It’s hard to talk about climate change. Is writing music about it any easier?

22 September 2017

This article originally appeared on Sound and Music’s The Sampler blog.

It’s hard to talk about climate change. It’s an ongoing worldwide emergency happening in slow motion. It can often feel too abstract to contemplate, particularly here in the UK which has so far escaped the most extreme consequences of changing climate. With a news cycle dominated by the more immediate concerns of Trump and Brexit, it’s easy for enduring issues to simply become noise. When climate change is reported upon, it’s usually in relation to a terrifying disaster or dire prediction about decades down the line, or presented as unrelatable, intangible data (I mean, what does a tonne of carbon even feel like?).

I’m one of those composers that likes to write about stuff – total abstraction has never been particularly interesting to me. After writing pieces about specific places and our (built) environment, the progression to thinking about how issues of sustainability could be represented in my music felt like a natural development of my practice. My most recent piece, performed this week by Red Note Ensemble at the Lammermuir Festival, is a consequence of this change of thinking.

My initial ideas for the piece formed after reading press reports in April about the disappearance of Slims River in the Yukon, Canada, through “river piracy”. River piracy is when the water destined for one watercourse is naturally diverted into another, a process which usually occurs over long geological epochs – thousands of years. However, the once-mighty Slims River disappeared in just four days in Spring 2016, a geological blink-of-an-eye. The glacier that fed the river had receded and suddenly its meltwater could only flow into the neighbouring Alsek River, leaving the Slims to run dry. This act of river piracy is the first to be attributed to man-made climate change – scientists studying the phenomenon calculate that it is 99.5% certain that anthropogenic global warming is to blame for the river’s disappearance. The landscape that formerly hosted the river is being transformed beyond recognition as clouds of dust from the dried riverbed are whipped into the air by the wind.

Events like this are dramatic enough to make the news cycle, but creating artistic depictions of the worst effects of changing climate – rising sea levels, intensified hurricanes and the like – is problematic: whilst these depictions can be potentially spectacular, apocalypse-porn can only make our actions seem insignificant when compared to the environmental forces involved. This approach also doesn’t necessarily help us understand the nature of slow change that affects our world. Therefore, rather than depicting the sudden death of the Slims in my piece, I wanted to write about how we come to understand rivers (and, by extension, the rest of the world around us) and long-term change.

Limnology is the scientific study of inland bodies of water, and the key to writing this piece (titled Limnology (Slims River)) was my discovery that scientists use sound to take key measurements of flowing water. By using Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) devices, scientists can measure the speed and direction of currents, the distribution of sediment, and other aspects: ADCPs emit bursts of sound, which are too high for humans to hear, and then “listen” to the echoes. Due to Doppler shift (the same effect that makes a police car’s wailing siren seem to drop in pitch as it speeds past us), by comparing the pitch of the emitted sounds with their reflections, data about the water can be collected. I do not use genuine data in this piece, instead small drops in pitch become the musical building blocks of the work. Therefore, rather than being a traditional sonic portrait of a river, I see this piece as a celebration of creating knowledge, empiricism, and scientific endeavour. At a time when the US government is removing climate data from its websites and defunding the study of this climate change “hoax”, I feel this celebration is timely.

As musicians, it is unlikely that we can contribute to emerging climate science or develop new sustainable technologies. However, the move towards a sustainable future requires more than this – there also needs to be a significant cultural shift, and “culture” is what we do. Arguably, all art contributes to the grand narratives we tell about ourselves, a constructed reading of our society. No one single piece of music will ever likely be responsible for a significant change in public perception, but when creating art about sustainability we’re not igniting the spark of change, we’re helping to lay the bonfire.

Categories: Musings, Red Note, Sound and Music, Works

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Music’s role in making a better world

20 September 2017

Creative Carbon Scotland

As September’s Guest Editor of Sound and Music’s The Sampler blog, I commissioned this piece from Gemma Lawrence and Mike Elm of Creative Carbon Scotland, who explore the role that music and the music industry can play in addressing climate change, not only in how it works but what it does.

“Look at mother nature on the run, in the 1970s” so sung Neil Young in the title track of his double platinum selling album “After the Goldrush”. If Mr Young thought the situation was in a perilous state in the 1970s then the intervening years have hardly seen a turnaround. It has been estimated by the WWF that wildlife globally has declined by 50% since the 1970s. The causes for these declines are various and complicated but they have been driven by habitat loss and degradation, hunting and fishing, pollution, disease, invasive species, and – Creative Carbon Scotland’s pet ‘wicked problem’ – climate change. With this in mind it’s not about who needs to fix this problem, it’s about how we can all play our part and musicians and the music industry are no exception.

The challenges associated with sustainability and climate change are widely recognised as wicked problems: they are multi-faceted, encompassing a vast range of factors and stretching across global and generational boundaries. In short, they do not come without compromise and difficult decisions. This requires us to think outside of current paradigms, and find new means of understanding and changing the world, towards more just, sustainable societies.

The arts and culture have an essential role in achieving the transformational change to a sustainable future. Music, and the cultural sector more widely, relate to sustainability in two key ways through: what they do and how they do it.

The how, in the main, is the easy part to understand and – with some creativity – to take action towards sustainability. Take music festivals for instance, they can (and in some cases do) take action to improve their environmental sustainability through considering how they power themselves, whether they select local sustainable food providers, where the beer comes from, how they avoid creating waste and – and from a climate change point of view this is key – how everyone and everything gets there.

The less visible impacts of transport – of audiences, artists, crew and equipment – for a music festival is responsible for the lion’s share of its carbon footprint, on average some 80% of a festival’s carbon emissions are from audience travel. The ‘Fields of Green’ research project, which Creative Carbon Scotland were part of, looked at how music festivals and their audiences can and do tackle their carbon footprint as well exploring the (un)sustainability of music touring practices through songwriting and maps visualising festival touring patterns.

The how of course extends to all aspects of the music industry from how artists travel, how music venues run themselves, to the instruments and technologies we use to create and ‘consume’ music. Each of these has an associated carbon cost, and a range of more or less sustainable options. But is this where the primary role for the music industry in affecting the transition to sustainability lies?

When it comes to the music industry and the move towards sustainability, it’s really in the ‘what’. The carbon emissions of the UK music industry have been estimated at roughly 540,000 tonnes, this was back in 2010 and was equal to about 1/1000th of the UK’s carbon footprint at the time. Music can and does speak to people. Everyone from politicians, CEOs, school kids, town planners, accountants and designers, all listen to music. Equally, climate change affects all of us. Herein lies music’s strongest potential.

Tackling climate change is about politics, technology, finance but mostly it’s about people. There is a unique role for music in connecting with people on an emotional level, communicating complex ideas, its ability to reach wide and diverse audiences and opening up alternative spaces for dialogue and conversations to happen.

This last point, about conversations is one from personal experience. The somewhat on the nose ‘4 degrees’ by ANOHNI, released on the eve of the United Nations Climate Change conference that led to the landmark Paris Agreement, was a catalyst for conversations with people that rarely think or talk about the topic of climate change and the realities of something as benign sounding as a 4 degree temperature rise. This helped to build new understandings of how we perceive our roles in addressing the challenges it poses. Music not only speaks to individuals, it also shapes society.

At Creative Carbon Scotland, we see a vital role for music, and indeed all art forms, to be actively involved contributing to this cultural shift – shaping of the discussions and decisions which will impact upon the environmental sustainability of societies, now and into the future. As Jaques Attali said, “music is prophecy… It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible”.

Useful links for finding out how you can be involved and inspiration:

Categories: Musings, Sound and Music

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Sampler Picks: 1 – 15 April 2016

1 April 2016

For the current issue of The Sampler, Sound and Music asked me to select four exciting new music events taking place in the next fortnight.

1. Sound Thought Festival 2016

Sound Thought Date: Friday 01 April
Venue: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow

If you’re quick, you can catch the last day of Sound Thought, an annual festival of sonic arts in Glasgow. A mixture of talks, installations and performances, Sound Thought showcases the work of early career composers, sound artists and researchers and is well worth checking out. Read More

2. The Devil Inside – Stuart MacRae

Stuart MacRaeDate: Sunday 03 April, 7.30pm
Venue: Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold

My favourite Stuart MacRae (pictured) opera to date, The Devil Inside‘s mix of the modern day and the supernatural could have been a bit awkward – but it works beautifully, with a great score, cast and libretto by Louise Welsh. Read More

3. Bel Canto – Cassandra Miller

Cassandra MillerDate: Sunday 03 April, 6.00pm
Venue: The Coronet Theatre, London

Cassandra Miller (pictured) made a big splash at last year’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow. Here, her piece Bel Canto is programmed as part of London Sinfonietta’s Mix, with music by Martin Smolka, Christian Marlay and Fausto Romitelli. Read More

4. Namvula

Namvula Date: Wednesday 06 April, 7.30pm
Venue: Sands Films, London

“Fusion” and “boundary-crossing” are terms we hear quite a lot but, in my humble opinion, Namvula is the real deal. Despite her diverse influences, the music feels honest, instinctive, original and highly personal. Read More

Categories: Musings, Sound and Music


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

1 September 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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Mull on Mull – Thinking about Art and Sustainability

21 April 2014


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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On Geoff Hannan’s Joyrider

17 January 2014

Digital Discoveries Joyrider

To celebrate the release by Sound and Music and NMC Recordings of “Digital Discoveries” — eight volumes of previously unreleased new music from the British Music Collection — I asked some of the most exciting emerging composers what the works featured in this release meant to them. Having asked composers Martin Scheuregger, Shiori Usui and Chris Mayo to select their favorite Digital Discovery, I was also asked to make my own selection: the complete version of this article appeared in December’s Classical Music Magazine but here’s what I had to say about Geoff Hannan’s Joyrider:

Sound and Music: Of all the pieces you could have chosen, why this one? What did you find compelling about this music and why should I listen to it?

Thomas Butler: Geoff Hannan’s Joyrider is a compelling and exuberant work for solo piano. A pile-up of pianistic tropes borrowed from the virtuoso repertoire, it is at once exciting and deliberately confrontational. The piece exists in a constant state of joyous free-fall, which by the end I found as unnerving as a clown’s perma-smile.

SaM: As a listener, how does the piece unfold? What is the piece about (musically or conceptually) and were there any surprises along the way?

TB: The composer suggests that the piece “does not do what good music is traditionally supposed to do” and certainly the narrative thrust of Joyrider could have been created from the crazed output of a malfunctioning sampler, with its insistent repetitions and disregard for continuity (the only predictable thing about this music is its unpredictability). The composer is keen to draw parallels between his piece and the “spectrum of masculinity”; the slick, virtuosic display of bravado is actually a barrage of near-quotations – pure music-geekery disguised as swagger.

By its very nature, the piece is full of surprises (so many that these surprises cease to be surprising!). However, for me the ending of the piece was quite unexpected. It avoids the big-final-chord cliché that I was anticipating.

SaM: As a composer, how does the piece, or any element within the piece, relate to your own output? Are there any ideas here that you’d like to steal for your own work?

TB: One could consider Joyrider to be entirely made-up of “stolen” material, although it is in itself an original and unique work. What I love about this piece is its inherent theatricality, which is a theme that runs through my own work. You can feel (and see) the frenzied exertions of the soloist with each flurry of notes. Joyrider also reminds me that I haven’t written a piano piece in quite a while…

Categories: Musings

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Beethoven dies in hot cars

8 July 2011

This week I’m fortunate enough to be a member of Benjamin Zander’s conducting class at the London Master Classes, held annually at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I’d like to share one of the things he said…

“We’ve tamed Beethoven, this wild animal shaking his fist at the world. We want to play his dangerous music in our cars when driving down the road. Our job is to bring Beethoven back to life”

Categories: Musings

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Is there justification for amplification?

14 September 2010

This is a cross-post with the Composing Oneself blog.

There has been much furore in the blogosphere recently concerning the views of Jonathan Harvey, one of the most well-respected of British composers. Specifically, during a broadcast interview with Bob Shingleton for Future Radio, Harvey suggested that classical concerts of the future could use electronic amplification in order to attract younger audiences. His comments were covered by the national media including The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Firstly, what he actually said: “….the mass of young people don’t like concert halls… They wouldn’t normally go to one except for amplified music. They have no concept of what it is to hear music as soft as a pin dropping and that kind of delicacy and refinement. So there’s a big divide between amplified music and non-amplified music and the two cultures. I think what the future must bring is things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere were people can come and go, where they can even talk, perhaps, and it wouldn’t be sacrilege and they can certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it. These are the sort of situations where young people’s music takes place”.

He goes on to note that many people are being deprived of classical music due to the off-putting nature of concert hall etiquette. Notice at no point did he advocate the electronic amplification of all classical concerts, although try telling that to a few hysterical bloggers (including Fiona Maddocks in The Observer).

There are a few issues here that have been bundled together: namely, the use of amplification in the concert hall and the supposed relationship between concert hall protocol and the absence of young people in the audience.

Those who have been horrified by the suggestion of amplification in classical gigs (and there have been many) are presumably concerned with the amplification of music that wasn’t originally intended to be made louder. There is plenty of (new-ish) music that intentionally mixes live, unamplified sound with amplified recordings (including many works by Jonathan Harvey himself). But is there nothing to be said for the artistic use of amplification in old-music concerts?

Much of the frothy indignation appearing on the web this week over the issue has been a result of considering “amplification” as synonymous with rock-‘n’-roll volume levels. Whilst cranked-up decibel levels would indeed affront our well-developed listening culture, can the same be said for the subtle use of amplification for musical reasons? For me, arguments that assert that any use of amplification would automatically distort the intentions of performers (and indeed composers) is a false one; works originally intended for small, intimate venues are now routinely played in cavernous auditoriums. For example, I have attended numerous concerts in churches with unbearably-long reverberation times. Were the resulting muddy textures and lack of clarity any more of a distortion of the composer’s/performer’s goals than a bit of electronic enhancement? Why do we allow (albeit grudgingly) the distortions that unsympathetic architecture inflicts upon music but not the enhancements that a sensitive electronic amplification could bring? Just think of all the wonderful, subtle shades of piano that could be expressed by means of amplification, for example, which are usually lost when a soloist is required to project into a large concert space above the sound of a symphony orchestra. Electronic amplification can theoretically be used as an expressive tool to add nuance to a musical performance, not just to make it louder (and let’s not forget that the Royal Festival Hall used electro-acoustic “assisted resonance” from 1964 to 1999).

Many performers may feel aggrieved by the suggestion of amplification, its “interference” with their performance, the lack of total control of sound that performers desire, not to mention the difficulties in monitoring one’s performance in a miked-up situation. Performers are trained to project their sound by working with (and sometimes against) the acoustics of the performance space, this ability being a necessary and prized asset. Sound production is a personal thing for musicians and working with a sound engineer would naturally enforce a degree of collaboration.

However, if used, amplification creates another layer of artistic opportunities; the decisions that have to be made are similar to those of the recording process (for example the type of microphones used, their placement, how the sound is mixed, which frequencies are attenuated etc). The common suggestion that there aren’t many people who could be trusted to amplify classical music (ostensibly because live sound engineers usually “only” work in the pop domain) is nonsense. Not only would the regular amplification of concerts create better training opportunities for classical sound engineers but many commentators seem to underestimate the complexity of recording, producing and mastering a pop track to professional standards (you can’t just plug in and turn up to eleven if you want the finished product to sound good). If amplification is used, a fine rapport with a good sound engineer would be essential; it’s no wonder that the Kronos Quartet (who only ever performed amplified) consider their sound engineer, Scott Fraser, to be an intrinsic member of the ensemble (read about his work here ).

So the (incorrect) assertion that amplification is a blunt, unsympathetic tool cannot be reason enough to dismiss it out of hand. Nor can the difficulties of achieving a good sound-balance (amplifying a whole orchestra is a difficult and expensive exercise, although certainly not impossible). The main reason not to amplify is that amplification for the sake of amplification is not necessary; Jonathan Harvey’s comments, although well-meaning, teeter on the edge of the cliché that the yoof are unable to appreciate subtlety, can’t sit still and can only exhibit one mode of behaviour when attending musical performances. The desire of the audience to talk and move around (thus the need for blanket amplification) is overstated; people don’t talk at the cinema and nor do they feel the need to go for a wander. However, Harvey’s underlying suggestion, that music should be presented in a manner familiar and comfortable to its targeted audience, seems rather like stating the obvious to me. Classical music doesn’t belong to one age group, social class or income-bracket, it belongs to anyone who cares to listen. However, that mode of listening (in a live scenario) is dictated by a social convention which is upheld by one particular social class and age group. It doesn’t suit everyone, so why not supplement it with other modes of listening?

Of course, some have; the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment present late-evening classics at the Roundhouse as part of their “Nightshift” series; Icebreaker, like Kronos, only ever perform amplified; in Scotland the Red Note ensemble have taken over where Paragon left off by regularly performing new music in bars. There are probably many more examples although these remain the exceptions rather than the norm. Maybe Harvey hints at a future where, having lost the aged audience and associated ticket sales, what is now considered outreach work will become an everyday occurrence for established musical ensembles.

Meanwhile there are several schemes that encourage young people to go to standard classical events including Manchester’s Sonic Card and Glasgow’s Fonic Card (disclaimer: I was slightly involved with the Glasgow version). These two schemes are independent of each other (the similarity of name is entirely coincidental….) and both work by offering cheap tickets coupled with a core of young volunteers who publicise the gigs and engage with the young audience. This lends both schemes an air of “for us, by us” authenticity despite being backed by major arts organisations; to get more young people into the concert hall you need to engage and invite them.

Tellingly, the flurry of indignation aimed towards Harvey refers only to a short extract of an excellent interview. In the unedited version (listen to it here) the composer speaks gently but passionately about a variety of subjects (including Benjamin Britten, Hans Keller, Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Rudolf Steiner, Buddhism, serialism and spectralism) for over forty minutes. His comments regarding the future of the concert hall occupy less than ninety seconds. Whilst there is plenty of room for debate over the way classical music is presented it seems a pity on this occasion that it replaces discussion of the other things Jonathan Harvey speaks of, not to mention his music. If we’re all getting hot under the collar over concert protocol rather than the music itself, what message does that send to those who haven’t yet experienced live classical music?

Categories: Musings

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Boxing in Mazsalaca

19 August 2010

I’m back home in Glasgow having just returning from a busy and inspiring week at the 5th International Workshop for Young Composers that was held in Mazsalaca, Latvia. I was one of twenty young composers from around the globe selected to study with lecturers David Lang, Pär Lindgren and Richard Ayres. We also worked with either the incredibly young and talented Latvian string quartet ReDo or the veteran French group Ensemble Aleph, who were also documenting the whole process by interviewing participants and lecturers.

One of the most interesting questions to arise during these interviews was probably the simplest; “why do you write contemporary music?”. This is a tougher question than it would first appear. Not simply why write but why write in this style, with these mannerisms. My usual answer to why I write “contemporary” music is that I am a contemporary person (either that or I smell pretty good for a cadaver) but, if I’m honest, this only goes a small way into explaining why we/I write as we do.

Throughout the week in Mazsalaca, common themes became apparent in the work of the composer-participants, despite the wide variety of (very good) pieces presented in our late-night sessions; unsurprisingly, simple triadic harmonies were absent, melodic intervals were often jagged and extreme changes in instrumental colour occurred frequently (these are all nods to the major stylistic trends of the Twentieth Century). References to earlier times were more covert, although Patricia Alessandrini has written some wonderful, almost-cryptic, homages to the repertoire, and the interplay of two contrasting musical ideas (like a distilled, non-tonal sonata) was widespread. Influence from other arts seemed limited to the dramatic Palladio by Graham Flett which featured the penitent composer carrying a large bass drum on his bare back during performance.

Listening to work of my colleagues suggested that the composers of our generation have found themselves at the end of a linear history and (apparently) chosen which elements of the past to expunge and which to nurture in order to create the music of now. This linear view of time (Haydn begat Mozart, who begat Beethoven who begat…[many years]… is different to that of Richard Ayres who considers time as accumulative rather than linear. For example, despite the fact that Mozart died in 1791 his music is still with us and is very much part of our culture. So if his musical world is still contemporary with us in the present day, why do today’s composers forbid themselves from using it? Why do we allow the stylistic tics of the Twentieth Century to infiltrate our music but not those of the Eighteenth? Our culture carries our musical ancestors as if they are still alive but as a writer of contemporary music we consider the soundworld of classicism, romanticism et al. to be at the “wrong” end of time’s arrow (I am, of course, ignoring neo-classicism etc. for the purposes of this argument – that tin of worms can be opened another day). Many of us, in order to be current, (post-)modern and necessary, accept the broad musical language of now as a given, as a system in which we operate; it’s as if we have a box labelled “contemporary music” which many of us are keen to jump into it, or possibly don’t even realize that we are already inside. The box doesn’t just prescribe musical attributes, our choice of notes and gestures, but governs every aspect of our work. There was a lot of talk about boxes last week from both Richard Ayres and David Lang.

A (metaphorical) box can be a spur to creativity but also a hindrance, the constraints set by these boxes affect the music we create in many unobvious ways. The way things are done is the largest box of all. From the set-up of a concert hall (including its quasi-religious rituals), the concert hall itself, the standardized durations and instrumentation of commissions to the way composers are expected to interact with performers is a box, a product of the way things have been done many times in the past. These constraints produce a certain way of working, a certain way of composing and ultimately a certain way of listening. These boxes are all very convenient, of course (and they make everything so easy to categorize), but a composer needs to construct their own, or at least acknowledge the extent of existing confines, in order to reach the full potential of their creativity. Only then will we be truly contemporary.

Categories: Musings

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And you are?

22 May 2010


This is my second attempt at a first post, the original having suffered at the hands of an unfortunate administrative error by my webhost (but that’s another story, the moral of which is “make backups!”). So I’d like to say hello again and welcome you to the weblog, the friendly first-person area in an otherwise austere third-person website.

Here you’ll find information on my current composition projects, ongoing research and general musings on music (new and old). Updates may be a little sporadic but hopefully interesting (we’ll see).

Please join in the discussion, I’d be interested to hear your views. Happy reading!

Categories: Musings