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 :: did it work? [3]

DECEMBER 27, 2013 [updated 14.02.2015]
‘the shape distance’: Did it work?

Sketched moment from ‘the shape distance [7].

Did it work?

In short, yes!

In December 2013 I travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, to work with Chamber Cartel as they gave the premiere and made recordings of ‘the shape distance’ [1-7] for seven players.

‘the shape distance’ is a collection of independent pieces, solos mainly, brought together in the one ensemble piece to be played together in an unsynchronised fashion; by this I mean that each of the solo lines plays independently of one another, each having fully notated material written in different tempi and baring structures. There are cues to start the material but after beginning there is no further vertical coordination or alignment; the way the solo lines relate to each other in the performance represent a unique iteration of the piece.

The pieces are composed to be free-standing works, performed as a part of a mixed programme. On this occasion all seven pieces were premiered in the one live event.

In my research preceding the composition I ‘calculated’ the range of outcomes available allowing for ‘natural variation’ or deviation from my ‘ideal’ outcome scenario [this occurring if all musicians followed my metronome markings with complete accuracy]. Of course, musicians are human beings and not metronomes, so I anticipated that the ideal scenario or iteration would never be achieved, as each performance would yield different interpretations of speed with each musician varying their rendition somewhat with each play-through. The variables would be many and this was, in part at least, the attraction that has drawn me to this manner of composition, therefore each performance was the right performance but of course, some would feel more ‘right’ than others.

Players were also given a target duration for the length of their material. This overall timespan allowed the soloists to gauge their speeds across the length of music and acted as a limiting factor that would ensure greater cohesion of the parts in relation to my ideal outcome scenario. Within this, the players could interpret the music fully. 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.

Like Russian Dolls, the seven pieces all ‘nest’ within ‘the shape distance [7]’. The ‘unpacked’ material represents ‘the shape distance’ pieces. The notated music within all of ‘the shape distance’ parts [solos] remains exactly the same from [1-7]. For example, Flute 1 plays the same music in each of the seven pieces but due to its changed context within the variable instrumental combinations and the unsynchronised nature of the vertical alignments, the Flute 1 material takes on a different relationship and contextual significance within each instrumental combination; in short, it sounds different in different contexts. This applies to all other solo lines as well and is the device that brings aural variation to the set.

As this project developed it also became clear that there was potential to develop more than the 7 originally conceived pieces. What resulted were 14 pieces under the collective title of the shape distance, most of which have now been recorded by Chamber Cartel

the shape distance [1] flute 1 / clarinet
the shape distance [2] flute 1 / clarinet / piano
the shape distance [3] flute 1 / clarinets 1 + 2 / viola / harp / piano
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)
the shape distance [11] harp / piano
the shape distance [12] Clarinet / viola / harp
the shape distance [13] flutes 1 + 2 / Clarinet / viola / 2 harps
the shape distance [14] flutes 1 + 2 / Clarinets 1 + 2 / Violas 1 + 2 / harp / percussion (1)

All the above represents my research – my theoretical understanding around how to compose music that would have the unsynchronized freedoms previously mentioned yet still produce a cohesive and satisfying musical experience for the composer, performers and audience.

More rehearsals at 800 East

The musicians took to the idea of unsynchronised playing immediately. It became clear that playing an independent line as part of an unsynchronised ensemble did not present any major issues other than getting the overall duration of their material correct as per the composers indications. For performers who had practiced intently this did not present a problem as they were familiar with the tempi with which they rehearsed the material in their own practice sessions and this was easily transferrable into the ensemble context. It also became apparent that individual musicians benefitted from being able to ‘play off’ each other within the ensemble and this live generation of sound and their spontaneous reaction to it enhanced the expressiveness of their own performances. This is not improvisation as all the material is fully notated and flexibility lies only in the vertical alignment of each of the parts with musicians given very clear and detailed instructions around expressive markings which needed to be followed precisely at all times for the piece to work. This is of great importance because the aural layering and internal communication governing the parts is as much to do with dynamic markings as it is with tessitura and rhythm. The ‘playing off’ aspect cannot affect dynamic relationships [such as several instruments are playing loudly and my part is marked very quiet so I’d better play it a bit louder to be heard] otherwise the foreground, mid-ground and background of the music’s spatial integrity would be lost. The ‘playing off’ that the musicians referred to enhanced a sense of confidence and musicality that perhaps enabled them to contextualise their performance moment to moment as the inter-relationships unfolded, and amplify their interpretation making it more three dimensional and meaningful. This represented a new and positive experience for the musicians.

Rehearsals at 800 East

As predicted, this nature of music involves a great deal of personal practice to master the demands of the notation but relatively little time in ensemble rehearsal. For ensembles who are often pushed for rehearsal time, especially when performing more challenging music, this unsynchronised format offers many advantages.

Interestingly, a number of the musicians commented that the music sounded vertically through-composed even when a group practicing their own parts independently in the same space were each starting at arbitrary points in their respective scores. This came as an added bonus and can only be due to the interconnected relationships between the materials in all the parts that cohesively binds them together no matter how they are combined. This was perhaps the greatest vindication that my research had worked in practical terms.

Audience feedback was also extremely positive. Considering the unfamiliar and to some, ‘challenging’ nature of this music such reactions were a bonus.

Finally, out of this rehearsal process came another ‘the shape distance’ piece; number 11 for harp and piano. I had not originally considered this as a combination to join the set. I cannot offer a reason for this but when two of the players suggested that they try their two parts together and see what it sounded like I was very interested to explore their idea. And they were right, it worked and sounded like another addition to the set of pieces. Another Russian Doll had been discovered in the set offering further evidence that the material of ‘the shape distance’ can yield many possible outcomes only some of which have been ‘captured’ here.

‘the shape distance [11]‘ represents one of the calmer combination of the material.

Recordings and downloads of the full set of pieces will be available in Spring 2014.

Marc Yeats is composer-in-association with Chamber Cartel.


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”.



We use them every day. We do this quite naturally to greater or lesser communicative effect.

As a composer I am engaged in forging an abstract language in sound that frequently uses no words to imply its meanings and emotional context. This inherent ‘meaning’, (and I use the word loosely), is in no way fixed as each person who listens to the music brings their own interpretation of meaning to the outpouring of sounds. Composers can use titles or culturally understood imagery to ‘paint a picture’ in sound of certain objects and feelings; for instance, music to conjure an impression of the sea or pastoral music to imply certain types of landscape. However, if like me, the composer writes abstract, atonal music, these cultural ‘hooks’ no longer apply as the language, syntax and dialectic used is very personal and perhaps does not conform to historical or cultural precedents and norms. These factors obscure ‘meaning’ and are further complicated by the lack of functional harmony and key in atonal music, removing the accepted understanding (and response) to the feel of ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ (major and minor) modal fluctuations. Of course, tonal music is much more complex than just these two polarities, but atonal music has no access to these functional tonal foundations that aid emotional understanding, instead, a deeply personal, complex and ever-changing relationship with ‘non-functional’ harmony shapes an impression of what the music is and what it’s about. This is perhaps as close as one can come to a collective understanding of the meaning of atonal music.

Words too are not as obvious as they may seem at first glance. The contexts in which they appear to each other coupled with underlying meanings and implications often present in irony, sarcasm and humour create yet further layers of significance that surface examination of the written word alone may not reveal.



Context is everything.

The abstract nature of the music is made more solid by the addition of words as the words themselves bring an inherent imagery and meaning with them that constrains the otherwise wide-open implications of the music. Words bring, either singularly or in narrative, a sense of context. However, this word and music context is not so easily fixed. It can exist in a state of flux and transformation. Words are not bound by only one possible combination with music, either. I have experimented with using the same words set against radically different music and the results have been startling. Words can be undermined or enhanced by the music that underpins them. The potential meanings and contexts that abound in each word and each combination of words can come into play when the same words are set with radically varied types of music, each resonating a different aspect of the word’s potential. The music brings an emotional, colouristic or ‘energy’ context with it that resonates with some aspect of the words. Together they strengthen each other, sometimes in very surprising and subliminal ways. A good composer will exploit this to the full. A good librettist will be sensitive to these possibilities. Welcome to the world of opera!

There is just too much to write about how opera works but suffice to say there are a great many musical devises that add huge significance and gravitas to words to create character, flashback, empathy, heroism, tragedy, irony, humour, violence and energy and many more states of meaning besides.

Opera is perhaps the highest form of music and word combinations. Indeed, opera along with the symphony are considered by some to be the greatest forms of human creative expression.

As a composer I have worked with a range of word setting contexts, from music with the spoken word to operatic (fully sung) word setting. In each of these forms the relationship between words and music is different in as much as music and spoken word combinations leave the words largely untouched by musical affect and treatment; they remain essentially spoken word. However, the spoken words, or rather their meaning and context are effected and changed by the music that surrounds them and this relationship can be complex and deep. When setting words into a musical fabric as in songs or opera, the words are completely subjected to the processes brought to bear upon them by the composer. As listeners to opera will be aware, this often brings with it a loss of clarity in spoken word diction due to the voice ranges and melismatic devises employed. Not all composers take this route however. The America opera composer Sondheim reduces the ranges and complexity of his vocal lines to a complete minimum so as to preserve the clarity of meaning and delivery of the words. This is also true in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

I take the opposite view to streamlining of Sondheim. Whilst I strive to preserve the clarity of diction in the words I set I also aim to unify the compositional processes brought to bear on the instrumental music with those of the voice, creating a stylistic whole. The nature of my instrumental music is complex and detailed. It would feel alien for me to write vocal lines that were obeying less complex rules of engagement. In creating this parity, words are exaggerated, syllables, attacks, word lengths, syntax delivery and expression distorted sometimes a long way from the nature and pacing of the spoken word. Similarly, choosing the best range for the voice to deliver words can cause its own distortions, especially with very high or low tessitura where natural vocal sound (speech) production is restricted and the delivery of words, vowels and consonants becomes difficult or impossible. In this instance the singer has to substitute natural word production with more achievable vowels or consonants. This is often the reason why much grand opera is incomprehensible without a libretto to hand; the composer has chosen to emphasise the emotional context of the words by setting them especially high (or low) and extending the note values way beyond the requirements of regular speech and in so doing, sacrificed the clarity of the words.

Composers wrestle with these choices constantly. They are not only composing with the music but also with the voice and with the words. It is in these distortions that a magical transformative process takes place. The words become music. At the same time, the composer needs to be mindful of telling a story or delivering a narrative, gauging the ‘action’ and giving the plot or content a living and coherent structure across time. When a librettist gives over their words to a composer like me, they need to be mindful that their words will be subjugated to the needs of the music and this will change the librettist’s original concept of pacing and delivery dramatically.

Other considerations in word setting involve the number of instruments a voice or voices are set with. There are issues of balance that need to be considered. Sound production in my music is not amplified, so any singing or word production needs to be audible against different arrays of instruments. This is relatively straight forwards if setting a voice with intimate forces, but when the vision is orchestral, greater heed needs to be paid to the audibility of the voice.

In 2008 I was commissioned to write a work for the Hallé Orchestra setting one of a series of poems written by Jackie Kay to mark World Aids Day 2008. This is not opera, but it is a setting for two voices and chorus with orchestra. Here I set the words of a very disturbing text and had to write suitable music to articulate the rapidly changing scenes and emotions of the poem. It was a great challenge. Jackie was brilliant to work with and together we arrived at a text I could successfully set. This text setting was unusual for me as to date I had not set any words that were a narrative plot or part of a larger overall structure.

Finding suitable writers, poets and librettists to work with is also essential. Not all writing is suitable for setting to music – far from it. Writing words that are to be set to music is a particular skill. In my experience, for words to exist meaningfully with music there needs to be much space for the music to breath and articulate the words. Less is always more! I know some composers who have been faced with books of prose to set as operas and have asked for a re-write or have gone ahead and set all the words to disastrous consequence. The skill of a librettist is a very particular thing.

Unfortunately, history has shown that the librettist often becomes a forgotten part of the opera. We all know the names of some of the greatest operas in the public psyche; works such as the Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, Die Fledermaus, Aida, Madame Butterfly, there are many more, and a great many will know who the composers are; Mozart, Rossini, Strauss, Verdi, Puccini, but who remembers the names of the librettist, as important as they are? Operas are usually referred to as ‘The Magic Flute by Mozart’, for instance. The librettist is forgotten. What does this tell us about how we view the words in opera? They are obviously important; an opera cannot exist without them, but why is the music remembered over and above the words even though people may well sing the words as they sing along with the opera?

I can’t answer this question and won’t attempt to.

It is vital for the composer to find the right poet, writer or librettist to work with. It is advantageous to know several different writers who have distinctive styles so the composer can call upon the writer best suited to articulate the subject. Over and above all this it is essential that the writer and composer can think along similar lines with regard to structure and treatment of the words. A strong collaborative relationship and understanding of the processes involved in writing an opera or indeed, setting any words ensures that both art forms profit through the collaboration.



I would not call myself a poet. However, in the past I had such difficulties finding a sympathetic and flexible writer that I wrote words to set myself. Most notable of these were eight very short poems written in 2003 that I set as a series of songs called ‘My Songs’

These songs demonstrate that less is more. The minimal words become haunting because of the spacious treatment I could offer them with the rather sparse music. An advantage of writing your own words is that you can chop and change them as you see fit to fulfil the requirements of the music. If you work with a writer there can be a lot of toing and froing around cuts, additions and deletions creating difficulties if the writer is understandably precious about their words. Having said this, the energy that can be brought to an engaged and successful collaboration – a meeting of minds – is hard to beat!

Around this time I also experimented with using non word-based text exploring phonics, consonant and vowels using the International Phonetic Alphabet. It is interesting that even though there is no word content at all in the conventional sense, the ‘foreign language’ that is produced through the strange array of phonics has a ‘meaning’ and communicates that meaning. With no universal translation available, what that meaning is can be impossible to define. But does that weaken the music? I feel it doesn’t. The emotional impact can still be significant if illusive. I also wonder if the emotional impact lying between unknown language and music exists for listeners to opera performed in a foreign language they do not understand. Whilst understanding the language and thus the plot and characters of an opera enhances the experience, there is still a strong residual experience that is carried by the music and vocal sounds alone without that understanding. With so many of the ‘great’ operas being written in Italian and German, and so many listeners in the UK for instance, not understanding these languages, it is perhaps surprising that opera continues to grow in popularity and esteem. Perhaps this is the underlying communicative power (resonance) of music and voice as opposed to music and comprehended word as demonstrated through my very un-operatic, non-narrative, non-word-based ASCII Dialogues for soprano and alto flute:

It is clear to me that a composer can communicate through the voice to great effect either with or without words and familiar languages. There is something inherent in the nature of the human voice (unsurprisingly) that communicates to all of us above and beyond the confines of localised languages. Perhaps this can be referred to as resonance? It is the range of human vocal expression in its most fundamental levels that communicates behind the delivery and comprehension of words and it is this universal connection that fundamentally articulates vocal communication be it sung or spoken.

“As a poet I have always considered ‘poetry’ as being more closely related to ‘music’ than to ‘literature’. Poetry must be heard – whether it is recited or declaimed, or whether it is simply heard inside the head of someone reading it from the page. So ‘poetry’ is word-music. Now, the interesting question is, at what point do ‘words’ become ‘music’? At what point does ‘music’, if containing vocals, become ‘words’? As a poet I don’t go much for ‘meaning’, but more for ‘resonance’. How do the words resonate with my audience? To be sure, ‘meaning’, in any case, is not an integral property of these things we’ve created called ‘words’, but is a product of cultural and personal resonance. So maybe I should be a sound-poet: forget ‘meaning’, just go for the sound! But that’s somehow unsatisfactory. After all, ‘words’ and their meanings (or resonances) could be as much as 40,000 years old, and are, in fact, the world. ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ as one famous historical novel has it. These resonances are composed of many elements. So I’m sort of favouring a spectrum, with ‘music’ at one end and ‘words’ at the other – and it’s interesting and ‘valid’ at any point in-between: for THIS work, or for this section of it, the words are basically sound. In another section the words are words, with full cultural baggage attached. Somewhere in the middle there’s a fluid, moving boundary which is not quite words, and about to become words, not quite music and about to become music. That’s where it gets interesting.”

More info at Ralph Hoyte

From Ralph’s quote above it is clear that he thinks musically and does not have fixed ideas about the role of words in relation to themselves or music. It is this flexibility and willingness to experiment that has enabled us to work together over a range of projects.

Most recently we have set up SATSYMPH LLP that brings together our talents along with creative coder and programmer Phill Phelps. We compose ‘context-aware soundworlds’ – located high quality contemporary soundscape experiences outside in the real world triggered by GPS (satellite) signals. These ‘immersive soundworlds’ (or you can think of them as ‘virtual auditoria’) can be invested with contemporary music content, contemporary music/word fusions, poetry, heritage interpretive content, or with any desired audio content. Read more here

Our latest project, ‘On a Theme of Hermes’ is an original full-scale contemporary work for large-scale ensemble and voices which fuses contemporary music and contemporary poetry in an entirely new and innovative way, and, moreover, one which has a truly unique method of delivery. ‘On a Theme of Hermes’ is user-directed and geo-located. It responds to location, to where the user is. It morphs, changes, according to what the user does. This is an entirely new music/poetry paradigm. You can hear extracts from the work here:



We have chosen the theme of the Greek god ‘Hermes’ as he is, traditionally, messenger of the gods, guide to the Underworld, patron of thieves, liars, of literature and poets, as well as of boundaries (and those who, as in this project, “travel across them”). These attributes of his quicksilver nature give us massive scope for weaving symphonic stories around him and for integrating classical and contemporary allusions and illusions, words and music. More here:

Interestingly, we created the work for Hermes in isolation from one another. Of course, we spoke about themes and impressions of the work but essentially collaborated at a distance to create the raw materials. Once the materials were created we shared them with the SATSYMPH team and decided which pieces of work to take forward into the project, which work to combine as word and music, and which to be stand alone word or music and so on. There is much more to the scope of this project and these matters are best articulated in our corresponding blogs, above.

These combined layers of work were counterpointed by word compositions that explored the musical qualities of speech and speech rhythm and music standalones. Part of the skill in judging what was standalone for word and music and what was for combination treatment was gauging when material was ‘full’ in its own capacity and the addition of music or word to it would ultimately weaken and detract from what it was, and at the same time identifying work that would be enhanced by the addition of word or music.

Essentially, and going back to the ideas originally mentioned at the top of this article, context is everything. It remains startling how music and word, when overlain, cut and spliced together, or arbitrarily combined, effects the nature of both. Through our experimentation the happy coincidences of timing and spontaneous bringing together brought new energy and revelation to both our work. Because we were thematically consistent in the creation of work we were able to combine and layer word and music together in a whole manner of ways we had not previously conceived. And this is the point. Context changes everything. Experiment with changing the context of your material and see what happens.

In general terms, the above considerations are the same when selecting any words to go with music. Words need to have the scope to embrace and envelop the music in time and space. Words that are written to be utterly complete in their own right will seldom work well with music unless they are very spare. You can’t make an opera from a book anymore than you can make a television series from a book. You need a screen-play to bridge the completeness of the book and adapt the text to incorporate what the screen can bring. For opera, you need a libretto. This isn’t necessarily an adaption of a book but can be a narrative in its own right in the same way as a screen-play isn’t a book, but is a narrative – the libretto is mindful of the role it will play and the treatment it can provoke and receive as part of the compositional process of the composer.

SATSYMPH have many more exciting projects in the pipeline that will see further and deepening relationships between word and music.

And finally, a mention about my most recent commission for the voice that is forming part of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Sailing Events at Weymouth and Portland, Dorset 2012.

‘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. Along with the massed voices there are three strands of pebble percussion for younger performers; the first two strands deal with a more advanced interpretation followed by a third 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 his or her 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. The work covers the Mezosoic 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. The 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. Read 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 existence. 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.

You can read more about ‘sturzstrom’ here:

percussive coast

Percussive Coast
March 17 2011

I recently facilitated a two-day workshop named ‘Percussive Coast’ for PVA MediaLab as part of Big Picture’s [Ex-Lab] programme of events, Exploratory Laboratory.


The workshop took place across two days in November 2010 and was an examination of landscape, place and how features could be captured and used to develop a musical score for new compositions.

On our first day we worked on location at Charmouth beach where we used the mapping techniques of artists previously shown in the EX-LAB exhibition at Bridport Arts Centre as the starting point for our own investigations and research.


We began by mapping a small area of shoreline to examine its content and features – rocks, pebbles, sand and shingle, litter and all manner of objects, and where these were placed in relation to one-another. The mapped area of beach needed to correspond to the scaled down matrix we had drawn on paper. This matrix contained the same number of boxes as the large matrix demarked on the beach. The next step was to capture the relative positions of the objects on the beach and plot their position onto the matrix using pencil. As facilitator of the workshops I guided the participants through this process making it clear that the act of mapping, of capturing, was not a scientific method, nor would it hold the accuracy of measuring or recording using digital technologies. The mapping was observational and responsive and could be expressive too. Some participants choose to reflect what they saw as accurately as possible on their matrixes; others took a more flexible approach and drew very fluidly across their area. Some physically traced out the matrix area in the sand whilst others used a few strong visible markers as general guide to positioning. Either way, the group mapped what they saw in the most appropriate manner for them.

Mapping over, the second part of the experience was to find materials on the beach that could be used to produce sounds. Anything would do so long as it had an audible quality. The group found stones, paper, seaweed, dried plants, plastic bottles, shingle, wood and an assortment of flotsam and jetsam. This bizarre collection of found objects would become the instruments of our orchestra.

We returned to PVA MediaLab where I explained to the group how to turn their mapped out drawings into scores and how to ‘extract’ parts from these scores.


The group as a whole would perform each person’s composition. To do this, each member of the group had to be assigned an instrument or sound as well as a notated part, extracted from the score, that would give instructions for when and how to play their instruments in the same manner as a conventional musical score and parts functions.

As ‘homework’, the participants had to make their individual parts from the scores. This involved creating, as many parts as there were players and making sure that all the mapped events on the score were located into the parts in the correct place. For instance, all the small red pebbles that occurred on the mapped area of beach were extracted, located and mapped into the new, just red pebbles matrix (this would become the red pebbles part). Other objects would be singularly extracted into other parts.

Within the red pebbles only part, the pebbles would become the initiators for a musical event fixed in time – like notes on a stave that would initiate a sound response at a given point in time.


In its initial form, the score matrix was laid out in two dimensions, perhaps 6 boxes high by 18 boxes long into which drawn objects were mapped and positioned. To transform this matrix into a linear form so it could be read like a time-line, the participants had to decide how to navigate the matrix and lay it out in the musical part, presenting one row of the matrix, from left to right at a time. A matrix 6 boxes high (rows) and 18 columns in length would be laid out thus: row 1, columns 1-18; row 2, columns 1-18; row 3, columns 1-18; and so on until the matrix was transformed into a linear format one row deep. This became our time-line and custom stave.

And there’s more. Like a musical part, indications of volume, performance style and rhythm had to be clear and understandable. To gauge these properties the participants referred back to their original mapped scores to see how they had captured the objects. Their size, tonal quality (light and darkness on paper) and manner of mark-making all influenced the instructions and information these bespoke scores and parts were conveying for performance.


The second aspect of homework was for each participant to investigate the sound making objects they had found and explore how they could be played, what sounds they could make and what instructions and indications were necessary to realise these sounds when other people were playing them. They also needed to consider how the ‘instruments’ would be positioned for a group performance; if they could be hand-held, positioned on the floor for striking or hitting or suspended from a frame for best resonance qualities.


This concluded day one of the experience.



Day two was based at PVA MediaLab. The day was broken into two halves; shared learning, instruction and rehearsals and recording.

All of our previous work had involved analogue (as opposed to digital) techniques. Today was to be a combination of the two. We would perform the work (an analogue activity), but the sounds would be recorded through digital media, be edited and then distributed through on-line digital hosting.

3 ivon by PVA MediaLab

The participants shared their learning, instructing each other in the use of their instruments, performance and interpretive techniques and how all of these related to the score and parts.

1 carol by PVA MediaLab

Each score and part had a notated time-line. The grid demarcations of the time-line were given a time value, rather like SMPTE time code values operating in a sequencer. So, for instance, each matrix square (box) may take 1 second of time to traverse. Where objects are placed within this box, top, middle, edge, will determine when the instrument is struck in the same way as the position of a note in a bar tells the musician when to play it and any additional markings (in this case large or small markings, long or short markings going across several boxes) how long to make the sound for and whether it should be loud or soft. Reading the part involved moving from box to box, left to right, the lines dividing each box acting as a bar lines in conventional notation, moving second by second and responding as accurately as possible to the content within the boxes.

4 francesca by PVA MediaLab

2 eva by PVA MediaLab

As with all ensembles, it is useful to have a conductor to measure the time and ascribe the time-line a common value everyone can adhere to (the beat). I took the role of conductor and each piece was initially rehearsed and then captured through digital recording.

Percussive Coast – The Real Time Laboratory from PVA MediaLab on Vimeo.
‘symphony’ by PVA MediaLab

The levels of interpretive control and expectation were very sophisticated with each person representing personal interpretations of the original mapped experience. The work produced was abstract percussive music. These were genuine compositions. The participants had become composers and transformed visual information from the beach, through mapping exercises into notation and then performance.

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.

stillness in movement

Stillness in Movement – exhibition: Antuireann Arts Centre – 2004
March 21 2011

A multi-media installation – An Tuireann Art Centre, Oct. to mid-Nov. 2004 With subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council, Hi-Arts, An Tuireann Arts Center

This article was written in 2004 before the work illustrated here was produced

title: neither movement from nor towards no.2 (2004) dimensions: 122 x 157 cms media: oil on mounted board


The creation of this multi-media installation will cover research and practice in contemporary music, visual art and Eastern philosophy.

This installation will create a unique opportunity to consolidate many years of practice as a composer and painter by researching and developing a method for realising inspiration that is capable of expressing similar ideas in both music and painting. This method will develop from research into the philosophical principles within the practices of Buddhism and how these can translate into a personal approach to my own work. My research will bring together the art forms of painting and composition, which will interact with philosophy and cross-cultural influences from the East and West. It is my hope that new creative freedoms will emerge from this research, enabling me to relinquish many of the controls and expectations that I have brought to my work within the general ethos and history of Western art culture. This exploration of how Buddhist principles can enrich my work will hopefully bring with it a new quality, dynamism and energy, enabling me to explore my inspiration in increasingly new, personal and original ways.

title: neither movement from nor towards no.3 (2004) dimensions: 221 x 81 cms media: oil on mounted board

Over recent months I have developed an interest in the philosophy and practices of Buddhism and am keen to research how this philosophy can develop my practice as an artist and composer by unifying the techniques and intentions of my work.


There are two main areas that interest me in Buddhism – impermanence, and the influence of the ego on creative actions. Impermanence deals with the ever-changing nature of all things; the action of the ego deals with the exercise of control and manipulation of matter and events. I feel that these two aspects of philosophy offer new creative opportunities and disciplines that would greatly develop my work.
It is not my intention to write religious music or create icons in visual art, nor do I wish to make superficial observations of Buddhism as a religion. Instead, I wish to research how the notions of impermanence and lessening egoic action can enrich my own creative language and development, in a very personal way.

title: movement towards no.4 (2004) dimensions: 122 x 92 cms media: oil on mounted board

I wish to devise a music generating process where a number of elements – pitches, dynamics, rhythmic patterns, durations, etc., will combine and recombine in continually differing ways. The rates of change and factors governing permutations will be organised by a set of numbers that will be generated randomly. The result of this will be to create a sound structure that, like chaos theory, is made up of small units of similar things that combine to create larger units of similar things. A further analogy is to see the structure as an organism: the membrane of the organism acts as the parameter of possibility – the pitches, rhythms, durations etc. – the inside of the organism is where all these elements are permutated through the action of the random numbers. Like sculpture, music that results from these processes can be viewed from many different perspectives.

This kind of compositional technique can fulfill the idea of impermanence as it creates an ever-changing field of possibilities with nothing being repeated but all aspects within the field being related. It also reduces the influence of the ego and various levels of control over events as the decisions of what happens to the musical material from moment to moment is taken out of the composer’s hands; the use of random numbers and probability takes care of that. What the composer has done is to initiate a series of probabilities within the limitations of the elements themselves. The result of this method is that setting limited musical elements, random numbers and probabilities in motion, in time, can create large sections of music, or even complete works.

title: neither movement from nor towards (2004) dimensions: 107 x 122 cms media: oil on mounted board

To date, my music has been very Western in that it has been highly goal orientated. By incorporating the philosophy of impermanence and ego into my work in this particular way, I am opening up my work to a more non-goal orientated direction and seeking to relinquish control over many compositional aspects.

title: movement towards no.1 (2004) dimensions: 147 x 123 inches media: oil on mounted board

I want to avoid writing music that describes anything in particular or attempts to convey particular emotions; these factors will be inherent in the sounds that are produced – as the sounds transform they will encompass different colours, energies and intensities. Any levels of control that I do exercise will concern large-scale structural issues and of course, the initial planning in setting up the generating processes. If the results of these actions are not to my liking, I will discard them and generate a different set of possibilities to process the sounds.
I want the music I write to be like a found object, complete in itself, and relatively uninfluenced by my actions.

I am sure that the approach I have outlined here can be taken to extremes of non-control; indeed, composers such as John Cage took similar ideas to their own conclusion. I am aware that the incorporation of Eastern philosophy into Western art is not a new one, but in the context of my own work the impact will be revolutionary and my response unique and personal.


I intend to compose a piece of acoustic music that has a duration of 60 minutes to act as a soundscape to accompany the visual art exhibition. I intend to write one large work made up of three, self-contained modules. Each of these modules will reflect similar musical ideas, structures and processes, but from differing perspectives. The compositions will be for an ensemble of eight players – soprano, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, violoncello and piano. The music will reflect, as best as possible, the processes, intention and concerns of the visual art, and will be recorded and played during the exhibition, on a continuous sound-loop. The sound element will compliment and enhance the visual elements, completing a multimedia installation.
I also wish to transfer these techniques to my visual artwork.

title: movement towards no.3 dimensions: 61 x 87 cms media: oil on mounted board

I will produce a series of nine oil paintings, which will reflect, in form, colour and texture, the compositional issues set out within the music component of this installation.
Concentrating on the exploration of simple and restricted themes, material will be drawn from the nature in which objects break down and erode – particularly the process of rusting – reflecting my interest in impermanence – the ever-changing nature of all things. Paintings will reflect this same subject matter, but again, the material will be viewed from differing perspectives, offering insights into the very nature, construction and transient quality of the material itself.

I will employ methods of painting that ensure the activities of chance and random effects. I will set the events in these painting onto a 2D or illusory 3D context (created through glazes and tonal densities), so as to explore the relationship between time, event (subject material), and space. In music, all elements are set in time and against a background of silence or non-event. With these paintings, the negative background body provides the space or non-event that the painted events are viewed against – this negative space or illusory 3D space can be used in a similar way to time and silence in music, bringing a temporal element to the visual work.

title: movement from no.2 (2004) dimensions: 122 x 157 cms media: oil on mounted board

The paintings will be abstract forms, again, not attempting to portray anything in particular, but through their own colours, textures and intensities covering a range of interpretational possibilities.

Another strand of significance is to explore aspects of movement within stillness. The notion of writing music that moves forwards whilst going round in circles, constantly re-permutating itself, never repeating, but all the time sounding familiar, can be directly translated into paintings that explore similar issues. Within these paintings I hope to achieve differing senses of motion, movement and energy, all through stillness – stillness, because the elements in a painting are fixed and static, but they can imply great movement, energy-direction and flow.
By restricting material, colour and textural components, using layering, glazing, scraping and revealing techniques, I can create surfaces that explore erosion and deterioration.
I would go as far as to say that within these paintings I am not aiming to paint, or represent, anything at all – subject wise. However, as the material unfolds and develops and the restricted textural, structural and colour elements come into focus, each work evolves with its own sense of energy, movement and ambience.

title: movement from no.1 (2004) dimensions: 107 x 79 cms media: oil on mounted board

As the surface of these paintings develops into a complex web of activity, texture, colour and form, it becomes difficult to assimilate the content in a single viewing. Indeed, each time one looks into work that is created in this way, new layers of significance are revealed enabling the work to evolve in the mind of the viewer. This continual assimilation of visual information fits neatly into my views on impermanence – the viewer’s relation to and understanding of the work is in a continual state of development. This statement is, of course, true of all visual art. However, as there are no objects contained within the composition of these paintings that relate directly (as in objective representation) to the natural world, there is a particular need for the mind to build abstract connections and responses to the painted surface, just to make some form of sense of what is perceived. This state of continued assimilation means that nothing in the painting ever appears quite the same from one viewing to another, as the relationships between all the elements are always seen differently in relation to each other. I feel that this perceptual state of flux is close to the concept of impermanence.



As an artist, I am also excited that the content of such work continues to be revealed to me to – like a found object, complete in itself to be appreciated and viewed. The work I am now making, fully using the methods described above, often produces great surprises for me. I am enjoying these unknown qualities. One advantage is that I can look upon the work as being somewhat separate from me – as if someone else had produced it – not because of any sense of having been possessed during its creation, but because the methods used to generate the images was not completely subject to my direct choices and will – rather, the randomly produced actions that I employed at the outset are bearing fruit as they are revealed through subsequent procedures of exposure.
As I do not aim to pre-empt how a finished painting will look, and the techniques of making I use, are to a certain extent randomised and incidental, at least in the initial stages of making, I can minimise the amount of choices I have to make and therefore limit the use of the ego. Of course, I do make choices and the ego (what I like and I don’t like) is always part of these choices. However, because I chose to begin a painting by creating possibilities that are put down both spontaneously and with as great a degree of random energy as I can muster, I feel as if my voyage from initial brush marks to finished work is one of discovery – discovering the potential of the material and limited elements that I decided upon at the outset of the creative process, and discovery as I assimilate, focus upon and develop the material and surfaces within the painting itself.



The finished painting is only one of a multitude of possible outcomes – given similar starting points and ingredients, I feel it is fair to say that a subsequent painting would take a completely different course in its development. I find this constant discovery of paintings, and indeed, my own work, to be very stimulating – often I will ‘find’ things in paintings that will be far richer, more imaginative and varied than I could have conceived by projecting my imagination in a forced way onto a blank painting surface. Each painting I make is a surprise to me, as I have no way of predicting exactly how the work will turn out. This creative freedom is a direct result of exchanging aspects of creative responsibility and choice in certain procedures for (controlled) random actions and processes of revealing different layers of activity. In achieving this freedom, I feel that I have, in part, negated the actions of the ego and encouraged the processes of impermanence to influence the outcome of my work.



I believe that the descriptions of how I make oil paintings bear many similarities to how I conceive and make music composition and believe that, in as far as it is possible to translate inspiration and creative ideas from one media to another, the shared philosophy of these processes does bring elements of the creative act in each of these disciplines into a meaningful relationship with one and other, where the connections between the work runs far deeper than superficial observations about mood, colour and texture.

music, landscape and me [4]

music, landscape and me

trouble in paradise
May 7 2012

Everything was perfect. I could produce paintings that people admired and understood. People thought I was very clever indeed, very talented or gifted or even more enthusiastically, they used the ‘G’ word (in hushed tones) ‘genius’ to describe me and my paintings . . .

wast water, Cumbria circa 1989: oil on canvas 30 x 20″

This was all well and good.

I was aware that by the end of the 1980s I had developed a formidable technique for capturing the illusion of reality onto a two dimensional surface. My realistic painting had reached a level of soft photorealism that inclined many onlookers to be a little confused, for a time at least, as to the nature of the work they saw before them – fact or fiction – photo or painting.

Andrea and Polly, coral beaches, north west Skye cira 1989: oil on canvas 30 x 20″

But I was unsettled. I felt I had come to the end of a road.

Yes, I could paint and sell for really good prices and I was still a young man; surly this is a measure of success? I had already realised most artist’s ambition – to sell. But I was bored. I’d done it; I’d tamed reality sufficiently to paint illusions of such quality people would see me (or my talent, at least) as something special.

wells-next-the-sea, norfolk circa 1989: oil on canvas 30 x 20″

There were two problems.

I needed to express feelings that went beyond the bounds of realistic painting and knew that to portray these feelings and subjects I would have to break the rules. The illusion of reality is a fragile thing – in painting as in life. Change the rules; the technique, colours, forms, expression, you change the reality. The painting becomes something else.

And secondly, once I’ve achieved something, like mastering a technique, the rest becomes repetition. Yes, the subject changes but the technique doesn’t, it becomes an exercise in repeating the same challenge, except it no longer remains a challenge. I don’t like to repeat myself.

It was time to change. It was time to break what I had built and replace it with something else.

‘Trouble’, was not just restricted to painting. At this time I had the most powerful stirrings to release my compositional ambitions on the world – but how?

As already described, I loved classical music ever since I was a teenage boy. I knew I had to write music – I believed that I could write music but was frustrated by my total lack of knowledge about how music worked, what instruments could do and how one wrote music down. Yet, I would hear this strange stuff – my own music – bubbling away in my head whilst feeling utterly frustrated about not being able to capture it or do anything with it in any way. For several years I despaired, not knowing what to do to bring this torment to an end (and I use the word ‘torment’ in all seriousness – it drove me to distraction and made me feel a total failure. The fact I could paint and received so much positive attention around that was no compensation for not being able to write music).

When I was 16 I began the long journey of teaching myself how to read and write music. It took many years. As soon as I understood something, my imagination quickly moved on, demanding new techniques to be mastered. My musical imagination was constantly running ahead of my ability to keep up with it. Again, this was totally frustrating. Eventually, when I was 34, I had a number of breakthroughs in writing my music down that resulted in my sending some of my rather illiterate scores off to various people. One of these was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the Hoy Summer School that he ran on Orkney back then. Max saw my potential, took me under his wing and created some wonderful opportunities for me. I learnt much. I also realised that coming from a background where I had no musical or instrumental training, whilst not the best career start, turned out in many ways to inform a large part of the process that developed my musical voice and imagination into what it is today. As Max always used to tell me, “you are your own man”.

But that’s jumping ahead somewhat.

At the end of this period I was unsatisfied with my painting and needed to find a new way of expressing my inspiration and relationship to the land. I needed to do this through music too but had no idea where to start and felt thoroughly miserable.

By this time (1987) I had moved to the Isle off Skye off the West Coast of Scotland. I remained on Skye with my then wife, Jane and my two sons for 23 years. The island, its climate, landscape and way of life was to have a profound effect on my work and life.

carnach, north west Skye circa 1989: oil on canvas 30 x 20″

An explosion was brewing!

To close this chapter I have selected a number of pieces – the darker side of English music, that were my light and guide through this transition. I would soon be discovering other music and would leave my pastoral days behind – not unloved or forgotten, but taking their rightful place as an essential part of my development as an artist.

Gustav Holst, Hammersmith

William Walton, first movement of Symphony No. 1

Lento (extract unfortunately) from the amazing Symphony in G minor by Moeran

Arnold Bax Symphony no.1