Posts Tagged ‘contemporary music’

On the way up the the University of Leeds to see this concert, we passed a small but loud rock/pop festival in Millennium Square. It sounded like quite conventional youth music, and as the sound of the kick drum faded and we entered the University music department we thought what a contrast that was to the concert we were about to witness. It was, but not at all in the way we expected.

The pre-concert talk started off telling us about James Mooney’s project with the music of Hugh Davies, some of his life & work and a short video of one of his instruments …  the ‘Shozyg’. I have to say this did not make a good impression on me. The sounds were primitive, and not in a good way. That sort of “professional amateurism” is something I find very wearing. It’s something that infects a lot of these English Experimentalists and seems to be a political act on their part. Though unlike the punk movement of the 1970s little achievement is apparent, the music of these people still largely only exists (thankfully) in the universities and people who for some bizarre reason like it. I do sometimes think that people are attracted to this music simply because it’s ‘Alternative’ rather than actually any good.

The talk also contained some discussion of the other pieces in the programme. Two by Stockhausen (whom I like a lot), one by Christian Wolff (whom I have very little time for) and one by member of the ensemble for bowed, amplified cardboard box …  as bowing is intended to excite a resonance and cardboard is not a notably resonant material, I am sceptical but keep an open mind.

However it surprised me slightly when the cardboard-boxist (is that right?) played the box on the first Stockhausen piece and didn’t seem to have any other instruments available to him. The sound it made was as predictable as it was tedious. Just squeaking and scraping – the sort of noises that I’ve spent months training student violinists to stop making (but which can be used to good artistic effect when used sparingly and in context). The other members of the ensemble were doing a good job on the piece, especially the guy with the eurorack synth, but the box was beyond silly. A far more entertaining use would be to let cats jump in and out of the box … or just keep something in it.

The second piece was a fixed media acousmatic one by Hugh Davies himself. Mostly him making noises on a spring with magnetic pickups. This was a tedious, and very badly recorded piece with little subtlety and less discernible musical structure. A very poor offering from the headliner. Apparently Davies used to work for Stockhausen but there was not even the remotest hint of the master’s skill evident in either composition or production here.

The other Davies piece, in the second half, was performed live but wasn’t much better. There was at least, some structure involved this time, but attempting to make music from pure feedback is a losing battle – all that really happened was that is sounded like a lot of very depressed clangers. If you want to hear guitar amp feedback used musically then listen to almost any rock concert from the last 50 years. It’s not rocket science.

The cardboard box piece was as dreary, pointless and annoying as it could possibly have been. The only thing that livened it up was some particular technological incompetence that caused the ‘musician’ to stop, restart the software on the laptop, say ‘well, call that a movement’ and start again. Even when the laptop was ostensibly working the sounds it produced were awful, predictably boring and badly engineered. More “professional amateurism”.

The Christian Wolff pieces was … a Christian Wolff piece. Ridiculous and pointless noises made in the service of a pretentious score.

The final piece, another Stockhausen showed how things can be when they are done well, or would be if they didn’t have a cardboard box squeaking along for too much of the time.

All in all a very poor showing. I really don’t understand the fascination with these English experimentalists. They seemed intent on producing sub-standard music containing the sort of ridiculous noises that gives modern “classical” music a bad name.

Walking back to the bus stop we went past the rock festival again. Happy to he hearing music that, even if not to our taste, was well structured, competently performed and actually had some point and some direction. There was even some good use of guitar amplifier feedback. A lot of classical people like to look down on rock & pop music – tonight it should have been the other way round.

Not. Good. Enough.


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It was Winter 2011 when I started on Leaving Rome – at least that’s what the computer files tell me. I have recordings of Karen playing her various triangles dating from that time at least.

She had asked me if I could write something for triangles, an odd request to say the least but I like a challenge and those recordings were the start of the project that has spread over three years! From this distance in time I can’t quite remember what I intended to do with the recordings of Karen playing 4 different triangles, I do remember she lent me a book on how to play triangles (yes, such things exist) so that I might learn something of the techniques involved and the possibilities of the instrument.

After much research and even more gluing of bits of paper onto other bits of paper, that piece took shape and became Leaving Rome. It’s a hybrid piece of narration (from Juvenal’s Satire No.3) with instrumental backing with a fully instrumental section following each, based on the content of the preceding text. While the all-instrumental parts were scored normally, the narrative bits looked something like this:

Leaving Rome extract

Leaving Rome was performed live by Midnight Llama at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield in September 2013. Karen had semi-staged her reading parts so it was quite a fun thing to watch. As Midnight Llama make a point of not doing repeat performances I thought that was that. When Karen suggested making a film of the piece I thought this was not only an exciting new project but also a chance to revisit the work as I blogged last year.

And now the film is done! This has been one of the longest-running project of any of my pieces, the film itself has taken 15 months of work (off and on, mostly off) and I joked that it would have been quicker to do a stop-motion animation of it.

I learned a huge amount making this film, although Karen decided almost all of the visual content and narrative I had to learn to handle a video camera and to edit using Final Cut Pro, and also to tell Karen that I couldn’t do what she asked or, more likely, to find out just how to do it anyway – Karen doesn’t like getting ‘no’ for an answer.

Even though the piece wasn’t filmed in linear sequence I think it’s obvious which are the later parts and which the earlier (more primitive) ones – you can learn a lot in 15 months. Looking back at it there are things I know I could do better at, and also I have a shopping list of things I would like to buy before attempting the next video project (yes, there will be one) chief of which is a heavier tripod (Yorkshire is windy!) with a motorised pan and tilt head to avoid the terrible wobbliness of the pans in this film!

Still, I think we did a reasonably good job and I look forward to making more films as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Here’s the finished film:

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Soundspiral outsideHere it is at last – the Soundspiral video!

It’s been about 18 months since I was asked to perform in the Soundspiral. I chose ‘Ada’ partly because it was a major new (at the time) piece I was very proud of, and partly because it was always meant to be quite an immersive piece that I thought would be appropriate for the Soundspiral. Since that time I have performed half of it in 7.1 and the whole thing twice in stereo in Second Life.

The Soundspiral version is more than all of those in several ways. Of course it’s in 52 speaker surround sound, but in the meantime I’ve been tweaking the parts and samples to make them better and convey the subject matter more clearly. I hope.

Of course, I didn’t generate the full 52 channels from my laptop into the spiral speakers, that would be insane … and impractical. For a start the rig doesn’t actually have 52 inputs but mainly it’s not meant to be addressed that way. The software system that drives the spiral (written by the hugely clever Daz Disley) can drive the speakers in spaces rather than individually. This gives the sound a great coherence and ensures that when things move, they don’t just disappear from one speaker (or set of speakers) but they move smoothly and naturally. It’s immensely impressive and gives the spiral a very clear and listenable sound.

From 2dgoggles, ‘The Client’ by Sydney Padua.

I ended up giving Daz 14 channels that were effectively 7 stereo sets. Dividing the spiral into 4 quadrants lengthwise and top and bottom sets. The last stereo set was for the live violin playing which I originally thought would move with me, but in the event that turned out to be unnecessary. Most of the played back samples were positioned using this system – one send for each stereo pair. There was very little movement of sounds involved, i wanted to create a space, rather than go ‘Hey, we can spin things round, isn’t that great!’ that some surround systems seem so keen on. The spacial idea was inspired by the Sydney Padua cartoons where Ada is lost in the internal workings of the Analytical Engine (see above) and this is depicted in the last 3 minutes of part 1.

A central pillar of the piece is a piece of text where Ada effectively predicts the ability of computers to compose music (soon followed by some automatically generated music – played while I change violins!).

The performance was part of the first Sonophilia festival in Lincoln and I am pleased to report that it drew a good crowd and several people came up to me afterwards to say how much they enjoyed it. I was pleased with my performance, and below is a video of the event for your enjoyment.

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In August I said I was going to start work on a new album based on field recordings. and I’ve finally finished it! I have been working on and off on this project since that blog post but, to be honest, it’s been mostly “off”. I did a lot of the field recordings in the summer and, if you download the album, you will see that all of the photos in the programme booklet were also taken in the summer months while I was recording. But all of the instrument recording has been done in Autumn and, mostly, Winter.

Speaking of programme notes, I have tried to make these as entertaining as possible. As the people I work with know to their cost I really just have two writing styles, annoyingly pompous and irritatingly frivolous. You can read the latter in the programme booklet for this album.

I settled on making this an all-acoustic album. Despite styling myself as mainly an electric player I have collection of acoustic violins that I love to play and it was fun to get them all out and record things on them. The one I used most is the Bridge octave violin but the soprano also takes quite a major role too. The normal violins are very much texture fill-ins. This was not really a deliberate policy, but instruments and pitches at the extreme ends of the range tend to be of more interest to me 🙂

It’s a slight risk for me doing an all acoustic album, it relies on skills that are not my best. One reason I play mainly electric is that I can hide my non-conservatory-trained violin technique in a wash of delays and distortions; with an acoustic album there is nowhere to hide. I have used no pedalboard or studio effects on the instruments other a little EQ, compression and reverb. There is also very little editting of the performance, even though most of the pieces are multitracked I have not cut and spliced up small pieces, a lot of the playing is from one or two long takes to try and preserve some sort of spontaneous feel. In particular “In The Garage” is a single take I did in my garage one morning while the noises were happening all around me.

It’s partly because of these things that I wanted to make the album in this way: it’s a challenge. All of the albums I have done have posed a challenge to me in one way or another – RPM2012 being the most challenging so far. Without a challenge the music easily gets boring and predictable and that’s the one thing I don’t want it to be.

So here, after 4 months, is Outside, I hope you like it. You can download it, pay what you want or for free, or just stream it.

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