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“In life we do everything to avoid anxiety, whereas in Art we must pursue it.” – Morton Feldman
I didn’t really know what to expect from Sonia’s fragment. I’ve only heard a little of her music prior to this project. She had mentioned possibly working with prerecorded/electroacoustic material so I guess I probably anticipated that somewhat, but beyond that I had no idea.
Nonetheless when it came in, I was still surprised and intrigued. The whole fragment was as far as i could tell completely electroacoustic – no actual “instruments” in the conventional sense anywhere! A lot of different samples of singing voices, some of which I felt I recognised but couldn’t quite place (was one of them Billie Holiday?), some more jazz in sound and others more classical. There was also some very close chromatic material in a higher soprano voice. Finally there was a sort of heavy sine – wave sound pulsing out an irregular pattern which immediately drew my ear. The whole feel was dense, thick and texturally really interesting, particularly for someone like myself that likes to think texturally.
How to respond to it? I didn’t have individual audio files of the different vocal samples, just a final mix. I started to focus in on the moments that drew my ear, a couple of vocal lines in particular, one which said ‘I’ll go out and see the stars” or similar, and the other I can’t remember now. I also did a quick transcription of the sine wave pattern, and then started to change it a little (not much, I liked this and wanted to sort of preserve it as the backbone of what I was going to do).
With the vocal samples I zoned in on, I went to work on them using a piece of software called Melodyne, which allowed me to take some of the components of the voice sound away and leave others intact, for example taking the main pitch away but leaving the breathiness, or the upper overtones. This changed the quality of the vocals quite dramatically and some of them take on an almost strained quality in places, which I liked. I also introduced some instrumental parts, sometimes on pitches that were present in some way in the original, but also with some new material. It perhaps less lush and dense than the original, but I think it has taken on a tension or strain that wasn’t there before, and it occurs to me that this is often what I look for in music, both in my own and other’s work: the tension, the fleeting moments of discomfort.
I was fairly happy with the final result, and hope Sonia isn’t too aghast at it!
Following a really interesting composers residency at Cove Park organised by New Music Scotland, ideas for a collaborative project started to emerge. Composers Oliver Searle, John De Simone, Sonia Allori, Francis MacDonald, Drew Hammond and myself started to have discussions about how this might work. Would we all write individual pieces along a single theme? That’s certainly been done many times before with varying degrees of success.
The feeling was that we wanted to try and do something more than this – try and find a way of genuinely collaborating on a work, but somehow leave space for the individual voice.
As a composer, I am perhaps not a natural collaborator, at least not in terms of the actual composition itself. I’m reminded of the musician Trevor Rabin’s statement “There are two ways to do things: your way and the wrong way.” It’s an incredibly presumptuous and downright arrogant thing to say, but it’s hard not to think this particularly when you have strong ideas about how something should be, and I suspect that many composers have at some point thought something along these lines.
Nevertheless, I would need to be more open about this, and we needed to find a way for this to work. After some discussion, I (with some help from my wife Katherine) came up with the outline of a process that might work:
1. Each of the six composers writes a fragment of music. How substantial, how coherent, how complete or incomplete is not important. Less complete is probably better.
2. Each of these fragments is then passed onto another of the composers. Each composer takes this new fragment and can edit and change it in any and every way, shape or form, as little or as much as desired/required.
3. When each composer feels that s/he has done as much s/he wants or can, the fragments are passed on again to the next composer, until eventually each of the six fragments has passed through the hands of all composers and arrives back at the first (and also final) composer.
4. At this point, the final composer takes full and final control over the piece, and changing as much as s/he wishes, sees the piece through to completion,
5. While doing so, the final composer can consider whether to and if so, how to curate earlier fragments into the overall piece in some way. This is optional, and completely open in terms of how it’s done.
Stage 1 – Starting and Passing on
The process had all been sorted out, and we all knew what we were doing as regards writing an initial fragment of music and passing it on to the next composer, and also who would be passing music onto us.
Knowing what to do and actually doing it are however completely different things, and so when it came to starting my fragment, I found myself a initially as where to begin. While I have in the past disbanded ideas for pieces, I’ve never started something that I didn’t at least initially intend to finish, so to have that built in to the process was something new. How do you start a piece that someone else is to continue? What would be a useful starting point? How much would be too much, and how much not enough? And additionally, given that the next composer could (in this instance Oliver) change as much or as little as they want, how sort of “complete” within itself ought the material to be? And finally, to what degree should I respond to the fact that I know who the next composer is and know their work?
In the end what I did was attempt to arrive at something that I felt would have been a useful starting point for me, something that I could imagine continuing work on. I often tend to start with texture – nothing strongly thematic, just something I can imagine being in the midst of a piece somewhere, and that’s what I did here: a fairly stripped back textural idea with not too much going on, but with a lot of room for someone else to manipulate it and change in various ways.
In the end I wasn’t that happy with the fragment that I wrote. That said, I was very pleasantly surprised with what Ollie has done with it. I think know he’s done something much more interesting with it. The feel is completely different from what I started with, which is no bad thing: it’s got a lot more energy to it, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to it next.