New Music Biennial, Hull

The New Music Biennial festival, funded by the PRS for Music foundation, claims to push ‘the boundaries of new music’. It provides an opportunity for ‘new’ musical works to be showcased across the UK and on BBC Radio 3. The term ‘new’ in this instance is to be taken literally: these works were very recently written (some were world premieres) and drew on music history, existing practices, and the musical techniques of a variety of cultures. The festival, initially presented in Hull, the 2017 City of Culture, was repeated at London’s Southbank Centre and follows the previous models of this festival to present a variety of eclectic genres of music being written today. Continue reading

Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot

I went to see  Waiting for Godot in Sheffield’s Crucible last night. It was energetically mesmeric and I was gripped. Below is my review of the event:

Samuel Beckett’s minimalistic and thought-provoking play Waiting for Godot was brought to life once more on Saturday 13th February, 2016 in Sheffield’s Crucible in Yorkshire. According to the artistic director Daniel Evans, ‘this is the third Beckett production to be performed at the Crucible since 2011’.

Receiving its British première in 1955 in the Arts Theatre, London, Beckett’s play creates a bleak and limbo-like world in which the dwellers are neither inhabitants nor simply passing through. Waiting for Godot questions the absurdity of everyday life as its protagonists become caught up in a repetitive series of acts with no apparent point and which result in discussions about killing time and committing suicide (one is reminded of Albert Camus’s philosophical writing The Myth of Sisyphus). Adam Piette, professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield, explains that ‘contemporary readings of the play concentrated on the existential bleakness, the philosophical nihilism: and zeroed in on the question of God.’

The set of Waiting for Godot in Sheffield's Crucible Lyceum Studio in Yorkshire

The set of Waiting for Godot in Sheffield’s Crucible Lyceum Studio in Yorkshire

All who witness this production will no doubt sing the praises of director Charlotte Gwinner and her production team. The play was well-choreographed and all actors complemented each other in this Sheffield Theatres production. The whole show signalled the efforts of the production team. As an audience-member, it was hard not to empathize with Beckett’s four main characters: Pozzo, Vladimir, Lucky, and Estragon were executed with aplomb by Richard Cordery, Lorcan Cranitch, Bob Goody, and Jeff Rawle. Rawle successfully opened the play and drew the audience in with his portrayal of Estragon, described by Piette as ‘a creature of mime and body who plays with his feet’. Rawle’s acting was soon complemented by Cranitch’s engaging and quasi-realist portrayal of Vladimir, described by Piette as ‘idealistic, rational, a head man (watch him play with his hat).’Once immersed within the story of this comical double-act, the audience experiences a second: the characters of Pozzo and Lucky, described by Piette as ‘master / slave, tyrant / subject, sadist / masochist.’ Cordery was mesmerizing as Pozzo, and Goody demonstrated immense stamina in depicting the silent suffering of tormented Lucky.

The opening atmospheric soundscape of this particular production was ambient and, together with the scenic design, presented a captivatingly picturesque yet bleak sense of “nowhere-ness”. The scenery and lighting added to Beckett’s experimentation with the perception of time by being able to present night and day and different seasons with seeming minimalistic effortlessness. Costume design and makeup were both detailed and understated, both adhering to the minimalistic overview and bringing the plot to life. Designer Simon Daw successfully designed this scenery of Waiting for Godot, originally written to be performed in a Proscenium arch, to fit the specifics of Sheffield’s Crucible. He explains that he draws visual inspiration from surrealist imagery such as Yves Tanguy’s painting who ‘creates these amazing, very empty, almost apocalyptic landscapes with some very defined and detailed objects within them.’ When asked by assistant director Charlie Kennedy how one creates a ‘sense of infinity within an enclosed auditorium’, Daw explains that ‘the depth that you can use is fantastic but at the same time you have that intimacy that you don’t get in other spaces, and this brilliant sculptural relationship of having the audience on three sides.’ This brilliantly sums up the sensation one experiences when seeing this production of Beckett’s play in Sheffield’s Crucible: the set is both vast and portrays a lost place, yet the audience is very close to the characters and at once immersed within the plot.

 Overall, this performance of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was captivating, thought-provoking, and effective. It is hard to imagine this play written for any other production team. It will inspire in anyone the desire to engage with more of Beckett’s work.

Highly recommended *****

All aforementioned quotes can be found in the programme note, available on the door for £3.50.

Waiting for Godot is being performed in Sheffield’s Crucible until 27th February. Tickets can be booked here.

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.

Review: Dr Timothy O’Dwyer, ‘Folding Machines – Approaches to Improvising and Composing Inspired by the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze’

The following is a review of a talk given by Dr Timothy O’Dwyer on 27th February at the University of Leeds, School of Music. I must mention that the following account is by no means exhaustive of Deleuzian thought, in fact it only touches on one aspect of it. However, I am writing about this talk because it seems to offer an accessible starting point to comprehending one of Deleuze’s concepts. It also demonstrates how applying aesthetics and philosophy to composition can offer a different perspective on a familiar act and therefore a potentially different outcome. This is something I am interested in in my own practice-led research: that is, re-thinking the familiar.

Below is an abstract which was distributed during the talk’s advertisement:

Inspired by Gilles Deleuze’s work, Timothy O’Dwyer introduces his approach to improvising, composition and collaboration across a diversity of musical styles and practices. He will perform work on saxophone with electronics and discuss his project that explores ways of negotiating issues of collective labour and creative ownership from body to machine to ensemble. Folding Machines is a renovation of models of music-making that bring together contemporary improvisation practices with forms of pre-Classical musical thinking.

Below is a summary of what I gathered from the talk:

O’Dwyer explains that he is appropriating the philosophy of Deleuze into creating his music: in the manner that Deleuze uses music as a metaphor for philosophy, O’Dwyer uses Deleuze’s philosophy as a metaphor for music. He explains that his talk only touches on Deleuzian thought, of which there is a lot more that can arise in the field of music. He begins by mentioning that Deleuze has an expressive abstract way of writing that should be allowed to ‘wash over’ the reader. Eventually, it affects the way one thinks.

Deleuze argues that art should be felt through the senses; it should affect us, and the governing question in O’Dwyer’s talk is ‘what makes music expressive?’ An initial solution might be that ‘expression’ is subjective; however, Deleuze tries to make it objective. For him, ‘expression’ is an act of territorialisation.

According to Deleuze, it involves a mechanism on an immanent process that goes on outside and inside the body, something which we are all part of. This ‘machine of creativity’ comprises multiple varied states, the first of which is that of the ‘milieu’.

Before I explain the ‘milieu’s’ part in this machine of creativity; it is important to acknowledge that Deleuze uses common words that have more than one meaning.  For instance, the typical definition of ‘milieu’ is that it is a segment of time and space – something which brings to my mind the notion of ‘epoch.’ However, Deleuze talks of ‘milieu’ in a different way. To Deleuze, the ‘milieu’ is a familiar entity: something we know – a ‘predictable’ entity. Examples include an artist’s colours; that placing three fingers down on a saxophone will sound the pitch ‘G’; a piece of paper.

The second ‘state’ (or ‘part’), of this ‘machine of creativity’, is ‘rhythm’. Again, ‘rhythm’ is a term with multiple definitions, and it is important to understand which one Deleuze is employing. Deleuze uses the term ‘rhythm’ to describe something altering the ‘milieu’. Unlike the ‘milieu’, it is unpredictable. An example is the folding (‘rhythm’) of a piece of paper (‘milieu’). Basically, whatever one does to the ‘milieu’ is ‘rhythmic’.

These two ‘parts’ (‘milieu’ and ‘rhythm’) form a ‘territory’ in their combination. In other words, by taking what we know (‘milieu’) and what we do to what we know (‘rhythm’), we territorialise.

The mechanics of territorialisation can be demonstrated with the following example: birds territorialise with their song. A specific song, which a certain bird sings, tells every other bird that that bird is in the vicinity. This bird has altered the familiar surroundings (‘milieu’) with ‘Deleuzian’ ‘rhythm’: in this instance the rhythm is the bird’s song.

In his talk, O’Dwyer utilises the mechanics of territorialisation in order to explain ‘the mechanics of expression’ in the act of improvisation. He does this by likening the ‘milieu’ to a ‘sound object’.

O’Dwyer explains that improvisers develop a lexicon of ‘sound objects’ based on sounds that they make. Examples of ‘sound objects’ include a single pitch; a multiphonic. He explains that people commonly misinterpret a ‘sound object’ with the improviser’s act of varying of that ‘sound object’. In other words, the varying of the ‘sound object’ is not the ‘sound object’ itself.  For instance, consider vibrato varying a single note where the single note is the ‘sound object’ and vibrato is the improviser’s act of varying this ‘sound object’.

According to O’Dwyer, Deleuze makes this distinction between ‘sound object’ and ‘variation’.  The ‘sound object’ is something we know: a predictable entity – a ‘milieu’. It is not what is ‘expressive’. ‘Variation’ is ‘rhythm’ (in a Deleuzian sense): it modifies what we know. It is the improviser’s variation in what is already known (the ‘sound object’) which forms the improviser’s territory and thus makes it expressive. For instance, we consider vibrato to be expressive – that variation to the single note which expresses the performer.

Therefore, through the Deleuzian mechanics of territorialisation we can comprehend the potential mechanics of ‘expression’ in performance: in defining their territory on a ‘sound object’, the performer makes said ‘sound object’ personal to them; they own it. In other words, they express themselves.

It can so far be summarised that ‘territory’ comprises something that is known (‘milieu’), such as a technique or ‘sound object’. It also comprises what we’re doing to that ‘sound object’ (Deleuzian ‘rhythm’) such as varying the techniques or sound object. O’Dwyer recommends that, when we are listening to an improviser, we should listen to the ‘sound object’ and how it is being varied (as opposed to just listening to the overall sound).

In the question and answers section of the talk, someone asked O’Dwyer how Deleuze’s notion of ‘lines of flight’ fits into this Deleuzian territorialisation in music. O’Dwyer explained that he interprets Deleuzian ‘lines of flight’ to be the outcome of more variation done to the ‘sound object’ so much so that it can form a ‘line of flight’ out into another ‘territory’ (another ‘sound object’ being varied). I personally interpret this explanation as referring to a transformation across time.

Below is a biography of Dr Timothy O’Dwyer which was distributed during the talk’s advertisement:

Dr Timothy O’Dwyer is a saxophonist, composer and researcher currently Head of the School of Contemporary Music at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore. With a background in punk-jazz and free improvisation, Timothy’s music constantly pushes the boundaries of style, technique and especially context stretching across borders of culture, performance practice and art forms. He has toured widely internationally, released many CDs of original compositions to critical acclaim and is a member of the Australian contemporary music group ELISION Ensemble. Timothy is currently an Academy Fellow at the Akademie der Kunste der Welt in Koln, Germany from August 2013 to August 2014.

More information can be found here.