Notation: from drawing to scoring

SEPTEMBER 25, 2012 [updated 14.02.2015]
Notation: from drawing to scoring

from manuscripts of moving song – score sketch

World premiere performance by Zero Theorem: Aisha Orazbayeva [violin], Minsi Yang [violin], Stephen Upshaw [viola], And Patrick Tapio Johnson [cello] as part of DIVAcontemporary’s Sonic Coast [5] at Beaminster School on the 17th January 2015

Structure: When in doubt, draw it!

Finally, after months of thought and deliberation I have arrived at a structural solution for notating the score of my string quartet, now titled ‘from moving manuscripts of song’ (see previous notation related posts).

This title appeals to me especially because of the use of the word ‘manuscripts’ but more especially because of the verb ‘moving’ and noun ‘song’.

The use of ‘moving’ implies a fluidity of execution in live performance that my compositional and notational method aims to capture in the ‘static’ structural representation of the score. ‘Song’ is similarly ideal as each of the quartet voices are indeed ‘singing’ as a choir, independently with their own music, granted, but voices brought together; meshed in, by performing their material ‘framed’ in the same space at the same time as a quartet. The expectation is for an intimate musical relationship between the four players. The nature of this music does not preclude such intimacy but does re-draw the player’s lines of communication and integration, responding to each other spontaneously as the work unfolds and utilising all aspects of their musicality. This relationship is further reinforced by the thematic connectivity within the musical material itself. The fact that the voices are playing independently will be far less apparent when just listening to the music; the outcome will be one of a fusion of interconnected sounds; there will be nothing ‘disconnected’ about it!

As I write in the performance notes on the score:

This music is divided into five sections some of which have sub-sections. The piece should be performed as a continual whole with pauses marking the boundaries of each section.

The instrumentalists play independently of each other. Music is cued to begin only, with no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the parts other than that which arises spontaneously through performance. Whilst the relationship of each instrument is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and to this end it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible.

Bergersen-Quartet-3_00061from manuscripts of moving song – 3 – as ‘transcribed’ from the drawn sketch above

There are a number of sections that operate in very close (almost imitative) canon. Again, no exact synchronisation is intended but players should ‘follow’ each other as closely as possible to approximately maintain the displacement of the instruments consequent of their starting order. If metronome markings in these sections are too fast they should be moderated through agreement with each player so that all can perform at roughly the same tempi.

Compositional material is derived from a series of variations that unify all sections with thematic landmarks. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure to the work. This material is at its most radically diverse in the opening section and at its least differentiated in sections 3 and 5, both of which employ the aforementioned close canons. The piece as a whole could be considered as journeying from flux to greater focus although this statement oversimplifies the actual processes involved.

Bergersen-Quartet-1c_00032from manuscripts of moving song – 1c – as ‘transcribed’ from the drawn sketch above

I have produced a score for the quartet which is a compromise between displaying all the musical material for each section or sub-section on the same page whilst avoiding the innumerable complexities of trying to notate each part in vertical alignment as represented in real time. The approach I have taken feels further justified as attempting to accurately pin-down the vertical alignment of the parts would go against the ethos of flexibility I have so carefully calculated in the music.

Bergersen-Quartet-4_00071from manuscripts of moving song – 4 – as ‘transcribed’ from the drawn sketch above

As a consequence, the score cannot be read in the conventional manner (seeing all instruments sounding simultaneously in vertical alignment) although the progress of individual instrumental parts can be followed in the score. The performance parts for the quartet are notated as normal.

Programme note from the score:

The information below should not imply any programmatic, emotional or imagery treatment within this piece of entirely abstract music. Both title line and later, entire poem were discovered after the music was conceived. Information is given purely to place the title in its proper context.

‘Let Me Enjoy’ is the first of ‘A Set of Country Songs’, the 18 poems which make up the third section of Time’s Laughingstocks, and themselves begin with the seven poems grouped under the heading ‘At Casterbridge Fair’. It is also the first poem in Gerald Finzi’s Opus 19 set of songs, Till Earth Outwears, and Hardy later included it in his Selected Poems, together with a note suggesting that the subtitle ‘(Minor Key’) might not be needed when the poem appeared separately from the rest of the ‘Country Songs’. It was one of the nine poems Hardy chose for the Library of the Royal Dolls’ House at Windsor.

Hardy revised several lines at different times. In the Cornhill, where the poem first appeared in 1909, line 7 read ‘I will find charm in her loth air’; in the first volume publication, this was amended to ‘I will find charm in her uncare’ (a fascinating example of Hardy’s interest in words beginning with the prefix ‘un–‘, of which there are more than 350 different examples in the poems alone: to ‘uncare’ is surely not the same as merely to ‘not care’), before Hardy settled on the final version. In the third verse, ‘moving song’ was ‘rapturous strain’ in the manuscript, and ‘tender song’ in the Cornhill; perhaps more strikingly, ‘dreams’ in line 10 was ‘souls’ in the manuscript and remained so until Collected Poems in 1928. ‘And some day hence’, in the final verse, was ‘Perhaps some day’ in the manuscript and the first volume publication.

Let Me Enjoy
(Minor Key)

I) Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight.

II) About my path there flits a Fair,
Who throws me not a word or sign;
I’ll charm me with her ignoring air,
And laud the lips not meant for mine.

III) From manuscripts of moving song
Inspired by scenes and dreams unknown
I’ll pour out raptures that belong
To others, as they were my own.

IV) And some day hence, towards Paradise
And all its blest – if such should be –
I will lift glad, afar-off eyes
Though it contain no place for me.



the shape distance [2]

MARCH 18, 2013

‘the shape distance’ [maps 5-8]

A greater confidence and liberation of gesture and colour are increasingly apparent as I continue my journey into painting to ‘capture’ moments in sound from my own compositions onto the two-dimensional surface of white-borads [at least, that’s the intention – the reality may prove rather more elusive]. You will need to judge for yourselves just how ‘musical’ these paintings are as it is difficult for me to be objective once the processes of assimilation [making the painting] takes over, all other concerns become secondary.

My intention remains pure enough, but the excitement of working with pigment, texture, colour and modeling form tends to dictate its own dynamic on-goingly. This ‘non-temporal’ media is quickly so much more responsive and pliable in ‘real-time’ than writing down music, making the act of composition feel laboriously painstaking. [maps 5-8] sees a further exploration and extension of the initial mark-making in [maps 1-4] and tackles a broader repertoire of ‘sound-initiators’ [the sound or combinations of sounds in aural gesture I employ to initiate the mark-making from my imagination]. More extreme sound-events now shape my painted outcomes. The resultant work reflects these polarities.

‘the shape distance [map 8]‘ Oil and mixed media on mounted board 24×18 inches | 2013

‘the shape distance [map 7]‘ Oil and mixed media on mounted board 24×24 inches | 2013

‘the shape distance [map 6]‘ Oil and mixed media on mounted board 24×18 inches | 2013

‘the shape distance [map 5]‘ Oil and mixed media on mounted board 24×18 inches | 2013

the shape distance [1]

MARCH 10, 2013
the shape distance

I haven’t painted for six years.

This week I completed four new paintings. They mark a radical departure from the work I finished in 2006. This radical departure is due in part to various developments in my music compositions but also due to much deliberation about the associations between music and painting in general and how, specifically, my work as a painter can be brought closer to that of my music. Writing in VISCER-ebr-AL combined with the many conversations I have had with my dear friend Ian Talbot have helped shape ideas, culminating in a burst of work that draws together many of the threads pondered and discussed.

‘the shape distance’ [map 1] 30 x 23.5 inches Oil on mounted board.

Before talking about my intention within the paintings, it will help to outline my most recent thoughts in composition as these directly impact upon this series of paintings; indeed, they reference each other through a shared title.

the shape distance are a series of seven pieces constructed somewhat akin to ‘Russian Dolls’ in that each contains the same or similar core material that is ‘enclosed’ by other layers of material.

The core music is represented by two solo pieces that although composed in isolation contain strongly related material. This music for flute and clarinet, either together or individually pervades all subsequent pieces in the series.

the shape distance [1] flute 1 / clarinet
the shape distance [2] flute 1 / clarinet / piano
the shape distance [3] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola
the shape distance [4] flutes 1 + 2 / harp
the shape distance [5] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / percussion (1)
the shape distance [6] flute 1 / clarinet / harp / percussion (1)
the shape distance [7] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / harp / piano / percussion (1)

Percussion set (1 player):
5 differently pitched temple blocks ranging from high to low, 4 differently pitched suspended cymbals ranging from high to low, 1 timpani drum 29″-28″, 1 large, deep, resonant bass drum, 2 differnetly pitched suspended tam-tams

all works circa 12 minutes in duration.

The instrumentalists play independently of each other. Music is cued to begin only, with no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the instrumentalists. Whilst the relationship of each instrument is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and variability. To this end it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible although the composer appreciates that it is the various interpretations and practicalities inherent in the realisation of tempi that contribute to the richly unique nature and interplay of each performance.
There is only one instructions to the players; to begin together and play until their material is finished.

Compositional material is [largely] derived from a series of distant variations that unify all sections with thematic landmarks. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure to the work. All the instrumental roles are written to a high degree of virtuosity and most contain extended techniques and quarter-tones. The music itself [through the simultaneous bringing together of these individual parts] forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.

The score and parts:
I have not produced a score for these pieces; difficulties and variables associated with displaying the musical material in vertical alignment as represented in real time are considerable. Each performance will yield different results, interplays, gestural and harmonic references and outcomes. As a result, the material contained within the pieces can only be read via the instrumental parts. Consequently here is no definitive performance of these pieces.
Music in the shape distance can only be realised through performance [as opposed to comprehended by reading through a score; this is the nature of the music – it has to be experienced to be ‘known’.

A note about the title:
‘The shape distance is part of ‘the shape context’ and is intended to be a way of describing shapes that allows for measuring shape similarity and the recovering of point correspondences. The basic idea is to pick n points on the contours of a shape. For each point pi on the shape, consider the n − 1 vectors obtained by connecting pi to all other points. The set of all these vectors is a rich description of the shape localized at that point but is far too detailed. The key idea is that the distribution over relative positions is a robust, compact, and highly discriminative descriptor.’


This process of describing shapes through their similarities resonated with my ambition in these pieces, especially regarding the recognition of shapes [this time shape and gestural recognition in sound rather than physical objects] within a complex, multifaceted fabric of un-synchronous sounds, believing that it is the recognition of these elements that brings both context, excitement and meaning to the music.

It is perhaps this last paragraph that can be used for the jumping-off point into my paintings.

‘the shape distance’ [map 2] 25 x 24 inches, Oil on mounted board.

My intention in this work, as stated above, was broadly to bring connectivity from my music into my paintings in a way that at least, resonated with me.

I know it is impossible to ‘paint music’ in any real [truthful] sense and have observed that when most visual artists cite a connection between their visual work and music it is through affectation [a purely emotional, indulgent or even nostalgic response], illustration or pure fiction.

I felt it necessary, as far as I was able to avoid these pitfalls.

In starting the paintings I had a very rough idea of where I might be heading but the detail was unknown. I was very anxious about making marks on my virgin whiteboards. Initially, I was scared to commit. A six-year gap in painting leaves both a desire to paint again as well as a void that has been filled by uncertainties around one’s abilities to actually paint anything of worth ever again.

My first attempt took me straight back to where I left off. I put that one aside. My second attempt [the first to be finished] immediately showed the way forward as I recognised within it many of the ideas I had previously thought about. It was this painting that became the measure for the others. I removed the surface from the first painting and started again. This process of assimilation between the works continued until I felt I had left the past behind sufficiently and had indicated the way forward. I wasn’t sure I ‘liked’ what I had produced, but on a subconscious level the work resonated and I ‘knew’ this was the right direction. I took me a few days to acclimatise to this new work. Now I am enjoying it and my mind is stimulated with more to come.

‘the shape distance [map 3] 30 x 24 inches. Oil on mounted board.

Yes, I needed to bring ‘music’ into the visual, but how had I intended to do this.

I took an approach based very much on mapping ‘gesture’ in music. In sound, a gesture can be a flourish of notes, a sudden loud to quiet, a phrase or technique, a crescendo, a musical shape – a moment. All these gestures have physical counterparts. Rather, they can all be represented through a physical movement [we may call this dance, but I have something less formalised in mind], single movements that capture the kinetic energy that the gestural sound produces. It is this movement that I wanted to capture through the gesture of mark-making, solidifying ‘a moment in sound’ through line, colour and texture.

These paintings, called ‘the shape distance’ are mapping exercises; they ‘petrify’ a moment in time, an event or gesture[s] from one of my scores. They are not illustrative or affective; they translate a gesture in sound through a related gesture in line, the impetus and guide being the kinetic energy needed to bridge this gap. Therefore, the mark making in these paintings is pre-conceived, experienced and spontaneously translated into the mark in one [or several] bold gestures.

As mapping these gestures is central to the work, my titles reflect the connection: ‘the shape distance’ [map 1], ‘the shape distance [map 2], and so on.

Other elements are at play, too.

These paintings have taken their elements of form, texture and colour to the minimum necessary to effectively express my intent. This is where the radical departure from my previous work is centred. I had produced large works of an ‘epic’ intensity [by comparison], full of rich colour, deep texture, impasto and complex forms. Now, the paintings are set upon pale, delicately textured backdrops that have an almost [slightly grubby] clinical feel – a bit like setting the mark-making, the gestures against a background of white-noise, or indeed, silence. This juxtaposition only serves to heighten the mark-making and minimal colour present in the work. The focus has been sharpened towards what is vital for the form of the piece to work.
These pieces are not minimal in any sense like ‘minimalism in music’; on the surface and in comparison to my previous work there has been a significant paring down of content and spectrum of expression, but what I am left with is in no way minimal. If anything, the reduction has increased the intensity of the gesture and spontaneity of the work making it more potent. It may not have the initial visual ‘wow’ factor of my previous work, but upon deeper inspection reveals a passionate dynamic that reflects its origins in music.

Additionally, these ‘reduced’ backgrounds, these settings for the gestural mark-making provide a platform akin to derelict internal walls that exude the beauty of ‘domestic erosion and decay’, or external urban walls that call for graffiti. There is a sense in which I view this new work as a kind of graffiti with the board being the wall. Perhaps I could call the work I am producing gestural graffiti?

‘the shape distance’ [map 4] 30 x 24 inches. Oil on mounted board.

Having said all of this I shall close by stating that I am fully aware my intentions in this work, all that I have written, thought and made, may not be apparent to the viewer who has no knowledge of my previous work, connection to music or given intent. Does that weaken the work? I think not. The intent of the artist is paramount; it gives the context and raison d’être for the work. These ideas resonate with me and will resonate with others but with those for whom such resonances are not apparent, my hope is that the dynamic of the work will ‘speak’ to them in other ways.


It all began with an idea and a sketch – this one in fact!

Pencil ‘proto-sketch’ for oros

oros is Commissioned by Auditiv Vokal to celbrate “Einstürzende Mauern”. It was premiered in Dresden on 27th February 2014

oros is for 8 voices: SSS AA T BB [3 sopranos, 2 altos, tenor and 2 basses]

I have already written an article around word setting called ‘in no way fixed [words and music parts 1 and 2] but on this occasion I can write specifically about a commission that allows me to experiment compositionally and technically with dedicated, professional contemporary vocal music specialists. This is a first for me so I wanted to maximise the opportunity and learn as much as possible about how far I can push the human voice within the context of my current compositional practice!

In writing a piece that relates to the theme of ‘falling walls’ [Einstürzende Mauer], I wanted to create an abstract work that was coloured by issues of freedom and liberation, both individual, social and cultural [avoiding the overtly political] and deliver this through an experimental [for me] and wildly contrasting, dramatic new vocal work. There are many programmatic and cliched pitfalls to avoid here. My aim was to write a completely abstracted work without narrative or direct illustrative reference. There would certainly be no ‘message’ in the music or any attempt at proselytising!

Duschtuch Hygiene Museum, Dresden

In fact, the whole idea or concept behind “Einstürzende Mauern” is difficult to translate into English. After conversations with Auditiv Vokal, I alighted on several ideas – colours even – that could articulate the concept as I describe below.

Score shot of the soprano 2 part

Concept: To achieve my aims I quickly realised the new piece needed to be one of my un-synchronised works [see below] as I wished to reflect the themes above in the very fabric of the music; the way it was conceived, written and performed to create an ‘organic’ vocal work that becomes a living wall of sound itself. However, this wall would not represent something solid or fixed; it would be permeable, in a state of flux, changing, spontaneous and full of life. Furthermore, as the work would be un-synchronised, the vocalists were freed from the tyranny of the shared bar line and down beat, able to express themselves as individuals within the context of the whole [the ensemble].

This compositional and performance approach enhanced the themes of liberation and freedom even further.
To emphasise the theme of falling walls I found a text source that I could treat in the same manner I would treat my pitches and rhythms in the music. I decided to use graffiti documented from the Berlin Wall itself. I have transcribed a number of slogans, phrases, and words which have been coupled with three short prose of my own exploring themes of journey, freedom, liberation, exploration and self realisation. It is the combination of these text materials that provides the vocal fabric for the work. These materials [within the parts themselves] are treated in a semi-narrative fashion. However, the overall combination and unsynchronised layering of all eight voices purposefully leads to a non-narrative text delivery. Further to this, the setting of the words does not generally encourage clarity and diction in delivery. There is much melismatic writing and the words are used more for their inherent sound properties than literal meaning and context. Of course, at times there is a collision between word setting and context that amplifies meaning in the conventional sense.

Vision: Over time, many layers of graffiti can be written on walls, one covering the other until all of the text and words become obscured by each other. One becomes aware of a surface of tangled words where individual letters and words may appear from the visual jumble only to disappear again under the tangle of other words. This image of the surface of a well-used graffiti wall is a suitable illustration for how the sound-surface of oros can be experienced. As each of the eight singers produces their individual line, their words and phrases, musical gestures and individual vocal characters will intertwine, compete, challenge, unify, collide, obscure and generally create a complexity of sound that will become an aural representation of a graffiti covered wall containing the hopes and sentiments of ordinary people. To create this level of vocal activity, all parts are highly virtuosic, exploring the full range and dramatic presentation of the voices.

Text used in oros [used freely and not in the order presented]

collected from the Berlin Wall:
Dancing to freedom
Change your life
move in silence
the world’s too small for walls
and the wind cries
we are all the wall
maybe someday we will be together

Many small people who in
many small places do
many small things
that can alter the face of the world.

Marc Yeats’ prose:
A local map
in a foreign land
will free your hand
to forge a new route
and seek from outside
what you have lost within.

We travel on each other’s love
strange, wild adventures
territories unknown
sometimes lost
blind alleys or mazes
searching always
for home.

Here, from the highest point
I can see for miles.
On a clear day
I can even see myself.

Score-shot of the soprano 2 part

The music employs quartertones and extended techniques as well as dramatic, gestural writing. Much of the clarity of word production will be intentionally obscured by these techniques – once again, in reference to the worn and over-written graffiti on the wall where all that was written is no longer clear to see. In short, the text will be treated in exactly the same way as the music and subject to its processes and demands.

Un-synchronised music: The vocalists sing independently of each other. The music is cued to begin only. There is no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the vocalists. Whilst the relationship of each vocalist is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and variability. To this end it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible although the composer appreciates that it is the various interpretations and practicalities inherent in the realisation of tempi that contribute to the richly unique nature and interplay of each performance.

There is only one instruction to the vocalists: to begin when indicated and sing until their material is completed.
Structurally, the music is conceived as a large canon in eight parts with each part a transposition [with some variables] of the other. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure. The music forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.

canonic diagram

Due to the unsynchronised nature of this music, an ‘installed’ performance [spatial] is recommended with the performers being positioned around the performance space, enwrapping the audience.

The score and parts:
There is no score for oros; difficulties and variables associated with displaying the musical material in vertical alignment as represented in real time are considerable. Each performance will yield somewhat different results, interplays, gestural and harmonic references and outcomes. As a result, the material contained within the piece can only be read via the vocal parts. Consequently there is no single, definitive performance of the piece. oros can only be realised through performance [as opposed to comprehended by reading through a score]; this is the nature of the music – it has to be experienced to be ‘known’.

Thinking around the title of this piece: wall > boundary > limit > horizon –

The word horizon derives from the Greek “ὁρίζων κύκλος” horizōn kyklos, “separating circle”, from the verb ὁρίζω horizō, “to divide”, “to separate”, and that from “ὅρος” (oros), “boundary, landmark”.

complexity, what’s the point?

Complexity – what’s the point?
March 13 2011

“We make our own nature because we always see it in the way that suits us culturally. When we look on mountains as beautiful, although they’re nothing but stupid and obstructive rock piles: these are just our own projections.” Gerhard Richter

My good friend, Ian Talbot, fine art photographer, recently created a blog responding to the above quote by Gerhard Richter in which he (Ian) expressed concepts of process that enabled his work to encompass simplicity and elegance as well as discussing aspects of cultural influences in the way art is both created and experienced.

out of the dead land_ guitar_0016


This discourse encouraged me to respond and expound a little about the motivations, processes and concepts behind my own work as a composer and painter.
Ian and Richter are correct! What we perceive isn’t necessarily what we see. Indeed, it seldom is. Cultural influences, visual and aural languages all play their part in how we filter and realise our thoughts and construct realities around us. Nature is one of these ‘realities’ and for me as an individual and an artist (one who interprets and re-constructs reality – perhaps?) the joy of untangling romance, fiction, ‘reality’, natural forces such as erosion, fractals and chaos theory, and the actual ‘joy of perception’ -what ever that may actually be, drive me forwards to engage with the world around me in a way that we have grown to accept as a creative response.

Simplicity and elegance are wonderful things and have, from time to time, concerned me in my own work as an artist and composer. However, as I have grown older, far from wishing to simplify my reality and bring elegance to image and sound, I have become increasingly fascinated by flux, chaos, complexity and multidimensional perception as in an object or sound construction that operates on many interwoven layers simultaneously. I’m not so concerned about line and order; I’m concerned about energies, densities, colour and textures.

Perhaps the strong relationship between my work as a visual artist and composer has driven these preoccupations. These two creative forms are closely linked by techniques and constructions developed over many years of practice. My compositions often influence new approaches to painting, just as techniques in painting have influenced my musical development.


Although I am interested in surfaces represented in sound, colour, form and texture, my work is further influenced by a fascination with layering, geology and erosion. The work, both sound based and visual, is primarily inspired by landscape (or my perceptions of it) – but this fascination gravitates around representing landscape in terms of molecular and primal energies rather than recreating what is seen or what I ‘think’ I am seeing.

Many of the acoustic pieces I write find their starting point from within other pieces of music I’ve already written. I am fascinated how altered contexts can radically redefine the way musical material feels and sounds. Transplanting different layers, voices or strands of music from one piece to another, altering tempi, small details and dynamics, transposing, inverting, and then letting those strands sound out together; all of these methods (and many others) – a sort of genetic recycling – fascinate me.

These connected works are like sons and daughters, cousins, five times removed. And with this ‘genetic’ material comes history, characteristics and content. In music, as with people, the way this genetic material is ‘lived out’ determines the character and make-up of the person or piece. This can lead to very individual and complex outcomes – fights, arguments, battles for dominance, deaths, betrayals, harmonies, solace and feud.

And in relation to the above, I’m also interested in music that operates more freely within itself. This is especially true with ensemble music where there are several instruments. I wish to investigate the simultaneous use of tempi where the musicians play in an independent manner, allowing serendipity to come into play and ever changing relationships of line and colour to manifest with each performance. These chance elements will be sufficiently organised to prevent total chaos but free enough to allow spontaneity and complex musical lines to be performed without the psychological stresses of finding the downbeat in every bar (with un-conducted music) as each performer will follow their own downbeat.

An example of ‘gentle complexity and bringing together ‘genetic material’ in music:

“We make our own nature because we always see it in the way that suits us culturally. When we look on mountains as beautiful, although they’re nothing but stupid and obstructive rock piles: these are just our own projections.” Gerhard Richter

and also

“Did motion come into being at some time
or did it neither come-to-be nor is it destroyed,
but did it always exist and will it go on for ever,
and is it immortal and unceasing for existing things,
being like a kind of life for all natural objects?”



“A number of fragments imply that it needs both faith and persistence to find the underlying truth.“


and still:

“Things taken together are whole and not whole,
something which is being brought together and brought apart,
which is in tune and out of tune;
out of all things there comes a unity,
and out of a unity all things.”


and, finally:

“all things are flux”


Complexity can exist on many levels. Sometimes, work with the most ‘simple’ surface can overlay much complexity in its realisation and production. And further to this, simplicity and complexity are points on a continuum. They are points that rely again on our perceptions, intellectual understanding and emotional, gut-reaction to creative work and the world around us. How much the artist puts into a work bears no relation to how much any one person gets out of it. An artist has his intention and the viewer or listener their perception and understanding. As was quoted from Richter, we see, hear, what we want to.

But I believe that like the complexity of nature, weather systems, the surface of water, light on leaves, the soil – you name it, we are capable of rendering simplicity and some degree of understanding and attachment to forms in nature that exist in complex fractal patterns and their limited but limitless array of variation around a single thematic or schematic. We are also capable of reading simple messages (correctly or incorrectly) from complex human behaviours and nuances.

Whilst the strength of many works of art in all media is to break through complexity and give a ‘reading’ or interpretation of something from our experience that has been delivered with elegance and clarity, such clarity can also come through an interaction with complexity. Think how we already interpret our extremely complex world, with varying degrees of success. We are capable of such.
Perhaps the artist sees their role as simplifying life to help others ‘see it’ (more clearly), perhaps as they themselves do? Perhaps this approach is more human, as it is closer to producing artifice? More human because it filters out what is considered unnecessary thereby producing something that is further removed from the real, further translated through the human condition, made more artificial and thereby resulting in what we understand to be art?
I conjecture my interest in the complex is more to do with trying to capture the mechanisms of nature, life and experience in all its mess, distractions and craggy chaos. I believe that when Heraclitus said this:

Many lines of music brought together simultaneously in orchestral music:

“Things taken together are whole and not whole,
something which is being brought together and brought apart,
which is in tune and out of tune;
out of all things there comes a unity,
and out of a unity all things.”

He was saying that complexity, creation and de-creation (destruction) and all the cycles between create chaos and dis-unity, but through this process comes unity, even if it is only transitory. When we perceive anything, it is in a state of flux, of movement from one state or place to another on its complex, interwoven journey. We think we see things fixed and static, but we do not. We can perceive beauty, elegance and simplicity against a backdrop of the raging forces of chaos, of nature, the universe and of our individual and communal lives.

With this in mind, I attempt to create work both visual and aural that operates in this flux, and sometimes chaos, and relays on the perceptive skills of the viewer to create their own order, their own simplicity against the many layers of activity they are presented with.

The surface of the earth, the landscapes we know, detailed corners we have explored are all very complex, detailed, interconnected and, to some degree, chaotic and ever-changing. From three miles up, out in space, that surface becomes something completely different; we see it all in new, larger shapes and configurations.

Simplicity is as much about a perceptual position and perspective as it is about content.

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