oros

It all began with an idea and a sketch – this one in fact!

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Pencil ‘proto-sketch’ for oros

oros is Commissioned by Auditiv Vokal to celbrate “Einstürzende Mauern”. It was premiered in Dresden on 27th February 2014

oros is for 8 voices: SSS AA T BB [3 sopranos, 2 altos, tenor and 2 basses]

I have already written an article around word setting called ‘in no way fixed [words and music parts 1 and 2] but on this occasion I can write specifically about a commission that allows me to experiment compositionally and technically with dedicated, professional contemporary vocal music specialists. This is a first for me so I wanted to maximise the opportunity and learn as much as possible about how far I can push the human voice within the context of my current compositional practice!

In writing a piece that relates to the theme of ‘falling walls’ [Einstürzende Mauer], I wanted to create an abstract work that was coloured by issues of freedom and liberation, both individual, social and cultural [avoiding the overtly political] and deliver this through an experimental [for me] and wildly contrasting, dramatic new vocal work. There are many programmatic and cliched pitfalls to avoid here. My aim was to write a completely abstracted work without narrative or direct illustrative reference. There would certainly be no ‘message’ in the music or any attempt at proselytising!

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Duschtuch Hygiene Museum, Dresden

In fact, the whole idea or concept behind “Einstürzende Mauern” is difficult to translate into English. After conversations with Auditiv Vokal, I alighted on several ideas – colours even – that could articulate the concept as I describe below.

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Score shot of the soprano 2 part

Concept: To achieve my aims I quickly realised the new piece needed to be one of my un-synchronised works [see below] as I wished to reflect the themes above in the very fabric of the music; the way it was conceived, written and performed to create an ‘organic’ vocal work that becomes a living wall of sound itself. However, this wall would not represent something solid or fixed; it would be permeable, in a state of flux, changing, spontaneous and full of life. Furthermore, as the work would be un-synchronised, the vocalists were freed from the tyranny of the shared bar line and down beat, able to express themselves as individuals within the context of the whole [the ensemble].

This compositional and performance approach enhanced the themes of liberation and freedom even further.
To emphasise the theme of falling walls I found a text source that I could treat in the same manner I would treat my pitches and rhythms in the music. I decided to use graffiti documented from the Berlin Wall itself. I have transcribed a number of slogans, phrases, and words which have been coupled with three short prose of my own exploring themes of journey, freedom, liberation, exploration and self realisation. It is the combination of these text materials that provides the vocal fabric for the work. These materials [within the parts themselves] are treated in a semi-narrative fashion. However, the overall combination and unsynchronised layering of all eight voices purposefully leads to a non-narrative text delivery. Further to this, the setting of the words does not generally encourage clarity and diction in delivery. There is much melismatic writing and the words are used more for their inherent sound properties than literal meaning and context. Of course, at times there is a collision between word setting and context that amplifies meaning in the conventional sense.

Vision: Over time, many layers of graffiti can be written on walls, one covering the other until all of the text and words become obscured by each other. One becomes aware of a surface of tangled words where individual letters and words may appear from the visual jumble only to disappear again under the tangle of other words. This image of the surface of a well-used graffiti wall is a suitable illustration for how the sound-surface of oros can be experienced. As each of the eight singers produces their individual line, their words and phrases, musical gestures and individual vocal characters will intertwine, compete, challenge, unify, collide, obscure and generally create a complexity of sound that will become an aural representation of a graffiti covered wall containing the hopes and sentiments of ordinary people. To create this level of vocal activity, all parts are highly virtuosic, exploring the full range and dramatic presentation of the voices.

Text used in oros [used freely and not in the order presented]

collected from the Berlin Wall:
Dancing to freedom
Change your life
move in silence
the world’s too small for walls
sanctuary
and the wind cries
dreams
we are all the wall
maybe someday we will be together
why?

Many small people who in
many small places do
many small things
that can alter the face of the world.

Marc Yeats’ prose:
A local map
in a foreign land
will free your hand
to forge a new route
and seek from outside
what you have lost within.

We travel on each other’s love
strange, wild adventures
territories unknown
sometimes lost
blind alleys or mazes
bewilder
searching always
for home.

Here, from the highest point
I can see for miles.
On a clear day
I can even see myself.

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Score-shot of the soprano 2 part

The music employs quartertones and extended techniques as well as dramatic, gestural writing. Much of the clarity of word production will be intentionally obscured by these techniques – once again, in reference to the worn and over-written graffiti on the wall where all that was written is no longer clear to see. In short, the text will be treated in exactly the same way as the music and subject to its processes and demands.

Un-synchronised music: The vocalists sing independently of each other. The music is cued to begin only. There is no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the vocalists. Whilst the relationship of each vocalist is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and variability. To this end it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible although the composer appreciates that it is the various interpretations and practicalities inherent in the realisation of tempi that contribute to the richly unique nature and interplay of each performance.

There is only one instruction to the vocalists: to begin when indicated and sing until their material is completed.
Structurally, the music is conceived as a large canon in eight parts with each part a transposition [with some variables] of the other. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure. The music forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.

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canonic diagram

Due to the unsynchronised nature of this music, an ‘installed’ performance [spatial] is recommended with the performers being positioned around the performance space, enwrapping the audience.

The score and parts:
There is no score for oros; difficulties and variables associated with displaying the musical material in vertical alignment as represented in real time are considerable. Each performance will yield somewhat different results, interplays, gestural and harmonic references and outcomes. As a result, the material contained within the piece can only be read via the vocal parts. Consequently there is no single, definitive performance of the piece. oros can only be realised through performance [as opposed to comprehended by reading through a score]; this is the nature of the music – it has to be experienced to be ‘known’.

Thinking around the title of this piece: wall > boundary > limit > horizon –

The word horizon derives from the Greek “ὁρίζων κύκλος” horizōn kyklos, “separating circle”, from the verb ὁρίζω horizō, “to divide”, “to separate”, and that from “ὅρος” (oros), “boundary, landmark”.

words

Words.

We use them every day. We do this quite naturally to greater or lesser communicative effect.

As a composer I am engaged in forging an abstract language in sound that frequently uses no words to imply its meanings and emotional context. This inherent ‘meaning’, (and I use the word loosely), is in no way fixed as each person who listens to the music brings their own interpretation of meaning to the outpouring of sounds. Composers can use titles or culturally understood imagery to ‘paint a picture’ in sound of certain objects and feelings; for instance, music to conjure an impression of the sea or pastoral music to imply certain types of landscape. However, if like me, the composer writes abstract, atonal music, these cultural ‘hooks’ no longer apply as the language, syntax and dialectic used is very personal and perhaps does not conform to historical or cultural precedents and norms. These factors obscure ‘meaning’ and are further complicated by the lack of functional harmony and key in atonal music, removing the accepted understanding (and response) to the feel of ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ (major and minor) modal fluctuations. Of course, tonal music is much more complex than just these two polarities, but atonal music has no access to these functional tonal foundations that aid emotional understanding, instead, a deeply personal, complex and ever-changing relationship with ‘non-functional’ harmony shapes an impression of what the music is and what it’s about. This is perhaps as close as one can come to a collective understanding of the meaning of atonal music.

Words too are not as obvious as they may seem at first glance. The contexts in which they appear to each other coupled with underlying meanings and implications often present in irony, sarcasm and humour create yet further layers of significance that surface examination of the written word alone may not reveal.

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Context is everything.

The abstract nature of the music is made more solid by the addition of words as the words themselves bring an inherent imagery and meaning with them that constrains the otherwise wide-open implications of the music. Words bring, either singularly or in narrative, a sense of context. However, this word and music context is not so easily fixed. It can exist in a state of flux and transformation. Words are not bound by only one possible combination with music, either. I have experimented with using the same words set against radically different music and the results have been startling. Words can be undermined or enhanced by the music that underpins them. The potential meanings and contexts that abound in each word and each combination of words can come into play when the same words are set with radically varied types of music, each resonating a different aspect of the word’s potential. The music brings an emotional, colouristic or ‘energy’ context with it that resonates with some aspect of the words. Together they strengthen each other, sometimes in very surprising and subliminal ways. A good composer will exploit this to the full. A good librettist will be sensitive to these possibilities. Welcome to the world of opera!

There is just too much to write about how opera works but suffice to say there are a great many musical devises that add huge significance and gravitas to words to create character, flashback, empathy, heroism, tragedy, irony, humour, violence and energy and many more states of meaning besides.

Opera is perhaps the highest form of music and word combinations. Indeed, opera along with the symphony are considered by some to be the greatest forms of human creative expression.

As a composer I have worked with a range of word setting contexts, from music with the spoken word to operatic (fully sung) word setting. In each of these forms the relationship between words and music is different in as much as music and spoken word combinations leave the words largely untouched by musical affect and treatment; they remain essentially spoken word. However, the spoken words, or rather their meaning and context are effected and changed by the music that surrounds them and this relationship can be complex and deep. When setting words into a musical fabric as in songs or opera, the words are completely subjected to the processes brought to bear upon them by the composer. As listeners to opera will be aware, this often brings with it a loss of clarity in spoken word diction due to the voice ranges and melismatic devises employed. Not all composers take this route however. The America opera composer Sondheim reduces the ranges and complexity of his vocal lines to a complete minimum so as to preserve the clarity of meaning and delivery of the words. This is also true in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

I take the opposite view to streamlining of Sondheim. Whilst I strive to preserve the clarity of diction in the words I set I also aim to unify the compositional processes brought to bear on the instrumental music with those of the voice, creating a stylistic whole. The nature of my instrumental music is complex and detailed. It would feel alien for me to write vocal lines that were obeying less complex rules of engagement. In creating this parity, words are exaggerated, syllables, attacks, word lengths, syntax delivery and expression distorted sometimes a long way from the nature and pacing of the spoken word. Similarly, choosing the best range for the voice to deliver words can cause its own distortions, especially with very high or low tessitura where natural vocal sound (speech) production is restricted and the delivery of words, vowels and consonants becomes difficult or impossible. In this instance the singer has to substitute natural word production with more achievable vowels or consonants. This is often the reason why much grand opera is incomprehensible without a libretto to hand; the composer has chosen to emphasise the emotional context of the words by setting them especially high (or low) and extending the note values way beyond the requirements of regular speech and in so doing, sacrificed the clarity of the words.

Composers wrestle with these choices constantly. They are not only composing with the music but also with the voice and with the words. It is in these distortions that a magical transformative process takes place. The words become music. At the same time, the composer needs to be mindful of telling a story or delivering a narrative, gauging the ‘action’ and giving the plot or content a living and coherent structure across time. When a librettist gives over their words to a composer like me, they need to be mindful that their words will be subjugated to the needs of the music and this will change the librettist’s original concept of pacing and delivery dramatically.

Other considerations in word setting involve the number of instruments a voice or voices are set with. There are issues of balance that need to be considered. Sound production in my music is not amplified, so any singing or word production needs to be audible against different arrays of instruments. This is relatively straight forwards if setting a voice with intimate forces, but when the vision is orchestral, greater heed needs to be paid to the audibility of the voice.

In 2008 I was commissioned to write a work for the Hallé Orchestra setting one of a series of poems written by Jackie Kay to mark World Aids Day 2008. This is not opera, but it is a setting for two voices and chorus with orchestra. Here I set the words of a very disturbing text and had to write suitable music to articulate the rapidly changing scenes and emotions of the poem. It was a great challenge. Jackie was brilliant to work with and together we arrived at a text I could successfully set. This text setting was unusual for me as to date I had not set any words that were a narrative plot or part of a larger overall structure.
 

Finding suitable writers, poets and librettists to work with is also essential. Not all writing is suitable for setting to music – far from it. Writing words that are to be set to music is a particular skill. In my experience, for words to exist meaningfully with music there needs to be much space for the music to breath and articulate the words. Less is always more! I know some composers who have been faced with books of prose to set as operas and have asked for a re-write or have gone ahead and set all the words to disastrous consequence. The skill of a librettist is a very particular thing.

Unfortunately, history has shown that the librettist often becomes a forgotten part of the opera. We all know the names of some of the greatest operas in the public psyche; works such as the Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, Die Fledermaus, Aida, Madame Butterfly, there are many more, and a great many will know who the composers are; Mozart, Rossini, Strauss, Verdi, Puccini, but who remembers the names of the librettist, as important as they are? Operas are usually referred to as ‘The Magic Flute by Mozart’, for instance. The librettist is forgotten. What does this tell us about how we view the words in opera? They are obviously important; an opera cannot exist without them, but why is the music remembered over and above the words even though people may well sing the words as they sing along with the opera?

I can’t answer this question and won’t attempt to.

It is vital for the composer to find the right poet, writer or librettist to work with. It is advantageous to know several different writers who have distinctive styles so the composer can call upon the writer best suited to articulate the subject. Over and above all this it is essential that the writer and composer can think along similar lines with regard to structure and treatment of the words. A strong collaborative relationship and understanding of the processes involved in writing an opera or indeed, setting any words ensures that both art forms profit through the collaboration.

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I would not call myself a poet. However, in the past I had such difficulties finding a sympathetic and flexible writer that I wrote words to set myself. Most notable of these were eight very short poems written in 2003 that I set as a series of songs called ‘My Songs’

These songs demonstrate that less is more. The minimal words become haunting because of the spacious treatment I could offer them with the rather sparse music. An advantage of writing your own words is that you can chop and change them as you see fit to fulfil the requirements of the music. If you work with a writer there can be a lot of toing and froing around cuts, additions and deletions creating difficulties if the writer is understandably precious about their words. Having said this, the energy that can be brought to an engaged and successful collaboration – a meeting of minds – is hard to beat!

Around this time I also experimented with using non word-based text exploring phonics, consonant and vowels using the International Phonetic Alphabet. It is interesting that even though there is no word content at all in the conventional sense, the ‘foreign language’ that is produced through the strange array of phonics has a ‘meaning’ and communicates that meaning. With no universal translation available, what that meaning is can be impossible to define. But does that weaken the music? I feel it doesn’t. The emotional impact can still be significant if illusive. I also wonder if the emotional impact lying between unknown language and music exists for listeners to opera performed in a foreign language they do not understand. Whilst understanding the language and thus the plot and characters of an opera enhances the experience, there is still a strong residual experience that is carried by the music and vocal sounds alone without that understanding. With so many of the ‘great’ operas being written in Italian and German, and so many listeners in the UK for instance, not understanding these languages, it is perhaps surprising that opera continues to grow in popularity and esteem. Perhaps this is the underlying communicative power (resonance) of music and voice as opposed to music and comprehended word as demonstrated through my very un-operatic, non-narrative, non-word-based ASCII Dialogues for soprano and alto flute:
 

It is clear to me that a composer can communicate through the voice to great effect either with or without words and familiar languages. There is something inherent in the nature of the human voice (unsurprisingly) that communicates to all of us above and beyond the confines of localised languages. Perhaps this can be referred to as resonance? It is the range of human vocal expression in its most fundamental levels that communicates behind the delivery and comprehension of words and it is this universal connection that fundamentally articulates vocal communication be it sung or spoken.

“As a poet I have always considered ‘poetry’ as being more closely related to ‘music’ than to ‘literature’. Poetry must be heard – whether it is recited or declaimed, or whether it is simply heard inside the head of someone reading it from the page. So ‘poetry’ is word-music. Now, the interesting question is, at what point do ‘words’ become ‘music’? At what point does ‘music’, if containing vocals, become ‘words’? As a poet I don’t go much for ‘meaning’, but more for ‘resonance’. How do the words resonate with my audience? To be sure, ‘meaning’, in any case, is not an integral property of these things we’ve created called ‘words’, but is a product of cultural and personal resonance. So maybe I should be a sound-poet: forget ‘meaning’, just go for the sound! But that’s somehow unsatisfactory. After all, ‘words’ and their meanings (or resonances) could be as much as 40,000 years old, and are, in fact, the world. ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ as one famous historical novel has it. These resonances are composed of many elements. So I’m sort of favouring a spectrum, with ‘music’ at one end and ‘words’ at the other – and it’s interesting and ‘valid’ at any point in-between: for THIS work, or for this section of it, the words are basically sound. In another section the words are words, with full cultural baggage attached. Somewhere in the middle there’s a fluid, moving boundary which is not quite words, and about to become words, not quite music and about to become music. That’s where it gets interesting.”

More info at Ralph Hoyte

From Ralph’s quote above it is clear that he thinks musically and does not have fixed ideas about the role of words in relation to themselves or music. It is this flexibility and willingness to experiment that has enabled us to work together over a range of projects.

Most recently we have set up SATSYMPH LLP that brings together our talents along with creative coder and programmer Phill Phelps. We compose ‘context-aware soundworlds’ – located high quality contemporary soundscape experiences outside in the real world triggered by GPS (satellite) signals. These ‘immersive soundworlds’ (or you can think of them as ‘virtual auditoria’) can be invested with contemporary music content, contemporary music/word fusions, poetry, heritage interpretive content, or with any desired audio content. Read more here

Our latest project, ‘On a Theme of Hermes’ is an original full-scale contemporary work for large-scale ensemble and voices which fuses contemporary music and contemporary poetry in an entirely new and innovative way, and, moreover, one which has a truly unique method of delivery. ‘On a Theme of Hermes’ is user-directed and geo-located. It responds to location, to where the user is. It morphs, changes, according to what the user does. This is an entirely new music/poetry paradigm. You can hear extracts from the work here:
 

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We have chosen the theme of the Greek god ‘Hermes’ as he is, traditionally, messenger of the gods, guide to the Underworld, patron of thieves, liars, of literature and poets, as well as of boundaries (and those who, as in this project, “travel across them”). These attributes of his quicksilver nature give us massive scope for weaving symphonic stories around him and for integrating classical and contemporary allusions and illusions, words and music. More here:

Interestingly, we created the work for Hermes in isolation from one another. Of course, we spoke about themes and impressions of the work but essentially collaborated at a distance to create the raw materials. Once the materials were created we shared them with the SATSYMPH team and decided which pieces of work to take forward into the project, which work to combine as word and music, and which to be stand alone word or music and so on. There is much more to the scope of this project and these matters are best articulated in our corresponding blogs, above.

These combined layers of work were counterpointed by word compositions that explored the musical qualities of speech and speech rhythm and music standalones. Part of the skill in judging what was standalone for word and music and what was for combination treatment was gauging when material was ‘full’ in its own capacity and the addition of music or word to it would ultimately weaken and detract from what it was, and at the same time identifying work that would be enhanced by the addition of word or music.

Essentially, and going back to the ideas originally mentioned at the top of this article, context is everything. It remains startling how music and word, when overlain, cut and spliced together, or arbitrarily combined, effects the nature of both. Through our experimentation the happy coincidences of timing and spontaneous bringing together brought new energy and revelation to both our work. Because we were thematically consistent in the creation of work we were able to combine and layer word and music together in a whole manner of ways we had not previously conceived. And this is the point. Context changes everything. Experiment with changing the context of your material and see what happens.

In general terms, the above considerations are the same when selecting any words to go with music. Words need to have the scope to embrace and envelop the music in time and space. Words that are written to be utterly complete in their own right will seldom work well with music unless they are very spare. You can’t make an opera from a book anymore than you can make a television series from a book. You need a screen-play to bridge the completeness of the book and adapt the text to incorporate what the screen can bring. For opera, you need a libretto. This isn’t necessarily an adaption of a book but can be a narrative in its own right in the same way as a screen-play isn’t a book, but is a narrative – the libretto is mindful of the role it will play and the treatment it can provoke and receive as part of the compositional process of the composer.

SATSYMPH have many more exciting projects in the pipeline that will see further and deepening relationships between word and music.

And finally, a mention about my most recent commission for the voice that is forming part of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Sailing Events at Weymouth and Portland, Dorset 2012.

‘sturzstrom’ has been composed as ‘a landslide event for voices’ meaning the work attempts to depict landmass movement and geological process as found along the ‘Jurassic Coast’ of East Devon and Dorset. Naturally, this depiction is not a scientific reconstruction of these processes in sound; rather, an imaginative response to these forces and outcomes as contrived in the composer’s imagination and amplified by the individual contributions of the performers.

‘sturzstrom’ has been designed to utilise the voice rather than singing ability and is conceived and notated in such a way as to enable maximum participation from individuals with little or no experience of singing or reading conventional music notation. Inevitably, this involves some new learning to understand and interpret the signs and symbols used in this score as well as the general concept and approach used by the composer to articulate his ideas. Both the composer and conductor will be responsible for explaining, shaping and guiding the choir’s responses to the notation, graphics and text. Along with the massed voices there are three strands of pebble percussion for younger performers; the first two strands deal with a more advanced interpretation followed by a third strand, a pebble chorus, performed by children of primary school age adding a further layer of mass percussive activity. As in the voice-work, the various strands of the percussion section are designed to be performable by the widest range of young people with interpretation of the various notations being facilitated by the conductor and composer. For authenticity, it is also desirable that each participant in the percussion section has found his or her own performance instrument (stones and pebbles) from the stretch of coastline featured in this work.

‘sturzstrom’ is designed for massed choirs and will work best with large numbers of individuals, employing as it does flocking and ‘crowd sourcing’ techniques to initiate complex textures, harmonies and articulations of its material, be they sung or spoken. The structure of the score leads to an intense climax (the landslide event) but along the way, geological text from scientific papers is used to add vocal content to the music; this content is articulated in a variety of ways using non-conventional notation and graphic notation. The work covers the Mezosoic geological time period and includes the layers of strata found in this time period between Exmouth in East Devon and Lyme Regis in West Dorset. The successions of strata are documented through sound in the piece and culminate in an imaginary journey along the coast, traveling east to west, before the landslide event occurs, setting the scene as it were for the catastrophic landslide (blockslide) that occurred at Bindon on Christmas Eve, 1839. Read by the Orator and bookending this scientific data is the wonderful ‘Petition of the Mayor and Burgesses of Lyme Regis, County Dorset, 20 August, 1533’, where the people of ‘King’s Lyme’ express their fears for the town as coastal erosion and landslides threaten its very existence. This letter brings an human perspective and cost to these processes of coastal movement and remind us that the situation described in 1533 has not changed or been remedied in our own day but, is at best, temporarily contained.

You can read more about ‘sturzstrom’ here:

percussive coast

Percussive Coast
March 17 2011

I recently facilitated a two-day workshop named ‘Percussive Coast’ for PVA MediaLab as part of Big Picture’s [Ex-Lab] programme of events, Exploratory Laboratory.

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The workshop took place across two days in November 2010 and was an examination of landscape, place and how features could be captured and used to develop a musical score for new compositions.

On our first day we worked on location at Charmouth beach where we used the mapping techniques of artists previously shown in the EX-LAB exhibition at Bridport Arts Centre as the starting point for our own investigations and research.

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We began by mapping a small area of shoreline to examine its content and features – rocks, pebbles, sand and shingle, litter and all manner of objects, and where these were placed in relation to one-another. The mapped area of beach needed to correspond to the scaled down matrix we had drawn on paper. This matrix contained the same number of boxes as the large matrix demarked on the beach. The next step was to capture the relative positions of the objects on the beach and plot their position onto the matrix using pencil. As facilitator of the workshops I guided the participants through this process making it clear that the act of mapping, of capturing, was not a scientific method, nor would it hold the accuracy of measuring or recording using digital technologies. The mapping was observational and responsive and could be expressive too. Some participants choose to reflect what they saw as accurately as possible on their matrixes; others took a more flexible approach and drew very fluidly across their area. Some physically traced out the matrix area in the sand whilst others used a few strong visible markers as general guide to positioning. Either way, the group mapped what they saw in the most appropriate manner for them.

Mapping over, the second part of the experience was to find materials on the beach that could be used to produce sounds. Anything would do so long as it had an audible quality. The group found stones, paper, seaweed, dried plants, plastic bottles, shingle, wood and an assortment of flotsam and jetsam. This bizarre collection of found objects would become the instruments of our orchestra.

We returned to PVA MediaLab where I explained to the group how to turn their mapped out drawings into scores and how to ‘extract’ parts from these scores.

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The group as a whole would perform each person’s composition. To do this, each member of the group had to be assigned an instrument or sound as well as a notated part, extracted from the score, that would give instructions for when and how to play their instruments in the same manner as a conventional musical score and parts functions.

As ‘homework’, the participants had to make their individual parts from the scores. This involved creating, as many parts as there were players and making sure that all the mapped events on the score were located into the parts in the correct place. For instance, all the small red pebbles that occurred on the mapped area of beach were extracted, located and mapped into the new, just red pebbles matrix (this would become the red pebbles part). Other objects would be singularly extracted into other parts.

Within the red pebbles only part, the pebbles would become the initiators for a musical event fixed in time – like notes on a stave that would initiate a sound response at a given point in time.

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In its initial form, the score matrix was laid out in two dimensions, perhaps 6 boxes high by 18 boxes long into which drawn objects were mapped and positioned. To transform this matrix into a linear form so it could be read like a time-line, the participants had to decide how to navigate the matrix and lay it out in the musical part, presenting one row of the matrix, from left to right at a time. A matrix 6 boxes high (rows) and 18 columns in length would be laid out thus: row 1, columns 1-18; row 2, columns 1-18; row 3, columns 1-18; and so on until the matrix was transformed into a linear format one row deep. This became our time-line and custom stave.

And there’s more. Like a musical part, indications of volume, performance style and rhythm had to be clear and understandable. To gauge these properties the participants referred back to their original mapped scores to see how they had captured the objects. Their size, tonal quality (light and darkness on paper) and manner of mark-making all influenced the instructions and information these bespoke scores and parts were conveying for performance.

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The second aspect of homework was for each participant to investigate the sound making objects they had found and explore how they could be played, what sounds they could make and what instructions and indications were necessary to realise these sounds when other people were playing them. They also needed to consider how the ‘instruments’ would be positioned for a group performance; if they could be hand-held, positioned on the floor for striking or hitting or suspended from a frame for best resonance qualities.

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This concluded day one of the experience.

 

 

Day two was based at PVA MediaLab. The day was broken into two halves; shared learning, instruction and rehearsals and recording.

All of our previous work had involved analogue (as opposed to digital) techniques. Today was to be a combination of the two. We would perform the work (an analogue activity), but the sounds would be recorded through digital media, be edited and then distributed through on-line digital hosting.


3 ivon by PVA MediaLab

The participants shared their learning, instructing each other in the use of their instruments, performance and interpretive techniques and how all of these related to the score and parts.


1 carol by PVA MediaLab

Each score and part had a notated time-line. The grid demarcations of the time-line were given a time value, rather like SMPTE time code values operating in a sequencer. So, for instance, each matrix square (box) may take 1 second of time to traverse. Where objects are placed within this box, top, middle, edge, will determine when the instrument is struck in the same way as the position of a note in a bar tells the musician when to play it and any additional markings (in this case large or small markings, long or short markings going across several boxes) how long to make the sound for and whether it should be loud or soft. Reading the part involved moving from box to box, left to right, the lines dividing each box acting as a bar lines in conventional notation, moving second by second and responding as accurately as possible to the content within the boxes.


4 francesca by PVA MediaLab


2 eva by PVA MediaLab

As with all ensembles, it is useful to have a conductor to measure the time and ascribe the time-line a common value everyone can adhere to (the beat). I took the role of conductor and each piece was initially rehearsed and then captured through digital recording.

Percussive Coast – The Real Time Laboratory from PVA MediaLab on Vimeo.
‘symphony’ by PVA MediaLab

The levels of interpretive control and expectation were very sophisticated with each person representing personal interpretations of the original mapped experience. The work produced was abstract percussive music. These were genuine compositions. The participants had become composers and transformed visual information from the beach, through mapping exercises into notation and then performance.

complexity, what’s the point?

Complexity – what’s the point?
March 13 2011

“We make our own nature because we always see it in the way that suits us culturally. When we look on mountains as beautiful, although they’re nothing but stupid and obstructive rock piles: these are just our own projections.” Gerhard Richter

My good friend, Ian Talbot, fine art photographer, recently created a blog responding to the above quote by Gerhard Richter in which he (Ian) expressed concepts of process that enabled his work to encompass simplicity and elegance as well as discussing aspects of cultural influences in the way art is both created and experienced.

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This discourse encouraged me to respond and expound a little about the motivations, processes and concepts behind my own work as a composer and painter.
Ian and Richter are correct! What we perceive isn’t necessarily what we see. Indeed, it seldom is. Cultural influences, visual and aural languages all play their part in how we filter and realise our thoughts and construct realities around us. Nature is one of these ‘realities’ and for me as an individual and an artist (one who interprets and re-constructs reality – perhaps?) the joy of untangling romance, fiction, ‘reality’, natural forces such as erosion, fractals and chaos theory, and the actual ‘joy of perception’ -what ever that may actually be, drive me forwards to engage with the world around me in a way that we have grown to accept as a creative response.

Simplicity and elegance are wonderful things and have, from time to time, concerned me in my own work as an artist and composer. However, as I have grown older, far from wishing to simplify my reality and bring elegance to image and sound, I have become increasingly fascinated by flux, chaos, complexity and multidimensional perception as in an object or sound construction that operates on many interwoven layers simultaneously. I’m not so concerned about line and order; I’m concerned about energies, densities, colour and textures.

Perhaps the strong relationship between my work as a visual artist and composer has driven these preoccupations. These two creative forms are closely linked by techniques and constructions developed over many years of practice. My compositions often influence new approaches to painting, just as techniques in painting have influenced my musical development.
 


 

Although I am interested in surfaces represented in sound, colour, form and texture, my work is further influenced by a fascination with layering, geology and erosion. The work, both sound based and visual, is primarily inspired by landscape (or my perceptions of it) – but this fascination gravitates around representing landscape in terms of molecular and primal energies rather than recreating what is seen or what I ‘think’ I am seeing.

Many of the acoustic pieces I write find their starting point from within other pieces of music I’ve already written. I am fascinated how altered contexts can radically redefine the way musical material feels and sounds. Transplanting different layers, voices or strands of music from one piece to another, altering tempi, small details and dynamics, transposing, inverting, and then letting those strands sound out together; all of these methods (and many others) – a sort of genetic recycling – fascinate me.

These connected works are like sons and daughters, cousins, five times removed. And with this ‘genetic’ material comes history, characteristics and content. In music, as with people, the way this genetic material is ‘lived out’ determines the character and make-up of the person or piece. This can lead to very individual and complex outcomes – fights, arguments, battles for dominance, deaths, betrayals, harmonies, solace and feud.

And in relation to the above, I’m also interested in music that operates more freely within itself. This is especially true with ensemble music where there are several instruments. I wish to investigate the simultaneous use of tempi where the musicians play in an independent manner, allowing serendipity to come into play and ever changing relationships of line and colour to manifest with each performance. These chance elements will be sufficiently organised to prevent total chaos but free enough to allow spontaneity and complex musical lines to be performed without the psychological stresses of finding the downbeat in every bar (with un-conducted music) as each performer will follow their own downbeat.

An example of ‘gentle complexity and bringing together ‘genetic material’ in music:

“We make our own nature because we always see it in the way that suits us culturally. When we look on mountains as beautiful, although they’re nothing but stupid and obstructive rock piles: these are just our own projections.” Gerhard Richter

and also

“Did motion come into being at some time
or did it neither come-to-be nor is it destroyed,
but did it always exist and will it go on for ever,
and is it immortal and unceasing for existing things,
being like a kind of life for all natural objects?”

Anaximander

and:

“A number of fragments imply that it needs both faith and persistence to find the underlying truth.“

Heraclitus

and still:

“Things taken together are whole and not whole,
something which is being brought together and brought apart,
which is in tune and out of tune;
out of all things there comes a unity,
and out of a unity all things.”

Heraclitus

and, finally:

“all things are flux”

Plato

Complexity can exist on many levels. Sometimes, work with the most ‘simple’ surface can overlay much complexity in its realisation and production. And further to this, simplicity and complexity are points on a continuum. They are points that rely again on our perceptions, intellectual understanding and emotional, gut-reaction to creative work and the world around us. How much the artist puts into a work bears no relation to how much any one person gets out of it. An artist has his intention and the viewer or listener their perception and understanding. As was quoted from Richter, we see, hear, what we want to.

But I believe that like the complexity of nature, weather systems, the surface of water, light on leaves, the soil – you name it, we are capable of rendering simplicity and some degree of understanding and attachment to forms in nature that exist in complex fractal patterns and their limited but limitless array of variation around a single thematic or schematic. We are also capable of reading simple messages (correctly or incorrectly) from complex human behaviours and nuances.

Whilst the strength of many works of art in all media is to break through complexity and give a ‘reading’ or interpretation of something from our experience that has been delivered with elegance and clarity, such clarity can also come through an interaction with complexity. Think how we already interpret our extremely complex world, with varying degrees of success. We are capable of such.
Perhaps the artist sees their role as simplifying life to help others ‘see it’ (more clearly), perhaps as they themselves do? Perhaps this approach is more human, as it is closer to producing artifice? More human because it filters out what is considered unnecessary thereby producing something that is further removed from the real, further translated through the human condition, made more artificial and thereby resulting in what we understand to be art?
I conjecture my interest in the complex is more to do with trying to capture the mechanisms of nature, life and experience in all its mess, distractions and craggy chaos. I believe that when Heraclitus said this:

Many lines of music brought together simultaneously in orchestral music:

“Things taken together are whole and not whole,
something which is being brought together and brought apart,
which is in tune and out of tune;
out of all things there comes a unity,
and out of a unity all things.”

He was saying that complexity, creation and de-creation (destruction) and all the cycles between create chaos and dis-unity, but through this process comes unity, even if it is only transitory. When we perceive anything, it is in a state of flux, of movement from one state or place to another on its complex, interwoven journey. We think we see things fixed and static, but we do not. We can perceive beauty, elegance and simplicity against a backdrop of the raging forces of chaos, of nature, the universe and of our individual and communal lives.

With this in mind, I attempt to create work both visual and aural that operates in this flux, and sometimes chaos, and relays on the perceptive skills of the viewer to create their own order, their own simplicity against the many layers of activity they are presented with.

The surface of the earth, the landscapes we know, detailed corners we have explored are all very complex, detailed, interconnected and, to some degree, chaotic and ever-changing. From three miles up, out in space, that surface becomes something completely different; we see it all in new, larger shapes and configurations.

Simplicity is as much about a perceptual position and perspective as it is about content.

Sturzstrom: for massed choirs [2]

Sturzstrom: for massed choirs

Sturzstrom: now complete!
October 14 2011,

sturzstrom (a landslide event for voices) is now complete.

This has been perhaps the most demanding of pieces for me to write. In trying to obtain the vocal effects and structures I wanted I have had to ‘project’ and contain the various possibilities that the notational methods I have chosen to deliver sturzstrom could encompass. In other words, in my usual scores, every detail is controlled and notated precisely, so I know exactly (more or less) what it is I’m going to get in performance. sturzstrom has been totally different in that there is no definitive performance, but a performance that exists within the parameters set by the coaching and shaping of the music with the performers as part of its being brought into being.

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To help clarify this process and the expectations of delivery and performance I have written extensive performance notes in the score.

sturzstrom has been composed as ‘a landslide event for voices’ meaning the work attempts to depict landmass movement and geological process as found along the ‘Jurassic Coast’ of East Devon and Dorset. Naturally, this depiction is not a scientific reconstruction of these processes in sound; rather, an imaginative response to these forces and outcomes as contrived in the composer’s imagination and amplified by the individual contributions of the performers. sturzstrom has been designed to utilise the voice rather than singing ability and is conceived and notated in such a way as to enable maximum participation from individuals with little or no experience of singing or reading conventional music notation.

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Inevitably, this involves some new learning to understand and interpret the signs and symbols used in this score as well as the general concept and approach used by the composer to articulate his ideas. Both the composer and conductor will be responsible for explaining, shaping and guiding the choir’s responses to the notation, graphics and text.

33011989-F1.smallAlong with the massed voices there are three strands of pebble percussion for younger performers; the first two strands deal with a more advanced interprutatrion followed by a thrid strand, a pebble chorus, performed by children of primary school age adding a further layer of mass percussive activity. As in the voice-work, the various strands of the percussion section are designed to be performable by the widest range of young people with interpretation of the various notations being facilitated by the conductor and composer. For authenticity, It is also desirable that each participant in the percussion section has found their own performance instrument (stones and pebbles) from the stretch of coastline featured in this work.
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sturzstrom is designed for massed choirs and will work best with large numbers of individuals, employing as it does flocking and ‘crowd sourcing’ techniques to initiate complex textures, harmonies and articulations of its material, be they sung or spoken.

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The structure of the score leads to an intense climax (the landslide event) but along the way, geological text from scientific papers is used to add vocal content to the music; this content is articulated in a variety of ways using non-conventional notation and graphic notation (explained below). The work covers the Mesozoic geological time period and includes the layers of strata found in this time period between Exmouth in East Devon and Lyme Regis in West Dorset. These successions of strata are documented through sound in the piece and culminate in an imaginary journey along the coast, traveling east to west, before the landslide event occurs, setting the scene as it were for the catastrophic landslide (blockslide) that occurred at Bindon on Christmas Eve, 1839.

 

33011941-Bindon_Plate2Read by the Orator and bookending this scientific data is the wonderful ‘Petition of the Mayor and Burgesses of Lyme Regis, County Dorset, 20 August, 1533’, where the people of ‘King’s Lyme’ express their fears for the town as coastal erosion and landslides threaten its very existance. This letter brings an human perspective and cost to these processes of coastal movement and remind us that the situation described in 1533 has not changed or been remedied in our own day but is at best, temporarily contained.’

 

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The first workshop for sturzstrom took place in Exeter on the 12th of November.

Sturzstrom: for massed choirs [1]

STURZSTROM: what is it?
May 4 2011

A landslide event for voices!

‘Sturzstrom’ is a vocal work that expresses in sound the formation and geology of the Jurassic Coast concentrating on the phenomena of landslips, mudslides and coastal erosion.

The work will be a primordial, timeless piece that reflects Deep Time and geological processes in sound, structure and process of composition, echoing the creation of the land, strata and Jurassic Coast across time. Using the power of massed choirs, it will act on communities, singers and audiences at a visceral, atavistic level, capturing and integrating their reactions to it. Vocal content will be developed and shaped in local communities in East Devon and West Dorset through creative workshops with the composer, using texts relating to the geology of the Jurassic Coast as the basis for non-narrative content. Through the Jurassic Arts Team, the composer and community choirs will also work with geologists and scientists who will inform the creative process, both compositionally and in the origination of the vocal text).

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‘Sturzstrom’ is part of the the Coastal Voices project and will look at how the geology we see along the coast was formed and how it is being shaped today, how that geology has shaped the land above and how the landscape created affects us as people.

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mudslide

A sturzstrom (German literally for “fall stream” or “collapse stream”; the correct German term, however, is “bergsturz”) is a rare, unique type of landslide consisting of soil and rock which is characterized by having a great horizontal movement when compared to its initial vertical drop – as much as 20 or 30 times the vertical distance. Sturzstroms are similar to glaciers, mudslides, and lava flows. Sturzstroms flow across land fairly easily, and their mobility increases when volume increases. They have been found on other bodies in the solar system, including the moon, Mars, Venus, Io, Callisto, and Phobos. More information can be found here.

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mudslide and sediment

A Coastal Voices commission, ‘Sturzstrom’ will be performed in Weymouth and Portland as part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrating the 2012 Olympic Games.

My aims:

To compose an original and experimental piece of new music for community choirs
To create a work which explores a variety of new and innovative vocal and percussive techniques
To bring together singers from a range of choirs, backgrounds and ages
To give community singers the opportunity to sing with massed voices
To take community choirs and singers on a journey from their familiar musical world into the sound world of the composer
To support choirs with creative workshops led by the composer and with mentoring for choir leaders
To enable singers to contribute to the pitch content of the music through guided aleatoric and graphic notation

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The challenges:

The challenge is twofold –

Firstly, to research with geologists the very sound of landslips and morphodynamic changes in the coastline and translate these sounds and sound processes to the human voice through the structure and content of this new commission as well as finding suitable geological and scientific texts that can be ‘treated’ for performance purposes to form the vocal word content of the piece.

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Secondly, to notate the musical content of ‘Sturzstrom’ in such a way as to be totally inclusive of those with no musical experience, be that singing or reading conventional music notation, so that they can learn and perform the piece to the highest standard. This notation will be forged with the individual groups forming a highly personal and communicative language that will be capable of communicating the pitch and rhythmic content of the score as well as shaping sounds in ‘live’ performance (with guidance from the conductor). The music will contain a measure of aleatoric and improvisational material that will be rehearsed and considered to form part of a cohesive whole. These elements will allow for a co-creative relationship between composer and singers. The resultant music will be complex and highly textural with many individual layers of activity moving together to create movement from focus to flux as the landscape of the music forms, erodes, slips, slides and reforms again.

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Blackven, near Charmouth, Dorset