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”.

stillness in movement

Stillness in Movement – exhibition: Antuireann Arts Centre – 2004
March 21 2011

A multi-media installation – An Tuireann Art Centre, Oct. to mid-Nov. 2004 With subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council, Hi-Arts, An Tuireann Arts Center

This article was written in 2004 before the work illustrated here was produced

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title: neither movement from nor towards no.2 (2004) dimensions: 122 x 157 cms media: oil on mounted board

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The creation of this multi-media installation will cover research and practice in contemporary music, visual art and Eastern philosophy.

This installation will create a unique opportunity to consolidate many years of practice as a composer and painter by researching and developing a method for realising inspiration that is capable of expressing similar ideas in both music and painting. This method will develop from research into the philosophical principles within the practices of Buddhism and how these can translate into a personal approach to my own work. My research will bring together the art forms of painting and composition, which will interact with philosophy and cross-cultural influences from the East and West. It is my hope that new creative freedoms will emerge from this research, enabling me to relinquish many of the controls and expectations that I have brought to my work within the general ethos and history of Western art culture. This exploration of how Buddhist principles can enrich my work will hopefully bring with it a new quality, dynamism and energy, enabling me to explore my inspiration in increasingly new, personal and original ways.
Why?

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title: neither movement from nor towards no.3 (2004) dimensions: 221 x 81 cms media: oil on mounted board

Over recent months I have developed an interest in the philosophy and practices of Buddhism and am keen to research how this philosophy can develop my practice as an artist and composer by unifying the techniques and intentions of my work.

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There are two main areas that interest me in Buddhism – impermanence, and the influence of the ego on creative actions. Impermanence deals with the ever-changing nature of all things; the action of the ego deals with the exercise of control and manipulation of matter and events. I feel that these two aspects of philosophy offer new creative opportunities and disciplines that would greatly develop my work.
It is not my intention to write religious music or create icons in visual art, nor do I wish to make superficial observations of Buddhism as a religion. Instead, I wish to research how the notions of impermanence and lessening egoic action can enrich my own creative language and development, in a very personal way.

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title: movement towards no.4 (2004) dimensions: 122 x 92 cms media: oil on mounted board

Music
I wish to devise a music generating process where a number of elements – pitches, dynamics, rhythmic patterns, durations, etc., will combine and recombine in continually differing ways. The rates of change and factors governing permutations will be organised by a set of numbers that will be generated randomly. The result of this will be to create a sound structure that, like chaos theory, is made up of small units of similar things that combine to create larger units of similar things. A further analogy is to see the structure as an organism: the membrane of the organism acts as the parameter of possibility – the pitches, rhythms, durations etc. – the inside of the organism is where all these elements are permutated through the action of the random numbers. Like sculpture, music that results from these processes can be viewed from many different perspectives.

This kind of compositional technique can fulfill the idea of impermanence as it creates an ever-changing field of possibilities with nothing being repeated but all aspects within the field being related. It also reduces the influence of the ego and various levels of control over events as the decisions of what happens to the musical material from moment to moment is taken out of the composer’s hands; the use of random numbers and probability takes care of that. What the composer has done is to initiate a series of probabilities within the limitations of the elements themselves. The result of this method is that setting limited musical elements, random numbers and probabilities in motion, in time, can create large sections of music, or even complete works.

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title: neither movement from nor towards (2004) dimensions: 107 x 122 cms media: oil on mounted board

To date, my music has been very Western in that it has been highly goal orientated. By incorporating the philosophy of impermanence and ego into my work in this particular way, I am opening up my work to a more non-goal orientated direction and seeking to relinquish control over many compositional aspects.

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title: movement towards no.1 (2004) dimensions: 147 x 123 inches media: oil on mounted board

I want to avoid writing music that describes anything in particular or attempts to convey particular emotions; these factors will be inherent in the sounds that are produced – as the sounds transform they will encompass different colours, energies and intensities. Any levels of control that I do exercise will concern large-scale structural issues and of course, the initial planning in setting up the generating processes. If the results of these actions are not to my liking, I will discard them and generate a different set of possibilities to process the sounds.
I want the music I write to be like a found object, complete in itself, and relatively uninfluenced by my actions.

I am sure that the approach I have outlined here can be taken to extremes of non-control; indeed, composers such as John Cage took similar ideas to their own conclusion. I am aware that the incorporation of Eastern philosophy into Western art is not a new one, but in the context of my own work the impact will be revolutionary and my response unique and personal.

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I intend to compose a piece of acoustic music that has a duration of 60 minutes to act as a soundscape to accompany the visual art exhibition. I intend to write one large work made up of three, self-contained modules. Each of these modules will reflect similar musical ideas, structures and processes, but from differing perspectives. The compositions will be for an ensemble of eight players – soprano, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, violoncello and piano. The music will reflect, as best as possible, the processes, intention and concerns of the visual art, and will be recorded and played during the exhibition, on a continuous sound-loop. The sound element will compliment and enhance the visual elements, completing a multimedia installation.
I also wish to transfer these techniques to my visual artwork.

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title: movement towards no.3 dimensions: 61 x 87 cms media: oil on mounted board

Painting
I will produce a series of nine oil paintings, which will reflect, in form, colour and texture, the compositional issues set out within the music component of this installation.
Concentrating on the exploration of simple and restricted themes, material will be drawn from the nature in which objects break down and erode – particularly the process of rusting – reflecting my interest in impermanence – the ever-changing nature of all things. Paintings will reflect this same subject matter, but again, the material will be viewed from differing perspectives, offering insights into the very nature, construction and transient quality of the material itself.

I will employ methods of painting that ensure the activities of chance and random effects. I will set the events in these painting onto a 2D or illusory 3D context (created through glazes and tonal densities), so as to explore the relationship between time, event (subject material), and space. In music, all elements are set in time and against a background of silence or non-event. With these paintings, the negative background body provides the space or non-event that the painted events are viewed against – this negative space or illusory 3D space can be used in a similar way to time and silence in music, bringing a temporal element to the visual work.

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title: movement from no.2 (2004) dimensions: 122 x 157 cms media: oil on mounted board

The paintings will be abstract forms, again, not attempting to portray anything in particular, but through their own colours, textures and intensities covering a range of interpretational possibilities.

Another strand of significance is to explore aspects of movement within stillness. The notion of writing music that moves forwards whilst going round in circles, constantly re-permutating itself, never repeating, but all the time sounding familiar, can be directly translated into paintings that explore similar issues. Within these paintings I hope to achieve differing senses of motion, movement and energy, all through stillness – stillness, because the elements in a painting are fixed and static, but they can imply great movement, energy-direction and flow.
By restricting material, colour and textural components, using layering, glazing, scraping and revealing techniques, I can create surfaces that explore erosion and deterioration.
I would go as far as to say that within these paintings I am not aiming to paint, or represent, anything at all – subject wise. However, as the material unfolds and develops and the restricted textural, structural and colour elements come into focus, each work evolves with its own sense of energy, movement and ambience.

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title: movement from no.1 (2004) dimensions: 107 x 79 cms media: oil on mounted board

As the surface of these paintings develops into a complex web of activity, texture, colour and form, it becomes difficult to assimilate the content in a single viewing. Indeed, each time one looks into work that is created in this way, new layers of significance are revealed enabling the work to evolve in the mind of the viewer. This continual assimilation of visual information fits neatly into my views on impermanence – the viewer’s relation to and understanding of the work is in a continual state of development. This statement is, of course, true of all visual art. However, as there are no objects contained within the composition of these paintings that relate directly (as in objective representation) to the natural world, there is a particular need for the mind to build abstract connections and responses to the painted surface, just to make some form of sense of what is perceived. This state of continued assimilation means that nothing in the painting ever appears quite the same from one viewing to another, as the relationships between all the elements are always seen differently in relation to each other. I feel that this perceptual state of flux is close to the concept of impermanence.

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As an artist, I am also excited that the content of such work continues to be revealed to me to – like a found object, complete in itself to be appreciated and viewed. The work I am now making, fully using the methods described above, often produces great surprises for me. I am enjoying these unknown qualities. One advantage is that I can look upon the work as being somewhat separate from me – as if someone else had produced it – not because of any sense of having been possessed during its creation, but because the methods used to generate the images was not completely subject to my direct choices and will – rather, the randomly produced actions that I employed at the outset are bearing fruit as they are revealed through subsequent procedures of exposure.
As I do not aim to pre-empt how a finished painting will look, and the techniques of making I use, are to a certain extent randomised and incidental, at least in the initial stages of making, I can minimise the amount of choices I have to make and therefore limit the use of the ego. Of course, I do make choices and the ego (what I like and I don’t like) is always part of these choices. However, because I chose to begin a painting by creating possibilities that are put down both spontaneously and with as great a degree of random energy as I can muster, I feel as if my voyage from initial brush marks to finished work is one of discovery – discovering the potential of the material and limited elements that I decided upon at the outset of the creative process, and discovery as I assimilate, focus upon and develop the material and surfaces within the painting itself.

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The finished painting is only one of a multitude of possible outcomes – given similar starting points and ingredients, I feel it is fair to say that a subsequent painting would take a completely different course in its development. I find this constant discovery of paintings, and indeed, my own work, to be very stimulating – often I will ‘find’ things in paintings that will be far richer, more imaginative and varied than I could have conceived by projecting my imagination in a forced way onto a blank painting surface. Each painting I make is a surprise to me, as I have no way of predicting exactly how the work will turn out. This creative freedom is a direct result of exchanging aspects of creative responsibility and choice in certain procedures for (controlled) random actions and processes of revealing different layers of activity. In achieving this freedom, I feel that I have, in part, negated the actions of the ego and encouraged the processes of impermanence to influence the outcome of my work.

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I believe that the descriptions of how I make oil paintings bear many similarities to how I conceive and make music composition and believe that, in as far as it is possible to translate inspiration and creative ideas from one media to another, the shared philosophy of these processes does bring elements of the creative act in each of these disciplines into a meaningful relationship with one and other, where the connections between the work runs far deeper than superficial observations about mood, colour and texture.

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