Breadcrumbs: Handling dramatic time

Jane Manning performs Breadcrumbs at Tete a Tete
Jane Manning performs a late draft of Breadcrumbs at Tête à Tête opera festival

The last week or so has seen some big changes to Breadcrumbs, the dramatic monologue for unaccompanied soprano that I’ve been composing for soprano Julia Weatherley. In particular, I’ve been working on creating context and space for the drama that is implied in the piece. While the text explains fairly clearly (I think!) what is going on and how we got there, it is quite wordy and the issue of time passing and the aspect of what the character feels or experiences which goes unsaid were things that still needed to be addressed.

Fortunately, the Tête à Tête opera festival has been on over the past few weeks, and I’ve managed to get to several performances of new short operas which have been hugely helpful in working through ideas about dramatic space. In particular, Judith Bingham’s unaccompanied soprano rendition of the story of fossil-hunter Mary Anning (part of the Fossils and Monsters performance by Alison Wells) was extremely helpful. The gaps left between phrases, her use of a tiny patch of pebble-beach for the performer to crunch over, the tapping of smooth beach-stones the character is holding in her hands, and the inclusion of half-remembered phrases of hymns all contributed to make a very well-paced, vibrant performance, and helped me to begin to understand some of the finer detail of how Breadcrumbs should work in a performance.

The biggest issue, I felt was how to convey a feeling of passing time. While the piece only takes about 5 minutes to sing, it needs to be clear to the audience that it all happens while Gretel is wandering about in the woods over a much longer time-period, more like several hours. While writing the text, I had considered explicitly stating this – the section “Twilight, twilight, evening, past crepuscular and into more prosaic night-time” is intended to show that the day has ended while she’s been singing. Even at the point of assembling the words, though, I felt that while the “twilight” bit worked, to make the passing of time more explicit would probably be a bit too heavy-handed.

The Téte à Téte performances helped with seeing how the staging can really make the most of pauses and little random snatches of melody. I found that the Bingham piece had some quite large gaps in it, but that they didn’t seem as large as they were, on reflection, because of the visual aspect of the performance – Wells wandered around, crunched over the little beach, looking for ammonites among the pebbles, hummed half-forgotten snatches of hymns, all of which gave a strong sense of a larger context, both physical and temporal.

Originally I had notated pauses in performance with fermatas and breath marks, to indicate long or short pauses.It began to feel like these did not give enough information for the performer though, and I revised the piece while considering why the singer was pausing – what is the dramatic purpose of the break? and what is she doing while it is happening? Once I had worked these out, I removed most of the previous pause marks, replacing them with either notated rests, or blank bars with stage directions such as “Pause to listen, as if expecting a response. Slump with a sigh when it becomes clear he’s not answering” and “Check pockets, or show hands to show you have nothing”.

Thinking like this really brought the music to life for me and – oddly enough – expanding the breaks actually seemed to knit the piece together more strongly. In particular, there are one or two places where a sudden change of mood is called for by the text – adding in stage directions made sense of the context for these sudden changes, and I think they also help with conveying how long a pause should be, based on dramatic, not just musical, time.

I was fortunate enough to have this near-final draft of Breadcrumbs sung by legendary soprano Jane Manning at a sight-reading workshop held by Téte à Téte on the 18th of August. This was an incredibly helpful experience – Manning delivered a very well characterised performance which has really helped me determine the final tweaks to the piece. Overall, I was very pleased with how the work turned out in this performance (also very pleased to hear from my teacher that Manning loved it!) and there are very few changes I’ll be making. The main things are a couple of additional repetitions of phrases/sections which seemed to be over too quickly, and therefore didn’t make enough impact for the dramatic sense they needed to convey, and I’m thinking of tweaking some of the notes to include a glissando here and there – up till now all the notes have been solid pitches, but I think a little flexibility would be very effective.

Onwards and upwards – just a week to go till my Major Portfolio is due in!

The final version of Breadcrumbs will be performed by Julia Weatherley as part of my public MMus final recital at Blackheath Halls in London on 13 September 2013. Click to find out more about this performance >>

Work in progress: Cy Twombly & the amplification of white space

After a bit of a hiatus during which I finished (and had workshopped) a 5-minute orchestral piece, finished (and had shortlisted and performed) a 10-minute piece for large chamber ensemble and finally got my piece for two harps, Paint, Knives, Lipstick into rehearsal (that one’s being performed on Wednesday at 6pm at Trinity Laban), I’m back onto my Cy Twombly project.

I’m still contemplating ideas about white space and smudges and smears, and these are starting to merge with some thoughts I’d had about the frame as a concept and edges. So far I seem to be dodging the most obvious features of the artworks! I’ll have to tackle line and colour sometime soon, but for now I think I’ve got a fairly profitable line of thought going here, so I’m seeing how far I can push it.

I’m running rather behind with my composition for this project, so it’s my focus for this week and I’ve just finished a new sketch over the weekend ready for this week’s workshop session with my fabulous performers, Sarah James (cello) and Becky Brass (percussion). Next week I’ll be focusing on some new pieces to be workshopped after the Spring Break is over.

The first piece I wrote (for cello and 1 percussionist playing 5 temple blocks and marimba) focuses on interpreting white space as a drone. It’s a fairly simplistic translation, but I felt I had to start somewhere. I think it’ll work OK, but I don’t know how excited I am about this solution from a compositional perspective, and in thinking more about this and the even more simplistic idea of white space as silence, I’ve come to quite a different conclusion.

White space as silence is kind of an obvious choice – it’s the area of the picture that doesn’t contain any marks, but the more I thought about it, the more I became aware that if a Cagean perspective on silence is that it is filled with noise, why shouldn’t the same be said of white space? In any work on paper, the paper has a colour. True, it’s usually pale but as anyone who’s ever done any interior decorating will tell you, ‘white’ is almost never just white (makes me think of The 12th Man’s parody of cricket commentator Richie Benaud’s jackets: “the cream, the bone, the white, the off-white or the beige?”). On top of the colour issue, there’s the texture of the paper – is it rough or smooth? does the texture have a regular or random pattern to it? how are the edges of the paper cut? It occurs to me that the characteristic of white space in a work such as Twombly’s Natural History: Part I: Mushrooms isn’t actually it’s lack of marks, but its low-contrast nature. There’s a lot going on in the white space in these pictures, it’s just that you don’t notice it until you look very closely.

So what this leads to is low-contrast activity vs high-contrast activity (the bits of the artwork that we normally think of as being ‘the picture’). Low-contrast in music could mean a limited range of pitches, blurred edges such as those caused by the use of a piano or vibraphone sustain pedal, soft sticks on percussion instruments, or sliding between pitches, limited dynamics (not necessarily soft, but if we want to maintain contrast with the foreground material in respect of dynamics, then soft probably gives more scope to keep the foreground material in the foreground). It doesn’t preclude variation of articulation.

And the contrast issue got me thinking about the smudges and smears again. I admit to being fascinated by these elements in Twombly’s work. I have an intense desire to understand their role and I veer between thinking he just embraced chance marks or that they are all entirely intentional. I need to read more to understand that. What is pertinent to today’s thoughts though is that I think the smudges and smears perform a role of amplifying the white space.

What you see with these marks is not just the mark itself – the mark on the paper will colour the raised parts of the texture, leaving lower parts still white or not as darkly marked. If you consider a brass-rubbing where you put a piece of paper over an object with a raised or indented design and shade strongly with a pencil, you see not only the object’s design on the paper, but also the paper’s texture. The pencil shading, then, increases the contrast of the paper, amplifying the nature and impact of the white space.

Obviously, other marks will do this too, but I think there’s a difference between, say, a scrawl which is easy to identify as being a representation of the shape of a mushroom (has clear meaning) and a smudge which may have a purpose (visually balancing other marks, perhaps) by no easily identifiable significance. I’m not sure how this idea works in the context of purely abstract artworks, but I’m putting that to one side for now.

So the second piece in this set of sketches (for cello and 1 percussionist playing marimba, four tom-toms and a triangle) is looking at these things – firstly at whether a melodic part, using low-contrast techniques (sempre piano dynamic, limited pitches, limited rhythmic changes, short glissandi, use of the cello mute) can be effective as a musical equivalent of white space, and secondly at how this low-contrast material might be amplified by the other player, through duplication at pitch, at the octave, rhythmic duplication, to become foregrounded as the smudges and smears of Twombly’s mushroom images foreground the surface of the artwork.

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.

Music and silence

After Gorecki’s death a few weeks back, one obituary in The Guardian gave a wonderful quote:

If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write – it might be better to spend the time with a girl or with a beer.

This was the answer he would give students who would ask him how to write music or what to write. And an excellent response it is – fun and to the point. But lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I actually think that my response would be different. My response would be “If you can live without silence for two or three days, then don’t write”. I frequently go without listening to music for days at a time, not because I don’t want to listen to music but because I’ve not got enough silence in my life and if there’s more sound piling up on top of the sound that’s already causing chaos in my head – even if it’s music, and even if it’s music I’ve chosen – then I pretty quickly feel like I’m going insane. Without regular, large doses of silence, my brain frazzles and I can no longer find myself in my own head.

And I know I’m not the only one. Back in 1958, the wonderful Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks wrote,

‘It is apparent that leisure and silence are absolute prerequisites for composers if they are to engage fully the many forms of awareness involved in creative activity. This leisure and silence have become the greatest luxuries in the modern world, and composers less than any other group in art or science are able to command it.’

True leisure and silence have become incredibly rare, and even more so in the half-century since PG-H wrote those words. Of course a love of music and a need of music are of vital importance to anyone who would compose music – but I would venture to say that a love of, a need and respect for silence comes even before that.

If you would like to find out more about Peggy Glanville-Hicks, read my article, Peggy Glanville-Hicks: A lifetime’s search for leisure and silence at