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site-specific composition

Interview with Suzanne Thorpe

background Posted on Mar 21, 2019 09:58

Suzanne Thorpe is a composer, performer and sound artists from the USA. She has created and curated various site-oriented performances and events. This interview took place in Brussels in October 2018, a few weeks after I met her at the Global Composition conference in Dieburg (Germany), where she gave a lecture about relational musicking. Two works featued prominently in this lecture and the following interview. First, Listening Is As Listening Does: this is an installation for a Spanish garden in the Caramoor Center, north of New York City. This work simulates the navigation system that bats use to determine the location of objects via reflected sound. Second, Resonance & Resemblance: this is a sonic meditation, created for a beautiful (large) garden with a pond. Four recorder players were performing in kayaks on the pond while Suzanne was playing a fixed improvisation on electronics. You can watch a video of the performance here.

This is the website of Suzanne Thorpe.
HR: Is the presence of the performers body, and perhaps of the audience and their bodies, relevant in your works?

ST: Yes, absolutely

HR: … because in an installation you are not sure of the presences of bodies.

ST: Actually, I am sure of their presence because there are bodies in both installations and performances. What gets accentuated in something that is installation-based – if we make this distinction between installation and real-time performance – is: the non-human bodies in the installation start to become more evident. Their participation starts to become more evident and that has been extremely intriguing to me and that’s what has been driving me towards making these pieces. All of a sudden my awareness of these other bodies and how they effect us, and their agency has become much more heightened in the works that are – for lack of a better phrase – purely installations.

HR: Is it important in these installations that the visitor/participant feels or experiences the connection with animals? That they hear them?

ST: I hope so. That is definitely something that I am opening the space up for, now intentionally. At first, when I started making these types of work, it was more about my own discovery. Then, as I was discovering this phenomenon, I have been increasingly making works that intentionally correlate and accentuate these experiences. For me it is something that I hope that the participant experiences and I have discovered that it’s true, they do experience it! If we change our perspective about how we are engaging with the environment with our musicking, then we can also engender a change in perspective on the part of the participants.

HR: Is it difficult as composer and organizer to create a situation in which the audience has a wider perspective and not – as usually – looks and listens to the performers?

ST: It takes a different kind of effort. I’m building a skill set around developing this type of an environment for the participants. I think this is something significant that is coming out of this work: I’m building an approach towards cultivating this type of sensibility. Your question was: is it difficult?

HR: If people are going to a concert, they usually look for performers.

ST: It’s a change in attitude that I have to cultivate for my listeners. I have to be conscious of the fact that I am asking the listeners and participants to change their expectations of how they are participating in the work. I definitely look for opportunities to initiate – so to speak – the listeners. One of the techniques that I use is to compose sound meditations, texts, that are almost like a guide on how to listen in an environment. It gives them something to focus on, it gives them a tool to work with, which is particularly useful for the uninitiated.

HR: In your presentation in Dieburg you also mentioned a sound walk before the performance of Resonance & Resemblance. Was this composed and is this the same text composition you are talking about now?

ST: That was different. The sound walk was part of the piece. If we think about the form, I see the sound walk as the prelude. We’re warming up the audience, we’re introducing our tropes, our melodies, our motives. But it’s also a time period to attenuate the listener to the environment, give the listener time to let their bodies adjust, to let their attention and attitudes adjust. That was a 20 to 25 minutes expedition. Then I also gave the participants sonic – better: listening – meditations that were text pieces. I distributed them as leaflets. They were for people that couldn’t take the sound walk, and also for the performing aspect: they helped them orient themselves within the piece. It gave them something to focus on. They were about seven short instructions: “listen to your breath, listen to you body, to the trees, etc.” Really simple instructions, but each one had a focus, that was intended to guide the listener’s attention.
HR: Could you describe the role and concept of technology in your installations and site-specific performances? How different is it from the usual application in contemporary and experimental music? Usually in concert halls technology artificially recreates a full sound environment and a whole sound world, which is existing totally on its own, mostly in a space that was silent or empty before the concert started.

ST: You articulate very nicely the different attitude that I hope that I’m hitting upon, which is: I focus on reception rather than projection. I try to maintain contextualization as opposed to extraction. You see how these attitudes are different from what is commonly used. We are usually very focussed on: how am I going to make this technology project, put out. I use my technology for input. I want to have a deeper knowledge of how the environment is functioning and that’s where I focus my technology. I incorporate that information into the work. I maintain the contextualization of the information. It depends, I use technology to varying degrees: sometimes the entire piece is generated by the technology, sometimes there is just a little hint of technology in the piece. At some point on the spectrum of composition and performance I engage technology to know my place, to get more familiar with it, and also to incorporate real-time behaviours and characteristics of the place. If we listen through technology, we can tap in to the real-time behaviours and responses of a place and start to fold that information into the act of musicking.

HR: In what way is this a surplus or added value compared to our usual human capacities to connect to our environment or a place?

ST: It is just another way of knowing. At this stage I am not going to put a judgement on it, as to if it is better or worse, I’m still experimenting. It is just another way of getting to know our environments. We know a lot, somatically, we do take that in. It takes a lot of time and practice to be able to identify and correlate what that is. There is the help that technology gives us to identify what that information is more specifically. The specifics are interesting too. Technology does allow us to get access to the specifics. For instance, we may somatically hear a low rumble or tone that comes through a space. But can we identify exactly what frequency that is? There are some pieces of information that technology can help us to focus on. I appreciate that aspect of technology.

HR: So it is a tool to connect both as a composer to your material and as a performer to the audience. And next, link the audience to the environment.

ST: Yes, it’s all about connectivity, it’s generating connectivity. I am also going to challenge that statement on ‘composer and my material’ and say: I am connecting to the material, as opposed to mine. I am going to challenge that sense of authorship and ownership of the environment. I don’t own it. It is going to do what it is going to do. The other thing that technology affords me, is an ability to adjust in real-time. That environment is going to behave the way that it’s going to behave at any given time. I don’t have control over that. What I have control over, is the reaction, how I am going to respond and engage.

HR: But the unexpected, indeterminate and uncontrollable remains, although you are using technology.

ST: Absolutely.

HR: We are talking about giving freedom to the environment, but on the other hand we are still talking about some kind of control to make sure that during the performance something will happen and that we can create this connection when something happens. How difficult is it to find and compose this balance?

ST: It’s difficult, sure. And again I am developing a technique around this. The clearest and most effective tip that I could give anyone is to keep it simple. Simplicity is the absolute … Simplicity of approach, simplicity of sounds, simplicity of engagement in composition, allows space and time to be elastic. That is my biggest skill that I have learned. Avoid the temptation to make things complicated, because the complexity is going to be in the entanglement of all these elements. I don’t need to be complex, the complexity is going to be generated.



the Rolling Band

action Posted on Oct 07, 2018 21:27

On June 23rd 2018 there was a performance of the Rolling Band in Ghent (Belgium). I didn’t make a score for this work (yet) but these are the core ideas:

<1> In advance a ‘click track’ is made with (simple) rhythmic patterns in successive sections. The sections have different tempi.

<2> In advance a route is searched for, with quiet environmental sounds and diverse street stones and surfaces.

<3> During the performance one performer carries an audio transmitter which is sending the audio click track, the other performers receive and hear this track via one earphone. Each performer walks with his/her trolley suitcase along this route and tries to play in the tempo of the click track, by stepping faster or slower and/or by pulling the suitcase with another speed over the street stones.
More information on the click track

The durations of the sections with different tempi varies from 15 to 90 seconds. There is one main tempo (88 bpm) that returns after 1 or 2 sections with different tempi, the other tempi are 52, 70, 121 and 154 bpm. The sections with the main tempo have the longest duration (between 30” and 90”), the ones with the very slow (52 bpm) and very fast tempo (154 bpm) have the shortest duration (between 15” and 40”). Playing with the trolley suitcase in the very slow tempo is almost impossible but I chose this tempo also for visual reasons: you clearly see – as in a slow motion – that the performers are trying to synchronize the suitcase, street and their body. If sections return in the click track (for example the main tempo 88 bpm), I create simple changes in the rhythmical patterns, for example by stressing another beat.

More information about the route and date

The changing, diverse surfaces are obtained by choosing streets with different street stones, cobble stones, pavers, clinker bricks, etc. The state of the road surface can also differ: one street can have more holes and patches than another. There are also bridges and tunnels that might be constructed out of wood, steel or ribbed material and sound different if you walk on them with a trolley suitcase.

(Of course, all the individual trolley suitcases also sound different…)

Next to the diversity in street surfaces, the trajectory should also be acoustically suited to hear the trolley suitcases (for example, not too many noisy cars). In general it is important to discover the sound (performance) affordances of the route in advance. During the preparation questions pop up such as: is the sound environment not too loud? Will you be able to hear the trolley suitcases? Are there narrow streets (‘city canyon’) tunnels or parkings with a specific sound or reverb that could be used?

Related to the choice of the route, is the choice of a date and hour. Some streets could be used and have softer environmental sounds on a Saturday morning than during the peak hour on a week day.

The performance on June 23rd, 2018

The synchronisation between trolley suitcase, foot steps and the patterns in the street stones can’t be fully or perfectly realized: foremost, it is an attempt to play together with the other performers, the streets and suitcases. Sometimes the synchronisation succeeds, sometimes not; mostly it works to a ‘certain degree’: the timing of the produced sounds ‘overall’ fits together, like the many sound layers of an old, mechanical train driving, slowing down, stopping and taking off again.

The performance on Saturday June 23rd was a try-out with three performers (Nicolas Leus, Thomas Van den Eynde, Hans Roels). At the end of this blog there is a link to the full recording (.flac, 374MB), followed by the timing of the trajectory (on the recording) in Ghent. This is a shorter fragment (mp3 file) when the performers were walking in the Donkersteeg and Onderstraat.

The performance required more concentration (of the performers) than expected to synchronize your body (steps), the trolley suitcase and the click track. As a performer you do not have a full sound image: you mainly hear the click track and (your own) rolling suitcase. The plan for a next performance is to let the audience walk in between the performers of the Rolling Band (for a part of the trajectory), giving them the opportunity to listen to the trolley orchestra and the sound environment. The choice of the date, time, trajectory and the duration of the tempo sections (in the click track) worked well in this try-out. Perhaps I will add a new main tempo after a while in the clicktrack (for example, after 20 minutes) and also gradual tempo changes (for example, going from 88 bpm to 52 bpm in 30 seconds).

This is the full recording of the tryout performance on June 23rd 2018 made by Bas Hendrickx who was walking with the performers (the microphone was a Classic M MkII stereo, made by Johan Vandermaelen).

2’00”: Donkersteeg

3’00”: Gouden leeuwplein

6’00”: Stadhuissteeg

7’45”: Graffitisteeg

9’50”: Onderstraat

12’00”: Langemunt

13’04”: Straatje zonder einde

14’38”: Langemunt

15’39”: Onderstraat

20’37”: crossroads Onderstraat and Belfortstraat

21’49”: Zandberg

22’58”: Baaisteeg

24’32”: Sint-jacobsnieuwstraat

24’51”: Oude schaapmarkt

26’03”: Houtbriel

28’40” : Kalvermarkt

29’44”: Nieuwpoort

31’37”: Ijkmeesterstraat

33’19”: Sint-jansdreef

33’39”: Oliestraat (steegje)

35’37”: Steendam

36’31”: Dodoensdreef



Interview with Stephen Montague

background Posted on Aug 06, 2018 15:12

Stephen Montague is an American composer, living in the UK since 1974, who has made music for a long list of internationally acclaimed orchestras and festivals. Although he is more known for his compositions for ‘conventional’ instruments and media, he has also regularly worked outside the concert hall and produced so-called ‘large-scale works’. Concertos for an orchestra of automobiles or music theatre works in a Scottish castle are the result of his search to expand the realm of music beyond artistic institutions. Having worked together with John Cage to realize versions of Musicircus, he has continued to direct and conduct realizations of this work throughout Europe.

HR: The most recent large-scale piece that you have made is “A Brew Dog Howls”, made for a Scottish craft brewery.

SM: Scotland, unlike the rest of Britain, still has some money for the arts, though it’s getting smaller. In 2014 the Aberdeen Sound Festival commissioned a group of artists, poets, actors and musicians to do a number of very interesting projects by going into communities around the greater Aberdeen area and work with local artisans to produce a one-off event for the festival. A cheese factory, for example, worked on a cheese, food and poetry project. Other small craft specialists worked not only with poets but with artists, actors, and musicians. My assignment was the BrewDog Brewery, a small, craft brewery in the village of Ellon, about an hour and a half north of Aberdeen. BrewDog recently became famous in Britain and now internationally for its extremely strong beer and clever advertising. I was their composer-in-residence for two weeks working with the special brewery fraternity – all men, lots of hops, and many empty glasses.

Each of the Sound Festival artists employed on the scheme was to devise a unique project that embraced not only the local artisans but also engaged their local communities. As the finale of the 2014 Sound Festival the organizers hired a coach to take an audience from Aberdeen on an afternoon/evening tour around each one of these locations to sample the local fare and be entertained by the completed festival project. BrewDog and I were the last stop no doubt because it was a brewery and what better way to end the tour. Working on this project for two weeks was an alcoholic’s dream- work all day, drink all night. And all special craft beers!

My new work was called A Brew Dog Howls. And for it I harnessed most of the brewery’s facilities. Scotland doesn’t enforce the same health and safety standards England imposes so I could actually have the whole audience walking through the maze of vats, kegs and pipes in the working brewery. It was no doubt dangerous but certainly wonderful and exciting. I also found that one of the brew masters played bagpipes! How perfect was that! I added percussion when one of the brewers built an amazing percussion tree using various pieces of scrap metal, tubing, pipes and cans culled from brewery stock and the junk yard. The poet Isobel Dixon was on the team and created a special poem using the colourful names of BrewDog beers like “Coco Psyho”. I also hired two professional musicians for the performance just in case. The audience was a beer bottle chorus charged with creating rich harmonic drones by blowing across the bottle tops after each sip of beer.
A Brew Dog Howls 2014, BrewDog Brewery, Ellon, Scotland

The festival coach arrived at the brewery in the early evening. I rehearsed them to coordinate their drinking style with their blowing technique- they were better at drinking. The event began with Isobel’s poem delivered by an impressive Scotsman. Twelve brewers played the percussion tree with great panache, the professionals kept the momentum sharp and focused, the audience beer bottle drone worked elegantly, and the bag piper appeared dramatically weaving through the vats at the finale. The BrewDog Brewery came to life as never before. It was exciting, dramatic and fun.

Sadly however it somehow felt like it came and went too quickly and with barely a trace. After two weeks of methodical preparation it was suddenly gone like the wind. Ellon is an isolated community and certainly nothing like this had happened there before. The audience seemed to enjoy it thoroughly but only in the moment. As soon as it was over they were back in the bar drinking as though nothing had just happened. I was surprised too that BrewDog who have done some amazing advertising campaigns like driving an army tank through the village streets of Scotland took no notice of what had just happened on their own brewery floor. Few photos, a little documentation. And Hans, you are the first person to ever ask me about this event since it was done in 2014. I had nearly forgotten all about it. There were bigger and better fish to fry coming up.

HR: What makes your large scale works different from your other compositions?

SM: If I tell you that the last big commission I did was a 40 minute orchestral work for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, there is quite a difference between men in tights and women on point in a major London venue than what I do with an orchestra of automobiles at Brands Hatch race track. One of the things which I think has been difficult for me as a composer is that nobody really knows what to call me because I can write proper orchestral music for the Royal Ballet, but I also do crazy works for motorcycles, automobiles, music circuses, breweries and various projects like that. My favourite quote is what Henry Cowelll said about himself that he wanted “…to live in the whole world of music, not just in one corner”. And that would be my philosophy too. I like being able to do everything/anything. I’m interested in lots of different things. It is fun to both do a work for motorcycles but also a large orchestral work for the Royal Ballet. I thoroughly enjoy doing both.

Concerto for piano, brass, percussion and 8 motorcycles. Piano soloist James Toesland, World Superbike Champion

HR: Has your practice as a conductor been informative for your large-scale works? It is a special experience to conduct somewhere outside or in a brewery.

SM: Conducting outside can be fun in the sense of more adventurous and probably more problematic than conducting an orchestra in a controlled environment. They both present very different and certainly challenging issues. Outside of course it’s often just plain weather and the zero acoustics of an open space. It takes a different kind of preparation, and rehearsal technique which is always tricky. If you do a Musicircus with over 100 performers in a space inside or outside which is large and cavernous, employing the ‘right’ amount of performers for the space and acoustics is not an easy call. You want to have enough performers, so that their sound resonates but not too many so it becomes congested. That’s a real challenge to get it right and it takes a lot of practice and experience to make it work well in large spaces.

HR: If you do this kind of concerts outside the concert hall, you have to rethink the whole concert ritual, you have to redesign it.

SM: Absolutely. It is a very different experience but at another level it is like an inside concert- it needs to have a beginning, middle and an end so to say. It needs to be long enough and not too long. It has many of the issues that you have in the concert hall but on a larger, usually more difficult scale. When you are in a concert hall you know what will work and what won’t work- the orchestra or ensemble fits on stage, etc. When you are on a windy hill the issues can be much more catastrophic- the music blows away! All these things are very different inside and outside but the final effect is that you want to have the audience really enjoy it and get something from it. It is a big challenge but it is much more fun when it works well to do something outside a normal concert setting.

(This interview happened via Skype in October 2017 and was revised through email correspondence with the composer.)



Interview with Carolyn Chen

background Posted on Apr 10, 2018 12:33

Carolyn Chen is a composer living in the USA. Since 2004 she has composed and performed her ‘music for people’ works on locations outside the concert hall. In February 2018 she was in Belgium for a presentation at the Sound & Participation symposium, organized by Q-O2, Ictus ensemble and the School of Arts Ghent. This is the interview that we had in Ghent.

HR: In your work Human Windchimes performers wear clothes of recycled materials. These clothes are instruments, accentuating the movement of the performers. What place do you need to perform this work?

CC: I hadn’t thought what place I would need. The performance opportunity came up and I adapted to whatever space I had. There were performances in a school building and also a loft. In the end I was very glad for the experience of doing Human Windchimes on a sidewalk. This version was so much better because of the liveness of the environment. There was so much to respond to. Even the fact that the performers were being ignored for the most part was valuable to me, because somehow they were more authentic as a part of nature: they were just a part of the world. There was so much more to look at – suddenly the sidewalk was so much more alive to me than it would have been. I was really grateful for that experience. I think most other performances happened at a museum, library or some kind of art space but I like the street because it’s an unplanned meeting. People can just arrive without even knowing beforehand that something is going to happen.

HR: Is it the liveness of the world that attracts you in making music for places outside the concert hall?

CC: Yes, somehow it reminds me of the miraculousness of the world at large, how full of opportunity it is. This is hard to notice on a constant basis because you would never get anywhere, never get anything done. It is like a surprise party (laughs): you see a space with the idea that something might happen, you can surprise people with something they weren’t looking for; and the event will be spacious enough so that they can also move through it and get on with their lives.

HR: How different is composing, preparing and rehearsing a piece outside the concert hall, compared to one for a concert hall performance?

CC: For example, if a group says that they are interested in performing Human Windchimes, I feel like there is a lot of trust that I can bestow on them without having met them. A text score for an unconventional space is a different kind of communication, usually there is a lot more openness. Maybe that is not necessarily true, you could have a text score that is very specific. It is just not asking for a traditional musical interpretation of time and stuff. A text score is designed to spark the imagination, this is what you hope as a composer. Maybe you can leave a little bit more unsaid with greater optimism that somebody will take it as a freedom rather than an abnegation of responsibility. A text score asks more of the person interpreting it, it requires more.

HR: Is this an openness or a specific way of listening to the world?

CC: Maybe it is a willingness to seize agency and creative opportunity as you see it. This kind of imagination is not asked for in classical music and it is not necessarily a traditional part of the training. It was not part of my training, and I feel like I had a very classical music education. If you ask this willingness and imagination from people that are not used to this, it can make them feel uncomfortable; but if people like doing this, then it can be more fulfilling then having everything written out. If you play Beethoven your whole life for years and years, of course you find freedom in it and ways to interpret it. Over the amount of time that you take with this music, you are looking through different layers and making the piece for yourself. For most contemporary instrumental music that kind of time and attention is not part of the infrastructure. You don’t have that many performances, sometimes not even a second performance. There is a lot of attention and funding for premières and commissions and after that it is over. People learn scores quickly and are able to put them together in a convincing way on very little rehearsing time. I have respect for this kind of training but it is a different kind of training.

HR: Imagine an ensemble would be interested in performing your Human Windchimes or Supermarket Music. Which performance qualities would you expected from them?

CC: A lot of these pieces have been performed by people who were not musically trained. I think the main requirement is a willingness to invest your mind, the fullness of your personality and your attention. In performances of Human Windchimes two out of five performers were not from music. One of them was the most confrontational one. She was the most active and brought so much personality to the part. She was really in full character. It is mainly willingness, I think anyone can do these things, there is a category of things that don’t need traditional music training.

HR: Is it possible to share such a living and ephemeral performance outside the concert hall with people that were not present at the performance, without making an artificial, consumable reproduction?

CC: The room, the space, the mindset of the people that you can feel in a room, the different listening and attention modes of the audience, this whole situation is so vital to the contingency of what is going on. You lose the sense of contingency if the performance is on a recording because you can’t play it again. It is a problem, improvisers talk about this problem too. Such a live performance is hard to share but you have to do something.

HR: Would it help to revalue the score and consider it as a call to (musical) action?

CC: I have come to understand the value of both documentation and scoring more since I started doing these live performances outside the concert hall. There is a part of me that believes that the live moment of the performance is the most important thing, that is what you do it for. I don’t think that having good documentation is a prime motivator, but I have come to realize how valuable documentation is to these things ever happening again or to anybody understanding that something has happened. Such a performance does disappear so easily. If I don’t have good documentation, it is like it never happened, which is OK for me personally, but I guess, in terms of surviving and trying to get support to do the next thing, it is really helpful to have the best documentation possible. I didn’t always pay attention to this, I didn’t want to believe that the quality of the footage is that important. But actually, it matters so much to the immediate credibility that people give to something, because we are so used to judging things visually. In the beginning I had a lot of pieces that were in the dark with a lot of silence, and those were my first videos on YouTube. My mom saw them all, she was being so supportive and she said, I’ve watched all of your videos from beginning to end. But how come in your music you can’t hear anything and you can’t see anything? (laughs) Why is it just all dark and silent for the whole time? (laughs) This is not totally true: there are flashes of light and moments where something happens make the waiting matter. But it is hard to communicate the quality of the silence on a flat screen when there is nobody else around.

HR: If I look at your texts, videos and scores, I find a sense of animism in your works, the idea that everything lives. You talk a lot about classic music ideas like polyphony and you place these ideas in very different contexts. Do you recognize yourself in this idea that everything is living and that you can bring everything to life.

CC Yes, it is true, I do think about it in that way. I don’t think I ever crystallized it so clearly. It is looking for the secret life in things and looking for a way to illuminate what is there already, what its own nature is, that I can’t necessarily see from the outside or at first glance. Polyphony or counterpoint is something that I think about a lot. It is the training and it is impossible to step away from it. You can think about things in time, how they align together and often it ends up being spatial relationships. I have a piece for corpse position permutation: there is a person watching a body, there are flashes of light and they change position. The diagrams for this piece are like species counterpoint studies: there is a first (voice), you have a second, they move this way, and you think about who is watching whom, how much tension is there in that dynamic, how do you release the tension. It is really a traditional phrase structure, just in a different language, it is translated in a different medium.

HR: In this way you can compose with almost any material: everything is taking place and developing in time.

CC: Yes, you are trying to feel the harmony and the nature of the relationship between things.

HR: You also play the guqin in outdoor places, for example in a duo with Amble Skuse. Private music – music for the performer – exists in experimental music, for example in Tom Johnson’s music. But you also refer to the Chinese tradition of outdoor performances.

CC: Playing the guqin, getting into the aesthetics of it and the idea of merging with nature, have been very valuable for me. The idea of a private music isn’t that incompatible with my personality, I am an introverted person anyway. But to know there is a historical tradition of this legitimizes it. It is not entirely private, if I am playing on a sidewalk, it is opening the window. We want to do it in a non-confrontational way, the music is not that loud. People stopped sometimes, took a pause to listen for a few minutes and then kept walking. Or they just kept sitting next to us, because it is possible to co-exist without interfering with each other. I also like the idea that you can listen without full intention. This can be a valid way of listening, you can listen with distracted attention and there might still be a value in that, without the analytical ear, where you are kind of mentally scoring everything as it happens, so that you can organise its proportions and time from beginning to end. There is a lot of music from these traditions that is valuable to me: I could listen…. catch a piece of it … and have it matter.



Notating site-specific music

background Posted on Dec 15, 2017 13:57

Recently Min Oh published the book Score by Score on notation in music, dance and visual arts. One chapter contains an interview with me on the role of notation in my artistic practice. The following blog is a reflection on how I try to notate and fix my site-specific music compositions.

Since I have been working outside the concert hall, the main scores of my compositions have gradually developed into texts scores (words describing sounds or actions). Using a text score gives the performers the necessary freedom and flexibility to deal with a living environment, full of unexpected events. Words are further away from the conventional music notation and I hope that this distance helps the performer to find a personal, musical way to interact with the concert environment. It is not easy to find a balance in a text score between giving enough freedom to performers, on the one hand, and presenting musical material, on the other, that is concrete and tangible enough to start performing a music composition.

One solution that I found to ensure that a score is both (musically) challenging enough for the performers and has enough information about the dependence of the music on the concert environment, is the addition of ‘documentations’ to my text scores. I spontaneously starting using this practice in Plain (second half 2016) and next, it got mixed up with my artistic research practice. The documentations are not necessary to perform my compositions; the main (text) score provides enough (‘abstract’) information for the musicians to realize a performance. The documentations contain detailed information on specific performances, the concert site and the interactions with this site. I also describe the rehearsal, exploration and creative process, add links to audio and video recordings, and present an evaluation of the performance. You can find examples of score documentations of Plain, Music Street and Hearizon on my website. Together the main score and documentation form a unity. Together they give the performer just enough information – I hope – to create a personal view on the musical performance and the context (environment). Next, the performer can start imagining a new performance on another location.

Score documentation of my composition Plain

Working outside the concert hall has also sharpened my attention for the rehearsal process. In each composition and each environment the listening and performing requirements may be different. Moreover, other material conditions may limit the possible interactions, for example, the performers may walk around and not see or even hear the other performers. Working outside the concert hall forces me to spend more time and attention on learning how to interact with the environment (and how to play together in environments, very different from the enclosed concert hall). The addition of a documentation to the text score has given me a format to communicate about this rehearsal process. The documentations of Plain, Music Street and Hearizon contain descriptions of rehearsals, its preparation and used (temporary) scores. For example, for the first rehearsal of Plain I made a simple graphical score, because this created a basic working structure to start performing and discovering sounds at the site; in this case, a library reading room. In the end — at the concert performance— this graphical score wasn’t necessary any more and several performers did not use it. The text score and additional documentation give me the opportunity to distinguish between more and less important scores: some scores in the documentation are tools to make a specific rehearsal as productive as possible, while the (main) text score tries to express the core ideas of a composition.

In the past months a new development related to scores, occurred in my composition practice. My recent compositions were not performed yet in public but were tried out together with performers such as percussionist Ruben Orio. Reflecting on these try-outs I realise that I create scores that mix the text score and documentation format by adding exercises (for the performers) to the main text score. Exercises (on listening and making sound) have been part of experimental scores, such as Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations (1974) or Charlie Sdraulig’s Category (2013-14). Especially when interaction with the environment is involved, exercises offer a powerful combination of being both open and practice-oriented. It invites musicians to explore musical ideas, leading them into a certain direction without being too directive.

Let me explain the qualities of exercises by using a recent composition. In Faraway (working title) I explore a setup with ‘distant’ instruments: mostly electronic instruments played at the spot where the performer is standing but sounding at a large distance from the performer. The sound production unit – for example a wireless speaker – is placed at an intriguing location for the performer, for example in the branches of a tree in the garden. In Faraway a setup with multiple ‘distant’ instruments and (usual, acoustic) ‘nearby’ instruments is created to interact with the environment across rooms, walls and doors. I want Faraway to be a polyphonic work, in which layers of performed and non-performed (environmental) sounds are continuously present. Initially, I had described this polyphony too detailed and directive. In the try-outs this turned out to seriously limit the interaction possibilities of the performer. Moreover, my detailed description of the polyphony only worked in a sound environment with specific characteristics. In the end, I only mentioned polyphony in an open way in the text score and added a page with ‘possible exercises in preparation of a performance’ of the text score. For example, the last exercise reads:

“Split your mind. Connect one distant location (and the distant instrument) with an (imagined) feeling, atmosphere, action, situation or living being. The other distant or nearby locations may follow a different – perhaps musical – logic. Next, stick to these connections during your whole performance. Some examples of connections: [1] Imagine a child is playing in a room in one of your distant locations, she alternates between playing piano and making a drawing on the floor. (…) ”

By using exercises as a notation form (about a composition) I can invite the performer to focus the performance without giving a narrow, unique solution that the performer is obliged to follow. Moreover, the exercises guide the performer to actively explore the composition and its dependency on the (changing) environment.

This is link to the provisional score of Faraway.



Website with info on site-specific music performances

background Posted on Nov 28, 2017 12:14

Recently I have been making a website which presents a collection of music (composers, compositions) and ensembles working outside the concert hall. I will also add a list of useful background texts and books. This is the link to this page.



Composing with the neighbourhood

action Posted on Mar 23, 2017 10:17

In January 2017 there was a performance of my Music Street composition together with the neighbourhood committee De Biekorf. Music Street is a live soundscape that wants to create a full experience of the diversity in a neighbourhood. This is a very short summary of the work:

  • the listeners walk in a parade while the musicians play self-chosen music fragments from houses with open windows or doors; all the musicians in the houses live in the neighbourhood, thus they are mainly amateurs, from beginners to experienced performers;
  • two musicians walk in the parade (percussion and trombone), both play their own musical pattern but they also give space to the music from the houses.

You can find more information, the score, documentation and recordings of Music Street here. In this post I will focus on the artistic and compositional challenges of such a site-specific and participatory project.


The illustration shows the street map, a few weeks before the first performance of Music Street, when I was acquainted with the majority of the participating houses and musicians. This map was the starting point to design the musical structure for the composition. The letters indicate the spatial sections of the trajectory. In the pink houses the inhabitants were also musicians, therefore the instrumentation and spatialisation was fixed at these places in the trajectory. The orange houses were guest houses, the inhabitants were not musicians and other local musicians could play from these houses. [The yellow houses stand for people that were probably going to participate.] By linking the local musicians to a specific guest house I could enhance the diversity in instrumentation, loudness, spatialisation and music styles and thus build a musical structure. This structure was created by fixing the walking trajectory, which was A→B→C→D→E→B→C. The beginning A was quiet, with less musicians in this section. In C there were more performers and a first climax was built up. Next, there was a second, quieter part in E (with less and softer instruments), leading to a final climax in C. Here I arranged that the largest ensemble (five accordions) played from two houses across the street and over the heads of the audience. (The second illustration shows the trajectory a few weeks later, on 21 January; all the instruments in the houses are indicated.)


As in other polyphonic music, I composed and worked with timing, orchestration, spatialisation and timbre of the sound layers, but the method, possibilities and restrictions in my creative process were different compared to a composer (Henry Brant for example) making a concert hall piece. The variety in instrumentation and timbre was larger than in an orchestra, but I had to find and convince the musicians of instruments such as didgeridoo or synthesizer in the neighbourhood. The possibilities to place the performers at different locations and exploit the spatialisation were also very large. The first performance had musicians in entry halls of houses, windows at the first floor and parking lots, but again, I had to convince enough house owners. Moreover, in some cases a musician’s location couldn’t be changed because the instrument was too heavy (e.g. piano) or the musician lived along the trajectory of the parade. I also couldn’t control the timing of the separate ‘voices’ in detail (compared to e.g. a polyphonic baroque composition) because of the large distances between the performers. But I had some control on the timing of the sound fragments that the performers had chosen to play. I gave them simple instructions to play before, during of after the parade had passed by. While doing this, I also had to take the different levels and the performance pleasure of the amateur musicians into account: playing a half-minute piece is appropriate for a beginning musician but probably too short for an experienced musician.

Just as a composer creates a digital soundscape in a studio, I balanced, mixed, controlled the timbre and loudness of separate voices and spread the sound in space (‘panning’). But I didn’t work behind a computer screen but together with a neighbourhood. This implied more organisational, social and artistic work outside on the street. Compared to a soundscape playing through speakers, I didn’t have an equally detailed control of some musical parameters but in the end the listener was really walking around in this soundscape and had a multi-sensorial, holistic experience of the neighbourhood in which listening, seeing, feeling and knowing were mixed.

Composers have always operated within a socio-cultural field that gives them opportunities and restrictions. This also happens in contemporary-classical and experimental music, where commissioners of new works play an important role (see the articles of researcher Annelies Fryberger). Often tradition and habits make this field ‘invisible’ but composers do accept that commissioners restrict the instrumentation and duration or agree that the character of the new work should correspond to the profile of the concert organizer. It may seem as if I barely had artistic possibilities in the collaboration with the neighbourhood in Music Street: the performers chose their music fragments and I (almost) didn’t write ‘a note of music’. But in fact, the field of possibilities and restrictions only moved and changed, when I was making this site-specific, participatory work. And, as you may have noted from this text, my previous experience in polyphonic composition proved to be an aid and enrichment in the elaboration and organisation of Music Street together with the neighbourhood committee…



Staging

action Posted on Nov 30, 2016 09:40

A site-specific composition and performance does not inevitably mean that you only work with materials and sounds that are part of the concert site. Since the last quarter of the 20th century, artistic concepts and societal opinions have become more ecological; mutual relations and dependencies are valued, as opposed to isolated elements which are only connected by causal relations. To suppose that a landscape or concert location exists independently from yourself, and that, as an artist or member of the audience, you are an outsider that quietly sits down and listens, is an opinion that is becoming rare among artists (myself included). See e.g. the Landscape Quartet.

Therefore, in a site-specific performance the question arises: how and to what extent shall I intervene in the environment and stage it together with the performance? Which choices do I make to design a performance in a specific location? I will explore these questions and possible answers by taking a closer look at my recent compositions.

A site-specific performance requires a choice of a location and a moment at which the audience is invited to come to that place. A location (such as a park) and its character are not static; season, day and time of the day can create large differences. The fundamental choice of a location and moment is related to the general concept of a musical work and also has to be reconciled with organizational restrictions and demands. In my composition Beving several performers play percussion on objects, materials and the architecture of the concert location. Not only present and audible sounds play a role, but also the potential, hidden ones. Thus, the diversity of materials at a location largely defines the choice of a fitting location. If this diversity is too small (for example a park with only grass and a cycling road), the performance will become impossible. Moreover, the acoustics of a location, the size of the expected audience and the number of performers, also play a role in the choice of location, because the performance has to be audible for the whole audience.

Apart from the place and time, other choices and interventions have to be made. A thorough exploration, performed at different moments before the rehearsals and concert, produces a detailed and rich image of the sounds and objects at the site. A choice between all these possibilities has to be made, and sometimes later on in the creative process these explorations and choices need to be further adapted if they are not sufficiently effective. For example, after the exploration and first rehearsal of Plain in the reading room of the library of the Singel, it turned out that there was a lack of diversity and loudness of sounds. A first solution was found in the ‘doubling’ of certain sounds: multiple performers played on (almost) identical objects (such as a book with a hard cover) at the same moment.
(photo: Zena Van den Block)
Second, I started searching for other materials (brushes, foam, etc.) to rub objects at the site and produce louder and more diverse sustained noise sounds. Third, by changing the placement of objects such as books or stands, they could resonate more freely and sound louder. Fourth and last, by indicating or memorizing interesting sound places in detail (for example sweet spots on a wooden floor), we could ensure the diversity and loudness as well.

The friction between the concert location with its character and affordances on the one hand, and the musical and compositional demands on the other, is a recurring phenomenon in the genesis of site-specific performances. This tension enforces you as a composer to search for creative and local solutions to ensure that in the end the performers, audience, plants, animals, materials and architecture can ‘work together’ in a site-specific performance of a composition.

Finally, it is important to think about the role of the audience and to communicate about it. On the one hand, the standard ritual to sit silently and listen, only applies to the concert hall and it is not valid outside such a hall. But on the other hand, a group of walking and talking people can disrupt the (changing) character of a location. Choices have to be made about this role, and ideally, the concert ritual and space are designed in such a way that the audience is seduced to behave in the chosen way.



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