‘Exploring Xenakis: Performance, Practice, Philosophy’

Tomorrow I will be giving a talk at the ‘Exploring Xenakis: Performance, Practice, Philosophy’ Symposium with colleague and critical theorist Michael D. Atkinson. Our talk discusses Xenakis, the Avant Garde, May ’68 and the legendary quote ‘Xenakis, not Gounod’ which was scrawled in graffiti during the protests in France.

Below is an abstract of our talk:

May ’68 saw a time of political tension in France: the Situationist International signified a growing desire to move away from capitalism and the world of boredom and alienation it entails, and, likewise, young radicals wanted to free music from the shackles of reification that contradicted the notion of ‘avant garde’. People protested via music, vandalism, public broadcasts, sexuality, subversive behaviour, and vandalism. Graffiti was rife, with phrases such as ‘Commute, work, commute, sleep…’, ‘In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society’, and ‘Art is dead, don’t consume its corpse.’ Upon the walls of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris were graffitied the words ‘Xenakis, not Gounod’.

This focus on an avant-garde practice that exemplifies experimentation, chance, subversion, and the like was part of an effort to sublate art with everyday life, that is, to enact a revolution of everyday life. In this talk, we will explore the intertwining of such revolutionary desires with the avant-garde tendencies of the day, and, further, how the ageing, commodification, and subsequent reification of the Avant Garde is antithetical to the desires and ideology behind itself. We will focus in particular on how Xenakis and those like him became central to the revolutionary consciousness of the day, and what it is about Xenakis’ practice that paradoxically disavows such possibilities.

Reviewing the New Music Biennial Festival #nmb17

Any readers following my Instagram feed will be aware that I was reviewing this year’s New Music Biennial Festival in Hull. For those of you who could not attend the festival this year, my article features in Sounds Like Now: Contemporary Music News  and can be read here.

Below is a preview of the article, also available here.


Eliza Carthy at the PRSF New Music Biennial 2017, photo Tom Arran

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 United Kingdom 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 premières) 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.

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L.I.M.E.: ‘Barricades and Partitions’

CROSSWOR[K] (2013)  for free instrumentation will be performed by Leeds Improvised Music and Experimentation organisation (L.I.M.E.) in their  upcoming concert Barricades and Partitions, 1st May, 2016 , Wharf Chambers, Leeds, England.

The event also features LUUMS New Music Ensemble and Prohibited Strangers. More information about the event can be found here.

More information about my composition CROSSWOR[K] (2013) can be found here.


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.

hcmf// Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2014

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) is a nine-day long festival of contemporary music, typically held every year in November. The following is a brief account of some of the pieces, from the festival, that have inspired some thoughts about my own compositional approach (having said this, I didn’t attend every event at the festival). I am writing about them here as a means of gathering some thoughts and promoting further composition and research.

The opening night ended with a memorable performance of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Lohengrin by Sofia Jernberg and musicians assembled by nyMusikk Bergen. The performance was amazing. It highlighted the technically-skilled timbral (especially of the voice) exploration of Sciarrino’s music. This version in particular showcased the variety of sounds that can be produced by just flute, voice and strings. This is something I would like to explore in my own music. I am challenging myself to compose a piece of music that explores timbre/sound to the same extent; however, I will be employing a reduced version of the instrumental groups used in the aforementioned performance (not only because this makes performing the piece practical, but because I enjoy inventing and overcoming compositional restrictions). As such, I propose to write a piece, with ‘wild’ timbral exploration, for (only) one voice, one flute, and one string instrument.

Other pieces I heard this year at #HCMF that resonated with me in some way are as follows:

Josep Sanz Quintana Triphonie I/b

Manuel Rodriguez Valenzuela, T(t) blocks

Luis Codera Puzo, n (pi)

Jon Oivind Ness, Gimilen

James Dillon, Stabat Mater dolorosa (so much to say about this piece!)

Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, Still, Again

Monty Adkins & Jason Payne, Rift Patterns

Benedict Mason, String Quartet No. 2 (especially the penultimate movement)

James Clarke, Quartet No. 3

James Dillon, String Quartet No. 4 and String Quartet No. 5

This year’s festival ended with a showcase of James Dillon’s string quartets (performed by the Arditti Quartet), and a round table discussion.

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.