, even if a photograph had been taken, but they will have changed – and the person viewing them will have changed even more dramatically.

I first thought that I would ask the pianist to repeat notes at random, but not the same notes or the same number of repetitions each time the piece was performed. In a recent meeting with my supervisor, Sam Hayden, though, the project took a decisive turn towards experimenting with techniques that removed elements from my control, and Sam suggested that I use dice to determine the repetitions and create a fully notated part for this piece.

I was a little apprehensive, I’ll admit – I’ve not done anything like this before and I’ve never been a fan of the plinky-plonk random school of composition (technical term). What I hadn’t expected though, was that using dice to determine which note would be repeated and how many times to repeat it (purple die to choose the note, orange to determine repetitions – thank you, Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot) would give me a whole new perspective on what I’d written.

The pitch material for the piano part already demonstrates one layer of control removed: it is all generated using a cipher. Yes, I picked and chose from the notes provided by the cipher, but each section’s piano notes use only pitches from the cipher for the word it represents. I’m finding that this has turned my attention from inventing the ‘right’ melodic material for the piece (always a fraught experience – what if it sounds right but is actually wrong?? says paranoid-brain) to thinking more about resonance and movement, balancing stasis with activity, with the result that this piano part is a lot more rhythmically varied than anything I’ve ever written before.

Devolving the choices of where repetitions happen and how many times a note is repeated to the dice is now allowing me to work more carefully on how the repetition functions in the piece. On my own, I might not have the guts (yet) to repeat a single mid-phrase note 12 times (hurrah for 12-sided dice!) but faced with a predetermined decision, the question is no longer “gosh – should I?” but becomes “how should these repetitions be paced?” “what are their dynamics?” “how do I shape the repetitions so they create suspense and momentum and don’t just interfere with the piece’s progress?”.

Dealing with these questions, even on a simple run-through, has totally reshaped the piece – for the better, I think! – and made me reconsider things which had seemed very straightforward. I’m really interested now to see how different dice rolls will affect the same piano part for the second version of the song. Maybe one day soon I’ll even brave the 20-sided die 😀

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.

The power of the single idea: How playing the comb is improving my composition

Recently I was part of two performances of Edward Henderson’s opera Manspangled. Edward is a fellow Masters composer at Trinity Laban, and his recent music often uses just a single idea – rather than supplementing and layering themes and concepts, he works with limited materials to create pieces which are simply described but anything but simple in their execution. Manspangled was a very powerful demonstration of this concept of strength and complexity deriving from simplicity.

The work Edward’s doing has been very influential on how I think about my own composition, which all too often, I feel, skips about from idea to idea without fully exploring any of them. I think Drowning Songs demonstrates what I mean by this: I started with two strong ideas – the glissando opening, as expressed in the artwork I made for the piece, and the massed whispered names of drowned sailors. For a five-minute work, this really should have been ample material. Yet something in me felt compelled to add in more conventional music and while I’m pleased with how the piece turned out, I do wonder it might have been a stronger work had I had the courage and tenacity to have pared it back to its essentials.

Now I’ve moved on to the next major work I’m writing this year, a song cycle for tenor and piano, Crossing Dartmoor, which has been commissioned by Simon Oliver Marsh. I’ve not talked about this one much yet because it’s mostly been in brew-mode, but it’s based on textworks (text artworks) by British artist Richard Long, to whom I am most grateful for his permission to use his work.

Crossing Dartmoor started in my mind as a fairly standard sort of song-cycle, but has morphed into a more experimental format. The plan is to write many pieces, each of which explores some facet of reduced compositional control. Some will be fully written out (perhaps having been produced using musical ciphers or chance operations), some will be graphic or text scores that require some or all of the musical material to be generated by the performers. But, whatever approach is taken, each piece will be based around just a single idea. In some pieces this will be a more complex idea than others, but I’m allowing myself no dilution, no distraction: one idea per piece.

So back to Manspangled. My role in this work was as part of a 6-person “insect chorus”. I played the comb (snapping the tines very slowly, drawing my finger down the length of the comb, over and over), the emery board (scraping a nail slowly along the board), bubble wrap, and blew bubbles towards the audience. These sounds (or gestures might be more accurate, given that the bubble-blowing doesn’t really make any noise. Unless, of course, you should chance to knock the lid of your bubble-bottle over the balcony and onto an audience member’s head…) continue throughout the performance.

In its essence, Manspangled can be summed up as:

Quiet continual insect sounds on household items, supplemented by quiet elongated cello glissandi, man speaking, everything interrupted periodically by a loud saxophone.

Or, to be even more reductive:

Quiet. Text. Loud interjections.

Yet complexity is produced in the final result. Listen here:

Firstly, Lavinia Murray’s virtuoso text, wandering through a stream of consciousness, providing shape and momentum to the piece. Secondly the unexpected detail of the tiny insect chorus/cello sounds (you may need headphones to hear them on the recording!) – the tininess of these sounds, and the accumulation of them, drew in both performers and audience to focus at a level which is rare, resulting in a truly mesmeric effect. Thirdly, to be pulled out of this intense focus so violently by the contrasting volume and style of the sax and the actor sets up contradictory modes of listening that are quite shocking and require the listener to completely reassess all the sounds involved in the piece. The bubble-blowing obviously makes no discernible sound but provides a visual counterpoint (as, indeed, do all the insect chorus’ actions) which raises questions for me about what “accompaniment” should/can be.

I’m finding this reduced-materials approach a very useful way of working. The song I’m currently working on for Crossing Dartmoor is using a cipher to generate the pitch material, and I’m finding that this objectivity makes it a bit easier to keep on track with the single-concept plan. Yes, my brain blurts out, “Hey! You could also do this!” but it’s a little easier to identify these and keep them under control than when working entirely with instinct-driven material. It’s easier to focus on the structure and general aims of the piece and to follow the idea through. I’m putting the additional ideas to one side for later pieces 🙂

In particular, I feel that each piece is stronger for being more focused. Not necessarily more beautiful, but that’s not really the aim here. And as an added benefit, composition does seem to be happening faster. I’m procrastinating less and it’s clearer how I need to proceed on pieces. There’s a LOT less reworking of things already done and a lot more focusing on how to move forward.

Edward Henderson can be found on Soundcloud at http://soundcloud.com/edward-henderson. He is also a member of the Bastard Assignments collective and regularly contributes to their fantastic innovative events. Details of their upcoming performances are on the Bastard Assignments website.

Procrastination = Fear

I’ve known this for a long time. It’s an old chestnut of productivity gurus – procrastinators aren’t lazy, it’s simply a way of processing (or not processing, rather) some sort of fear associated with the task that’s being put off. In my case, in just about every piece I write, sooner or later I find myself procrastinating. I procrastinate before starting a piece because I’m concerned about not working out my materials correctly and that this will mean I can’t develop the piece how I want to. I procrastinate at the end of a piece – usually until I’m sick to death of it, as now – because I’m paralysed by the notion that it’s not the absolute best work I could have done with those materials. I procrastinate in between because of the fear that I’ll choose the wrong path and not know it until I’m too close to the deadline to change it.

Drowning Songs has also brought a whole new fear to the fore – one I’ve been aware of but never really addressed in any significant way: the fear of not really knowing what it sounds like. Without a workshop stage in the process of writing this piece, I’m effectively sending it off without having any concrete evidence to show me whether it’s going to work.

There’s going to be a lot of this this year, I suspect. Most of my previous music has been written within the confines of computer programmes that play back what I’ve written, so that while I still need to balance the sounds they make with my knowledge of how real instruments will sound, I have a pretty good idea of how it all fits together. Not so with Drowning Songs. There’s a few bars towards the end that are ‘normal’, where the parts are synchronised and a computer can show me that they’ll ‘work’. But much of the rest of the piece is unsynchronised, much of the material is unpitched, much relies on the effect of how a group of singers work together. To the point where I’m currently experiencing massive procrastination because I’m terrified that the whole thing’s going to be a disaster because I don’t have the level of control, of certainty, that I’ve come to rely on.

Which is, of course, the point. A Sketchbook of Mushrooms was all about letting go, about NOT controlling every aspect, embracing the random and seeing what would happen. And this project is about taking that a step further – not just loosening up my hold on my materials but actively building performer freedom and flexibility into my music, embracing the possibility of dissonance, of clamour, of confusion in a bid to create an end result that draws out a stronger emotional response from the listener than my previous carefully aligned work.

Even in the face of fear, though, this piece must be finished. I need to remind myself continually that Drowning Songs is part of a research process. I need to commit to an approach, put it on paper, send it off, see what happens. And only once I’ve seen what happens can I assess whether the approach I’ve taken works or not. If it doesn’t I’ll be disappointed. I know this. I accept it. But disappointment doesn’t preclude the possibility of learning something extremely valuable – possibly more valuable than if the piece is a raging success and nothing needs to be changed at all.

Graphic scores, text scores, freedom and ownership

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from work on Drowning Songs since handing in the draft, to work on two very different pieces. The first is Parlour Game, a text score created for Trinity Laban’s Rude Health series of experimental music events; and the second is a new graphic score, Sepiascape with Grey, created for Valentina Pravodelov who, having completed her MMus in classical piano this year is now studying for an MMus in voice, focusing on popular music.

It’s been a good thing, I think, in terms of how I think about my music and specifically about how I’m approaching composition and the whole freeing-up process that started with A Sketchbook of Mushrooms. My MFA project seems to be starting to focus more clearly on notation and the exploration of different ways to convey the more flexible ideas that I come up with when I work on a piece away from the manuscript and away from the computer, so it’s been good to take a step backwards and think about what’s going on when I’m not dealing directly with traditional notation.

Parlour Game is the first time I’ve made a text-based score. It’s based on the children’s game of Chinese Whispers and is structured more like a set of game rules than anything else. The number of performers is flexible (three or more), the actual material used is entirely open and may even be audience-generated (although the audience at the first performance was, it has to be said, a little reluctant to be involved!), a lot of it is improvised performance, both musical and dramatic, and yet watching the performance, in spite of so very many parameters being intentionally placed beyond my control, it still felt like ‘my’ piece.

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable when working with improvisation (I’ve written about this before so apologies if I’m repeating myself!). I really enjoy making graphic scores and I love hearing what performers make of them, but I never feel like the music is really “mine”. The score is definitely mine, but the music belongs to the performers, even when I can hear how it relates to the score.

Possibly the difference between Parlour Game and graphic scores I’ve made is that it contains a whole series of parameters that influence the performance, whereas my interest with graphic scores is in hearing what the performers’ imaginations make of something. I feel that if I have such a defined idea of how I want a piece to sound that I need to dictate how performers interpret graphic gestures, then I might as well write that out in notes.

The ‘score’ of Parlour Game provides a context for the performance (the singers represent a ‘family’ sitting around, bored, after Christmas dinner), a process for the piece (‘rumours’ circulate through the audience and down to the performers, who use this as the text for singing/arguing), some suggested pastimes while portraying boredom (singing Christmas carols, reading aloud); it sets out parameters for the performers: what to do when a text is received by a performer, the possibility of rejecting a text with suggested phrases for this, graphic melodic suggestions and text-based descriptions of modes of delivery (“shout and stamp your tiny foot”, “get a little tetchy”), a suggested way of ending the piece.

Graphic melodic suggestion for Parlour Game

Explain through gritted teeth - text instruction for Parlour Game

 

For the first performance, in addition, I was the one who selected the source material (readings and ‘rumours’ were taken from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) and set the dress code (tacky Christmas). Maybe this had something to do with it, but I think the ownership of this piece came more in the setting of parameters than in the detail. Although, that said, the use of some of my suggested phrases possibly also played a large role in how much of myself I see in the piece.

Sepiascape with Grey is almost completely different from Parlour Game. It’s serious where Parlour Game is intensely silly, for a start! Unlike most of my previous graphic scores which have tended to be created quite spontaneously, this one has been through about 7 different drafts before I felt the balance was right, with each version addressing issues that the previous one had raised about my own thinking, and in particular what I usually assume about the musical languages used by my performers.

Sepiascape draft - version 3
Draft version 3 of Sepiascape with Grey – WAY too busy and felt like it had little connection with the other songs in the setlist. (click to view larger version)

 

Unlike my previous graphic scores which have all been intended for musicians from a classical/experimental background, Sepiascape with Grey is intended for a programme of darkly urban music by bands such as Massive Attack, Portishead and Joy Division.

Now, I’m the first person to admit that – technically – I know very little about popular music, and I found that in the early stages of thinking about this piece I got very caught up in superficial ‘constraints’ such as verse/chorus structures, repetition and unvarying metres. Gradually, though, I realised that these elements are not really things that need to be referenced in the score but rather that they are part of the performer’s equipment that they may bring to the piece – in exactly the same way as flexible metres, fluidity and unfixed structure are part of the language of the experimental musicians I am more accustomed to creating graphic pieces for. I am not writing popular music with this, merely trying to present an appropriate framework within which popular music could happen if the performers choose to drawn on those elements.

Sepiascape with Grey - final version
Final version of Sepiascape with Grey (click to view larger version)

 

Ultimately, I found myself focusing on textures and timbres, trying to create a structure with these elements that would sit well with the other pieces in the programme.

Text was a particularly tricky aspect of this piece. Most popular music is song, and most popular songs work within a pretty traditional verse/chorus structure. I dallied (very) briefly with the idea of writing some lyrics to go with the score, but I discarded this idea quite fast.

Mostly this was because it seemed to make an assumption that would tie the performers into a particular structure, which rather goes against what interests me about creating graphic scores. I considered leaving out a text entirely, but that too didn’t feel right – whether because the piece really needed the text, or perhaps some deep-rooted assumption about vocal music needing words, or possibly just because so much of my recent work has had a textual element to it.

The compromise that I came to was to include a tiny, tiny text, which could be used as the whole text for the song, a leaping-off point for the band to develop a complete lyric as part of the interpretative process, or which could be ignored as a foreground element, becoming just another part of the overall mood expressed by the score. This text ended up consisting of a single line from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and a couple of words I pulled together which seemed to fit the whole Dark City feeling I was trying to convey:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
Wasteland
Never-never
Unreal city.

I have no idea at this stage how Valentina has approached the piece (although I’ve had an email in which she says it’s working well – hurrah!) but I’m really looking forward to hearing the result in January!

Cut’n’paste job: Constructing a text from multiple sources

I’m very excited to have been commissioned to write a new 5-minute a cappella piece on a maritime theme for the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir. The first draft is due at the beginning of December, so I’m currently immersed in research and drafting up initial ideas. Rather than use specifically nautical poetry, with which I feel little connection and which has already been done extremely well by composers such as Stanford, I have decided to compile a text about drowning from a range of sources. I’m hoping that this approach will combine some of the benefits of writing my own text (not having pacing dictated by the text, tailoring section lengths to musical rather than poetical needs) while avoiding actually having to write my own 🙂

Cue lovely chunks of time ensconced in the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Library (I think that makes 8 libraries I belong to here now…) reading up on drowning. Some of this reading has been useful – a 1904 Method for the Treatment of the Apparently Drowned, a letter dated July 1805 (which I actually got to handle!!!) from a sailor on the HMS Victory conveying the news of a friend’s death by drowning to his parents in Nottinghamshire; other bits have been merely time-consuming, such as the six chapters of a book called All the Drowned Sailors which I read because I simply couldn’t put it down: while they didn’t actually say much about drowning, there was rather a lot of gripping narrative about insanity, dehydration and death by shark. Drowning really is a terrifyingly long way from the worst thing that can happen to you at sea…

In the past couple of days I have started ‘real’ work on the piece. My ideas for the opening solidified quite early, but I kept thinking that I should map out the structure of the piece and then work out which texts to use with what. However, I found that I was having a lot of trouble thinking about the structure without considering the specific text I should use. I guess that even though the musical structure will work independently of a textual structure, it’s still dependent on the text in the same way that when I create structure diagrams for instrumental pieces, they are often based on textural blocks. Without the texture in mind, the structure doesn’t happen, and in this case without picking out the text I wanted to work with, the structure wasn’t happening.

I had originally thought that I might be able to hang the whole piece on the letter, but I think now that that’s not going to work. It’s so very personal that I’m reluctant to use it whole, to dissipate the poignancy of its message through the mechanics of dividing the text between the voices. I had already thought to use just fragments of text from the Method, so now I’m thinking of doing the same with the letter, focusing on phrases which can represent so many similar letters that have been sent to grieving families over the centuries.

I also have a few fragments of poetry that were used in a document from the Shackleton expedition, as epitaphs for lost expedition members. Plus the names of drowned Merchant Navy seamen (I have a book of these on order at the Caird Library – due in on Tuesday!), plus an assortment of words that I’m thinking of as “drowning rhymes” in the manner of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb’s “shawm rhymes”, “flute rhymes” etc. (which you can hear from about a minute into the following track).

These “rhymes” will be words like DOWN, DROWN, BURN and BREATHE. Not exactly rhyming, but related in the sounds they use (D/B, DR/BR/BUR and the progression of the vowel sounds) and also related to the reported experience of drowning.

I’ve worked up a first draft plan for the opening using these words, showing what I want to do with them. I think it’s fairly clear, but I’m not sure yet how much of the graphic information will make it into the score – I’m still working through some ideas in this respect.

Drowning songs opening

I’m thinking that the piece will proceed via passages of compression and relaxation. This comes from the Method: “sufficient air for the maintenance of life could be introduced by alternate compression and relaxation of the chest walls”. ‘Compression’ will most likely be rhythmic homogeneity while ‘relaxation’ will be more loosely connected material.

I’ve never compiled a text in this way before. It’s a very different way of thinking than working from complete passages or poems. The need to convey a sense of the whole text is removed because it is entirely appropriate if only fragments are comprehensible by the audience in this situation. I’ve chosen this approach because recently I’ve started to feel quite hemmed in when working with complete texts. The reason I rarely set rhymed poetry is that I feel I need to completely break the poem in order to make it appropriate for music. If I don’t then the music seems crippled by the poem’s own internal music (which all good poems have. And many bad poems too). By using fragments, it feels more like the music is in control and that the structure will develop from musical requirements, not textual ones.

The other benefit is that I can include multiple levels of meaning in the words I’m using, which is something that really appeals to me and something I touched on slightly when writing my own text for Breadcrumbs earlier this year. At the moment there are elements of the physical experience of drowning, resuscitation methods, grief and the personal and institutional expression of sorrow, and the very personal specificity of the names of people who have actually died.

I’m hoping that the book of names I’m seeing on Tuesday will yield something I can use – not sure what content I could use to fulfil this role if those documents don’t provide something useful. It’s very important to me with this piece to use – for want of a better word – authentic texts. The specific stories behind the words I’m using are a large part of the power of that text. This may not be something which conveys to an audience, but it matters to me as I’m writing it, and hopefully once the choir knows that the names are the names of real people who drowned, the letter fragments are from an actual letter, the poetry was chosen as a memorial to real people, that it will colour the approach they take in singing this material. There’s a level of respect that goes along with a true story, a gravitas, which cannot be matched by invention, no matter how plausible, and I feel that to try to fake any part of this is to belittle the pain of those who have died and those who have lost people to the sea.