This opera lark is a weird thing. When I was writing Puddle Wonderful I talked to the librettist, James Johnson, he wrote the words, I wrote the music, there was a bit of tooing and froing between us while I was writing, it was handed to the players, conductor and director and it happened. Yes there were arguments, people annoyed at decisions that they weren’t happy about but everyone was there to do their thing as best as they can which sometimes is beyond the understand of the other people trying to do their thing, hence the arguments, but everything came together and the evenings it was performed I and everyone else couldn’t have been happier.
This time it’s completely different. Not that everyone isn’t trying to do their thing to their fullest, they are, there are just less people involved. The first performance had the ensemble, singers, conductor, director, lighting tech, marketing person, composer and librettist, this time there is the ensemble, singers, conductor and Jason, Thom and I trying to fill in for all the other rolls. So completely different and a little more weight on our inexperienced shoulders.
Today I am talking to my singers about blocking. This is something I’ve only every experienced once before, during the first performance, and it mostly consisted of me sitting at the back of the room watching and occasionally saying “yea that seems grand” because I really had no idea what was going on. This time I have to talk to the three singers about what I want it to look like, Barbara Walton, Catrin Pryce-Jones and Claire Thompson all have more experience in this area than I do! The other interesting/worrying thing is that Musa doesn’t have a stage – it is a bar/restaurant. This means I can’t simply borrow ideas from other shows I’ve seen “I want you to act like they did in act 1 of X” I have to do everything from scratch.
After a few hours of thinking, sketching and writing I’ve come up with an outline of actions, movements and general placement in the room of the singers for each bit of the piece. I’ve also solidified the characters of the singers. You might think that that should have been done long ago but because the singers are three strands of the same person they don’t have definite characters in the text, it is their movements that will give them shape. My worry with what I have come up with is that there is too much and it won’t be physically possible to do what I’ve been thinking in the time constraints of the piece but I’m hoping that the singers experience will help when I sit down with them later.
I’m just back from my first time at the proms and feel the need to write something about them more than just being a great experience.
My first impression of the hall itself was simply ‘wow’, it just seems right. Yes it is big but not too big, the misty blur that I get from large spaces (the Coliseum in Rome being the best example) didn’t happen, and because it is big I wasn’t expecting it to have such an acoustic. It took a few moments to get used to it but once I did it was perfect, quiet but perfect. When there I went to proms 45, 46 and 47 but am only going to comment on 46 in this entry and 47 on a subsequent one.
The opening to prom 46 with the Philharmonia Orchestra was Mosolov’s The Foundry (1927). Mosolov is a composer whom I have to admit I had never heard of but going on these 4 minutes of pounding industrial music. No don’t think Rammstein simply think the rhythm and sound of the machinery in a steel fabrication plant. There is no beginning to the piece, no tentative inroads on the silence that preceded it simply begins as if it has always been there grinding away or that someone has just hit ‘on’. The most spine tingling moments in the piece are when the 8 horns stand up (rather effective physical movement for the piece) and play a short melody over the incessant mechanical grinding of the rest of the orchestra. According to the programme notes by Andrew Huth The Foundry was meant as the opening to a now lost ballet consisting of a further three movements In Prison, At the Ball and In the Street. I can but hope that it is found at some point to hear what such music would lead into. Somehow I doubt it would be anything like the next piece of the concert, the UK premier and I believe only second performance of Arvo Pärt’s fourth symphony ‘Los Angeles’ (2008).
This piece is the reason I went to this prom and unfortunately it left me wanting and not in the way Pärt’s music usually does. For me Pärt’s music is the kind of music in which you sit in a darkened room, eyes closed letting it wash over you, ignoring everything. Kind of like lying on your back eyes closed in water and letting yourself drift. The piece is very typically Pärt, heavy on the strings, very slow and quite and uses his typical chord spacing to give a typical sound. Unfortunately that’s where it fell down on first listen; it was simply too typical. There was no sense of going anywhere yet no sense of languishing with intention it was caught somewhere in-between the two. Maybe on subsequent listens (at the moment its still available in BBC iplayer for 3 more days) it will be less tedious and I might pick up the drive behind the piece but for a first impression it wasn’t good.
The material did not seem to be strong enough to sustain the attention of the listener for such a long time and was in fact quite disjointed. The best example of this is after the opening section which is interrupted by the timpani comes a scale played in such a way to make me think it is a quote from a Philip Glass piece. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t but it seems so out of place with what has come before and what is still to come that it jars the ear and the mind. Even with this criticism there were moments of very beautiful music, specifically the warmth of the central section with pizzicato strings and marimba.
It was quite interesting to see Pärt pretty much run up to the stage, he is almost 75 yet he doesn’t seem like he is any older than 60 the way he moves!
The next piece was Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30) played by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Its an odd piece that builds from a contra bassoon solo to an orchestral tutti before half a piano comes in. The build up is such that you expect a chord in the highest and lowest registers of the piano but this is impossible because it is only written for the left hand. This lack of the ability to use 10 fingers is due to the commissioner, Paul Wittgenstein, had lost his right hand during the war. Ravel attempts to create the impression of such a chord though but unfortunately Bavouzet ruins it because in the opening flourishes there were quite a few missed notes, this was the impression I had on the night and after a little bit of research (ahh the joys of iplayer and spotify!) my firs impress was backed up. This set up the tone for the rest of the piece, it didn’t quite feel right. It seemed more of an argument between soloist and orchestra than conversation. The orchestra’s rendition of the piece I cannot fault and in fact was so good that the mistakes and problems with the soloist were forgotten about to leave me with a very good impression of the work.
Finally was Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy (1905-8), a piece that I knew existed but had never had the chance to listen to. Unfortunately I found it a little too romantic and long in its tendencies for my liking. This could have been because of the performance or the music itself but I felt it could have been a little shorter. That being said it was great to hear the great Albert Hall organ in the closing chords of the piece vibrating my seat even though I was in the circle which is an unbelievable feeling that cannot be reproduced by any recording.
Sometimes you have a craving. This craving manifests itself as a physical impulse, your body tells your mind ‘satisfy this craving’. Easily done if the craving is quite a general one ‘give me water’ or ‘give me food’ but what if that craving is a lot more specific? Again it can be easily satisfied in certain circumstances ‘I want an orange’ or ‘I want garlic bread’. There is third level of craving that is even more frustrating ‘I want a flavour’.
This level is the one you have been suffering, and suffer is the appropriate word. You have been searching for that one flavour to satisfy your craving. Every time you think you have it you run to the shop and buy the food you have just remembered contains that flavour. It doesn’t. It may be close; it may sometimes contain a hint of that thing you are after but not enough to slate your desire. You return home to continue doing whatever it was you were doing. Somewhere in the back of your mind there are stacks of drawers in rooms full of filing cabinets being opened, flipped through and closed as your brain frantically goes through everything it can find that might possibly resemble that one thing your body is calling out for. Occasionally it throws up an answer, a golden file is sprung open with a name ‘cheese and onion crisps!’ it exclaims in big letters. You run to the shop. No, not it. ‘Jarlsberg!’ No. ‘Egg fried rice!’ No again. Gradually the craving diminishes as the elf flipping through the files gets bored and your body realises that what it desires so much cannot be named. It might even be a new flavour or simply one experienced many years ago now long forgotten, squashed and at the bottom of one of these drawers. Either way you are getting tired and slip into bed to waken up the next morning with no such craving and, if there is a memory of it at all, a little bit of concern as to how you became so obsessed over a flavour.
The same thing can easily happen with an activity, an image, a sound, an idea. An obsession to experience an unreachable thing that seems to hang within sight but with a veil of mist covering it just thick enough to blur it’s defining features. The question is how much effort should you put into these cravings. Should the day be spent running to and fro between shop and home trying to find the flavour be exactly that, a day? Should this day represent a week, a month, a year, or even a lifetime? Where if you fail to gain what you desire there is no opportunity to waken up in the morning and feel a little embarrassed about your obsession, thankful that no one else really took any notice.
There is something in that last paragraph that could be quite telling depending on your reaction. Did you or did you not agree with the statement ‘feel a little embarrassed about your obsession’? If you did then maybe this essay is for you or maybe it isn’t and you will hate and disagree with everything in it. If on the other hand you thought ‘embarrassed by an obsession? Never!’ then you already know what this essay could be about.
The mind and body are not two separate things, as contemporary thought seems to portray them. They are one inseparable thing. One complete whole that cannot function in the fashion it does without both remaining broadly intact. The body informs the mind of its needs to survive and the mind attempts to work out solutions to fulfil these needs. It has been hypothesised that the mind doesn’t even do that. The mind is simply there to negate these cravings. It is not a system that always says yes but one that sometimes says no – a governor valve to the body’s desires if you will. Sit on that thought for a moment. The place that you believe has contained all your thoughts and desires, including the little elf with the filing cabinet of flavours and missing files, is simply there to say ‘no, I shan’t give you what you want’.
Now you are thinking ‘how can this be so, I am having this thought in reaction to the words I have just read?’ But what are those words? In their base form they are things that have a meaning only because you have been taught they have a meaning. How do you know you have not been taught to have such a reaction to that specific string of words? Obviously you cannot be taught how to react to every conceivable sentence, you don’t live in a Brave New World, but even if you did where would the first teaching have come from? But the train of thought has wondered through the mist of the mind onto another topic entirely and must return to the one at hand.
The body and mind are one. A craving from one creates a feedback loop between itself and the other. Though naming and separating them both seems to be rather wrong when described like this. They are just One. Somehow this concept of separation has seeped into almost every pour of existence. The argument is there that it is for ease of definition but it makes certain rules and concepts harder to explain. It is cultural decency that men and woman are separated in changing rooms but then why not male and female children? At what point is it wrong for a young girl to walk into a male changing room? What if that girl looks to be 15 but is only 7? Where and why did this idea of cultural decency even appear?
Another further reaching separation is that of humans and animals. You know instinctively what this means, but you are wrong. There is no possible separation between humans and animals; in fact that statement is a tautology. Humans ARE animals. This is something that conservationists frequently get wrong. They somehow see the world as if humans live on a glass floor five foot above the ground observing a static world and having no effect on it, apart from detrimental one. They are blind to the idea humans have always effected the environment they live in, in the same way every other animal effects the environment, for the better or worse, of those living in the same area. There is a tree that supplies safety to ants to enable them to remove all surrounding undergrowth and keep that tree’s dominance over the local environment. Would any conservationist propose removing all those trees because of the perceived damage they cause? No I doubt it. So why force indigenous humans out of their natural habitat simply because they are human?
You are now thinking ‘what does this have to do with craving? Is the writer following a plan or just writing what comes into their mind’. You may yet find out.
One demands something, One is distracted, One craves something, One attempts to find the source, One fails. What if this craving is a desire to explain a feeling, a feeling conjured by a word? The word is pretty ordinary and easy to find in a dictionary. You might have heard it used today by someone else or even used it yourself, its nothing special just another word. The word? Structure. You read the word knowing its definitions taught to you by countless conversations or from reading the definition in a dictionary. A definition you understand by the knowledge of the meanings of the words used to explain it learnt through countless conversations or from reading the definition in a dictionary. You understand what structure means intimately but somehow you are now concerned that this word will change. Has changed. That there is something you have missed in you knowledge and the meaning behind this rather bland but important word that somehow makes you feel uneasy.
This uneasiness is not always there when the word is used. It isn’t a Pavlovian condition where you hear ‘structure’ and you feel uneasy. Only when put in one specific context does that happen: ‘the structure of the piece of music was…’. But why?
You firstly think there must be something wrong with you but after more thought that changes. You begin to think its something wrong with them, with their use of the word. You cannot shake this feeling, this craving to work it out. Other people tell you to just accept it, go to sleep and the feeling will be gone in the morning (as in the case of a flavour), but it doesn’t. You begin to spend hours pondering this word. You do understand what they mean, why they use it but they cannot be using it right. Eventually after almost two years you work out what is wrong. After two years obsessing about one word, craving an answer you sit down at your computer to attempt to explain the conclusion you have come to. You begin typing:
Sometimes you have a craving…
This is a very quick blog simply because I only have abotu 5 mins of internet left.
Sitting in a hostel in amsterdam after visiting paris and heading to berlin tonight. In paris we lost one of our group: he didnt want to puch onto the metro on the night of bastile (SP?) day and so got seperated form us. It took us the next few hours to find him. Then after finding him we thoguht it would be a good idea to see the eiffle tour at night causing us to spend an hour after trying to find a way back to the flat, we only jsut got hte last metro…the doors were beeping! Also in paris went to muse dorse (sp?) for the art and sat abotu the louvre gardens, it was closed on a tuesday annoyingly!
In amsterdam we all split up because of different interestes. Went to anne franks house, bigger than I expected, and then the Van Gogh museam. With that in mind for my own notes ‘the outline of a piece. Nothing more. Just the basic compressed and stripped down’.
Anyway that is all I have time for I think. HEading to Berlin tonight to spend a few days and then onto prague. Possibly another update soon.
With a new website I’m going to start a new blog though with this one, instead of me talking about just my music, I’m going to tie it into my new thing on SubCity Radio co-hosting the Vile Arts Radio Hour every few weeks. Today was my first time co-hosting the first hour of the show, which you can hear here, I have been on before as just me and as part of Said Ensemble but it seems I have moved in and become a bit of the furniture.
I don’t really know what form this blog will take yet apart from it will have a regular link to the Vile Arts show. I think I’ll probably use it to clarify, expand, correct and possibly defend any remarks I make on the show but also as a place to list the events I mention on the show. If there is anything coming up that I don’t mention but that you think I should know about please get in touch so I can plug it for you either here or on the show when I’m next on.
The first piece I played was Oliver Messiaen’s L’Ascension – I. Majesté du Christ demandant sa glaorie à son Père played by Oliver Latry from Messiaen – Complete Organ works. Messiaen is someone who has always been on my listening list but unfortunately I haven’t heard much of it live (play more Messiaen everyone!), his music basically got be into contemporary music. I remember my composition teacher explaining the Fibonacci sequences built into Messiaen’s music, especially the Quartet for the End of Time but also in his Vingt regard sur l’enfant Jésus which I discovered through doing an analysis but that’s for a different post. Anyway the reason I played this piece is because the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland chamber choir are doing a concert tonight in Glasgow University Chapel with L’Ascension being played through the concert. They are also doing Judith Weir’s Ascending into Heaven, Orlando Gibbons O Clap Your Hands Together, Bach’s Lobet den Herrn and Gerald Finzi’s God is Gone up with a Triumphant Shout.
The book I mentioned about Messiaen was Oliver Messiaen: Journalism 1935-1939 by Dr. Stephen Broad. A while ago I went to a talk that Stephen was given linked to this book called ‘Portraits of the Young Man as an Artist’ the basic gist of the talk was that all artists be they musicians, painters or whatever try to present themselves in a certain light. In the case of a musician it comes down to, if memory serves me right. chance discovery, self taught and natural. With regard to Messiaen this is a chance discovery of a score in his drawer (which happened to be a pretty standard score for theory study), which helped him learn to read music (learn music with no instruction?!?!), which all came naturally. As you can see these are pretty vague and in the talk Stephen refuted these through referencing other sources but also showed how these same things were used by other musicians. This list wasn’t thought up by him but by someone else doing research, who I have unfortunately forgotten the name of. Within the talk Stephen showed various bits of evidence showing that Messiaen either ignored the facts or corrected them to best suit his story. The point wasn’t to put a stain on his character but simply to use him as a research point for other artists.
The next pieces I played were The Illusionist and Naqoyqatsi linked into the BBC SSO and Kronos Quartet playing his music next weekend as part of the Minimal Festival. About the Philip Glass talk I was on about you can get free tickets for it here. Its free you just need to register so they can keep an eye on how many people are going. Its at on Thursday 24th at 6pm and will finish in time for the BBC concert of his 6th Symphony. I’ve got a ticket for the talk and am playing to get one for the Symphony. Philip Glass is an odd one for me, I can’t take as much of his music as I can Reich but I do like it in small doses. I think for me Reich is more meditative where as Glass is more active. Maybe. I’m not sure….
Already in this blog I’m coming up with topics for other blogs which is good but could be a rather exponential exercise but I’ll see. Anyway I think thats enough about me rambling for now. Below is the list of events and information I have managed to gain on them coming up in the next month or so in Glasgow.
Scottish Ensemble, 25th May, 1pm, RCS, £9.50,£6.50 a new commission by Alasdair Spratt
This is the week of PLUG in RSAMD. Ten concerts in five days and most of the music being played are premiers by the composers within the composition department. I have two pieces being played both on Thursday. The first is ‘Silence, Imperfect Silence’ for odd chamber orchestra at 1pm. I say odd because its for flute, sax, 4 singers, 2 pianos, percussion, 2 violins and a viola. It would almost make sense if there was a cello to round it off but nope. The idea behind it is the undergraduates have a module called ‘Style in Performance’ and in their 3rd year they have to play contemporary music so some of the composition department. This then explains the reason for the odd ensemble. The instruments available were auctioned sorry faily divided between the composers and thats what I ended up with. Considering I wanted flute, sax, 4 singers, piano, percussion, violin, viola and cello I think I did pretty well. Some people didn’t get any of the instruments they asked for!
Anyway enough of that back to the gist of this post. So that piece is at 1pm on thursday and the other is at 7.30pm on the same day. The other piece is one you will have heard a lot about if you have been following this blog…. Its Dichroic Light on its second outing! It is once again played by Lydia Whittingham, my collaborator in the composition. If you want a taster of the piece before coming along you can listen to it on my website here.
Below I’ve embedded the full programme of the festival. I shant pick out certain concerts (apart from my own) to suggest you come to because from the rehearsals I’ve heard they are all going to be excellent! Tickets for all concerts in RSAMD are available from the box office. https://boxoffice.rsamd.ac.uk/peo/default.asp
So much for keeping track of the development of the whole piece on here. I liked the idea of it but somehow the time to post just slipped away from me. So this post will be a quick skim over the last month and a half of writing Dichroic Light.
As it stands the piece is completely finished and had its premier last week in Glasgow City Halls as part of Edit-Point inaugural concert. You can see the full score and recording at the end of this post.
Oddly for me a name came pretty fast at the end Dichroic Light. Dichroic refers to a certain type of crystal which splits light into two colours and I thought it was a fitting word to use in reference to the two contrasting sounds that of the pure cello (obviously concentrating on cello sounds) and of the electronics (taking the cello sounds and lengthening them, pulling out certain harmonics etc). This is a lot more than I give away in the programme note but hey I think this is the place to do it rather than in a programme. Hmm I might write a post about programme notes…..
Anyway below is an image from wikipedia article on dichroic glass.
From my previous post the first movement didn’t change too much. Below is pretty much a straight transcription of the hand written score seen before. Also the first idea for the 2nd movement is there. This ended up being completely impracticable because of the speed I wanted it at so most of it got thrown out.
This is the 3rd version of the score. No changes to the first movement but the 2nd movement has been completely changed again. There are still hints of the previous version but they will go by the next revision. This is the material that the 2nd movement cements itself with.
Mark 4 of the score. Once again no change to the first movement but the second is overhauled again with the addition of 4 cellos and removing one note form the string crossing harmonics, Lydia just couldn’t stretch to get into the required position. The idea behind these was that it would signify what is happening in the electronics for the player. Each additional cello would simply be playing a loop that was recorded live. The best place to look to see what I mean is bar 123 and 124. Whats played in the live cello (cello one) is quickly taken up by the 3rd cello. The 2nd cello recorded its sample from the start of the movement. The idea that this stemmed from was to create a sense of stasis in that the material used by the solo cello becomes a background texture.
Below is mark 5 with the rough sketch of the 3rd and final movement. By this point a few changes have been made to the first movement just to expand it a little bit. The 2nd movement is also very close to its final form. At this point I had a realisation with the electronics that it wasn’t going to be possible to record and sync the triplets live. It wasn’t through lack of trying no matter how we tried it or how I changed the patch it just ended up sounding like a mess so we decided to record each line individually and I would sync them up in the studio. This posed a challenge of its own getting them to loop without clicking and without speeding up. After quite a few hours of fixing I got it working. The max end of it was simple but effective, all the loops start playing together but with the volume set to -120db then when queued the volume goes up to 0db. When rehearsing we left them running for a while and after about 20mins they started phasing a little but because the movement is only about 5 mins long thats perfectly fine. If I decide to do the same thing again over a longer period of time I’ll need to cross that barrier.
The inspiration for the 3rd movement was just Lydia singing when she was tuning. Her voice isn’t that of a trained singer and thats exactly why I wanted it. It took a little bit of convincing but eventually she agreed and so the draft of the 3rd movement was written.
I wont bother uploading and describing the various versions up to the final one because most of the changes weren’t anything major. The last movement was expanded a bit more with more detail added in and the 2nd movement continued to be tweaked. The final version of the score can be seen below.
The biggest problem I came across was the electronics or more precisely deciding to rebuild them. Until this piece I had never really used max/msp so it was a massive learning curve. Some point in the middle of February I realised that even though what I had done worked it was by no means the most efficient or straightforward so I rebuilt it from scratch. This took about 20 or 30 hours over 3 days but ended up saving around 15% cpu usage so was well worth it.
Its just dawned on me I dont think I’ve spoken about what the electronics are meant to do and how they do it. At the most basic level the effect is just reverb (‘gigaverb’) but this reverb has both an envelope follower and an eq. The reason for the envelope follower was to prevent the loudest sounds drowning out the quieter ones. For example without the envelope follower the opening notes of the first movement wouldn’t let the upper partials hang on during the pause, they would just be drowned out. This idea of the upper quiet sounds within the cello was eventuated using a comb filter specifically the ‘teeth’ object. The most interesting thing about teeth is that is has a fluctuation setting in it which means that in certain sections it sounds that the note scoops up to itself. Its hard to describe but when you hear it you’ll know what I mean. One of the other jobs of the electronics is panning. The idea was that the reverby stuff would sound like its moving from the cello to the back of the room and fade away into the distance, the idea was relatively effective but I dont know completely how it worked out in the live setting (I was sat side on to the stage with my ear quite close to one of the speakers). The final job is sample playback. The second movement uses both sample playback and panning to give the impression that the sounds move to and from the cellist. When the triplet rhythm is played on the cello the sample pans from the cello’s position before moving to another point in the room and before all the samples stop they move back to the front position. Again the idea seemed to work but having a speaker in your right ear means you can’t quite get the full effect.
I think thats the full run down of Dichroic Light and if you are interested in playing it send me an email and we can talk. In the mean time you can see the score below and hear the stereo mix down of the recording.
Today I made another version of the score with the details Lydia and I talked about on Friday. Nothing has drastically changed just a few accents, dynamics and sul pont markings but the main thing for this updated is the electronics. I have been concentrating on etting the max patch right for the first two lines of the score to see how the fading will work along with some samples. Thankfully it all seems to be sorted with the 4 channel version working very nicely. You can hear the stereo version of it all attached below.
The samples are made from a recording of Lydia on Friday and a recording of a piano I made about 2 years ago both heavily eqed and with the cello sound granulised. I think these are the sounds I’m going to work with for the moment and see how far I can stretch them to keep a homogeneity in the piece.
today Lydia and I had a quick look at what I’ve written so far with some of the electronics. The main point of today was to clarify bits of the score (mainly caused by my sketch handwriting!) and to see how it sounded with the electronics as well as a bit of experimentation. The samples below are of bit of the piece with the reverb just in stereo. It worked almost as I expected but not quite. The reverb time needs tweaked and the envelope following needs tweaked a bit more, it sounded like there was too much verb bleeding through when there shouldn’t have been any and not enough when there should have been loads. Easy enough to do just change the maths about a little in the patch.
Lydia suggested some things which I hadn’t thought of but work really well like ending the opening notes as sul pont. In my mind this blends really nicely with the harmonics later on so its definitely in. Also a few things came to light which I should have realised when I was writing (because I know the physics of it) but didn’t, specifically glissing a harmonic trill doesn’t work. What I mean by a harmonic trill is moving between the real note and the harmonic in the same position, basically changing the pressure of the left hand.
Overall everything worked nicely and its a positive start to the piece. I think we are going to make this Friday session a regular occurrence or at least as regular as possible to work through it. Hopefully I’ll have another version with the edits we talked about today in it.