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.