In other news I have my next PhD milestone due around the end of August. Cue overly dramatic flailing about, anguish, gnashing of teeth, etc. This time it is the first few chapters of my exogesis, which mostly means lots of writing about myself. Can't be too hard, right? I'll keep telling myself that and hopefully one day I'll wake up one morning and have a PhD.
Something I'm a little more excited to mention is the "art/music" collaborative project I have started with my friend (and amazing visual artist) Kristian Purcell. For a while I have been preoccupied with exploring the connections between sound and vision, in particular looking at my own language and how I perceive things, the way ideas and inspiration cross over between the two senses. Everyone's perception is different, so I'm not about establishing knowledge for anyone but myself here. That said, there are certainly ideas and vocabulary that cross over easily - line, form, structure, repetition, chance, colour, shape, dissonance, juxtaposition etc etc etc. I've been keeping an art blog for a few months now (http://thisticklesleah.tumblr.com) where I have been posting/reblogging anything that has tickled my fancy and made me think of music, and tagging each posting up with the terms and musical ideas that speak to me in that moment. This process has been surprisingly useful to my creative practice and it led me to ask Kristian if he wanted to participate in a little creative back and forth, responding to each other's art with quick, intuitive working.
We're only a few weeks in, and already the material being generated is really interesting. Maybe when it's done we'll publish it online, and I am hoping that when it is viewed as a larger body of work the threads of inspiration that run throughout can be seen and heard. For now I'm just enjoying the freedom to explore musical thoughts without being tied to a brief/job/commission/context or any "this should be serious you're a PhD student" bullshit ideals.
Ok, maybe that's a tad unfair - after all, we can't help but be influenced by the world around us, and we live a postmodern life - there is no escaping it. I grew up listening to a lot of The Beatles, around the same age I was playing a lot of Bach and becoming aware for the first time in my life of the power of film scores. Have these things imprinted on my music in any practically audible way? Probably not, but it's all in there... all bits floating around in the big soup in my head.
A good working definition of postmodernism that everyone can agree on is difficult to nail down - I'm not sure what I think of Kramer's itemised list of 'postmodern musical characteristics' ("multiple temporalities"?). Georgina Born puts it simply: a synthesis of modernist processes and mechanisms in popular-culture forms (where modernism is defined as music written to challenge and educate, popular music written to sell or promote). K. Robert Schwarz echoes this idea when, in discussing the creative approach of John Adams, he describes a blending of process-based creation and intuitive response as an "eclectic postmodern" ideology. Certainly all of my favourite composers and artists do this — from Fitkin to Eno, Warhol, Bjork, Bowie, Reich, Bryars, Duchamp and Roy Lichtenstein. Mixing up approaches, consciously blending styles, "pick & mix"ing influences, using impersonal processes but treating or developing the results in an artistically intuitive way.
This postmodern ideology favours a communicative approach. The goal is not to educate or challenge, nor is it to sell or promote. The goal is to connect with a listener; to tell a story or influence a feeling using whatever tools are available. Film composers do this all the time - crossing stylistic barriers, working within cliches, anything it takes to create this connection. If the moment calls for the use of jazz elements, and he or she is not a traditional jazz composer, does this diminish the value of the music? Is it unauthentic? Pretentious? Can composers create music in different styles and traditions and still be taken seriously? Can Jonny Greenwood be a writer of pop songs and at the same time make experimental music, atmospheric soundtracks and then be a credible contemporary classical composer?
Of course he can - because he's a bloody marvellous composer. Music is a language, we use it to say things... and we can say whatever we like. It helps if there is someone listening to what you are saying though, if it can connect with people — at that point where music meets life, in those things that relate to the human existence: patterns, rhythms, melody, the tone of a voice, consonances and dissonances, memory and emotion. All the sounds and ideas that have gone before are now part of the vocabulary.
There is no real incentive for me to compose music that is deliberately challenging and impenetrable - if I were to try, it would be sad and pretentious and I'd probably fail hideously. Admitting alignment with the postmodern ideal is not pretentious, it's the truth about my own context. It's that soup in my brain that's been brewing since I first perceived music as a child, it's my preference to prioritise communication through music, using whatever means. Like Stewie here:
"My first recycling experiment" or "how I hacked up Rob Davidson's String Quartet beyond recognition"
(What I'm talking about is the subject of that last blog of mine - this whole idea of a composition evolving, the recorded artefact becoming the starting point for a new creation.)
So I decided to experiment, to find out how easy it is to chop and manipulate an existing recording in order to create something completely different. My string quartet is not finished, so I stole Rob Davidson's String Quartet - a live recording that had some really interesting room ambience in the mix, and some fun audience sounds (coughing, sneezing, etc).
Here's an excerpt from Rob's recording (the opening):
String Quartet - Rob Davdison (Opening/Example) by LeahExperiments
The following experiments/hack jobs were made purely by recycling bits of the above recording, with bits mostly taken from the first movement. In Logic, I used EQ, scissor, time-stretch, reverse, reverb & flex tools to completely mess it up.
Experiment 1 (recycling String Quartet by Rob Davidson) by LeahExperiments
Experiment 2 (recycling String Quartet by Rob Davidson) by LeahExperiments
I'm not sure if the results are good enough to play at the seminar, but I think they are interesting all the same. There are some peculiar dissonances that I wasn't expecting, which resulted from combining notes and chords taken from different places where tunings had slightly shifted in the performance. In some places this is pleasing, in others it definitely grates! When I took a short sample and stretched it a long way it produced a rustling guitar-like effect, which I thought was a happy accident. The limitations in my examples are clear with regard to melody/harmony/tonality - this was partly due to the fact that I chose to focus on a short section of the recording to plunder for samples, but mostly due to me being lazy and opting for drone-based harmony layers and glitchy rhythms.
I’ve been working on this thing on and off for many months now - and I take heart in knowing that Maurice Ravel, whose Quartet in F major is an aspirational model for me with this project, himself took a long time too. Ariella commissioned it back in January 2009, I suspect they think I’ve forgotten about it completely.
The music is pretty much there, the hold up has been in the details - the attention to voice leading, the dynamics, the interior lines. After a spell of being all “Rah, time to get this bitch DONE and DUSTED”, throwing all my notes at the score with a 'that’ll do’ attitude, I’m now actually really enjoying giving it some careful attention. I think it deserves some, and I’m learning so much from the process. An hour spent inside the first movement getting a couple of cadences right, its fun .... not unlike sudoku.
Another aspect that I have been in two minds about has been the final format of the piece. Not wanting to shoehorn technology into it in a desperate bid to make the piece ‘modern’ or to fit in with my PhD research, but at the same time wanting to use the material for experimentation in some way without diminishing the musicality and appeal of the finished work. Then I hit on the solution - recycling! The score that becomes a performance that becomes a recording, and then a recording that becomes fodder for manipulation and restructuring (chopping, splicing, juxtaposing, sampling) that then becomes something completely new.
Then there’s my beloved Aphex Twin and his 26 remixes for cash in which, along with many weird and wonderful things, he gives us a re-imagining of Gavin Bryars’ ‘Sinking of the Titanic’ (he calls it “Raising the Titanic” ) and an eerie mash-up of Philip Glass’ Heroes symphony with the original David Bowie acapella vocal take from 1977. I have always regarded this guy to be a serious composer of new music - I defy anyone who’s actually listened to “drukQs” and his “Selected Ambient Works” to tell me I’m wrong.
I was talking to Rob (my PhD supervisor) recently about the chamber ensemble “Alarm Will Sound’, a group that somehow has the audacious bollocks to attempt to play Aphex Twin’s music live with real instruments. Something people thought was impossible, but they did it! With kettle drums and bassoons! What strikes you when you hear their renditions is how rare the music sounds - no-one would ever compose this stuff from a score, putting notes on a page. It’s a completely different way of composition - made possible by technology - where timbre and texture are king.
In Daniel Levetin’s awesome book “Your Brain on Music”, he reminds us that distinguishing timbre is one of the most sophisticated and important parts of our hearing:
... it is the most important and ecologically relevant feature of auditory events. The timbre of a sound is the principal feature that distinguishes the growl of a lion from the purr of a cat, the crack of thunder from the crash of ocean waves, the voice of a friend from that of a bill collector one is trying to dodge. Timbral discrimination is so acute in humans that most of us can recognize hundreds of different voices. We can even tell whether someone close to us - our mother, our spouse - is happy or sad, healthy or coming down with a cold. ... I believe timbre is at the centre of our appreciation of music”
Traditionally, this aspect was a bit of an unknown to composers who wrote scores. Even though most of us expect violins to have certain timbral qualities, the small differences in sound brought about by various instrument builds, performance idiosyncrasies, effects of spaces on ambience & standing waves, tunings etc are impossible to know. When material is recorded however, then these aspects are known from the outset and very much in the composers control.
I think people are really tuned in to the qualities of sound these days - there’s much talk about the timbral qualities of valve/analogue equipment, the superior listening experience provided by phonograph records or digital audio (depending which side of the fence you sit on) or whatever bit compression your mp3 happens to be to what dithering algorithm you bounce your masters with. Even people who aren’t musicians will comment on a “fat” bass line, a ‘dirty’ synth, a ‘heavy’ guitar part. Beethoven sounds better when played on a Bösendorfer than through a General MIDI module. I’m told that Haydn sounds perfect in the Esterhazy hall.
But back to the quartet... this is where I’m at with it right now - finishing the score, giving my attention to perfecting form, harmony, melodic themes, and all the other details. Once that is done, I eagerly anticipate hearing how Ariella play it, and recording the performance. Then to take that recorded performance apart and build something new with it.
Is it wrong that Sibleius' 'REPRISE' music font on my music gives me the horn? (click --->1 score (08-05-10))
...John Stuart Mill once wrote: "I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations. The octave consists only of five tones and two semitones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seems to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers to strike out, as they have done, entirely new surpassing rich veins of musical beauty. This sort of anxiety, may, perhaps, be thought to resemble that of the philosophers of Laputa, who feared lest the sun be burnt out"...
...There are 479,001,600 possible combinations of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. With rhythmic variety added to the unbounded universe of melodic patterns, there is no likelihood that new music will die of internal starvation in the next 1000 years.
- Nicols Slonimsky (from the preface to his amazing and insanely exhaustive tome “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” from 1947)
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine anything existing beyond the world we know. But I’m going to embrace the things that I am uncomfortable with, and with Rob’s help, try to get inside the music I don’t understand. Its a similar problem to not understanding a set of words you hear someone using - rather than reject the message as meaningless, I should make an effort to understand and expand my vocabulary. Any other action is really just ignorance, right?
I received word this morning that at long last I am to commence my PhD studies at UQ, working with the wonderfully talented Dr. Robert Davidson! So chuffed! So excited!!
AND it’s a long weekend. AND tomorrow Matt and I go up north to see our potential new puppy for the first time. Oh happy day.
:D :D :D
... I’ve decided to take myself through a series of lessons in the larger forms in music. I have this fantastic old book by Percy Goetschius (written 1915) that full of lovely composition exercises and I figured while I’m at it I might sharpen up my orchestration (and finally learn how to drive that VSL library properly). I’ve even busted out my old score-pads, something I haven’t used since I was at uni... and found some disturbingly rubbish music scrawled on a few of the pages (I recognized the desperation in the pencil markings, I must have had a portfolio due).
What brings this on? I’ve been writing a lot of miniatures of late - and by that I mean small instrumental works of about 3 - 5 mins in length (think little atmospheric pseudo-classical pop songs in binary form). I think I’ve been slightly frightened to write anything on a larger scale, some formal structures are a bit intimidating when you’re rusty on the rules... but by avoiding them I have been creating music that generally runs out of steam after themes A and B have run their course. In many ways it’s easier when you write for a film or other context, the music there supports a larger narrative or purpose and the composer is almost let off the hook. You just write some themes, agree on the instrumentation and then the rest kinda drives itself.
In the introduction there’s this fab quote from the book:
“The classic designs are not lightly to be overthrown, for they are the cumulative product of a gradually dawning recognition of nature’s musical laws, steadily progressing and crystallizing through the gathering and eliminating experiences of master-minds during many past centuries. It seems reasonable, therefore, to assume that true structural progress cannot be achieved by abandoning these, but rather by building upon them”.
Right on, Percy.
Otherwise I’ve been keeping busy lately working on an arrangement of “forty six & two” (by Tool) for piano solo and string quartet, and working on the soundtrack for a new horror short for David Keith. I’ve also been composing a new batch of examples for my showreel and others that I hope to sell on to music libraries (remember those miniatures I was talking about earlier?). I love Summer holidays, you can get so much done when you don’t have to drag your arse to pesky ‘work’ all the time!
This is the title of my research proposal for admission on the PhD programme at the University of Queensland.
I am ever so excited to be finally starting this thing up! To finally begin seriously discussing and actively creating the music I’d love to hear. Music I’d love to produce. And I’m glad I’ve waited this long, everything about this feels just right - from the possibility of working with Dr Robert Davidson (who starts at UQ in July) to the fact that the college have let me scale back my hours a bit and that I’m finally set up with a great studio to work in after years of moving around and not being settled anywhere. It’s as if the stars have aligned and the universe is letting me know that it’s a good time for me to become a student once again.
“Composers working as freelancers in the world today are increasingly being called upon to understand current technology, to then realise, record and produce their own works in a studio environment. This extra work could be viewed as a chore or ‘necessary evil’, but I prefer to think of it as a wonderful creative opportunity to explore.
New distribution methods continue to proliferate and it is through recordings, rather than concert performances, that composers have a presence in these channels.
The rise and evolution of music technology over the last 50 years has dramatically changed the way music sounds and is experienced by its audience. Recording techniques and the synthesized, sampled, affected, manipulated sounds made possible by new and diverse means have altered the sonic palette - radio, film/TV, music download sites and interactive games have created new contexts for music to be experienced and consumed.
The vast arsenal of music technology tools available today allows experimentation and the exploitation of new sounds, textures and colours. These advancements facilitate the realisation and recording of original music with more ease and less expense, allowing the composer to manipulate recorded performances further by means of digital effects, spatial mixing, looping and sampling.
Hardware such as effects pedals, digital effect sends and MIDI triggers can be implemented into live performances through the close placement of microphones, live mixing and speaker positioning. Sophisticated sample libraries can now effectively imitate the sounds, textures and articulations of a symphony orchestra. New software applications are becoming increasingly abundant, allowing the composer-producer to manipulate sounds in ways previously thought impossible.
As well as being a composer, I am also a music technologist and have access to a project studio containing a collection of useful hardware and industry-standard software applications. I intend to explore the creative possibilities of Logic Pro 8 (sequencing software) for sound creation and 5.1 mixing, the KAOSS pad for live filter effects in recording and performance, Melodyne (pitch and rhythm manipulation) and Pro-Tools (digital audio workstation) for beat-detection, mixing and mastering.
An important question in my research is “what production strategies are effective in communicating new musical ideas to a wide audience”. In addition to compositional work, I will address this question through several modes of engagement with current knowledge in studio production. Firstly I will conduct a literature review of trade and scholarly journals dealing with compositional approaches to studio production. Secondly, I will conduct qualitative research in the form of interviews with practitioners including engineers, composer-producers, electro-acoustic performers and producers.
The expected outcomes of this work will be a folio of compositions comprising:
· String Quartet
· Collection of Experimental Etudes
· An instrumental “concept album” that can be scored for ensemble performance
· Feature length film score
· Symphonic work
In addition to the folio, I will complete an investigation into the challenges and unique opportunities for creativity that affect composers in the 21st century.”
I hope they like my ideas... I will keep you all posted on how I go.
What does the modern ear wish to listen to? Should that even matter or influence anything? Does the music have to be “smart” and “new” and “codified” to be worth anyone’s time? It’s kinda funny that I’m reading this collection of essays now, when next on my pile of books to read is Schoenberg’s own “Style & Idea” collection. For now I will remain as confused as ever over postmodernism, and what the hell that word actually means.
In the meantime, I love this quote by Roger Scruton:
“ ...the elements of musical order still retain their appeal. Even in the accelerated conditions of modern life-- and especially in those conditions-- people understand repetition, they understand the rhythmical figure; they respond to the pure intervals of fifth and fourth; their attention can be captured by strophic melodies and dance rhythms. To use these as your raw materials is not to cheapen music, but to begin from the point where music makes contact with life.”
3 days and five pages of dire note-against-note counterpoint for a cantus firmas in every mode later ... I feel like dying. I continually remind myself: Beethoven found this useful and referred to it constantly. Was this the reason he was such a cranky man?
I guess I will continue with it for a while, since the better I remember all the rules, the better I will be able to break them. I don’t want to begin writing The Quartet until I have a clear idea about theme and structure. At the moment my head is swimming with a million ideas with nothing really pinned down. On Thursday night I got into a cab and found myself overwhelmingly inspired by the Punjabi folk music playing on the car radio. Doesn’t help that the commission is supposed to be in neo-classic style.
*sigh* Hopefully the concept and design with hit me in the face sometime soon or else a Neoclassic/Punjabi mashup may happen, and surely only bring discomfort and misery to the world!
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