Category Archives: Research

Devising BRETHREN – final piece of the PhD puzzle

BRETHREN logoOver the last three weeks I have been devising BRETHREN for choreographed orchestra, the final piece of my PhD.

Rehearsals have been compact, with a half-hour of content to get through for the premiere next week.

Luckily, I have had a fantastic group to work with, The Assembled, which I have been a member of since 2012. Membership has changed over time, yet the group has always been very strongly and enthusiastically committed to trying anything and everything new and experimental.

Joining The Assembled are a number of other Music students, together totalling 14. Though I aimed to recruit a larger community group (and received many responses apologetic that they could not commit to all rehearsals), the piece will work well this size. A stage can be filled by one person, let alone a whole sinfonietta. The group divides evenly to suit a chamber orchestra aesthetic too: 3 wind, 3 percussion, 7 strings, even a harmonium in lieu of a concert grand.

Though I’ve made pieces with all the players before, I have been amazed at how wholeheartedly they have thrown themselves into it, pushing themselves physically and learning movement and music by memory. The adventurous attitude of the students is what makes York such an exciting place to collaborate and compose.

This week I invited Rachel Fullegar, dance artist, teacher and member of Gracefool Collective (collaborators in That’s Yer Lot!), to attend as a rehearsal director. She gave us some insightful advice about thinking through the reasons for movement and performing purposefully to embody the piece’s themes. I won’t explain the piece away now – there’s an overly long programme note for that…

BRETHREN feels like an opposite bookend to Remains of Elmet, made in 2013. As I write up the PhD, the difference in process seems even more marked. For Remains of Elmet, all theatrical and musical material developed from close analysis of the Ted Hughes poems. That generated a bank of metaphors and themes, allowing me to construct the narrative, design ritualistic stage layouts and movement, then write the whole thing down on manuscript paper.

Making BRETHREN has pushed me as a composer and as a director. Although I knew the quality of the movement I was after, the movement itself had to be created by the performers so as to allow them to perform movement authentically, freely, individually. Conceptualising the piece was like imagining a series of images that I knew would be there, but without colour – a paint-by-numbers waiting to be painted.

My previous devised processes included an initial experimental phase in which material was generated, filtered, focused, then refined before rehearsing the final performance. Time could not allow this for BRETHREN, so rehearsals had to follow a close plan of specific movement games and tasks that could produce the desired style of movement and overall aesthetic.

Group 2 interpreting instruments as weapons
Last December I was able to test some concepts and ideas with fellow Musicians in Residence at The Banff Centre. I talked about that in a previous blog. Suffice to say, I learnt a great deal about the piece and about directing there.

At a recent conference in Sheffield, I remarked in my paper that I am no longer certain now that music is the medium in which I want to make work. The problem with that phrase is how you define ‘music’. My PhD’s title, ‘Music is Theatre’, tackles this notion of what we consider separate fields, the boundaries of which disintegrate very quickly in certain contexts. Anyway, that is another story, remaining to be written…

For now, here are some rehearsal snaps to give a flavour of BRETHREN. To find out what’s going on, you’ll have to come to the premiere on 4th May at York Spring Festival – click this link for tickets and more information!

Those not in York may be able to stream the performance live here:

devising BRETHREN

devising BRETHREN

devising BRETHREN


Banff Blog: update

It’s been a while since I’ve posted – apologies! Time for blog-thinking and writing became limited among working time, rehearsals, conversations and concerts. I am back from Banff now and will be finishing posts about the remainder of my time there and in Calgary.

Postcard Pieces have all been made and posted! I will announce who receives which as we go along.

View of Kinnear Centre and beyond from Lloyd Hall
View of Kinnear Centre and beyond from Lloyd Hall

Banff Blog: Day 5

Day 5. Curating & Carrying

Composer Timothy Francis and I are arranging a piano race. The idea came about on Friday during a conversation with Tim and author-artist Cecil Castellucci, about the Banff Centre’s facilities. 11 pianos on the 2nd floor premieres tomorrow!

'11 pianos on the 2nd floor' flyer
’11 pianos on the 2nd floor’ flyer

This afternoon Tim and I took flyers to a talk by curator Marina McDougall. Her survey of recent projects “working at the intersection of art, science, nature and culture” was a useful insight into curating participatory, socially engaged works. Here are some notes I took:

• “Orphaned objects” – those that, to a museum, have ‘fallen out of” or “lost” their meaning.
• In ‘Marvelous Museum’, artist Mark Dion presented a “fictitious tableaux” [of found objects].
• “The learner must be led always from familiar objects to the unfamiliar.”

Postcard Piece 5 is a poem that plays with two phrases from Marina McDougall’s talk, and is for Alice Wane.

What can curating concepts and practices lend to my understanding and composition of music/theatre? I have been thinking about the in-vogue term “composer-curator” (not least since I am planning next year’s Late Music Ensemble concert). Concert programming is of course a form of curating. Pieces of music can be ordered by aesthetic and thematic consistency/contrast, logistics and balance, duration and instrumentation.

As a composer, I want to curate the performance of my pieces further, by choosing an appropriate performance space for a piece, designing the space to suit the requirements and assist the affect and effect of the piece, and by considering the interaction and relationships between this performance space and an audience. Considering performance works where the locus of which is a human presence on stage (a literal stage or occupied performance space), these are elements of theatrical production which now I consider for every performance of my work.

With concert performances, often the performance space and audience-performer-composition relationship will be set for you. Can I talk of devising and designing (music-)theatre in the same way as curating? Two thoughts come to mind.

I am working on a commission for Dr K Sextet, for a Late Music York concert in March 2016. My starting point was to research the concert programme:

Frédéric Le Bel: Prologue: Le Vide
Julia Wolfe: singing in the dead of night
David Lang: These Broken Wings
James Whittle: new work
Steve Reich: Double Sextet

After the instrumentation and duration briefs (flute clarinet piano percussion violin and cello, maximum 10 minutes), understanding the programme gave me my third compositional constraint. I don’t want to write a piece that is already going to be in the programme, neither do I want to provide a piece that unbalances the programme. For instance, with a strong theme of complex rhythmic interplay in those four pieces, I see this as a chance to write a different kind of music.

The second thought is about what dramaturgy can offer. Dr K Sextet’s programme is modelled on one by American ensemble Eighth Blackbird, who gave the premiere of Reich’s Double Sextet in 2007. In 2008, they presented that work with a second half of three new works, curated collectively as ‘singing in the dead of night’. The ensemble learnt the Wolfe, Lang, and piece by Michael Gordon, then worked with New York choreographer Susan Marshall to develop choreographed presentations of this triptych.

Of course, a single performance event can be the curation of several simultaneously performed works. This was the idea behind the piano race. In that piece, anyone can submit a score of any kind (musical, verbal, graphic…). The scores are distributed across all available pianos (therefore pianos may have more than one score).

Bentley Circle
When I announced my Postcard Pieces project, I wrote:

My first day in the space will be spent realising what I have brought, what I carry with me. This idea of carrying is also the reason for making theatre with an orchestra: a large mass of speechless people, carrying instruments like symbols of themselves. How can these instruments express our thoughts, our memories?

Today I ran a theatre workshop during a Bentley Circle session – an evening meeting of all music residents to collaborate/rehearse/share ideas and work. After a miming warm-up, I split the group into three and asked each one to derive movement with their musical instruments by treating them as one of the following:

• tools
• weapons
• vessels

I derived these topics from thinking about ‘carrying’. After initial brainstorming and experimenting, I gave further direction to each group individually based on their progress.

Group 2 interpreting instruments as weapons
Group 2 interpreting instruments as weapons

The tools group had come up with two short scenes involving raising and holding the instruments (as sponges and buckets for showering, and telescopes!). I asked them to consider the quality of their movement through thinking about weight.

The weapons team, who started engaged in a funny battle scene, I asked to focus on one small movement each, which could develop and build intensity. By spreading them out in space, they had also to focus on spatial awareness so as to build energy together without otherwise being in contact or synchronised.

I had originally given the vessels group the word ‘symbols’, which was too vague so was changed. This group included our Faculty member, pianist Jacob Greenberg (who plays with ICE). We talked about travelling and they developed a scene involving four instruments in turn moving inside the grand piano (under the lid) to mix sounds then depart.

In 70 minutes, the groups made short theatre sketches that I would love to develop elsewhere. The point of the workshop was to experiment with instructions and see what resulted. Here are some of my notes.

• Some participants responded to tasks more quickly or more literally than others.
• It may be best to begin with setting participants a musical task, so to begin with sound, then work from that to thinking about the movement that goes into making the sound.
• I can be clearer with my language, more direct with my direction, and offer even more encouragement through praise and enthusiasm.
• I was reminded that the tone of this kind of movement does not have to be of one sort. BRETHREN has been in my mind as a serious piece, but perhaps there is space for lighter tones through humour. I must remember that it will still have a surreal sense to it.

This is probably more than enough for today… if you got this far, well done!

Banff Blog: Day 4

Day 4. Connecting

Every morning I have watched sunlight trickle down two separate mountain peaks, to join at the crest as the day gathers momentum.

On Monday morning all resident musicians meet for a weekly checking-in session. It was great to see the whole group and feel more integrated after a few days of feeling like the new kid. I realised that I had let myself worry about that. The feeling may have come about through still struggling with jet lag; feeling unlike myself, hindered by that strange dislocation between the brain launching into present activity while the body dawdles somewhere behind. Fortunately it is subsiding. The copious amounts of buffet food I’ve eaten already are probably helping. Anyway, I felt more focused and able to orient myself for the week’s work today.

My initial idea for Solo Performance Piece seemed so simple that for a while I was questioning its interest to an audience. The piece in my head feels non-developmental and obvious. Is this because I am in on the jokes? Is the idea simplistic, or just simple and direct?

Start with what you know, then! I know that the piece will involve audience participation, moving and lots of vocal work. I am aiming for it to be humorous, even slapstick. It will wear some recent and long-time influences on its sleeve – ideas and techniques I knew I wanted to explore when I discovered them. More on those after the performance (I promise to be less elusive and more specific!).

I spent time improvising movement on one idea, for a while staggering about my studio clutching my clarinet case. In that state, the freedom of abstract actions presents its own logic within the exploration of a dynamic and movement quality. I need to work out whether I can keep any of those movements in the piece, which has a linear narrative at the moment. I was also wondering whether there needs to be identifiable connections between the movement vocabulary and the idea behind the piece. I answered that one by saying no: absurdity and slapstick don’t require justification. I will spend more time playing with the materials I have got already to understand what ideas they point towards.

Today I also began two collaborations with two fantastic singers. I am playing cello in a new song by Blake Whyte. Cari Burdett invited me to collaborate on an improvised voice and cello song, working with a Sufi poem:

It Felt Love
Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its
It felt the encouragement of light
Against its
We all remain

Later on in the music building lounge, I spotted two familiar names on a board of dedications to philanthropists Tom & Isobel Rolston (Banff Centre’s recital hall is named after them). You may not be able to see them here unless you zoom in: they are composer Clive Wilkinson, and the late clarinettist, Alan Hacker.
Familiar names on a dedication board.
Today’s Postcard Piece is to do with meaningful connection, and is for Sadie Harrison.

Banff Blog: Days 2-3

Day 2. Catching up

You can tell I am a blogging newbie, as already I am a couple of days behind, and I have forgotten to tell you about the first Postcard Piece! Here’s a sneak peek at what it contains…

Postcard Piece 1 notes
Postcard Piece 1 notes

After the first draw from the hat – or mug in this case – I can reveal that Postcard Piece 1 is for Omar Shahryar.

A lot of Day 2 was spent resting. Jet lag, and a very long first day, has taken its toll! I also still can’t shake a cold that’s been with me for weeks. It often seems the case that there is either not enough time, or the time you give to yourself as free/leisure time feels sacrificed. (There’s a lot of relatable truth in PhD Comics…) I am still learning not to judge time, but to focus on active decision-making.

I’m not sure I’ve said here yet that the aim of the Postcard Pieces is to distill something of each day into a piece that can fit on a postcard.

Today’s piece is in the form of a poem, with directions for audience participation, and is for Sarah Goulding.

Day 3. Yelling

First full day in the studio today. During Friday’s Musical Encounter I had an idea for a solo performance piece which I wanted to work on. Having not properly developed a theatre piece for myself before it is time I challenge myself to do so! I donned a theatrical black t-shirt and jogging trousers and spent a good two hours reacquainting myself with my clarinet, taking it apart, playing with the case, playing with the reeds, and watching back videos of me jumping, yelling, and generally being quite boisterous.

The piece will be called ‘Solo Performance Piece’. I have put in a Performance Request to share it next Friday in the Rolston Recital Hall. I won’t give games away as I intend to film it when it gets performed and share the video. Instead, here are some of my scribblings from watching videos of myself…

'Solo Performance Piece'
‘Solo Performance Piece’

The piece is based on a short performance I did at Beacons Festival in 2014, where I was one of 6 Artists-in-Residence on the Live Art Bistro’s Impossible Lecture retreat (bit of a mouthful, that!). Those were five fantastic days spent with great artists like Katharina Arnold and Skeleton Project, and mentored by the amazing Pauline Mayers. The retreat was an artistic turning point for me. I learnt much to do with trust, confidence and creativity on stage, technology (in a tactile, non-digital sense of using what is available), and realised attitudes of mind that are more helpful than others.

Ever since I have craved returning to a similar mindset. ‘Distraction’ is a word that’s been on my mind today. I sometimes get easily distracted, not least when there are multiple time and work demands. I sense here a liberated mind returning, as if something is being let go.

Today’s Postcard Piece is about something else. It has been great to meet so many artists in such a short space of time – I must write more about what I’ve been listening to and reading soon. I was thinking about social interactions, and a wordplay and anagram came into my head.

Postcard Piece 3 is called ‘Archaism’ and is for Morag Galloway.

A special kind of race is taking place on Wednesday… more news in the next blog!

Sulphur Mountain from Bow Valley bridge
Sulphur Mountain from Bow Valley bridge

Banff Blog: Day 1


Before I get going, a quick word about the idea behind this blog. Having not written one before, I wanted to start one now to best document my thoughts, feelings and ideas as they develop across the residency, and in so doing share them with you. I expect the blog’s content will range from reflections on myself, as an artist and as a person, to more critical discussion of composition including an open sharing of my process. At this stage – and given it’s been the first day – I am aware of not judging anything (remembering a workshop on mindfulness from last term) and of my desire to observe, not force, and to allow interactions, thoughts and experiences to take their own shape and significance in the mind. Whatever stays will stay because it should.

breakfast view west from Vistas
breakfast view west from Vistas
I am writing this on Saturday after a whirlwind Friday and long sleep. Contrary to all my time spent travelling, I did not do any writing yesterday. Instead, my senses spent all day absorbing all that this new place has – and it is overwhelming. Banff is a bewilderingly beautiful place.

Quick coda to Day 0: after checking in and unpacking in my room in Lloyd Hall, I found the Vistas restaurant for dinner, and met a composer, Simon Labelle, working with a Canadian theatre collective. Here are links to his music:

I’ll continue to feature the work of the artists I meet. As you’ll see further on, I’ve already met and heard some amazing ones.

Music & Sound building
Music & Sound building
Back to Day 1. I started by taking a tour of campus: library, food outlets, gym, music, theatre, visual and digital arts buildings. Everything is very close by and there are paintings and sculptures everywhere. I felt the dry cold enveloping my skin, the air less punishing, more coaxing and refreshing.

2nd encounter with deer
2nd encounter with deer
The guidebooks tell you to beware of elk, which will charge at you if they get the chance. There are also cougars and lynx in the surrounding forest! I keep a watch out (it seems you shouldn’t walk into the wild alone without making a lot of noise), and find it a bit ridiculous that I keep catching myself stopping when I see nearly life-size wooden models of elk, used to block paths that are too dangerous too walk on for the snow.

The library’s resources include recordings and videos of music theatre works, by composers like Kagel, that I’ve not been able to see yet. Most resident artists leave here on the 12th, while I stay until the 15th, so my final quiet days are likely to be spent studying repertoire.

view from the top of Lloyd Hall
view from the top of Lloyd Hall
I settled in the library to catch up on some emails. I am aware that I need to set times for those – it is too easy to get distracted by the bleep.

I wandered into town in search of postcards and a chapstick. En route a local helped me find my way – the snow making it hard to know which road is which although it is only a 10 minute walk. Everyone I’ve met has been so warm and welcoming. Here’s the last landscape photo for today!

Cascade Mountain from Bow River bridge
Cascade Mountain from Bow River bridge

IMG_3315In the afternoon I met Music administrative staff and chose my studio – the biggest of course! The rug and mirror will be ideal for working on movement ideas. I already have the idea to make a solo performance for myself (I’ve been wanting to push this side of my practice for a while). My desk is a handily large size for spreading A3 pages everywhere. I like how light the room is, for being in the corner of the building and having windows on two sides – also a reminder of connections to the outside world.

studio 110, with Yamaha piano
studio 110

By this point I was desperate to get working. For my first session, I focused on emptying my head of certain thoughts on BRETHREN that I’ve had for a while. I now have clearer tasks for sessions to work separately on the piece’s themes and rehearsal / performance practicalities.

I’ve got free tickets to concert events, plus one film which I’m quite excited to see at Lux Cinema in town: a new drama by Zhang Yimou called Coming Home. Other schedule dates are Monday morning checking in and Tuesday evening circles/sharings for all Musicians in Residence. I have also arranged to meet and interview Canadian avant-garde poet Christian Bök, whose work I have admired since my undergraduate, when I stay in Calgary before flying home.

I also cleared my mind of other projects coming round the corner… I’ve not tapped into such strongly visual tools like these coloured pens for a long time, and already am sensing the benefit.

In the evening I met more of my fellow resident artists, at dinner then at the Musical Encounter gig in The Club venue, under the theatre complex. The Musical Encounter series is weekly, and features a visiting Faculty performer who performs some of their work, followed by work from resident artists. The Faculty performer stays for a week and residents are able to book time with them.

Tonight’s/this week’s Faculty artist was rock guitarist Tom Wilson. After his set of direct, wonderfully narrated songs, I got to see what my peers do. Resident performances came from solo songwriters Jonathan Churcher, Dana Sipos and AP Bergeron, and singer Cari Burdett, in styles ranging from folk to smokey jazz and electronic-ambient-rock fusion. A staggeringly subtle three-piece backing band of soft trumpet, string bass and drums accompanied Dana and Cari with mellow hues. Alex Bergeron had drums and trumpet behind his guitar and high falsetto voice, reaching to a visceral, trance-like music between euphoria and pain. The common thread was a sense of poetry and story, performed with honesty and from the heart.

Next week’s Faculty artist is pianist Jacob Greenberg. I will decide which solo piano piece I could workshop with him – I have made a few recently…

I had two ideas for a solo performance piece. One develops a short performance I did at Beacons Festival when I was in residency with Live Art Bistro’s Impossible Lecture tent. The other is new and requires experimentation to work out. The kind of idea where you start with a simple action or moment, then need to follow it freely to see what it could lead it, where it’s heart is. I will work on them this weekend and tell you more in another blog – this one is already long enough!

Banff Blog: Day 0

Setting out

Diary entries for Flight AC851

26/11/2015, 11:49
Expectation, anticipation, hesitation – checking (double-checking) – resolution, palpable overflowing excitement.

So much has gone through my mind in the last week. Community, friendship, family, relationships, bonds, ties, co-operation, acceptance, movement, upheaval, struggle, conflict, calm, understanding, co-existence, peace. All words to consider for BRETHREN.

I’ve begun – the piece has begun – here in Terminal 2’s departure lounge. Currently I have 13 names for the Postcard Pieces project – and already thoughts of friends and loved ones are a comfort and spring propelling me into the future. When I arrive I will learn my surroundings, sense the present moment and realise what else I have brought into the space.

Here we go!!!

The sky goes on, and on, and on, brilliantly pure. The bleed from blue to white is so gradual and smooth that there is no horizon, no sense of an ending. I am in a window seat overlooking the right hand wing, which is quite still, feeling like I am suspended in a Calder mobile. I can read 5 signs on the wing: “No Grab”, “Anti-Ice Access”, “Hoist Point”, “No Step”, “Pressure Relief Door”.

This pen is about to run out.


crossing Greenland
crossing Greenland
I am going back in time, watching the moon rise.

We are now crossing Greenland. The sky is dark but clear. Mountains and snow emerge from white miles below. I sense the unreachable, the unique, or the inaccessible made accessible; to think you could not find this view, this place, any other way.

The moon is losing its pink tinge to a rueful yellow. It must be only 5pm British time, but the lunar beacon through the wash of cloud induces sleep. Were it not for mild turbulence you would think we have stopped moving altogether.

A red light blinks under the wing, calls out to blue.

From the sky, large objects far away look just the same as smaller ones up close. Greenland resembled frost in a freezer. Now we are an hour from Calgary, the cloud has broken to reveal the earth. The Sporadic distribution of water enclosed in brown, grey and white land looks no different to a corner of a beach of soaked dark brown sand, fresh from the tide’s departure. All puddles and erosion.

Everything flattens from a height. Yet the minutest detail seems noticeable. Tributary rivers bend round thick brown land chunks, though some are as straight roads. Others snake satisfactorily.

IMG_3248We are definitely over human habitation now: gridlines, white as grouting, are unmistakably geometric indentations on the land mass. Snow has fallen thickly everywhere, defining and concealing everything.

First glimpse of the Canadian Rockies on the horizon – drastically different to the flat. Huge, craggy, dynamic, beautiful.

Films watched on flight:
The Darjeeling Limited
KALEIDOSCOPE (Canadian animation short – Catherine Dubeau)
Thread (Malaysian short – Virginia Kennedy)
En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron
(A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence)

16:35, on Banff Airporter bus
The ground is flat all around with only slight fluctuations. Because I can now judge distances between objects, I sense my impatience to arrive growing. From the highway, far-off tips of mountains only increase the feeling. After 15 our of 17 hours of travel, I want to be there.

Finally glimpsed Calgary and its skyscrapers – not many, but enough! Up close: houses, people. An exciting moment of our descent was when the ground ceased to shine as a whole with an oily glean coating, and instead fields became distinct from buildings, the glass of which would reflect the light like a winking eye, confirming its presence.

Thoughts are flooding in again, I need to work to keep them in check. The pen gets between the imagined and the written word. Though I have enjoyed writing – it feels nostalgic, therapeutic, creative.

the Rockies
Rockies in the distance
The Rockies horizon line is replaced momentarily by triangular rooftops rising and falling. There is an absence of trees on the flat. We drive towards peach cloud, thin strokes in twilight. Before them, the inconsistent, wavering, solid line of mountain tops, which already I love.

17:15, using iPhone as the light fades
I was wrong about flat, the ground ripples to ever greater degrees as we approach the Rockies. Trees are more numerous too.

I was thinking about mountains. The excitement of wanting to transport yourself in an instant to the very top of the tip that pokes into the distant sky. That longing to be close, to know the whole tangible object on all sides and feel its weight.

I feel a closeness to people; a desire to find and show something new. Who else is art for but yourselves.

I may try doing this by recording my voice too. It would be a good way to get myself working with spoken word, verbalising thoughts and listening.

– this sign bodes well!

Not long to go now. Thick pines line sheer monochrome rock faces. The realisation that every mountain emerges from all surrounding it.

Swing it, shake it, move it, make it

I am giving a Research Seminar in the University of York Music
Department on Wednesday 27th May, 4pm. Here is the abstract.

Swing it, shake it, move it, make it
A reflection on devising processes in recent music-theatre pieces

My recent music-theatre works have derived all their material from the physicality and gestures of musical performance. In these, both performer and instrument are physical, performative objects.

As a composer, the question was: how far can this material go? Inevitably, the pieces would become partly self-referential about musical performance itself. (As an absurdist, the answer is: no comment.)

This talk will detail how influences from contemporary dance and performance art have developed a devising process for creating equally visual and aural works collaboratively with musicians. A key factor in this practice-led research has been into the establishing of a rehearsal space, in which musicians with little or no experience of movement, or physical/musical improvisation, can create and develop physical and musical material comfortably and thoughtfully. In this way, music-theatre works are not composed “onto” a performer, but with. The composer becomes facilitator, reflector, director.

The following works will be discussed,

before a brief look ahead to final planned PhD pieces, including a large-scale work for choreographed orchestra.

“The thing comes alive”: Music on Stage 2014 conference paper

On 19th October I am giving a paper at the 5th International ‘Music on Stage’ conference, titled,

‘”The thing comes alive”:
theatricalising the concert hall in Remains of Elmet

Here’s my abstract:

‘Live musical performance is inherently visual. Whether or not consciously directed or perceived by the performer or audience member, what is heard can be affected by what is seen. By recognising the site and physical presence of a musician on stage, all live music can be seen as a form of theatre.

‘Composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies and Jeremy Dale Roberts (plus many others) have prescribed directions that theatricalise musical performance. These include the spatialisation and movement of performers, identification of character, and instruction for non-musical action. More recent works, such as Rising (2010) by Roger Marsh, employ a collaborative devising process whereby the performers create the music and theatre. My compositional research is developing a devising process that integrates music and theatre, both composed and improvised, in order to communicate a narrative.

‘I will discuss this approach regarding a recent music-theatre concerto: Remains of Elmet for viola-vocalist, instruments and choir, setting Ted Hughes poetry, and devised with performer Victoria Bernath. It will detail challenges and observations of creating visual metaphors to complement music that we found during the work’s composition, devising workshops and final rehearsals, as illustrated by video clips of the premiere (May 2013).’

The conference takes place 18-19th October at Rose Bruford College. The host of papers range from contemporary opera and performance practice, to adaptation of opera and opera gender studies. More information can be found here:

Click here for more information on Remains of Elmet.
Watch a video of the premiere here.

‘some Surrealist methods’ performances and research

My (the irony of beginning this item with a possessive pronoun will become clear) devised theatre work for oboe and voice some Surrealist methods has been selected to be performed at the Music and/as Process symposium at the University of Huddersfield on Sunday 30th June 2013. This third performance will allow me to further develop practical research into the relationship between a composer-director and performers, and the effect that relationship has on performance.

The premiere performance was the culmination of the initial collaboration between myself, Giacomo Pozzuto (oboe, MA Performance, University of York) and Elspeth Piggott (soprano, undergraduate, University of York), on 10th January 2013. The work, which sets texts from André Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism, was devised completely from scratch by the three of us, from November-December 2012. This process involved a series of close open rehearsals utilising improvisation, experimentation, theatrical direction, and instant compositional notation and instruction. As composer-director, my role was to provide fixed written material, if it were desired, collected from recordings of improvised material; to offer musical and theatrical direction to improvisations in order to simultaneously convey my ideas for the piece and enhance those of the performers; to facilitate the presentation of material in a coherent form (creating a working, transferable score).

You can watch Giacomo and Elspeth’s performance here:

**An extract of the score will appear here shortly…**

The second performance was given on 26th April 2013 by Jennifer Green (soprano, MA Contemporary Studies, University of York) and Patrick Burnett (B flat clarinet, MA Conducting, University of York), in a recital of two theatre works, the second being Rose Hall’s terrifying Death Hath Ten Thousand Several Doors On Strange Geometrical Hinges. Jenny approached me about performing the piece after Giacomo and I gave a paper at the York Postgraduate Forum on our process. This time, the process was to see what the performers would do with a fixed score, without any direction from me during the initial experimentation phase.

I saw Jenny and Patrick twice before the performance, but only to work on each movement in separate sessions. During these meetings, they presented their work on the piece to me, and I questioned them on their interpretations of the score before giving musical and theatrical direction which were intended only as enhancements of their predetermined characters. Before I go further, I should say that these are just initial thoughts which need corroborating from post-performance discussion with the performers.

The experience for me was quite an illuminating one, as I found that I could completely remove my personal feelings about the piece to judge their performances dispassionately, which increased my confidence and ability to give constructive feedback on the music and theatre. The loss of singular ownership seemed to allow a collective ownership similar to the first collaboration, freeing both performers and composer-director to experience the piece as the amorphous object it is. I am wondering about the relationship between the psychological and musical consequences that this process can have. The resulting performance by Jenny and Patrick, which I found very individual, humorous and characterful, will be available to watch and listen to shortly.

The performance in Huddersfield will be by the original performers, who will collaborate again with me as composer-director to create a revised version of the piece. More information on the exact form this collaborative process will take will appear shortly, once it has been decided. Stay tuned!