(Re)writing for radio

Recently I’ve been through the process reworking an interdisciplinary piece to be suitable for radio. I found this to be intriguing, challenging and much more useful than I thought it would be, so I feel that it’s worth identifying the steps I went through to do this.

The piece is Fortune Favours the Brave, a very visual, even theatrical piece for flute and objects that I wrote for Jenni Hogan this year. Fortune Favours the Brave centres around a unique score – handwritten and made out of 4.5 metres of shot silk and rice paper and presented in the form of a Chinese handscroll – and significant moments in the piece are conveyed using ritualistic gestures. The subject matter of the piece – about decision-making in performance – depends on the gestures and score, which is fine in the performance situation for which it was designed, but how do you remove key visual elements from an interdisciplinary composition and still end up with a piece that works?

Performance detail, Fortune Favours the Brave

I have to say, it wasn’t an easy process. Several things required attention, including the score, the gestures, the coin tossing/dropping, the limited time allotted (Fortune in its natural state is variable in duration) and the need to fit in with a radio show’s predetermined length.

The easy bit came first. Clearly the gestures weren’t going to work on radio and would just result in an unexplained hole in the music and needed to be dumped. Also quite clearly, the score object needed to be discarded for this performance – it wouldn’t have any impact on an audio-only audience and as it’s quite slow to scroll between sections in it (much slower than turning a page), again this would leave unexplained holes. In both these cases, while I didn’t mind the idea of silence mid-piece, with the limited time available it seemed better to tighten things up a bit.

The problem with all this discarding though was that with the gestures and the score gone, what happened to the idea of choice that is central to the piece?

The only one of the choice-indicators left at this point was the coin-tossing, which I was keeping as a way of separating movements and because I was concerned that removing all the decision mechanisms of the piece would just leave it as sounds without a real concept.

However, during a group workshop day we (Bastard Assignments) held to work through our pieces for the radio gig, it became apparent that the coin toss wasn’t working as strongly as I’d hoped. As a separation device between movements it was fine, but it was pointed out that the sound of a coin toss comes with a bunch of semantic baggage and also that due to the need to predetermine the sections played because of the time limit, there was actually no choice being made. So the implications of the coin toss sound were false, making it an insincere gesture – the coin toss became just a sound which had no relationship to the music except to separate and could just as well be replaced by something else which might be less semantically burdened. Clearly, the coin toss was doomed but as the last thing which connected explicitly with the work’s purpose of exploring decision-making, I had a lot of trouble letting it go.

Another thing which came up in the workshop was that the breathing in the piece was a mix of intentional, scripted breaths, and more relaxed “I’m just taking in oxygen” breaths and the latter diminished the impact of the former. So I focused on the breathing while I considered the problem of the coin toss and ultimately it provided an answer.

It became clear to me that what the scripted, audible breathing provided in the piece which the more relaxed breaths undid was to create a line of tension throughout each movement. I worked with Jenni over a couple of sessions and we plotted out the breathing across the entire work so that each movement’s breathing was fully scripted to use audible, intentional (almost sucking) breaths. In this context, the dividing signal which ultimately replaced the coin toss was a relaxed version of a tense-breath gesture used several times across the piece – in-out-in – purposefully drawing in the relaxed breathing that had been the apparent problem before and giving Jenni a chance to ‘come down’ and recover a bit between movements.

Obviously, this still didn’t solve the issue of the theme of decision-making, but in my mind this tension/release situation helped in that the increased difficulty of the radio edit version moved the location of decision-making so it was no longer a question of deciding whether or not to play the next movement, but whether or not to engage with the piece at all. Because not only has it become quite a difficult and physically demanding work, but it does so many things (with the breathing in particular) that go against ‘proper’ flute training that it poses a challenge to people’s perception of the flautist’s technique. It’s a little bit ironic perhaps that a piece that requires a flautist of extreme technical prowess to perform should put them in a position of potentially sounding like they don’t know what they’re doing…

And so we turned up at the Southbank Centre and did our live gig on BBC Radio 3 (which you can hear over on iPlayer until 24 October!) and that all went well, but what interested me in particular as a follow-up to this process was the effect that this work had on the piece in its original interdisciplinary state. Jenni performed Fortune Favours the Brave again the following day for a private event and I could really see immense improvements in the way the whole piece worked based on the changes we’d made for radio. The tension in the played sections created a much more dramatic space for the gestures and overall I felt the radio-edit process had significantly strengthened the entire work.

Rejection gesture - Fortune Favours the Brave, Jenni Hogan

For me it’s still an interdisciplinary piece (hey, even on the radio they were talking about the score and we weren’t even using it!), but the experience of focusing solely on the sound of it was a hugely valuable experience and one I’ll be returning to in future.

The radio edit of Fortune Favours the Brave was performed by Jenni Hogan at London’s Southbank Centre for BBC Radio 3 Hear and Now on 24 September 2016. Hear it as part of the Bastard Assignments live performance on iPlayer until 24 October 2016 »

My most heartfelt thanks go to Jenni Hogan for asking me to write Fortune Favours the Brave and for her amazing technique and patience while developing this piece. Hear more of Jenni’s work on her SoundCloud »

Score: Fortune Favours the Brave

All photographs in this post are by Alejandro Tamagno and were taken at Jenni Hogan’s performance of Fortune Favours the Brave at Cake Club on 25 September 2016.

Positive changes: Exploring the I Ching for composition

I Ching coinsYou may recall that when I was first working on Crossing Dartmoor, I experimented with dice and other chance techniques to create and develop musical materials. At the time I wrote about how unexpectedly liberating that experience was, and I’ve continued to use some of the systems I worked with at that time in my music. This week, though, I’ve pushed through to the next logical step – using the I Ching to help with composing.

I’m writing a new piece for solo flute for Jenni Hogan and while I’ve had an idea for what I wanted to do for quite a while now, there’s been massive procrastination on the actual composition because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the actual body of the work. I’d accumulated some pitch material using ciphers, but didn’t find anything much in there that I felt was going to drive the piece. I had an idea about outer sections being about wind/breath and a group of inner sections which are played or not according to the whim of the performer. But what was the nature of those inner sections going to be? I had no clue.

So I dug out my book on the I Ching and finished reading the introductory notes on what it is and how it works and how to do the casting, and gave it a go. One of the first things it came back with was:

“One can plan, try or ponder too much. Do not try, just do! Your inaction could bring embarrassment or disgrace.”

Words to live by, truly! But it also returned some interesting statements which gave me a framework within which to think about what I was working on. Not a clear statement of “do this” but a set of parameters to limit my thinking, thereby (as I found in my previous experiments with limitations) generating more creative ideas than just sitting around going “Argh” and gently panicking.

In particular I want to talk about the third central section of the piece. This one I was really a bit concerned about because the pitch material I ended up with feels totally uninspired – it’s an E major triad. Nothing more. No interesting semitones or tritones. Very little, really to work with. I’d pondered various ideas about using the bits of the chromatic scale that it didn’t return, or just picking another word to encode, but I wasn’t really satisfied with any of my solutions. And then I did a casting for this poor wretched thing, and what I came up with has quite changed how I’m looking at this limited material.

Now, I’m not saying I’ll necessarily stick with it, and I’m not saying that even if I do it’ll be suddenly transformed into an amazing masterpiece (although I reserve the right for it to be an amazing masterpiece 🙂 ), but what interests me here is how using the I Ching here has changed my thinking about this material from a dreary negative to a much more productive plane.

I won’t go through the whole casting here, because it’s quite long and would need some context, which I suspect it might prove a bit dull for others (although if you’re interested, just get in touch and I’ll be happy to send it to you) but just as a for-example, a couple of things:

First, in my doldrums I had been thinking about the excessive simplicity of the pitch material and thinking that this section would probably have to be quite short because so little to work with but not enough timespan overall to turn this bit into a durational extravaganza (often an effective solution for minimal material). But the casting suggested four interlinked phases. That in itself was way more complex than I had considered the material might support and while I think the section will still be quite short, the prompts for each of these phases are showing me a way it might be pulled off convincingly.

Secondly, the final hexagram came up with this little gem:

“Do not discard what you don’t want to hear”

This statement is in the context of asking advice, but I think it’s worthwhile as a general principle anyway. So I’m not going to discard my E major triad just yet – at least not before I’ve tested it out!

I’m obviously a total beginner at this, and still very much still finding my way, but my initial impression is that this could be a useful way to support thinking about a piece. Before I started to read about the I Ching, I’d had the impression that it would dictate something about the piece, but it’s really a lot looser than that. What it’s seeming to provide (so far) is a starting point or a context for existing ideas to bounce off, a way to raise useful questions about a piece rather than providing answers.