Cy Twombly: Defeating linear thinking

My Cy Twombly project is now at an end – I handed it in on Thursday – so I thought it would probably be a good idea to just put down my thoughts about what it achieved, given that it changed direction so much over the course of the project, and my thinking about what it achieved changed vastly just through the process of writing the thing up.

The project started out as a composition-based exploration of how visual arts techniques and elements could be directly ‘translated’ into music, my idea being that I might possibly be able to use these translated elements to compose music in the same way that these things go together in visual art. My previous posts cover this part of the project in some detail and while they’ve rendered some possibly-useful things (the Kandinsky-based cipher to convert lines and angles into music may be of use in the future) the last two pieces, Mushrooms VI and VII are the ones that have really made an impact on me.

Mushroom VI collage, by Caitlin Rowley

Following the mess-making of Mushrooms III, IV and V, I made another two collage-scores with the specific aim of then rendering them as notated music. Initially, I was thinking of this process as being basically creating an interpretation of a graphic score, just written down.

However, working through them, I found that I was thinking in quite different ways about these collages and how I was extracting music from them. I found I was using them more like reference tables, like tools – not as a source I was trying to render in a different form, but like something I was mining for details which I was then working with in my usual fashion.

It’s hard to explain and I spent half a day on Wednesday tearing my hair out trying to work out the difference between what I feel I was doing and interpreting a graphic score, and I think the difference comes down to the role I feel the collages play in this process. They are not the piece. They are something I’m using to create the piece. While I went through a brief period of thinking that possibly the collage should be as legitimate a source of the piece as the notated version (in much the same way as Carrion Comfort exists as both notated orchestral piece and graphic score for any forces), in the end I felt that neither of these two collages really WERE the pieces I’d made – and indeed could well be used to create other pieces.

The most important factor I found in working like this was that it completely overcame my resistance to working linearly. I’m beginning to suspect that the linear approach is what may make it difficult for me to write longer pieces, why so much of my music up until this year was only about three minutes long. I find it difficult to keep everything in my head when I’m working from start to finish, but working with the collages, seeing all the fragments of music I was working with laid out visually, it made new connections and made me see how each small fragment might be extended, combined with other fragments, and so on. To the extent that I was finding so many ideas in these collages, that both pieces’ durations are dictated pretty much solely by the fact that I had to have them ‘finished’ in order to workshop them. Mushroom VII, in particular, I feel was just getting going when I cut it off.

So I’m definitely going to use this process again – indeed AM using this process again, on a piece for vocal quartet plus four-hand piano that I’m working on. I’ve used a visual approach to cut down the text (a poem written by my father) to be appropriate for a 5-minute piece and am about to embark upon the next stage in the visual process, which will involve identifying the key parts of the text for repetition and emphasis using the same visual method. Looking forward to seeing how this works in the ‘real world’!

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!

Not so String Quartet of Doom

This evening I’ve been daring. Faced with the imminent deadline of this string quartet (my tutor wants it essentially done by Thursday, which would have meant writing 13 minutes of music in 14 days. Up until the point-of-daring I’d struggled to produce 30 seconds in 10 days and even then wasn’t convinced by it), I sat down a couple of hours ago and started to write (words, that is). I wrote about the difficulties I’d been having and tried to work out where it was all going wrong.

I sorted out the starting difficulty about a week ago when I realised (thanks to an assortment of advice from both my tutors) that the material I’d started with was the right material, just in the wrong form. This was a huge breakthrough, and very helpful in terms of how I think about what I write and how to go about transforming something that’s not quite right. You can compare the initial and revised versions here:

Initial version in manuscript
Initial version of the opening of the string quartet – note the large silences!
Revised version in manuscript
Revised version of the opening of the string quartet – note the held notes, tremolando and the glissandi retained from the first version

Since that small breakthrough though, everything’s been stop-start, write-delete so that it’s felt like I’ve made no forward progress at all.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that the plan is the problem. My pretty coloured-pencil plan. True, it’s my plan, and it’s the plan for what I want to do, but the way I’ve been going about this piece has meant that the piece was becoming more about the plan than about what I wanted it to be about. Everything was becoming about “This chord isn’t thick enough/dissonant enough for this part of the plan”, “I need to change texture right now”, “I can’t change harmony yet” and not about the inner needs of the piece. Maybe what’s needed is not actually what I drew. Maybe I got the colours wrong, made a texture too thick. Maybe I just *gasp* changed my mind.

So this evening, I’ve chucked the plan.

It’s now filed in case of future need – because, broadly speaking, it does still apply. I still want to go from thick textures and loud stuff through to quiet and delicate and detailed stuff, so it’s likely I’ll consult it from time to time. I do think too that in terms of how far I’m moving how fast it could also be useful, but for now it’s really limiting me. So now (after another deleting session) I am proceeding based on how I feel about the Seagram Murals and where the musical material seems to want to go. And MY GOODNESS what a transformation.

Just scrubbing the plan from my thoughts and spending a couple of minutes thinking about the paintings and what they’re like as you approach them has reconnected me with what I’m trying to do so that even the opening section sounds different.

When it was All About the Plan, the opening felt blocky. All I could feel from it was the big clumpy chords which correspond to the textural solidity of that block in the plan. Now I’m feeling the glissandi and the shiftiness of it all, which corresponds to the way the Seagram Murals never feel entirely static, which is EXACTLY what I wanted it to be.

Having deleted most of the start of the next bit (about 2 minutes in), I’m mixing up the pizzicato and slightly faster tempo of the deleted material with the more lyrical stuff I started working with just before (because The Plan dictated that I needed a change to the texture Just There) and it’s just working better. Whereas before the pizz stuff felt forced and artificial, now it feels like MY material and it’s behaving itself a lot better. 17 seconds done in about half an hour, and it’s music I think I actually like for a change.

Three cheers for rebellion!

A self-assessment

Today was the first sort-of-proper day of my Masters degree at Trinity Laban. ‘Sort-of-proper’ because we’re in induction week, so it was mostly welcome and general info meetings, but I learnt a lot about the course I’ve taken on, which led to a serious moment of terror as I read through the assessment requirements and tallied up just how much work is going to be involved!

The most important thing I discovered is that I really need a plan for the year. I need to think about not just want I want to achieve (which is fairly fluffy at the moment: ‘Get exposed to new stuff. Become a better composer. Work with real performers’) but what pieces I want to write, which is something I hadn’t really thought about at all.

So I think the time has come to do some thinking out loud about what I’m pleased with in my latest writing and my approach, and what I think could do with some work.

Stuff I like:

  • The slimness of my textures
  • The focus on line instead of harmony
  • My sense of balance
  • I think I write OK for most instruments

Stuff I’m less sure about:

  • I’m happy with the way I work for the most part, but I also feel hemmed in by it. I’d like to be able to be a bit more flexible, less reliant on the piano and the computer. My August Creative Pact was an attempt to free this up, but it failed miserably. I’d like to sort this out
  • The most common criticism of my music is “It was too short”. While this is also a bit of a compliment, I’m acutely aware that pretty much everything I write is miniature – even the opera! I don’t release a piece into the wild until it feels well balanced to me, but often I stall at the point of trying to push material past about the 3-minute mark. Often if I do push it, it feels stretched and uncomfortable and unfocused. I want to learn how to push this boundary so that I can write a 20 minute piece with the same aplomb I can approach a 2 minute piece. I’m less interested in writing a 20 minute piece quickly than in writing it at all…
  • I feel I flounder when writing for larger ensembles. My preference for delicate textures and focus on horizontal instead of vertical material makes it a real challenge to work out what to do with a large number of instruments. Carrion Comfort was very difficult like this, hence the very limited brass section in that piece – I just couldn’t think of what to do with them that wouldn’t muddy the sound

Stuff I enjoy that I’d like to do more of, things I’d like to try:

  • Writing for voices
  • I’d like to write a string quartet. I’ve had an idea lurking for a while, based on Rothko’s astounding Seagram Murals (at the Tate Modern if you’ve never seen them. They have their own room. Go in and sit with them until they start to pulse gently at you. Amazing) – might be a good time to give it a go?
  • Something for percussion, whether solo or group
  • I’ve had an idea for a while for a piece which combines composing with mobile web development, involving the geolocation API
  • While I’m not sure how it might fit into the course, especially only in one year, I really really want to do some more opera. Maybe a 1-act opera? Maybe a song cycle with theatrical elements? I really enjoyed writing On Harrowdown Hill and am itching to do some more!

Hmm. So what I’m getting from this is:

  • An orchestral piece to tackle the larger ensembles issue. Possibly two.
  • A large-scale chamber piece to tackle the duration issue (because it’s probably not wise to try to address both the larger ensembles and the duration problems in the same piece). Again, possibly two. Maybe these could be the string quartet and the percussion piece?
  • Continuing to push the way I work and trying to get over the feelings of failure if/when it doesn’t work. Maybe I was trying to do too much at once in my Creative Pact – maybe I should try writing a more ‘normal’ piece (for me) but in a new way, instead of tackling extended techniques and new ways of thinking with new ways of approaching my craft.
  • Something to do with voices. I’ve already had a tenor suggest I write a song cycle for him, so that may be a great place to start!
  • We need to create a portfolio of experimental pieces too, so the geolocation piece might work well for that

Obviously, this needs some more thinking, and I need to push myself to get back to writing after the hideous stress of the last couple of weeks scared my brain away, but I think this is a good start.

PS. In Composer Workshop today we brought our instruments along and put together a version of John Cage’s Musicircus which was a lot of fun. One of the singing teachers came along and to start us off she sang four short songs from Cage’s Sonnekus, which are absolutely gorgeous and designed to be interspersed with Erik Satie’s café-concert songs (which I adore). Have a listen on Spotify!

The pitfalls of perfectionism

I have a confession: I’m a perfectionist. I always spend far too long on pretty much everything I write, tweaking and poking and looking for that point where the whole thing seems to balance on a pin. So far it’s worked out OK for me. I mean, people quite often say rather nice things about my music, so I must be doing something right, yes?

But it bugs me, this perfectionism. I am positively green with envy for people who can dash off a piece in a weekend – my 60-second solo violin piece, Diabolus, which was supposed to be a quick project, took me 3 weeks to complete. The 3 minutes of Carrion Comfort has taken 10 months! So on my private list of things to work on this year, and especially with the prospect of a Masters degree coming up, has been to experiment with some techniques to get the writing happening faster.

My feeling is that if I can write faster and fuss less over the tiny details, then maybe I’ll learn more. In David Bayles & Ted Orland’s fantastic book Art and Fear, one of the authors tells a story:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated a “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This story makes me wonder: if I’m currently someone who only had to produce one pot, and the work of those producing many pots was ultimately better – how much better could my work be if I could make myself loosen up and produce many more works in the time I’d usually take to write one?

So this month, I’ve let myself be talked into doing the RPM Challenge. It’s a bit like NaNoWriMo or Creative Pact, but the goal is to record an album (10 tracks or 35 minutes) over the course of February – that’s 2-3 recordings a week! Obviously for me to even try to write 2-3 pieces a week would be seriously jumping in the deep end, so I’m setting myself a goal of writing 4-5 pieces in the month – about one a week – and the rest of the work will be finishing off recordings of other pieces I have that have been languishing without even decent MIDI recordings for far too long.

If you want to follow my progress, I’ll be blogging it (more or less) daily over at One Creative Thing – and of course, burbling about it regularly on Twitter.

If you want to join in, please do! You can find out more at the RPM Challenge website and join up, then post a comment here with the address of your blog or SoundCloud feed or wherever you’ll be documenting it.

Listening diary: Learning to love Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven, portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820When I was an undergraduate student, away, way back in the dark mists of time, I was a snob. A total and utter snob. I wouldn’t listen to anything that could possibly be termed standard repertoire. I did enjoy playing Bach’s flute works and Mozart’s simpler piano sonatas, but I never felt listening to ‘the obvious stuff’ was really worthwhile, or that I could ever really learn anything of use from it. And Beethoven? I LOATHED Beethoven. Not as much as I loathe Mahler but he was definitely next in line.

So I’m not sure why I bought his complete string quartets shortly after I moved to the UK. Something about being music I *should* listen to, I guess, but I suspect also that moving overseas liberated me a bit from my own narrow ideas. It gave me licence to try stuff I hadn’t thought about before. I also think the limitations of there being few record shops around that would actually let me listen to stuff before buying it, coupled with HMV on Oxford Street having an evil habit of putting box sets of complete works by excellent performers on drastic sale, and having to pay to borrow CDs from the library here, all these encouraged me to throw caution to the winds and just try new stuff.

Obviously, not everything I dared myself to try worked out, but there’ve been enough significant discoveries to completely change the way I think about standard repertoire.

But Beethoven. I am somewhat aghast to find myself totally enamoured of Beethoven. My early experience of him was based largely on Herbert von Karajan’s interpretations of his symphonies, and that led me to believe that Claudio Abbado’s delicate and delicious 6th symphony must be an accident. As was John O’Conor’s recording of the piano sonatas 30, 31 and 32 which sat in the bookcase beside Claudio Arrau’s more solid versions. *Obviously* these were glitches among the heavy stodge of the rest of Ludwig’s output.

So I surprised myself when I bought The Lindsays’ recording of his string quartets. And then I surprised myself even more when I discovered that I REALLY LIKED THEM. And not just the early ones, but the late ones too! And then I was hooked. I now have the complete symphonies (Mackerras), complete violin sonatas (Kremer & Argerich), a couple of piano concertos (Argerich) and – at last, for Christmas – John O’Conor’s interpretation of the complete piano sonatas.

These last are sublime and a total revelation for me. Treated with such a delicate touch, even the Waldstein ceases to be heavily Germanic and instead becomes full of light and shade and meaning.

Download the MP3 (442.4KB): Download fragment of John O’Conor’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata

Every disc so far is full of beautiful treats with none of that bone-jarring thumping that is, alas, so often a feature of recordings of Beethoven’s piano music. I can’t wait to spend more time with them and really explore every nuance and see what I can glean from them to use in my own music.

Have you ever experienced a complete turnaround with a composer’s music? Tell me about it in the comments!

Testing assumptions and breaking through resistance

Resistance is a nuisance. One of the hardest things in the world can be working out the best way in which to kill off resistance and destroy the excuses we make to not do things we really want to do. This week I discovered that testing assumptions can make an excellent starting point for doing just that.

I’m currently using my dayjob knowledge to explore a bunch of different options to discover how I can best use the internet to promote my music & that of other composers. I read a lot of stuff around this topic to give me ideas – marketing blogs, sales training, productivity articles and so on. Somehow I ended up on the list of Ramit Sethi, author of a book and website called I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Now, I have low expectations of what “rich” looks like to a classical composer, but I find that these sorts of blogs are often very good for productivity tips and marketing and can yield some real gems.

Last week yielded such a gem. Ramit linked to a post on testing your assumptions. His point was that assumptions can hold you back from achieving your goals (e.g. you don’t enter a competition because that ensemble only commissions [insert style you don’t write in] music).

And, golly gosh, he’s right! My work on Carrion Comfort has made me increasingly uncomfortable with my approach of only working on one piece at a time. I’ve been working on it for six months now, and at times it starts to feel like a bit of a chore because there’s no getting away from it. I wondered how my friends who have multiple pieces on the go most of the time manage it. I thought about why I’ve always been a compositional serial monogamist and I came up with the following answer:

I worry that if I’m not working only on one piece, my concentration will suffer and the music will turn out to be crap.

Right there: three big fat juicy assumptions sitting in front of my nose, blocking my way

  1. I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to focus on more than one piece at a time
  2. I assumed that what I created under such circumstances would be crap
  3. I assumed that it actually mattered if they were crap

Well, piffle!

  1. Won’t know until I try
  2. Won’t know until I try
  3. Doesn’t matter (unless everything I write if I’m working like this does turn out to be crap, but again – won’t know until I try)

There go all my excuses! So I am now resolved to get a second piece underway as soon as possible. I did try to jump right in but kind of failed – the film score that’s come back from the dead needs a different cut than the director’s sent me and he’s away; and the recorder quartet needs the catalogue of the Tate’s recent Miro exhibition to get me back into it but I’ve had to order it online and am still waiting… so I need to identify a new new piece and THEN jump right in.

What assumptions are holding you back right now? Think you can destroy them? Let’s take a leaf out of Ramit’s book: post your troublesome assumptions in the comments then let me know how you get on with blitzing them in the next couple of days!

Work in progress: A failed experiment

Today I took a chance and dived into a great project initiated by flute and saxophone duo, Duo Fujin – a challenge to write a new composition in 12 hours for flute/piccolo and alto/soprano saxophone based on a ‘secret ingredient’ which they would announce at 9am New York time (2pm here in London). It’s been a while since I’ve really stretched myself with a proper deadline so I tentatively signed up to give it a go.

I should say that I haven’t actually managed to produce a piece. What I have produced is an assortment of mangled bits of music that I’m ashamed to show in public (so you’re not going to see them) but the experience of working through my process intensively and quickly has actually been really interesting for me, in spite of my failure to produce anything worth listening to. No sitting back and pondering, it’s been a case of “Right. Now that’s enough of that. What’s the next step?”. And because it’s been interesting for me and because a number of people on Twitter seem to be curious about the work I’ve done towards my failed experiment, I figured it was blogging time.

I’ll run through the stages I went through, along with images of the pages I created as I was working through things. I’ve probably written things that sound stupid and used images that don’t seem to match up with anything but perhaps there’s something enlightening there. If you have questions or gentle observations, please put ’em in the comments!

So the secret ingredient was…

REMIX

which immediately (as these things are intended to do) threw all my ideas out and set me off on a completely different tangent. I’m interested in popular culture but I’m the first to admit that I’m not hugely up to speed with it. We touched on remixing a bit in the audio production course I did as part of my Graduate Diploma in Design (yes, audio production in a design course, you did read that right) and it interested me but I never really got around to following it up much. So step one was to do some swift reading around the topic and work out what ‘remix’ could actually cover in a classical, notated-or-semi-notated musical context.

Remix Project P1

I remembered that I had a chunk of an old issue of Wired (July 2005, if you’re interested) lurking in the dark depths of my hard-copy read/review file and dug it out and read it – interesting articles on the virtual band Gorillaz (if you haven’t heard their stuff, get out there and listen now – their latest album, Plastic Beach, is fascinating) and a marvellous one by William Gibson on writing as collage.

(I was collating all this stuff on the iPad, so noting notable quotes involved snapping a photo of the text with the iPad’s camera, erasing extraneous bits and drawing over it with the highlighter ‘pen’ 🙂 No excess writing involved.)

That got some thoughts running and sent me hunting for DJ Danger Mouse’s infamous (and, I believe, banned in some places) The Grey Album, a mashup of The Beatles’ ‘white album’ and rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album. We heard about this in my audio production course but it couldn’t be found for love nor money. Now? Google it. Download. Listen. Awesome.

Remix Project P4

I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The second step was to grab my collage box and just go for a wade and pull out anything that sparked an idea. These I again snapped with the iPad’s camera, pulled them into my notebook programme (Noteshelf, if you’re interested) and slammed them up against each other and made some notes. That was a bit of a curious collection:

  • a black and white line-drawing texture from a brochure I picked up at (I think) the poster museum in Zurich about 5 years ago
  • an ad featuring an excess of hundreds and thousands and a paddle pop
  • an art flyer for an exhibition of the work of Norwegian artist Ørnulf Opdahl which I never stood a chance of getting to at the University Gallery at Northumbria University (I get these things in the post along with stuff that’s going on a King’s Place in London, which I CAN get to). His work is gorgeous. Go and check it out.
  • a Tate promotional postcard for their Eadweard Muybridge exhibition that was on earlier this year (which I did get to)
  • a ticket for Les Machines de l’Île in Nantes
  • a postcard from the Banksy exhibition in Bristol a couple of years back of a zebra having his stripes laundered
  • an ad for incredibly ornate Dior enamelled rings
  • a marvellous drawing of aeroplanes in the sky by Alighiero e Boetti which (used to?) hang in the Tate Modern. I think it’s all done in biro, if I recall correctly. Amazing work.

[If any copyright holders have a problem with this, please let me know and I’ll remove the related section immediately. My work draws on a lot of visual art and it’s hard to explain the process without showing the pieces that went into it, but I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes here]

Remix Project P6

Next up: listening. I found The Grey Album very intriguing but I did begin to wish that I knew the Jay-Z album so I could really tell how it had been used. But even just hearing how the extremely familiar Beatles elements had been incorporated was fascinating. A number of tracks seemed to have random spaces in them which gave an interesting headspinny effect. Not sure if that was intentional or just my poor ailing laptop chucking a wobbly… but it sparked some new thoughts anyway. I’m looking forward to coming back to this one later and really listening quietly through to it a few times.

Remix Project P8

Finally, I pulled in the piano score of my set of 10-second pieces, Pieces of Eight, which I planned to hack up and glue back together in interesting permutations and hunted through looking for similarities and where I might find bits that could mush together effectively. I don’t think it was a bad concept. I suspect that a large part of the difficulty I had was because my musical language has changed a little bit and because of that I think I probably need to take a completely different approach with this early material. It might have worked better by creating a heavily manipulated tape part out of the mashup ideas, then creating shiny new instrumental lines over the top of it that gently referenced some of what was going on underneath. Might follow through on that idea one day.

So there you have it. I really liked pushing myself through the process at high speed and I might try that again someday with another piece – maybe make myself tear through the first stages to a point where I feel that I could do notes, then let it simmer overnight and see what happens. The speed and need to not linger over any one idea seemed to create more imaginative collisions when I found something new and there were a lot of ideas happening. Evidently not the right ideas for this project though!

Want to see the whole notebook? See it on Flickr.

Blades of grass: Arvo Pärt, Joan Miró and musical detail

A few weeks ago a composer-friend posted a wonderful video of a composition masterclass with Arvo Pärt. He takes a tiny phrase from his piano piece Für Alina and separates out its components with beautiful precision. Playing each line separately, he shows that each on its own is musically nothing much, but when put together, the detail of the intervals created and the motion of one part against the other suddenly makes that special Pärt soundworld happen and it’s just gorgeous. In his words, ‘a blade of grass has the status of a flower’ – even the tiniest detail is as important as a big theme.

I haven’t been able to get this idea out of my head. It turned up at about the point I’m up to in my Work in Progress series of posts – I was very focused on the held chords and notes in Carrion Comfort and my teacher was encouraging me to pull out my tiny main theme and work with inversion, augmentation and diminution of intervals to see how it might be transformed and gradually expanded to take it into new territory. It seemed like just the right idea at the right time.

This weekend, I went out to the Tate Modern with another friend to see the big Joan Miró exhibition they have on at the moment. We were both entranced by the details and distillation of his symbolic language, which you could see happening right from some of the earliest paintings in the exhibition – a naturalistic or semi-naturalistic object gradually became a symbolic mark, which then evolved to take on characteristics of other objects-become-symbols. So a ladder-of-escape symbol also reflected the symbol of the Catalan peasant, representative of the painter’s national identity.

Exploring the tiny details in the paintings in the exhibition, I was reminded of Pärt’s remarks. And then afterwards I had a Facebook message from my friend with a Miró quote from a letter the artist sent to JF Rafols:

“Joy at learning to understand a tiny blade of grass in a landscape. Why belittle it? A blade of grass is as enchanting as a tree or a mountain.”

When I looked further into this quote (thank you, Google) I was delighted to find that he goes on to say:

“Everyone looks for and paints only the huge masses of trees, of mountains, without hearing the music of blades of grass and little flowers and without paying attention to the tiny pebbles of a ravine”

I love that some tiny gesture can have so much significance. A twist of an interval, a series of small dots can completely change the way you view the whole. These artists delineate and show only the essence of the work. It makes me wonder what in my own work is really needed and what is just clouding the structure – how does one effectively work with a large number of instruments but still pare the music back to only what is needed?

A blade of grass has the status of a flower.

A composer goes back to school

When I told people I was going to take some random composition lessons at Thames Valley University to get ready to apply for a Masters degree in composition, I was amazed how many people said “but why?”. While some of them were nice enough to tell me that I was entirely ready to apply for a Masters, some seemed to be mystified by the thought that I’d just book myself in for some lessons without any real masterplan or qualifications at the end of it.

The ‘why’ is simple: composition, like many endeavours worth endeavouring, is at its heart a commitment to continuous learning – even if we don’t take actual lessons, we are continually learning from what we’ve written before, the music we play and listen to. We learn from what works and what doesn’t work. But sometimes we also need to be shaken up a bit – pushed out of our comfort zones and introduced to new sounds and new ideas.

For me, I’d been feeling I was getting into a bit of a rut. Having got back on track after my almost-a-decade of near-silence, I felt that what I was writing for the most part wasn’t really breaking new ground. Thickets was a bit of an adventure – I tried out some new stuff and really enjoyed trying to stretch my ideas a bit. Then at the CoMA Midwinter Composers Workshop in Durham, Tansy Davies was encouraging us to work with non-standard notation, and while I wasn’t hugely comfortable with the idea, it was really quite a liberating experience to let go of some control and think in new ways.

I also felt that my listening was starting to go in circles. I’d listen to the same composers, the same styles, over and over. I wanted to explore some different sounds but I wasn’t entirely sure how to find them. I’d enjoy my listening time, but I’d stopped discovering anything new to startle my ideas and get me inspired to try something different.

So my aim with signing up for lessons was to see things from someone else’s perspective, possibly discover music and approaches that I hadn’t encountered or really explored before and – most importantly – get some proper feedback on my work, week after week, to push me forward and get back into the swing of studying in preparation for the Next Degree.

And it’s been brilliant. The course has been super-flexible (mostly because the university forgot they even had it and then nobody knew what it was supposed to be) so my tutor, Simon Lambros, and I have been able to really tailor it to my needs. He’s introduced me to music I’d never encountered before – Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies and Gordon Crosse’s Thel, in particular – which we’ve listened to, read the scores of and talked in detail about the techniques used and how they could be put into practice in the music I’m writing now.

He suggests small tweaks and adjustments which improve the work I’ve done and show me new ways of thinking and I can see my writing improving with every lesson. I’m being more ambitious with the scope of what I’m writing and the techniques I’m using. Just knowing I’ll get feedback on my work makes it easier to push myself to experiment more and be more daring. I can now feel when I’m slipping back into my rut and falling back on my old techniques, so I can control more whether I want to do that, and every few weeks I seem to make a bit of a leap forward.

So many leaps that now I’m writing my first real orchestral piece – and loving the experience. I’ve tried writing for orchestra in the past, but it’s never really been terribly successful. I was very uncomfortable with having to deal with so many instruments, but now I can feel in an almost solid way how I want the different groups to interact with each other and the whole thing is coming together in a way I’m really very pleased with.

Signing up for these lessons is one of the best things I’ve done for my composition in years and I’d recommend it as a useful step for any composer who feels they might be getting a little stale in their techniques or just wants to be exposed to some new stuff. After all, there’s precedent: Satie enrolled at the Schola Cantorum at the age of 40 to study counterpoint; Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel for 3 months when he was 35.

So there may not be a degree at the end of it, but I think I’m going to emerge a better and more confident composer, much more capable of standing toe-to-toe with a Masters degree and emerging the victor!