Thursday, 13 May 2010

Wed 12 May: Nick Collins

Nick Collins is a composer, performer and researcher in the field of computer music. He lectures at the University of Sussex, running the music informatics degree programmes and research group. Research interests include machine listening, interactive and generative music, and audiovisual performance. He co-edited the Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music (Cambridge University Press 2007), and wrote the Introduction to Computer Music (Wiley 2009).

In our final seminar in this series, Nick addressed the topic of collaboration by considering roles in computer music, illustrated through collaborations in interactive music systems, live coding, audiovisual performance, occasional facilitation of other people's work, tool building and similar topics; this was followed by a general discussion, which considered connections (and differences) between other examples of practice discussed in this seminar series.

The slides for Nick's talk can be found here.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Wed 28 April: Martin Butler

Martin Butler, distinguished composer, and Professor of Music at Sussex University, gave a talk on the processes of collaboration and creative discovery in particular connection with his opera, A Better Place, and his work with ensemble notes inegales.

Nobody Likes a Control Freak

I want to speak about two examples of collaboration:
1. A Better Place - my opera commissioned by ENO Studio
2. Notes Inegales - my work in this ensemble which blurs the roles of composer and performer

I wrote an article for a book on Music and Collaboration which was never published. This addressed the following points in relation to A Better Place:

The process of collaboration in opera is complex and demanding; interested parties include composer, librettist, funder, producer.
Opera is costly; perhaps mired in bourgeois sensibilities; and yet it is still a valid art form in its special properties, which include the artificial telescoping of time, distinguishing it from song setting.
In this context, the composer is the first, and foremost, director.
The creation of the score requires a special kind of precision.
But there is then a responsibility in the production to be open to exigencies as they arise (i.e. more time/less time for action).
I was teamed up by ENO Studio with Cindy Oswin. To create something using the resources of ENO Studio.
We decided to invent the story through improvisation.
We began with actors.
We were interested in enquiring into the qualities of ghostliness.
Windows became important in the language of the piece.
Although I was initially unused to the lack of structure, I learnt to derive the material from the leading players.
The pacing, and musical ideas, came from this process.
A woman learns her husband has been killed.
She goes into denial.
'A Better Place for you'
She adopts two teenage refugees from a war zone.
She meets a male character, in some way the embodiment of the river her apartment overlooks, called Siward; he wants to get her to kill herself and almost succeeds.
Mary King was the singer for Suzanne in the workshops and developed a repertoire of musical gestures.
Because she has perfect pitch her vocal ideas always started from the same note (E).
This 'natural' gesture of descent I then developed into a constructed symmetrical structure, around a pitch centre of A flat. [example]
Meanwhile, the 'river' chord drowns, or contains, Siward. [example]
The musical examples in the session demonstrated:
(a) Suzanne reflecting on previous life; the links between formal compositional procedures and narrative. And
(b) The confluence of forces at the climactic part of the opera; the intertwining lines of orchestra and voices featuring the fundamental material (rising-River; falling-Suzanne)

Now I will describe my work with the ensemble Notes Inegales.
This is directed by Peter Wiegold who spoke earlier in this seminar series.
I play piano with this unusual group of hand-picked musicians.
As a performing member of the group I also compose, arrange and improvise.
We're interested in improvisation and notation, and the area in between.
Peter uses signals to direct the flow and the course of the performance.
I arranged Spanish Key from Bitches Brew.
Peter Wiegold 'transcribed' the playing style of Davis' trumpet sound.
My work with the ensemble is becoming important to wider compositional strategies.
It's important to know how a player will respond to material.
The ensemble's practice relates well to my long-standing practice of improvisation of musical material at the piano.
Working with the ensemble can imply differing levels of collaborative commitment.
A kind of loop arises in our process:
(1) Composer provides something
(2) Performers realise and transform the material
(3) Composer then has to respond to these results and work out a new strategy

Question from the floor: is Notes Inegales influenced by known/historic examples of improvising ensembles?
- Not really; we reflect on our own practice; not on others.

Comment from the floor: it seems there may be a field of probability; there may be a dialogue between determinism and chance? Or, more simply, just as Miles created the sound by picking the players, so does Peter Wiegold.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Wed 21 April 2010: Jonathan Harvey

Jonathan Harvey is a distinguished composer who has worked extensively at IRCAM. He was Professor of Music at Sussex University from 1977 to 1993.

Symmetrical Collaborations?

The question mark is the relevant part.

Nearly all music is a collaboration of some sort.

Collaborations are often unsatisfactory; one personality swamps the other. Or they go in different directions and don't add up to anything.

I want to start with a collaboration which is antithetical. Unexpected, but I came to approve.

Passion and Resurrection.
It's a traditional picture of humanity; with some psychology. The language is simple and stark. The monks acted out these operas themselves in the mass.
Mallarme wrote: The future of theatre could be derived from the mass. Something ancient; taken from a great distance.
The work starts in a mass; the priest becomes Caiaphas; who meets Judas.
It ends in the mass.
It repeats the events of the crucifixion and resurrection; brutality; and lyrical.
Goes with the architecture of Winchester, where it was done.
The florid 15th C resurrection and the austere 11C Passion.
The singing participation of the audience is important.
The plainsong provides the material of the piece.
It can be done in a theatre. This is what I want to talk about; already a big step.
Each singer has a halo, reflecting medieval thinking; an aura of harmonics, a spectral harmonic series; the string harmonics are stuck on a spectrum; the more sacred the character the richer the spectrum. Quite naïve, medieval.
There is a serial structure interwoven in the pentatonic plainchant.
Resurrection=a new world - rises out of the bass linearity of the Passion.
The axis is in the middle; it floats outwards in mirror symmetry.
Consider this director in a production in Austria at a monastery - it has the feeling of a theatre: Paul Flieder. He has done productions at quite a high level; serious; his view was how can we make this gospel story relevant or live.
What do people believe in now?
He said Jonathan Harvey is not tainted by Nazism.
This is a man who can write singing and beautiful melodies and not be embarrassed.
This shadow of Nazism means we cannot be the same as you, who escaped that experience.
The Christ in the resurrection is important, a white robed figure who magically appears out of the architecture of the cathedral; Flieder decided to make Christ invisible, just a voice.
The other big difference is Judas, who dies soon after he tries to give the 30 pieces of silver back; this is all cut out; Judas continues to haunt the opera like a hunted man.
He looks at the action; usually invisible to the characters on stage but watching.
At the end he comes again across Pilate, a cynical, brutal characterisation.
When he has fulfilled his function, Pilate casually kills him - so much for Judas.
That was quite different from how I imagined it.
Just as the crowd is about to strike Judas in anger, the gentle voice of Jesus is heard, ”For lo, I am with you always”. The crowd desists. All the soloists sing pentatonic music; behind this Paul Flieder had men in black shifting the blocks until a wall is formed. Then you see Pilate appear to eliminate Judas. In that silence you see the brass stand up. They make a tritone blast; this tritone is taken to the outer edges of the cathedral and out into the street (in former productions). They did that, but whereas I thought of it taking the Gospel as a challenge, here a wall is built and something is written on the wall.

It's a poem by Paul Celan; his best known poem. A cry of the heart. Black Milk of Daybreak ... we drink and we drink. Todesfuge; a harrowing poem. The whole meaning of the opera is changed by this; it becomes a statement about the victimisation of the repentant Judas. In a sense Judas became the principle character.
Flieder wanted to make it something that he could believe in.
I was shocked - it was not in my opera score when Pilate appeared and executes Judas. There was no conversation between us about this. An antithetical collaboration.
The more I saw it, the more I found it interesting; I thought: how does this relate to our world where most are agnostics? How does it relate to contemporary events?
So that's an interesting collaboration for me.

The next collaboration is a piece of dance, a commission to write music to a film. Anne Theresa de Keersmaeker; had the idea to ask ten composers to write music to ten short films originally inspired by Les Noces.
A summery idyllic quality to the film.
Filmed by Thierry de Mey. A brilliant film maker.
Projected on three screens; not all showing simultaneously.
A composer of mathematical disposition; he cuts in a composerly or mathematical way.
We were sent the film; it wasn't just film music; the idea was the players would be in front of the screen; the musicians would follow the timing but it was reversing the usual dancers on stage, tape played... an interesting inversion.
Some were more exact than others.
Magnus Lindberg was very precise.
Francesconi said each language is a universe of its own; he did most of his actual writing with the film off. Avoided temptation to write 'subtitles'.
Wrote the piece as an expansion of one choreographic movement.
Steve Reich waited for a good entry point; at a leap point his music leaps in.
Otherwise the music followed its own logic.
My approach was different. I followed the film carefully. Closely. The cutting of film was important. Three girls moving among the trees, the shadows of the leaves on their bodies, very dryad-like, wood-nymph like. The trees are signified by big vertical octaves and tendril like ornaments.
Simple; two harmonies; a spectral harmony and a pentatonic harmony govern the language.

There was a sense of being engulfed by the screens and the sound at the first performance. There was amplification; but I didn't use electronics.
Thierry de Mey added natural sounds later (breathing, footsteps).
I trusted him. The steps were done to Stravinsky first. They had a record player going in the parks where they filmed it, so the dancers knew what to dance to. But Thierry de Mey didn't listen to the music when cutting, he used his formal instincts.
I composed the music to the film.
The film was a 'found' object.
I just present it as, for me, an interesting collaboration which raises issues. Everyone might think I worked closely with the dancers, but no, not at all.

Another example from dance.
A real collaboration. 'At a cloud gathering'.
Susan Buirge. Choreographer in Paris, now in Japan.
She always makes her dances based on ancient cultures.
She set up an Asiatic institute for dance in Japan.
She said, which culture shall we take? I said Tibet.
We decided to go to North India monasteries which are flourishing.
We went at New Year to visit the purification ceremonies; 3 hours; extremely elaborate.
Most dances were laid down in the 15th century by the fifth Dalai Lama. It is codified and highly complex. It takes a year to rehearse. I can't begin to explain the symbolism of the dances. They showed us in detail how this worked. They were some of the most peaceful and open people. It was a deep collaboration because I have gone into Tibetan Buddhism.
We took in all the space, and architecture.
Susan's work is influenced by abstract minimalism, Sol de Witt.
The gestures are symmetrical and calculated.
There are with six dancers and a percussionist who is part of the action.
The percussionist is with electronics. I worked with Gilbert Nouno from IRCAM.
It sounds like realtime but because of the exigencies of the touring, realtime treatment was recorded; the percussionist has a click track in his ear to pick up the signal from the computer. It sounds as if it’s treated through the loudspeakers.
We will hear the spatialised shells; and then the six isorhythms which make the main section which lasts about five or six minutes.
[The extract was from part three of the piece].
The rhythmic structure is clear. Repeating the same rhythm, each time just changing a little bit.
The most direct result of my visit to Tibetan monasteries was Body Mandala, which I wrote shortly after that. The orchestral sounds are direct quotations at times from the ceremonial music.
These are peaceful people; their music is ferocious because it's purification.

Fourth collaboration is Speakings.This is the second piece in a tryptych: Body Mandala, the first piece, is a purification of the body. Speakings - is purification of speech; purification of mind is the third one, called …towards a Pure Land.
Speakings was a collaboration with IRCAM, the most close collaboration of my life.
I wanted to make the orchestra speak. For a month or two they said they had no idea. Even the top scientists were baffled. This is the sort of thing IRCAM is good at. They are leaders in speech synthesis and analysis. I wanted to make the orchestra speak because I wanted an evolution myth, a being beginning to speak like a baby, or first man.
Some people say there was a proto-language which came before music and speech bifurcated out of it. A unified expressive sound system.
What is this point so far back where speech is music?
We can analyse speech and write it out as music.
This is what we decided to do.
First movement is baby.
Second movement is ordinary speech.
Third movement is purification of speech.
We randomly sampled all kinds of speech from the radio.
We made musical scores of these segments by computer analysis.
We used Melodyne - a pop music programme which analyses syllables.
It has glissandi.
With Open Music we used partial analysis. Shows fundamental and overtones, and printed a score. But no formants or timbre.
That's where linear predictive synthesis programming came in.
This analyses the timbre of speech.
So when we say A E I O U these are fixed things no matter how high or low the voice - windows high up in the spectrum.
Can change ten times a second. We got the computer to do it; play in a bit of speech; get the analysis of speech the timbre; the formants; then resynthesise it.
We used the analysis to impose on the orchestra.
So the orchestra is playing music, which comes in through mics.
Treated by the flickering formant structures.
Then out of the speakers comes the marriage of the two: the stored speech and the orchestral sound currently being played, you hear the orchestral sound live, and the speaking orchestra from the speakers.
The orchestra is resonating to the formant structures.

So there are several levels: the first was to write speech-like music at random.
We recorded this with small instrumental groups and then treated the sounds through experiments; a wonderful collaboration.
You can hear the actual transcription of speech (using , for instance, a trombone which can make glissandi); it's an objective computer transcription of Paul Schofield reading the Waste Land.
You can also play the words using Midi, and move the sounds across the space, to create dialogues. The Royal Albert Hall was the first venue.
At the end we arrive at the mantra which is a kind of purification of speech: OM AH HUM. The Mantra used is the most ancient, said to be the origin of all speech in Buddhism. That was orchestrated according to an IRCAM programme. You feed in my voice saying 'OM' and it gives you fifteen instruments to capture exactly that spectrum. I said it needs to get louder; so for each of the 22 playings more instruments are added. All done by computer assisted composing with unbelievable refinement.

Just the sound of speech, not the meaning.
If we listen to someone speaking an unknown language do we understand it as musical meaning? Often. Crucial imaginatively is the search for a lost past, or wanting a unity, we want to get a grasp of something beyond the four score years and ten that we actually live.

Collaboration with IRCAM, the institution.
My collaboration has evolved. It's always upfront in contemporary research.
The early years were fascinating, everything was so new. But it remains fascinating.
It's always a matter of people. If you have a good relation with people there, Gilbert Nouno in my case, then everyone is willing to give time.
He's more of a jazz musician and improviser; very avant-garde in his thinking.
He will improvise with the equipment for half an hour.
And I will say ‘how did you do that. That's wonderful!’ He contributes a lot.
The future is exciting. Real-time control of sound is more and more powerful.
Spatialisation is exciting - you can control it in your fingers in real time.
You can control complex movements of three spatialisations at the same time criss-crossing in metricised rhythms: all this becomes a new compositional parameter.

Wed 17 March. Caroline Wilkins.

Composer and theorist Caroline Wilkins discussed her projects: The Instrument in Space: on collaborations in the areas of music/sound theatre, intermedial, and radiophonic work.

Wed 3 March: Tim Hopkins

Director Tim Hopkins spoke about his current research.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Frances Lynch and Altin Volaj

This seminar focussed on new vocal techniques being developed by Altin Volaj with the singer Frances Lynch, directed towards Altin's opera Ion.

The work started during Altin's D.M.A programme in Maryland in 2005, and was semi-staged in 2008.
Although called Ion after the play by Euripides, the female character of Cruesa is strongly featured.
The piece has the typical Greek symmetrical choruses of 3 male and 3 females.
The scoring is for saxophone and 2 percussionists.
In the tutti of scene 4, the crowds are heard chanting in quasi aleatoric layers over atonal soundscapes.
Altin commented that it is hard to find a notation for all the different elements - dance, singing, movements, extended dramatic forms, and part of his enquiry at Sussex is directed towards refining this question and answering it. Collaborative work (with Frances Lynch) is extremely helpful towards these ends.
Frances Lynch then performed a segment of the work, in which Cruesa speaks with an intensely personal interior monologue about her fate.
This was dramatised in our seminar in an impressive live performance. Frances's voice at first appeared completely mediated through the microphone and reverb technique that she had set up with just the help of resonances from the grand piano. The audience only gradually realised that she was in fact singing live. This made quite an impression.
Altin then went on to discuss his interest in a wide pallette of vocal sounds:
1. Free speech with no accents
2. Rhythmic speech
3. Spoken voices with a melodic line (sprechstimme)
4. Sung speech
5. Inprecise singing
6. Closed mouth singing
7. Traditional song

Frances Lynch commented that the way she understood or interpreted the role of Creusa was as a person living intensely in her head, and in real exchange (from the neurotically internalised state to the everyday state of controlled communication).

Frances was asked about her career. She commented that she likes working with living composers, and does not enjoy the museum atmosphere of most opera houses, although she did train as a classical opera singer. To this Altin added that he appreciated the depth of knowledge of Frances - her knowledge and understanding of contemporary modes of performance being a base-line starting point, from which things could immediately develop. He said these three days of collaboration had been a very good experience, and he recalled that Berio primarily wrote for individual musicians he knew, not for generic performers.

A comment was made on the use of electronics in this 'mock up' version for today's seminar. The comment was that the electronics were actually quite interesting in their alienating affect, and perhaps they should be retained. Instruments might make the expression too 'cosy'.

A further question was posed on notation: how do you balance between the 'open' and the 'specified'. What room do you leave for interpretation? What is the role and nature of notation? [Is it prescriptive or does it document collaborative process in some contexts or senses?]

Frances responded that the negotiation process is subtle, and it is two-way. The notation by itself is not sufficient for a meaningful performance. Altin referred to various well known ensembles who specifically discourage composers from over-notating their compositions.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Evangelia Rigaki

Evangelia Rigaki is mostly a music theatre and opera composer. Since music theatre is inherently collaborative and involves working with people from different backgrounds and disciplines (and, sometimes, of different skill levels), the amount of creative control a composer has can vary significantly with each different project.

In Gesprekken Van de Ziel, Evangelia worked with the director Sjaron Minailo over two months. They worked with non-western musical traditions and in this context had to decide whether to merely represent this, or to create new material in order to dramatise the relation between the spectator and the observed culture. They chose the latter solution.

In this piece there was a choir, an ud player and a solo singer. The piece was based on a song of Umm Kulthum (Egyptian singer, c. 1900 - 1975). The piece was based around the interplay between the choir and the soloist. The choir became more “hostile” (both in their use of physical gestures as well as through their musical material, which clashed rhythmically and harmonically with the soloist’s) the more the soloist sang newly-composed material. They were positioned among the audience, thereby using the performance space to enhance the effect of their interaction with the soloist. Their proximity to the audience meant that even their breathing could be audible to the audience and was therefore used and notated in their music.

The breathing of the soloist was also important (and was audible due to her microphone) and was therefore precisely notated: the more she sang newly-composed material, the more her breathing was notated to be at awkward intervals. Evangelia collaborated closely with the soloist (Esra Dalfidan) to determine her limits so that this would genuinely tax her, making her look and sound uncomfortable. This served to illustrate her discomfort at the hostility exhibited towards her by the choir. The presence of the composer during rehearsals was therefore necessary for the piece to have acquired its present form.

In Narcissus, Evangelia wrote for the percussionist Damien Harron on solo prepared marimba. The marimba was prepared, among other ways, with paper to mute the sound. For convenience, the score was notated on the paper. The percussionist would rip off the paper as the piece progressed, thereby enacting Narcissus’s literally parting the waters in order to embrace his reflection (both in terms of the visual gesture of tearing, as in the musical gesture of removing the paper which was muffling the marimba and giving it back its clear, watery sound), as in Ovid’s telling of the myth. By also tearing up the score (which was transcribed on the paper), however, the percussionist also destroys the framework of the allegory which casts him in the role of Narcissus.

In Tempt My Better Angel, Evangelia collaborated with choreographer Darren Ellis. In this piece, the music and the choreography were developed simultaneously, in an unusual model for collaboration in dance, where the music is usually written first. Evangelia further wanted the instrumentalists not to be stationary, but to move about the stage and perform physical gestures, thereby participating in the choreography.

Darren had wanted highly rhythmical and melodic music in order to provide audible cues for the dancers, whereas Evangelia wanted to use arhythmic and extended techniques. A middle ground was reached by deciding to use the physical actions of the instrumentalists to provide visual cues for the dancers, thereby eliminating the need for rhythmical, “danceable” music.

Little Instruments of Apprehension (again choreographed by Darren Ellis and on a libretto by W. N. Herbert), was scored for one baritone and one dancer/percussionist.

The fact that Darren was both dancer and instrumentalist (playing percussion on various props while dancing) meant that writing this piece was a highly collaborative process, as the music and choreography were completely interdependent.

The libretto was topical and concerned with the hysteria around swine flu. This was illustrated by the incomprehensibility of Darren’s vocal material (which was based around lists in various languages, which Bill Herbert called “swarms of words”) contrasted with the baritone’s conventional sung delivery style of material in English.

Unexpected serendipitous effects can arise from unusual meetings between artists and performers of different backgrounds, disciplines and levels of training, taking one out of one's comfort zone and making collaborative works more unique and exciting.

In questions, E.R. was asked, 'is the dream to be part of a collective; or are collaborations to an extent accidental?' Evangelia responded that collaborations are up to an extent accidental, as, for a young composer, any opportunity is welcome and the ability to collaborate with others might be regarded as an important skill. However, I aim to nurture long-term collaborations with people I trust artistically and enjoy working with, such as Bill Herbert, Sjaron Minailo and Darren Ellis.

E.R. was further asked, 'Is it meaningful to do the same piece with different people; in the sense that so much work is invested in specific circumstances and factors?' She responded that it is possible for the same piece to turn out completely different depending on whom you are collaborating with. In any case, I try to tailor each piece to the particular performers and the performance space, and I dont mind that this imbues my pieces with an ephemeral quality.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

John Altman on film composition and collaboration - Wednesday 9 December 2009

The distinguished film composer, arranger, and saxophonist, John Altman, addressed the series with a wide ranging talk touching on his work with television and film.

In film, John argued, you are a cog within a large mechanism. You have to receive and interpret instructions, which are often imprecise. For example:
‘We want something classical’.
‘We want something with jazz in’.
‘The fourth note is too green’.

Any media composer spends half their time trying to work out what such instructions mean. The degree of success interpreting such instructions ultimately makes the difference between a score’s acceptance and rejection. There continue to be very high profile examples of fully completed scores thrown out at a late stage because of such misunderstandings.

For example, Elmer Bernstein’s (1922-2004) rejected score to Gangs of New York (2002).

John showed how he is used to listening to and responding to directors. He selected, orchestrated and produced all the period music used in Titanic (1997), in response to James Cameron’s request for authenticity. This involved researching the White Star Playlist for the Titanic’s band at the Library of Congress.

John commented that when music is adopted in film it very often is purposeful. As an illustration of this he screened excerpts from his score to Hear My Song (1991), describing in detail the way he rescored the basic thematic material for different ensembles and in different styles. So this created a unity, and opportunities for contrast throughout the picture, and also opportunities for a range of functions. An extended sequence begins with views of traditional dancing, and then completes one portion of the story - the struggle to get Josef Locke to agree to return for one final concert. The director wanted a sense of forward motion from the start of the traditional dancing to the affirmative tone of the closing part of this sequence. So instead of creating a close match between picture and sound (by using traditional Irish music) the decision was made to use a synth track which could link the different sequences together, and emphasise continuity over fragmentation. This decision, arrived at collaboratively, gives a sense of forward motion, unity and coherence to the drama which it might otherwise have lacked.

By complete contrast John described a situation which was altered from the top, and not at all the result of collaborative process. He was commissioned to write the score to an advert for Levis. The agency said ‘classical’ in its brief for the music. The director hit on Vivaldi; an arrangement was made, and the director was delighted. The advert was completed and the ad agency said that the music’s ‘not right’. The music ‘plays the story too much’. They wanted music which gives an ‘overview’ and not a ‘scored’ feeling. Inspired by Kubrick’s musical choices in Barry Lyndon (1975), John looked for something more ‘organic’. The result was an arrangement of the Handel score (Sarabande from Keyboard Suite No. 4 in D minor HWV437) featuring two cellists, Tony Pleeth and Martin Loveday. Reflecting on this, John thought that the right decision had been made: the new arrangement added depth and gravity to the ad. Success followed with awards for the advert, which is illustrated in one version here (it existed in cuts of varying lengths):

In concluding remarks, John observed that the freedom and autonomy of the Hollywood/commercial film composer are in decline. Soundtrack albums are conceived before the scored music. These albums rarely include the original music. There is a tendency to book several composers for major projects, according to their association with certain types of cues (action, love, tension etc). The result is sometimes weak because the score becomes eclectic. An example of this is Shall We Dance (2004): John was initially commissioned to compose the whole score. At a later point in the process, Gabriel Yared was brought in to compose the 'love theme' cues. John was left to handle all the dance-related material and score cues that sprang from that part of the story.

In the last few years, John commented, the music has ‘descended’ to the level of sound effects, in terms of its status, and the possibility of a creative and structural role has been circumscribed.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Canto Battuto and Sam Hayden - Friday 20 November 2009

A visit to Sussex University by the Swiss ensemble Canto Battuto also raised, and illuminated, questions of collaboration and communication between performers and composers.

Canto Battuto were here to perform a cycle for soprano, percussion and electronics by Sam Hayden, entitled 'Actio' and inspired by the work of Roland Barthes.

During the lecture-demonstration part of the afternoon workshop, the performers and composer described the development of a language of electronic treatment for Sam's work.

Martin Lorenz commented that a common problem is the relation of electronics to source. It is either like a 'clone' (slavishly imitative) or too far away and you miss the connection with the source. Sam and Martin found the best solution was a light touch: short delays with an element of randomness, creating a fragmentation which neatly mapped the pursuit of vocal textures, of pure sonic qualities, arising from the fragmentation of Barthes's original text. Sam commented that it took some time to evolve this relationship - the original conception of the electronics' intervention being more aggressive.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Peter Wiegold - Wednesday 18 November 2009

Peter Wiegold’s interest in collaboration is focussed in the question of communication between performing musicians and a creative leader.

He first discussed his song for counter-tenor and piano, A Cause for Wonder. He showed the score which includes opportunities for performer interpretation, including ‘decoration’ and graphic notation.

A moment of particular interest is the phrase ‘Born of maid mary’, heard twice on a single f sharp. The second iteration is freer than the first and the choices that the performer makes are of great coloristic and expressive interest. Peter Wiegold comments, ‘I love it, but you shouldn’t write it down – he’ll do it differently next time’. This creates a new richness. It opens the door – the singer can own it and ‘feel respected’.

Peter Wiegold sees three ways of approaching or seeing composition.
1. The authority of the text. Vertical. Absolute.
2. Open. Democratic. Horizontal. Relative.
3. ‘Third Way’. Line from the centre from which you can spin off.

He argues that this ‘third way’ is not new. It is the basis of cantus firmus composition – a line at the centre from which multiple possibilities can proceed. He sees it as typical of African traditional music, of Miles Davis’s constructions of music from a strong centre.

He sees in Brian Ferneyhough’s music and Steve Reich’s music a commonality: the fixity and lack of room for interpretation. ‘Only since Monteverdi’ has western music been in this condition. Mistakes have no value in Steve Reich. Mistakes can be productive: if you make a mistake, play it again (Miles Davis).

The score is not dead: but it has relative, not absolute value. Before Monteverdi’s time, players who departed from the text were more highly esteemed.

In theatre, there are techniques for developing work which are truly collaborative. Collaboration needs work though. It questions how you hear, and how you express yourself.

The composer must embody what they want; an image; a timbre. Invoke, don’t describe. Avoid 19th Century infantilisation of the performer, beholden to the text. A more adult relation is wanted now.

Bjorn Heile (Head of Dept, Music) commented: ‘in your culture, scores are central; isn’t that different from Ellington, for example, who wasn’t concerned with score production at all’.

Peter Wiegold responded, ‘I’m not sure I’m operating in that culture.’

Peter Wiegold described his collaboration with the National Youth Orchestra. He wrote ‘60%’ of the score in advance, lived with them for a week, and produced a collaborative performance, performed by the ensemble from memory. The work/performance was entitled Bow-Wave, and was premiered in the Roundhouse, London, on 9 January 2009.

Working with his ensemble notes inegales, Peter Wiegold has developed sophisticated strategies for working with top new music players wishing to explore new expressive possibilities for combining notation with structured improvisation. Influenced in part by Frank Zappa, there are signals for harmonising, repetition and solo. The ensemble is a special resource, capturing the essence of western music and invigorating it with new forms of living, creative expression.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Thomas Buckner on Robert Ashley - Wednesday 28 October 2009

Thomas Buckner gave a vivid account of his work with the American writer and composer Robert Ashley. He began working with Ashley after 'Perfect Lives', the opera which Ashley conceived for television (the work's proportions and internal durations being exactly determined by the requirements of the television format).

Thomas Buckner detects a gradual increase in complexity, over the years of producing new pieces, in terms of the treatments by Robert Ashley of his own original texts, whose declamatory rhythms underpin the compositional basis of each piece.

The rehearsal process on an Ashley piece involves six days working 10 to 6 to develop the characters. At this stage the composition is minimally notated. By the time it approaches performance, accuracy is at a very high pitch and a click track is used to determine the synchrony and timing of the layered speech-based performances. Thus, the working process moves from a framework for musical innovation towards a highly specified and determined outcome so that the audience can experience the piece just as it is on the CD.

For his recent work 'Concrete' Ashley initially excluded himself from the performances, but he realised the piece was flawed without him, so he rewrote it. Being a meditation on age, Ashley appears as the main character and the other performers are projections of his dreams.

Another work, 'Dust', resulted in a collaboration with a Japanese video artist, Yukihiro Yoshihara, who created a mosaic or collage of American TV on monitors above the performers. Simultaneous commentaries and translations illuminated the meanings of the spoken texts for the Japanese audience. Comprehension of text is a key concern for Thomas Buckner.

Prof. Nicholas Till (Centre for Research in Opera and Music Theatre, Sussex) commented that Ashley quite definitely is a writer, in a literary sense, and that his ability to work at both a detailed and realist level, and at an allegorical level, gives his work unique interest.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Paul Whitty - Wednesday 7 October 2009

Our first speaker, Paul Whitty, is a Reader in Composition, Research Director for Film, Fine Art and Music, and co-director of the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes.

Paul's compositions have been performed and broadcast widely. He has a particular interest in collaborative practice. His ongoing collaborative project Vauxhall Pleasure (2004-2009) with Anna Best consisted of a site event at Vauxhall Cross, London; an installation at the Museum of Garden History as part of their Tempered Ground exhibition; and two performances at Tate Britain.

Paul's talk was called '...i tried living in the real world...': collaborations and collaborative practices.

His collaborative work arose from his interest in other disciplines. While working with choreographers, he realised that there was a mismatch between tradition compositional procedures, and the speed with which a truly responsive composer needs to reformulate and revise when working collaboratively.

New ways of thinking arose in his collaborations with Aydin Teker and Anna Best. In works written for the South Bank Centre, and later Beaconsfield, he researched the environment and history of the spaces used while working intensively with colleagues to produce site-specific work that resonated with these spaces' associations.

The most ambitious of these projects has been Vauxhall Pleasure, with Anna Best, formerly an 18th century pleasure garden and now a major traffic intersection. They fused the arcadian music of Thomas Arne with data derived from the gyratory's traffic control system to generate multiple artistic outputs which reflect the dramatic change in environment. These outputs are: site performance; webpages; installations.

Paul commented that these collaborations have influenced his concert composition work, in which he continues to seek an accommodation between the materials which serve as a starting point (recently the Cesar Franck Violin Sonata for his 39 pages) and his radical methodology.

The idea of the series

This year, Music, in the School of Media, Film and Music, at the University of Sussex, is discussing the idea of music in collaborative contexts of many kinds in a series of nine research seminars running from October 2009 to April 2010.

The aim of our series is to ask the following overall questions:
- why collaborate?
- what kinds of processes are involved in collaboration?
- what can we learn from collaboration?

Our speakers comprise distinguished practitioners (composers, performers) and theorists who have worked extensively in, and reflected upon, very different approaches to collaboration.