Work in progress: On being experimental

At college, we have a series of composer-directed concerts of experimental music called Rude Health. Each concert is organised by a group of composers from the department, and the content consists of our own music. My concert is on on Friday night (come! it’ll be exciting and cutting-edge!) and this weekend I am creating my piece for this event, which will consist of the same short piece of music, played by four different improvising pianists (so the same piece played four times, but it should sound a bit different each time). There’ll be a graphic score to go with a tape part and the aim of the exercise is to see how similar, and how different (and in what ways) the same piece turns out in the hands of pianists of varying improvisational experience. I’ve got my pianists lined up – two first-study pianists and two composers – and now I just have to write the thing.

For the tape part I’m currently working with some improvised viol sounds I recorded in my practice session yesterday and an Elliott Carter quote: “A musical score is written to keep the performer from playing what he already knows and leads him to explore other new ideas and techniques” but while I’m enjoying putting these sounds together it’s feeling more like a tape piece, not a piece for tape and piano, so I need to work on how I’m going to include this.

One of the of members of our group has created his piece around the concept of anxiety and the subconscious and as others in the group seem to feel this theme resonates with what they’re proposing to do, it seems to be becoming a theme. I guess it kind of resonates with mine too because of the risk-taking and role of the subconscious in improvising.

So what am I trying to say with this piece? I personally find improvisation still quite an uncomfortable business. I’ve been going along to an improv group which some of my college friends have on a Thursday evening, and I’ve been enjoying that, mostly improvising on flute, although I’d probably be more comfortable improvising singing (but we have a proper singer who comes sometimes and he’s really good and I’m rather shy about both my vocal ability and my female-tenor voice!). Maybe I’ll try that sometime when I’m a bit more confident in general. I want to find out how much my score and the tape part I’ve provided generate similar sounds from different pianists and how much of the resulting sound comes from the pianist themselves.  For my own role in this, I’ve improvised the viol sounds, and to a certain extent I’m improvising their placement (although as I’m not just dropping them and moving on – maybe I should??), but mostly these sounds that are the result of risk-taking and experimentation are being ordered in a very non-improvisatory fashion in that I’m listening and re-listening and tweaking placement, volume, application of EQ, delay and other effects. The tape is improvisation tamed, while the pianist can do what they want.

I’ve just re-listened to I Want It To Kill People which I wrote for Sam Grinsell last February, which has parallels with this piece in that it’s about the same length as this one will be, is also for improvised instrument (slide guitar) and tape. I’m thinking about what works in that piece and how it differs from what I’m doing now. The first thing I’m aware of is that because my aim with writing that tape part was for a particular sound – brutal and crunchy – the sounds kind of came along quite easily. Also, I wasn’t being marked on it and had given myself permission to fail at the beginning of the project 🙂 I think the crunchiness does work well with it and is more exciting than some of the gentler tape work I’ve done in the past. I’ve been finding myself avoiding those sorts of sounds this time round for a couple of reasons, though.

Firstly, I already did that in I Want It To Kill People and I need this piece to be its own thing, not just a duplication of that. Secondly, I’m acutely aware that I’m going to be marked on this piece and, not being terribly au fait with this sort of thing, I don’t want the piece to seem amateurish to people who do a lot of this because I’ve used some prefab effect that to me sounds really daring but may be the electroacoustic equivalent of Comic Sans. I don’t mind if the experiment overall turns out to not be that interesting, but I do mind if it’s because the bits I’ve written are totally hackneyed and dull.

I think I need to work out the role of the piano in this piece a bit more clearly too – how much white space does it need? Does that white space need to be actual silence or can it just be a lower level of noise? How much do I want the piano to play over noise? Do I want to start with the tape (and so have the start be exactly the same each time) or to start with the piano (so it’ll be slightly different)? What sort of sounds do I (approximately) want to hear out of the piano?

Maybe, in fact, I should be starting with the score and then building the tape part around the score instead of the other way around…