Google Art Talk — Composers and Conflict

December 4, 2014

Today I hosted a live Google Art Talk with Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin, British composer Sally Beamish, composer and researcher Philip Lancaster, and Australian sound artist Saskia Moore. Following on from the exhibition that I recently curated for Sound and Music and the Google Cultural Institute about composers’ responses to conflict in the twentieth century, we spoke about how war can be represented, investigated and commemorated in music.

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Composers and Conflict

November 30, 2014

Downing 2 copy - Copy

This post originally appeared on Sound and Music’s The Sampler Blog.

In commemoration of the centenary of the start of the First World War, I’ve curated a Google Cultural Exhibition that looks at the ways composers featured in Sound and Music’s British Music Collection have reacted to war in the 20th century.

As a composer myself, I’m interested in how historic events interact with music. The First World War had an effect on most composers in the world, certainly in Europe, and it was intriguing to me to delve a bit deeper into the repercussions of it artistically.

It is also a timely exhibition, with it being the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, so it seemed a very good time to look at how a monstrous event can have a lasting impact on the music of 20th century.

When I applied to curate the exhibition, I stressed that I was interested in that intersection between music and society. Having worked with Sound and Music before on the Embedded scheme with Red Note Ensemble, I know the organisation quite well and it was a good opportunity to work with them again- this time through the British Music Collection; a collection that I hadn’t previously had much experience with.

Another thing that attracted me to this project was the fact that in essence, it’s a story told through an archive- the British Music Collection. I’m interested in these repositories and how you can use them to construct narratives – not just looking at the data as it were, for example the scores themselves, but also the metadata and other elements surrounding the music itself.

There are so many different ways in which music can play a part in remembrance. Just today, on Armistice Day, at 11am the Last Post was heard in the building I happened to be in, showing that music and remembrance go hand in hand, even for non-musicians or for people for whom music doesn’t play a large part in their lives. It’s a symbol of remembrance which we repeat every year and which is familiar to us all.

Whilst looking through the archive, there were so many different scales of remembrance. There are some massive works; great, public, large scale pieces, for example The Spirit of England by Edward Elgar and the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. These are big, public declarations of remembrance, but also there are some really private ones in there too. What’s intriguing for me is that we sometimes can’t get to the bottom of the way a composer commemorates a conflict because it’s such a personal affair. It’s impossible to disentangle the musical language from their feelings about war because they’re so tied together. You see hints of this through the dedications in the scores at the British Music Collection. This is something which I touch on in the exhibition. For example, Frank Bridge’s Piano Sonata, was dedicated to Ernest Farrar, a young composer who was killed in the First World War, and Britten’s War Requiem was dedicated to four friends who were killed in the Second World War. So these personal remembrances are sometimes attached to bigger, public memorial pieces.

Another piece by Frank Bridge, called Three Improvisations, was written for and dedicated to a pianist called Douglas Fox who lost his right arm during the First World War. This shows both a pragmatic and personal response to the conflict as Bridge wrote the piece for piano but for the left hand only, so that Fox could play it. The piece was sent to him whilst he was recuperating in a military hospital in Bournemouth, so that it could be a part of his recuperation and therapy.

The most striking change is the fact that recent composers haven’t necessarily lived through wars, or at least fought in either of the two World Wars. For example, in the exhibition, two of the most recent works are After Reading “Lessons of the War” by Janet Beat and Michael Finnissy’s My parents’ generation thought War meant something. Even though Janet was a toddler during the Second World War, she was clearly drawing on some personal and familial recollections; After Reading “Lessons of the War” was in response to the Henry Reed poem of the same name, of which the first part is essentially a list of instructions similar to a military training manual. She was very affected by this poem, as well as remembering the experiences of her grandfather in the First World War, who suffered a mustard gas attack, and her own experience during the Second World War, when her house was bombed. All these experiences inspired this piece for violin and piano.

Finnissy’s piece is an incredibly moving and astonishing work, it’s more than a remembrance of war. His father, who was responsible for photographing the post-WWII reconstruction of London, quit his job in disgust at the corruption he saw whilst doing his job. I feel some of that anger was channelled into this piece.

Cornelius Cardew has the most political pieces in the exhibition – Vietnam’s Victory and the Vietnam Sonata. In the preface to these scores he makes it explicit how nations can overcome aggressors, by rising up against the U.S in this instance. Most composers look at human consequences of war, and even though Cardew does look at this, he mainly considers the causes of war, and the political machinations that ultimately facilitate it.

As a composer who works with historical documents, it was really inspiring to see how we can use an archive to tell stories. I do this in my own work and just being surrounded by the artefacts and all those potential narratives was truly fascinating.

I’m interested in finding historical documents and incorporating them into my work; creating a sense of history and connecting the past to the present, and exploring our present day through historical artefacts. For example, for the final piece for my Embedded residency with the Red Note Ensemble, I used archive film to present the almost-destruction and re-construction of a city (Glasgow). I’m interested in telling stories about today through historical documents, which is why curating with the British Music Collection was so valuable for me.

Thomas Butler’s exhibition ‘British Music Collection: Composer and Conflict’ was made live on Armistice Day, 2014 on the Google Cultural Institute website. You can see the exhibition by going to http://thecollection.soundandmusic.org/ or http://bit.ly/1xqehpK.

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Two new videos

September 24, 2014

Here are two new videos from performances of my work that have taken place this year.

The first is two extracts from Elbow Room, the piece I wrote as part of my Sound and Music Embedded Residency with the Red Note Ensemble. The piece explores the psychogeography of cites: how we affect them, and them us, and tells the story of the real mid-twentieth century plan to demolish Glasgow and replace it with a high-rise concrete utopia.

The second video is a complete movement from Replaceable Parts for the Irreplaceable You which was performed by Ensemble Thing as part of the Made in Scotland Showcase at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This particular movement, Instructions for Curing the Human Heart, comes at the very end of the work which is concerned with what it means to be human in a world inundated with machines.

Both videos were filmed at Summerhall in Edinburgh by the lovely folk at Dotbot.

Categories: Audio, Ensemble Thing, Performance, Recordings, Red Note, Sound and Music, Works

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Ensemble Thing: Independence

September 20, 2014

Ensemble Thing in rehearsal

I spent this week with Ensemble Thing, producing their preview performance of Independence by John De Simone.

Ensemble Thing in rehearsal

The work explores the cultural identity of its composer, a half-Scottish / half-Italian raised in England but now resident in Scotland, whose grandfather was a founder of the Scottish National Party.

Ensemble Thing in rehearsal

After rehearsals at the RCS, the performance took place at the Old Hairdresser’s in Glasgow on the night before the independence referendum.

Ensemble Thing in rehearsal

The work blended electronic bagpipe drones, traditional Scottish tunes and John talking about his family and their role in the SNP. It was all held together by some great playing from the band.

Ensemble Thing in rehearsal

Like the referendum itself, we had a pleasantly large turnout!

The audience at the Old Hairdresser's

The piece will be performed again at the Sound Festival on Saturday 1st November at 1pm in Aberdeen Art Gallery. Like the independence debate itself, this isn’t over!

The band take a bow

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

September 1, 2014

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

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!

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Gig!

August 6, 2014

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

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.

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New Voices 2014

July 27, 2014

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.

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ICWID! Interview with David Fennessy

June 30, 2014

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

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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

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.

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Culture Laser podcast

May 24, 2014

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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!).

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Elbow Room video blogs

May 20, 2014

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

ER1

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