Gaudeamus Muziekweek Academy

I recently attended the Gaudeamus Muziekweek Academy in Utrecht. My composition Parallax Error (2014) for any 4-string bowed instrument was workshopped by cellist Katharina Gross and double bassist Dario Calderone. I also had the opportunity to meet other selected composers from across the globe. The experience was enlightening and it introduced me to a whole world of music happening right now.

In the first cello workshop, we were introduced to a variety of contemporary music and Katharina Gross’ cellomundo project. Our own works were also performed and discussed. The academy also offered workshops about composing for harp and composing with live electronics. We were introduced to a range of harp music and extended techniques, and were allowed to experiment on the harps.

Composition workshop about composing for the harp in Muziekhuis. The room is beautiful.

During the cello workshop I was asked a number of questions that helped me understand and articulate my compositional approach:

  1. the aesthetic idea of the piece
  2. FORM/how is the ‘material’ structured?: this is so the performer can understand how is the piece to be perceived (by both the performer and audience).
  3. is the piece influenced by any existing composer, ‘style’ or movement? (again, so the performer can understand how to interpret the piece for an audience).
  4. why this instrumentation? And what is the musical ‘material’ that is formulated for this particular instrumentation?
  5. influence from a teacher?

In the second cello workshop, Katharina performed our pieces. I really like her interpretation, when she plays my piece, it reminds me of Lachenmann’s Pression; whereas when I play it, it’s sort of bouncy and daft, almost cartoonish.

My experience at the Gaudeamus Muziekweek Academy is one I’ll never forget.  Composers from all over the world with different first languages were brought together by music.

As an additional note, Utrecht is beautiful. It juxtaposes industrial urban quasi-brutalist designs with Victorian buildings, brick roads and canals.

Performing in the Centre Stage concert series

I have recently performed in the Centre Stage concert series. You can find details about this series here. I presented four world premieres, two of which were written especially for the concert. This post serves as a review of the concert, and is also a means of documenting some personal findings about the overall balance of my music and the performance setting.

A brief review of the concert:

The evening started with Tortoise Variations, a light jazz piece composed by Mary-Ellen O Shea and performed by an ensemble of saxophone, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. The piece began with a solo percussion passage that ever so slightly alluded to the non-normative performance techniques of contemporary classical music. From this point the composition grew to a warm enveloping sound world of jazz motifs.

The next act was me. I performed two pieces: one on viola and one on piano. I also played two electroacoustic pieces which gave me some breathing time between live performances. There are a number of things concerning balance I noticed about my music during the soundcheck and performance. First, balance between live instruments and fixed-media electronics, second the subtleties of sounds in acoustic instruments, third the volume levels of the fixed-media backing in the actual concert compared with the soundcheck: the presence of an audience makes a noticeable difference from the performer’s (my) perspective. I started thinking: maybe my viola piece would be better in an intimate setting when played without electronics. I like the natural reverb in the viola that comes from hitting the strings. This was masked somewhat when I performed in the hot concert area with the electronic backing track (or maybe I was too nervous to hear it). When played with electronics, amplifying the reverb in the instrument is tricky (overcoming the electronic backing is an issue), but there must be a way round it. I can easily create a ‘false’ close-mic’d multi-track recording (where I amplify the viola’s reverb in post, basically), but realising this live is difficult.

I was followed by Fran Wyburn, a folk singer and songwriter who performed a selection of songs with her band.

This was followed by Morag Galloway. Her performance was interesting, she really did portray a particular mood. You had to be there. It got me thinking about communicating and how it can be done with more than just words alone, and how sometimes words alone do not do justice to the portraying of an event/mood/situation. It was very effective.

The evening culminated with the headline act You Are Wolf. The use of traditional folk melodies interested me because I’m currently researching material and quotation and allusion for my PhD. I might explore the application of traditional folk music too.

Overall, this was a great experience and I met some lovely people and I’m inspired to write more music.

Performance of *The Interlocutor*: ensemble Discord

The Interlocutor is my most recent composition and it was performed by Discord earlier this week. It is for French horn, electric guitar, electric bass guitar, piano (doubling keyboard), and electric five-string violin. As a (very) basic description of the composition’s structure, it is based on the dynamics of conversing. Although a seemingly simple compositional procedure, I intend the form to be more complexly dynamic, and I think that Discord brought this out.

Composing for Discord was very useful, not only did it force me to consider writing for these instruments in the context of this particular ensemble, but working with the performers introduced me to the hidden capabilities of these instruments.

The performance was followed by a concert of new music performed by Discord. More information about the concert can be found here.

Compositional Form: A Multidimensional Interstice?

The following is an area of my research which I presented on at a postgraduate conference in December, and something I hope to talk more about in the future as it develops.

In this presentation, I discuss my current composition Interstice, the ‘form’ of which relies on the participation of an interactive audience via the internet and an iPhone app. Due to a specific type of interactivity, Interstice’s timeline is complex, and its participatory element results in the roles of ‘performer’ and ‘audience’ being indistinguishable. Interstice treats the audience as additional compositional ‘objects’ amongst which perceived ‘meaning’ and ‘function’ interact within a ‘frame’ that is multidimensional and not definitive. As such, my composition allows the chain of stages in a typical compositional process to be radically rearranged.

Whilst demonstrating how Interstice works, I discuss that, for me, the nature of compositional ‘form’ is multidimensional and interstitial. It comprises a continuously shifting definition where each characterisation appears inherent regardless of this constantly transforming quality. A potential reason for this versatile behaviour is most likely due to the multidimensional nature of ‘time’ which I explain includes simultaneous linear and nonlinear characteristics.

Another reason is possibly because of the various perspectives applied by society. I elaborate on this theory by questioning the substance of compositional ‘form’ and demonstrating how answers to this query are governed by the perceivers’ viewpoints and the composition’s social context. I explain that compositional ‘form’ is a communal event that most likely relies on the formation of ‘meaning’ within the ‘space’ between a composition’s constituent ‘objects’ and its perceivers. In my opinion, this establishment of ‘meaning’ is governed by the way the compositional ‘form’, and its occupied ‘space’, is ‘framed’ within its social setting; however, in the case of Interstice, defining this ‘space’ and ‘frame’ is not straightforward.

Graphic Score: Notes Inégales, Tableaux Vivants, and CROSSWOR[K]

Notes Inégales realised my graphic score CROSSWOR[K] in the ‘Tableaux Vivants‘ concert earlier this week. The concert also featured traditional klezmer music as well as compositions by Peter Wiegold, The Notes, Marcello Messina, Antti Sakari Saario and Martin Iddon, and visuals by Adam York Gregory (listed here in order of appearance in the concert programme).

The score for CROSSWOR[K] is as pictured below.

CROSSWOR[K] by Alannah Halay

This piece resulted from a request to write a graphic score on a postcard specifically for Notes Inégales.

CROSSWOR[K] is structured like a crossword practically as well as visually.  Deciphering a performance from this score resembles the process one goes through when solving a crossword. A list of interpretive guidelines takes the form of crossword clues.  Like the crossword, these do not have to be deciphered in a specific order: for example, it seems logical to start with instruction number one; however, this is not necessary if the interpretation of another column or row comes to a performer’s mind first. A performer can even attempt to interpret a column or row, cease to do so mid-way through if they are not satisfied with the interpretation, then return to it later. It also seems logical to overlap musical lines as they intersect at points in the score.

‘Dry Veins’ & the ‘Leeds Lieder + Song Festival’ 2012

Dry Veins was first performed in the LeedsLieder+ Song Festival in October 2012. For a concert review of this performance, click here.

The narrative of Dry Veins is a product of collaboration with the poet John Darley whose spatial poetry can be glimpsed from the image of the song’s front cover (pictured below).

*Dry Veins* front cover featuring a section of John Darley’s poem *Dry Veins*

The narrative is not gender-specific; it tells the story of a stonecutter who falls in love with ‘their’ own statue. The stone cutter’s longing desire to be at one with their creation is fulfilled when they gradually turn to stone and eventually disintegrate into dust.

Dry Veins explores idealism versus reality within the creative process. Steiner suggests that art fails to represent the artist’s intended idea because the idealistic concept is not idealistically fulfilled by the reality of the actual created entity. [1] In Dry Veins, this notion is expanded to include notions of transcendence versus transgression; life versus death; liminality (transformation): the subject matter dialectically presents an idealistic transcendence (and life) and a realistic transgression (and death) because the stone cutter’s idealistic vision of becoming united with their art and transcending into a desired life is compared with the realistic horror during the liminal transformation into stone and transgressing into a denser material and potential death.

These notions are considered as compositional tools during the composing of Dry Veins which employs Darley’s spatial poetry as a means of compositional process: spatial poetry can guide theatrical expression such as vocal inflection and gesture, [2] and its layout can influence the compositional structure of music.

 

Some Additional Points about the Function of ‘Theatre’ in Dry Veins:

Elements of ‘theatre’ are employed in existing contemporary composition. In Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre, the ‘cantus’ and ‘continuum’ dramatically interact, and the instruments switch ‘roles.’ The ‘cantus’ involves a change from melody to ostinato, and the ‘continuum’ includes a change from ostinato to melody. [3] The exchange of instrumental roles is explored from a varied perspective in Ferneyhough’s Etudes Transcendantales, within which the vocal part is neither the principal component nor the accompaniment, but is treated in the same way as the other instruments. It shifts between having a semantic function and a purely sonic function. [4]

An element of theatre is employed in Dry Veins to transcend the words and music and provide further meaning: the physical movements of the performers reflect the narrative: the pianist represents the stonecutter (in playing the piano), and the piano represents the stone. Like Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre and Ferneyhough’s Etudes Transcendantales, the instruments exchange ‘roles’: the soprano performs the stonecutter’s ‘liminality’ (transformation between states) in that she moves from being narrator (in sounding the words), the stone cutter (when she scrapes the strings in bars 124-127) and provides the stone’s ‘voice’ when she sings into the piano and it resonates back. This theatrical aspect contradicts traditional performance practice (of prioritising the sound and hiding the performers) in that the soprano and pianist have to be seen for the ‘theatrical’ moments to have an effect. [5]

 

Below is the programme note (written by both John Darley and me) which featured in the programme during the concert:

Words and their connotations in Dry Veins are approached with a desire to create an indirect sense of meaning, superimposed over a narrative inspired by ‘Pygmalion’ from Ovid’s Metamorphoses X. This piece portrays a stone cutter who is so in love with their statue that they turn to stone and, over time, disintegrate into dust. The subject matter dialectically presents an idealistic transcendence and a realistic transgression: the stone cutter’s idealistic vision of becoming united with their art and transcending into a desired life, and the realistic horror of turning to stone and transgressing into a denser material. The music reflects idealistic desire through normative performance techniques, wide pitch ranges, and faster durations. Realistic fear of turning to stone is reflected by non-normative performance techniques, indeterminate pitch, temporal changes, and slower pitch durations.

Below is a short biography of John Darley (in his own words, as featured in the concert programme):

John loves music, writing, pictures and breaking words. He writes habitually in various genres, and his poetry has been published by Aesthetica and Pastiche Magazine.

 

[1] George Steiner, Grammars of Creation (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p.35

[2] Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, trans. by Victor Corti (London: Calder Publications, 2001), p. 28

[3] Michael Hall, The Contemporary Composers: Harrison Birtwistle in Recent Years (London: Robson Books, 1998), p.30

[4]Brian Ferneyhough, Collected Writings, ed. by James Boros and Richard Toop (The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), pp. 361-362

[5] I do not think that the general listening experience of this composition requires the visual aspect in order to be effective. The audio alone is enough to portray the piece’s ‘meaning.’