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A compositional manifesto (of sorts)

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

For the last few months in my compositions, I've been thinking about how two things:

  1. How to write pieces which encourage performers to generate musical language. I'm particularly interested in doing this with performers who are not necessarily trained in a particular improvisational language/approach (such as jazz). Therefore most of the pieces I'm writing require performers to extemporise/improvise from some given material (which I call a kernel), in some cases along certain processes which I have determined.

  2. How to shape dynamic interactions between two musicians, or between one musician and something exterior (e.g. notated music, text). I've been drawing out diagrams of interaction such as the following:

In each diagram, there are two 'characters', a ◯ and a △. Each represents a different 'player' - these could be individual musicians, or they could be one musician and a piece of musical material, or two groups, or many other binary systems. For now, I'm generally focusing on the simplest set-ups, namely two individuals.

In compositions, I'm putting these into practice through short pieces, usually based on a single diagram, or occasionally two. For example, the following miniature piece is themed on the chase interaction. ◯'s role is to run away from △ by moving from one musical fragment to another, whilst △ attempts to follow. In each case, the ? symbol means extemporise/improvise on this material, so the piece is not limited to merely the notational fragments I have provided. The idea of interacting with performers and stimulating improvisation is a central theme in my work at the moment.

I wrote this one for my friends and sometime collaborators, violin duo Mainly Two, whose most recent album I was a featured composer on.

A more developed example is the first sketch of a new piece celebrating women in space, below, on the orbit interaction.

Written for flute and clarinet, the plan is that each will follow one of the two orbital paths (red or blue) around the notated/text instruction fragments, extemporising on the material according to the processes stipulated in each orbit. In the following closeup, you can see one of the 'planets' in more detail:

In this case, the material is a short staccato passage in Eb Mixolydian mode. The orbital path requires the players to progressively morph/extemporise along a major/minor axis and a lighter/harsher axis. Generated material might take forms such as the following:

The exact nature of the material generated will be determined by the musical language of the performer themselves. I am actively avoiding being overly prescriptive in the content/processes/rules which I provide, since I am interested in both:

1) Drawing out the pre-existing musical language which the performers bring to the work.

2) Encouraging performers to develop new (at least to them) musical language through musical play.

For me, the ideal scenario would be where the performers are engaged in a dynamic interaction with the work: through playing/rehearsing it, they develop new musical language (increase their range of material they can reach during improvisation), and in doing so, they also create a personalised version of the work. Two further dynamic interactions would follow:

  1. The same performers, approaching the work subsequently, would be able to draw not only on their pre-existing musical language (pre-dating the work), but also the language they generated through their first interactions with the work. This makes the work self-renewing, since at each encounter, the performers have more directions they can take the material in.

  2. A different group of performers will have the choice of either approaching the work 'cold' - i.e. with only the notation and their pre-existing musical languages - or of also incorporating the 'results' (recorded or experienced performances) of the first group of performers' version(s) of the work.

Each composition on these principles is therefore a catalyst for two things:

  1. The development of musical language(s) possess by the performers, which they then take away from the work.

  2. The development of a musical language specific to the work, which is available to other performers to interact with if they choose.

Ultimately, my aims are:

  1. To create a body of work which enables performers (who may or may not engage in specific musical languages normally associated with improvisation) to develop new musical language and engage in directed improvisational interactions with the works.

  2. To provide structured routes into improvisation (which I call 'speaking music') accessible to performers of any musical training/background, not merely those from a musical tradition which already requires it (e.g. jazz, improvised music).

  3. To separate the specific content of my musical language from my utility and identity as a composer. In other words, not to be a 'new music' or a 'jazz' composer, but to be a composer who can choose to work in whatever musical language I choose, but with a set of central concepts which define my approach.

  4. Rather than controlling every aspect of the content of my pieces, to give the pre-existing musical languages of performers a prominent role in the substance of my works, celebrating diversity of approach and background.

  5. To develop ways of doing all this which can exist beyond my personal practice, so that other composers, performers or others can take the techniques and ideas and use them for their own ends.

I guess this has ended up being a kind of compositional manifesto, of sorts. I've arrived here after many years of learning, playing, writing and reflecting, and I hope now to be able to fulfill these aims through my current and future work. I hope you've found this post interesting. If you want to support me and my work, you can do so (with no ongoing commitment), by clicking the button below:

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