Space for Music

The ever-decreasing space I’ve had for music

Lately I’ve been both fortunate and unfortunate in equal measure. I’ve taken up a new job – an exciting and stimulating job that has me working in the music industry full-time; I’ve managed to find myself a new home; I’m working on a commission from the London Sinfonietta for a solo double bass piece to be premiered at the Southbank Centre in December; and – the cherry on the cake – my partner will be over from Brazil for Christmas. Good times. On the other hand, the mayhem of moving across the country, having to buy white goods that have since spectacularly failed, and finding the people I need to contact aren’t available at useful times has devoured a significant portion of my life recently. Now I’m happy but exhausted, bereft of mental space, and fast approaching my commission deadline with very little to show for the time I’m supposed to have spent working on it. First world problems, I know. Nevertheless, this evening has been the first real opportunity in a month or so that I’ve had to collate my thoughts on the commission, to challenge myself, and to steer myself clear of writing something well-crafted-but-generic with only a couple of weeks to go.

I’ve decided to blog about the process for two reasons. First, I think more composers (and all creative artists) should be open about their creative processes, partly to share ideas and partly to undermine the idea of the genius-composer working secretively in their ivory tower – a view held by too many people (including composers). Secondly, I’ve been able to draw on a number of creative catalysts from a host of sources, almost none of which are related to dots-on-page musical matters.

An invitation to find new musical space

The nature of my commission is perhaps peculiar but, to my mind, more stimulating than the usual call for staged concert works. The brief is to produce a five-minute solo piece to be played in an unusual space within the Queen Elisabeth Hall building. The space will be transformed in collaboration with a team of designers from Central Saint Martin’s (UAL). I like to think of this as producing an installation-like experience that offers more interesting and immersive opportunities for audience engagement than the ‘everyday’ concert format. There are five composers producing such solo pieces, each in a different space, writing for a different instrument, and working with a different team of designers. So far we’ve met the designers as a massed group, but we’ve yet to be assigned our final working partnerships. The spaces our pieces will occupy are to be decided after a site visit next week.

So what am I writing? First, I want to dispense with the word ‘writing’. Admittedly I’ll be the recognised author of the ‘musical work’, which ordinarily equates to a composer having written some dots for someone else to interpret. And this is obviously a part of what I’m doing, but only to a limited extent. My aim is to craft an ‘experiential space’. I admit that sounds horrendously pretentious! It’s not a label I like, but it’s probably the best approximation I can produce with the words language has to offer. There are plenty of quotes and sentiments that roughly equate to “music expresses what language can’t”. However hard to pin down that idea might be, I have to say I agree that music has such potential (this raises the question: how much music tries to express something language can also express perfectly well, if not better?).

Sharing space

The central ideas I’m working with are intimacy, expressions of connection, openness (or lack thereof), and the potentially dangerous notion of tenderness. Why is tenderness so dangerous? Because it sidles-up alongside nostalgic views of Romanticism (with a capital R). I’ve nothing against Romanticism per-se – I like a lot of the music, certainly – but there’s something of a sepia-tinted fetish for it, which frequently operates as a yardstick against which many people measure the worth of ‘contemporary classical music’. Perhaps this (along with ideological differences) is why a lot of contemporary composers avoid associations with Romanticism like the plague. I don’t avoid it so fervently, but I agree that association with 19th century is, depressingly, like interpretative quicksand.

Musical nostalgia aside, tenderness is, in a more general sense, a kind of connection, openness, and often a form of intimacy; it can be associated with romanticism (little r) alongside other expressions of compassion. This brings me back to my central themes, which I chose in response to the performer I’m working with, Elena Hull. Elena is an incredibly expressive bassist. I’m sure those people that are fond of the rhetoric surrounding 19th-Century nostalgia would say she’s able to project with the sensitivity, expressivity, and clear, searing tone commonly associated with the cello. I’d say she’s damn good! For some reason the double bass is still seen as a grumbly, dry instrument, which Elena proves it needn’t be. What’s more, she specifically expressed an interest in exploring the ‘romantic’ (not Romantic) side of the instrument in this project.

What I’m aiming to produce is a space in which the audience’s relationship with the performer and the music they hear is not subject to the boundaries and spectatorship of the concert hall. I want to work on something the audience can feel. I mean that literally; the double bass is capable of producing sounds that go right through you – a connection with sound and the musical experience I want to promote. To a certain extent I also want the audience to feel something in the psychological, emotional sense. I don’t want to create an emotional narrative or a programmatic tale (that would be big R territory again). I want the experience of sharing the space with Elena and the sound she produces to tap-into other areas of the audience’s repository of experiences – specifically their experiences with intimacy, expressions of connection, openness, and tenderness.

Organising a new musical space

What impact does this have on how I compose? How do I organise my ‘material’? For that matter, what is my ‘material’? As far as I’m concerned everything within the performance space is a vital kind of ‘material’. In order for me to promote the idea of openness and some very human kinds of connection I want to get rid of the boundaries that ordinarily classify and separate people in a performance environment (performers versus audience). In my new work everybody’s an agent of activity. Elena will respond to the actions of the people around her according to sets of instructions. These instructions – the score – will focus on her physical actions and will draw on my experiences with open notation and open instrumentation (even though the instrumentation here is fixed). I want the gesture of her performance, which I see as another vital tool for exploring my central themes, to be as important as the sounds she makes. The challenge will be to create shifts of openness in her performance and to produce a situation whereby the audience feel able to ‘connect’ with Elena and her sound such that they willingly explore the space and the experience they have within it. Getting this right will be difficult and I’m still in the planning stages. To give you some idea of the processes I’m going through here are some of the questions I’ve posed to myself:
  • What is the initial impression projected when the audience enters the space?
  • How does the performance begin and end?
  • How does Elena produced ‘closed’ and ‘open’ sounds and gestures?
  • How exactly does the audience’s interaction impact the performance space and how does this impact Elena’s actions?

I’ve also written these pointers:
  • Avoid binaries! This is not intimacy versus non-intimacy (or whatever)
  • Exploration of contact… with music, with people, with bodies (no groping!)
  • Shades of ‘warmth’ – soft glow; intense, personal; playful warmth
  • Familiar intertwined with (and most certainly not opposed to) the unknown – tantalising
  • Performer’s actions respond to audience’s actions

It’ll be interesting to see where these ideas go and how much I can make craft them into a relatable experience.

Thinking about Music and People’s Relationship with Space

Before I sign-off I want to say a few words about what it was that set me off down this route. Perhaps most obviously my own romantic relationship is challenged by vast geographical distances – a small personal space set against a huge physical one. While not in the slightest bit ideal (or enjoyable) the situation has caused me to assess the value of intimacy, closeness, and connection in their non-tangible forms. The need for my partner and me to find ways of exploring and coming to terms with the ‘space’ our relationship occupies has directly motivated my work on this commission.

On a less self-centred note, I’ve had cause to consider the use of music in closed, ‘non-standard’ spaces on a number of occasions recently. I’ve been approached about the idea of writing music to work alongside an audio-described tactile art exhibition for the blind. Flooding a blind person’s aural space with sound, however subtle or quiet, is an act that comes with a phenomenal amount of responsibility, not least because it can disrupt that person’s relationship with the world around them. Unsurprisingly, this has got me thinking a lot about our relationship between music and space – something I want to explore a lot more. I’ve also recently started working with Dame Evelyn Glennie, who’s profoundly deaf and also one of the world’s foremost concert percussionists. Learning about Evelyn’s relationship with sound and how she crafts musical spaces for herself has led me to think seriously about the physiological aspect of music-making, about our very real contact with sound. All in all, circumstances have encouraged me not to take musical spaces and our methods of engagement with music for granted.

My new (currently untitled) solo double bass piece will be premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on Sunday 8 December 2013. It has been commissioned by the London Sinfonietta as part of Writing the Future, which is generously supported by The Boltini Trust Anthony Mackintosh and Michael & Patricia MacLaren-Turner.