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…

Acknowledging musical influence: A useful habit

Yesterday I read (yet another) great post by Nico Muhly – this time he was talking about influence and how “journalists ‘call out’ influence as if it were some secret, unspeakable sexual perversion”. Obviously, Muhly has way more experience of journalists than I do, but I entirely agree with his point of being ‘fully transparent’ about our influences.

I’ve always liked Muhly’s approach to influences – he wears his as a badge of honour and in a way I feel it’s a bit like how pianists are so proud of their tuition lineage – you know, when they learn from a teacher who can trace their teachers all the way back to Beethoven. But in the case of a composer, being upfront about our influences is not just about lineage – it can also give a useful point of reference for understanding and enjoying our work.

In the article, Muhly creates a list of some of his influences, and the way he writes shows how important these composers are to him:

When I map out the emotional structure of a piece on a single piece of paper, I think of John Corigliano. When I put a sforzando accent on the and of 4 if in 4/4 time, I pour one out for Christopher Rouse. When I use certain chord structures, I know I’m taking them from Stravinsky. When I do a crazy multi-instrumental smudge of harmonies and their aggressors, I wish Boulez would come over my house. When I use certain harmonic modulations and motoric gestures, I thank, and sometimes email in advance homage, John Adams.

All this gives a really clear impression of whether you might like this person’s music, so you can make an informed decision about whether to listen or not. I’m all for trying out listening to stuff you might not like – simply because you might learn something, and that something might be that you actually do like it – but with so much new music out there to listen to, it does help to know what you’re getting yourself into.

I’m going to take a little turn here into the world of web development, which many of you will know is my dayjob. Part of what I do is to help people optimise their sites for search engines. Long gone are the days when you just wanted as many ‘hits’ as possible; it’s now widely acknowledged that the better approach is to get fewer hits, but more relevant ones – for those visitors to be actively interested in what you have to say. So the information you provide about a piece – including your influences in writing it – helps to set people’s expections. Manage expectations and you’ll get a better response – maybe not as many plays, but an overall more positive reception.

We should never be afraid of turning people away if what we do makes it easier for our music to be found and heard by its ‘right people’, and I am convinced that being upfront about our influences can help with that.

The usefulness of being clear about your influences can also help people who are trying to programme your music. One of the best concerts I ever went to was a Britten Sinfonia concert where they were premiering a new commission by Nico Muhly (Impossible Things) and the whole programme was constructed around this piece and based on key influences on his music and it was amazing – just like stepping inside his head! The programme started with Purcell and Tippett, then Britten and Steve Reich, so that by the time we got to the new commission you could clearly hear all these things going on in the new piece. I can’t imagine a better way to make a new piece easily comprehensible – especially to a non-specialist audience – than by presenting it in the context of older music that has influenced it.

Composers need to stand up and be proud of their influences – to do so is not only honest but helpful. As Muhly says, “We are all wearing the cloaks of influence all the time, and we should all, as composers, proudly announce the labels on these vestments.”

How do you approach your influences? Do you acknowledge them when you write or talk about your work? Share your opinion in the comments!

The digital dimension: 1. Programme notes

This started out as one post, proceeded to get very rambly and a little bit ranty whereupon I realised it was actually two posts fighting against each other. This is the first part, which I hope will be better behaved now it’s on its own.

A few days ago, Killing Classical Music posted an interesting article entitled Scoreboards in the concert hall – Another solution to classical music’s problem. It looks at the issue of how people unfamiliar with a piece of music can ‘keep track’ of it during performance in a concert hall, with particular reference to the sorts of vague analytical landmarks beloved of programme-note-writers. A follow-up post appeared yesterday.

The problem as I see it, reading Greg Sandow’s original posting of Michael Oneil Lam’s original post (yes, that made my head spin too) is not with the concert, not with the performance or the venue or the repertoire, and certainly not with the listener. The problem is with the programme notes. Mr Lam writes:

My biggest gripe about modern orchestra concerts is that I lose my place so easily. The program notes talk about an “icy interlude in the high strings indicating a modulation to the subdominant;” but even if I understood what a subdominant was, the violins are nearly always playing and they always sound high to me so I have no idea when the particular segment referred to by the program notes actually occurs.

My reading of this is that because the programme notes are pointing out all this stuff, he feels he ought to be looking out for it, so his concert experience is actually ruined by desperately trying to keep track of what he’s been told is important, rather than sitting back, listening and (hopefully) enjoying himself.

The big concern I feel, reading Mr Lam’s post, is of how intimidating these sorts of programme notes must be for novice concertgoers. How much of a dunce must a non-musician feel when they’re told to look out for this icy interlude doing something they have no clue how to interpret? No wonder classical music is termed ‘elitist’ by some! I don’t agree that a concert scoreboard, visible to all, is the way to go – listening to live music is a very personal experience and while it may work for some, there are many (me included) who would be so distracted by such a thing in a concert that it would ruin the whole experience. However, I do agree that something needs to be done to not alienate audience members, and especially audience members who are being brave and giving something a go that they don’t fully understand.

So to me, revising this traditional approach to the programme note seems an excellent place to start.

A clarification: I love programme notes. I love analysis. I think analysis can play a very important part in really getting to grips with a piece, but in the current day and age of recordings vs live performances and ensembles desperate for increasing audience sizes – which inevitably means recruiting new audiences made up of people who are largely unaware of classical music and music theory, I think the concept of the analysis programme note is a little outdated as a tool for general use in the concert hall.

And so I started to think about how programme notes could change. And because I am an internet junkie and a web developer as well as a composer, I started thinking about how ensembles could value-add, tackle the problem of audience development and make the physical programme more useful to audience members of all levels of musical understanding by linking to content in the digital domain.

Point: those who specifically want analysis during a concert are likely to know they’ll want it beforehand

Point: if those people aren’t overly familiar with the music or with music in general, then they’d probably get more from quiet reading of said analysis, possibly with a recording, if available, well before the performance they’re attending, rather than a quick 30-second skim through it as the lights go down

Point: those who don’t want it possibly aren’t buying programmes?

When I put all these points together, it makes me think that changing the approach of concert-space programme notes can only be a good thing. I would suggest that the printed programme could offer more easily digestible information than it often does now – most emphatically NOT dumbed-down, but information that’s more appropriate to the context of a darkened hall and only a few brief moments in which to find out what you’re about to listen to. Who the composer was, what were the circumstances surrounding the work’s composition, the general character of the work and its movements, how does it fit in with the rest of the composer’s output – contextual stuff to give a little solid ground to aid the actual listening that’s about to happen.

I think this would make the concert experience a lot less stressful for those who aren’t familiar with analytical terms. And if programmes are providing actual information that the audiences ensembles want to draw in can understand, then those people will feel more comfortable and hopefully come back to another performance.

More appropriate programme notes would also mean that the audience will be actually listening to the music, not worrying about having missed the super-special oboe theme because they couldn’t work out where the euphonium fanfare happened.

Mr Lam uses a phrase “With increased engagement comes increased memorability” and he’s absolutely right – however, he equates “increased engagement” with “tracking the current progress of the piece”. I think this is a mere technicality – it’s ticking off landmarks in a guidebook.

There’s a wonderful line in the film A Room With A View where the parson is telling a story about a father and daughter who visited Rome: “Say, papa, what did we see in Rome?” “Why, Rome was the place where we saw the yellow dog!”. This totally sums up the issue at hand – the tourists did everything they were supposed to, saw everything in their Baedeker guidebook, but the only thing that stuck was a dog of an unusual colour. The dog was what engaged them, not the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum. Analytical landmarks in a piece are the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum – they’re great landmarks, beautiful themes, heartbreaking chord progressions, but if you only tick them off and don’t emotionally experience them, then you won’t engage with the work. Only by really listening to a piece will you engage – and that’s when you’ll find your yellow dog.

But what about that analysis that I’ve so heartlessly culled? Head back up to the first two points I mentioned – I believe that the majority of people who actually want analysis will probably know they want it in advance. And if they know they want it in advance and can probably get the most of the concert if they have it in advance, then why shouldn’t they have it then? Put the general contextual notes into the programme – put the analytical notes online. I can see several benefits to this:

  1. Online presentation of analysis means it doesn’t have to be crammed into whatever space is available for that piece in the programme. Instead of cutting the data down to fit the space, there is room to present whatever is needed to make the analysis followable.
  2. More space means there is also the possibility of including snippets of score or audio clips, both of which aid comprehension, especially for newcomers to analysis
  3. It is possible (resources allowing) to provide different levels of analysis for musicians and non-musicians – for those who want as much detail as possible and for those who just want to know a little bit more about the work.
  4. If audience members want to take the analysis along to the concert, they can print it out and do so.
  5. From a financial perspective, the ensemble can leverage the online space as well as the print space of the programme – selling advertising space, promoting recordings with direct links to buy, or offering visitors the option of signing up to a relevant email list. To avoid the potential problem of concertgoers printing off the analysis and then not buying a programme, make it part of a programme pre-purchase deal.

I personally would love to see a day where detailed programme notes available online – or scores or continual ‘scoreboard’ updates – could be used in a concert hall during a performance, on a personal device like a mobile phone, Kindle or iPad – but I suspect that’s a way off being commonplace (although Mr Sandow’s follow-up article gives interesting descriptions of attempts at this sort of information already tried) simply because backlit devices are disturbing to others in a dark concert hall.

Obviously there will be some who will disagree with me – not everyone has access to the internet or a printer, home-printed analyses in a concert may rustle and disturb other patrons, who wants to do ‘homework’ before a concert? and so on. It’s possible that the time is not yet ripe for this approach, but Mr Lam’s idea has me thinking that instead of fretting about audience numbers but continuing to do things the same way we always have, we should be generously embracing the opportunities that digital provides and seeing what happens. As Mr Sandow says in his follow-up post:

I’m concerned that too much discussion of the future of classical music is speculation. “Oh, no, if we do X, then Y and Z will happen, and that would be terrible!” When in fact nobody knows, because X hasn’t been done.

Until we try a new approach, we can’t tell what will work. And until we wholeheartedly take a risk and throw some time/money/effort at making a new approach work in the best way possible, we can’t really tell how it will be received.

Second performance for Deconstruct: Point, line, plane

The London New Wind Festival will be playing my flexible-ensemble piece Deconstruct: Point, line, plane for the second time on 19 November in London at their “Brand New Music for Winds” concert. I’ll be there – and I’ll also be speaking on a panel of composers talking about their work which appears in the concert portion of the evening.

It’s going to be a big night: Panel at 6pm, then a concert at 7pm of sax/clarinets/flute and piano music, and finishing off with the full ensemble concert at 7.45pm (this is the one that Deconstruct will be in). Come along to all of them, or just one.

The full concert programme is over on the London New Wind Festival’s website (you’ll need to scroll down to get to this concert as the page contains details for all concerts in this year’s Festival).

And there’s a Facebook event set up too so you can get reminders. I’ll also be posting reminders closer to the day over on my new Facebook page – visit and become a Fan!