Formed in 2011 by Jane Alden, Vocal Constructivists have performed a variety of contemporary works, some of which are composed by members of the ensemble. The ensemble specialise in open and graphic notation and work together to produce a musical discourse as part of a process towards a performance – they state that there is no artistic director in the group but that each performer is integral to the creative and performative processes of the group . The singers also work with scores of fixed notation, and a variety of forms of composition will be explored in their concert today. The ensemble was the first to perform Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise as an exclusively vocal piece in its entirety, and performed an excerpt of it at the concert, as well as a selection of pieces by American and British composers.
Vocal Constructivists are expanding their repertoire constantly and are performing a world premiere of Charles Hutchins’ Immrama, a work commissioned for the ensemble, today. Their appreciation of all forms of notation means that they are developing as an ensemble and continually gaining notoriety.
– Kelly Butler, Music and/as Process Intern
Video edited by Adam Byard, Music and/as Process Intern
Jane Alden (Wesleyan University) presented her keynote talk, ‘Form as Possibility’ (from Cecil Taylor’s liner notes from his album Unit Structures (1966)) as the penultimate event at the conference. The presentation took the stance of performative process and served as a truly informed pre-concert talk before her ensemble Vocal Constructivists took to the stage. Alden acknowledges that performers inject form into musical process due to learning and engaging with the music and the score, be it notated or graphic. Further to this, she explained that there is no one way to perceive form, structure or process in a performance, or in a score, as informing the performance is not one-dimensional itself, and Vocal Constructivists are proof of this.
Alden gave historical context, detailing that process dates back to 15th Century and the mensuration canon. She exampled the Agnus Dei from Josquin’s ‘L’homme armé super voces musicales’ where a main melody is imitated but at different speeds (or mensurations – this term, however, refers to early music: ‘prolation’ is used in reference to more modern music). Alden then went onto explain the elements of music making that have been probed since the late 20th Century, due to chance, determinacy and, therefore, “elements free of human agency” (like aleatoric sound objects). By extension, then, the roles of composers, listeners and performers are also no lo longer set in stone.
Alden gave an overview of Deep Listening (http://deeplistening.org/site/), developed by Pauline Oliveros, a regular composer for the ensemble whose piece was premiered in the concert following the talk, detailing the method of “slowing down musical time” so minute details within the music become forefront to the listener, promoting a new and more organic way of listening. This was in the context of not just her music, but the presence of ancillary (necessary) noises and sound objects within any piece of music.
With the end result pertaining to discipline of a ensemble and a performance due to the process that they conceive within it, Alden concluded that discipline is not necessarily conforming to a form or structure, but to work together efficiently and with articulate initiative.
Jane Alden is Associate Professor and Chair of Music as Wesleyan University, CT. Her research includes music notation and visual culture from the medieval era to the present day, as well as British and American experimental music. She has been published multiple times on themes spanning her research fields, and in 2011, she form the Vocal Constructivists ensemble that specialise in realising graphic, open and text-based scores.
– Kelly Butler, Music and/as Process Intern
(Edited by Adam Byard, Music and/as Process Intern)
On the second day of the conference, five composers presented their current works and research in a concert in the Maxwell Davies building. Each piece was markedly unique, highlighting the composers’ own tropes and styles of writing, and the process of composition and, sometimes, performance, was explained to the audience before hearing the pieces.
Charlie Sdraulig’s Between invites the performers (a flautist and a violinist) to explore a repertoire of fragments and subtle variants. There is need for a navigational process (between the performers) to pass from one sound, or instrument, to another, and the performers are required to influence and be influenced by one another. As well as process as a performative element, process as listening, both by performers and audience, is present here, in order to create connections between each apparently isolated sound object. Due to the improvisatory nature of the piece, it is created in the present: instead of the piece being composed via process, the process is being created and performed instantaneously. Furthermore, the gentle dynamics and sporadic sound production accentuates the finite temporality of the piece, and encourages more careful listening by the audience.
Charlie Sdraulig is an independent composer specialising in physicality and perception in human performance. His music is perceived at ‘the threshold of audibility’, which allows for individuality and human expression in performance. His music has been performed internationally by renowned ensembles such as the Mercury Quartet and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Following his presentation on his Leiden Translations installation, Alistair Zaldua (Goldsmiths, London) presented a single-screen version of the work. The Leiden papyrus is a series of alchemic recipes found in the 19th Century but dating back to c.3rd Century. Zaldua took an English translation of the text and translated it into three forms: notation (Ancient Greek gylphs), physical communication (BSL) and musical performance (contrabass improvisation). The work is a multi-faceted semiological response to verbal and non-verbal communication resulting, ultimately, in a tripartite musical process via listening and performing.
Alistair Zaldua is a composer of contemporary and experimental music, writing for chamber ensemble and orchestra, solo instrument, live electronics and audio-visual installation. His work has been performed by many renowned musicians and ensembles, such as Ensemble Modern, Ian Pace and Lauren Redhead, and has been performed internationally.
David Bremner presented the third piece, logic ballad #2. The piece is the music-theatre style and is for solo soprano (this performance was by Elizabeth Hilliard). It is made up of short phrases, varying in constructive order. The process behind the production of the piece is the difference between what can happen and what does happen: while it is a composed piece, the performer’s use of the permutations connotes instantaneity, thus creating a dramatic story and journey of the character portrayed.
David Bremner is a contemporary composer whose works have been performed internationally, and commissioned by ensembles including RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.
Adam Strickson (University of Leeds) and Lauren Redhead (Canterbury Christ Church University) presented their work in progress, The Carp Flop – a music-theatre piece for voices and tape based on the life of Holocaust survivor Iby Knell. They explained their method of composition as non-chronological and fragmental, connoting memories in the human mind.
Adam Strickson is a director, poet, script writer and librettist currently completing a PhD at Leeds University. Two of his poetry collections have been published and he has been commissioned by Bolton Octagon Theatre, Priory 900, Leeds Trinity Centre and Ceramic Review. His collaborative work with composers includes the opera written with Lauren Redhead, green angel.
Lauren Redhead is a composer, organist and musicologist specialising in contemporary music and new aesthetics. Her music has been performed internationally and she has received commissions from renowned organisations such as Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and Octopus Collective with the Arts Council of England.
They have collaborated since 2009, their first work being A Burlington Tale, a radio play set in Bridlington. Their opera, green angel, premiered in 2011, received support from Arts Council England. Workshopping is integral to their creative process, and further collaborators’ (such as performers Stef Connor (soprano) and Simon Walton (tenor)) interpretation of their work influence the future of the piece.
Scott McLaughlin (University of Leeds) presented his paper ‘Instrument as process’, dealing with instruments as compositional material.
He began with a contextual introduction to Tim Ingold’s Ways of Walking (2008), where, in short, the author examines how humans interact reflexively with their environment during the process of walking from one place to another under the auspices of ‘speculative anthropology’. McLaughlin transferred this theory to his research, and how instruments respond to stimuli and environment, and how this affects sounds they produce as they process (transform) from one state to another.
McLaughlin used illustrative examples from composer Alvin Lucier. I Am Sitting in a Room (1969) acknowledges the room as the instrument. Lucier played a recorded narration into a room, and then re-recorded the resulting sound. This process was repeated a number of times, and, due to the particular resonance in the room, certain frequencies were emphasised until the words became unintelligible and were replaced with tones and harmonies from the resonance of the room itself. McLaughlin calls this a non-responsive process, since after being set up, it is entirely left alone during the performance, and the compositional material is based upon materiality (or temporality), ultimately affording performative paths.
Opera with Objects (1997) is a work that utilises objects as instruments. The process heard here is the sound objects transforming based on what the object is interacting with – for example, a pencil tapped against a brick will produce a different sound to one being tapped against a glass bottle. The instrument (object) produces the action and resultant musical gesture, meaning that the instrument is the process itself, and so the instrument (as process) endorses the gestures themselves.
McLaughlin calls this process a performative exploration of acoustic and amplification phenomena, meaning that the performance is informed by the resulting sound of two objects meeting – no two venues and object combinations will produce the same sound. Further to this, the work falls into the category, ‘opera’ because the objects gain character and narrative happens through the process of the objects ‘meeting’.
Scott McLaughlin is a composer and improviser (cello, live electronics) based in Huddersfield. He also lectures in composition and music technology at Leeds University, and his research focuses on the physical materiality of sound and performance. His debut CD, there are neither wholes nor parts was recently released on Ergodos Records.