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.

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Songs and Lullabies nominated for Scottish Award for New Music

31 January 2017

CDcover

Robert Irvine’s recent release on Delphian Records, Songs and Lullabies, which features one of my pieces, has been nominated for a Scottish Award for New Music. This is the inaugural year of the awards, an endeavour of New Music Scotland. Songs and Lullabies has been nominated in the Recorded New Work category, and Robert also receives a nomination for New Music Performer of the Year.

Songs and Lullabies is now available to buy on CD and download.

UPDATE: Robert won! Well done, Robert!

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New cello piece at Loch Shiel Festival

16 April 2016

sixmaps

My new work for solo cello, Six Maps of a Fragile Landscape, will receive it’s first performance at this weekend’s Loch Shiel Spring Festival. Supported by the Hope Scott Trust, the piece uses the metaphor of different map scales — large-scale and small-scale — to explore an imaginary landscape. This first performance will be given by Robert Irvine, alongside works by David Fennessy, Duncan Strachan, James MacMillan, Sally Beamish and more.

Robert Irvine will perform Six Maps of a Fragile Landscape at 1pm, Saturday 16th April 2016 at Acharacle Parish Church, Acharacle. Proceeds for this concert go towards UNICEF.

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Video of Sandglass

24 November 2015

Here are some excerpts from my recent work with Lucy Boyes, a dance/music piece called Sandglass. Sandglass was commissioned by Sound Festival and DanceLive and had its first performance in October this year at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen. The work is based upon a series of interviews and workshops conducted for this project in Summer 2015 in which people of Aberdeen discussed past, present and predicted cultural changes witnessed over their lifetimes in the North East of Scotland on land and at sea.

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Sandglass: development week

17 August 2015

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I spent last week in residence at Citymoves Dance Agency in Aberdeen with choreographer Lucy Boyes and dance artist Mhairi Allan where we were developing our new work, Sandglass, for Sound Festival and DanceLive.

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The piece takes as its starting point the recollections of older residents of Aberdeen, although at present the work is not warmly nostalgic. I’ve made several trips to the city over the last few months to meet some wonderful people and record interviews with them about how Aberdeen has changed over the years. Each of my interviewees spoke about how the arrival of the oil industry into Aberdeen drastically changed the city and the lives of those who live there. As explored in my recent work Elbow Room, I’m fascinated by the role cities have in shaping the lives of those who live in them and how the fabric of the city responds to broader changes and societal trends.

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I enjoy collaborating with artists from different disciplines but this is my first time working with dance artists. We spent the week exploring how sound can be made though dance and how physical gesture and sonic gesture can relate to each other — an experimental approach for all concerned. There was a lot of listening, particularly to the recordings of those beautiful Aberdonian voices I have captured over the last few months.

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Sandglass will be performed at 8pm on Friday 23rd October 2015 at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen.

Categories: Research, Works

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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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New recording of Nightmusic

28 July 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.

Categories: Audio, New Voices 2014, 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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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.

Categories: Performance, Red Note, Works

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Stills from Between the Lines

20 April 2014

Between_the_lines1

Between the Lines is a new music + spoken word + video piece by myself and composer Shona Mackay which is receiving its first performance this week in Glasgow. It’s a collaborative project in the truest sense – we both worked on each part of the piece together at the same time. Myself and Shona are good friends but this is the first time we’ve worked together, and the first time either of us has composed with someone else.

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There’s nothing like a collaboration to throw light on your own working practices. I have discovered that I need to relate every part of a piece to a central concept before writing, whilst Shona is happier to try anything out and see what fits. I’ve also discovered that I change my mind a lot whilst composing, often quickly (much to Shona’s frustration). We often went back to an idea we’d previously rejected – a normal thing to happen, I feel, although a lot more noticeable when one partner rejects and later accepts an idea of the other.

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Shona’s recent work has been mainly autobiographical and she often appears in her pieces. I tend to think of musical structures as a form of storytelling so we opted to write a short story in which Shona plays the central character. A mutual interest in mixed-media work led to us to include a series of still images (presented as a video) which accompany Shona’s reading of the text. The music combines sound-recordings of the scenes depicted in the stills and cello music performed by Laura Sergeant.

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The story went through many iterations. Originally we based the piece on a Greek myth, but updated to contemporary society. We always knew that the story would “drift” as we began to include more elements that interested us. Each draft took us further away from the original myth (with its supernatural occurrences) towards something far more personal.

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The original plan was for both Shona and myself to perform this piece: I was going to make my first public outing as a guitarist. However, the guitar part didn’t make the final version so I had to cut myself from my own performance! Tuesday’s premiere will see Shona and cellist Laura take to the stage in front of these six stills (and about ninety others).

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We’d been wanting to work together for quite a while, so when the opportunity to create this piece arose we jumped at the chance. We had two aims for this project: 1) to remain friends by the end of it and 2) to create something interesting. I can vouch for the first aim being met. As for the second: you’ll have to judge for yourselves…

Between the Lines is performed this coming Tuesday (22nd April), 8pm, at the Old Hairdresser’s (Renfield Lane, Glasgow) as part of Gregor SAMSA 2.

Categories: Performance, Works

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New recording

31 December 2011

A recording of my recent piece Struction (how I attempted… is now available here. It’s a bootleg-esque recording from the first performance given by Red Note.

A little confession: I’m not entirely sure this piece works as an audio recording. If you do listen, bear in mind that the voice of the composer is disembodied – the “composer” isn’t in the room and his voice is delivered through loudspeakers. Without pictures, however, you won’t see the physical exertions of the ensemble as they react to this voice. It’s deliberately physical music.

As normal, Struction was conceived as a concert piece (and these days I’m always thinking about the relationship between music its context) and hearing this recording reinforces my belief that live musical performance and audio recordings are two completely different mediums, each with their idiosyncrasies. Why do we so often consider them the same when composing?

Categories: Audio, Performance, Research, Works

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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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Mazsalaca 2

19 August 2010

Here is a short sketch of mine that was performed by the ReDo string quartet during the 5th International Workshop for Composers in Mazsalaca, Latvia, last week. I can’t praise ReDo highly enough; they are four young, very talented players with so much warmth and enthusiasm for music (“we’ll play anything so long as it’s good”). It was a pleasure to spend time in their company, in and out of the rehearsal room.

Click here to listen

ReDo with composers

ReDo with composers: back row l-r; Peteris Ozolins (cello), Rei Munakata (composer), Arturs Gailis (viola), me, Konstantins Paturskis (2nd violin); front row l-r; Anitra Tumsevica (composer), Madara Jaugiete (1st violin); Photograph by Andris Dzenitis.

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