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!

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.

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.