I started with the music. Somehow, I felt this the greatest challenge of the two – of painting and composition.
My imagination was full of impressions and ideas following the residency and I had a large collection of photographs, sketches and videos to draw upon [see Composer-in-Residence to the Observatory 1a]. These were external things – props, if you like – physical outcomes of my research into the site. Alongside these items was a vast soup of internal impressions, noises and intentions – all swimming around in my imagination like a bag of frogs, wriggling and seething and very difficult to hold onto. Together they comprised the evidence that I had experienced the wonderful chalk landscapes around Winchester but the prospect of starting a string quartet from scratch based upon these impressions – breaking the silence of the page with my little marks, dots and lines was a daunting prospect. Bringing something out of nothing always is.
My approach is to break my way in – charge through the door with bluster and see what happens on the other side. It’s a way of breaking the ice – and the fear!
With painting I just throw stuff about with abandon and masses of kinetic energy in the hope that something will emerge. Invariably it does, as this almost violent act serves to break the virginity of the page and take away its power to immobilise; you can stare at the page or manuscript and feel intimidated by its whiteness or emptiness. It takes a mighty leap of faith to start.
I take the same view to starting a piece of music, but it’s not so easy to just throw stuff around spontaneously when you’re dealing with notes. Some of my sketches from the residency were precursors to scores, undoubtedly, but they were not the final notation – they remained as frozen kinetics, sound suspended in line, and this sound needed to be reformatted into a more standardised notation to serve my purposes, a process that takes time and unfortunately, time is the enemy of spontaneity – deliberation kills it.
My paintings are all about spontaneity, their surfaces and mark-making reflect this and it is this roughness and speed of mark-making and design through assimilation that imbues them with whatever dynamic qualities they posses.
I have two methods that I hope enable me to develop spontaneity in my compositions baring in mind the limitations around real-time kinetic and gestural capture [I can’t notate as fast as I think but I can draw and paint very fast as there is a direct relationship between my thoughts, translation into movement on paper and the end result of the painting. For music this may apply in forms of graphic notation, which are repurposed forms of drawing, but for more standard forms of notation there is a degree of meticulous scribing that destroys spontaneity of gesture].
I labour this point because my remedy has led me to approach composition in very particular ways.
There are two aspects [at the very least] to the character of a finished piece of music as well as the way it is perceived by performer and audience, again from different perspectives; one is the ‘look and feel’ of the notation itself – what’s on the page, how it was put together, the sounds the notation implies etc., and the manner in which the music is performed or delivered to the listener. It is the combination of these two factors that combine to create the nature of the finished piece. Concept, notation and delivery become the same thing in aural terms – it’s the stuff we listen to! There is of course a whole other layer on top of this around how the music is perceived by the listener, but such reactions are way beyond my control – they remain the responsibility of the listener, so I will leave that well alone.
So, what are these two approaches I use to try and imbue spontaneity into my music?
The first involves me building any new pieces out of materials I already have – a found object is as good a term as any. This found object can be for any other instrument[s] and be a solo or ensemble piece. It is almost always a completed piece [as opposed to a sketch]. I choose the pre-existing piece I feel has some of the qualities I’m looking for in the new music I want to create. I then take that material and build onto it, destroy areas of it, distort it, lengthen, shorten, randomise pitches, cut up, amalgamate and mix up the original structures. I execute this process as quickly as I can. I don’t want to think or calculate outcomes at this stage – I’m trying to remove certain aspects of my decision making to allow chance and speed into the process [like the painting and drawing, I am hacking my way through material in a process of assimilation trusting that the rough edges I produce will bring a freshness, unpredictability and kinetic mobility to the notation].
Throwing around this found object material ensures that I very quickly get over the blank page syndrome as the page is immediately covered with notation. My processes of transformation move the material I am working away from the original although there is invariably a genetic ghost remaining of the former piece. I don’t mind this at all – it brings a consistency of voice to my compositions, as they are all linked in real terms no matter how destructive the transformative process is. In rather loose terms, this process is a form of transduction – the changing of material from one state to another. I rather like the idea of being a notational alchemist as the processes I use at this stage are intuitive, responsive and reactionary.
Once I have generated new material and in the case of a string quartet, I take individual lines of music and start to work on those.
This brings me onto the second method I use to engender spontaneity in my work that involves notation and notational process but is even more concerned with performance and delivery techniques – asynchronicity.
The first part of this process involves working up the material for all four instruments of the quartet in isolation and without reference to each other using the material as comes out of the first-stage process. I do this because I want each instrumental voice to feel like an independent entity with its own nature, dynamic, gestural and structural logic and strategic role to play. I don’t view these individual instruments as playing a supporting role in any harmonic sense to any other instrument – such supporting as arises is incidental and a perceived relationship by the listener rather than an intentioned one [in most instances, at least].
Each part has independent tempi, different bar structures and material occurring at different times. All of these ingredients will run similarly through all four parts but not necessarily simultaneously in real time when the parts are stacked vertically in performance.
This brings me onto an interesting outcome. As the four instrumental parts of the quartet are running at different speeds to each other [this is why the music is asynchronous] I cannot and do not produce scores, that is, I do not attempt to display the vertical alignment of materials in a printed, notational format as it would be a lie, it would attempt to fix something on the page that is not intended to be [so] fixed in real life and real time. A score, whilst being very pretty and very complicated to look at would give the wrong psychological message about what the music is and how it should be approached in performance and sound. A vertical score at some level implies fixed elements – totally fixed, even if the score attempts to mitigate against this using different devices and explanations – the reader will still approach it as a vertically aligned concept which they then have to break to get an impression of what’s really intended. For me this is a bit like putting a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t work and should be avoided. So, I avoid it. No score.
There is a consequence to this. As there is no score, no one knows what the piece is like. It cannot be presented in standard terms to be read. The music exists in parts only. These are fully notated, but an understanding of what the music is, as a total sound concept can only be realised in performance – that’s when it reveals itself to the listeners [and performers who up until that point of coming together only have the perspective of their own part without contextual reference to a ‘total’ score of the piece they are playing in].
It’s easy to think that the asynchronous nature of this music could result in a total free-for-all, but it doesn’t as I use a cunning device to hold everything flexibly together, structurally, the way I want it to be. Time-code.
Time code is synchronised at the beginning of the piece by each player, all starting at 0.00” on their mobile phone stopwatch apps and runs through each part and acts as a net to prevent temporal drift throughout the piece.
What’s temporal drift? Temporal drift is a term I have developed to describe what occurs when performers imagine the various tempi markings of their music a little incorrectly – too fast or too slow – which, over the duration of the performance of the piece can cause the intended structures of the music to drift apart and change the musical outcomes dramatically due to the accumulation of slower or faster playing. The time code runs in seconds and is in every bar of music in each part. The time code acts as a check to the player’s position in the music at any given point and allows them to reference where they should be in accordance to the time code and adjust their tempi accordingly, speeding up or slowing down to be in approximately the right place at the right time along with everyone else. The time code is not a click track nor is it a straight jacket. First and foremost tempi are intended to be interpreted, to be felt, and the resultant human error is built in as an outcome to the asynchronous nature of the music; the time code just prevents the major temporal drift I referred to earlier.
So why am I bothered about structure if it’s all asynchronous and the processes I have mentioned previously seem to work against fixed structures?
The final stage when I bring all the lines that have been created independently together, is to work with them through another process of assimilation and see what I find, what the connections and contradictions are [both potentially good], what I want to keep, what I want to modify, highlight, recess etc., and undergo the final stages of sculpting the notation [sound] to what I want. It is in this final stage that I work with all layers of the materials as a vertical concept for the first time. It’s like the big reveal!
The beauty of using the materials that have been created through these processes is that they maintain their found object status, they rub up against each other in ways I hadn’t predicted and present me with a rich array of options and choices with what to keep or throw out, with the spontaneity and unpredictability, kinetic freedom, gestural fluidity inherent in the material and the combinations of material largely intact – at least I hope so – and, add to this the flexibility in performance and the constant variables of ideas aligning in somewhat different ways with each iteration of the music and you can see that the idea of spontaneity pervades the methods of building the music and as well as its execution through performance.
So now, full circle – back to the landscape. How have I managed to capture what I set out to in this music; the open landscapes, the sights and sounds, the structures, the very ambience of the places I visited? How is it site-specific?
The simple answer is I don’t know!
I have selected motivic shapes, gestures and kinetic qualities I observed and sketched and translated these into notation – I have been mindful of qualities of sound-environments’ I listened to when out on the chalk – I am aware of that intuitive reaction to place that we describe as ambience, but has all or any of this gone into the music?
There is no way to copy what we see with our eyes directly into music – to make a literal transformation that actually represents one to the other. And even if there were, there’s absolutely no guarantee that any two people would read the same messages from the music, such is the diversity of our perceptions and processing.
This music has no narrative – it tells no story – has no climax, no melody and harmony in the usual sense [neither does a landscape – any such qualities are things we impose upon the land; the land ‘just is!’
And so it is with this string quartet, observation one [ovington down] – it is what it is.
For me as creator of the quartet I can hear, intuit and relive certain aspects of what I experienced on my residency – sort of – there’s also a whole lot more that I just can’t fix in words. Additionally, my perceptions of the piece are now formed around a degree of familiarity with it [as I wrote it] but that doesn’t mean to say the quartet will relate or convey a sense of the chalk landscape for anyone else, most certainly not if they know nothing of the work’s title or origin and it certainly doesn’t make reference to embedded and familiar types of landscape music cliches now culturally accepted by those familiar with the idiom. You may hear larks, bird song; sense the open plains, the tumult of clouds running around the escarpments, the luminescence of sky-blue pungently counterpointed by the white of the chalk – the vistas, perspectives – the movement of air. If you do, that’s great – you’ve brought your story and I have succeeded in facilitating that process.
As with all music, what you hear is up to you, the listener.
And to round off, a little about the paintings.
All the paintings featured here are acrylic on paper, 59.4 x 42.0cm or 23.39 x 16.53 inches [unmounted] and were created in July 2015.
So much of what I have said above about the spontaneity of the process of assimilation, found objects, kinetic and gestural outbursts in composition applies to my approach to painting.
Of course, painting is a 2D process and is not temporal so is very different to composition – and, unlike my asynchronous music that is only revealed when it is performed, across time, the paintings are visible in their entirety and immediacy with all relationships ‘graspable’ from the very first brushstroke and initial mark-making to the last.
These paintings have no linear narrative, they contain many elements of experience all presented simultaneously to the viewer – they are a composite of all my sensual and emotional experiences offered at once, intuitively translated through gesture onto paper – a summation of many places, many times and many feelings presented superimposed, one onto the other in each painting.
The paintings are a subjective reaction to the places I visited and simultaneously, a subjective reaction to the actual surfaces I have created whilst engaged in the act of painting – of making, so much so that the painting becomes the thing – the experience – as it moves further and further away from the actual physical location. My relationship with the painting deepens as I search for a resonance within it that echoes something of my experiences on the residency. The picture is finished [I stop the process of assimilation] when I detect an ambience within it that connects me to the original experience [a wholly intuitive process] and when the physical structure of the painting; colour, form, texture, dynamic etc., reach a point that feels suitably balanced [be it a balance of equality or a balance of inequality]. These judgements are once again instinctual but founded in years of experience that has contributed to, and is currently developing a particular aesthetic.
There is of course no literal relationship between any of this work and the locations I visited, nor should there be; a place is a place, a painting a painting – they are radically different things. As for the music, you will have to form your own opinions about it when it is performed and recorded and you have listened.
The paintings are here to see.
The rest is up to you!