Sturzstrom: for massed choirs [2]

Sturzstrom: for massed choirs

Sturzstrom: now complete!
October 14 2011,

sturzstrom (a landslide event for voices) is now complete.

This has been perhaps the most demanding of pieces for me to write. In trying to obtain the vocal effects and structures I wanted I have had to ‘project’ and contain the various possibilities that the notational methods I have chosen to deliver sturzstrom could encompass. In other words, in my usual scores, every detail is controlled and notated precisely, so I know exactly (more or less) what it is I’m going to get in performance. sturzstrom has been totally different in that there is no definitive performance, but a performance that exists within the parameters set by the coaching and shaping of the music with the performers as part of its being brought into being.


To help clarify this process and the expectations of delivery and performance I have written extensive performance notes in the score.

sturzstrom has been composed as ‘a landslide event for voices’ meaning the work attempts to depict landmass movement and geological process as found along the ‘Jurassic Coast’ of East Devon and Dorset. Naturally, this depiction is not a scientific reconstruction of these processes in sound; rather, an imaginative response to these forces and outcomes as contrived in the composer’s imagination and amplified by the individual contributions of the performers. sturzstrom has been designed to utilise the voice rather than singing ability and is conceived and notated in such a way as to enable maximum participation from individuals with little or no experience of singing or reading conventional music notation.


Inevitably, this involves some new learning to understand and interpret the signs and symbols used in this score as well as the general concept and approach used by the composer to articulate his ideas. Both the composer and conductor will be responsible for explaining, shaping and guiding the choir’s responses to the notation, graphics and text.

33011989-F1.smallAlong with the massed voices there are three strands of pebble percussion for younger performers; the first two strands deal with a more advanced interprutatrion followed by a thrid strand, a pebble chorus, performed by children of primary school age adding a further layer of mass percussive activity. As in the voice-work, the various strands of the percussion section are designed to be performable by the widest range of young people with interpretation of the various notations being facilitated by the conductor and composer. For authenticity, It is also desirable that each participant in the percussion section has found their own performance instrument (stones and pebbles) from the stretch of coastline featured in this work.

sturzstrom is designed for massed choirs and will work best with large numbers of individuals, employing as it does flocking and ‘crowd sourcing’ techniques to initiate complex textures, harmonies and articulations of its material, be they sung or spoken.


The structure of the score leads to an intense climax (the landslide event) but along the way, geological text from scientific papers is used to add vocal content to the music; this content is articulated in a variety of ways using non-conventional notation and graphic notation (explained below). The work covers the Mesozoic geological time period and includes the layers of strata found in this time period between Exmouth in East Devon and Lyme Regis in West Dorset. These successions of strata are documented through sound in the piece and culminate in an imaginary journey along the coast, traveling east to west, before the landslide event occurs, setting the scene as it were for the catastrophic landslide (blockslide) that occurred at Bindon on Christmas Eve, 1839.

33011941-Bindon_Plate2Read by the Orator and bookending this scientific data is the wonderful ‘Petition of the Mayor and Burgesses of Lyme Regis, County Dorset, 20 August, 1533’, where the people of ‘King’s Lyme’ express their fears for the town as coastal erosion and landslides threaten its very existance. This letter brings an human perspective and cost to these processes of coastal movement and remind us that the situation described in 1533 has not changed or been remedied in our own day but is at best, temporarily contained.’


The first workshop for sturzstrom took place in Exeter on the 12th of November.

Sturzstrom: for massed choirs [1]

STURZSTROM: what is it?
May 4 2011

A landslide event for voices!

‘Sturzstrom’ is a vocal work that expresses in sound the formation and geology of the Jurassic Coast concentrating on the phenomena of landslips, mudslides and coastal erosion.

The work will be a primordial, timeless piece that reflects Deep Time and geological processes in sound, structure and process of composition, echoing the creation of the land, strata and Jurassic Coast across time. Using the power of massed choirs, it will act on communities, singers and audiences at a visceral, atavistic level, capturing and integrating their reactions to it. Vocal content will be developed and shaped in local communities in East Devon and West Dorset through creative workshops with the composer, using texts relating to the geology of the Jurassic Coast as the basis for non-narrative content. Through the Jurassic Arts Team, the composer and community choirs will also work with geologists and scientists who will inform the creative process, both compositionally and in the origination of the vocal text).


‘Sturzstrom’ is part of the the Coastal Voices project and will look at how the geology we see along the coast was formed and how it is being shaped today, how that geology has shaped the land above and how the landscape created affects us as people.



A sturzstrom (German literally for “fall stream” or “collapse stream”; the correct German term, however, is “bergsturz”) is a rare, unique type of landslide consisting of soil and rock which is characterized by having a great horizontal movement when compared to its initial vertical drop – as much as 20 or 30 times the vertical distance. Sturzstroms are similar to glaciers, mudslides, and lava flows. Sturzstroms flow across land fairly easily, and their mobility increases when volume increases. They have been found on other bodies in the solar system, including the moon, Mars, Venus, Io, Callisto, and Phobos. More information can be found here.

mudslide and sediment

A Coastal Voices commission, ‘Sturzstrom’ will be performed in Weymouth and Portland as part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrating the 2012 Olympic Games.

My aims:

To compose an original and experimental piece of new music for community choirs
To create a work which explores a variety of new and innovative vocal and percussive techniques
To bring together singers from a range of choirs, backgrounds and ages
To give community singers the opportunity to sing with massed voices
To take community choirs and singers on a journey from their familiar musical world into the sound world of the composer
To support choirs with creative workshops led by the composer and with mentoring for choir leaders
To enable singers to contribute to the pitch content of the music through guided aleatoric and graphic notation


The challenges:

The challenge is twofold –

Firstly, to research with geologists the very sound of landslips and morphodynamic changes in the coastline and translate these sounds and sound processes to the human voice through the structure and content of this new commission as well as finding suitable geological and scientific texts that can be ‘treated’ for performance purposes to form the vocal word content of the piece.

Secondly, to notate the musical content of ‘Sturzstrom’ in such a way as to be totally inclusive of those with no musical experience, be that singing or reading conventional music notation, so that they can learn and perform the piece to the highest standard. This notation will be forged with the individual groups forming a highly personal and communicative language that will be capable of communicating the pitch and rhythmic content of the score as well as shaping sounds in ‘live’ performance (with guidance from the conductor). The music will contain a measure of aleatoric and improvisational material that will be rehearsed and considered to form part of a cohesive whole. These elements will allow for a co-creative relationship between composer and singers. The resultant music will be complex and highly textural with many individual layers of activity moving together to create movement from focus to flux as the landscape of the music forms, erodes, slips, slides and reforms again.

Blackven, near Charmouth, Dorset