Practice-Led Research into an ‘Avant Garde’ Style

I’ve made a YouTube video that tries to elaborate on my own approach to composing music. This entails what I think about what we call “Avant garde” music or “contemporary classical music” today. By all means, check out the video on my YouTube channel. In this video, I outline some practice-led research (from my own PhD in Composition) that led me to conclude that the ‘Avant Garde’ music scene is just one massive adherence to a bunch of unspoken established rules and, essentially, a ‘style’. It’s a style so much so that it can be quoted and even the subject of pastiche. This video (and this blog post) should also go some way to showing how composition IS and CAN BE research (am looking at you, Croft).

I’m going to talk about a particular collection of pieces I started writing during my PhD. This collection of pieces is called ENERGY CANNOT BE CREATED. You can listen to these pieces online. So far there are four pieces in this collection. It’s important to note that I wrote all these pieces for a student ensemble.  This had an influence on how I wrote the pieces because I had to keep in mind the students’ capabilities at all times.

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Horror Films: Characterisation

Happy Halloween! Today’s blog post is about character dynamics and status of characters in horror films. I’ve made a video that covers this topic and this is the accompanying blog post! In this post, we’re going to unpack some of those archetypal roles and talk about how they’re not as obviously distinguished from one another when you analyse it. What I mean by this is, you typically get stereotypical victims and villains in horror; maybe there’s a monster and someone scared of the monster; a ghost wanting revenge and an unfortunate resident in a haunted house; a poltergeist and a possessed victim, and so on. However, as you’re about to find out, sometimes the archetypal victim character has villainous characteristics and vice versa: often the archetypal villain is a victim of something else. There’s a reason for why they are doing what they are doing, basically.

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Acting in Horror: Playing Fear

I recently posted an acting tutorial about playing fear in Horror (well, it’s nearly Halloween, isn’t it…). You can find all my tutorials on my YouTube channel. Here’s the blog post that supplements that video.

Fear in and of itself is generic and if an actor were to just act ‘scared’ or portray ‘fear’ then it’d be two dimensional and obviously acting. There’s a paradox in acting that we want the audience to forget we’re acting. We can’t look like we’re acting. The more we force looking natural, the more we look like we’re acting. Therefore, you can’t just play ‘scared’ as a general emotion. Fear and the nature of being scared will evolve and change in relation to the context your character is in.

There are different types of fear and you can’t act one generic fear and apply this to all scenarios. I mentioned in a previous blog post that there are different types of fear: for instance, we have lingering terror, nervousness, shock, dread, panic, being wary, even suspicious and whatever else you can think of. However, in addition to there being different types of fear, each type of fear can be interpreted differently. For instance, who knows what ‘dread’ is like definitively? As well as this, each actor has their own personality and will approach these different types of fear in their own way. What’s more is these different types of fear will be more appropriate than others in certain contexts (or literal situations). Therefore, rather than forcing one type of generic fear onto a scene, react to the scene itself. Know your character’s agenda: what are they looking for, what do they want, what is their objective? Again, we’re talking about Stanislavski’s units and objectives here.  But once you know your character, you can know how to act scared in a certain scene. For instance, it’s no use screaming at a ghost if your character isn’t scared of ghosts. Likewise, it’s no used acting suspicious in front of a ghost when your character is petrified of ghosts and most likely to be frozen in terror.

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Acting Scared in Films

As it’s approaching Halloween, I thought I’d get into the spooky mood and talk about Horror films and acting in Horror. I have a bit of an affinity with Horror, mainly because the majority of acting work I get is in Horror films. I’ll start by talking about acting scared in films (this isn’t limited to Horror of course). I’ve made a video tutorial on this topic that you can find on my YouTube channel.

This tutorial should be useful for actors who might be working in Horror films, or any scenario where one has to play a character who is being scared for whatever reason (threatened, robbed, shouted at, or just generally scared of another character or object or someone who has a phobia.)

You could argue that there are two main overarching types of fear: lingering terror and quick fight-or-flight type fear. Within these overarching types you get sub-types like nervousness, defensiveness, terror, cowering in fear, screaming in shock, and so on.

Now, I’ve done some research, and one way in which you can generate the appearance of fear is through your imagination. That’s right, actually scare yourself. This is where many viewers switch off my YouTube tutorial. I understand why: it sounds self-evident and not worth sitting through a video for, but there’s something in it, I promise! I found a useful quote from Backstage magazine which sums this point up nicely:

Uta Hagen, in A Challenge for the Actor, makes it sound easy. She has a rodent phobia, so she simply imagines a mouse or a rat and promptly feels “ice-cold shivers, shudders of revulsion, and a compulsion to scream, leap in the air, or run away….” Hagen says imagining your most personally horrifying spectacle—whether it be “snakes, spiders, roaches, maggots, worms”—works for everyone. A doctor told her that such phobias are natural, a compressed symbol for the everyday and lifelong fears that we repress or don’t understand. George Orwell knew all about it; remember the dreaded Room 101 in 1984?

Backstage Magazine
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How to Act “Realistically”

My latest YouTube video is another video about acting ‘realistically’. In this video, I say I’ve compiled four simple tips that will help us to act as realistically as possible on screen. Having said this, there are way more tips than this. Also, when I talk about acting ‘realistically’, I’m talking about acting like a natural human being in real life would act. As I’ve written about in a previous blog post (and mentioned in a previous video), acting realistically is a bit of a contradiction because acting is not at all realistic. You can, however, act in a realist way, or a naturalist way, but I digress. Basically: we all know what we mean by acting realistically.


The first tip I’ve learned about from various acting lessons and from experience is about contrasting layers. These must be present in your performance if you’re to act convincingly. I’ve learned from workshops that casting directors LIKE contrasting layers in an actor (something to think about!). People are complex and multi-dimensional, they think lots of different things at once, usually. So, to act realistically we must consider how people in real life are a melange of contrasting (or even contradictory) layers, or thoughts, or emotions, that can be seen in the eyes. We can represent such complexity in our acting via layers.

Layering is the idea that what you think or feel and what you say or do can be contrasting (or even contradictory) things. This is also useful if you can’t access a particular thought: maybe your character is breaking the law and you just can’t access this thought strongly enough because you can’t relate to your character’s actions. Well, as an actor, you might choose to incorporate unspoken guilt in this instance (this is just an example). This unspoken guilt will add a contradictory layer to the unlawful character that will make them more three-dimensional and maybe even more relatable to an audience. If you want to act realistically, you will inevitably have a bit of ‘you’ in your portrayal of any character you play anyway. For instance, maybe you’re playing a detective who is investigating a murder and thinks they know who did it, and when you’re interviewing your suspect, you might speak and act calmly and indifferently (because this is the job of a detective), but, at the same time, you might be feeling hate or disgust towards your suspect. These inner thoughts will reveal themselves in your eyes alone. And these inner thoughts will contrast with your outer exterior (or the front you’re putting on).  You may say something simply that could mean anything like, ‘and your name is?’ But if you say this line thinking hate and disgust then you’re adding subtext to this line. It becomes less about asking someone’s name and more about letting the audience know your character doesn’t like this ‘someone’. Likewise, if your character feels sorry for the murder suspect and doesn’t think they did it, then they might ask the question with pity. This contrasts with the outer detective exterior that also tells the audience more about the way your character feels about the situation.

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Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps

I’ve made an online lecture that discusses the compositional technique of Olivier Messiaen with reference to his quartet: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) for clarinet, piano, violin and ’cello. In this lecture, I discuss his use of ‘modes of limited transposition’; ‘isorhythms’, ‘non-retrogradable rhythms’, and ‘reductive rhythm’. This blog post features as a supplement to the lecture, which you can find on my YouTube channel.

Olivier Messiaen

First, some contextual background: who was Olivier Messiaen? He was born in 1908 in Avignon, France. His father was a translator of English (especially Shakespeare), and his mother was a poet. Messiaen taught himself piano and wrote The Lady of Shalott after Tennyson’s poem (here, he is already demonstrating extra-musical influences). He attended the Paris Conservatoire in 1919 until 1930. There, he studied piano, organ, percussion and composition (and history). Messiaen also learned about Greek rhythms from Marcel Dupré, and discovered a table of 120 Indian ‘deci-talas’ listed by Sharngadeva (these are rhythms of the Indian provinces). Knowing all this is important for understanding his works post-1935 (including Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps).

In 1931, Messiaen was appointed organist at the Church of La Sainte Trinite in Paris. Messiaen’s Catholic faith is a key influence on him.  It is, along with nature, birdsong and literature, the most important extra-musical source of inspiration for him. Messiaen has also written a lot of organ music, which is meditative rather than for specific use in the actual liturgy of the Roman service.

In 1936, Messiaen forms La Jeune France, a fairly short-lived group determined to write music with a human/spiritual dimension. He also married violinist Claire Delbos in 1932, for whom he writes a song cycle (1936 and 1937). Delbos dies young from illness in 1959.

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Museum für Moderne Kunst

I once made a video about my experiences at the Museum für Moderne Kunst (Museum of Modern Art, or MMK for short) in Frankfurt, Germany. You can view this on my YouTube channel (although it’s one of my first videos and not very good). Here is a blog post about the experience that can accompany that online video or vice versa.

First, my time in the museum was a thought-provoking experience. I found the works forced me to connect with my own thoughts and encounter the world in ways I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise (in that moment). Or, at least, they encouraged me to acknowledge those thoughts. Some of the works that stayed with me were the films that were on display, as well as an interactive artwork, and an artist I discovered whose work I’ll have to read more about.

One of short films I had to take note of was Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s Secteur IX B. This was a film from 2015 that lasted around 40 minutes, or just over. You can find a teaser for this film online here. The teaser’s great, but I recommend seeing the actual full film. Sit through it. Absorb it. It’s so well made that it’ll inspire you to make your own films.  When I watched it, I had to sit through the whole thing. 40 mins seems long for an artwork in a gallery with so many other works beckoning, but this really gripped me. I won’t say too much about the content because it’s not for me to spoil the experience for anyone else. I believe it’ll be showed in other art galleries so don’t worry if you’re not up for travelling far. I did some online research and I’ve found it’s also been shown in Tate Modern in London, so no doubt there’s going to be loads of opportunity to see it.

The next film I’m going to talk to you about is Safe Conduct by Ed Atkins (2016). Here’s the installation-view teaser. To be honest, this is more of an installation piece than a short film as we might think of one. It’s actually horrifying. Its content is very repetitive, and it seems very mechanical and calm, almost hypnotic, yet still horrific. It’s really unnerving to watch. It made me think about how everything in our life is reduced to a mechanically reproduced commodity. In the artwork, things that definitely shouldn’t be mechanically reproduced were mechanically reproduced. There was a nauseating juxtaposition of organic matter and machinery. You can’t help but worry about some sort of horrifying dystopian future, and also feel guilty that you might be part of its cause. Again, I recommend you immerse yourself in this artwork to get the full impact of it. It’s one thing to read about it online, another thing to be amidst the installation.

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Realistic Camera Acting

I’ve just released a tutorial on my YouTube channel about realistic camera acting. Basically, I’ve compiled 4 simple tips that will help us to act as realistically as possible on screen. In other words, how to act like a natural human being in real life would act. I elaborate on the term ‘realistic’ because, of course, acting realistically is a bit of a contradiction: acting is not at all realistic. You can, however, act in a realist way, or a naturalist way, but I digress. We all know what we mean by acting realistically: it tends to be the question people ask when they want to know how to act: it’s basically about being believable.

My first tip is to don’t show it, think it: you’re not supposed to look like you’re acting. A lot of aspiring actors, when they first get in front of the camera, get all worried about showing that their character is thinking and feeling certain things. We don’t act like this in real life, so why do we act like this in front of the camera? You’ve got to trust that the camera will pick up those thoughts and feelings that your character is having. Basically, don’t worry about “showing” it to the camera. Just have that thought behind the eyes: think those things the character is thinking (as much as is possible of course). Acting is the only profession where the goal is to encourage the viewer to forget you’re an actor. For instance, we don’t look at a painting and go, !wow, that painting is so good, I forgot Picasso was a painter for a moment there.” But for acting, that’s the goal: to make your performance feel real so that the audience can get lost in the story, can suspend their disbelief, can find cathartic release, can ultimately forget they’re watching actors playing make-believe (Brecht would have something to say about this, but we’ll talk about this another time).

My second tip is it’s not how you say it, it’s why you say it. A lot of aspiring actors, when they’re starting out, get hooked up on ‘how’ they should say their lines. This makes people look like they’re acting. Think about it: in real life, you don’t go around thinking about HOW you should say things (unless you’re preparing a speech or confession or breakup or something, but again, that’s acting – I digress). For most of the time, you usually think about WHY you say things. Therefore, if we want to act realistically, it’s important to understand why our character is saying what they’re saying. Then the ‘how’ they should say it will come naturally out of that (if you don’t force it and just let it happen). What is the character’s motive? WHY are they saying this particular line in this way? We’re getting into Stanislavski now and his units and objectives (again, I digress).

Think about it: is a character being poetically verbose to express the extent of emotional pain they’re going through? Are they joking and resorting to B.S. to change the subject and hide their sadness? Making jokes like this and thinking sad thoughts can reveal some contrasting layers to a character that also helps make them appear realistic.

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