Compositional Processes as Research: Music and/as Process at the RMA Annual Conference 2015

Compositional Processes as Research

RMA Annual Conference, University of Birmingham, 9th – 11th September 2015

Presenters: Dr James Saunders (Bath Spa University), Dr Fabrice Fitch (Royal Northern College of Music), Dr Larry Goves (Royal Northern College of Music), Dr Richard Glover (Wolverhampton University), Dr Steve Gisby (independent composer), Cara Stacey (University of Cape Town/School of Oriental and African Studies)

Session Outline

This session incorporates two major areas of interest for the Music and/as Process Study Group: music which is composed from, by, or can be said to be entirely, processes and practice-led or practice-as research. The session will comprise the presentation of research in composition, drawn from a call for works amongst the study group members, which includes or is based on process from members of the study group working across a variety of genres, styles and approaches in contemporary music. Music as process represents a compositional trend or tradition in contemporary music which has been most readily recognised in minimalist musics but also includes serialism, algorithmic composition, the inclusion of pre-tonal devices and non-western influences in music, and improvisatory approaches. As a result, today the composition of and using process transcends genre and represents an important line of enquiry for composer-researchers and improviser-researchers.

This session aims to represent the composers in the Music and/as Study Group in an innovative way. It creates the opportunity for them to present their work in a way which is particularly appropriate to research in this area, highlighting both the research and practice components of their work equally. The members of the Music and/as Process Study Group are investigating many relatively new areas or practice and research; in particular the spaces between improvisation and composition and the boundaries between practice and process. Recent areas of interest have emerged as devised music, collaboration, and process in relation to graphic, text and open notation.

Important considerations in the presentation of practice-led research are that the music should be allowed to speak for itself and that that the music should be recognised as the research itself, rather than merely a presentation or demonstration of research knowledge. These two considerations are reflected in the non-traditional presentation of the work of practitioner-researchers in this session. It attempts to bridge the gap between research presentations and practice presentations in a lecture recital style structure which will be part way between a concert and a conference session. Composers will offer short introductions to their music, accompanied by critical programme notes. Their works will then be heard in full either as live performances or recordings. Such presentation of work has been trialled at the annual Music and/as Process conferences leading to fruitful discussion about issues in and around the music presented, and the perception by the composers involved that the research aims of their work have been clearly articulated.

Presenter abstracts and biographies here

Presenter Abstracts and Biographies

James Saunders, things to do

things to do is an ongoing project which currently comprises a series of autonomous pieces which may be performed individually or simultaneously. Each of the constituent pieces uses a set of instructions in different categories (currently noises, pitches, devices and processes) which are spoken by players during the performance and which govern the actions made by the players. Players respond to instructions they can hear by realizing the defined actions as soon as possible after they are spoken. The differences in each piece, and the relationships between the players, are determined by constraints which govern who each player responds to and who gives instructions. It creates modes of interaction between individuals, allows group behaviours to emerge, and reveals the personal characteristics of each performer in an immediate way. Players may use any instruments, sound-producing objects, devices or sound processing equipment (digital, analogue, or acoustic), and performances are characterised by the wide range of personal choices brought together as a group. The pieces model behavioural processes and develop my interest in embodied systems, drawing on research in decision-making theory.

Fabrice Fitch, Per Serafino Calbarsi IIIa: Antistrophes (pour voix seule)

This work is the last panel of a triptych based on the work of François Rabelais. It sets or ‘enacts’ a spoonerist alexandrine in French. In keeping with the French tradition of complex spoonerisms, which are something of a national pastime, the encoded version is ‘clean’ (‘que j’aim’ le vent qui siffle dans la flût’ de pan’) and its decoded version obscene (‘que qui s’enfle dans le flan: j’aim’ la vie de put[e]’). Spoonerisms are meant to be read (aloud or not), so the piece is a ‘performance’ of it in real time, gradually unfolding first the coded version (page 1), then a transition from the coded version to the uncoded one (page 2 and 3). Part 1 begins with a single syllable, adding one with each line until all twelve are present (but each line has two syllables not used in the previous line, and subtracts one). Page 2 reverses the process, and Page 3 begins it again until the uncoded version is revealed in full. The number of syllables in each line and in each section are thus regulated by triangular numbers and Fibonacci relationships. In addition, each syllable is set to a single pitch, a one-to-one relationship that is maintained throughout. (The resulting twelve-tone row is derived from a fragment in Boulez’s Pli selon pli.)

A historical precedent (in which learned and ludic are held in balance) might be proposed in Josquin’s motet Ut phoebi radiis, which also uses accretive processes focused on the syllable, whose effects have direct consequences for the interaction of text and music. However, the tension in this piece lies (in my view) in the way that the listener’s perception of these very basic, strict serial and combinative procedures co-exists alongside the markedly anarchic shifts of (textual) meaning to which they give rise. (Spoonerism is, after all, a form of combinatoriality.)

Larry Goves, Two from Dr Suss 

Dr Suss is a poem by Matthew Welton which responds to Simon Patterson’s lithograph The Great Bear. Patterson takes Henry C. Beck’s 1931 map of the London Underground and replaces all the stations’ names with proper nouns in thirteen categories (one for each underground train line). Welton alphabetises these nouns and groups them in thirteen sections; each sentence within each section is identical apart from a changing ‘Patterson’ noun and a descriptive word of his own.

Two from Dr Suss is part of an ongoing compositional response to this text which explores process as a tool for compositional variety, framework and engagement with performance practice. In Getting into the car… each sentence is set partially traditionally notated and partially governed by speech rhythm. For each repetition a spoken syllable is removed and replaced by either/or a note from the flute or cello. This process of transformation produces subtly unpredictable rhythmic variety, a negotiation between the performers for the identity for the spoken rhythm, informs the compositional actions and provides a structural framework for the rest of the piece. The second song adheres to my more usual approach to composition but affected by the processes in the first.

Richard Glover, Logical Harmonies (1) and (2) (2010) for solo piano

These two short piano pieces present an example of simple audible processes: the chords of the circle of fifths are played unison in both hands, after which one hand phases the progression by one chord at a time until returning back to unison with the other hand. Logical Harmonies (1) phases the right hand, (2) the left. These pieces came out of obsessions with the idea of non-arbitrary composition; an unattainable ideal, but one in which as few decisions are made in the construction process. I have discussed elsewhere that, if I feel a process is right, then it needs no interference from me; these two pieces best represent that notion within my overall compositional output. The pieces are also designed to take full advantage of what I deem the clarity of the piano to be; I would articulate what is meant by this, and how the register, dynamic, and notational design support this idea.

Steve Gisby, Fragmented Melodies

Fragmented Melodies (2014) is the latest composition as part of my interest in catalogue pieces. The piece combines processes of both pitch and rhythm, working through all seventy permutations of a bisected duration: eight beats, constructed of four played beats and four silent beats. The rhythmic patterns appear in a reverse binary sequence, beginning with 11110000 and ending with 00001111. Pitches are assigned to specific beats, which are then heard or not heard, depending on the rhythmic patterns.

The concept of catalogue pieces has been my primary interest as a composer over the last few years. This is based on my fascination with combinatorics – the branch of mathematics concerned with finite structures. My recent pieces have been built upon process that rigorously work their way through all permutations of a given idea, in combination with some form of indeterminacy. The juxtaposition of strict, mathematical logic whilst also allowing the performers some freedom of choice within given parameters, continues to be an area of great interest for me. Fragmented Melodies, however, marks a departure from this idea, and will hopefully lead to new (for me) compositional territory.

Cara Stacey, Ligwalagwala

Ligwalagwala is a multi-movement composition created from makhoyane musical bow songs composed during my PhD research. The work is written for voice, makhoyane bow, visuals, and electronics. The doctoral research investigates how this Swazi gourd-resonated bow and its music are representative of individual artistic expression in Swaziland. It examines how the makhoyane interacts with the greater Swazi national cultural imaginary. I study compositional methods and modes of musical transmission amongst key bow players in Swaziland, as well as perceptions surrounding musical bows throughout Swazi society.

From Conquergood’s idea of “dialogical perfomance” (1985), Feld’s “dialogic editing”, the principal methodology in this research is through “compositional conversations”. The act of performing makhoyane songs involves careful aural response to quiet overtones, creative music-making, but also involves the player’s body as a mechanism by which the instrument makes sound (the chest acts as the calabash mute and provides added resonance). Through composition-based practice, I compose makhoyane songs myself and perform these for the musicians I work with, in order to stimulate conversation surrounding the music, but also to further my ethnographic coperformative witnessing. Ligwalagwala is a creative demonstration of these makhoyane songs and their interaction with space and landscape in Swaziland.

James Saunders is a composer with an interest in modularity. He performs in the duo Parkinson Saunders. He is Head of the Centre for Musical Research at Bath Spa University. See for more information.

Fabrice Fitch is active as both composer and musicologist working in the field of early music. As composer he has worked with and been performed by Ensemble Exposé, distractfold, Exaudi, Trio Atem, Fretwork, Ensemble Leones, the Orlando Consort, The Kreutzer String Quartet, and individual performers including Neil Heyde, Peter Hill, Christopher Redgate, Daniel Serafini, Carl Raven, and Richard Craig. He is completing a triptych commissioned by Trio Atem (with funds from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust) based on the work of François Rabelais. He is currently Head of the Graduate School at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Larry Goves is a composer based in Manchester. He has written for numerous ensembles, had music broadcast around the world (including BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 6 Music, New Zealand’s Concert FM and New York’s WQZR) and been released on NMC, Dutton Epoch, The London Sinfonietta’s Jerwood Series, Nonclassical, Slip Discs and PRAH. He is a tutor in composition and academic studies at the Royal Northern College of Music, runs the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain composition course and is the former composer in residence for Royal Holloway, University of London.

Richard Glover is a composer and researcher investigating the perception, construction and notation of experimental musics. He has written book chapters on the music of Phill Niblock and the role of technology in minimalist music, and Overcoming form: reflections on immersive listening was co-authored with Bryn Harrison and published in November 2013. He is currently working on a major new publication concerning the temporal experience in experimental music, and his portrait cd Logical Harmonies was released on the ‘another timbre’ label in October 2013.

Steve Gisby is a composer, bass guitarist and educator living near London. His music has been performed in the UK, Europe and USA. As a bass guitarist, he has performed throughout the UK, as well as on HTV West (ITV), Channel 4, and satellite broadcasts to the US, Canada, Mexico, Europe and the Far East. In May 2014, along with pianist Michael Bonaventure, he gave the world premiere performance of Tom Johnson’s Intervals. He has given lectures and papers at IRCAM in Paris, Furman University in South Carolina, California State University at Long Beach, Surrey University, the University of Huddersfield and Canterbury Christ Church University. He also works as an examiner for Trinity College London

Cara Stacey is a South African musician, composer and researcher. She is a pianist but also specialises in different southern African musical bows (umrhubhe, uhadi, makhoyane) and vocal traditions. Cara holds a BMUS from the South African College of Music (University of Cape Town). She completed her Masters in musicology at Edinburgh University in 2009 and a MMus in performance from SOAS (London) in southern African musical traditions in 2012. Cara is a doctoral candidate at the UCT and SOAS, researching the makhoyane bow of Swaziland. Her first solo album features Shabaka Hutchings, Seb Rochford, Ruth Goller, and Hugh Jones and will be released in 2015.