The power of the single idea: How playing the comb is improving my composition

Recently I was part of two performances of Edward Henderson’s opera Manspangled. Edward is a fellow Masters composer at Trinity Laban, and his recent music often uses just a single idea – rather than supplementing and layering themes and concepts, he works with limited materials to create pieces which are simply described but anything but simple in their execution. Manspangled was a very powerful demonstration of this concept of strength and complexity deriving from simplicity.

The work Edward’s doing has been very influential on how I think about my own composition, which all too often, I feel, skips about from idea to idea without fully exploring any of them. I think Drowning Songs demonstrates what I mean by this: I started with two strong ideas – the glissando opening, as expressed in the artwork I made for the piece, and the massed whispered names of drowned sailors. For a five-minute work, this really should have been ample material. Yet something in me felt compelled to add in more conventional music and while I’m pleased with how the piece turned out, I do wonder it might have been a stronger work had I had the courage and tenacity to have pared it back to its essentials.

Now I’ve moved on to the next major work I’m writing this year, a song cycle for tenor and piano, Crossing Dartmoor, which has been commissioned by Simon Oliver Marsh. I’ve not talked about this one much yet because it’s mostly been in brew-mode, but it’s based on textworks (text artworks) by British artist Richard Long, to whom I am most grateful for his permission to use his work.

Crossing Dartmoor started in my mind as a fairly standard sort of song-cycle, but has morphed into a more experimental format. The plan is to write many pieces, each of which explores some facet of reduced compositional control. Some will be fully written out (perhaps having been produced using musical ciphers or chance operations), some will be graphic or text scores that require some or all of the musical material to be generated by the performers. But, whatever approach is taken, each piece will be based around just a single idea. In some pieces this will be a more complex idea than others, but I’m allowing myself no dilution, no distraction: one idea per piece.

So back to Manspangled. My role in this work was as part of a 6-person “insect chorus”. I played the comb (snapping the tines very slowly, drawing my finger down the length of the comb, over and over), the emery board (scraping a nail slowly along the board), bubble wrap, and blew bubbles towards the audience. These sounds (or gestures might be more accurate, given that the bubble-blowing doesn’t really make any noise. Unless, of course, you should chance to knock the lid of your bubble-bottle over the balcony and onto an audience member’s head…) continue throughout the performance.

In its essence, Manspangled can be summed up as:

Quiet continual insect sounds on household items, supplemented by quiet elongated cello glissandi, man speaking, everything interrupted periodically by a loud saxophone.

Or, to be even more reductive:

Quiet. Text. Loud interjections.

Yet complexity is produced in the final result. Listen here:

Firstly, Lavinia Murray’s virtuoso text, wandering through a stream of consciousness, providing shape and momentum to the piece. Secondly the unexpected detail of the tiny insect chorus/cello sounds (you may need headphones to hear them on the recording!) – the tininess of these sounds, and the accumulation of them, drew in both performers and audience to focus at a level which is rare, resulting in a truly mesmeric effect. Thirdly, to be pulled out of this intense focus so violently by the contrasting volume and style of the sax and the actor sets up contradictory modes of listening that are quite shocking and require the listener to completely reassess all the sounds involved in the piece. The bubble-blowing obviously makes no discernible sound but provides a visual counterpoint (as, indeed, do all the insect chorus’ actions) which raises questions for me about what “accompaniment” should/can be.

I’m finding this reduced-materials approach a very useful way of working. The song I’m currently working on for Crossing Dartmoor is using a cipher to generate the pitch material, and I’m finding that this objectivity makes it a bit easier to keep on track with the single-concept plan. Yes, my brain blurts out, “Hey! You could also do this!” but it’s a little easier to identify these and keep them under control than when working entirely with instinct-driven material. It’s easier to focus on the structure and general aims of the piece and to follow the idea through. I’m putting the additional ideas to one side for later pieces 🙂

In particular, I feel that each piece is stronger for being more focused. Not necessarily more beautiful, but that’s not really the aim here. And as an added benefit, composition does seem to be happening faster. I’m procrastinating less and it’s clearer how I need to proceed on pieces. There’s a LOT less reworking of things already done and a lot more focusing on how to move forward.

Edward Henderson can be found on Soundcloud at He is also a member of the Bastard Assignments collective and regularly contributes to their fantastic innovative events. Details of their upcoming performances are on the Bastard Assignments website.

Procrastination = Fear

I’ve known this for a long time. It’s an old chestnut of productivity gurus – procrastinators aren’t lazy, it’s simply a way of processing (or not processing, rather) some sort of fear associated with the task that’s being put off. In my case, in just about every piece I write, sooner or later I find myself procrastinating. I procrastinate before starting a piece because I’m concerned about not working out my materials correctly and that this will mean I can’t develop the piece how I want to. I procrastinate at the end of a piece – usually until I’m sick to death of it, as now – because I’m paralysed by the notion that it’s not the absolute best work I could have done with those materials. I procrastinate in between because of the fear that I’ll choose the wrong path and not know it until I’m too close to the deadline to change it.

Drowning Songs has also brought a whole new fear to the fore – one I’ve been aware of but never really addressed in any significant way: the fear of not really knowing what it sounds like. Without a workshop stage in the process of writing this piece, I’m effectively sending it off without having any concrete evidence to show me whether it’s going to work.

There’s going to be a lot of this this year, I suspect. Most of my previous music has been written within the confines of computer programmes that play back what I’ve written, so that while I still need to balance the sounds they make with my knowledge of how real instruments will sound, I have a pretty good idea of how it all fits together. Not so with Drowning Songs. There’s a few bars towards the end that are ‘normal’, where the parts are synchronised and a computer can show me that they’ll ‘work’. But much of the rest of the piece is unsynchronised, much of the material is unpitched, much relies on the effect of how a group of singers work together. To the point where I’m currently experiencing massive procrastination because I’m terrified that the whole thing’s going to be a disaster because I don’t have the level of control, of certainty, that I’ve come to rely on.

Which is, of course, the point. A Sketchbook of Mushrooms was all about letting go, about NOT controlling every aspect, embracing the random and seeing what would happen. And this project is about taking that a step further – not just loosening up my hold on my materials but actively building performer freedom and flexibility into my music, embracing the possibility of dissonance, of clamour, of confusion in a bid to create an end result that draws out a stronger emotional response from the listener than my previous carefully aligned work.

Even in the face of fear, though, this piece must be finished. I need to remind myself continually that Drowning Songs is part of a research process. I need to commit to an approach, put it on paper, send it off, see what happens. And only once I’ve seen what happens can I assess whether the approach I’ve taken works or not. If it doesn’t I’ll be disappointed. I know this. I accept it. But disappointment doesn’t preclude the possibility of learning something extremely valuable – possibly more valuable than if the piece is a raging success and nothing needs to be changed at all.

Graphic scores, text scores, freedom and ownership

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from work on Drowning Songs since handing in the draft, to work on two very different pieces. The first is Parlour Game, a text score created for Trinity Laban’s Rude Health series of experimental music events; and the second is a new graphic score, Sepiascape with Grey, created for Valentina Pravodelov who, having completed her MMus in classical piano this year is now studying for an MMus in voice, focusing on popular music.

It’s been a good thing, I think, in terms of how I think about my music and specifically about how I’m approaching composition and the whole freeing-up process that started with A Sketchbook of Mushrooms. My MFA project seems to be starting to focus more clearly on notation and the exploration of different ways to convey the more flexible ideas that I come up with when I work on a piece away from the manuscript and away from the computer, so it’s been good to take a step backwards and think about what’s going on when I’m not dealing directly with traditional notation.

Parlour Game is the first time I’ve made a text-based score. It’s based on the children’s game of Chinese Whispers and is structured more like a set of game rules than anything else. The number of performers is flexible (three or more), the actual material used is entirely open and may even be audience-generated (although the audience at the first performance was, it has to be said, a little reluctant to be involved!), a lot of it is improvised performance, both musical and dramatic, and yet watching the performance, in spite of so very many parameters being intentionally placed beyond my control, it still felt like ‘my’ piece.

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable when working with improvisation (I’ve written about this before so apologies if I’m repeating myself!). I really enjoy making graphic scores and I love hearing what performers make of them, but I never feel like the music is really “mine”. The score is definitely mine, but the music belongs to the performers, even when I can hear how it relates to the score.

Possibly the difference between Parlour Game and graphic scores I’ve made is that it contains a whole series of parameters that influence the performance, whereas my interest with graphic scores is in hearing what the performers’ imaginations make of something. I feel that if I have such a defined idea of how I want a piece to sound that I need to dictate how performers interpret graphic gestures, then I might as well write that out in notes.

The ‘score’ of Parlour Game provides a context for the performance (the singers represent a ‘family’ sitting around, bored, after Christmas dinner), a process for the piece (‘rumours’ circulate through the audience and down to the performers, who use this as the text for singing/arguing), some suggested pastimes while portraying boredom (singing Christmas carols, reading aloud); it sets out parameters for the performers: what to do when a text is received by a performer, the possibility of rejecting a text with suggested phrases for this, graphic melodic suggestions and text-based descriptions of modes of delivery (“shout and stamp your tiny foot”, “get a little tetchy”), a suggested way of ending the piece.

Graphic melodic suggestion for Parlour Game

Explain through gritted teeth - text instruction for Parlour Game


For the first performance, in addition, I was the one who selected the source material (readings and ‘rumours’ were taken from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) and set the dress code (tacky Christmas). Maybe this had something to do with it, but I think the ownership of this piece came more in the setting of parameters than in the detail. Although, that said, the use of some of my suggested phrases possibly also played a large role in how much of myself I see in the piece.

Sepiascape with Grey is almost completely different from Parlour Game. It’s serious where Parlour Game is intensely silly, for a start! Unlike most of my previous graphic scores which have tended to be created quite spontaneously, this one has been through about 7 different drafts before I felt the balance was right, with each version addressing issues that the previous one had raised about my own thinking, and in particular what I usually assume about the musical languages used by my performers.

Sepiascape draft - version 3
Draft version 3 of Sepiascape with Grey – WAY too busy and felt like it had little connection with the other songs in the setlist. (click to view larger version)


Unlike my previous graphic scores which have all been intended for musicians from a classical/experimental background, Sepiascape with Grey is intended for a programme of darkly urban music by bands such as Massive Attack, Portishead and Joy Division.

Now, I’m the first person to admit that – technically – I know very little about popular music, and I found that in the early stages of thinking about this piece I got very caught up in superficial ‘constraints’ such as verse/chorus structures, repetition and unvarying metres. Gradually, though, I realised that these elements are not really things that need to be referenced in the score but rather that they are part of the performer’s equipment that they may bring to the piece – in exactly the same way as flexible metres, fluidity and unfixed structure are part of the language of the experimental musicians I am more accustomed to creating graphic pieces for. I am not writing popular music with this, merely trying to present an appropriate framework within which popular music could happen if the performers choose to drawn on those elements.

Sepiascape with Grey - final version
Final version of Sepiascape with Grey (click to view larger version)


Ultimately, I found myself focusing on textures and timbres, trying to create a structure with these elements that would sit well with the other pieces in the programme.

Text was a particularly tricky aspect of this piece. Most popular music is song, and most popular songs work within a pretty traditional verse/chorus structure. I dallied (very) briefly with the idea of writing some lyrics to go with the score, but I discarded this idea quite fast.

Mostly this was because it seemed to make an assumption that would tie the performers into a particular structure, which rather goes against what interests me about creating graphic scores. I considered leaving out a text entirely, but that too didn’t feel right – whether because the piece really needed the text, or perhaps some deep-rooted assumption about vocal music needing words, or possibly just because so much of my recent work has had a textual element to it.

The compromise that I came to was to include a tiny, tiny text, which could be used as the whole text for the song, a leaping-off point for the band to develop a complete lyric as part of the interpretative process, or which could be ignored as a foreground element, becoming just another part of the overall mood expressed by the score. This text ended up consisting of a single line from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and a couple of words I pulled together which seemed to fit the whole Dark City feeling I was trying to convey:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
Unreal city.

I have no idea at this stage how Valentina has approached the piece (although I’ve had an email in which she says it’s working well – hurrah!) but I’m really looking forward to hearing the result in January!

Breadcrumbs: Handling dramatic time

Jane Manning performs Breadcrumbs at Tete a Tete
Jane Manning performs a late draft of Breadcrumbs at Tête à Tête opera festival

The last week or so has seen some big changes to Breadcrumbs, the dramatic monologue for unaccompanied soprano that I’ve been composing for soprano Julia Weatherley. In particular, I’ve been working on creating context and space for the drama that is implied in the piece. While the text explains fairly clearly (I think!) what is going on and how we got there, it is quite wordy and the issue of time passing and the aspect of what the character feels or experiences which goes unsaid were things that still needed to be addressed.

Fortunately, the Tête à Tête opera festival has been on over the past few weeks, and I’ve managed to get to several performances of new short operas which have been hugely helpful in working through ideas about dramatic space. In particular, Judith Bingham’s unaccompanied soprano rendition of the story of fossil-hunter Mary Anning (part of the Fossils and Monsters performance by Alison Wells) was extremely helpful. The gaps left between phrases, her use of a tiny patch of pebble-beach for the performer to crunch over, the tapping of smooth beach-stones the character is holding in her hands, and the inclusion of half-remembered phrases of hymns all contributed to make a very well-paced, vibrant performance, and helped me to begin to understand some of the finer detail of how Breadcrumbs should work in a performance.

The biggest issue, I felt was how to convey a feeling of passing time. While the piece only takes about 5 minutes to sing, it needs to be clear to the audience that it all happens while Gretel is wandering about in the woods over a much longer time-period, more like several hours. While writing the text, I had considered explicitly stating this – the section “Twilight, twilight, evening, past crepuscular and into more prosaic night-time” is intended to show that the day has ended while she’s been singing. Even at the point of assembling the words, though, I felt that while the “twilight” bit worked, to make the passing of time more explicit would probably be a bit too heavy-handed.

The Téte à Téte performances helped with seeing how the staging can really make the most of pauses and little random snatches of melody. I found that the Bingham piece had some quite large gaps in it, but that they didn’t seem as large as they were, on reflection, because of the visual aspect of the performance – Wells wandered around, crunched over the little beach, looking for ammonites among the pebbles, hummed half-forgotten snatches of hymns, all of which gave a strong sense of a larger context, both physical and temporal.

Originally I had notated pauses in performance with fermatas and breath marks, to indicate long or short pauses.It began to feel like these did not give enough information for the performer though, and I revised the piece while considering why the singer was pausing – what is the dramatic purpose of the break? and what is she doing while it is happening? Once I had worked these out, I removed most of the previous pause marks, replacing them with either notated rests, or blank bars with stage directions such as “Pause to listen, as if expecting a response. Slump with a sigh when it becomes clear he’s not answering” and “Check pockets, or show hands to show you have nothing”.

Thinking like this really brought the music to life for me and – oddly enough – expanding the breaks actually seemed to knit the piece together more strongly. In particular, there are one or two places where a sudden change of mood is called for by the text – adding in stage directions made sense of the context for these sudden changes, and I think they also help with conveying how long a pause should be, based on dramatic, not just musical, time.

I was fortunate enough to have this near-final draft of Breadcrumbs sung by legendary soprano Jane Manning at a sight-reading workshop held by Téte à Téte on the 18th of August. This was an incredibly helpful experience – Manning delivered a very well characterised performance which has really helped me determine the final tweaks to the piece. Overall, I was very pleased with how the work turned out in this performance (also very pleased to hear from my teacher that Manning loved it!) and there are very few changes I’ll be making. The main things are a couple of additional repetitions of phrases/sections which seemed to be over too quickly, and therefore didn’t make enough impact for the dramatic sense they needed to convey, and I’m thinking of tweaking some of the notes to include a glissando here and there – up till now all the notes have been solid pitches, but I think a little flexibility would be very effective.

Onwards and upwards – just a week to go till my Major Portfolio is due in!

The final version of Breadcrumbs will be performed by Julia Weatherley as part of my public MMus final recital at Blackheath Halls in London on 13 September 2013. Click to find out more about this performance >>

Sonorities, tiny details, process

I’m nearing the end (finally! I hear you squeak) of my string quartet based on Rothko’s Seagram Murals. It now has a proper title – Red on Black on Maroon – and I’m working on the final section and giving serious thought to how I’m going to finish it.

One of the most important things I’m considering at the moment, both in terms of material for the final section, and in terms of adding shape and interest to the parts I’ve already composed, is different qualities of sound. It’s the truly glorious thing about writing for string instruments – the vast array of sounds you can get from a single instrument. There are so many more options than just bowed and plucked and lately I’ve been trying to build a palette of sounds to use across the work, with particular consideration for the final section.

The piece divides roughly into three sections, each around 4 minutes long. The first section is almost entirely chordal, the second has a lot more meandering melodic material, but the third – which represents viewing the paintings from Rothko’s preferred distance of 18 inches – deals in the incredible detail you can see when you’re that close to a Rothko work. The first view of the Seagram Murals is that they are incredibly simple – each one a big block of colour on top of a different big block of colour – but once you’re up close, you can see that neither block of colour is actually just one colour. Rothko’s technique involved building up layers and layers and layers of subtly differentiated shades, and differing types of paint too, which gives the surface a depth and detail which is hard to discern from a distance.

So the final section is about tiny, delicate details, all related to the chordal and melodic material that’s gone before in the piece, but each moment more complex and more independent than in either previous section.

So, like I said, I’ve been building a palette of sounds. I started out with just ‘normal’ bowing, tremolando bowing and some pizzicato, and I always knew I wanted to use harmonics in the final section. Recently, though I’ve added in non-vibrato sounds, bowing sul ponticello and sul tasto, flautando (as a nod to the harmonics in the final section while reserving that particular tonal colour & pitch extreme for the end), some use of mutes, overbowing and – finally – bowing the wood of the instrument. I think this is where I’m drawing a line with the sounds.

I wanted a broad range of sounds, because harmonically the piece is very static. I don’t work with traditional functional harmony even though I write vaguely tonal music, and while I’m sure someone who likes to think that way could deconstruct it all and show… something, that’s not something that interests me at all. The purpose of writing this piece was always about creating something much longer than anything I’d written before, about learning how to stretch out material, and I’ve found that for me the most interesting way to stretch this material is to address the texture of the piece and see what textural and temporal things I can do to make my (static) material interesting over a 12-15 minute timespan. So far I think I’m doing OK and my players seem to agree with me, which is nice 🙂

There have been two key influences in developing this palette of sounds. The first is Janacek’s second string quartet, ‘Intimate Letters’, which Deirdre Gribbin pointed me to during the brief series of lessons I had with her. I’m enjoying the Emerson Quartet‘s very vigorous rendition of this piece at the moment. Janacek uses sul ponticello very effectively in this piece, and the glassy sound was just the contrast I needed for a certain section of the piece, and from there, it’s proved a useful sound elsewhere. From using sul ponticello, I contrasted it with sul tasto in places, expanding the palette in a different direction.

The second influence is a series of great videos being produced by British composer Edd Caine, called ‘Let’s Compose… A string quartet’. In these videos, Edd is tracing the evolution of his work on a quartet he’s writing based on a cycle trip in Italy and he is deriving his musical material from various aspects of this subject matter. In particular, I was very taken with the ‘breathing’ sounds he describes and demonstrates on the cello in the third episode, created by bowing on the edge of the instrument, with different pitches being produced by bowing in different areas, allowing for in/out breathing sounds. The part about the breathing is from about 3:10 in this video, with specific discussion of the sound from about 7:45:

Given the focus of Red on Black on Maroon on the pulsing phenomenon that is experienced when you sit looking at the Seagram Murals for any extended period of time, I’m feeling that the occasional use of these sounds will give a more organic feel to the progression of the music, especially in parts where I’ve been feeling that pitched material gives too precisely musical a realisation of what I want, when what I really want is more of a bodily sensation. I do hope that makes sense… I’m using them in quite a different way, I think, than Edd seems to be aiming for – more of a slow organic gesture than aiming to evoke actual breathing.

Assuming that (as you’re reading this!) you’re interested in compositional process, I really recommend you take the time to watch Edd’s videos. Yes, some of them are fairly long in internet-time (so far they’re all over 10 minutes), but the ideas are really interesting and the slower-paced earlier episodes also give a great insight into the time-consuming nature of coming up with ideas and working things out. They also show a much more mathematical process than I’ve ever used, and I’m finding that really interesting. I can’t wait to hear how his piece turns out – or mine, for that matter…

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’!

Cy Twombly: Making a mess

A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: IV
A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: IV

Every artist has their failings, some we don’t realise and some we know about. Of the ones we know about, we need to make a choice whether to face these problems and try to overcome them, or we accept them and work around them.

One of my principal failings as an artist is a tendency towards perfectionism and the need to create a finished, balanced piece. I know, to a lot of people this isn’t a problem, but for me, it holds me back, prevents me from experimenting, taking risks; it hinders my learning process.

I’ve been aware of this for a while, and it’s been one of the aspects of my craft I’ve wanted to focus on while doing this Masters degree, and I’ve composed quite a lot of music that tackles this – Paint, Knives, Lipstick for 2 harps, which has independent parts; Lines of Sight, which is designed to fail; Times Four which is all about improvisation.

Currently my big focus (apart from the String Quartet of Doom, of course) is my Cy Twombly project. I wrote 2 pieces for it a little while back and while I was moderately pleased with aspects of them as pieces, it was bugging me a little that I felt I wasn’t really connecting with the artwork that is their source. It was like I was raiding the Twombly works just for source material, but not really creating work that related strongly to the art.

It took me ages to get them workshopped due to clashing schedules of my performers, but when I did, I was pretty pleased with the result – things I’d thought might be dull actually worked OK and there were some moments that I really, really liked. But without an explanatory essay, it’s impossible to see the connection with Twombly’s work.

So my supervisor suggested a different approach and set me a task to work more visually – I had to spend some time (about 5 hours in the end) making a new piece that was a lot more experimental in its notational approach and which reflected the things that really drew me to the Twombly work in the first place – its looseness, sketchbooky nature, mixture of lines and collage.

I’ve often thought about working like this but never really had the guts to follow it through. It seemed kind of silly and self-indulgent, to make a picture and call it music, but in the process of working through this, it feels right for this project.

My most recent research has been reading Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane, which has sparked some ideas in me regarding possible correspondences between how Kandinsky refers to different types of angles, lines vs points and so on, with elements of music, specifically tonality/modality and intervals.

To make the new piece, I chose one of Twombly’s artworks (no. II of Natural History: Part I: Mushrooms) and decided to create material that used these Kandinskyan equivalents but just to create snippets of music for each bit. In the second part of the process, I cut and pasted these fragments in various ways, focusing in particular on overlapping and obscuring elements. One of the fragments was too big, so I wrote it out on a separate piece of paper and just cut out part of it, in a similar way to Twombly’s process with his larger paintings, where he’d cover all the walls of his studio with canvas, paint away like a mad thing, then chop out the bits he decided were actual paintings.

A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: III
A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: III

I’m quite pleased with the result, but the thing that amazed me was how interesting I found the process. To start with, I really enjoyed working with my hands and with physical stuff, rather than just pulling things out of my brain. The physicality of the process made me think in different ways and make different choices than I think I might have done, even doing the same thing on the computer. Positioning elements in slightly different ways made me consider different ways they might be performed and using the Twombly original as a layout template for the score made me really consider the balance of the piece and its connection with the original artwork.

My supervisor was quite delighted with what I’d done, but immediately pointed out that it was all very tidy. His response to this was to say “do you have an hour to spare now?”, load me up with random stationery supplies – whiteboard marker, drawing pins, a highlighter, electrical tape, staple remover thingy (he offered me a tin of sardines but as I was going to the library I pointed out that they might not be too keen on that. I think ultimately my performers were grateful too to not have to musically interpret the smell of tinned fish…) – and send me off with orders to “make a mess”.

Making the mess was pretty interesting actually (you can see it at the top of this post), and really made me think about what I needed to rebel against in order to make the mess:

  • Did everything really need to be stuck on straight?
  • Did it matter how clear or obscure the notation I put on the page was? (I nicked some random pieces of music out of the photocopier rejects box)
  • When selecting bits of music, did I really need to limit myself to parts specifically for percussion or cello?
  • Does everything even need to be permanently stuck down? Does it matter if it falls off/comes adrift?
  • Does it have to be beautiful?
  • Does it have to make sense?
  • Do I even have to like it?

The answer – of course – to all these is a resounding NO. The resulting work uses torn fragments of music, scribbles, a rather dirty manuscript post-it note with doodles on it, holes bitten out of the paper with the staple remover, notation made on a hand-drawn stave by randomly stabbing a drawing pin through the paper, then scoring down the paper with the point and scribbling over it in pencil. Yup. It was a mess 🙂

And my supervisor was over the moon 😀

On Friday (9am! ugh!) I had a session with my fabulous cellist and percussionist to play these messy curiosities, and it was an absolutely fascinating process. They went from deep scepticism through to (apparently) real enjoyment over the course of about half an hour. We played all three – in the end it seemed easiest to just play through them and talk about what happened.

Interesting points (for me, anyway):

  • the tidy one (Mushroom III) was the shortest and least flexible, no doubt because it consisted almost entirely of fairly normal notation. The players tended not to repeat bits or go back over it. I was pleased with the sound though – it felt like my piece, probably because I’d composed all the fragments myself, specially for this, and had put thought into what went where. My cellist, at the bottom of the page, played across fragments (two two-line fragments side by side, so playing across the page rather than playing one fragment then another) which I rather liked
  • the big messy one (Mushroom IV) raised the question of whether they were expected to sing (because one of the bits I’d stolen out of the photocopier reject box was a fragment of a pop song and still had the words attached) and ended up very free indeed. Sometimes I could work out which bit they were playing, sometimes not.
  • the little messy one (Mushroom V, which I made entirely out of the scraps left over when I was done with IV) prompted the interesting question of which way up it should go, probably because some of my raided notation fragments were upside down.
A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: V
A Sketchbook of Mushrooms: V

All very interesting indeed, and I’m super grateful to my musicians – Sarah James, cello and Becky Brass, percussion – for being open to trying such a radically different approach from last week’s tame pieces!

So the next step in the plan (although I’m probably going to make some more intentional messes along the way – it was a really interesting and liberating process) is to create a collage-piece that I will then reinterpret myself to create a notated score. I’m sure to some people this feels redundant, but to me it’s actually a necessary step to ownership of the piece – with the mess-pieces, I felt that the scores were mine, but the pieces belonged to my performers. I’m theorising that if I interpret my own messes then the resulting pieces are mine. However, the process of getting these mess-pieces performed has been really invaluable in giving me ideas as to how I might interpret such a thing.

Onwards and upwards! Only two and a half weeks to go!

Not so String Quartet of Doom

This evening I’ve been daring. Faced with the imminent deadline of this string quartet (my tutor wants it essentially done by Thursday, which would have meant writing 13 minutes of music in 14 days. Up until the point-of-daring I’d struggled to produce 30 seconds in 10 days and even then wasn’t convinced by it), I sat down a couple of hours ago and started to write (words, that is). I wrote about the difficulties I’d been having and tried to work out where it was all going wrong.

I sorted out the starting difficulty about a week ago when I realised (thanks to an assortment of advice from both my tutors) that the material I’d started with was the right material, just in the wrong form. This was a huge breakthrough, and very helpful in terms of how I think about what I write and how to go about transforming something that’s not quite right. You can compare the initial and revised versions here:

Initial version in manuscript
Initial version of the opening of the string quartet – note the large silences!
Revised version in manuscript
Revised version of the opening of the string quartet – note the held notes, tremolando and the glissandi retained from the first version

Since that small breakthrough though, everything’s been stop-start, write-delete so that it’s felt like I’ve made no forward progress at all.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that the plan is the problem. My pretty coloured-pencil plan. True, it’s my plan, and it’s the plan for what I want to do, but the way I’ve been going about this piece has meant that the piece was becoming more about the plan than about what I wanted it to be about. Everything was becoming about “This chord isn’t thick enough/dissonant enough for this part of the plan”, “I need to change texture right now”, “I can’t change harmony yet” and not about the inner needs of the piece. Maybe what’s needed is not actually what I drew. Maybe I got the colours wrong, made a texture too thick. Maybe I just *gasp* changed my mind.

So this evening, I’ve chucked the plan.

It’s now filed in case of future need – because, broadly speaking, it does still apply. I still want to go from thick textures and loud stuff through to quiet and delicate and detailed stuff, so it’s likely I’ll consult it from time to time. I do think too that in terms of how far I’m moving how fast it could also be useful, but for now it’s really limiting me. So now (after another deleting session) I am proceeding based on how I feel about the Seagram Murals and where the musical material seems to want to go. And MY GOODNESS what a transformation.

Just scrubbing the plan from my thoughts and spending a couple of minutes thinking about the paintings and what they’re like as you approach them has reconnected me with what I’m trying to do so that even the opening section sounds different.

When it was All About the Plan, the opening felt blocky. All I could feel from it was the big clumpy chords which correspond to the textural solidity of that block in the plan. Now I’m feeling the glissandi and the shiftiness of it all, which corresponds to the way the Seagram Murals never feel entirely static, which is EXACTLY what I wanted it to be.

Having deleted most of the start of the next bit (about 2 minutes in), I’m mixing up the pizzicato and slightly faster tempo of the deleted material with the more lyrical stuff I started working with just before (because The Plan dictated that I needed a change to the texture Just There) and it’s just working better. Whereas before the pizz stuff felt forced and artificial, now it feels like MY material and it’s behaving itself a lot better. 17 seconds done in about half an hour, and it’s music I think I actually like for a change.

Three cheers for rebellion!


Term has been underway for six weeks now and I am yet to really start my string quartet. Everything started so well! The research and drawing the plan went well, but when it’s come to finding actual notes to get moving on, I have to confess I am seriously stuck on this one.

The first attempt I made wasn’t quite right but I pushed ahead with it and there’s things I like about it and while most of it has been rejected (Stephen, my tutor quite rightly said that it wasn’t the piece I’d drawn) there are elements which I think I’ll be stealing back at some point.

Stephen set me homework to listen to Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, the Ligeti quartets and Lutoslawski’s quartet, which has been interesting, and there’s stuff I might be able to use there, but not for the opening. I’m really not comfortable with the whole “any high note” thing. Or at least not in a small ensemble context – it can work really well in an orchestra where you’ve got a bunch of people doing the same thing, but at the chamber level, I really don’t want to relinquish that control. The effects and ideas I’m liking in these pieces are mostly really quiet things. Harmonics, ppp tremolando, sul tasto – stuff like that. The louder parts just feel random and unstructured and totally at odds with what I want to achieve.

The latest version – which I’ve just tonight rejected – I just plain don’t like. At first I thought it was because it didn’t feel like me. Now I think it’s because there’s nowhere for the materials to go. I don’t have a reason for using the chord I’ve started with and because it’s just a sound, it doesn’t have any line in it to be drawn out to become something larger, so I don’t know what to do with it and it’s not telling me anything. The material I started the first attempt with, on the other hand, while it didn’t entirely reflect what I’d drawn, I felt had the potential to be useful across the kind of scale this work is intended to have (15 minutes).

I’m also still suffering the major resistance to working away from the computer that I was trying to deal with during my early Creative Pact challenge this year. I’m really not comfortable with it. I guess it’s not helping that I’m finding it hard to find time to just sit and tinker with stuff – we seem to have a succession of workmen in. Or Djeli’s home and renovating, or everything’s such an appalling mess post-latest-renovation-whatevers that I just want to be out of the house (getting that a lot lately!).

So I’m not sure how to tackle this. Trying to do the opening just isn’t working. Maybe I need to do a Satie and start part-way through. The final section is one where I could use some of the effects from these pieces I’ve been listening to, so maybe I could start from there and then I’d find something I could repurpose for the beginning.

Maybe I also need to take a step back and look at the paintings again (well, the catalogue reproductions I have – the paintings themselves still seem to be hidden away after the attack), and do some more research and try to recapture what I was thinking at the time – it was a month ago now!

Plus, of course, there’s the question of whether it matters if I stray from the drawn plan. I personally don’t have a problem with this at all. It’s what usually happens! Drawing the plan just gives me a starting point for the structure but deviation is expected. My aim has never been to directly interpret visual art even in my art-inspired pieces, but rather to use it as a starting point. However, Stephen seems keen on the idea of a plan, and the challenge intrigues me – to not deviate from the plan simply because an idea came along that didn’t fit but instead persevere to find something that will fit the plan and enable me to follow it.

So the quartet’s in limbo for now. And the players I’ve been contacting to see if they want to actually play the thing either aren’t answering their phones or aren’t calling back, which is – to say the least – extremely frustrating!

Things are progressing much better with the piece for two harps I’m working on, but that’s a post for another day 🙂

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.