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site-specific composition

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…


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.

Open-air performance of two new compositions

action Posted on Sep 16, 2016 09:30

On the 27th of August two new compositions were performed in Rozebroeken park in Ghent.

My first composition Open Fields is meant to be performed in a big, open space. Three musicians are located at a large distance from the audience, three others sit near to the audience while one musician is at an intermediate distance. This work continues the 20th century tradition to exploit the location of performers in a music performance.

The second composition is Beving Rozebroeken (Bebung) and the main (instrument) part – called BEAT in the score – requires multiple performers to beat on plants and objects (trees, stones, water, park benches, garbage, bicycles, etc.) situated at the concert site or characteristic for this place. This part was performed by nine musicians, six amateur performers from the neighborhood included. Three additional performers sporadically played melodic and harmonic material in the high register, pointing at the presence of birds in the park. The use of garden tools (as percussion objects) made a reference to the history of the park as community (vegetable) gardens (‘volkstuinen’ in Dutch).

In both works I try to obtain an auditory transparency: the music should not only draw attention to itself but also to the surroundings. During a concert the audience should not only hear the music, but also experience and learn about the concert environment. The work Exposure, 2010 by Anthony Gormley is a powerful example of such transparency in the visual arts: if you look at this 60 ton sculpture in The Netherlands, you cannot avoid seeing both the art work and the location (landscape).
In the two performed compositions I tried to create this transparency by

– regularly sitting outside while imagining and designing the music during the creative process
– adding rests or providing enough sections with very soft dynamics to ensure that surrounding sounds come to the musical foreground; I imagine that I am not composing an autonomous piece, but only one voice of a polyphonic whole;
– exploiting general characteristics of environmental sounds (and not imitating specific environmental sounds).

These characteristics are spatialisation (sounds coming from different directions and altitudes), mobility (sounds and the performers are moving), diversity (sounds are not only produced by musical instruments but also by beating on objects, buildings and plants at the concert location) and imprecise and unstable intonations (site-specific objects with unstable or imprecise pitches are combined with the ‘musical’ instruments playing fixed pitches). The last two characteristics were only applied in Beving Rozebroeken (Bebung).

Transparent music and awareness for the surroundings is not a purely musical issue. I also gave a short explanation to the audience, stressing this transparency and the difference with the usual concert ritual in a concert hall. The absence of a stage helped the audience to focus on multiple sources and an overall experience.

I didn’t make one overall score for Beving Rozebroeken (Bebung): there is a (more or less) traditionally notated score for 3 instruments and a video score for the BEAT part. The video score (an mp4 file) was played back on a mobile phone or tablet by all the performers moving around on the performance site and beating on the site-specific objects. This video score had a list of simple (text based) instructions changing in time. In the future I want to omit the traditionally notated instrument parts and only make a text score with general instructions on how to prepare a performance and make a video score. This would make the piece and the rehearsal process more adaptable to different locations.

This is a short video fragment of the performance of Beving Rozebroeken (Bebung): it was evening in the park and in this fragment a performer is beating on a tree while later on, the camera films another performer playing on a large, wooden climbing frame with a rubber hammer.

You can find scores and recordings of both compositions on my website.

The topicality of site-specific composition

background Posted on May 31, 2016 09:12

Since the 20th century contemporary classical music and site-specific sound art are deeply related to each other and I am convinced that in the future the influence of site-specific arts on music will grow. Some themes common to both, are well-known: for example the attention for popular and non-western culture or the fascination for silence, noise and (environmental) sound. But in this post I want to focus on three other themes which also disclose parallels between site-specific and contemporary music: the many-sided character of sound perception, its multi-sensorial nature and the artists’ call for sustainable, local solutions to global social and ecological problems.

The many-sided nature of environmental sound is much more than just the spatialization of sounds. For example, on a market place, there is not just one central sound (on a stage) but many sources. People listen from changing positions to different things and they do so by integrating their own ideas, habits, feelings and history. At the same time these people have the experience that they are sharing a space – the market – and they are part of a common soundscape. The raise of portable technologies has added a digital, virtual dimension to this many-sided character: in a market place people use their mobile phone or search on the internet with a smartphone or tablet. They partly move in a virtual world which is connected to the common market place.

In our daily world the experience of sound is also multi-sensorial. Together with visual and tactile experiences it forms a holistic experience at one specific location. For example, hearing the wind blow is usually coupled to feeling it in your face or seeing trees and objects move. The different simultaneous sensorial experiences create a complex and diverse array of unified experiences of which the auditory experience is only one part. Music and sound are not isolated, independent experiences.

In the past decades an increasing number of composers and performers became fascinated by this many-sided and multi-sensorial character of the sound experience. Within the (isolated) concert hall, technology has been used to recreate this experience. In contemporary classical music the number of productions and compositions which not only involve multimedia (video, sensors,…) but also produce sound and image from many perspectives (as in the work of Michael Beil) continues to raise. Site-specific arts have a major trump card in this respect: they do not need to reconstruct the many-sidedness and multi-sensoriality with a lot of technological devices, it is often an inextricable part of a specific outside location. Moreover, the artist can focus on the interaction of the new digital worlds and the real, local place, in contrast with the concert hall in which the isolated, technological, virtual world is often placed in the foreground.

A next theme is sustainability. In recent years more artists began to tackle questions such as: “How can my art help to realize a more sustainable and equitable world? How can I enforce the local power of people and not of international economic and political institutions?” This convergence of artistic and societal concerns is noticeable in festivals such as (im)Possible Futures in Vooruit (2015, Belgium), the international conference Culture(s) in sustainable futures (2015) or the recent term sustainable art. Art critics use this term to describe artistic practices operating in harmony with principles of ecology, social justice, non-violence and grassroots democracy. Already in the seventies site-specific composers such as David Dunn stressed the local elements in their outdoor performances, and the work of Chester Schultz shows that site-specific music can develop into sustainable art. In the intersection between site-specific and sustainable art it is necessary to mention community music, a concept that stresses and fosters the social and relational aspects of performing music for all people. Community music encompasses a wide array of practices, some with a long history. But in the past decades the attention for community music has grown, specifically in the English-speaking countries such as the UK or Australia. In some site-specific music projects (a.e. Kathy Kennedy or Het Geluid van Hasselt en Genk with compositions of Wim Henderickx) both listeners and amateur musicians participate, which blurs the borders between site-specific and community music.

The previous three themes and relations indicate that a movement ‘outwards’ is likely to appear in contemporary music because it is outside the concert hall that these relevant and topical themes can be fully exploited. I also think that in contemporary classical music there is a complex and fundamental contradiction between the music and the expressed ideas on the one hand, and the closed, isolated hall with its related social rituals (between audience and performers, audience and composer) in which it is caught. I hope that moving performances to other locations, in a dialogue with the surroundings, breathes new life to contemporary classical and experimental music…

Inside and outside soundscapes

action Posted on Apr 25, 2016 21:27

Auditory field is a term that can be used by analogy with visual field. It refers to the area around a listener in which sound sources are audible. I guess that in an open area the auditory field has a range of a few tens of meters (of course, this also depends on how loud the sound sources are). But in a city acoustic obstacles such as walls and houses are omnipresent and limit the sound propagation. The insulation of these walls and windows has improved and a specific ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ sound experience has come into existence. For example, when you open a window at home, you suddenly hear another sound world, even though you are still standing in your room. What you experience as inside or outside not only depends on the kind of sounds and the familiarity with these sounds, but also on the distance and direction from which they reach you and the effects (reverb, filter, etc.) produced by the architecture of the indoor and outdoor spaces.

At this moment I am working on Kier (working title), opening and closing the doors of the concert hall is an integral part of this composition. The audience can hear the sounds from outside the hall through the doors. Three performers, including two percussionists, play in this work. One percussionist also performs outside the concert hall and becomes audible through these doors.

An additional setup with multichannel amplifications transports sounds in real time from outside the hall to inside. There are microphones outside the building that pick up environmental sounds (including the percussionist playing outside) and these are mixed (by the third performer) and played back on the speakers in the hall. This third performer can partly zoom in on the acoustic sounds that are heard through the doors.

In some parts I also give the performed music, on the stage, the characteristics of outside sounds. This is achieved by a polyphonic, simultaneous writing style (fragments performed in different locations of the hall) and a specific amplification of the inside percussion. A dynamic directional microphone is attached to a foot of the percussion player to ensure that the performed music sounds ‘from a distance’ and with background noises (foot steps). By the mobility of the performers, the live amplification system and the manipulation of the doors between the hall and the outside world, the auditory field in the hall can be enlarged and new overarching and intermediate (auditory) spaces – between inside and outside – can be created.

A hall with at least one opening (door or window) through which the outside can be heard, is required for the performance of this composition. In December 2015 I tried out a first version on a concert in the School of Arts Ghent with Ruben Martinez Orio, Michiel De Naegel and myself as performers. This was a very ‘premature’, short version: Kier was still conceived as a solo percussion work with two assistants and the percussionist only played inside the hall.

This is a recording of a fragment of a rehearsal in December 2015, the environmental sounds consist of working and talking building laborers, machines, rehearsing music students and the carillon of the belfry. This is a quick recording, take into account that it is extremely difficult to present the difference between acoustic and amplified-recorded sound through a recording! The recorded fragment starts around number 14 in this sketch.

About this research project on site-specific composition

about this project Posted on Feb 02, 2016 14:36

At the end of the sixties artistic developments to leave the concert hall and value any sound as art objects, coincided with rising environmental concerns in society. Acoustic ecology (and the World Soundscape Project) came into existence and its influence spread over a wide range of artistic and research domains. Sound walks (Christina Kubisch), soundscapes based on field recordings (Hildegard Westerkamp) and compositions mapping data of natural phenomena (John Luther Adams) are just a few of the new sounds arts that appeared in the aftermath of acoustic ecology.

But a concert practice in dialogue with the direct environment is less present, i.e. performers shaping a composition and its performance with the sounds, acoustic features, visual images, architecture and human activities of the performance location. In my current artistic research the focus is on site-specific composition (in Dutch ‘compositie op locatie’). I mainly built upon the insights and practices of composers such as Murray Schafer, David Dunn, Albert Mayr and Chester Schultz but audio art, sound installations and community music also play an important role.

Theoretically I will revitalize the concept ‘simultaneity’ from the first half of the twentieth century and let it interact with writers and researchers from audio art and ecological sciences (such as Steven Feld, David Rothenberg or Tim Ingold). In our society electric, electronic and digital devices are not the only force to disconnect and dislocate sensorial experiences. We see the other side of the planet on a phone screen while local enviromental sounds surround us. Widespread mechanic and architectural developments also enable this disconnection and dislocation. Large and insulated windows are omnipresent in buildings and vehicles. Through these windows we can see a landscape and hear another. The re-interpretation of simultaneity stresses the overall experience, produced by fusing, ignoring or conflicting simultaneous experiences. In this way contemporary, local space is interpreted as raising complex experiences without a strict border between fysical and virtual reality. This concept opens perspectives to exploit the artistic and musical potential of locations in gardens, parks, roofs, elevators, public and working spaces, more than possible in concert halls which are (acoustically and architecturally) often isolated from the surroundings.

The goal of this research project is the development of site-specific composition, by giving the concept simultaneity a new and local meaning on the one hand, and making artistic productions and designing experiments with interactions between musicians and the environment on the other.

I am working on this research project ‘site-specific composition’ (2016-2017) at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp (Artesis Plantijn University College).

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