Sunday, November 15, 2009

music and transitions

Still obsessing on aspects of my new flute and synth and solo flute pieces. Something specific to these pieces which was new for me was an intentional starkness of phrases, divided from each other by big, awkward pauses. Up till now my music has tended towards developing by gradual transitions from one sound world or gesture to another. More sudden contrasts have been rare and tend to be used to make a special point or produce a strong structural divide.

Working with the synthesizer as a live filter for the flute made this more gradualist aesthetic difficult to achieve. The presence of the synthesizer sounds is controlled with exacting suddeness by the flute note/breath. This means that the beginning and ending of every phrase is sharply emphasised, reinforcing the necessary pauses for breath with the harsh beginnings and endings of sounds.

Monday, October 26, 2009

reverse images

Whether for the fun of juxtaposition, or to make some movement towards redressing the loss of the visual I raved on about, for every piece of audio I upload to Pool I try to find and upload an appropriate image. Which immediately begs the question - what does appropriate mean?

With Reverse I discarded the more lateral interpretive options for images and simply grabbed an excerpt of each of the musical scores. Was this because this was the first piece I'd posted that was score-based and I wanted to visually underline the different process of making the piece? Or because the concept of 'reverse' seemed too grounded in movement and energy to be adequately represented by another image? Or because in the case of this particular piece other images risked reducing the field of interpretation and response of the listener too much? Or was I just getting lazy?

In my blog I'd like to try out a few alternative images for Reverse and consider what they might do to the musical meaning. For example, this -

If you've clicked on a link to one of the versions of Reverse on my Soundcloud page [Ed. previously Pool page] and are back looking at this image, what does the juxtaposition suggest? What is the mood/tone of Reverse?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

meaning inside and outside music

I've recently posted two versions of the work Reverse on my Pool page [Ed. now on Soundcloud, following the demise of Pool] , the one for flute and synthesizer which I linked to in my last blog, and now one for solo flute (with the player also vocalising a lot). Removing the synthesizer and adding vocalising and more varied articulatory and timbral techniques to the flute has finally enabled me to finish a solo flute piece I'm happy with. Whether Reverse for flute and synth and Reverse for solo flute are the same piece, or 'mean' the same thing is another question.

Years ago when I was researching a thesis on meaning in music I found that much of the substantial work on this question seemed to address meaning in music entirely through the social and visual framing, the occasions, clothes, gestures, record and poster art it was associated with, failing to talk directly about the music at all. Fascinating as these books were (one that springs to mind is Dick Hebdidge's 'Subculture: the meaning of style') I was frustrated by these authors' tendency to talk all around the music, leaving the actual sonic experience as an empty cipher or blank space in the middle.

At the same time, these readings did leave me with a fascination for the mutability of meanings produced when sounds and images (and their potentially divergent 'meanings') are juxtaposed. In this sense I'm interested in the way visual input, whether seeing musicians play, the look of a listening space, or the juxtaposition of music/audio with images and moving footage, affects the way we hear and interpret music. And I'm aware that some of my favourite experiences of live music can be extremely disappointing when recorded and reproduced through speakers or headphones.

Some of what is lost in the translation through microphones and into a stereo playback must be the sheer richness of sonic information that some really good live music creates: sounds moving round the room - vibrations in my body - wonderfully subtle variations in texture (overtones, surface frictions and articulations) enhanced by the interplay with the peculiar resonances of a particular live space.

But some of the loss is the loss of the visual - the theatre and detailed expressive information communicated by the movements needed to produce the music. 

With an audio recording of a performance this information is gone. What takes its place? Perhaps an abstract pleasure of the experience of pure sound removed from any social, visual or other framing. Or perhaps a sense of lack in the reduced field of experiences communicated by the audio ghost of an occasion. What do these ghosts of performances of my piece Reverse mean to you if you weren't there? And what affect does seeing the fragments of score below have on your experience of the sounds?

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Recently I've been making works using an old Korg MS-20 analog synthesizer as a processor for flute and other acoustic inputs. It's a process that has seemingly allowed me to break through two creative barriers.

1. As a composer and flute player I've often been asked by other flute players to write pieces for solo flute for them. Until this year all such attempts have been discarded. For some reason when faced with writing for solo flute I've always ended up writing music that seems pointless to me - a kind of musical noodling. Does this happen to lots of composers in relation to an instrument whose repertoire they are over-familiar with? Or is it to do with the flute in particular? Perhaps the limitations of a single line instrument with no lower end and an unusually 'pure' (timbrally simple) classic sound. Or is it the weight of twentieth-century solo flute classics daring the foolhardy to pit themselves against Debussy's Syrinx, Varese's Density 21.5, Ferneyhough's Unity Capsule and a host of lesser imitations. Caught between these classic works and a host of new-age syrupy confections it seems easy to get lost or to lose sight of the point of creating a new piece of flute music.

Whatever the case, setting out this year to write a work for flute and live synthesizer processing enabled me at last to break through this block. The synthesizer freed me to write without being bothered by all those powerful models. And there was also a wonderfully perverse pleasure in being able to make the standard concert flute, such a 'light-weight' sonic presence, sound gravelly, gutsy and dirty in surprising ways through the intervention of the synthesizer.

2. It was this experience of the physicality of sound that was also crucial in breaking through another blockage, at least as far as my flute music is concerned. As a composer who is also an improviser (or the reverse?) there has often seemed to me to be a significant gap between the music I make while improvising on the flute (or any other instrument) and the music I write down. Whereas composing generally allows me to develop more elaborate structures and to pursue cross-art referential ideas, improvisation has connected me much more to the expressive physicality and aliveness of sound.

Working with my old synthesizer and flute to develop material for this piece for flute-player Janet McKay, and then working directly with Janet as the score started to take shape, testing every one of the flute gestures and synthesizer processing ideas in real time, allowed me to make a score through a tight feedback process between writing, performance, transcription and re-writing to produce the finished score.

The first piece resulting from this process is titled Reverse and was first performed by Janet and myself in a concert, Those Vanished Hands, presented by Janet earlier this year at the Queensland College of Arts gallery in Brisbane.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

feeling my way

I'm just feeling my way with this whole blog thing. What I really want is a a blog that enables me to move fluently between text image and audio, but at this stage I can't see any way to embed audio except as a link.

[Ed. The ABC's remix community website 'Pool' was closed down earlier in 2013, rendering the following paragraph no longer relevant except as online cultural history] If you clicked on 'link', what you're looking at now is my page on 'Pool' - in which case you are of course not reading this blog. Pool is ABC Radio National's online space for diverse new and old media sharing and project development. I've put a few of my recent audio bits and pieces up here for other people to respond to or freely re-mix and appropriate - with acknowledgment. It's a great place to present audio, text, images video etc, but what it doesn't allow me to do is to place the audio etc. within the body of the text as something that functions on an equal level with the words, with both words and audio functioning as both text and texture.

After a brief surf I've found a way to make the audio link appear in a different window so that you can go on listening to en plein air while returning to the blog text to read on and look at some images.

What is an appropriate image for this music? On my Pool page en plein air was presented alongside this photo.

It seemed to chime with the almost blank mix of opacity and transparency in this music - a kind of emptiness and stasis.

But what if instead you were presented with this image to accompany your listening?

To my mind the juxtaposition with this image gives the music a more actively mysterious and 'organic' feel - less architectural and cipher-like.

What does the music mean? Or is it an empty cipher, like a virtual room that can have any furniture or thought put inside it? What if I write more text about the music to explain how it works -

The layers of flute were played in one at a time while listening back on headphones to the tracks already recorded. Two additional layers make a slow and largely imperceptible shift from interior to exterior street sounds. This is a half-length version of the work. I think this is the minimum duration for realising this particular idea. The maximum duration could be anything you like - a kind of aural wallpaper.

Or to suggest possible readings such as this -

Aims to follow a thread of weightless suspension - an almost 'breathless' presence of breath - a transparent, papery texture. How does it make you feel - calm? buoyant? empty? nauseous? stretched thin?



Creating starts with an idea or 'text'. Put through the masher of processes and play the idea dissolves into texture. As the texture stabilises, it becomes a new 'text', a clarified idea.

Or is it the other way around? Grabbing hold of some intriguing or captivating fragment or strand of texture - working with it until it becomes more well defined, a definite figure or idea - then pushing it further until the experience overwhelms the idea, dissolving back into texture.