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Research

An Introduction to my creative praxis

                                         

‘My activity was conditioned not by historical concepts, but by music itself. I have been formed in part, and in greater and lesser ways, by all of the music I have known and loved, and I composed as I was formed to compose.’

 

Igor Stravinsky: Themes and Conclusions

 

A Discussion of Compositional Craft

 

Contemporary composers are as dissimilar in their approach to their chosen discipline as the arena of human experience will allow. Perhaps because of the ephemeral nature of sound, as a creative medium it encourages a particularly diverse array of artistic approaches. Outside the act of improvisation or spontaneous composition, which is in itself often the sum of years of evolving technical and aesthetic considerations, most sound-composers experience an enormous time delay between the conception and realization of an artwork. It is within this time delay that the creative machinations of composers diverge most significantly, as they endeavour to overcome the principal challenges of their vocation: where to begin, how to proceed, where to end. As the size of a piece increases, its form becomes more complex and these questions reassert themselves over and over through various strata of the composition.

 

For many composers, the solution to these questions may be described as pseudo-fatalistic. They begin where the audience begins, pursuing a rational line of intent, allowing the music to lead them, often to a place they may not have anticipated, but always to a resolution of greater or lesser satisfaction. As if the object of their devising had become their instructor, they hold fast to the inner logic of their creation, as it slowly makes itself known to them. This tendency is revealed in the following quotation by British composer Harrison Birtwistle, in which he describes the emergence of context as a defining stage in the development of a piece.

 

‘I would never formalize, never predict what the piece is going to be, because the one sacred thing is the context. As soon as I move, as soon as I make a gesture… there is a situation with ramifications. Things I would never have thought of in the first place appear. To these I have a duty. They are highly potent. From then, the formalism starts showing itself. There’s certainly no pre-composition.’

 

Harrison Birtwistle: The Contemporary Composers

 

I admire Birtwistle’s responsiveness to his material, and share his belief that musical structures carry an innate intelligence, or at least underlying tendencies, to which a composer must remain flexible. My approach to their formal arrangement, however, is very different and includes many incidents of pre-composition. It is my understanding that a composer’s approach to formal organisation is strongly influenced by their earliest creative exposure, and my approach to the realisation of large-scale works is most informed by my experiences in studio-based composition. My earliest inductions into compositional process came as a member of various urban-music ensembles, in which the compositional process was a collective effort. The music evolved by creative agreement, and was refined through a lengthy rehearsal process, the finishing details arriving through a conjunction of individual ideas. As our experimentations in the studio became more advanced, the music was recorded in layers of increasing complexity. The final production was achieved through a console mix, where decisions about spectral content, (equalization) relative dynamics, (fader position) the localisation of sounds (panning) and the inclusion or exclusion of auxiliary material were made. In retrospect, the entire process was highly stratified, revisionary and very non-linear. This manner of looking at the entire piece through multiple points of perspective has stayed with me throughout my artistic development.

 

Unsurprisingly, it is in the field of electroacoustic composition that the conventional linear approach to the realisation of concept is most often interrupted. The experimental nature of studio-based composition involves an inherent degree of unpredictability. The compositional process is largely ‘experiential’ and develops in a kind of dialectic between composer and sound-material, a relationship that Professor Barry Truax has described as ‘composer-machine communication’.[3]  Whether the piece is based on material generated via additive or subtractive sound synthesis, in the manner of elektronische musik, or is based on the transformation of pre-recorded material via analogue or digital processes, in the manner of musique acousmatique, or both, a certain degree of pre-composition is required. Decisions are made as to the nature of the sound material to be explored and the technical means employed in achieving this. The composer often begins by amassing a collection of related or disparate ‘sound-events’ derived through studio experimentation. The transformation of sound-events continues throughout the compositional process, as these ideas are distilled and configured into an auditory context. These idiomatic tendencies are revealed in the following quotation by Trevor Wishart, another British composer working in the field of acousmatic composition.

 

‘My musical creation process depends on the particular work. Normally I have a general idea, a ‘poetic’, for the work… I also have some general notions of how musical forms work… clearly stating the principal materials is important for the listener in a context where a traditional musical language is not being used; establishing key moments or climaxes in the work, repetition and development and recapitulation of materials, especially leading towards and away from these foci… But all sound materials are different, and it is not possible to predict, except in the most obvious ways, what will arise when one begins to transform the sounds. So I spend a lot of time exploring and playing with the sources, transforming them and transforming the transformations, and gradually a formal scheme, appropriate to what I discover and to those particular materials, crystallizes in the studio.’

 

Trevor Wishart: Interview with USO

 

Wishart’s description of working ‘towards and away’ from established zones of foci and his continued reshaping of important sound-events throughout the compositional process reveal strong tendencies towards non-linear practices. Advancements in computing power and the proliferation of software tools, including Wishart’s own CDP[5] have facilitated these tendencies by radically altering the studio composer’s working environment. Although the compositions in this portfolio are scored for live performance, I spend a large amount of time in my own creative praxis mediating between physical and digital realms. This enables me to work non-linearly. This statement may be easily misunderstood and therefore needs qualifying. Non-linear should not be misconstrued as being erratic, undisciplined or lacking in methodology. It is a considered approach, and the means by which I deal with the delay between conception and realisation.

A Non-linear Approach to Composition

 

Like many composers, I begin by proposing key terms of reference. These include the nature and scope of the intended piece, its scale, its instrumentation and performance environment. Decisions of this order are made in the service of two primary considerations: the proposal of an extra-musical concept, which will lead the compositional narrative towards a specific dramatic purpose and/or the elicitation of an internal compositional strategy, which will be explored within the conditions of the piece. If the work involves the setting of text, this will greatly inform the atmosphere of the music and its global architecture. The music will reveal strong alignments with the text through structural symmetries and/or perceived semantic correspondences.           

 

Informed by decisions of context, I assemble a collection of embryonic musical structures. In these early stages, my approach is highly intuitive. Musical ideas are often generated through experimentation with various modes of sound production, (instrumental, vocal and/or found-sound objects) where they arise as a conditioned intellectual/emotional response to improvised performances. But they may also arise spontaneously, surfacing as artefacts of unconscious memory. This can happen during periods of meditation, a form of internal listening, or simply by being susceptible to one’s auditory surroundings. My initial ideas usually take the form of grounded melodies, harmonic sequences and/or rhythmic patterns, which are repeated and altered freely in real-time. I personally experience a strong connection between my physical movement and the projection of musical ideas; physical gestures can often become the impulse for new musical statements. Throughout this phase of the work, I continue to engage with my material in both psychologically and physiologically. Ideas brought forward in performance are internalised and transformed in the plane of imagination; ideas generated in the mind are performed and explored in physical terms. As the music becomes more established, it comes under more objective investigation; it is broken down and the basic elements of its construction are analysed and understood. These insights become conduits for further elaboration, but always guided by a ‘listening ear’. Eventually, more complete musical statements are either transcribed onto staff paper or input directly into notational software, where further experimentation within the language of notation ensues, and new rhythmic, motivic and harmonic complexities are introduced. I work in this way until I feel I have accumulated enough original material to begin actual construction of the piece.

 

From this collection of sketches, I identify the quantity and quality of large-scale formal sections that will shape the intended listening experience. I investigate musical relationships of symmetry and asymmetry between the content of these key event areas, with emphasis placed on features like: tempo, harmonic rhythm, pitch content, and relative dissonance. I then chart a course, placing my initial sketches chronologically into the score, my primary concern being the realisation of a compelling narrative through-line. At this stage in the creative process, much of the composition is incomplete. To an outside observer, the resulting document can appear very stark. An entire section of the piece may contain only a single melodic strand over an alternating metric structure; for me, however, this melody may represent a vector for an intended sequence of modulations. Another section may be defined only by a single isorhythmic ostinato over a series of bass drones; these may represent the beginnings of a polyphonic texture that will underpin a harmonised melodic statement. At this point in the score’s development, there may be many pages of empty space dividing key areas of compositional interest; these represent a demarcation of time, an acknowledgement that a shift in atmosphere or mood must take place. Over time, the constituents of a global architecture emerge. They are not binding, but they help me to place myself inside the listening experience. As my musical material evolves in complexity, through the addition of new layers, I begin planning the transitions between formal sections. Transitions may become events in themselves or simply be the juxtaposition of two discrete musical passages that display an intriguing contradiction or continuity. They will often involve some form of modulation in harmony and/or metre. Depending on the desired effect, transitions will exude varying levels of dissonance, being fluid or disjunctive, transparent or opaque.

 

I am now free to re-focus my attention on creating the detailed infrastructure of each section independently, developing internal points of reference, as well as external references between sections. The entire process is responsorial. Points of reference continue to take shape very late in the development of the piece, as I move back and forth between different areas of interest. Passages may be truncated or augmented to accommodate new criteria. Whole passages may be displaced or excised completely. New passages may be inserted into the flow of events. It is during this period that features of texture, timbre and spatialization are usually developed. Compositional choices in one area are allowed to influence the development of material in other areas. Throughout, the integrity of the music is advanced. The final image of the piece crystallises like a photograph in a darkroom, the shapes and contrasts of the whole evolving simultaneously.

 

This approach to the compositional process is synchronous with my musical thinking. I tend to work towards complexity, with an eye always on the broader arc of the musical narrative. By allowing myself to interface with the entire composition, I can balance characteristics of the music like: density, dissonance, and intensity. Through the cross-pollination of existing motivic, harmonic or rhythmic structures, I can infuse the entire piece with meaningful ‘resemblances’, foreshadowing future events, or echoing past events achronologically. I can compose in retrograde, using de-constructive techniques to create prolonged crescendos or climaxing modulatory sequences. Working backwards from a fixed point of heightened activity, I increasingly subtract rhythmic or melodic elements from the music and replace these with rests or sustained tones, effectively de-composing the passage so that it reaches its crescendo at a predetermined point, usually a point of formal transition. Perhaps the most critical advantage of working in this way is the fluidity with which I am able to change the focus of my creative lens, moving easily through the entire hierarchy of compositional structures, from the minute transformations of individual elements to the global inter-relationships of large-scale formal events. The complexion of a piece evolves as my relationship with its contents evolves, becoming in time, more intricate, more intimate, and more aware.

 

I have no doubt that this methodology is informed by my exposure to the culture of digital media, and more specifically my experience with the digital audio workstation, (DAW)[6] which is redefining the way composers work with sound. By interfacing with the score through digital notational software, I can exert a meticulous control over many aspects of the music that once lay outside my technical scope. I can build up very dense musical textures and fine-tune these through a process of aural auditioning. By actively listening to segregated strata of a composition, I am able to develop a very detailed understanding of its entire frequency spectrum. When I combine this information with knowledge of orchestration and an idiomatic understanding of my instrumentation, I am able to expand the boundaries of my creativity.

 

Throughout the compositional process, I augment an ongoing objective evaluation of the score with exercises in imagination. Working through score, I project visual and auditory imagery of an idealised performance. I imagine the performance multi-modally, inserting myself into the roles of conductor, performer and audience member. These ‘projections’ guide my praxis by informing decisions concerning orchestration, spatialization, dynamic and expressive markings. They help me to overcome potential problems in execution by grounding the abstract representation of the score into an anticipated set of physical circumstances that will play out in performance. They also provide me with a detailed context through which my creative energy may be channelled. They help to sustain my creativity by providing conditions for questions of intent: where to begin, how to proceed, where to end. More importantly, they suggest conditions for questions of purpose: why begin here, why proceed in this way, why end now.

 

Random acts of imagination can also impact on the work in more oblique ways.  Once engaged with a composition, I find I am continually filtering my day-to-day life experience through the lens of the piece. This happens effortlessly and is a by-product of the concentric and continuous re-cycling of artistic concerns that occurs in the mind during sustained periods of creativity. It reveals the overlap that exists between a composer’s external and internal realities. In its simplest form, this filtering may be the importation of a selected feature from an entirely unrelated music listening experience to affect a desired compositional solution. But it may also mean the introduction of new sound analogies and even the importation of analogies from other sensorial modes of experience. Environmental sounds, natural and human made, (e.g. the wind through a poplar tree, the idling of a truck engine) can become the catalyst for innovations in areas like orchestration or articulation. Visual imagery can also be a powerful metaphor for musical gesture. There exists, for me, a strong connection between observed phenomena and sound morphology. Aspects of my visual experience translate easily into musical analogies and these inform compositional decisions. The flight of a bird may allude to the trajectory of a potential melody. The shimmering of light on a body of water may contain attributes of an unrealised instrumental texture. These kinds observations provide a dramatic and explicit sensual effect, which can then be pursued through notational techniques. They can lead to new discoveries, while enriching the subjective meaning of a musical passage.

 

In Closing

 

However a composer chooses to configure his or her musical ideas, the compelling truth is that the audience’s interaction with the completed material is fixed; they will experience the work in real-time. Ultimately therefore, the composer is performing a kind of temporal alchemy, in which the results of many months of creative research are distilled into one holistic listening experience. In order to achieve this illusion, a composer must sustain clarity of intent throughout the compositional process. I have found that by engaging with the piece non-linearly and from multiple perspectives, I am able to achieve this desired integrity. Working concurrently with physical and digital renderings of the score facilitates this approach. The techniques involved in music composition, like those in all art disciplines, are provisional. They evolve in synchronicity with society. The one absolute in this equation is human involvement. Technology has offered me a way of working with my musical material that is both intrinsic and volitional.

 

I think it is important at this juncture, for the reader to note that the compositions in this portfolio have undergone a comprehensive series of revisions. At times, they bear little resemblance to the accompanying recordings. In some instances, time limitations or logistical concerns have prevented a piece from being performed in its entirety. In other instances, it was the sheer weight of insight gained through an initial performance that compelled me to return to the scores and amend key passages. This portfolio represents the culmination of four years research into my compositional praxis. It is my intention that it displays continuity of style and technique, and reflect the consolidation of my compositional language thus far.

 

 

[1] Excerpt from the preface to: Storia Della Musica, Vol. IX, La Musica Contemporanea 1900-1970, (Milano: Fratelli Fabbri, 1967). Included in: (Stravinsky, Igor, Themes & Conclusions Robert Craft (ed.) (London: Faber & Faber, 1972). Pg. 190

[2] Hall, Michael, The Contemporary Composers: Harrison Birtwistle Nicholas Snowman (ed.) (London: Robson Books, 1984). Pg. 152

[3] Truax, Barry, Acoustic Communication (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2001). Pg. 250

[4] Wishart, Trevor, An Interview with Trevor Wishart Matteo Milani & Federico Placidi (ed.) Unidentified Sound Object (USO) Project 26/01/09

[5] Composers Desktop Project is an international cooperative network based in the UK that develops software tools based on digital signal processing for use in the composition of acousmatic music.

[6] DAW or Digital Audio Workstations are computer based hardware and software systems designed for the multitrack recording, mixing, mastering, editing and playback of high quality digital audio. The benefits of working in this environment include: non-destructive editing, digital signal processing, (DSP) and midi based automation of the audio waveform.