Reassessing productivity: 2018 in review

It’s quite late to be thinking about new year things, but as this new year marks the first full calendar year of my vlog, I thought it might be a useful exercise for me to review my compositional activity for the year and make a bit of a summary. 2018 was a pretty awful year in many respects and my feeling at this point (before reviewing what was actually documented in the vlogs) is that I’ve achieved very little compositionally. Off the top of my head, while there’s been a lot of activity, I think I’ve only completed one new piece which doesn’t seem a lot for a whole year – but perhaps some statistics might show a happier picture.

Compositions

Pieces worked on:
* Whitespace
* dot drip line line (a new version with Bastard Assignments, a new solo version for me which became 8918: EDGE, rerecorded 8317: Fall and thought a bit about how to make it a solo piece)
* Aides Memoire/POV
* Community of Objects
* Scratch
* a new piece for Plus Minus Ensemble
* Britten Variations
* Quiet Songs and
* some contributions for my Trio project with Misha Penton and Leona Jones.

Of these, the only new pieces ‘completed’ (and I use inverted commas because, for example, POV was a realisation of something that was really made last year and Whitespace could still be developed further in spite of now having a [possibly] settled score) were dot drip line line 8918: EDGE and Scratch, the viola improvisation recording which I’m not even sure is really a ‘proper’ piece – I certainly have no intention of trying to score it. But looking at the number of pieces worked on and thinking about the other stuff that’s happened this year, I begin to question whether ‘completed’ is really as much of a measure of a year’s compositional productivity as it seems.

In particular, the trajectory for dot drip line line 8918: EDGE has taken me a very long way from where I started, insecure in my abilities and possibilities as a performer, unsure about how to combine gesture and sound, deeply suspicious of creating work for myself that was reliant on improvisation, even if within certain composed parameters. I started work on that piece in February, hated it but couldn’t quite abandon it, fretted at it without doing much practical work on it until July when I had a breakthrough, recast how I thought about it, got some fresh feedback at Darmstadt, committed to performing it at the Snape Maltings’ Festival of New, then worked intensively on the form of it in the week leading up to the festival and gave the premiere performance in September. Eight months. There’s been some further work on it since, and I’m still refining the score, but that’s been the main trajectory of the piece. It’s been hard but rewarding and with hindsight I can see that most of the hardest work on it wasn’t the sounds, the ideas, or even the gestural elements which I so struggled with at the beginning, but a turning-around of how I was thinking about the piece, to start from the sound that existed, strip away the gestures, and then let them find their way into the sound.

In contrast to this, Scratch was a multitracked improvisation recorded and cobbled together in my studio in one afternoon. It has no score and I don’t see any future for it as a live piece, but it was a useful step in starting to develop how I think of myself as an improviser on (untuned) viola, as well as logistics of performing and recording in my studio.

The only piece that’s been completely abandoned of all these is the new Plus-Minus piece, which related to an opportunity that turned out to not be available. I’d been struggling with the concept anyway and while I still quite like the visual idea behind it I’m not really feeling any strong sense of how it could be a piece. Maybe it’ll turn up in something later.

The Britten Variations are still very much underway and will be finished in the first half of 2019 (God willing). The Trio project is ongoing for all three of us and hopefully will move towards some collaborative work later this year. The Quiet Songs I’m quite fond of but first attempts at Snape (as shown in this week’s vlog) have ultimately proved disappointing and going in another direction from what I’d planned and that I’m not particularly happy with. It’s not dead in the water, but it’s definitely floundering right now.

All this sits within a context of a LOT of Bastard Assignments work (3 of our own gigs, a tour to Chicago, improvising with Swan Meat for BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, the Snape Maltings Festival of New gig and we recorded an album too), performing in works by Nick Snowball/Weilu Ge at Darmstadt and Maria Maltezou at Bath Spa University, and a gentle scattering of other delightful people performing or presenting my work. And of course two weeks at the Darmstadt Summer Course and a bunch of uni work and travel. So a hard year, but perhaps not as unproductive as I’d thought?

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…