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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New piece at Lammermuir Festival

21 September 2017

Lammermuir Festival

On Friday 22nd September, Red Note Ensemble will perform a new work of mine, Limnology (Slims River), at the Lammermuir Festival. There will be two complete performances in the afternoon, one in the 2:30pm concert and one in the 4:15pm concert at Eastfield Farm, Whittingehame, and I’ll also be introducing excerpts from the piece at Tyninghame Village Hall at 12 midday.

I wrote the piece about the once-mighty Slims River in the Yukon, Canada, which disappeared in just four days in Spring 2016. The glacier that fed the river had receded and suddenly its meltwater could only flow into the Alsek River, leaving the Slims to run dry. This act of “river piracy” was the first to be attributed to man-made climate change.

Limnology is the scientific study of inland bodies of water. Drawing on the acoustic techniques used by scientists to measure water flow, this piece is a reflection on the study of rivers, their place in our culture, and the changes they portend.

Tickets are available online.

Categories: Events, News, Performance, Red Note, Works

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Enterprise Music Scotland Residency at Crear

19 November 2015

Crear image 1

Last weekend I took part in Enterprise Music Scotland’s Creative Exchange with Red Note Ensemble at Crear on the west coast of Scotland. I was joined by fellow composers Shiori Usui, Chris Hutchings and John De Simone, all of whom I’ve known for many years.

Crear Image 2

Crear is in a beautiful part of the country where the sky and light are constantly changing. The rehearsal room at Crear has floor-to-ceiling windows with stunning views of the Isle of Jura. Our stay coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Abigail which limited the amount of time we spent exploring the surrounding area but gave us a good excuse to sit in front of Crear’s open log fire. At night we were surprised by clear skies and an impressive view of the Milky Way.

Crear Image 3

I spent most of the weekend completing a short solo work for Red Note cellist Robert Irvine (more on that another time) who was joined by violinist Tony Moffat and violist Jessica Beeston.

Crear Image 4

On Sunday morning, having completed the cello piece, I wrote this little ditty:

Categories: Performance, Recordings, Red Note, Workshop

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Two new videos

24 September 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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Culture Laser podcast

24 May 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

20 May 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!

19 May 2014

ER1

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Writing Elbow Room

10 May 2014

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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Go Compose! in Banchory, day three

26 October 2013

It’s the third and final day of Go Compose! where I am assisting composer Brian Irvine and Red Note Ensemble as they guide a group of school-age composers through writing and rehearsing brand new pieces. We’ve just enjoyed the final concert of the opening night of the Sound Festival, the grand finale of the course where each new work received its première.

It was a wonderful event. Banchory’s Woodend Barn hosted a large and enthusiastic audience for the occasion. Buoyed by a warm reception, each of the Go Compose! participants introduced their own pieces and explained how stories found in Monday’s newspapers provided the initial inspiration for their work. Some composers were keen to stress that, although these news articles provided the genesis of each work, the music had transformed into something entirely different, unrelated to current affairs. In all cases it was apparent that the composers had not become stifled by doggedly re-telling the news story in music – each had allowed their work to be structured by the requirements of the musical material they had created.

The concert not only marked the end of the course, but also the end of a long day. The composers had an early start and spent the first part of the morning adding finishing touches to their new scores. Learning from the previous day’s session, some took time to re-write tricky bars whilst others perfected phrasing, dynamics, colour and – the thing the young composers seemed to find hardest of all – the transitions between sections. They also had to make instrumental parts for the three performers in time for final rehearsals.

In all, each young composer created three new works during Go Compose! – two short pieces created under strict time limits imposed by Brian Irvine, and the final five-minute-long composition. This is an extraordinary amount of music for an inexperienced composer to write in such a short time and credit must be given to Brian for providing much of the energy and ‘can do’ attitude that energised the composers to achieve this. Likewise, the musicians from Red Note were approachable and positive at all times and offered the young composers some of the highest-quality feedback I’ve ever seen in a workshop situation.

The youngsters have quite obviously been empowered by this process: only on Monday queries and suggestions from the ensemble were met by the meekest of responses (“OK, whatever you think is best”). Now, only two days later, the young composers are far more bold and quick to point-out where balances need to be checked, tempos need adjusting and phrasing altered. This also indicates an assuredness about their compositional output – they knew what their piece should sound like and they now have the confidence to demand their work be realized as envisioned!

By Midday their work was complete. The evening’s performance concluded what was a creative and inspiring three days at Go Compose!.

Categories: Music Education, Red Note

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Go Compose! in Banchory, day two

24 October 2013

It’s day two of Go Compose! here in Banchory. I am assisting composer Brian Irvine as he guides a group of school-age composers through the process of writing a new piece to be performed tomorrow by Red Note Ensemble on the opening night of Aberdeenshire’s Sound Festival. Our young composers have worked overnight on their scores in preparation for this performance. There’s still quite a long way to go but each composer has made considerable headway.

In all cases, pencil and paper has been abandoned for laptop and notation software. Gone, therefore, are the scribbles and crossings-out of yesterday, but gone too is much of the detail evident in their hand-written pieces. Phrasing has become something added to a musical line rather than being integral to it and there is a general lack of detail in the computer scores at present. Of course, some of this is due to not knowing the intricacies of the notation software, but the computer also promotes a certain fluidity in the compositional process; the composers ‘stand back’ from their pieces a little more and things are often left to be ‘fixed later’.

Of course, there are many pros to using the computer as a compositional tool. Aside from the almost effortless creation of instrumental parts, the ability to quickly rearrange their musical material has allowed the young composers to experiment with structure with comparable ease. The copy/paste function is great in this respect but can also be a hindrance, as one composer found out when copying sections of his riff-driven work: the resulting pile-up of material may have been musically satisfying but was also confusing to read and play due to the way the copied material fell across barlines of mixed-metre.

Jackie Shave (violin), Ruth Morley (flute) and Robert Irvine (cello), the three Red Note musicians in residence here at Go Compose!, read each iteration of each score with the same precision and commitment they show towards work by established composers. They all have considerable experience of performing new music and are an invaluable resource to the young composers. They are always on hand to answer questions: today’s most popular queries all concerned the confusing world of double-stops on string instruments.

The most common questions to Brian and myself all relate to structure: ‘I’m not sure how to extend this passage’ and ‘I’m not sure how to link these ideas’. The young composers have no problem inventing new material but integrating it into a larger, coherent, musical structure can prove to be a bit of a headache. They have each been asked to write a piece of five minutes duration, no easy feat for an inexperienced composer. However, they have been encouraged to experiment and, as a result, each young composer has taken a different approach to musical form; some have attempted to blend and contrast different sections of music whilst others have deliberately developed limited material.

The composers will need to have their scores completed by 11 o’clock tomorrow morning in order to allow time for final rehearsals. Despite a promise of an earlier-than-normal start tomorrow, one or two seem a little daunted by what they have to achieve by tomorrow morning. Their audience awaits…

Categories: Music Education, Red Note

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Go Compose! in Banchory, day one

23 October 2013

I’m in Banchory, about eighteen miles west of Aberdeen, with three members of Red Note Ensemble and composer Brian Irvine. I’m assisting Brian as he works with four young composers at Go Compose!, an initiative based at Woodend Barn and developed by Sound Festival, Sound and Music and Red Note. This is the third annual Go Compose!, a course which aims to create an environment for school-aged composers to develop their craft.

The challenge set by Go Compose! to its participants is simple: to compose (and typeset) a completely new piece of music.. However, the pieces will have to written in only two days and will be publicly performed by the Red Note Ensemble on the opening night of Aberdeenshire’s Sound Festival.

Far from being a daunted by this situation, our group of young composers have approached the task with calm enthusiasm. They’re a talented bunch and, as evidenced by the music written on this first day, are able to produce interesting and original pieces at a surprisingly fast speed.

To begin the day, members of Red Note demonstrated not only the basics of their instruments but also some of the more crazy sounds the composers could use in their pieces. The highs, lows, squeaks, pops and clicks of the instruments having been fully explored (with Ruth Morley’s ‘draining bath plug’ flute sound causing the most hilarity), Brian set the first challenge: to compose a short piece for the ensemble in only fifteen minutes. Although each composer had access to a piano, computer and other composing tools, most were content to scribble away with pencil on paper with only their imagination for guidance.

The resulting pieces were diverse in style and demonstrated the emerging compositional voices of the young composers – some pieces were lyrical and harmonically driven, others full of mixed-metre exuberance. These short pieces were then extensively workshopped by the ensemble, not only to fix the few (inevitable) notational issues, but also to introduce the composers to the intricacies of instrumentation and the myriad ways a phrase can be performed: should this be legato? Would you like to try this up an octave? We could try a colder sound. With vibrato – how much vibrato? What type of vibrato and so on.

The composer’s second challenge was to write a piece of music somehow inspired by an article in today’s papers. With pages of newsprint strewn around the venue, the composers got to work and produced pieces inspired by the genuinely tragic and more off-beat stories they could find. After a second round of workshops, and considerable insight from the Red Note musicians, it was time to take the plunge as the young composers began writing their final works for performance in only two days time. Some are incorporating the shorter pieces composed earlier in the day, others are beginning all over again. However, they have Brian, myself and the three members of Red Note to consult at all times. They wrote solidly until we forced them to stop at five o’clock but all took their work home with them. I look forward to hearing their “homework” tomorrow morning.

Categories: Music Education, Red Note

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