Roland Barthes, composition and the public/private creative continuum

There now, that’s more the sort of title you’d expect from a PhD student, isn’t it? Don’t take this as a sign that I know what I’m doing now, though, because I really really don’t, and part of the reason I’m writing this post is to get my thoughts in order because I think I’m on the verge of being able to tie a bunch of stuff together to at least give me a vague direction to follow!

The other day I got hold of Roland Barthes’ Image Music Text and finally read his tiny essay ‘Musica Practica’. And then I wanted to give good old Roland a hug because (a) he writes beautifully and (b) there were a couple of things in this piece which seemed to be particularly relevant to what I’m doing.

Have I even talked about what I’m doing? Maybe I should, just to give you a quick context to what comes next. The topic I proposed originally was (*deep breath*):

Questioning the division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ creative spaces through an interdisciplinary approach to composition derived from a performative interpretation of visual art processes.

The plan was to investigate the working process of the German artist Anselm Kiefer from a performance aspect, drawing ideas from that to explore through composition but limiting the application of those ideas to the exploration of public and private spaces (and especially the idea of normally-private things being public and normally-public things being private) to keep it all manageable. Over the course of the past few months, Kiefer’s role has shrunk and shrunk until he’s but a glint of an idea that started the whole thing, and the public/private idea has taken centre stage. Somehow the interdisciplinary composition thing has also increased in importance, even though it’s really just how I work.

So when I read the opening of ‘Musica Practica’ –

‘There are two musics (at least so I have always thought): the music one listens to, the music one plays. These two musics are two totally different arts, each with its own history, its own sociology, its own aesthetics, its own erotic’ (p. 149)

– I pretty much squealed with joy (although very quietly because I was in a library). And when I got near to the end of the piece, I silent-squealed again, because Barthes’ definition of composition seems to me to be wholly open to the idea of interdisciplinary – or indeed postdisciplinary – composition. New Discipline FTW.

‘To compose, at least by propensity, is to give to do, not to give to hear but to give to write’ (RB’s emphasis, p. 153)

Squish these two together and there’s my project really.

So in thinking about all this, I worked my way towards a diagram of a creative continuum which moves from the private area of studio, score, rehearsal and performing towards the public arena of performance and exhibition of varying types.

Barthes continuum of public/private creative spaces
(Click diagram to view full size in a new window)

Because of the inter/postdisciplinary nature of what I do (still trying to work out whether inter- or post- is the more appropriate prefix here) I’ve tried to look at this continuum from both a music and art perspective to see how and where the process differs. The aim of the diagram is to consider what results if the private process is made public at certain points and the names at the bottom indicate some artists/composers who engage with crossing the public/private divide. For example, one we’re all used to is the private act of performing happening in public which results in a performance that other people are listening to – but how about the other end of the spectrum? Visual artists routinely send their work into the public arena directly from the studio because they are creating a physical finished artwork. But in music, the type of work that goes public from this point tends to be pieces that perhaps don’t need live performers – fixed media pieces, for example – so there’s a question right there of what sort of work could involve a live musical performance in the studio and how to send that out to the world.

As it’s early days for this work yet, there’s no doubt gross generalisations and my examples are just who came to mind instantly – I make no claim to any of this being thorough! But of course I’d be delighted if you have suggestions of work to follow up that might be useful/interesting – please leave me a comment if you do! Since originally creating this diagram, I’ve also developed ideas a bit further to acknowledge that the studio location may also be a stage, especially for visual artists (e.g. Nauman, Acconci, as the location where they performed alone for the video camera), as well as the wall of the gallery (a public stage as opposed to the private stage of the performer playing the tuba for a houseful of people – the difference being that the artwork is complete when it goes up onto the gallery wall while there is an ongoing private act of creation still happening with the live performance) but this is still a bit hazy.

Similarly, the line about unseen/unheard/seen only by performer/heard only by performer is the tentative beginning of what may or may not be an actual idea regarding levels of privacy. More work required here!

Work in progress: Approaching Rothko

I’ve just started work on a piece I’ve wanted to write for a very long time. It’s a piece that’s been incubating ever since I first discovered the Rothko Room at the Tate Modern when I was overwhelmed by and fell in love with Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals.

At first glance, the Seagram Murals are astoundingly simple in concept, yet overwhelmingly powerful, yet on closer inspection and after spending some time with them, they are technically incredibly complex. To start with, they are huge. Really, really big. But unlike most large pieces, they are not actually designed to be looked at from far away – Rothko’s ideal viewing distance for his paintings was apparently eighteen inches (Crow, ‘The Marginal Difference in Rothko’s Abstraction’, p. 26).

Up close, each painting completely fills your field of vision and you discover that far from being the simple blocks of colour you thought you saw when you entered the room, they are full of tiny details, shifting tones and feathered edges. If you sit with the paintings for a while (Tate thoughtfully provides a couple of benches even though it’s a small room) they start to pulse quietly at you. It feels like they’re alive. They really are extraordinary works of art.

I knew I wanted to write a piece around these works very early on. Not so much a piece *about* or *based on* the murals as a piece *for* them. Ideally, I would like to see a performance in the space itself. I’m not sure whether that would be truly practical – it’s a small room, it gets crowded easily and once there’s more than about 6 people in there, it becomes hard to focus on the paintings, but perhaps a recorded version supplied on iPods might be feasible. It would definitely need stereo/surround-sound effects of some sort, but that’s phase 2 of the project and I’m still thinking about what/how/whether to do something of this sort with the completed piece.

I fairly quickly came to the conclusion that a string quartet would be a good lineup for this piece – if it was to be performed in situ, it needed a small ensemble, but the density of the paintings and their collective effect call for the possibility of dense sounds as well as delicate ones. The homogeneity of tone of a string quartet nicely reflects the similarity of colours Rothko used on these canvases.

So now I’m embarked upon the piece. It’s to be one of the major works for my MMus, which means that at some point someone’s actually going to play the thing, which is, frankly, a little daunting! My tutor and I have determined that as part of my personal quest for the year to learn to write longer pieces (the most common criticism of my work is “Oh, I thought it was going to go on longer”), this work will be around 15 minutes long.

I did actually make a start on it a couple of days ago, playing with some initial ideas, but on playing through what I’d done yesterday, I decided it was bin-worthy and have done some more thinking and am starting again.

Because I’m not accustomed to (and daunted by) writing a piece that long, I felt I really needed to think about what I was going to do with that time. I can’t just mess about with it and hope for the best – this has to happen, and it has to happen relatively fast because I have a truckload of work to get through this year and this is only one small part of a whole which also includes a 5-minute orchestral work, 5-minute large ensemble work, 15-minute song cycle, piece for 2 harps and probably more. There is no time for Carrion-Comfort-style 9-months-to-write-3-minutes-of-music shenanigans this year.

So today I have come up with a structural plan which I think I’m pretty happy with. The form of the piece is going to, more or less, reflect the experience of approaching these paintings. From the initial impression, through the approach, to the up-close view.

This gives me three sections I can focus on clearly, each of which is aimed to be approximately 5 minutes long. I pulled out my coloured pencils (my Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer watercolour pencils, if you care about this sort of thing – my usual Derwent Coloursofts have gone down in a box somewhere…) and made a map of what I’m thinking about doing in the piece. This will probably change as I actually develop material, but it’s what I’m considering right now. The three lines represent the three sections, each 5 minutes long. The colours don’t really have any significance I can explain – they’re just how I feel about what I want to be in there. Strength of tone generally reflects overall dynamic/textural density.

Visual structure plan for the new Rothko quartet

My next step is to play around with and settle on some actual notes to begin with. I made a bit of a stab at this this morning but everything sounded like a jazz chord and was all wrong, so I’ve set it aside in favour of my orchestration homework and scrubbing the loungeroom-to-be and will keep playing around with sounds over the next few days.

Note: I haven’t linked to the paintings in the main text of the article because I wanted to say that if you live in or near London, don’t bother looking online to see what I’m talking about – it won’t give you even the vaguest idea of the power these artworks have in real life. Hie thee to Tate Modern and spend half an hour with them. It’s free. If you aren’t in London, then add it to your itinerary for next time you’re here, and in the meantime look at these deeply inadequate photos on the Tate site and try not to get too depressed or think I’m off my rocker (click on the image to see them on a black background, which works better). Bear in mind that looking at these photographs is a bit like someone drawing a picture of a gold and diamond ring in yellow and grey crayon and then telling you how gorgeous their new jewellery is – however accurate it is, it’s it’s nothing like the real thing!

Bibliography (because I’m a good little Research Methods student now although you can probably tell I haven’t yet read the citation guide and I haven’t done this in a long time, but I’m guessing you can work it out): ‘The Marginal Difference in Rothko’s Abstraction’ by Thomas Crow, pp.25-39 in Seeing Rothko, edited by Glenn Phillips and Thomas Crow, Tate Publishing, London 2006.

Acknowledging musical influence: A useful habit

Yesterday I read (yet another) great post by Nico Muhly – this time he was talking about influence and how “journalists ‘call out’ influence as if it were some secret, unspeakable sexual perversion”. Obviously, Muhly has way more experience of journalists than I do, but I entirely agree with his point of being ‘fully transparent’ about our influences.

I’ve always liked Muhly’s approach to influences – he wears his as a badge of honour and in a way I feel it’s a bit like how pianists are so proud of their tuition lineage – you know, when they learn from a teacher who can trace their teachers all the way back to Beethoven. But in the case of a composer, being upfront about our influences is not just about lineage – it can also give a useful point of reference for understanding and enjoying our work.

In the article, Muhly creates a list of some of his influences, and the way he writes shows how important these composers are to him:

When I map out the emotional structure of a piece on a single piece of paper, I think of John Corigliano. When I put a sforzando accent on the and of 4 if in 4/4 time, I pour one out for Christopher Rouse. When I use certain chord structures, I know I’m taking them from Stravinsky. When I do a crazy multi-instrumental smudge of harmonies and their aggressors, I wish Boulez would come over my house. When I use certain harmonic modulations and motoric gestures, I thank, and sometimes email in advance homage, John Adams.

All this gives a really clear impression of whether you might like this person’s music, so you can make an informed decision about whether to listen or not. I’m all for trying out listening to stuff you might not like – simply because you might learn something, and that something might be that you actually do like it – but with so much new music out there to listen to, it does help to know what you’re getting yourself into.

I’m going to take a little turn here into the world of web development, which many of you will know is my dayjob. Part of what I do is to help people optimise their sites for search engines. Long gone are the days when you just wanted as many ‘hits’ as possible; it’s now widely acknowledged that the better approach is to get fewer hits, but more relevant ones – for those visitors to be actively interested in what you have to say. So the information you provide about a piece – including your influences in writing it – helps to set people’s expections. Manage expectations and you’ll get a better response – maybe not as many plays, but an overall more positive reception.

We should never be afraid of turning people away if what we do makes it easier for our music to be found and heard by its ‘right people’, and I am convinced that being upfront about our influences can help with that.

The usefulness of being clear about your influences can also help people who are trying to programme your music. One of the best concerts I ever went to was a Britten Sinfonia concert where they were premiering a new commission by Nico Muhly (Impossible Things) and the whole programme was constructed around this piece and based on key influences on his music and it was amazing – just like stepping inside his head! The programme started with Purcell and Tippett, then Britten and Steve Reich, so that by the time we got to the new commission you could clearly hear all these things going on in the new piece. I can’t imagine a better way to make a new piece easily comprehensible – especially to a non-specialist audience – than by presenting it in the context of older music that has influenced it.

Composers need to stand up and be proud of their influences – to do so is not only honest but helpful. As Muhly says, “We are all wearing the cloaks of influence all the time, and we should all, as composers, proudly announce the labels on these vestments.”

How do you approach your influences? Do you acknowledge them when you write or talk about your work? Share your opinion in the comments!

Composer-performer collaboration: Letting go when we’re dead

View from my deskToday’s post was inspired by a couple of tweets by the pianist John Mannos from June 2011. He’s no longer on Twitter so I can’t link to his account, but what he wrote was this:

Oh, to get inside the minds of these great composers to know precisely what they wanted! How to play the accents? Phrases? !!!!!!!!!

I suppose that is the alluring beauty of playing a work by a deceased have faith that your performance renders his art perfectly

I do understand what Mannos is aiming for, but given the impossibility of ever knowing whether you’ve “got it right”, I feel a different view is more valuable, both for the living performer and for the composer, represented only by the score.

These days, composers can choose whether they want pixel-perfection: they can take the option of writing directly to audio, bypassing the score entirely. Or they can choose to write music for other people to play. People with opinions, ideas, limitations of technique, the whole package.

But this is a recent development. Composers of the past had no option but to write music to be performed by real human musicians. Whether that musician was the composer or someone else, ultimately the notes on the page needed to be turned into sound by a – fallible – person. I feel that the idea of a piece being rendered perfectly would have had little meaning for them, or if it did, it would be no more than an idle fancy.

When you write for performers, you are starting a collaboration. And that goes whether or not you had any chance to choose perfection.

As composers, we create things which, sooner or later, we will leave behind. We have no power over what becomes of them, regardless of how many increasingly specific notations and remarks we litter our scores with. At some point our collaborators will have more say than we will, so we need to accept – as I suspect many of our forebears did, lacking any other model – that there comes a point where we just need to let go and let the new collaboration happen.

And for performers, this is a fantastic chance. It’s an opportunity to work *with* Bach, *with* Stravinsky. Of course, study to understand the composer’s viewpoint is vital – you can’t truly collaborate with a person you don’t know. But it’s only the first step. From understanding what they’ve written, you need to make it your own – they are no longer Beethoven’s accents, Sibelius’ phrases – they’re yours.

For my own part, I don’t want perfection. Sure, I’d like to have the right notes played in the right order at the right speed, but I want it to sound real, human. I want to find out what other people can bring to my work, the nuances they can bring out that I didn’t know were there. I want them to have ideas, test them out and bring them to life.

Obviously, this is what great performers have been doing forever, but it disturbs me that this idea of the dead composer as oracle still persists. They did exactly what we do. Or rather, we do exactly what they did. No mystery, just hard work.

A score is not a piece of music. A score is just notes. It is not sacred, not perfect. It is an incomplete thing, requiring human collaboration to make it live.

What’s your opinion? Do you think we should seek perfection or new interpretations? Or take another approach altogether? Add your rant to the comments!

Work in progress: A failed experiment

Today I took a chance and dived into a great project initiated by flute and saxophone duo, Duo Fujin – a challenge to write a new composition in 12 hours for flute/piccolo and alto/soprano saxophone based on a ‘secret ingredient’ which they would announce at 9am New York time (2pm here in London). It’s been a while since I’ve really stretched myself with a proper deadline so I tentatively signed up to give it a go.

I should say that I haven’t actually managed to produce a piece. What I have produced is an assortment of mangled bits of music that I’m ashamed to show in public (so you’re not going to see them) but the experience of working through my process intensively and quickly has actually been really interesting for me, in spite of my failure to produce anything worth listening to. No sitting back and pondering, it’s been a case of “Right. Now that’s enough of that. What’s the next step?”. And because it’s been interesting for me and because a number of people on Twitter seem to be curious about the work I’ve done towards my failed experiment, I figured it was blogging time.

I’ll run through the stages I went through, along with images of the pages I created as I was working through things. I’ve probably written things that sound stupid and used images that don’t seem to match up with anything but perhaps there’s something enlightening there. If you have questions or gentle observations, please put ’em in the comments!

So the secret ingredient was…


which immediately (as these things are intended to do) threw all my ideas out and set me off on a completely different tangent. I’m interested in popular culture but I’m the first to admit that I’m not hugely up to speed with it. We touched on remixing a bit in the audio production course I did as part of my Graduate Diploma in Design (yes, audio production in a design course, you did read that right) and it interested me but I never really got around to following it up much. So step one was to do some swift reading around the topic and work out what ‘remix’ could actually cover in a classical, notated-or-semi-notated musical context.

Remix Project P1

I remembered that I had a chunk of an old issue of Wired (July 2005, if you’re interested) lurking in the dark depths of my hard-copy read/review file and dug it out and read it – interesting articles on the virtual band Gorillaz (if you haven’t heard their stuff, get out there and listen now – their latest album, Plastic Beach, is fascinating) and a marvellous one by William Gibson on writing as collage.

(I was collating all this stuff on the iPad, so noting notable quotes involved snapping a photo of the text with the iPad’s camera, erasing extraneous bits and drawing over it with the highlighter ‘pen’ 🙂 No excess writing involved.)

That got some thoughts running and sent me hunting for DJ Danger Mouse’s infamous (and, I believe, banned in some places) The Grey Album, a mashup of The Beatles’ ‘white album’ and rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album. We heard about this in my audio production course but it couldn’t be found for love nor money. Now? Google it. Download. Listen. Awesome.

Remix Project P4

I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The second step was to grab my collage box and just go for a wade and pull out anything that sparked an idea. These I again snapped with the iPad’s camera, pulled them into my notebook programme (Noteshelf, if you’re interested) and slammed them up against each other and made some notes. That was a bit of a curious collection:

  • a black and white line-drawing texture from a brochure I picked up at (I think) the poster museum in Zurich about 5 years ago
  • an ad featuring an excess of hundreds and thousands and a paddle pop
  • an art flyer for an exhibition of the work of Norwegian artist Ørnulf Opdahl which I never stood a chance of getting to at the University Gallery at Northumbria University (I get these things in the post along with stuff that’s going on a King’s Place in London, which I CAN get to). His work is gorgeous. Go and check it out.
  • a Tate promotional postcard for their Eadweard Muybridge exhibition that was on earlier this year (which I did get to)
  • a ticket for Les Machines de l’Île in Nantes
  • a postcard from the Banksy exhibition in Bristol a couple of years back of a zebra having his stripes laundered
  • an ad for incredibly ornate Dior enamelled rings
  • a marvellous drawing of aeroplanes in the sky by Alighiero e Boetti which (used to?) hang in the Tate Modern. I think it’s all done in biro, if I recall correctly. Amazing work.

[If any copyright holders have a problem with this, please let me know and I’ll remove the related section immediately. My work draws on a lot of visual art and it’s hard to explain the process without showing the pieces that went into it, but I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes here]

Remix Project P6

Next up: listening. I found The Grey Album very intriguing but I did begin to wish that I knew the Jay-Z album so I could really tell how it had been used. But even just hearing how the extremely familiar Beatles elements had been incorporated was fascinating. A number of tracks seemed to have random spaces in them which gave an interesting headspinny effect. Not sure if that was intentional or just my poor ailing laptop chucking a wobbly… but it sparked some new thoughts anyway. I’m looking forward to coming back to this one later and really listening quietly through to it a few times.

Remix Project P8

Finally, I pulled in the piano score of my set of 10-second pieces, Pieces of Eight, which I planned to hack up and glue back together in interesting permutations and hunted through looking for similarities and where I might find bits that could mush together effectively. I don’t think it was a bad concept. I suspect that a large part of the difficulty I had was because my musical language has changed a little bit and because of that I think I probably need to take a completely different approach with this early material. It might have worked better by creating a heavily manipulated tape part out of the mashup ideas, then creating shiny new instrumental lines over the top of it that gently referenced some of what was going on underneath. Might follow through on that idea one day.

So there you have it. I really liked pushing myself through the process at high speed and I might try that again someday with another piece – maybe make myself tear through the first stages to a point where I feel that I could do notes, then let it simmer overnight and see what happens. The speed and need to not linger over any one idea seemed to create more imaginative collisions when I found something new and there were a lot of ideas happening. Evidently not the right ideas for this project though!

Want to see the whole notebook? See it on Flickr.

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