Whitespace: Learning from repeated performance

Over the past few months, my piece Whitespace has had eleven performances, and while I’m not quite done with it yet – it seems to be the piece that is perpetually redefining itself – I feel it’s time to start drawing together my ideas about it and seeing if I can make some sense of it all.

I’m not going to summarise all the versions that have been performed so far – I’ve talked about all these over on the vlog (episodes 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 so far, if you’re keen to review). Instead, I want to think more broadly – what I’ve gained from doing all this and what larger ideas have emerged that might go somewhere else.

Whitespace has been a piece that’s really surprised me in the amount I’ve learned from it and how far it’s gone – it started from ideas about my notebook as a form of studio (something which keeps coming up in discussions with my supervisors), and from there thinking how the space of my studio could relate to the space of a piece of paper. At the start, I had it firmly in mind that it was a solo piece, for me, in my studio. As opportunities arose to test it in other locations and other ways, it began to expand though, becoming an ensemble piece, finding sound in it, taking it outdoors, and now, returning to the studio, invigorated with new ideas about the space and its potential relationship to the score.

It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that this piece is also a research instrument, a way for me to understand my working spaces better. As such, moving it out of the studio and into other locations and onto other people’s bodies, has been extremely valuable. The first time I performed it (solo, in the studio), I became aware of how many obstacles there were in my room – furniture, stuff lying about on the floor – that wasn’t apparent from my normal paths across the space. The most recent performances have focused in on the sounds made by the actual things in the room, and I’m much more aware now that I have longstanding patterns of efficient movement in the studio which have been brought to light by performance.

Returning to the studio after eight performances in other locations also made me more aware of the levels of ambient noise in my working space (single-glazed windows looking out onto a main road, sounds from activity elsewhere in the house) and its position as a space within a space (studio within home within neighbourhood). It doesn’t stand alone as a space – it cannot, because these surrounding spaces leak through and form part of my sonic working environment. I’ve become aware too of my own presence in my studio – initially was I so focused on what was in the room that I wasn’t thinking at all about who was in the room. But my presence is what makes it my studio – otherwise it’d just be a room at the top of the house that contains some specialist equipment.

I’ve been diligently filming all these performances, and this has been vital to identifying ideas about space, and performance within a physical space in relation to the space that is the frame of the video camera. Questions about position, distance, visible detail, identification, being in and out of frame. Also questions about who and where the audience is, and whether they really matter in a participatory piece like this which is more about performing than it is about observing or listening. The recording has been almost as important as the performing in these respects.

But where to go from here? There’s been so many ideas prompted by this piece that it’s hard to choose what to focus on. Whitespace has already led to a new project, which is in progress – an altered book, using an existing (printed) book as a notebook. The early performances of Whitespace made me realise that while my studio is almost always a mess, the pages of my notebooks are lovely and blank when I go to work on them. My physical working environment is filled with noise, but the notebook is (visually) quiet. So I began to wonder how my working process might be affected if my notebook was as noisy and chaotic an environment as my studio.

Altered book, spread 33

I’ve been working through drawing, collage, writing and overwriting to try out new approaches and consider my responses to this new noisy environment. I’m not sure yet whether this will be an ongoing project or a short-term experiment – mostly I’m using it to challenge aspects of my process that I’ve been taking for granted up until now.

My latest work with Whitespace is to work out how it can be accessible to other people. It’s very much a participatory piece – it’s more about doing it than watching it, even in public spaces – so I’m trying to figure out how to create an overarching score for it that allows for the variety of variants I’ve already worked through, as well as ones I haven’t yet thought of. The challenge is to be precise about what needs to be done, while being as vague as possible about how to do it, I think…

Interpretation, personality and non-rehearsable music

I have a half-baked idea that I want to talk about in this post. It’s about interpretation, non-rehearsable music and my recent piece Community of Objects. I’ve been working on an article about this piece recently, and doing a lot of reading to try to gain a better understanding of my own context for this composition. One of the articles I’ve read has been ‘Vexations of Ephemerality: Extreme sight-reading in situative scores – for makers, performers, audiences’ by Sandeep Bhagwati (references linked at the end of this post in case you’re interested).

Bhagwati’s article is focused on ‘situative scores’ – scores that are produced in real time and therefore need to be sight-read onstage. At one point he talks about the problems of interpreting such scores and it occurred to me that Community of Objects seems to differ from other pieces that demand ‘extreme sight-reading’ in that it kind of replaces interpretation, in the traditional sense, with personal emotional response.

Taking a step back, let’s start with Bhagwati’s definition of interpretation:

‘Interpretation’ is a term used in the context of fixed scores to describe a process in which practise, repeated readings, analysis, comparisons with other scores, information about the musical or cultural context as well as non-musical concepts and imaginaries are condensed into the moment of performance. (Bhagwati 2017, p. 2)

While overall accurate, this definition rather sidesteps what I feel is a crucial element of interpretation, which is that it is personal to a performer. It is a manner of performing something which has been developed by an individual (using repetition, etc.) which may reveal something of the performer themselves – if not their personality then at least their stylistic preferences – in their performance.

However, as Bhagwati points out, with situative scores, there can be no repeated readings, no rehearsal in the usual sense. And because repetition and time spent with the music lie at the heart of interpretation, interpretation therefore cannot exist for music which must be sight-read on stage.

Which I am finding interesting when considering performances of my own situative piece (because while the score of Community of Objects is not generated on the fly, it is kept a mystery to the performers until the very moment of performance, and so could perhaps be considered to be situative) because the displayed personality of the performers is an essential part of the piece.

If we consider that interpretation is principally an individual’s performed response to a score (which may be developed through the approaches listed in Bhagwati’s definition) rather than the tools used to reach that response, then a version of interpretation could indeed be possible in a piece which uses extreme sight-reading by changing the priorities of the piece.

Bhagwati’s examples all seem to create a tension based on a need for accuracy in performing the situative score – the challenge is all about ‘getting it right’ (or – more likely with extreme sight-reading – ‘getting it wrong’). Accuracy will usually be the first part of learning a piece of music – get it right then develop your personal approach once the technical part is under control. But what if the expectation of accuracy were bypassed? In a sight-read piece where technical accuracy is not important, there is scope for personality perhaps.

In the case of Community of Objects, the element of accuracy is bypassed by using commonplace activities and a free timescale – opening boxes, following simple instructions, tearing paper, etc. Most people will have internalised these from an early age. They don’t really require any thought. Instead the challenge in this piece is emotional: it focuses on eliciting genuine emotional responses and the performer’s challenge is to allow themselves to be open and vulnerable, sharing any emotions they feel, whether surprise, disgust, boredom, etc.

My feeling is that the performers’ approaches to the unknown content – driven by that vulnerability which has them just be themselves – convey their personalities in performance, the way a rehearsed interpretation might do for a fixed score. And just as personal interpretative gestures usually have an effect on the audience’s understanding of the music (whether to clarify or confuse), as described in Eric Clarke and Jane Davidson’s ‘The Body in Performance’ (another recent read – see ref below), the individual responses may provide a ‘way in’ to the piece for the audience.

Consider these two moments from Community of Objects performances – the first shows Alice Purton (on the left) in the Plus-Minus Ensemble performance, who discovers some buttons in her box; the second shows Tim Cape (on the right) in the Bastard Assignments Snape Maltings performance, who has been given some beach pebbles. Both have the instruction ‘play with these’:

These are very different interpretations of the same instructions and similar materials – but they aren’t rehearsed. For both performers, this was their first encounter with the piece. Instead of an interpretation gained by repeated exposure to the composition and developed over time, their personalities come through and drive how they interact with the material they have been given.

Sandeep Bhagwati, poor chap, seems to be quite disillusioned with the effectiveness of situative scores to create meaningful musical experiences. His sorrowful conclusion to the article states that ‘the ephemeral score… vexes us with its aggressive absence of meaning, of connection, and of sense’ (p. 6) but I wonder whether this is less a factor of the need for ‘extreme sight-reading’ and more to do with crushing the performer’s personality under the pressure of ‘getting it right’. Is openness an answer here? To leave some space for the person performing it to be a real person, not just a performing machine?


Bhagwati, S. (2017) ‘Vexations of Ephemerality. Extreme Sight-Reading in Situative Scores – for Makers, Performers, Audiences’, in Third International Conference on Technologies for Music Notation and Representation, A Coruña, Spain. Available at: http://www.udc.es/grupos/ln/tenor2017/sections/node/15-vexations_ephemerality.pdf (Accessed: 31 August 2017).

Clarke, E. and Davidson, J. (1998) ‘The Body in Performance’, in Thomas, W. (ed.) Composition, performance, reception: studies in the creative process in music. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Roland Barthes, composition and the public/private creative continuum

There now, that’s more the sort of title you’d expect from a PhD student, isn’t it? Don’t take this as a sign that I know what I’m doing now, though, because I really really don’t, and part of the reason I’m writing this post is to get my thoughts in order because I think I’m on the verge of being able to tie a bunch of stuff together to at least give me a vague direction to follow!

The other day I got hold of Roland Barthes’ Image Music Text and finally read his tiny essay ‘Musica Practica’. And then I wanted to give good old Roland a hug because (a) he writes beautifully and (b) there were a couple of things in this piece which seemed to be particularly relevant to what I’m doing.

Have I even talked about what I’m doing? Maybe I should, just to give you a quick context to what comes next. The topic I proposed originally was (*deep breath*):

Questioning the division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ creative spaces through an interdisciplinary approach to composition derived from a performative interpretation of visual art processes.

The plan was to investigate the working process of the German artist Anselm Kiefer from a performance aspect, drawing ideas from that to explore through composition but limiting the application of those ideas to the exploration of public and private spaces (and especially the idea of normally-private things being public and normally-public things being private) to keep it all manageable. Over the course of the past few months, Kiefer’s role has shrunk and shrunk until he’s but a glint of an idea that started the whole thing, and the public/private idea has taken centre stage. Somehow the interdisciplinary composition thing has also increased in importance, even though it’s really just how I work.

So when I read the opening of ‘Musica Practica’ –

‘There are two musics (at least so I have always thought): the music one listens to, the music one plays. These two musics are two totally different arts, each with its own history, its own sociology, its own aesthetics, its own erotic’ (p. 149)

– I pretty much squealed with joy (although very quietly because I was in a library). And when I got near to the end of the piece, I silent-squealed again, because Barthes’ definition of composition seems to me to be wholly open to the idea of interdisciplinary – or indeed postdisciplinary – composition. New Discipline FTW.

‘To compose, at least by propensity, is to give to do, not to give to hear but to give to write’ (RB’s emphasis, p. 153)

Squish these two together and there’s my project really.

So in thinking about all this, I worked my way towards a diagram of a creative continuum which moves from the private area of studio, score, rehearsal and performing towards the public arena of performance and exhibition of varying types.

Barthes continuum of public/private creative spaces
(Click diagram to view full size in a new window)

Because of the inter/postdisciplinary nature of what I do (still trying to work out whether inter- or post- is the more appropriate prefix here) I’ve tried to look at this continuum from both a music and art perspective to see how and where the process differs. The aim of the diagram is to consider what results if the private process is made public at certain points and the names at the bottom indicate some artists/composers who engage with crossing the public/private divide. For example, one we’re all used to is the private act of performing happening in public which results in a performance that other people are listening to – but how about the other end of the spectrum? Visual artists routinely send their work into the public arena directly from the studio because they are creating a physical finished artwork. But in music, the type of work that goes public from this point tends to be pieces that perhaps don’t need live performers – fixed media pieces, for example – so there’s a question right there of what sort of work could involve a live musical performance in the studio and how to send that out to the world.

As it’s early days for this work yet, there’s no doubt gross generalisations and my examples are just who came to mind instantly – I make no claim to any of this being thorough! But of course I’d be delighted if you have suggestions of work to follow up that might be useful/interesting – please leave me a comment if you do! Since originally creating this diagram, I’ve also developed ideas a bit further to acknowledge that the studio location may also be a stage, especially for visual artists (e.g. Nauman, Acconci, as the location where they performed alone for the video camera), as well as the wall of the gallery (a public stage as opposed to the private stage of the performer playing the tuba for a houseful of people – the difference being that the artwork is complete when it goes up onto the gallery wall while there is an ongoing private act of creation still happening with the live performance) but this is still a bit hazy.

Similarly, the line about unseen/unheard/seen only by performer/heard only by performer is the tentative beginning of what may or may not be an actual idea regarding levels of privacy. More work required here!

Zero to Infinity: Fear of the ephemeral

I was visiting the Tate Modern a couple of weeks back and came across an artwork with the following sign:

In keeping with the artist's intentions, this work is re-arranged at 10.00 every day by staff members. Please do not touch

I’ve been interested in in public and private spaces in composition for several years now – I find works which open up private aspects of themselves to be public particularly interesting – but this one grabbed my interest because of how the rearranging of the work is public – yet not public. I was intrigued that the participatory element of the work was restricted to being handled by experts, and scheduled for a time of day when the gallery was at its most empty (Tate Modern opens at 10am). Reading the notes on the work on the Tate website connected this in with another topic which I find of immense interest – the prioritising of longevity of the artwork over the artist’s vision.

So here we have a work, positioned in the Tate’s new participatory art display, which is intended to be a work of public participation, and which has become a work of publicly private participation in order to preserve it for as long as possible by ensuring that only trusted experts actually handle it. I find it particularly intriguing that the sign is worded “In keeping with the artist’s intentions” – but the text on their own website makes it clear that this conservation solution only preserves one aspect of the artist’s intentions.

Sure, it’s better to have somebody move it than just set it up and leave it, but it assumes that this piece is only for looking at, which it isn’t. It’s for feeling the texture of the structure, the heft of a cube as you lift it. It’s experiencing how the separate cubes might be connected. It’s a sonic experience as you listen to the sounds made when the cubes connect. The artist’s original intent – to have the cubes manipulated by the public – also means that it’s not only participatory sculpture, but also kinetic sculpture – theoretically at least, the interaction of the public with the sculpture could/would be continuous, meaning that the sculpture is perhaps intended to be viewed as constantly in motion and constantly in interaction with human bodies. It is, in fact, performed rather than simply viewed.

Of course it saddens me that works of art deteriorate over time, but my feeling is that the art world’s obsession with the value of the singular art object fails to take into account the strength that can be lent by ephemerality. Musicians and music-lovers get this – experiencing a great live performance is an amazing thing that can never truly be repeated, even if it’s recorded – but I feel that the temporary almost terrifies the art world. We musicians may continuously reinterpret Bach, but an Old Master painting is an Old Master painting and must be preserved exactly as it is.

A more extreme example than the Tate’s relatively sensitive Zero to Infinity solution comes from a review of ‘Mindfuck’, a 2013 exhibition of the work of Bruce Nauman which included a ‘conserved’ version of Nauman’s Carousel:

And as I look at the words on the wall, the carousel keeps turning. Yet there is something missing. Those rotating, dangling body parts were originally intended to be dragged around the concrete floor, with a terrible sound of screeching. All they make here is a quiet shush as they revolve on a floor constructed from MDF which acts as a sort of plinth. It’s less a Mindfuck, more a lullaby.

This, I was told by someone at Hauser & Wirth, is a conservation issue – the sculptures risk being worn away by their interminable circular journey – but the work’s imminent auto-destruction is, I would surmise, an intended consequence of what Nauman originally had in mind. Where the work was once aggressive, it is now muffled, pathetic… I want to hear the metal scream.

YES! My sentiments exactly. Without the scream, it’s Nauman through a filter of curator. Without the scream, it’s only half a work.

Update 28 October 2016: Today I found the following video on Tate’s site of Rasheed Araeen talking about how the human intervener becomes part of the work, which I feel is relevant to what I’ve said in this post:

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.

Breadcrumbs video and a new project

I’m delighted to say that the video of Breadcrumbs at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is now online. It’s missing a couple of bits at the beginning, but gives a pretty good idea of how the performance turned out. Many thanks to Tête à Tête for arranging for it to be recorded.

Performers: Charlotte Richardson, soprano, and Clemmie Curd, cor anglais. Directed by Omar Shahryar. Recorded at Kings Place, Saturday 9 August 2014.

This month I’m working on a new orchestral piece for the Angel Orchestra, an amateur group in North London, which will be performed in December, attending lots of final recitals (including a couple which include my pieces), and with the start of September, I’ve embarked upon my fourth Creative Pact.

Creative Pact is an online group project where people choose a creative project and commit to working on it a little every day for a month, and documenting their progress online. For my Pact this year, I’ve decided to finish composing Manifesto, an experimental piece exploring my current compositional interests using Max/MSP. As this project requires daily blogging, I am doing this offsite so as not to overwhelm readers here! You can follow the updates for the project here.

Justifying normal

Recital de Canto, on FlickrOne of the many things I love about studying composition at Trinity Laban is the attention paid to not only the music you write, but to how that music is presented. For Masters students preparing their final recital, this means consideration not just of organising players and getting programmes printed, but designing the performance space: how will the chairs be arranged? what lighting will be used? how will you use the quite vast space of Blackheath Halls and create an appropriate experience for what will probably be a small audience (because of happening at odd times during a weekday) in a large hall?

While nerve-wracking, this is a great process to go through. And there’s no falling back on a standard recital format because however you decide to approach it, you need to be able to justify your decision. And “couldn’t be bothered” just won’t cut it 🙂

And so, in the context of a general contemplation of visual aspects of Crossing Dartmoor, I came to consider performance presentation. I thought about the subject matter and the critical aspect of movement (walking) in Richard Long’s art practice: should my singer move around the stage? Around the whole venue? Should I specify that the scores should be set up at various points around the room and the singer to move around them, with the audience able to view the scores by wandering about the space or even looking over the singer’s shoulder as he performs?

That last idea felt a bit too ‘Stations of the Cross’ for my liking – it seemed contrived and at odds with the very natural-world focus of Long’s art. The other ideas also seemed to trivialise the aspect of walking in Long’s work, so I dismissed those too.

The answer I finally came to brought me right back to the standard recital format: singer in front of the piano, on a normal stage, using classic stances. Why? Why present what is turning out to be fairly experimental music in an overused, traditional format?

I was at the Tate Britain the other day, mostly ensconced in the library doing research on Richard Long, but when I emerged I did my customary wander around the gallery in the hour that remained before closing time. And I found Long’s A Line Made By Walking.

I hadn’t really noticed before how much of its “artiness” is conveyed by the way it is presented: its frame, mount and neat hand-lettered title.

When you examine the work itself, while striking, technically it’s not that great. A photographer intent on making A Photograph would almost certainly have done it differently. Not chopped off the tips of the trees at the top, for instance, or focused entirely on the line to the exclusion of its surrounds. But creating A Photograph was not Long’s intent when making this work.

Dieter Roelstraete’s book Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking examines the work and its genesis and impact in detail.[fn1] This piece was a turning point for Long. The photograph, developed at a London chemist shop, was not created with a view to gallery display, but instead as a mere archival document of work completed. Not created as ‘art’, it has nonetheless become art through its display in galleries, and by means of the constructs of frame, mount, white wall, etc.

The duality of Long’s work is one of the things I find fascinating about it, and something which I feel has very strong parallels with the work of composers of notated music such as myself. The artwork on the gallery wall is not the ‘original’ artwork: it is a representation, documentation, archival material that allows the general public to experience the original in some way. It is accessible archival material presented so that it is art. Similarly, for composers, is the score the piece? Or the performance? Long’s response (as mine) is that the answer is ‘both’, in different ways. The in situ sculptures and the walking are at the heart of his practice as the creation of a score is at the heart of mine – without them there would be nothing to look at or hear, but the representation shown in the gallery or performed in the concert hall is also, in its own ways, art.

Which brings me (finally!) to the point because, as I see it, the vast majority of Long’s created-for-display work – photographs, maps, textworks, mudworks – is designed specifically for the ‘white cube’ gallery space. Possibly this seems obvious, but there are many ways to display work, yet Long generally chooses presentation formats which embrace the white wall, the separation of works one from another, the enforced focus of the standard modernist gallery structure.

Brian O’Doherty, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, says “The ideal gallery space subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art’. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself”[fn2].

In this, I see a reflection of traditional recital conventions: separation of performer from audience by means of a stage, formal clothing and standardised positioning onstage. Rituals of accepting applause, silences before and after performance. And the restrictive behavioural expectations of the audience: to sit in their seats, quietly listening, to applaud when the work is done, not to talk, not to sleep, not to get up and walk around or do anything to pull focus from the performers on the stage. This is our equivalent of the white cube of the art world.

And I think viewing Long’s work within a white cube gallery also highlights two aspects which are possibly relevant to what is turning out to be a fairly experimental song cycle. One is that his presentational preference to work with the conventions of the white cube does – at least in some measure – ‘legitimise’ the work presented as art. The frames, the positioning on the wall, these are things that clearly say to anyone familiar with convention that “this is art”. The other is that even while the work’s status as art is being reinforced by its display environment and mode of presentation, it is also clearly displaying its difference. This is not just a wall-painting, it is mud; this is not just a photograph, it is a record of something that was made somewhere else and this is the only fragment of that original work that I will get to experience.

To put these ideas in the context of Crossing Dartmoor, for one of the pieces, the singer does not sing but instead taps two small granite stones together, in reflection of a line drawn through a contour map of Dartmoor. If I asked the singer to tap his stones while walking round the performance space, it would probably seem quite normal – experimental music has often gone hand-in-hand with new and unusual approaches to the space of performance. However, if I stand him on the stage, by the piano in the usual manner and have him tap, what does this mean? If I align stone-tapping with artsong tradition rather than experimental-music tradition, how does this then affect how my piece is received? what does it say about traditional artsong? about our recital conventions? about our expectations as audience members and the way we listen?


Click on the footnote number to return to the text…
fn1: Dieter Roelstraete, Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking, London: Afterall Books, 2010.
fn2: Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, expanded edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 14.

New UK performances

A fairly last-minute announcement, I know, but there will be two performances of my music coming up this week in or near London.

First up, on Thursday 27 June, I will be performing my solo flute piece Gasp in its first public performance at the Big Red Bus in Deptford. I’ll also be singing in the One Day Scratch Choir which will perform a selection of new pieces written for CoMA Voices, along with other performances organised by the Bastard Assignments collective. Find out more on Facebook (Gasp is a late inclusion so isn’t listed, but it’s going to happen 🙂 )

Next week, on Monday 1 July, my ensemble work Still River Air, which was based on the photographs of Ansel Adams, is receiving its second performance by the Trinity Laban Contemporary Music Group, at the Harwich Festival of the Arts. The performance will take place at 7.30pm at the Harwich Electric Palace Cinema in Essex. All five of the pieces shortlisted for the Runswick Prize will be performed at this event, so if you missed the night at the National Maritime Museum, this is your chance to hear them all! Find out more on the Harwich Electric Palace Cinema website.


Lines of Sight at the ICA, Thursday

I’m pleased to announce that my first performance for 2013 is happening this week! This is the first performance of something I’ve written for my Masters, so I’m pretty excited about it. It’s on Thursday 17 January at the Institute of Contemporary Art on The Mall, London and starts at 6.30.

The evening is part of ICA’s Touring Talks for their Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument exhibition, which is showing maquettes of sculptures made for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. The pieces being performed have all been written in response to the exhibition and its consideration of the space and history of Trafalgar Square and are all by Trinity Laban students.

Many of the pieces in this performance are quite experimental, in content or approach to the space, and my piece, Lines of Sight, falls into this category. It’s a graphic score work for three string instruments (violin, viola and cello for this performance but could be any string instruments) which responds to the creation of Trafalgar Square as a mechanism for social control.

The area we now know as Trafalgar Square was once a rather seedy residential area, and the Victorians were keen to clean it up. So they built Trafalgar Square, not merely as a space for grand monuments, but by the placing of those large fountains and grand staircases, they broke up the space with the specific intent to make it difficult for large crowds to gather.

Lines of Sight is designed so that – like the Victorian ideal for Trafalgar Square – the only “perfect” version is one where there is no audience. The players are situated on the same level as the (standing, moving) audience and communicate using visual cues. Additionally, the design of the exhibition means that players 2 and 3 cannot see each other at all, so they are entirely reliant on being able to see player 1 for the piece to proceed with precision.

As the space becomes more crowded or people move around, and the lines of sight become obscured by the audience, the players must use their ears to try to work out where they are in the score and to move to the next section. The aim for a precise execution of the piece as a group effort is thwarted by the obstacles raised by the audience and by the design of the space.

Quite simply, it is designed to fall apart.

The performance is free and runs for about 2 hours from 6.30pm at ICA – you can come and go as you wish throughout the event, and there’s a cafe if you’re overwhelmed with the awesome 🙂 My piece is on quite early, but there’s loads of interesting pieces being performed throughout the event, so do come even if you can’t get there for 6.30.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Composer-performer collaboration: Letting go when we’re dead

View from my deskToday’s post was inspired by a couple of tweets by the pianist John Mannos from June 2011. He’s no longer on Twitter so I can’t link to his account, but what he wrote was this:

Oh, to get inside the minds of these great composers to know precisely what they wanted! How to play the accents? Phrases? !!!!!!!!!

I suppose that is the alluring beauty of playing a work by a deceased master..to have faith that your performance renders his art perfectly

I do understand what Mannos is aiming for, but given the impossibility of ever knowing whether you’ve “got it right”, I feel a different view is more valuable, both for the living performer and for the composer, represented only by the score.

These days, composers can choose whether they want pixel-perfection: they can take the option of writing directly to audio, bypassing the score entirely. Or they can choose to write music for other people to play. People with opinions, ideas, limitations of technique, the whole package.

But this is a recent development. Composers of the past had no option but to write music to be performed by real human musicians. Whether that musician was the composer or someone else, ultimately the notes on the page needed to be turned into sound by a – fallible – person. I feel that the idea of a piece being rendered perfectly would have had little meaning for them, or if it did, it would be no more than an idle fancy.

When you write for performers, you are starting a collaboration. And that goes whether or not you had any chance to choose perfection.

As composers, we create things which, sooner or later, we will leave behind. We have no power over what becomes of them, regardless of how many increasingly specific notations and remarks we litter our scores with. At some point our collaborators will have more say than we will, so we need to accept – as I suspect many of our forebears did, lacking any other model – that there comes a point where we just need to let go and let the new collaboration happen.

And for performers, this is a fantastic chance. It’s an opportunity to work *with* Bach, *with* Stravinsky. Of course, study to understand the composer’s viewpoint is vital – you can’t truly collaborate with a person you don’t know. But it’s only the first step. From understanding what they’ve written, you need to make it your own – they are no longer Beethoven’s accents, Sibelius’ phrases – they’re yours.

For my own part, I don’t want perfection. Sure, I’d like to have the right notes played in the right order at the right speed, but I want it to sound real, human. I want to find out what other people can bring to my work, the nuances they can bring out that I didn’t know were there. I want them to have ideas, test them out and bring them to life.

Obviously, this is what great performers have been doing forever, but it disturbs me that this idea of the dead composer as oracle still persists. They did exactly what we do. Or rather, we do exactly what they did. No mystery, just hard work.

A score is not a piece of music. A score is just notes. It is not sacred, not perfect. It is an incomplete thing, requiring human collaboration to make it live.

What’s your opinion? Do you think we should seek perfection or new interpretations? Or take another approach altogether? Add your rant to the comments!