Reassessing productivity: 2018 in review

It’s quite late to be thinking about new year things, but as this new year marks the first full calendar year of my vlog, I thought it might be a useful exercise for me to review my compositional activity for the year and make a bit of a summary. 2018 was a pretty awful year in many respects and my feeling at this point (before reviewing what was actually documented in the vlogs) is that I’ve achieved very little compositionally. Off the top of my head, while there’s been a lot of activity, I think I’ve only completed one new piece which doesn’t seem a lot for a whole year – but perhaps some statistics might show a happier picture.

Compositions

Pieces worked on:
* Whitespace
* dot drip line line (a new version with Bastard Assignments, a new solo version for me which became 8918: EDGE, rerecorded 8317: Fall and thought a bit about how to make it a solo piece)
* Aides Memoire/POV
* Community of Objects
* Scratch
* a new piece for Plus Minus Ensemble
* Britten Variations
* Quiet Songs and
* some contributions for my Trio project with Misha Penton and Leona Jones.

Of these, the only new pieces ‘completed’ (and I use inverted commas because, for example, POV was a realisation of something that was really made last year and Whitespace could still be developed further in spite of now having a [possibly] settled score) were dot drip line line 8918: EDGE and Scratch, the viola improvisation recording which I’m not even sure is really a ‘proper’ piece – I certainly have no intention of trying to score it. But looking at the number of pieces worked on and thinking about the other stuff that’s happened this year, I begin to question whether ‘completed’ is really as much of a measure of a year’s compositional productivity as it seems.

In particular, the trajectory for dot drip line line 8918: EDGE has taken me a very long way from where I started, insecure in my abilities and possibilities as a performer, unsure about how to combine gesture and sound, deeply suspicious of creating work for myself that was reliant on improvisation, even if within certain composed parameters. I started work on that piece in February, hated it but couldn’t quite abandon it, fretted at it without doing much practical work on it until July when I had a breakthrough, recast how I thought about it, got some fresh feedback at Darmstadt, committed to performing it at the Snape Maltings’ Festival of New, then worked intensively on the form of it in the week leading up to the festival and gave the premiere performance in September. Eight months. There’s been some further work on it since, and I’m still refining the score, but that’s been the main trajectory of the piece. It’s been hard but rewarding and with hindsight I can see that most of the hardest work on it wasn’t the sounds, the ideas, or even the gestural elements which I so struggled with at the beginning, but a turning-around of how I was thinking about the piece, to start from the sound that existed, strip away the gestures, and then let them find their way into the sound.

In contrast to this, Scratch was a multitracked improvisation recorded and cobbled together in my studio in one afternoon. It has no score and I don’t see any future for it as a live piece, but it was a useful step in starting to develop how I think of myself as an improviser on (untuned) viola, as well as logistics of performing and recording in my studio.

The only piece that’s been completely abandoned of all these is the new Plus-Minus piece, which related to an opportunity that turned out to not be available. I’d been struggling with the concept anyway and while I still quite like the visual idea behind it I’m not really feeling any strong sense of how it could be a piece. Maybe it’ll turn up in something later.

The Britten Variations are still very much underway and will be finished in the first half of 2019 (God willing). The Trio project is ongoing for all three of us and hopefully will move towards some collaborative work later this year. The Quiet Songs I’m quite fond of but first attempts at Snape (as shown in this week’s vlog) have ultimately proved disappointing and going in another direction from what I’d planned and that I’m not particularly happy with. It’s not dead in the water, but it’s definitely floundering right now.

All this sits within a context of a LOT of Bastard Assignments work (3 of our own gigs, a tour to Chicago, improvising with Swan Meat for BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, the Snape Maltings Festival of New gig and we recorded an album too), performing in works by Nick Snowball/Weilu Ge at Darmstadt and Maria Maltezou at Bath Spa University, and a gentle scattering of other delightful people performing or presenting my work. And of course two weeks at the Darmstadt Summer Course and a bunch of uni work and travel. So a hard year, but perhaps not as unproductive as I’d thought?

Anti-theatricality

Community of Objects at Brighton Fringe

I’ve been thinking about this word for a couple of weeks now, and then it just came up in conversation with a friend the other day which just reinforced what I’ve been feeling: that my work is perhaps anti-theatrical. This has been prompted by a bit of an upsurge in the levels of theatricality lately in work I perform and work which is written by my friends. I really enjoy performing and watching overtly theatrical work, but it’s made me question my own work’s relationship with overt theatricality, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t feel it really fits with what I do.

Thinking back over recentish pieces where I’ve tried out overtly theatrical approaches, I’m feeling like a deliberately theatrical take on my pieces often somehow diminishes them. I absolutely don’t ever regret trying out new stuff, but I’m noticing a consistent feeling that the work comes through more strongly without extraneous elements being added.

Part of this, I think, is a recognition that I really dislike adding things that are just for effect – the gloves in Community of Objects might be read as a theatrical/costume device, but in reality they serve a practical purpose of protecting the performers’ hands from paper cuts and amplifying the sound of paper. That the look of them prompts associations with archival material and the handling of precious things is just a bonus, really. I’ve been stalled on Floor Piece for literally months because I had a feeling that costume would be useful for the live version, but I really didn’t want to be dressing up for the sake of dressing up – it didn’t start to move forward again (although it’s stalled a bit once more) until I came up with the idea of clothing which could be simultaneously sound-source and (kind-of) set.

None of this is to say that there isn’t a theatrical element to my work. In some pieces I think it’s unavoidable, but I think this is why anti-theatrical rather than not theatrical. Much of my work is about quite mundane things. I tend to think that a lot of what I do is making something out of little pieces of nothing at all, and the thing about mundane little nothings is that as soon as you put them on a stage, they are out of their context and are, at least to some extent, inherently theatrical. Which I feel is often quite enough and that to try to push that further just diminishes their specialness – it makes them no longer mundane and then it’s just a thing on a stage doing stagey things.

I don’t know if that’s going to make sense to anyone else – perhaps only to other people who tend to obsessively observe things like dust floating in the air or the texture and sound of paper – but I’m feeling that this is an important realisation for me about how to present my work. I doubt I’ll stop considering and trying overtly theatrical devices and approaches because new ideas = good, but I do think I will probably be more aware of whether the work is being actually improved by them.

Interpretation, personality and non-rehearsable music

I have a half-baked idea that I want to talk about in this post. It’s about interpretation, non-rehearsable music and my recent piece Community of Objects. I’ve been working on an article about this piece recently, and doing a lot of reading to try to gain a better understanding of my own context for this composition. One of the articles I’ve read has been ‘Vexations of Ephemerality: Extreme sight-reading in situative scores – for makers, performers, audiences’ by Sandeep Bhagwati (references linked at the end of this post in case you’re interested).

Bhagwati’s article is focused on ‘situative scores’ – scores that are produced in real time and therefore need to be sight-read onstage. At one point he talks about the problems of interpreting such scores and it occurred to me that Community of Objects seems to differ from other pieces that demand ‘extreme sight-reading’ in that it kind of replaces interpretation, in the traditional sense, with personal emotional response.

Taking a step back, let’s start with Bhagwati’s definition of interpretation:

‘Interpretation’ is a term used in the context of fixed scores to describe a process in which practise, repeated readings, analysis, comparisons with other scores, information about the musical or cultural context as well as non-musical concepts and imaginaries are condensed into the moment of performance. (Bhagwati 2017, p. 2)

While overall accurate, this definition rather sidesteps what I feel is a crucial element of interpretation, which is that it is personal to a performer. It is a manner of performing something which has been developed by an individual (using repetition, etc.) which may reveal something of the performer themselves – if not their personality then at least their stylistic preferences – in their performance.

However, as Bhagwati points out, with situative scores, there can be no repeated readings, no rehearsal in the usual sense. And because repetition and time spent with the music lie at the heart of interpretation, interpretation therefore cannot exist for music which must be sight-read on stage.

Which I am finding interesting when considering performances of my own situative piece (because while the score of Community of Objects is not generated on the fly, it is kept a mystery to the performers until the very moment of performance, and so could perhaps be considered to be situative) because the displayed personality of the performers is an essential part of the piece.

If we consider that interpretation is principally an individual’s performed response to a score (which may be developed through the approaches listed in Bhagwati’s definition) rather than the tools used to reach that response, then a version of interpretation could indeed be possible in a piece which uses extreme sight-reading by changing the priorities of the piece.

Bhagwati’s examples all seem to create a tension based on a need for accuracy in performing the situative score – the challenge is all about ‘getting it right’ (or – more likely with extreme sight-reading – ‘getting it wrong’). Accuracy will usually be the first part of learning a piece of music – get it right then develop your personal approach once the technical part is under control. But what if the expectation of accuracy were bypassed? In a sight-read piece where technical accuracy is not important, there is scope for personality perhaps.

In the case of Community of Objects, the element of accuracy is bypassed by using commonplace activities and a free timescale – opening boxes, following simple instructions, tearing paper, etc. Most people will have internalised these from an early age. They don’t really require any thought. Instead the challenge in this piece is emotional: it focuses on eliciting genuine emotional responses and the performer’s challenge is to allow themselves to be open and vulnerable, sharing any emotions they feel, whether surprise, disgust, boredom, etc.

My feeling is that the performers’ approaches to the unknown content – driven by that vulnerability which has them just be themselves – convey their personalities in performance, the way a rehearsed interpretation might do for a fixed score. And just as personal interpretative gestures usually have an effect on the audience’s understanding of the music (whether to clarify or confuse), as described in Eric Clarke and Jane Davidson’s ‘The Body in Performance’ (another recent read – see ref below), the individual responses may provide a ‘way in’ to the piece for the audience.

Consider these two moments from Community of Objects performances – the first shows Alice Purton (on the left) in the Plus-Minus Ensemble performance, who discovers some buttons in her box; the second shows Tim Cape (on the right) in the Bastard Assignments Snape Maltings performance, who has been given some beach pebbles. Both have the instruction ‘play with these’:

These are very different interpretations of the same instructions and similar materials – but they aren’t rehearsed. For both performers, this was their first encounter with the piece. Instead of an interpretation gained by repeated exposure to the composition and developed over time, their personalities come through and drive how they interact with the material they have been given.

Sandeep Bhagwati, poor chap, seems to be quite disillusioned with the effectiveness of situative scores to create meaningful musical experiences. His sorrowful conclusion to the article states that ‘the ephemeral score… vexes us with its aggressive absence of meaning, of connection, and of sense’ (p. 6) but I wonder whether this is less a factor of the need for ‘extreme sight-reading’ and more to do with crushing the performer’s personality under the pressure of ‘getting it right’. Is openness an answer here? To leave some space for the person performing it to be a real person, not just a performing machine?

References

Bhagwati, S. (2017) ‘Vexations of Ephemerality. Extreme Sight-Reading in Situative Scores – for Makers, Performers, Audiences’, in Third International Conference on Technologies for Music Notation and Representation, A Coruña, Spain. Available at: http://www.udc.es/grupos/ln/tenor2017/sections/node/15-vexations_ephemerality.pdf (Accessed: 31 August 2017).

Clarke, E. and Davidson, J. (1998) ‘The Body in Performance’, in Thomas, W. (ed.) Composition, performance, reception: studies in the creative process in music. Aldershot: Ashgate.