Considering the audience

In our latest ‘All Composers’ session, the question of whether we do or should consider our audience when writing was raised. Now, I know well that this is a question that’s kind of been done to death and this is not a post about whether composers in general should or shouldn’t. I don’t think that discussion is particularly helpful. What I do think is helpful is for individual composers to consider the role the audience plays in what they do and how they perceive what they do.

For me, I don’t think I do really consider the audience that much while I’m writing. I’m more interested by what I feel to be the internal drive of the piece, about creating something that to me feels satisfying and that is appropriate to the situation I’m writing it for – if it’s something I’m writing for a particular performer, what are their strengths, weaknesses, interests and things they want to work on? if it’s a piece I’m just writing for fun, then what parameters (if any) do I want to set myself?

What I do think I do, which I hadn’t really considered before, is to spend a fair bit of time stepping back from a piece and trying to consider it from an audience member’s perspective – does it hang together? If I pretend I don’t know what’s coming next, does this bit still work? what is the overall structural balance like?

In the context of needing to push myself to take more risks, I wonder whether this step in the process might not actually be counterproductive – is this the point at which I sanitise music that might be less conventional to fit into some mould I’m not even conscious of trying to fit? Do the things which sound unbalanced to me actually sound excitingly wobbly to other people? I’m thinking now that these are questions I probably should be exploring. Sometimes, certainly, this process can take a pedestrian section of a piece and make it more interesting, but maybe more would be learned by just writing it, giving it to performers, then hearing it and writing a new piece which learns from what’s been done in the workshop. I guess this is largely what my work on A Sketchbook of Mushrooms was tackling, although I didn’t think of it in these terms at the time.

I think too that this stepping-back process could be part of why I’ve gone through such major periods of stuckness on pieces such as Red on Black on Maroon and Carrion Comfort, so at the very least a period of experimentation with this idea is probably worth a go…

What do you think? What role does the audience (either real or imagined) play in the development of your creative work? Is it important to you for your work to be perceived in a certain way?

(And look! I got through the whole post without mentioning Milton Babbitt! Go me!)

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’!

Identification: Considering what sort of composer I am

This week is “performance week” at college, which anywhere else would probably be a “reading week” and gosh I wish it was – I need to catch up!! However, all the full-time Trinity students are involved in a big celebration of John Cage, Out of the Cage, which is happening this Friday 12pm-11pm -come along! It’ll be fun!

As such, I have no classes this week, so I’m grabbing the opportunity of an Adler-reading-free train trip to dash off a quick post.

This is one I’ve been meaning to write since the start of term when my new tutor looked at the scores I’d brought in and said “hmm. Conservative”. Now, I know that he was just mentally classifying me as conservative vs avant-grade, and the pieces I brought in for him – Thickets, Carrion Comfort and On Harrowdown Hill – are among my more conservative, even if most successful pieces, but that word “conservative” raised my hackles just a little and I’ve been thinking about why.

After not really very much thought I came to the conclusion that actually I think of myself as an experimental composer. Not because I write stuff that’s particularly radical, but more literally because I like to experiment and because I feel that the foundations of the way I write and think about music are rooted in the experimental tradition more than in standard repertoire.

I write predominantly tonal music – but more because of Gavin Bryars and Steve Reich than Beethoven and Chopin. I like to think I embrace, and set myself, challenges – things like Lucky Dip and the mini opera in 5 weeks. I like to explore different ways of thinking about music, such as how visual art techniques can be repurposed in a musical context as composition tools.

So I guess that’s more about a mindset rather than how the music ends up sounding. And I guess it’s all about putting one’s music in boxes at the end of the day and labels don’t matter, blah blah blah, but there it is. I may seem but a mild-mannered conservative composer, but underneath it all I’m a seething experimentalist 🙂

How would you categorise yourself as a composer or artist?

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!

Carrion Comfort workshop & RPM2012

I’m delighted to say that Carrion Comfort has just been chosen to be one of the 10 orchestral pieces (out of 16 submitted) that the London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra will be workshopping on 31 March. I’m really excited about this – after all the time spent on pulling it together, it’s fabulous to know that it’ll get an outing with a real orchestra. I hope they like it.

I’m also thrilled to report that my commission project for RPM2012 seems to have met with a great reception and is now fully subscribed. I’ve even written and sent off the very first piece!

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.

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 5 – at last an ending!

Tomorrow is my interview/audition/test thingy for my application to do a composition Masters at Trinity Laban. I really have no clue whether I might get in or not. I’ve been told by very kind people that my compositions should come up to scratch, and my newly-acquired flute teacher says my fluting’s fine, but with it having been 15 years since I finished my undergraduate degree, I find myself wracked with terror at the prospect of the written analytical test. Given that it’s now the day before and really far too late to learn all the stuff I can’t quite remember and haven’t yet got around to revising, I am taking the Doris Day approach and singing Que Sera Sera, going through all my scores and making sure I at least know what I’m going to be talking about with my own work.

Which made me realise that I haven’t done an update on Carrion Comfort in quite some time and that consequently you don’t know yet that it actually has an ending! (Unless you follow me on Twitter, in which case you’ve known this for a while but haven’t actually heard it yet.)

No, it’s still not quite complete (more on that in a moment) but structurally I think it’s basically there – and this version is what is going to be put in front of the awesome and all-powerful Trinity Laban auditioning people tomorrow, so I guess this is as good a version as any to share with you.

The main reason it’s not complete yet is that it’s taken quite a while to get the list of percussion that would actually be available. I’ve known since almost the beginning of the composition that I wanted to include percussion, but I’ve not entirely been sure what to put in there, and knowing that resources were few for the intended ensemble, it seemed better to plough on and get the framework done, then rework as it became clear what I had to work with. Well, the percussion list only turned up on the day I had to send this to the printer to get it to Greenwich in time for the deadline, so it didn’t stand a chance there, but I have it now and am still a little unsure how to approach it. My personal desire is for generous lashings of timpani. But I’ve known from day 1 that timpani were not available, so I need to somehow find a way around that. This is what is at my disposal:

  • Drum kit: pedal bass drum, snare, crash cymbal, ride cymbal, hi-hat, hi tom, mid tom, low tom
  • Bongos
  • Tambourine
  • Mark Tree
  • 3 Triangles
  • Finger cymbal
  • Cow bells
  • Wood blocks
  • Claves
  • Whistle
  • Tambourine
  • Floor tom
  • Snare drum
  • 2 suspended cymbals
  • Glockenspiel
  • Marimba
  • Vibraphone (only if piano isn’t required)

There is only one percussionist, but the pianist can play the vibraphone if required.

So much thinking is really required to decide what and how to use it. I’m thinking the vibraphone might indeed be a useful addition, some cymbal rolls might work well with the string tremolos and maybe an assortment of toms to make up for how I was thinking of the timpani? Really not sure. Experimentation will ensue!

Oh and anything you can provide for tomorrow in the area of crossing fingers, holding thumbs or anything else you do for luck will be most gratefully received! See you on the other side!

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: Carrion Comfort 4

Going back to the source & ending up in unexpected places

When we left Carrion Comfort last time, it had been through the wringer a bit. All the chopping and changing I did improved it, but it was left a little directionless and I felt the new end section (which sounds a bit like an actual ending) was a bit of a let-down. So I decided that the only thing to do was to go back to the beginning – right back to the poem that started it all and have a good think about what I was really trying to achieve here.

For the record, and to compare with the last version, this is version 25 of the piece (as with previous versions, it’s best viewed full screen and using the HD setting rather than the 320 which I think is standard):

So I pulled out the poem, read it through several times, then went hunting for readings on YouTube to see how my interpretation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous sprung rhythm matched up with what other people thought. Well, it may be arrogant to say so, but I think most of the readings on YouTube are dead wrong. There’s no passion in them, no real motion. My personal opinion of Hopkins’ poetry is that he contrasts motion with stillness and all through it there should be an ebb and flow of feeling and rhythms. Anyway, that’s my take. So most of them were incredibly tedious. Until I stumbled onto this gem by a blindingly Aussie gentleman who apparently has taken to shouting Hopkins as a form of stress relief. This one, I feel, is a version worth listening to (although if you’re reading this at work, you might want to put headphones on rather than startle your co-workers…)

I just love it.

After a good deal of time communing with the poem and listening to various interpretations, I felt I needed to do something a bit more practical. Often when I work I like to draw or do collages that pull together the sorts of colours, textures and formal rhythm that I’m looking for in the work I want to write. I had just treated myself to a set of gouache paints (opaque watercolour, for those who haven’t encountered them before – a marvellous medium – you get all the blendy, washy properties of normal watercolour, but these amazingly vibrant colours) so I thought I might try to create a sort of painted map of the poem. I think of it as an ‘intensity map’ rather than interpreting mood, speed or whatnot. It’s more about identifying the highs and lows of passion in the poem. Once I’d painted it, I really wanted to work physically with the text itself too, so I pulled a photo of the map into SketchbookPro on my iPad and really went to town, writing out the words and trying to make my written text also match up the intensities I’d mapped. The result was this (click on the image to view the full-size version):

Carrion Comfort intensity map

This is turning out to be rather a long post, so I’ll look at what I did with this map and the further progress of the piece next time. However, just in the last couple of days, this map I made of the poem has taken on a life of its own. In the course of a discussion on Twitter sparked by my last WIP post, I sent the original (no text) version of the intensity map image to Stuart Russell – he then used that map as a graphic score to create his own electroacoustic work, C. C. – After Caitlin Rowley.

I find it quite fascinating that the same material can spark such different results. Stuart has suggested that this map might be capable of having an independent existence as a graphic score and I confess I’m really interested in that as an idea: that something that was created merely as a tool for the creation of one piece can then take on an independent life of its own, so that in the course of creating a single work, I could end up having actually created two scores, and the possibility of many different versions.

What do you think? Does this idea appeal? Have you ever done anything similar? Share your opinions and stories in the comments!

Work in progress: Carrion Comfort 3

In which everything goes horribly wrong

What do you do when a piece starts to go off the rails? And how do you fix it? I have never worked by mapping out a composition as it starts – all of my pieces have simply grown organically out of their original material. While I’m pretty comfortable, in general, with this way of working and it gives plenty of scope for unexpected changes that just happen, it can also lead to a good deal of meandering and confusion. When this happens, it’s time to step back, reassess and sometimes take drastic action.

First up, version 16 of the piece, in which we demonstrate a whole host of problems. I’ve set the annotations as Closed Captions so you can watch it through without commentary to start with, if you like. To view them, click the CC button in the player.

So as you can see, I have a number of problems here, mostly to do with meandering, not building up enough tension or momentum, and for the final section, a decorative chunk that doesn’t really connect with the heart of the work I’m trying to write.

I’m not going to inflict all of the next nine iterations of the piece on you while I staggered around looking for a solution, but here are a few of the things I tried:

  • v17: Extended out the end part, added the flute in with drawn-out notes to see if I could get some movement going with interplay with the piano while tying the new section back into what had gone before.
  • v18: Tried to make the flute part a bit more complex to mesh better with the bouncy strings in the end part as the slow-moving part idea wasn’t working.
  • v19: Added an oboe and horn (I was getting kind of manic about how not to delete all the new stuff by this point)
  • v20: Threw some pizz triplets into the string pattern, which really improved it no end, but still wasn’t the answer.
  • v22: Added a viola line at the very beginning, to tie the two opening statements in cello/double bass and bassoon together so it has less of a stop-start feel, deleted the whole of the bouncy new section. However, I ended up quite liking the triplet version, so I filed that one away for possible use in a future piece – no point wasting it!
  • v23: Time for some serious surgery: Hacked out and condensed the central section, inserting two 3/4 bars to push the pace along a bit. By this point I had effectively chopped the piece in half but hadn’t quite committed to it as I’d just moved the end part along, not deleted it entirely
  • v25: Commitment time: I deleted the end sections I wasn’t using and ended up with a totally new section of held chords.

At this point I realised that I had either created an insanely short and unsatisfying piece, or something had gone dramatically wrong. I plumped for the latter after a brief dalliance with the idea of starting a second piece to pair with the first and decided that the thing to do was to go back to the poem to find my way back to what I originally wanted to capture.

Want to find out what I did and how the piece ended up after this slash-and-burn episode? Subscribe to find out as soon as it’s online!

Going to be in London on Friday 7 October? Come to a free lunchtime concert and hear the world premiere of the piano version of Pieces of Eight!