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
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!

Considering the audience

In our latest ‘All Composers’ session, the question of whether we do or should consider our audience when writing was raised. Now, I know well that this is a question that’s kind of been done to death and this is not a post about whether composers in general should or shouldn’t. I don’t think that discussion is particularly helpful. What I do think is helpful is for individual composers to consider the role the audience plays in what they do and how they perceive what they do.

For me, I don’t think I do really consider the audience that much while I’m writing. I’m more interested by what I feel to be the internal drive of the piece, about creating something that to me feels satisfying and that is appropriate to the situation I’m writing it for – if it’s something I’m writing for a particular performer, what are their strengths, weaknesses, interests and things they want to work on? if it’s a piece I’m just writing for fun, then what parameters (if any) do I want to set myself?

What I do think I do, which I hadn’t really considered before, is to spend a fair bit of time stepping back from a piece and trying to consider it from an audience member’s perspective – does it hang together? If I pretend I don’t know what’s coming next, does this bit still work? what is the overall structural balance like?

In the context of needing to push myself to take more risks, I wonder whether this step in the process might not actually be counterproductive – is this the point at which I sanitise music that might be less conventional to fit into some mould I’m not even conscious of trying to fit? Do the things which sound unbalanced to me actually sound excitingly wobbly to other people? I’m thinking now that these are questions I probably should be exploring. Sometimes, certainly, this process can take a pedestrian section of a piece and make it more interesting, but maybe more would be learned by just writing it, giving it to performers, then hearing it and writing a new piece which learns from what’s been done in the workshop. I guess this is largely what my work on A Sketchbook of Mushrooms was tackling, although I didn’t think of it in these terms at the time.

I think too that this stepping-back process could be part of why I’ve gone through such major periods of stuckness on pieces such as Red on Black on Maroon and Carrion Comfort, so at the very least a period of experimentation with this idea is probably worth a go…

What do you think? What role does the audience (either real or imagined) play in the development of your creative work? Is it important to you for your work to be perceived in a certain way?

(And look! I got through the whole post without mentioning Milton Babbitt! Go me!)


I’m feeling a little shellshocked at the moment. I had my final recital for my Master of Music degree on Friday and am now trying to regather my thoughts.

I was really thrilled with how the recital, titled Colour and Shadows, turned out. My performers all did amazing things with learning and performing my music – some of it really quite difficult – in a short period of time. My huge thanks to all of them: Valentina Pravodelov (piano), the Hanley Quartet, The Peacock Ensemble, Julia Weatherley (soprano) and Clemmie Curd (cor anglais). The response was great too – so many people said such kind and encouraging things afterwards! – it was a really lovely experience. And both Julia and Valentina’s performances of Breadcrumbs and In Detail, respectively, in their own recitals, were fantastic too.

So now I’m regrouping, finalising my transfer into the Master of Fine Arts degree, and thinking about how to approach my projects for the coming year. And these are mounting up! A chamber opera for Julia Weatherley, a song cycle for Simon Marsh, a requiem for solo voice and (possibly) viola for David Jones, some short pieces for violin and cello for the Chapel Hill Duo, and a 5-minute piano duet for Rebecca Cohen – plus a small assortment of other pieces I’d like to write too!

The second year of the MFA is focused on project work – similar to the work I was doing on A Sketchbook of Mushrooms a few months back, but an entire academic year’s worth. ‘Personal Project on steroids’ is how I’m describing it to people! My project is looking at the intersection of art and text in composition. The topic is a little vague right now, but I want to look at different approaches to text-setting, text-creation and the use of speech rhythms in instrumental music.

The pieces I have lined up to write will use a broad range of approaches to text. For the opera, I’m planning on writing my own text (as I did for Breadcrumbs); for the song-cycle I have permission from visual artist Richard Long to use some of his textworks about Dartmoor (hugely excited about this!) so it’s using textual visual art as lyrics. I’m still working on concepts for the requiem, but David’s real strength lies in characterisation and I want to see how I can use this gift while using a standardised, non-narrative text.

Of course, the project will doubtless traipse into other areas (I’m already doing some reading on dramatic form and thinking about how this might relate to instrumental music as well as operatic) and may veer more in one direction than another, but this is all part of the fun…

Cy Twombly: Defeating linear thinking

My Cy Twombly project is now at an end – I handed it in on Thursday – so I thought it would probably be a good idea to just put down my thoughts about what it achieved, given that it changed direction so much over the course of the project, and my thinking about what it achieved changed vastly just through the process of writing the thing up.

The project started out as a composition-based exploration of how visual arts techniques and elements could be directly ‘translated’ into music, my idea being that I might possibly be able to use these translated elements to compose music in the same way that these things go together in visual art. My previous posts cover this part of the project in some detail and while they’ve rendered some possibly-useful things (the Kandinsky-based cipher to convert lines and angles into music may be of use in the future) the last two pieces, Mushrooms VI and VII are the ones that have really made an impact on me.

Mushroom VI collage, by Caitlin Rowley

Following the mess-making of Mushrooms III, IV and V, I made another two collage-scores with the specific aim of then rendering them as notated music. Initially, I was thinking of this process as being basically creating an interpretation of a graphic score, just written down.

However, working through them, I found that I was thinking in quite different ways about these collages and how I was extracting music from them. I found I was using them more like reference tables, like tools – not as a source I was trying to render in a different form, but like something I was mining for details which I was then working with in my usual fashion.

It’s hard to explain and I spent half a day on Wednesday tearing my hair out trying to work out the difference between what I feel I was doing and interpreting a graphic score, and I think the difference comes down to the role I feel the collages play in this process. They are not the piece. They are something I’m using to create the piece. While I went through a brief period of thinking that possibly the collage should be as legitimate a source of the piece as the notated version (in much the same way as Carrion Comfort exists as both notated orchestral piece and graphic score for any forces), in the end I felt that neither of these two collages really WERE the pieces I’d made – and indeed could well be used to create other pieces.

The most important factor I found in working like this was that it completely overcame my resistance to working linearly. I’m beginning to suspect that the linear approach is what may make it difficult for me to write longer pieces, why so much of my music up until this year was only about three minutes long. I find it difficult to keep everything in my head when I’m working from start to finish, but working with the collages, seeing all the fragments of music I was working with laid out visually, it made new connections and made me see how each small fragment might be extended, combined with other fragments, and so on. To the extent that I was finding so many ideas in these collages, that both pieces’ durations are dictated pretty much solely by the fact that I had to have them ‘finished’ in order to workshop them. Mushroom VII, in particular, I feel was just getting going when I cut it off.

So I’m definitely going to use this process again – indeed AM using this process again, on a piece for vocal quartet plus four-hand piano that I’m working on. I’ve used a visual approach to cut down the text (a poem written by my father) to be appropriate for a 5-minute piece and am about to embark upon the next stage in the visual process, which will involve identifying the key parts of the text for repetition and emphasis using the same visual method. Looking forward to seeing how this works in the ‘real world’!

Cy Twombly: Lines and angles as musical ciphers

As part of my research for my Cy Twombly project, A Sketchbook of Mushrooms, I did quite a bit of thinking about how the specific elements of the artworks I was working with could directly translate into musical material. We had a session with composer John Woolrich for our All Composers workshop class which focused on ciphers (e.g. Shostakovich’s use of DSCH, Bach’s use of his own name, etc.) and I wondered if there could be a way that I could ‘translate’ visual elements into musical material to use in a piece.

I figured that Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane would be an excellent place to start, and so it turned out to be. Kandinsky kindly categorises lines and angles as being warm, cool or ambiguous and his surrounding descriptions began to remind me of some of the descriptions surrounding general attitudes to modalities and the specific way in which intervals are treated in species counterpoint. While I feel that the scheme I outline here is rather simplistic still, I think it could be a useful starting point for something which, with a bit more thought and some experimenting could yield interesting results. I used this simple scheme in Mushroom III for the project, and found – like the ciphers Woolrich described – that it gave a quick way to create musical material that did seem (to me anyway) to feel connected to the artwork, and the arbitrariness of following a process for this creation gave me a kind of liberation from questions of whether what I was writing might be a hackneyed approach to translate visual material.

So, in short, this is what I ended up with. Reading up on what Kandinsky was saying about points and lines, it seemed to me that points related best to a single tone, whether sustained or not, while lines related to harmony in the following way (all quotes are from pages 58-9 of Point and Line to Plane):

Line style Kandinsky’s description Related modality
Horizontal ‘coldness and flatness are the basic sounds of this line, and it can be designated as the most concise form of the potentiality for endless cold movement.’ [p. 58] Minor
Vertical ‘flatness is supplanted by height and coldness by warmth. Therefore, the vertical line is the most concise form of the potentiality for endless warm movement’ [p. 59] Major
Diagonal ‘equal union of coldness and warmth. Therefore, the diagonal line is the most concise form of the potentiality for endless cold-warm movement’ [p. 59] Atonal/ambiguous

Obviously, a diagonal line can have many different angles, which could then accommodate differing levels of ambiguity – from basically major/minor with ‘wrong note’ harmony, through to fully atonal music.

Kandinsky’s discussion of angles relating to pressure put me in mind of the consideration of dissonance as being indicative of the amount of movement inherent in an interval (I think I read this in Walter Piston’s book on harmony – will look it up!) and the results I came up with for angles are these (all quotes are from pp. 71-2 of Point and Line to Plane)

Angle type Relates to shape Relates to colour Kandinsky’s description Related intervals
Right angle Square/Rectangle Red ‘The most objective of the three typical angles is the right angle, which is also the coldest. It divides the square plane into exactly 4 parts’ Consonant: 3rds, 6ths, perfect 5ths, unison, octaves
Acute angle Triangle Yellow ‘The acute angle is the tensest as well as the warmest. It cuts the plane into exactly 8 parts’ Dissonant: 2nds, 7ths
Obtuse angle Circle Blue ‘Increasing the right angle leads to the weakening of the forward tension and the desire for the conquest of the plane grows in proportion. This greed is, nevertheless, restrained in so far as the obtuse angle is not capable of dividing the plane exactly: it goes into it twice and leaves a portion of 90o unconquered.’ Ambiguous: tritone, perfect 4ths

I included the perfect fourth as an ambiguous interval because of its sometimes being consonant and sometimes dissonant in traditional voice-leading, depending on its context. This gives a little more scope, I feel, when dealing with obtuse angles and circles.

I haven’t yet tried to relate these to colours, as Kandinsky does – there’s so much variation, although it could create an interesting approach to harmony to try to assess, say, the levels of red and yellow in a shade of orange and to translate that as a combination of consonant and dissonant intervals. I also feel that there could be a lot of reconsideration to be done here, especially as regards right angles. Kandinsky’s use of the idea of ‘objectivity’ for this angle to me sounds more like perfect intervals than consonant 3rds and 6ths but for now this suffices to test the theory, I think.

Cy Twombly: Making a mess

A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: IV
A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: III
A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: III

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

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

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

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

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

And my supervisor was over the moon 😀

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

Interesting points (for me, anyway):

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

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

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

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

Work in progress: Cy Twombly & the amplification of white space

After a bit of a hiatus during which I finished (and had workshopped) a 5-minute orchestral piece, finished (and had shortlisted and performed) a 10-minute piece for large chamber ensemble and finally got my piece for two harps, Paint, Knives, Lipstick into rehearsal (that one’s being performed on Wednesday at 6pm at Trinity Laban), I’m back onto my Cy Twombly project.

I’m still contemplating ideas about white space and smudges and smears, and these are starting to merge with some thoughts I’d had about the frame as a concept and edges. So far I seem to be dodging the most obvious features of the artworks! I’ll have to tackle line and colour sometime soon, but for now I think I’ve got a fairly profitable line of thought going here, so I’m seeing how far I can push it.

I’m running rather behind with my composition for this project, so it’s my focus for this week and I’ve just finished a new sketch over the weekend ready for this week’s workshop session with my fabulous performers, Sarah James (cello) and Becky Brass (percussion). Next week I’ll be focusing on some new pieces to be workshopped after the Spring Break is over.

The first piece I wrote (for cello and 1 percussionist playing 5 temple blocks and marimba) focuses on interpreting white space as a drone. It’s a fairly simplistic translation, but I felt I had to start somewhere. I think it’ll work OK, but I don’t know how excited I am about this solution from a compositional perspective, and in thinking more about this and the even more simplistic idea of white space as silence, I’ve come to quite a different conclusion.

White space as silence is kind of an obvious choice – it’s the area of the picture that doesn’t contain any marks, but the more I thought about it, the more I became aware that if a Cagean perspective on silence is that it is filled with noise, why shouldn’t the same be said of white space? In any work on paper, the paper has a colour. True, it’s usually pale but as anyone who’s ever done any interior decorating will tell you, ‘white’ is almost never just white (makes me think of The 12th Man’s parody of cricket commentator Richie Benaud’s jackets: “the cream, the bone, the white, the off-white or the beige?”). On top of the colour issue, there’s the texture of the paper – is it rough or smooth? does the texture have a regular or random pattern to it? how are the edges of the paper cut? It occurs to me that the characteristic of white space in a work such as Twombly’s Natural History: Part I: Mushrooms isn’t actually it’s lack of marks, but its low-contrast nature. There’s a lot going on in the white space in these pictures, it’s just that you don’t notice it until you look very closely.

So what this leads to is low-contrast activity vs high-contrast activity (the bits of the artwork that we normally think of as being ‘the picture’). Low-contrast in music could mean a limited range of pitches, blurred edges such as those caused by the use of a piano or vibraphone sustain pedal, soft sticks on percussion instruments, or sliding between pitches, limited dynamics (not necessarily soft, but if we want to maintain contrast with the foreground material in respect of dynamics, then soft probably gives more scope to keep the foreground material in the foreground). It doesn’t preclude variation of articulation.

And the contrast issue got me thinking about the smudges and smears again. I admit to being fascinated by these elements in Twombly’s work. I have an intense desire to understand their role and I veer between thinking he just embraced chance marks or that they are all entirely intentional. I need to read more to understand that. What is pertinent to today’s thoughts though is that I think the smudges and smears perform a role of amplifying the white space.

What you see with these marks is not just the mark itself – the mark on the paper will colour the raised parts of the texture, leaving lower parts still white or not as darkly marked. If you consider a brass-rubbing where you put a piece of paper over an object with a raised or indented design and shade strongly with a pencil, you see not only the object’s design on the paper, but also the paper’s texture. The pencil shading, then, increases the contrast of the paper, amplifying the nature and impact of the white space.

Obviously, other marks will do this too, but I think there’s a difference between, say, a scrawl which is easy to identify as being a representation of the shape of a mushroom (has clear meaning) and a smudge which may have a purpose (visually balancing other marks, perhaps) by no easily identifiable significance. I’m not sure how this idea works in the context of purely abstract artworks, but I’m putting that to one side for now.

So the second piece in this set of sketches (for cello and 1 percussionist playing marimba, four tom-toms and a triangle) is looking at these things – firstly at whether a melodic part, using low-contrast techniques (sempre piano dynamic, limited pitches, limited rhythmic changes, short glissandi, use of the cello mute) can be effective as a musical equivalent of white space, and secondly at how this low-contrast material might be amplified by the other player, through duplication at pitch, at the octave, rhythmic duplication, to become foregrounded as the smudges and smears of Twombly’s mushroom images foreground the surface of the artwork.

Cy Twombly: Smudges and smears

Feeling somewhat overwhelmed at the prospect of needing to write a piece a week for the next couple of months as fodder for my Cy Twombly project, the answer seemed to be to pick a starting point and write about what I wanted to explore to see what came up.

I knew I wanted to explore a facet of white space in music and decided to start with a drone, but I also wanted to pick an aspect of the Twombly pieces that was peculiarly Twomblyesque to work with.

Smudges and smears

One of the distinguishing factors of Natural History: Part I: Mushrooms is that all ten images resemble pages from a rather battered sketchbook. There’s nothing neat about these works, they are covered with scribbles and smudges, clearly distinguishable repeated elements enlivened with apparently random smears.

It occurred to me while thinking about these marks that in music we tend to edit away all the detritus of the composition process. A smear on an artist’s sketchbook page remains there, but our sketchbook pages and their blops and bad decisions tend to be filed away until some future-age musicologist brings them to light to study them. Slips of the pen don’t create notes that make it into the final piece – and if they did, they’d be somewhat sanitised by the rehearsal process and the practice of ensuring that the notes performed fit in relation to one another.

We composers don’t generally work directly on a single fair copy that goes out into the world as-is – there is generally no evidence of previous versions in the final work, which appears to have sprung fully formed from the head of its creator. The wrong chords, clunky melodies and bad choices get left behind in drafts for future generations to pore over, but they don’t make the final piece.

There’s always the possibility that Twombly’s smudges are intentional, and if this is so then they no longer reflect the creation process, the accidental, but become part of a repertoire of gestures that recreate a feeling of looseness and improvisation. These marks don’t fit any kind of formal grid, yet they balance with the more ‘official’ elements of the work. They are carefully considered but give a feeling of spontaneity.

The marks are small, placed here and there on the paper – never large enough to dominate the piece. If I choose to consider Twombly’s approach as deliberate, then this could equate to a particular articulation or technique, rather than a melodic or rhythmic figure with a fixed, repeatable and identifiable form.

Repetition then becomes a very important aspect – while there are strong similarities between the smudges and smears, they are not similar enough that we recognise a particular smear as being a clear-cut element of the works as a whole. The smears in the bottom left of II are related to those on the lower mushroom in VI but they don’t feel repeated in the same way that the scribbled mushroom motif does (III, IV, V, VII). While giving a stylistic coherence to the full set of images, the smudges and smears seem to relate specifically to the needs of each individual piece.

Returning to the possibility of these marks being spontaneous, perhaps they could be considered to be equivalent more to artefacts of the performance process rather than the composition process. If, as Sarah Kirk Hanley says, “Twombly was… attuned to the role of chance in his work” then these could be legitimately considered in the same area as accidental overblowing, muddled notes as a consequence of playing a complex passage very fast, impure tones, broken notes, the scratchiness of bowing as hard as possible at the frog – elements indicating a loss of control.

This raises questions, then, about how feasible an approach this might be, given that musicians are trained to overcome these types of out-of-control moments. Beginner flautists regularly overblow by accident, professionals rarely. Perhaps the answer lies in the realm of those things the orchestration books tell us to avoid – attempting to play high notes on the flute very softly, placing percussion instruments in such a way that they are NOT conveniently placed.

Additionally, there’s a whole arsenal of noises which may be generated in performance while not officially being part of the performance – taking a breath, key clicks, the noise of turning pages, creaking chairs, the sound of a bow being put down on a stand for an extended period of pizzicato. Perhaps something could be made of not disguising, or even enhancing these noises as a part of the piece.

Another avenue of thought along these lines is the prospect of writing a piece intended to be sight-read. Twombly’s acceptance of the role of chance in his prints reminded me of Frederick Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, with its instruction “if you get lost, stay lost”. If you rehearse this piece to get it “right”, you are doing it wrong. If you get it “wrong”, you’re doing it right. The point of Les Moutons de Panurge is an acceptance of whatever happens, for just as it is most likely that someone will get lost at some point (and probably most of the group, given the complexity of calcuation required to play the piece), there’s always the chance that everyone will get it right. You never know till you play it.

Obviously, Les Moutons already exists and there isn’t much point in trying to recreate it with new notes, but it has raised a question in my mind about how you go about constructing a piece with the express aim of losing performers en route. The difficulty of the notation in Les Moutons does this: while the notes themselves are simple, the performance is complicated by the instruction to play the notes in sequence, but additively: 1 – 1 2 – 1 2 3 – 1 2 3 4 – 1 2 3 4 5 etc. till the end when you start to subtract notes from the beginning of the sequence. The music also accelerates over the course of the piece to double its initial speed, and the nonstandard time signature changes about 2/3 of the way through the piece. There’s quite a lot going on for such a simple one-line melody!

I’ve started work this week on the first piece, which is exploring whitespace as drone, a simple and perhaps obvious concept but I had to start somewhere! I’ve settled on cello and percussion as my ensemble, and lined up performers to start workshopping the pieces after CoLab is done, in 3 weeks’ time. I also have a working title for this set of pieces, A Sketchbook of Mushrooms. Here’s hoping the pieces mushroom into something worth listening to!

The joy of planning

Planning. Gosh that sounds dull, doesn’t it?! However, I am finally seeing the benefits of actually planning my college work and my composing. At the beginning of the academic year, finding my time vanishing away scarily fast, I went to see the Time Management lady here. It was an insanely useful thing to do, mainly because it really showed me how little time there is. There’s a world of difference between “Oh that deadline’s a week away” and “but in that week I have 6 classes, spend 10 hours travelling, need to sleep and eat and shower and do other work and basically I really only have about 8 hours in total (including reading time on the train) and the only big gap I have is tomorrow, to do this thing”.

A couple of weeks back, our lecturer for Orchestration – Large set us the task to plan out our work for our pieces, so that we set ourselves deadlines for each bit that needed to be done, and I really found it very enlightening. “I need to write a piece” became:

  • Complete short score
  • First draft orchestration
  • Second draft orchestration
  • Third draft orchestration
  • Finalise and lay out
  • Produce parts
  • Proofread
  • Correct
  • Print
  • Hand in

Quite a scary amount of work there! So I then took some time to plan out the other pieces I’m working on with similar results.

Today I took a bigger bull by the horns and made a plan for my Personal Project. This one’s not due till mid-May, which seems like miles away, but given that I’ll be writing a bunch of music for it AND writing an essay on the results of those musical experiments, a plan is very much in order. The main thing I’ve discovered is that if I’m to get everything done in a calm and collected fashion, including recording the pieces in good time to be useful, I need to write a piece a week from now till Easter. This takes into account the two weeks of CoLab (‘Collaboration Laboratory’) which is compulsory for the whole college, and when I have no idea if I’ll manage to get anything done at all.

My biggest question now is what forces I’m going to write for. My initial idea was to write for wind quintet and percussion, but the more I think about it, the more I feel it’s going to be a total nightmare to gather all those people in one place for rehearsals or to test out ideas, so I’m thinking one or at most two players is a more sensible approach. I keep coming back to the idea of percussion. I like the variety of instruments available and the wide range of possibilities – from drums to bowed vibraphone. I’ve been wanting to try writing for percussion a bit more seriously and this could be a chance to do this and to get to know a percussionist quite well while I try things out.

Time for some thinking out loud:

Based on my research and thinking so far, though, I think layering is going to be a key concept, and there’s likely to be some kind of drone-based thing in there somewhere, which I’d want to mean sustained continuous tones, not just repetition of a note amid other stuff. And for variety it might be best if the sustaining instrument could play chords too, to allow for that kind of harmonic exploration. I guess that means a string instrument, which gives some nice scope for additional percussive sounds plus a wide range of tonal variations.

Violin doesn’t hugely interest me for this project, double bass could be interesting but I don’t know how easy it would be to get a double bass into the percussion rooms here to test stuff out. Which I guess leaves viola or cello. I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of viola duo at the moment, thanks to discovering George Benjamin’s Viola Viola a couple of days ago but I think I want to save that because I’m thinking viola duo might be the answer to what instruments to use in the song cycle I’ll be writing later this year.

So… cello and percussion? Have we a winner?