Experimental music premiere on Friday

This Friday sees another premiere! Trinity Laban’s composition department holds a series of student-run concerts of experimental music each year – we write the music, organise the performers, plan and market the event ourselves – and mine is this Friday, 25 January 2013 at 7pm It’s free and open to the public, so come along and hear some interesting sounds!

Rude Health: unsensible

Full details are available on the Facebook event page.  My piece (which I’m finishing writing today!) is for four improvising pianists and tape and explores improvisation, both through experimenting with my own improvised sounds in the tape part, and comparing the interpretation of a graphic score in the context of that tape part four times by four different performers. The concert will also include experimental music by my fellow Trinity composers Max De Lucia, Hannah Dilkes, Effy Efthymiou, Litha Efthymiou, Theo Jackson and Declan Kolokowski. Hope to see you there!

Work in progress: On being experimental

At college, we have a series of composer-directed concerts of experimental music called Rude Health. Each concert is organised by a group of composers from the department, and the content consists of our own music. My concert is on on Friday night (come! it’ll be exciting and cutting-edge!) and this weekend I am creating my piece for this event, which will consist of the same short piece of music, played by four different improvising pianists (so the same piece played four times, but it should sound a bit different each time). There’ll be a graphic score to go with a tape part and the aim of the exercise is to see how similar, and how different (and in what ways) the same piece turns out in the hands of pianists of varying improvisational experience. I’ve got my pianists lined up – two first-study pianists and two composers – and now I just have to write the thing.

For the tape part I’m currently working with some improvised viol sounds I recorded in my practice session yesterday and an Elliott Carter quote: “A musical score is written to keep the performer from playing what he already knows and leads him to explore other new ideas and techniques” but while I’m enjoying putting these sounds together it’s feeling more like a tape piece, not a piece for tape and piano, so I need to work on how I’m going to include this.

One of the of members of our group has created his piece around the concept of anxiety and the subconscious and as others in the group seem to feel this theme resonates with what they’re proposing to do, it seems to be becoming a theme. I guess it kind of resonates with mine too because of the risk-taking and role of the subconscious in improvising.

So what am I trying to say with this piece? I personally find improvisation still quite an uncomfortable business. I’ve been going along to an improv group which some of my college friends have on a Thursday evening, and I’ve been enjoying that, mostly improvising on flute, although I’d probably be more comfortable improvising singing (but we have a proper singer who comes sometimes and he’s really good and I’m rather shy about both my vocal ability and my female-tenor voice!). Maybe I’ll try that sometime when I’m a bit more confident in general. I want to find out how much my score and the tape part I’ve provided generate similar sounds from different pianists and how much of the resulting sound comes from the pianist themselves.  For my own role in this, I’ve improvised the viol sounds, and to a certain extent I’m improvising their placement (although as I’m not just dropping them and moving on – maybe I should??), but mostly these sounds that are the result of risk-taking and experimentation are being ordered in a very non-improvisatory fashion in that I’m listening and re-listening and tweaking placement, volume, application of EQ, delay and other effects. The tape is improvisation tamed, while the pianist can do what they want.

I’ve just re-listened to I Want It To Kill People which I wrote for Sam Grinsell last February, which has parallels with this piece in that it’s about the same length as this one will be, is also for improvised instrument (slide guitar) and tape. I’m thinking about what works in that piece and how it differs from what I’m doing now. The first thing I’m aware of is that because my aim with writing that tape part was for a particular sound – brutal and crunchy – the sounds kind of came along quite easily. Also, I wasn’t being marked on it and had given myself permission to fail at the beginning of the project 🙂 I think the crunchiness does work well with it and is more exciting than some of the gentler tape work I’ve done in the past. I’ve been finding myself avoiding those sorts of sounds this time round for a couple of reasons, though.

Firstly, I already did that in I Want It To Kill People and I need this piece to be its own thing, not just a duplication of that. Secondly, I’m acutely aware that I’m going to be marked on this piece and, not being terribly au fait with this sort of thing, I don’t want the piece to seem amateurish to people who do a lot of this because I’ve used some prefab effect that to me sounds really daring but may be the electroacoustic equivalent of Comic Sans. I don’t mind if the experiment overall turns out to not be that interesting, but I do mind if it’s because the bits I’ve written are totally hackneyed and dull.

I think I need to work out the role of the piano in this piece a bit more clearly too – how much white space does it need? Does that white space need to be actual silence or can it just be a lower level of noise? How much do I want the piano to play over noise? Do I want to start with the tape (and so have the start be exactly the same each time) or to start with the piano (so it’ll be slightly different)? What sort of sounds do I (approximately) want to hear out of the piano?

Maybe, in fact, I should be starting with the score and then building the tape part around the score instead of the other way around…

Mini opera takes off!!

On Harrowdown HillI hadn’t really planned to blog about this again QUITE so soon, but just amazing things have happened with this in the past few days – indeed, in the past 24 hours!

To start with, my last post was retweeted by ENO with a very kind remark and my site stats hit the sort of peak they haven’t seen in many, many months.

The librettist got in touch and I’m really enjoying his Twitter feed (and you should see his online comic – it’s beautiful) and the work-in-progress stuff he’s posting for the score he’s writing for Mini Operas on Soundcloud.

Yesterday I finally knuckled down to get some notes sorted out. After all, if you’re writing an opera, sooner or later you need to stop talking about it and actually write the wretched thing and with so much unaccustomed attention now, I really do need to write it!

I never did write the blog post I meant to about February’s RPM project, Lucky Dip, but I can say that that experience is paying off in spades right now. The instant I started to work my brain was like “Oh, February again? Sure. I’ll just change gears” – with the result that within a couple of hours I had down the vocal line of the opening aria and half the accompaniment sketched out too. Such a thing would have been unthinkable before RPM when I think I may have been a contender for Slowest Composer in the World.

I think I’m quite pleased with the opening aria. It’s sad and quiet and a little dirge-like, which I’m planning on alleviating just a little with the accompaniment. I’m still working on instrumentation, but I have some live performers lined up too.

I am totally thrilled that Charles Turner, bass-baritone and marvellous composer himself, has agreed to play the principal role of The Inspector.

Charles was involved in February’s Lucky Dip – I wrote To Fortune for him, which you can hear here:

I am also very excited that electric violinist Chrissie Caulfield has also agreed to contribute – she does just amazing things and has a particular talent for the sort of noise work I’m hoping to achieve in the more aggressive parts of the libretto.

Jenni Pinnock has also offered to contribute winds/piano parts and I have hatched some ideas about some other people to approach too.

With the short time constraints and the need to have a polished (or at least not-so-rough-you’d-cut-yourself) recording so quickly, I’m also having to experiment with some different ways – even from Lucky Dip – of getting ideas down. And all the more so as I’m currently living half in temporary accommodation, and half in our bathroomless house where the piano hasn’t even been reassembled (although it soon will be). Plus I’m going to be working with multiple layers and recordings of sound, unlike Lucky Dip where everything that was being sent out was a solo piece or could be recorded with its accompaniment in situ. I’ve never tried this kind of TwtrSymphony/Virtual Choir thing before, so just hoping it works!

So, there it is! 1’30” sketched out, another 5 mins to go!

Composer-performer collaboration: Letting go when we’re dead

View from my deskToday’s post was inspired by a couple of tweets by the pianist John Mannos from June 2011. He’s no longer on Twitter so I can’t link to his account, but what he wrote was this:

Oh, to get inside the minds of these great composers to know precisely what they wanted! How to play the accents? Phrases? !!!!!!!!!

I suppose that is the alluring beauty of playing a work by a deceased master..to have faith that your performance renders his art perfectly

I do understand what Mannos is aiming for, but given the impossibility of ever knowing whether you’ve “got it right”, I feel a different view is more valuable, both for the living performer and for the composer, represented only by the score.

These days, composers can choose whether they want pixel-perfection: they can take the option of writing directly to audio, bypassing the score entirely. Or they can choose to write music for other people to play. People with opinions, ideas, limitations of technique, the whole package.

But this is a recent development. Composers of the past had no option but to write music to be performed by real human musicians. Whether that musician was the composer or someone else, ultimately the notes on the page needed to be turned into sound by a – fallible – person. I feel that the idea of a piece being rendered perfectly would have had little meaning for them, or if it did, it would be no more than an idle fancy.

When you write for performers, you are starting a collaboration. And that goes whether or not you had any chance to choose perfection.

As composers, we create things which, sooner or later, we will leave behind. We have no power over what becomes of them, regardless of how many increasingly specific notations and remarks we litter our scores with. At some point our collaborators will have more say than we will, so we need to accept – as I suspect many of our forebears did, lacking any other model – that there comes a point where we just need to let go and let the new collaboration happen.

And for performers, this is a fantastic chance. It’s an opportunity to work *with* Bach, *with* Stravinsky. Of course, study to understand the composer’s viewpoint is vital – you can’t truly collaborate with a person you don’t know. But it’s only the first step. From understanding what they’ve written, you need to make it your own – they are no longer Beethoven’s accents, Sibelius’ phrases – they’re yours.

For my own part, I don’t want perfection. Sure, I’d like to have the right notes played in the right order at the right speed, but I want it to sound real, human. I want to find out what other people can bring to my work, the nuances they can bring out that I didn’t know were there. I want them to have ideas, test them out and bring them to life.

Obviously, this is what great performers have been doing forever, but it disturbs me that this idea of the dead composer as oracle still persists. They did exactly what we do. Or rather, we do exactly what they did. No mystery, just hard work.

A score is not a piece of music. A score is just notes. It is not sacred, not perfect. It is an incomplete thing, requiring human collaboration to make it live.

What’s your opinion? Do you think we should seek perfection or new interpretations? Or take another approach altogether? Add your rant to the comments!