MP 2014: Keynote: Jane Alden, ‘Form as possibility’

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)

MP 2014: Session 5: Composer’s showcase concert

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.

Charlie Sdraulig introducing his piece, Between

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.

Soprano Elizabeth Hilliard performing Bremner’s logic ballad #2

 

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.

Singers performing Carp Flop, a work-in-progress devised piece by Redhead and Strickson

– Kelly Butler, Music and/as Process Intern 2014

MP 2014: Session 4a: Meta-processes

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.

– Kelly Butler, Music and/as Process Intern 2014

MP 2014: Keynote: Tom Johnson, ‘Countless ways of counting’.

Tom Johnson studied at Yale University, gaining his BA (1961) and MMus (1967) there in addition to studying privately with Morton Feldman. Early works, such as his Four Note Opera (1972), demonstrate a keen interest in use of minimal material: the work, as its title suggests, is composed using only four notes. Later, his Nine Bells (1979), employed a different compositional process: walking through a series of suspended bells, Johnson created music based on his chosen path through them.

Johnson moved to Paris in 1983, there to compose music that would base itself on objective patterns and processes. Chord Catalogue (1986) demonstrates this kind of approach: the piece consists of all 8178 chords possible within the octave. The development of this interest is clear in Intervals (2013), then, which charts a set of possible permutations within a different set of parameters.

Highlighting the importance of the musical process at play, the composer scores the work with an open instrumentation, stating that the ‘intervals and their sequences’ are the musical aspects of primary importance. Johnson draws a parallel between this piece and his earlier work; characterising it as possessing a ‘mathematical intelligence behind its apparent simplicity’. This intelligence and simplicity is also on display in his Counting Duets (1982); despite appearances, the performers do not count musical beats, but simply count ascending and descending numbers.

– Adam Byard, Music and/as Process Intern

– Edited by Kelly Butler, Music and/as Process Intern

MP 2014: Session 4b: Lecture Recitals

Steve Gisby, ‘Things never (always) happen the same way twice: uniform structural process and variable material’, and Leah Kardos (Kingston University), ‘Exploring the temporalities of a musical idea (creative practice research)’.

The two papers presented in this session both explored the ideas behind re-using materials to generate different outcomes. In Steve Gisby’s presentation, the material re-used was in fact a compositional process; his piece ‘SW15’ uses layers of looped sound introduced in a process-based way, before removing them from the built-up texture in a similar manner.

A curious effect of Gisby’s organisation of his materials was that, at several points, a meter became implied or perceptible. One might have expected this meter to be in five, since each of Gisby’s loops were of five seconds, split into five one-second fragments. This was not the case; during the questions at the end of the session, several audience members reported perceiving other meters, quite often three.

Gisby’s focus in this paper was upon how perceptibly different sonic materials can be subjected to the same sorts of structural process to create a distinguishable but related result. After listening to the next two variations of the process, the real interplay between shared structure and differing material became obvious. Here, again, the audience noticed apparent metric aspects that seemed to defy the 5-part organisation of the material.

It was particularly interesting to note the differences between each variation. Despite an identical form and process, the pieces were perceptibly distinct entities, differentiated largely by aspects such as timbre and the implied meter observed during the performance.

Leah Kardos’ presentation examined the ways in which a piece of music can be exploited to maximum effect in order to gain material to work with: she explained her practice of using other versions of particular pieces, referring to their ‘other lives’. Kardos’ economical view of the musical work led to her use of incomplete, inaccurate and adapted versions of her pieces obtained through recording rehearsals, expanding the sense of what ‘the piece of music’ can be considered to be.

An interesting ontological point was made through this process: to what extent can a composer claim authorship of mistakes made by the performer during a rehearsal or performance? Kardos argues that since these sounds come into existence as a direct result of a compositional act, it is possible to take ownership of them and thus expand the musical materials associated with a piece, potentially using the resulting material to create new music.

Both presentations in this session dealt with some sort of economy of usage: Gisby’s by experimenting with the extent to which an unchanging form can produce distinct results by processing audio in a particular way; Kardos’ through examining the ways in which musical materials themselves can be maximally useful. Both composers, in displaying a concern for economising, share a theme with Tom Johnson’s keynote concert: his piece ‘Intervals’, through its maximal use of permutations of only two chords, also established the theme of economy.

 

– Kelly Butler, Music and/as Process Intern 2014

MP 2014: Keynote 1: Dr Nicholas McKay, ‘Introversive and Extroversive processes: rethinking Stravinsky’s music as dialogue between formalist and expressive paradigms’.

Nicholas McKay (Canterbury Christ Church University) gave the first keynote of the conference. His paper acknowledged the dialogical processes between subjective and objective hermeneutic windows in Stravinsky’s music, and his interdisciplinary study (semiotics and literary theory) saw that, despite being some of the oldest music discussed at the conference, his approach was current and informed by concepts of contemporary musicology – he acknowledged the heritage of semiotics as a tool for examining music and explained its value with regards to Stravinsky’s music due to its focus on process.

McKay explained the juxtaposition between introversive and ‘conventionally unconventional’ gestures in Stravinsky’s music, such as false relations, tonal parallels (A major vs A minor) and polyrhythms; and extroversive and tropic gestures such as instrumentation and culturally conventional signifiers, the latter of which he went on to discuss further with regards to the ‘paradigmatic pastoralism’ bassoon opening in The Rite of Spring and Oedipus Rex as a stylistic (and ethnographic) trope.

McKay looked at the bifurcation of process (in composition, listening and analysis) in Stravinsky’s music – architectonic (i.e., structure) vs anecdotal gestures: put simply, music for listening vs music for doing.

The talk began with a contextualisation of ideas through illustrative examples from The Rite of Spring before moving on to lesser known (but still popular) Stravinsky works, such as The Solider’s Tale and his Concerto for Piano and Winds. This range of examples substantiated McKay’s ideas in a multifaceted manner.

As a budding semiotician myself, while some names mentioned were familiar to me (such as Nattiez and Hatten), there were many scholars in the field I had not heard of who, since then, I have begun researching (Ratner and Awagu among others) thus, am beginning to gain a wider insight into the methodology. Furthermore, upon first experience of the keynote, I struggled to understand much of McKay’s points, however, after contextualising his theory through research of these scholars, I feel I have more of a grasp on the ideas presented at this keynote.

 

– Kelly Butler, Music and as Process Intern 2014

MP 2014: Session 1b: Interactivity – René Mogensen (Birmingham Conservatoire/Birmingham City University), Colin Johnson (University of Kent)

René Mogensen (Birmingham Conservatoire/Birmingham City University): ‘Identifying types of musician-computer interactivity in score-based concert works’, and Colin Johnson (University of Kent): ‘Music as Computational Process: Beyond Romantic Algorithmicism’.

The first part of paper session 1b consisted of René Mogensen’s fascinating exploration of the ways in which interactivity exists between performers and computational aspects of a scored concert work. Mogensen expands upon the idea of interactivity as a two-way flow of information, examining the dialogical processes that characterise musical works featuring electronic elements.

Mogensen began by noting that listeners receiving a piece of music with live electronics may experience a difficulty in understanding the processes at play in real-time. In undertaking a data-flow analysis of Saariaho’s NoaNoa (1992), Mogensen mapped all activity contributing to the sound of the piece, constructing a visual representation of the complex interactive procedures. This allows the analyst unfamiliar with live electronics to easily visualise the ways in which the multiple elements required to perform the piece interact.

Interestingly, Mogensen continued by detailing how this type of analysis can lend itself to comparative investigation. By constructing system diagrams for several pieces, he was able to assess similarities and differences between them, paralleling the way in which comparative methods are possible using more traditional methods of analysis.

Consequently, Mogensen proposed a categorisation of interactive types. By comparing multiple score-based works throughout the session, he explained how comparative analysis could form the basis for this typology. By analysing at this abstract level, said Mogensen, comparative analysis becomes easier as a result of removing the complex technological elements, allowing systems to be compared more easily.

Colin Johnson’s thought-provoking presentation centred on algorithmic processes, and the ways in which these might inspire musical composition. Johnson detailed a range of different types of process, employing his background in computing to demonstrate how exactly the algorithms manifest in reality.

The metaphorical comparison of found algorithms to compositional structure was particularly fascinating. One memorable example of Johnson’s involved looking at the pathfinding habits of ants. Faced with a number of options, ants would quickly learn, through placement of pheromones, the quickest route to a food source. Johnson identified this as a stigmergic process: collective action organising a change in the environment.

Johnson’s categorisation of the types of processes that might inspire composers in the future had the aim of confronting the idea of computational process as rigid and unmoving. Johnson’s processes, rather, aim toward interactivity and adaptability: Learning, gamification and search processes are three more of Johnson’s examples that illustrate this sort of approach.

Although both Mogensen and Johnson’s explorations of the idea of interactivity were different, both speakers evoked computational processes. Whilst Mogensen took technological setups and developed an abstract ‘interaction interface’, Johnson began with metaphorical references to algorithmic process – such as the ant colony example – and considered how composers interested in algorithms might use such examples as inspiration.

– Adam Byard, Music and/as Process Intern 2014

MP 2014: Session 1a: Empirical Study – Vanessa Hawes and James Williams

Vanessa Hawes (Canterbury Christ Church University) began the first day of the conference with a paper of her empirical study, ‘Understanding structure as process’. Hawes explained the bifurcation of the title: ‘the development of an understanding of structure in music as a process’ and ‘understanding structure in music as a process’ and how her research involves examining learning processes and gradual familiarisation with a piece. Ecological perception (examining environmental aspects that guide or influence an organism’s activity) underpins Hawes’s research in performance, and she suggested a number of possible structural and performative affordances within a score that the singer she has been working with seems to be using to guide her continually developing perception of structure in a song by Schoenberg. When the singer went from studying the score to actually singing it, two possible important affordances that were highlighted were:

  • The difficulty of certain passages in the work
  • The changes in pitch through the song and the physicality of producing different pitch ranges

Hawes also explained her choice of repertoire was due to tonally constructed music providing too many ‘flags’ in terms of the structure, in terms of tonal resting points and conventional, or balanced, phrasing and harmonic rhythm – the atonality of Schoenberg’s work eradicated these influential elements, meaning that the structure remains ambiguous and, perhaps, subjective. This ambiguity invites the performer, listener or analyst to interpret structure in their own way.

The idea of familiarity with the score was a theme in Vanessa’s paper, and leads to the identification of a process formed through collaboration with the score and text. The overall aim of the research is to develop a picture that illustrates a listener (or performer/analyst) gradually learning to interact with the score, and that it is through this that the processes within the music put there by the composer might be identified, providing a different, performer-led, perspective on the analysis of structure.

The paper ultimately leads to Hawes’s larger ongoing interdisciplinary ‘Hanging Garden’ project, based on external and analytical perspectives on excerpts of Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten.

James Williams (Wolverhampton University) concluded the session with his paper, ‘The role of “musical conversation” in co-composer collaboration’, in which he videoed and analysed rehearsal time between composer Jeremy Peyton Jones and electronic sound artist Kaffe Matthews. He explained that collaboration, in this instance, meant the link between the instrumentation and, by extension, the two composers and their writings. Collaboration was a popular and well discussed theme at this year’s conference, with many other papers examining the notion from different perspectives.

Williams explored the idea that conversation, planning and verbal preparation could be more fruitful that practice-based studying, and that this ‘musical conversation’ (discussing how to tackle elements of the performance and rehearsals) shapes the development of the piece and the relationship between the protagonists. Williams introduced some points of interest from the rehearsal and conversation time he videoed relating to how ideas were exchanged or discussed. He explained the ‘collaborative spirit’ between the composers: they would not create rules or dictate methods, but invite one another to explore an idea upon suggestion or connotation, meaning the work was entirely balanced and there was no leading party. Williams also acknowledges the empirical limitations found in his study, such as how performers and composers working with different genres and specialisms will have different methods of rehearsing.

This paper is part of Williams’ main research and PhD thesis on the interaction between pre-composed acoustics and partially improvised-electronics between Jeremy Peyton Jones and Kaffe Matthews.

I, Norton by Gino Robair, performed by CCCU’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and guests

A highlights video of Canterbury Christ Church University’s Contemporary Music Ensemble (directed by Lauren Redhead) performing Gino Robair’s “opera in real-time”, I, Norton. Guests include local performers and composers Charles Hutchins and Tom Jackson.

Edited by Kelly Butler

For more information about the work and composer, please visit: ginorobair.com/inorton/inorton.html