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.

The power of the single idea: How playing the comb is improving my composition

Recently I was part of two performances of Edward Henderson’s opera Manspangled. Edward is a fellow Masters composer at Trinity Laban, and his recent music often uses just a single idea – rather than supplementing and layering themes and concepts, he works with limited materials to create pieces which are simply described but anything but simple in their execution. Manspangled was a very powerful demonstration of this concept of strength and complexity deriving from simplicity.

The work Edward’s doing has been very influential on how I think about my own composition, which all too often, I feel, skips about from idea to idea without fully exploring any of them. I think Drowning Songs demonstrates what I mean by this: I started with two strong ideas – the glissando opening, as expressed in the artwork I made for the piece, and the massed whispered names of drowned sailors. For a five-minute work, this really should have been ample material. Yet something in me felt compelled to add in more conventional music and while I’m pleased with how the piece turned out, I do wonder it might have been a stronger work had I had the courage and tenacity to have pared it back to its essentials.

Now I’ve moved on to the next major work I’m writing this year, a song cycle for tenor and piano, Crossing Dartmoor, which has been commissioned by Simon Oliver Marsh. I’ve not talked about this one much yet because it’s mostly been in brew-mode, but it’s based on textworks (text artworks) by British artist Richard Long, to whom I am most grateful for his permission to use his work.

Crossing Dartmoor started in my mind as a fairly standard sort of song-cycle, but has morphed into a more experimental format. The plan is to write many pieces, each of which explores some facet of reduced compositional control. Some will be fully written out (perhaps having been produced using musical ciphers or chance operations), some will be graphic or text scores that require some or all of the musical material to be generated by the performers. But, whatever approach is taken, each piece will be based around just a single idea. In some pieces this will be a more complex idea than others, but I’m allowing myself no dilution, no distraction: one idea per piece.

So back to Manspangled. My role in this work was as part of a 6-person “insect chorus”. I played the comb (snapping the tines very slowly, drawing my finger down the length of the comb, over and over), the emery board (scraping a nail slowly along the board), bubble wrap, and blew bubbles towards the audience. These sounds (or gestures might be more accurate, given that the bubble-blowing doesn’t really make any noise. Unless, of course, you should chance to knock the lid of your bubble-bottle over the balcony and onto an audience member’s head…) continue throughout the performance.

In its essence, Manspangled can be summed up as:

Quiet continual insect sounds on household items, supplemented by quiet elongated cello glissandi, man speaking, everything interrupted periodically by a loud saxophone.

Or, to be even more reductive:

Quiet. Text. Loud interjections.

Yet complexity is produced in the final result. Listen here:

Firstly, Lavinia Murray’s virtuoso text, wandering through a stream of consciousness, providing shape and momentum to the piece. Secondly the unexpected detail of the tiny insect chorus/cello sounds (you may need headphones to hear them on the recording!) – the tininess of these sounds, and the accumulation of them, drew in both performers and audience to focus at a level which is rare, resulting in a truly mesmeric effect. Thirdly, to be pulled out of this intense focus so violently by the contrasting volume and style of the sax and the actor sets up contradictory modes of listening that are quite shocking and require the listener to completely reassess all the sounds involved in the piece. The bubble-blowing obviously makes no discernible sound but provides a visual counterpoint (as, indeed, do all the insect chorus’ actions) which raises questions for me about what “accompaniment” should/can be.

I’m finding this reduced-materials approach a very useful way of working. The song I’m currently working on for Crossing Dartmoor is using a cipher to generate the pitch material, and I’m finding that this objectivity makes it a bit easier to keep on track with the single-concept plan. Yes, my brain blurts out, “Hey! You could also do this!” but it’s a little easier to identify these and keep them under control than when working entirely with instinct-driven material. It’s easier to focus on the structure and general aims of the piece and to follow the idea through. I’m putting the additional ideas to one side for later pieces 🙂

In particular, I feel that each piece is stronger for being more focused. Not necessarily more beautiful, but that’s not really the aim here. And as an added benefit, composition does seem to be happening faster. I’m procrastinating less and it’s clearer how I need to proceed on pieces. There’s a LOT less reworking of things already done and a lot more focusing on how to move forward.

Edward Henderson can be found on Soundcloud at http://soundcloud.com/edward-henderson. He is also a member of the Bastard Assignments collective and regularly contributes to their fantastic innovative events. Details of their upcoming performances are on the Bastard Assignments website.

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.

Cut’n’paste job: Constructing a text from multiple sources

I’m very excited to have been commissioned to write a new 5-minute a cappella piece on a maritime theme for the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir. The first draft is due at the beginning of December, so I’m currently immersed in research and drafting up initial ideas. Rather than use specifically nautical poetry, with which I feel little connection and which has already been done extremely well by composers such as Stanford, I have decided to compile a text about drowning from a range of sources. I’m hoping that this approach will combine some of the benefits of writing my own text (not having pacing dictated by the text, tailoring section lengths to musical rather than poetical needs) while avoiding actually having to write my own 🙂

Cue lovely chunks of time ensconced in the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Library (I think that makes 8 libraries I belong to here now…) reading up on drowning. Some of this reading has been useful – a 1904 Method for the Treatment of the Apparently Drowned, a letter dated July 1805 (which I actually got to handle!!!) from a sailor on the HMS Victory conveying the news of a friend’s death by drowning to his parents in Nottinghamshire; other bits have been merely time-consuming, such as the six chapters of a book called All the Drowned Sailors which I read because I simply couldn’t put it down: while they didn’t actually say much about drowning, there was rather a lot of gripping narrative about insanity, dehydration and death by shark. Drowning really is a terrifyingly long way from the worst thing that can happen to you at sea…

In the past couple of days I have started ‘real’ work on the piece. My ideas for the opening solidified quite early, but I kept thinking that I should map out the structure of the piece and then work out which texts to use with what. However, I found that I was having a lot of trouble thinking about the structure without considering the specific text I should use. I guess that even though the musical structure will work independently of a textual structure, it’s still dependent on the text in the same way that when I create structure diagrams for instrumental pieces, they are often based on textural blocks. Without the texture in mind, the structure doesn’t happen, and in this case without picking out the text I wanted to work with, the structure wasn’t happening.

I had originally thought that I might be able to hang the whole piece on the letter, but I think now that that’s not going to work. It’s so very personal that I’m reluctant to use it whole, to dissipate the poignancy of its message through the mechanics of dividing the text between the voices. I had already thought to use just fragments of text from the Method, so now I’m thinking of doing the same with the letter, focusing on phrases which can represent so many similar letters that have been sent to grieving families over the centuries.

I also have a few fragments of poetry that were used in a document from the Shackleton expedition, as epitaphs for lost expedition members. Plus the names of drowned Merchant Navy seamen (I have a book of these on order at the Caird Library – due in on Tuesday!), plus an assortment of words that I’m thinking of as “drowning rhymes” in the manner of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb’s “shawm rhymes”, “flute rhymes” etc. (which you can hear from about a minute into the following track).

These “rhymes” will be words like DOWN, DROWN, BURN and BREATHE. Not exactly rhyming, but related in the sounds they use (D/B, DR/BR/BUR and the progression of the vowel sounds) and also related to the reported experience of drowning.

I’ve worked up a first draft plan for the opening using these words, showing what I want to do with them. I think it’s fairly clear, but I’m not sure yet how much of the graphic information will make it into the score – I’m still working through some ideas in this respect.

Drowning songs opening

I’m thinking that the piece will proceed via passages of compression and relaxation. This comes from the Method: “sufficient air for the maintenance of life could be introduced by alternate compression and relaxation of the chest walls”. ‘Compression’ will most likely be rhythmic homogeneity while ‘relaxation’ will be more loosely connected material.

I’ve never compiled a text in this way before. It’s a very different way of thinking than working from complete passages or poems. The need to convey a sense of the whole text is removed because it is entirely appropriate if only fragments are comprehensible by the audience in this situation. I’ve chosen this approach because recently I’ve started to feel quite hemmed in when working with complete texts. The reason I rarely set rhymed poetry is that I feel I need to completely break the poem in order to make it appropriate for music. If I don’t then the music seems crippled by the poem’s own internal music (which all good poems have. And many bad poems too). By using fragments, it feels more like the music is in control and that the structure will develop from musical requirements, not textual ones.

The other benefit is that I can include multiple levels of meaning in the words I’m using, which is something that really appeals to me and something I touched on slightly when writing my own text for Breadcrumbs earlier this year. At the moment there are elements of the physical experience of drowning, resuscitation methods, grief and the personal and institutional expression of sorrow, and the very personal specificity of the names of people who have actually died.

I’m hoping that the book of names I’m seeing on Tuesday will yield something I can use – not sure what content I could use to fulfil this role if those documents don’t provide something useful. It’s very important to me with this piece to use – for want of a better word – authentic texts. The specific stories behind the words I’m using are a large part of the power of that text. This may not be something which conveys to an audience, but it matters to me as I’m writing it, and hopefully once the choir knows that the names are the names of real people who drowned, the letter fragments are from an actual letter, the poetry was chosen as a memorial to real people, that it will colour the approach they take in singing this material. There’s a level of respect that goes along with a true story, a gravitas, which cannot be matched by invention, no matter how plausible, and I feel that to try to fake any part of this is to belittle the pain of those who have died and those who have lost people to the sea.