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Lies, damn lies and clarinettists: writing “My Life in Ventriloquism”

September 1, 2014 18:14

Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy

This is an edited version of a paper I gave at the RMA Student Conference in January 2013.

So often in the concert hall, music is prefaced by writing. Or rather, reading. The music I am talking about here will be no exception: I fully expect most audience members to read the programme note for My Life in Ventriloquism, a piece I wrote between 2011-’12 for clarinettist Jenny Stephenson as part of my practice-based research at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This programme note is deliberately terse, however, and only the title hints at how I borrowed a few ideas from the world of ventriloquism during the composition process:

My Life in Ventriloquism is a virtuosic piece for solo clarinet in three continuous movements. It lasts about eleven minutes.

As you probably noticed, there is a performance element to this piece. In case you missed it, it appears at times that Jenny is playing things that are impossible on the clarinet, either because they are polyphonic, too high, too low, or performed at a super-human speed. These effects were all reproduced live simply by playing pre-recorded samples of real and MIDI clarinet sounds through a hidden speaker located in the darkness behind the performer. However, this performative element is such that if you were to listen to the piece on CD, for example, it would make musical sense but you’d lose the visual clues which create a disjunct between what you, as an audience member, see and what you hear. Any meaning the piece has, therefore, is not fully realized until it is experienced in performance.

It’s this relationship between composer, performance and meaning that is my area of research. Traditionally this relationship is based on a simple model of meaning concerning composers, performers and listeners: the composer is placed at the head of a chain of Chinese Whisperers, their original, brilliant utterances are finally handed-down to listeners via a cohort of performers who do their best to realize the composer’s intentions with studious exactitude. However, this model fails to consider the very act of musical performance as significant in its own right. Also, there is the implication that musical performance is a form of pedagogy, the audience remains passive at all times as they receive meaning from the concert-platform.

My research project assumes that meaning is reception-based. That is, any meaning a work has is created in the minds of the audience and is not intrinsic to the notes on the page. Furthermore, meaning can be influenced by non-musical elements of performance which could include physical gesture and elements of theatre, all of which can be designated by the composer. Consequently, the act of composition is seen as the creation of a musical performance in its entirety rather than than the writing of a score which is presented within the context of a pre-existing performance grammar.

The model of meaning fundamental to Vaudeville-style Ventriloquism (that is, ventriloquism as comedic entertainment) has given me some ideas on how to balance the role of the composer with the desire to grant agency to the audience in a performance-led artform. My first interest in ventriloquism with regards to music was metaphorical; having written a piece in 2011 about authority (in which a recording of my voice issued occasionally-frantic instructions to an ensemble of five instrumentalists), I felt in some way all composers are ventriloquists — we are forever forced to speak through others, an instrument or singing voice sounding on our behalf. There is some evidence of this metaphorical approach in the piece you’ve just heard — rhythmically the piece is constructed like written-out rubato over a steady pulse, all expression having been allocated in advance by the composer, a sort-of master puppeteer. However, it was the ability of a ventriloquist act to be perceived in several ways simultaneously which influenced my composition the most.

In this short clip from 2005 the British ventriloquist Nina Conti, with Monk the monkey, plays with the two ways of perceiving a ventriloqual exchange. As outlined by philosopher David Goldblatt, the ventriloqual exchange can be viewed either as Conti talking to the monkey, or as Conti talking to herself. Crucially, both modes remain identifiable during proceedings even when one is foregrounded over the other (such as when Conti talks to her own hand). The act continuously slips between privileging one way of perceiving proceedings and the other; much of the routine’s humour derives from the jolt we feel when the gear suddenly shifts and we remember that the monkey’s words are in fact spoken by a ventriloquist.

Despite appearing like a right-on post-modern deconstruction of the artform, Conti’s routine is only an exaggerated form of the traditional Vaudeville ventriloquist skit in which the dummy, or “figure”, acknowledges its true, inanimate nature. Seemingly, comedic ventriloquy has always been incredulous towards its own believability. The legendary American ventriloquist Edgar Bergen was often chastised by his acerbic dummy Charlie McCarthy in this way. “You don’t know what you’re saying”, says Bergen, “Yes I do, I can see your lips move” replies Charlie. Bergen, like many comic ventriloquists, regularly undermined his own routine to force an interplay between the two ways of perceiving the act.

Although Bergen’s implicit self-criticism may have been justified, his technical shortcomings did little to detract from the accomplishment of his act, perhaps because, somewhat surprisingly, he first found widespread appeal performing on American radio from 1937–1955, the allure of his act being not a physical display of basic ventriloquy but the rapid interplay between ventriloquist and figure; the kind, long-suffering Bergen versus the rude, argumentative Charlie McCarthy, whom the audience knew were voiced a single performer.

For David Goldblatt, the dual modes of perception indicate the uniqueness of ventriloquism as entertainment. Unlike magic shows or special effects in films, ventriloquism is “illusion without deception” — we may not be able to replicate the act ourselves but we at least understand how the effect is achieved. If we were truly deceived by a ventriloquist, if we believed that the fibreglass humanoid held by the entertainer was really alive and capable of independent thought and speech, the logic of the act, along with some of the humour, would be compromised.

Crucially, the ventriloquist act only comes alive in performance: if we were to examine a script of Conti’s routine, which would be the equivalent to our musical score, it would just read like two people having an amusing argument. It lacks the nuances encoded in the act’s binary perception.

These two modes of perception enable a complex, fluctuating relationship, or “slippage”, between the dramatic narrative (say, a sketch where the dummy goes to the shops…with hilarious consequences) and the meta-ventriloqual narrative that explores the logic of the act. Furthermore, because these two modes persist at all times, the final meaning of the routine is constructed entirely in the minds of the audience who are free to prioritize a reading of one mode above the other, or both simultaneously. Like music in our tradition, this ventriloquist sketch uses a pre-scripted text but the meaning gleamed through performance is not limited to just that text. The ventriloquist’s script is not ventriloquy in the same way that our musical score is not by itself music. By it’s very nature, the ventriloquist’s act has an element of enforced performativity.

To translate, as it were, this model of meaning into musical performance I conceived my solo clarinet piece with two narratives; the musical narrative and a theatrical narrative that concerned the dislocation of sound and instrument. It was the theatrical narrative that was written first by deciding when the audience might be able to notice the illusion and how striking the illusion should be at any one point. Naturally, these two narrative strands made demands of, and imposed conditions upon, each other during the composition process but both were granted equal status. This method creates the possibility of slippage between these two layers, the “pure” musical content, and the metapraxical element of the miming illusion, during performance.

Despite calling this presentation Lies, damned lies and clarinettists, there is, I believe, only one (white) lie in this piece; the programme note. Programme notes are a very powerful thing and tend to shape how an audience perceives a work, how they understand the structure of the composition and interpret the meaning of the music. In the programme note for this piece there is no mention of the electronic soundtrack that allows the clarinettist to perform out-of-range musical material or at superhuman speed, and certainly no indication that the clarinettist is miming to this soundtrack some of the time. This programme note doesn’t contain spoilers.

Because of this secrecy, the audience is left to discover the two distinct narratives in the piece by themselves. In keeping with my desire to grant agency to the audience, rather than have them receive handed-down pre-determined meaning, there is no obvious indication as to where the first “throwing of the musical voice” takes place or as to how much of the performance is “real” and how much “fake”.

By creating musical performance which is capable of multiple modes of perception you invite the audience-spectators to partake in the construction of meaning as a dialogue with the work; an active communication with it, not simply a subjective reaction to it. However, this is quite unlike the relationship between audience and ventriloquist. Unlike the ventriloquist’s illusion without deception, where you go into a ventriloquist show complicit with the act by knowing about the theatrical conceits and mechanisms that propel the one-performer double act, the “lying” involved in my own work creates a very different relationship between audience and piece. This piece is still only ventriloqual in the metaphorical sense, it is not a piece of ventriloquism in the truest sense. Instead, Vaudeville ventriloquism has been a vehicle for exploring how to create an enforced performativity in a musical work.

Categories: Audio,Musings,Research

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Summerhall TV interview

August 16, 2014 22:24

Here’s a little interview from Summerhall TV: John De Simone and myself discuss Replaceable Things, Ensemble Thing’s Made in Scotland Showcase performance, which receives its final outing at the Edinburgh Fringe tomorrow (Sunday 17th August), 11:35AM at Summerhall. The performances have been great so far, we’re all sad the run isn’t longer!

Categories: Ensemble Thing,Performance

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Gig!

August 6, 2014 22:14

Replaceable Things poster

Ensemble Thing’s new show Replaceable Things opens next week at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The show features John De Simone’s Panic Diary and my Replaceable Parts for the Irreplaceable You. I’m really looking forward to this. Catch it when you can — there are only three performances! Friday 15th – Sunday 17th August, 11:35am, Red Lecture Theatre, Summerhall, Edinburgh.

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New recording of Nightmusic

July 28, 2014 09:16

Here’s a new recording of my piece Nightmusic for solo violin. This performance was given by violinist Kay Stephen at the beautiful Sherbrooke St. Gilbert’s Church in the Southside of Glasgow. The recording was made by Timothy Cooper and partly funded by Sound and Music for inclusion on the New Voices website.

Categories: Audio,New Voices 2014,Works

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New Voices 2014

July 27, 2014 23:25

Newvoices

I’m very happy to (belatedly) announce that I’m one of 56 emerging composers to make up this year’s New Voices cohort. The recently re-launched New Voices website, part of the British Music Collection, showcases the work of those who have been composer-in-residence with some of the UKs leading creative organizations through Sound and Music’s Embedded and Portfolio schemes. I’m honoured to be in such illustrious company.

Listen to the work of the other New Voices composers here.

Categories: New Voices 2014

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ICWID! Interview with David Fennessy

June 30, 2014 23:24

David Fennessy

My new music podcast I’LL CADENCE WHEN I DIE! is back for a second series, the first episode of which is available now. I speak to David Fennessy about his piece Hauptstimme which recently received its first performance at HCMF//. A sort-of viola concerto, the piece explores David’s interest in the relationship between the voices of an ensemble, and between the individual and the crowd. He also discusses how a work conceived in the Pearl River Delta came to feature the clacking sound of a loom from the Isle of Lewis, and how he was inspired to create a trilogy of works based on the writings of film director Werner Herzog. This episode features performances given by the Red Note Ensemble, Talea Ensemble and Ensemble Klang.

I’LL CADENCE WHEN I DIE!

Categories: I'LL CADENCE WHEN I DIE!

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Scottish Journal of Performance Issue 2

June 13, 2014 16:26

sjopbanner

I am happy to announce that the second issue of the Scottish Journal of Performance has been released today and is now available online at www.scottishjournalofperformance.org.

Editors Bethany Whiteside and Ben Fletcher-Watson have assembled a diverse range of papers for this edition including a timely eyewitness account of the spectacular opening ceremony of the Kelpies at Helix Park, Falkirk by Claire Warden, a Bourdieusian examination of training trajectories into ballet and contemporary dance by Lito Tsitsou, and a report by Bethany Whiteside from the British Dance Edition 2014 (held for this first time in Scotland) which illustrates that “many of the deliberations in the macro dance world are shared by dance researcher and worker alike”. There are also reviews of newly published books by authors Stella Bruzzi, Stacey Prickett and Peter Harrison, amongst others.

Categories: Scottish Journal of Performance

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Made in Scotland Showcase launch

May 27, 2014 22:33

madeinscotland_header_image

I spent this afternoon in a bright and sunny Edinburgh at the official launch of the Made in Scotland Showcase 2014. Made in Scotland is a curated showcase of Scottish performance on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, supported through the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund. I was there with my colleagues from Ensemble Thing: our show Replaceable Things is part of this year’s showcase and comprises my Replaceable Parts for the Irreplaceable You and John De Simone’s Panic Diary.

John’s piece is a deeply personal work about living with an anxiety disorder. My piece is an extensive re-write of a work first performed by the Red Note Ensemble last year which critiques our use of, and reliance upon, new technologies. Both works combine spoken word and cold electronic sound tracks with the virtuosic musicianship of Ensemble Thing.

Ensemble Thing will perform Replaceable Things at 11.35am, 15th/16th/17th August 2014 at Summerhall (venue 26), Edinburgh.

Categories: Ensemble Thing,Performance

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Culture Laser podcast

May 24, 2014 16:57

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After Wednesday’s performance of Elbow Room at Summerhall I was interviewed by Ryan Van Winkle for his excellent Culture Laser podcast. Listen to what I had to say below. You can find the other episodes in the series here (also well worth a listen!).

Categories: Podcast,Red Note,Works

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Elbow Room video blogs

May 20, 2014 18:25

Ahead of it’s first performance tomorrow night in Edinburgh, here are the five video blogs / trailers made by Red Note about Elbow Room.

UPDATE! Here’s another!

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Gig!

May 19, 2014 08:37

ER1

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Writing Elbow Room

May 10, 2014 20:17

Elbow Room image by David Coyle

This year’s Commonwealth Games will not longer be inaugurated by the synchronized destruction of five thirty-storey tower blocks. The buildings, the Red Road flats which have been home to hundreds of families since their construction in the 1960s, were due to be demolished as part of the opening ceremony to Glasgow’s Games which take place this summer. Organisers had promised that, by beaming television coverage of these implosions across the globe, Glasgow would be celebrated as a city of “authenticity, passion and ambition”. Others were not so sure: 17,000 people signed an online petition to stop the destruction of Red Road as part of the opening ceremony, forcing the plans to be dropped.

The size of the backlash against the plan indicates how strongly many feel about the symbolism of Red Road and the infrastructure of Glasgow’s regeneration more generally. Many accused the organisers of insensitivity, not least for the asylum seekers housed in a sixth tower who would have to spend years living in a rubble-filled wasteland. The flats are due to be demolished regardless of the Commonwealth Games, but by attempting to include their destruction in a broadly artistic event, and by insisting that razing the buildings is purely a celebratory affair, the organisers appeared to overlook the nuanced and contradictory symbolism of such an act. Since construction began in 1964 the Red Road flats have been home to thousands, initially providing an improvement in living conditions for many. For some they once represented the dawning of a Utopian way of life; a functional, modernist approach to city dwelling. Others see only an eyesore. The flats later became synonymous with urban decay and crime, and were also the scene of several widely-reported suicides.

It is contradictions such as these which have been both a cause for concern and a driving force behind my new work Elbow Room which I have written for the Red Note Ensemble as part of my Sound and Music Embedded residency with the group. Although not specifically about Red Road, the piece is about Glasgow’s redevelopment more generally and tells the story of the real-life mid-twentieth century plan to re-build Glasgow as a concrete paradise of skyscrapers and motorways. Although never fully realized, the plan did lay down some of the principles which shaped the development of the city in the coming decades.

I live in Glasgow, the city which has a motorway running though its heart. As a composer I feel it’s important to engage with the world around me and writing about this road, and the other radical improvements made to the city, is of great personal importance. But it’s a big, complicated topic that needs to be completed with great sensitivity, particularly for someone like me who lives in Glasgow but is not Glaswegian. Finding a way into the subject, and working out how I was going to be able to write music about it, proved to be very difficult.

My solution was to use period films made in Glasgow about the proposed urban regeneration, alongside sound recordings of today’s city. The films I have used were essentially propaganda tools to convince the people of Glasgow that the proposed years of disruption to their lives would be worth the new, healthy, futuristic city that would be created around them. The plans for the city were bold: one envisioned the total destruction of the centre of Glasgow, and the building of the motorway itself (now the M8) required the razing of many healthy, attractive parts of the city. Rather than underscoring the films, I wanted the music of Elbow Room to reflect the optimism and sense of progress inherent in them. I then re-edited the films to fit the music whist also allowing them to contributing to the overall narrative.

There were undoubtedly many problems in mid-twentieth century Glasgow that needed to be solved, including slum housing and poor health. However, looking back from 2014 with our ideas of efficiency, usability and sustainability, many plans for the city now seem completely over the top. With the benefit of hindsight, the optimism of the period films seems misplaced: although many improvements were made, the promised Utopia never materialized. It remains a fantasy on a drawing board and yet the remnants of these improvement schemes still affect the day-to-day lives of many in the city.

The key to completing Elbow Room was this fantasy. If the first two movements of the piece are concerned with the imaginings of architects and town planners, the third and final movement would be my fantasy: a musical reinterpretation of the sounds of the city recorded this year at locations still affected by the plans drawn-up in the 1940s.

Elbow Room will be performed by the Red Note Ensemble at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 8pm Wednesday 21st May and at The Arches, Glasgow, 8pm Thursday 22nd May.

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New Work at Plug 2014

April 28, 2014 22:19

Plug banner

Plug, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s new music festival, returns this week. As I’m approaching the end of my PhD studies at the RCS, this will be the last time I take part in the festival. I’m signing-off with a new video work, titled Espial, which is made from hours of CCTV footage whittled down and assembled into a 15-minute piece of music. The (unwitting) performers in Espial are the Astrid String Quartet, who will also be performing pieces by fellow RCS researchers Lucy Hollingworth and Shona Mackay. The concert will also feature performances by the Red Note Ensemble.

Espial will be shown at 7:30pm, Wednesday 30th May at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 100 Renfrew Street, Glasgow. Tickets are available from the RCS box office.

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Gregor SAMSA 2

April 23, 2014 21:04

We had fun at the Gregor SAMSA 2 event at The Old Hairdresser’s last night. My collaborative film/spoken word piece with Shona Mackay received its first outing and also all this happened:

Gregor SAMSA image

Gregor SAMSA image

Gregor SAMSA image

Gregor SAMSA image

Gregor SAMSA image

GS4lores

GS7lores

Categories: Performance

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Mull on Mull – Thinking about Art and Sustainability

April 21, 2014 12:37

Mull

I recently spent a weekend on the beautiful Isle of Mull, the second largest of the Inner Hebrides, as part of a residency which aimed to explore the question “What would it mean to be an artist working in a sustainable Scotland in fifty years’ time?”. Organized by Creative Carbon Scotland in partnership with Comar, the residency comprised eight artists who work in diverse disciplines (including textiles, the visual arts, theatre and music), who consider their practice in terms of environmental sustainability. Through a series of discussions and workshops, facilitated by producer Suzy Glass and composer Dave Fennessy, the group considered how the arts could help shape a sustainable future for Scotland.

This was a new departure for me. My motivation for composing usually comes from wanting to explore through music something from the outside (non-musical) world. However, I hadn’t previously considered how sustainability could be expressed through musical performance. The concert hall, despite its propensity for pastoral-themed works, feels to me very unattached to the natural world – an artificial and contrived environment. Only my most recent work, Elbow Room, comes close to the topic of sustainability: this new piece is about the mid-twentieth century plan to demolish Glasgow and replace it with a car-heavy concrete utopia (more on this piece in another blog post!).

After travelling from Edinburgh, through Glasgow, to Tobermory on the Friday afternoon, the discussions began in earnest first thing Saturday morning at Druimfin Theatre, a short walk through the woods from our hotel. We started the day with a series of introductions: each participant presented to the group a single object which represented their work. There was a wonderful, wide range of artistic practice amongst the group, all well-considered and of very high quality. After small group discussions about the role of art and artists in society (prompted by a series of quotations from high-profile artists), we undertook a listening/recording exercise whilst walking back to Tobermory.

For this exercise we were grouped in pairs and asked to either find and record sounds that represented Utopia, or sounds that represented Distopia. I was paired with Natalie McIlroy and we were asked to find sounds that represented Utopia. This forced us to question what our ideal future would consist of. The two of us had similar ideas: there would still be people in the future, they would have food and there would be water. There would also be art and fun. Like all pairs who were asked to record Utopian sounds, we also prized quiet, tranquillity and a sense of space. This contrasted with the numerous Distopian sounds of diesel engines and general noise. Generally the Utopian sounds hinted at a future where people lived in harmony with the natural world, the Distopian visions highlighted the most unsustainable practices of today’s everyday life.

On Sunday, having listened to the recordings made the previous day, we discussed the opportunities and problems of artists working in the field of sustainability. Several stories were told about the (unrealistic) expectations upon artists who explore these themes – many are expected, quite unfairly, to know the intricacies of recycling and energy conservation. Also, when working in a residency, there is often confusion over what form the final artwork will take, particularly when working amongst scientists. In the early evening we held a public forum at An Tobar: although attended by only a handful of locals, those who came shared their belief that the arts can (indeed, should) communicate environmental issues. This gave us a sense of validation for the weekend as a whole.

I’d like to thank Gemma and Ben at Creative Carbon Scotland for the opportunity to participate in this residency, and also thank Suzy and Dave for stimulating our conversations. Despite the serious subject matter, the weekend was great fun – we laughed a lot! – but I felt my lack of experience in the area of sustainability prevented me from making a significant contribution to proceedings. However, from a personal point of view this hardly matters as I found the weekend to be of great inspiration for two reasons: firstly, asking questions of ourselves in relation to sustainability is undeniably important if we are to build for ourselves, for our children, a comfortable future. I left Mull with a moral imperative to address these issues in my work (somehow!). There is a relationship between art and sustainability: ultimately we are all responsible for our future and this responsibility needs reflecting in artistic practice. However, this doesn’t mean that artists have to be experts in the everyday practicalities of recycling, energy conservation etc. Artistic practices that embody sustainability can also be subtle; it doesn’t have to be about ramming-home big messages with environmentalist slogans.

Secondly, I was fortunate to meet a wonderful group of artists, possibly the nicest, most interesting bunch I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Each combined artistic excellence with a desire for relevance that stretched beyond the traditional scope of their field. There was a common desire to create bold and useful work that engages with the wider world in a positive way. Hearing how these artists took their practice out of the studio, possibly to work within a community or to explore a new creative process, was of great interest to me and reinforced my growing frustration with the isolation of the concert-hall and introspection of the new music world.

Find out more about this brilliant group of people: Creative Carbon Scotland: Ben Twist on Twitter, Gemma Lawrence on Twitter. Facilitators: Suzy Glass, Dave Fennessy. Artists: Alex South (clarinettist), Angharad McLaren (textiles), Hannah Imlach (visual art), Jake Bee (visual art), Katrin Evans (theatre maker), Natalie McIlroy (visual art) and Rachel Duckhouse (printmaking, drawing).

Categories: Musings

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