Work in progress: A failed experiment

Today I took a chance and dived into a great project initiated by flute and saxophone duo, Duo Fujin – a challenge to write a new composition in 12 hours for flute/piccolo and alto/soprano saxophone based on a ‘secret ingredient’ which they would announce at 9am New York time (2pm here in London). It’s been a while since I’ve really stretched myself with a proper deadline so I tentatively signed up to give it a go.

I should say that I haven’t actually managed to produce a piece. What I have produced is an assortment of mangled bits of music that I’m ashamed to show in public (so you’re not going to see them) but the experience of working through my process intensively and quickly has actually been really interesting for me, in spite of my failure to produce anything worth listening to. No sitting back and pondering, it’s been a case of “Right. Now that’s enough of that. What’s the next step?”. And because it’s been interesting for me and because a number of people on Twitter seem to be curious about the work I’ve done towards my failed experiment, I figured it was blogging time.

I’ll run through the stages I went through, along with images of the pages I created as I was working through things. I’ve probably written things that sound stupid and used images that don’t seem to match up with anything but perhaps there’s something enlightening there. If you have questions or gentle observations, please put ’em in the comments!

So the secret ingredient was…

REMIX

which immediately (as these things are intended to do) threw all my ideas out and set me off on a completely different tangent. I’m interested in popular culture but I’m the first to admit that I’m not hugely up to speed with it. We touched on remixing a bit in the audio production course I did as part of my Graduate Diploma in Design (yes, audio production in a design course, you did read that right) and it interested me but I never really got around to following it up much. So step one was to do some swift reading around the topic and work out what ‘remix’ could actually cover in a classical, notated-or-semi-notated musical context.

Remix Project P1

I remembered that I had a chunk of an old issue of Wired (July 2005, if you’re interested) lurking in the dark depths of my hard-copy read/review file and dug it out and read it – interesting articles on the virtual band Gorillaz (if you haven’t heard their stuff, get out there and listen now – their latest album, Plastic Beach, is fascinating) and a marvellous one by William Gibson on writing as collage.

(I was collating all this stuff on the iPad, so noting notable quotes involved snapping a photo of the text with the iPad’s camera, erasing extraneous bits and drawing over it with the highlighter ‘pen’ 🙂 No excess writing involved.)

That got some thoughts running and sent me hunting for DJ Danger Mouse’s infamous (and, I believe, banned in some places) The Grey Album, a mashup of The Beatles’ ‘white album’ and rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album. We heard about this in my audio production course but it couldn’t be found for love nor money. Now? Google it. Download. Listen. Awesome.

Remix Project P4

I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The second step was to grab my collage box and just go for a wade and pull out anything that sparked an idea. These I again snapped with the iPad’s camera, pulled them into my notebook programme (Noteshelf, if you’re interested) and slammed them up against each other and made some notes. That was a bit of a curious collection:

  • a black and white line-drawing texture from a brochure I picked up at (I think) the poster museum in Zurich about 5 years ago
  • an ad featuring an excess of hundreds and thousands and a paddle pop
  • an art flyer for an exhibition of the work of Norwegian artist Ørnulf Opdahl which I never stood a chance of getting to at the University Gallery at Northumbria University (I get these things in the post along with stuff that’s going on a King’s Place in London, which I CAN get to). His work is gorgeous. Go and check it out.
  • a Tate promotional postcard for their Eadweard Muybridge exhibition that was on earlier this year (which I did get to)
  • a ticket for Les Machines de l’Île in Nantes
  • a postcard from the Banksy exhibition in Bristol a couple of years back of a zebra having his stripes laundered
  • an ad for incredibly ornate Dior enamelled rings
  • a marvellous drawing of aeroplanes in the sky by Alighiero e Boetti which (used to?) hang in the Tate Modern. I think it’s all done in biro, if I recall correctly. Amazing work.

[If any copyright holders have a problem with this, please let me know and I’ll remove the related section immediately. My work draws on a lot of visual art and it’s hard to explain the process without showing the pieces that went into it, but I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes here]

Remix Project P6

Next up: listening. I found The Grey Album very intriguing but I did begin to wish that I knew the Jay-Z album so I could really tell how it had been used. But even just hearing how the extremely familiar Beatles elements had been incorporated was fascinating. A number of tracks seemed to have random spaces in them which gave an interesting headspinny effect. Not sure if that was intentional or just my poor ailing laptop chucking a wobbly… but it sparked some new thoughts anyway. I’m looking forward to coming back to this one later and really listening quietly through to it a few times.

Remix Project P8

Finally, I pulled in the piano score of my set of 10-second pieces, Pieces of Eight, which I planned to hack up and glue back together in interesting permutations and hunted through looking for similarities and where I might find bits that could mush together effectively. I don’t think it was a bad concept. I suspect that a large part of the difficulty I had was because my musical language has changed a little bit and because of that I think I probably need to take a completely different approach with this early material. It might have worked better by creating a heavily manipulated tape part out of the mashup ideas, then creating shiny new instrumental lines over the top of it that gently referenced some of what was going on underneath. Might follow through on that idea one day.

So there you have it. I really liked pushing myself through the process at high speed and I might try that again someday with another piece – maybe make myself tear through the first stages to a point where I feel that I could do notes, then let it simmer overnight and see what happens. The speed and need to not linger over any one idea seemed to create more imaginative collisions when I found something new and there were a lot of ideas happening. Evidently not the right ideas for this project though!

Want to see the whole notebook? See it on Flickr.

Blades of grass: Arvo Pärt, Joan Miró and musical detail

A few weeks ago a composer-friend posted a wonderful video of a composition masterclass with Arvo Pärt. He takes a tiny phrase from his piano piece Für Alina and separates out its components with beautiful precision. Playing each line separately, he shows that each on its own is musically nothing much, but when put together, the detail of the intervals created and the motion of one part against the other suddenly makes that special Pärt soundworld happen and it’s just gorgeous. In his words, ‘a blade of grass has the status of a flower’ – even the tiniest detail is as important as a big theme.

I haven’t been able to get this idea out of my head. It turned up at about the point I’m up to in my Work in Progress series of posts – I was very focused on the held chords and notes in Carrion Comfort and my teacher was encouraging me to pull out my tiny main theme and work with inversion, augmentation and diminution of intervals to see how it might be transformed and gradually expanded to take it into new territory. It seemed like just the right idea at the right time.

This weekend, I went out to the Tate Modern with another friend to see the big Joan Miró exhibition they have on at the moment. We were both entranced by the details and distillation of his symbolic language, which you could see happening right from some of the earliest paintings in the exhibition – a naturalistic or semi-naturalistic object gradually became a symbolic mark, which then evolved to take on characteristics of other objects-become-symbols. So a ladder-of-escape symbol also reflected the symbol of the Catalan peasant, representative of the painter’s national identity.

Exploring the tiny details in the paintings in the exhibition, I was reminded of Pärt’s remarks. And then afterwards I had a Facebook message from my friend with a Miró quote from a letter the artist sent to JF Rafols:

“Joy at learning to understand a tiny blade of grass in a landscape. Why belittle it? A blade of grass is as enchanting as a tree or a mountain.”

When I looked further into this quote (thank you, Google) I was delighted to find that he goes on to say:

“Everyone looks for and paints only the huge masses of trees, of mountains, without hearing the music of blades of grass and little flowers and without paying attention to the tiny pebbles of a ravine”

I love that some tiny gesture can have so much significance. A twist of an interval, a series of small dots can completely change the way you view the whole. These artists delineate and show only the essence of the work. It makes me wonder what in my own work is really needed and what is just clouding the structure – how does one effectively work with a large number of instruments but still pare the music back to only what is needed?

A blade of grass has the status of a flower.

Work in progress: Carrion comfort 2

The last work in progress post on Carrion Comfort looked at the beginnings of the piece – the first composition session I spent on it. Today I’m going to skip forward a bit and look at the next point of major change to the music. Obviously, there are small tweaks going on all the time and new bits continue to be composed but mostly those are a bit dull to write about 🙂

The piece is longer now, which is probably not too surprising. And the new part introduces some new elements to the sound, most notably glissandi in the strings. My composition tutor recommended a bunch of listening for me in between the last version and this one – including Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and, more significantly for this version, Malcolm Arnold’s Trumpet Concerto.

I didn’t get around to doing very much with the Elgar, but I did give the Arnold a good listen to. Overall, I wasn’t that taken with the outer movements, but the second movement, the Andante con moto, I really liked. Again, it’s a space issue – he makes beautiful use of barely-supported solo lines in this movement, especially in the trumpet and flute, and the whole thing is wonderfully still and aetheral. I haven’t been able to find a video or other generally available audio file online of this piece, but it’s on Spotify, if you have access to that in your country. There’s also a deeply inadequate 20-second snippet on iTunes. Anyway, after listening to this piece several times over, I became somewhat enamoured of the idea of the solo line and barely-there accompaniment, which resulted in, in particular, the flute line at the end of today’s version. I’m not 100% sure it works in context, but it achieved a few different things, simply by writing it.

The first thing was to pull me away from the stop-start nature of what I’d been writing before it. It’s the first time where a part has a section of any length to play and got me thinking a bit more about permutations of the thematic material I’d started with. It also made me start to think about which instruments I wanted to be prominent within the piece, why and how they might interact. As a flautist and singer my thinking tends to run in lines, and harmony is something that happens more or less by accident. I don’t think this is an ideal situation, and it’s one I’m working on, but nevertheless, it’s how I work right now.

The big change to this version though, was to do with the text. While Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort was perfect for the mood I wanted to create, and the opening words had fitted into my opening vocal parts perfectly, I pretty soon ran into difficulties: My setting was becoming a bit stop-start and not terribly effective; Also, at the rate I was setting it, the piece was going to be 2 hours long unless I did some serious text-cutting, which I didn’t want to do; and I was beginning to feel a bit hampered by it because I didn’t want this piece to be epic (except in the sense of ‘awesome’ 🙂 ), I wanted it to be small and passionate and concentrated. Being the first real orchestral piece I’ve ever written, too, I wanted to be able to work within a manageable canvas and have a hope of being able to finish it during the scope of my lessons – which were supposed to end at the beginning of June – so that I could reap the benefits of having a teacher guide me throughout the whole of the piece’s composition. I also had dim hopes of maybe being able to use it in a portfolio for a Masters degree application, which would mean having to have it finished by about August.

So I thought a bit, and re-read the poem and thought some more about how I could fix this and finally came up with the decision to delete the voice and replace it with a trumpet. I wanted a sound that would cut through the other timbres, and I also wanted to have a bit more of a brass “choir” in there, rather than the horn and trombone duo I started out with – it just gives more possibilities, I think, when playing the different sections off each other, to be able to at least use 3-part harmony in an all-brass bit.

I’m really very happy with the vocal replacement. The trumpet I think works really well. I’ve also been a little daring (for me) and included a moment with mute, which I’m hoping to draw on more later, and the stridency of the muted trumpet harks back well to the agonised passion of the poem.

The poem’s still there, still a big influence on the piece – and I’m still planning on calling it Carrion Comfort – but it’s more of a background to the piece rather than having any specific interaction with it, with the exception of certain rhythmic elements which have been taken from the text rhythms.

I’m changing format to use video today because I wanted to start to show you the score as well as the audio, just because I think it makes things clearer. The video is best viewed full-screen to be able to see the detail of the notes. If it’s a bit fuzzy, and your system can handle it, you’ll need to switch to HD: Switch to ‘Watch on YouTube’, then click on where it says “360p” or “480p” or similar, and choose “720p – HD” then go to full-screen again – this should clear it all up.

I hope you enjoy it and look forward to your gentle constructive criticism in the comments 🙂

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Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 1

This post comes with a disclaimer: it’s taken quite a lot of courage for me to put this online – not only does this post contain the very first moments of the composition of Carrion Comfort, but the piece itself isn’t finished yet – by quite a long way. Please be gentle in the comments and don’t judge what the final work will be based on what you read and hear here. Also, the sounds are straight out of Finale – don’t expect miracles!

I’ve talked myself into posting my work-in-progress online for a few reasons. One is that people seem to like me talking about my compositional process; another is that I’ve reached a point with this piece where I’m feeling a little bit uncertain of where it wants to go. Often analysing what I’ve already done and how I got there helps me to work out how to move forward. Doing this in public, though, is a little scary…

And so to begin

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 1 by caitlinrowley

Carrion Comfort is a work for chamber orchestra that started as an idea for a song for tenor voice with chamber orchestra. Single winds and brass, strings, maybe some percussion.

Before I started writing, I’d been listening to Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies I pretty solidly for about a week. That’s a fantastic piece. So subtle and spacious. I knew I really wanted to explore a sense of space like I was hearing in the Maw in whatever I was going to write next, so I sat down with the score and started analysing how he achieved that.

The opening of Carrion Comfort is very much about exploring some of the techniques Maw uses. I’ve written about these in an earlier blog post, Making space in music, so I won’t go into detail here, but that’s where it begins.

The first minute and a quarter just wrote themselves in one big blurp (technical term). I had all these sounds in my head from the Maw and sat down to try to make some sense of them, but without much clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do. I just wanted to explore some ideas around the spaciousness in that work. Next thing I knew, I had over a minute’s worth of music solidly sketched. It is very much a sketch – later progress has filled in a lot of detail and given it more form – but it’s a sketch which (I think) shows clearly the form it’s going to take.

The piece started writing itself before I even had a text, which is most unusual for me – the first three notes of the vocal part just put themselves in. I knew I wanted to find a text which explored a crisis of faith, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Carrion Comfort was just what I was looking for – not only did it express exactly what I was hoping to explore, but its first words exactly matched the pattern that had written itself.

There’s not really a lot more to say about it at this point – it just wrote itself out of what I’d been listening to and thinking about, but this is the starting point – 16 March 2011, 11.23pm.

Next week I’ll dig out a later version to look at. If you want to be sure not to miss it, please do join the email list!

I’d love to hear your comments and your own experiences at starting a new piece – but please be gentle and remember that this is but an egg of the piece yet-to-be-finished!