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?

Considering improvisation

For many years, improvisation has been a bit of a bête noir for me. Ask me to improvise and I would make the sign of the evil eye and edge away from you. As a mediocre instrumentalist and also a perfectionist, improvisation took me about as far from my comfort zone as it was possible to go. I was terrified of ‘getting it wrong’, not realising that if I played with confidence then – rather than a ‘wrong’ note being the end of the world like I was convinced it would (or should) be – it could mean a whole new direction for the music, a new idea for others to feed off.

Right now I’m in the throes of Creative Pact, for which I’m finishing Manifesto (begun as part of my MFA project), a piece rooted in learning-as-I-go and taking risks, and I’m finding it rather amusing how casually I have embraced improvisation as a key strategy of this project. True, I’m not improvising with other people, trying to pick particular notes; true, I don’t need to show anybody else an improvisation which I think is poor. But also true is that there’s rarely been an improvisation I’ve done for Manifesto (with the exception of the first improvs for the very first piece when I was still trying to work out what I could do with Max/MSP) that I’ve felt was actively bad and which I wouldn’t even consider putting out in public. I’ve had a little difficulty with picking out which version of the last two pieces would be the one that would be used in the final format of the work, but it hasn’t been because I thought they were rubbish or was embarrassed about them, but because I found that pretty much all the versions I had made were Good Enough to use.

I think Good Enough is a key concept here. Not that I’m not striving for the very best version I can produce, but because a line has to be drawn somewhere. I could keep making versions of these pieces forever, just as it’s all too easy to keep on tweaking and refining a piece of notated music, but what I want to do is to move on, to apply what I”m learning in Manifesto to other pieces. Good Enough means that what I’ve produced fits the aim I have for the piece, that it’s satisfying for me, that anything I feel is not perfect doesn’t mar the whole.

Voltaire (the internet tells me) said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Maybe one of the things I should take away from this project is to pay more attention to when I should simply say “that’ll do, pig” and move on, rather than obsessing over trying to achieve perfection in every tiny detail.

Manifesto is a piece which draws on ideas explored in my MFA research, of amateur activity as a valid part of professional creative work and to that end consists of working with recordings of my own vocal and body-percussion improvised recordings in Max/MSP (which I had never used before starting this piece) along with video material both specially-filmed and pre-existing, to create a composite audio-visual work which explores an assortment of dualities which have become central to the way I think about my work. To follow my progress on Manifesto (updated every day in September 2014), visit my Creative Pact 2014 blog.

The first improvisation for the video section of Manifesto I’m currently working on. It’s not quite ‘Good Enough’, but there’s a lot I like about it.