Plugged and Struction done

18 May 2011

One of the highlights of the RSAMD year is the annual Plug festival of new music of which the 2011 variety took place a couple of weeks ago. It’s usually a good week for the composition department, both musically and socially, as the Academy puts on around ten concerts of new work (almost) exclusively created by its students and staff. This year there were, apparently, 35 new works for various ensembles and a further 30 new German songs which formed part of the department’s “Glasgow Liederbuch” project. I say “apparently” because unfortunately I was unable to make most of the concerts due to a string of other commitments and rehearsals for my own piece, Struction (how attempted to get the thoughts in my head into your head using only five instruments, five instrumentalists, metronome sound and MIDI), which was performed by the Red Note Ensemble on the Friday evening of the festival.

I’ve blogged about the creation of Struction before. In its final version it became a 25-minute blast; five instrumental lines, often demanding and virtuosic, are set to an unrelenting, totally audible clicktrack with the composer’s voice booming over the top issuing ad hoc instructions to the performers and apparently composing / recomposing the piece as it goes along. There are occasions when a computer-realized performance of the piece plays in tandem with the real-life instrumentalists, all of whom are amplified. My thanks go to Tim Cooper for all his hard work in engineering the live sound for this performance and for graciously putting-up with me changing my mind every few minutes. I hope to get an audio recording on this site as soon as possible.

One of the necessities of the PhD process (of which this piece forms a part) is the complete documentation of research; consequently I have 31 work-in-progress versions of the score, a “complete” intermediate demo of the piece, three versions of the recorded voice part (including two hours of out-takes), several versions of the tape track, four written documents discussing the piece and a lot more besides. Although I always know that the piece I’ve just finished is a little different from the one I set-out to write this excess of documentation allows me to reflect on how, when and why the piece shifted, conceptually and musically, before settling down into its final form. For me the end product touched on several topics, including, to greater and lesser extent, the relationship between composer, performers and audience, the compositional process, the relationship between people and technology, and role-playing/performativity. However, it was this final element, that I performed the role of “The Composer” whilst also being the piece’s composer, which changed the most since the genesis of the work. (A quick aside; did the performers play the role of Performers during the performance?) Originally I had planned to characterize The Composer differently; he was to be my tyrannical alter ego, overbearing, over-demanding and cruel (hence the working title Struction (shut up and listen)). It all got a bit hammy so the Composer’s persona was scaled-down and became perhaps a little more autobiographical. Not only did this allow for more humour in the piece, which in turn added another dimension to The Composer’s characterization, but it made The Composer a more universal figure; the (often ludicrous) demands made by the composer’s pre-recorded voice were not the rantings of a madman but became characteristic of a system that sees the composer as auteur. These themes will be revisited in future work; Struction is definitely the first chapter, not a conclusion.

I was very pleased with the concert. Red Note pitched the performance just right, having found the flow and humour of the piece early on they threw themselves into the wilder passages and played the quieter moments with great poise. The performance was probably best summed-up by a composer colleague of mine who, when asked how he thought the ensemble did with the piece, responded “they played the arse off it”. I’m inclined to agree, and, for a performance of this piece, there’s probably no greater compliment.

Categories: Research, Works

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