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!

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!

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…

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 4

Going back to the source & ending up in unexpected places

When we left Carrion Comfort last time, it had been through the wringer a bit. All the chopping and changing I did improved it, but it was left a little directionless and I felt the new end section (which sounds a bit like an actual ending) was a bit of a let-down. So I decided that the only thing to do was to go back to the beginning – right back to the poem that started it all and have a good think about what I was really trying to achieve here.

For the record, and to compare with the last version, this is version 25 of the piece (as with previous versions, it’s best viewed full screen and using the HD setting rather than the 320 which I think is standard):

So I pulled out the poem, read it through several times, then went hunting for readings on YouTube to see how my interpretation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous sprung rhythm matched up with what other people thought. Well, it may be arrogant to say so, but I think most of the readings on YouTube are dead wrong. There’s no passion in them, no real motion. My personal opinion of Hopkins’ poetry is that he contrasts motion with stillness and all through it there should be an ebb and flow of feeling and rhythms. Anyway, that’s my take. So most of them were incredibly tedious. Until I stumbled onto this gem by a blindingly Aussie gentleman who apparently has taken to shouting Hopkins as a form of stress relief. This one, I feel, is a version worth listening to (although if you’re reading this at work, you might want to put headphones on rather than startle your co-workers…)

I just love it.

After a good deal of time communing with the poem and listening to various interpretations, I felt I needed to do something a bit more practical. Often when I work I like to draw or do collages that pull together the sorts of colours, textures and formal rhythm that I’m looking for in the work I want to write. I had just treated myself to a set of gouache paints (opaque watercolour, for those who haven’t encountered them before – a marvellous medium – you get all the blendy, washy properties of normal watercolour, but these amazingly vibrant colours) so I thought I might try to create a sort of painted map of the poem. I think of it as an ‘intensity map’ rather than interpreting mood, speed or whatnot. It’s more about identifying the highs and lows of passion in the poem. Once I’d painted it, I really wanted to work physically with the text itself too, so I pulled a photo of the map into SketchbookPro on my iPad and really went to town, writing out the words and trying to make my written text also match up the intensities I’d mapped. The result was this (click on the image to view the full-size version):

Carrion Comfort intensity map

This is turning out to be rather a long post, so I’ll look at what I did with this map and the further progress of the piece next time. However, just in the last couple of days, this map I made of the poem has taken on a life of its own. In the course of a discussion on Twitter sparked by my last WIP post, I sent the original (no text) version of the intensity map image to Stuart Russell – he then used that map as a graphic score to create his own electroacoustic work, C. C. – After Caitlin Rowley.

I find it quite fascinating that the same material can spark such different results. Stuart has suggested that this map might be capable of having an independent existence as a graphic score and I confess I’m really interested in that as an idea: that something that was created merely as a tool for the creation of one piece can then take on an independent life of its own, so that in the course of creating a single work, I could end up having actually created two scores, and the possibility of many different versions.

What do you think? Does this idea appeal? Have you ever done anything similar? Share your opinions and stories in the comments!