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.
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