Bourne Synthesiser Show

Earlier this year, the inimitable Jon Quail of (the equally inimitable) Marsden Jazz Festival, commissioned me to create something special for this year’s New Stream strand. We discussed various ideas and settled on the idea of a solo show of some kind. Being far from a stranger to solo piano performance, it was made very clear that this concert had to be something a little different…  Without too much forethought, I suggested a programme of solo synthesiser music. Now, I’m a huge fan of anything old and analogue, much to the detriment of my bank account over the years, and have always used any such instrument when a piano isn’t available. Although, one would have thought that a relatively recent transgression towards using an iPad/MIDI keyboard combination would have caused me to ditch the characteristically awkward proportions and often cumbersome weight of the former, but instead it just lead me on to rejecting the chair in favour of the bare stage floor and simply arranging said synthesisers within easy reach of each other without the need for keyboard stands. So much for embracing the digital age.

The decision to entitle this project the ‘Bourne Synthesiser Show’ is a direct homage to the pioneering work of Annette Peacock and Paul Bley (with albums such as ‘The Bley/Peacock Synthesizer Show, Improvise, Revenge (The Bigger the Love the Greater the Hate) and I’m the One, deserving particular mention).

 

It was Peacock’s enthusiasm for new musical technology (and some not inconsiderable persuasion by both Peacock and Bley) that convinced synthesiser pioneer, Bob Moog, to let them leave his factory with one of the earliest modular units – gratis!! Unfortunately, I’m neither fortunate or knowledgable enough to own or even know how to turn on a similar modular system(!), but I have collected a few choice instruments along the way. It was Graham Hearn’s electro-acoustic music class at Leeds College of Music that first introduced me to basic synthesis and tape techniques via an EMS SYNTHI A and a Revox tape machine. I’ve been hooked on analogue technology ever since. A few years later I bought Graham’s boxed Korg MS10  and, over ten years on, is still a reliable and trusted old-faithful in my setup today. Marrying this with a Korg 700s, a LAMM Memorymoog and a Roland Space Echo RE-201, the setup is unapologetically analogue…

The challenge of this particular commission is actually two-fold: firstly, limiting myself to using only synthesisers (for projects such as Bilbao Syndrome, COLLIDER, and World Sanguine Report, et al., their function has largely ancillary to that of the Fender Rhodes electric piano). Of course, there is nothing strikingly new or original about doing this at all (especially for someone like Jean Michel-Jarre, Tomita or Franck Vigroux) but, personally speaking, it’s taking a little getting used to – especially as the understanding of the instruments I have at my disposal is largely intuitive and much of the music I create is improvised.

And therein lies the second part of the challenge: what is the most effective methodology by which to ‘compose’ a programme of solo synthesiser music, given the comparative ease and comfort that improvisation has afforded over the years? Strangely, the process of working on this particular commission is almost identical to that of approaching other work, be it improvised or otherwise. For instance, shortly after discussing all this with Jon, I was asked to support Melt Yourself Down at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds – I apprehensively took only three synthesisers and a space echo and hoped for the best. I came away with a recording of the set from Pete Wareham’s laptop, which seemed to capture one or two ideas that had some potential…

In a similar vain, the recent living room concerts with acoustic bass guitarist Howie Reeve has allowed for the consolidation of these ideas and also for others to emerge – all the while gaining a deeper (although still intuitive) fluidity with the control of the instruments. So, in many ways, becoming more familiar with a particular combination of synthesisers through refining a few existing ideas whilst still courting the unpredictable, seems the most appropriate way to proceed. I’m not so much concerned with writing individual tunes or compositions but rather trying to become at one with a process of composing that is of my own devising rather than one that is only evidenced by notated music. Besides, it’s more fun and uses less paper – which is good for the environment.

SO, the best way to find out what all this is about is to come along to the gig at the Marsden Royal British Legion Club on Saturday October 12 at 12:00.

This concert was made possible with support from the PRS Foundation

 

 

 

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1005021300 – Magic Mirrors & 2605021500 – Bath Solo

So – two more concerts are now available to purchase from the Private Archive to kick off 2013. Both of these concerts are very different from each other and occurred just two weeks apart from each other…

 

1005021300 – Magic Mirrors came about through British Jazz impresario, John Cumming and was actually recorded by Jez Nelson on his portable DAT recorder and features some quite nauseating samples from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious film, Salo, coupled with Miles Davis’s most well-known version of ‘Round Midnight and George Crumb’s Black Angels, for amplified string quartet.

 

2605021500 – Bath Solo is only mildly less troublesome, with me learning how to play John Coltrane’s Giant Steps in the company of an Jamey Aebersold playalong, Homer Simpson and interjections from The Muppets’s Statler and Waldorf, and other characters. Thanks again must go to Steve Shepherd for begging the (then) Bath Festival programmer, Nod Knowles to let me do a solo slot. This proved to be an auspicious event, for it was the inaugural meeting of TECMO (Trans European Creative Music Organisers (who then merged with the EJN in 2004)) and, as a result of this one concert I received many invitations to play at European festivals for many years after. Also, little did I know that composer Brian Irvine and Moving on Music‘s Brian Carson would be in the audience – who would be instrumental in bringing myself, Steve Davis and Dave Kane together that same year. Bourne Davis Kane were commissioned by Bath Festival in 2003, culminating in the work Whatever Happened to Jack Jones and the Early Recordings of Johnny Mathis? The recording of this concert will also be made available on the Bourne Davis Kane BandCamp page VERY soon…

 

Enough rambling. As for 1912011047 – for Amy Walker, I’ve made reference to my PhD commentary for these two concerts – not out of laziness but, in re-reading the text, I’d forgotten just how unhidden the music actually was and the ensuing commentary that accompanies it. Well, I did say that the Private Archive was going to be a warts-and-all expose on all of this work. Here we go…

1005021300 – Magic Mirrors

Preparation

“Unfortunately, I had the task of carrying around with me a number of structures and visualisations in preparation for both this performance and the Bath performance that followed two weeks later. Not only had this been the longest time frame given to date, but the prospect of structuring an hour-long solo performance in front of a predominantly French speaking audience limited the amount of cross referencing possible with spoken word samples. This performance turned out to be more sombre and include more disturbing elements than in the previous work [1912011047 - for Amy Walker].

The piano textures for this work were confined to the improvisational development of rather simple themes. Also, exploring all facets of the piano including the centre sustain pedal, inside framework and strings, keyboard lid and outer casing added more percussive effects to the piano vocabulary. Many of the textures explored here are of my own devising, many ideas arising during performance. Quite explicit reference is made to passages of Michael Tippett and Dmitri Shostakovitch. Other compositional material includes Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, Burt Bacharach’s A House is not a Home, John Barry’s Goldfinger and Blues Connotation by Ornette Coleman. Extraneous elements for this piece include voice, whoopee whistle, a toy violin, and one live dog. Film samples used for this performance included fragments of dialogue from Godard’s Eloge de L’Amour and Pasolini’s Salo. Musical fragments of Yamataka Eye, Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, Miles Davis, Xenakis and Queen also feature. Additional to these samples were two pieces for voice by John Cage  – triggered by a Mini Disc player. The particular combination of the voice pieces, Xenakis string quartet and dialogue from Salo is probably one of the more aurally challenging moments in the performance.

Execution & Analysis 

The venue for the performance was a temporary structure – a wooden ‘Spiegeltent‘. Aside from the challenge of performance duration, foreign audience and usual pre-concert tension, the asphyxiating temperature, made anything after the first ten minutes extremely difficult. During the sound check a somewhat unwelcoming team of sound engineers did little to improve the situation[!].

The Work

Part I.

‘00,01 – 03,31’:

Playing on the inside and casing of the piano extensively: the idea here was to delay the placement of hands on the piano keyboard. This was not only a way of exploring all other aspects of the instrument, but also to postpone any traditional and expected methods of playing the instrument.

Part II.

‘01,30’ – 06,35’:

A very poor statement of Ornette Coleman’s Blues Connotation – more attention should have been devoted to this at the preparation stage.

‘06,36 – 06,49’:

The accidental triggering of a fragment from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody detracts from the surprise impact this sample would have had later on in the performance.

‘09,33 – 09,45’:

A few weeks before I had been given a small electronic toy Violin that played a number of famous classical melodies. In this section of the performance I began by playing it facing the audience, then throwing it over my shoulder where it landed a few feet away and smashed. In hindsight I think that this gesture was not executed or received as I had intended and the audience remained puzzled by this action [yes, how silly of you...].

‘09,56 – 11,50’:

Another textural idea where abstract notes fall into various V – I cadences.

‘12,18 – 15,13’:

A section built around the theme of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. There is an inappropriate reference to the ‘Postman Pat’ theme tune – this doesn’t really work here, and was a half-baked attempt at injecting some humour into this section. Again, I think that this either bypassed the audience or they were puzzled by it or thought nothing at all. An accidentally looped sample mama-mia further destroys the flow of this section. This coupled with an inaccurately played theme and erratic volume changes in the samples greatly reduced the planned impact of this section.

Part III.

‘00,01- 05,09’:

The opening motif of John Barry’s Goldfinger is developed with the aid of the middle pedal.

‘05,10 – 06,43’:

Barely audible on the recording is a barking dog outside the venue. This provides both humour and acts as a stimulus for probing chords over the existing sonority.

‘06,44 – 06,46’:

A brief outburst in an effort to silence the dog mentioned above.

Part IV.

‘00,01 – 07,40’:

A treatment of Monk’s‘Round Midnight and one of the most satisfyingly disturbing passages to date. The tension of this passage is released somewhat by an excerpt from a Shostakovitch Prelude.

‘07,41 – 11,38’:

Improvisation section: a Split second decision to add Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A-Train and an expansion of Zorn’s Le Momo techniques with both feet providing additional clusters at either end of the piano.

‘11,39 – End’:

A sparse interpretation of Bacharach’s A House is not a Home. Barely audible bells from a nearby church recall the rhythm of the Goldfinger motif. This completely coincidental occurrence prompted a reprise of the motif. This stimulus emphasised an underlying Shirley Bassey theme and the summing up of previous elements in the performance.

It was my ‘intention to end the work with a brutal scream from Yamataka Eye. However, because the final Bassey sample was accidentally looped meant that the entirety of this fragment was to be replayed a second time. Further triggering of screams layered over the Bassey provided a lucky escape from a technological mishap.

This work became more consistent from ‘Round Midnight onward. The balance of samples with sufficient performance intensity created the most coherent half of the performance. This performance also produced some rather effective and unsettling passages requiring a mixture of emotional responses. The elements that were less successful in this work have proved vital learning tools that have pointed toward possible solutions. The disaster of the ‘Queen’ section has highlighted the dangers of using this particular model of sampler in a live situation where the triggering pads are too small. The length of the performance also made it difficult to develop piano textures in a concise manner – leading to many passages becoming stagnant. There are, however, errors that result in more favourable outcomes such as those contributing to the ending of the work: the accidentally looped Shirley Bassey sample meant that there was an opportunity for the layering of some rather brutal screams from Yamataka Eye, which was the only solution that came to mind at the time and actually worked as a rather funny and unexpected foil to Bassey’s own vocal style. Events such as this work in support of the philosophy that the factors of physicalization share an equal footing with the fixed elements.

I was perhaps at a disadvantage in this particular situation in that I was not able to speak French, so I could not talk to the audience beforehand as I usually do. Before playing I have often found that this is a key factor in breaking down the formality of the classic ‘performer vs. audience’ rigmarole found, for example, at most classical music concert settings. This is still usually the standard at many concerts of Jazz and Improvised music. The audience present on this occasion were quite unresponsive for much of the performance until the incident with the barking dog, making reading their reaction as the performance progressed very difficult. It was a very different story in Bath however, where the audience was very much an active presence in the performance.

 

2605021500 – Bath Solo

Preparation

Almost immediately after Magic Mirrors I began thinking about the Bath performance. Only two weeks to prepare and to realise certain visualisations meant that mental recovery and detachment from the previous performance was not possible. The first idea for this performance occurred while at the piano, in the form of a harmonic progression, which became a theme that recurs throughout this work. Secondly, my passion for the music of Gerald Finzi was expressed by including fragments from two of his works: To Lizbie Brown from Earth, Air and Rain and Amen from Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice; the main motif of Lizbie being developed during performance. Amen is heard at the close of the work. Compositional material includes John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, John McLaughlin’s Earth Bound Hearts and a musical setting of A.A. Milne’s Halfway Down the Stairs found on The Muppet Show LP. Extraneous elements for this piece include a duck call, and a whoopee cushion bought 20 minutes before the performance. Similarly to Magic Mirrors some of the visualisations were of a dark nature, particularly in the second half of this work. Subverting the innocence of Halfway Down with the opening scream from John Zorn’s Spillane and with fragments of speech and laughter from Zappa’s Absolutely Free makes for very disturbing listening. The connotations implied are evident upon hearing the recording. Samples from The Muppet Show LP and The Simpsons are used in combination with Giant Steps, producing one of the most memorable and effective passages in this work. Unlike the two previous works, this performance uses fewer sampled elements.

The Work

Part I.

‘01,16 – 01,55’: Reference to the opening theme from Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand accompanied by whoopee cushion. This decision to include this reference was completely spontaneous as was the decision to use the whoopee cushion.

‘04,15 – 10,25’:

A successful deployment of samples in the realisation and development of a visualisation structured around John Coltrane’s composition Giant Steps. The idea of this visualisation was to ‘learn’ the tune during performance, highlighting any mistakes with Homer Simpson’s Doh! My main aim here was to illustrate that although this tune is considered a ‘test piece’ for all jazz musicians, one does not have to have mastered the tune in order to create a personal musical statement.

Part II.

‘00,01 – 04,14’:

This section is based on the development of the opening motif from the Finzi song To Lizbie Brown.

‘04,14 – 07,33’:

The note at ‘04,14’ signifies the point at which my mind went blank. Not only that, but the lack of samples for the rest of the performance would shift the emphasis onto the piano. Also, had the ‘mark’ pad on the sampler been pressed on the word Fucking, I would have had chance to develop the repetition of this sample with piano accompaniment as in my original visualisation.

‘07,34 – 10,23’:

Controversial development of Halfway Down the Stairs: my original visualisation was to display a toy Kermit the frog and build up the amount of affection given to it, before smashing it up with a mallet and kicking it into the audience. A suitable toy could not be found before the performance – hence rather disturbing connotations caused by the interruption of repetitive screaming and Frank Zappa samples.

Part III.

‘00,01 – 03,09’:

The dark sonorities of John McLaughlin’s composition Earth Bound Hearts provides a suitable setting in which to develop further the samples used in the previous section.

‘04,00 – End’:

Final statement and development of the recurring harmonic progression heard first at the opening of the work. This gradually descends to low register left hand activity where the work began, ending with Finzi’s Amen. A further scream near the close is heard and was an unintentional slip made on one of the sampler pads. This unfortunately destroyed the calming presence of this sublime piece of music.

[Folks Who Live on the Hill]

[Omitted from the original commentary, Folks Who Live on the Hill  is one of my all-time favourite songs and, along with Annette Peacock's Kid Dynamite, became a favourite solo concert encore piece.]

 

Preparing and planning two different performances almost two weeks apart proved exhausting and there are moments in this performance where spontaneity failed to generate ideas. The performance did however generate more audience response than anticipated, considering the respective weightings of humour and seriousness within the work. This performance demonstrated the importance of the audience during a performance. As the spectrum of emotion progressed beyond humour toward darker areas, the audience withdrew their enthusiasm and this was very much felt at the time. At the close of performance however it became clear that the work had communicated to the audience in a very direct manner – as had Magic Mirrors, although the response on this occasion was more enthusiastic making it very clear as to the success of the overall performance despite there being sections lacking in conviction.

Overview

The examination of the last two works has illustrated the relative disadvantages associated with performing two separate works close to each other. Given that the amount of preparation time is reduced, sourcing the relevant materials under pressure can be difficult, the accumulation of new piano textures is not achievable, and visualisations may be subject to superficial realisation. In the case of the studio session, it had been around six months since I had designed a work for performance, hence the freshness of the work. In the case of all of the above, a lengthy period of exhaustion follows each performance. This is perhaps in compensation for the extent of mental preparation involved and the intense physical execution; solutions to this would be to increase the amount of physical exercise in being more prepared for the physical intensity of performing. Also, limiting this type of performance to only three or four times a year would allow enough time for preparation and new ideas – an ideal time for preparation would be between 3 – 4 months prior to the performance date, although (as illustrated in subsequent chapters) these ideals occur only very occasionally.

Many of the visualisations would not have become realised in performance without the aid of the sampler – although gestures that have been unsuccessful in performance have been largely due to technological considerations involving the sampler. The main problems associated with this particular model of sampler (Boss 303) are thumbnail size triggering pads and a small memory.

Alternative and (theoretically) more efficient methods of sampling were investigated using a laptop computer with a software sampler. At the time of these three recordings, I was still experimenting with the positioning of the sampler – usually placed either to my left or right. Not only did this make it slightly awkward and more physical, but also turning away from the keyboard to trigger the samples was, against my intention, at times visually confusing for the audience.

For future performances (please refer to the picture on the following page) the music stand was removed and the sampler placed inside the piano. This positioning is more integral and centrally aligned making it physically quicker and easier to carry out certain manoeuvres.

It is clear from examining the above works that performing in a live situation greatly influences the outcome of the performance in shaping a work. The audience is arguably the most variable physical factor  – with their ability to signify, implicitly or explicitly, how well a particular gesture has been communicated. A gesture executed in a live setting tends to carry with it the weight of an audience reaction (or non-reaction) and is present in the recordings, whereas a studio setting carries with it only the acoustic environment of the studio. It is also clear upon listening to the performances that certain themes or connotations have arisen through chance or otherwise, and have in themselves become areas for exploration and development in later works.”

Works Reference List:

1005021300 – Magic Mirrors

 

Visual Media

Eloge de L’Amour. Jean Luc Godard, Optimum Releasing, 2001.

Salo. Pier Paolo Pasolini, BFI, 1975 (1998).

Sound Recordings

Bassey, Shirley. Goldfinger, Best of Bond, Capitol, 1999.

Bassey, Shirley. A House is Not a Home, Bacharach&David Collection, HMV Easy, 2000.

Cage, John. Solo for Voice – 22&79, The Barton Workshop Plays John Cage, Etcetera, 1992.

Charles, Ray. I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town, Genius + Soul = Jazz, Castle, 1993.

Davis, Miles. ‘Round Midnight, Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1997.

Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody, Greatest Hits, EMI, 2001.

Xenakis, Iannis. ST4, Arditti Quartet, Chamber Music 1955 – 1990, Montaigne, 1994.

Zorn, John. Torture Garden, Earache, 1990.

Scores & Musical References

Coleman, Ornette. Blues Connotation, MJQ Music Inc 1998 (The Real Book, Vol 1, Sher Music Co, 1988).

Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody, B. Feldman&Co. Trading as Trident Music, 1976.

Shostakovitch, Dmitri. Prelude No. 4, op.87, Boosey&Hawkes Music Publishers.

Strayhorn, Billy. Take the A-Train, Tempo Music, 1968 (Ibid).

Tippett, Michael, Sonata No.2, Schott Music Publishers.

Theme from Postman Pat, (Transcribed from memory).

Zorn, John. Le Momo, Carl Fischer, 2001.

2605031500 – Bath Solo

Visual Media

The Simpsons Film Festival, Matt Groening, 20th Century Fox, 1999.

Withnail & I, Ibid.

Sound Recordings

Aebersold, Jamey, Giant Steps, Vol. 68, Jamey Aebersold Jazz Inc., 1995.

Captain Beefheart. Trout Mask Replica, Reprise Records, 1970.

Finzi, Gerald. Amen, British Music Collection, Decca, 2000.

The Muppet Show, PYE Records, 1977.

Zappa, Frank. Absolutely Free, Rykodisc, 1998.

Zorn, John. Spillane, Electra Nonesuch, 1987

Scores & Musical References

McLaughlin, John. Earth Bound Hearts, (Transcribed from sound recording, Where

Fortune smiles, Dawn, 1971).

Ravel, Maurice. Concerto for the Left Hand, ed. Durand, 1957.

Theme from the TV advertisement Yellow Pages, (Transcribed from memory).

 

 

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Insights on Montauk Variations

So, it’s been a little over twelve months since the release of Montauk Variations on The Leaf Label, and, I discovered the following document whilst routing around for something else the other day. It’s actually a ‘score’ I had to prepare to accompany the other materials submitted for the 2012 BASCA (British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors) Award (nominated by Leeds’s own living legend, Dave Hatfield). Suffice to say that it didn’t even come close to making the shortlist. Regardless, I thought that it might be of some interest here – it provides some insights into the processes and practicalities around the actual music on Montauk and, in its own way, attempts to challenge established notions of what terms such as ‘composition’ and ‘score’ actually mean in the ever-changing world of music making that surround us today. Sort of…

Entête

Montauk Variations is the outcome of an uncanny compulsion to visit Montauk, NY, for a few hours during August 2009 and the insights gained therein. Throughout the intervening years an embarrassing amount of time has been spent considering that this album might come to embody facets of personal unquietness, solitude and heartbreak; attributing such as the raison d’être for the music now contained herein. A realisation occurred: that this idea was bullshit. 

On the occasion of recording these improvisations, fragility and romanticism seem to have outdistanced the clutter and quirkiness characteristic of previous work, owing much not only to the environs in which they were created but also to all those who believed that an exposé such as this would eventually make its appearance.

 This album is for George Sidebottom, whose life has been dedicated to enriching the lives of countless others through his profound passion for music; and whose quiet patience and inspirational tutelage sought to bestow a lifelong love of music within anyone willing enough to listen. I am honoured to have been able to number myself among the many. 

 Thank you, George.

 Reims, July 1st, 2011

Prologue

It is a privilege to have been nominated [to apply] for the BASCA Award but, as one can see from the above, it is no secret that the pieces that make up Montauk Variations are indeed improvisations. Therefore, the following discussion seeks to clarify my compositional approach as, although the act of improvisation is key to my overall methodology, it is by no means the only process at work with regard to the pieces in question (and indeed any other works in my musical catalogue).

Throughout the last ten years or so, I have developed an individual methodology that seeks to uncover the principles behind how various sounds and techniques are articulated – albeit through an intuitive practice that embraces exploration and expression through improvisation in favour of the traditional written score. I take immense pleasure from listening to and analysing scores – particularly those by C20 composers. That said, I have never felt comfortable notating my own ideas; feeling the most dissatisfied whenever I tried to control, design, compose and shape musical outcomes. Of course, the antithesis to control is to relinquish it completely, leaving everything in the hands of chance, circumstance and accident (well, almost).

have decided against notating the pieces here (save for examples) as it would merely be a transcription of the final performance gestures, which would show little of the process or blueprint that has lead to the actual music. Combining the intuitive techniques that I have honed over the years with a firm resolve to allow factors such as particular performance/recording situations, temperature, time of day, levels of alertness/tiredness, mood, other disturbances (evidenced most notably in The Greenkeeper, discussed below), practical considerations; to become variable elements in an ‘unseen’ score; are key aspects of my practice as a performing composer. In this respect the recording of Montauk Variations IS the score and all that one is required to do is to sit back and listen….

Commentary

 I. Air (for Jonathan Flockton)

Historically, I’ve often felt overwhelmed by a sort of tacit pressure to compose music that is fueled by clever technique, complexity and lack of sentiment when actually I’d rather be creating slow, unfolding music without rigourous design or intended direction. I like to think that the ghosts of Gerald Finzi (and perhaps even Peter Warlock), albeit obliquely, are lurking somewhere in the details…

 II. The Mystic

This piece is really a homage to several main figures – composers Morton Feldman, Olivier Messiaen, Cyril Scott and Kaikhosru Sorabji. Over the years I have been drawn into the works of these composers for various reasons: mysticism, harmonic language, texture, sonority, Englishness… and, as mentioned previously, sometimes my investigations lead to rigourous deconstruction of compositional elements – uncovering how and why and what make certain things tick. More often than not, though, it is as simple as visually observing the various hand positions formed by playing some of the more strident dissonances of  say, Messiaen (Messiaen, Olivier: Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus (1944), Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-1958)) or of Feldman’s more delicate piano writing (Feldman, Morton: Last Pieces (1959), Piano and Orchestra (1975)) and then experimenting – by forming similar hand formations which then eventually assume my own design. Such designs have been beaten into shape over the years – using only my ears as a guide, leaving a mechanism that has now become second nature. Below are two pictures that may help to illustrate this – here I am deliberately mimicking the chord shapes some of the quasi-symmetrical sonorities found in Feldman’s work:

The abrupt change of pace at 02:39 is indicative of my penchant for sudden juxtaposition – marked here by the conscious introduction of this Cyril Scott-like sonority:

This sonority is then transposed and placed in different registers and becomes the foundation for more reflective renderings of the previous sonorities, gradually working toward the closing variations on a V-I cadence – with the V chord functioning as an ever-changing, intuitive dissonance (until I’ve had enough and decide on the final closing cadence). Some examples:

III. Phantasie

As the title suggests, this piece is indeed influenced by Frank Bridge’s more harmonically adventurous works. Phantasie was chosen from one of three recorded pieces that happened to gravitate towards various harmonic thumbprints found within many works of Bridge’s middle-to-late period (Bridge, Frank: Piano Sonata (1921-24), In Autumn (1924),  A Willow Grows Aslant a Brook (1927), Phantasm: Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1931)).

 IV. Infinitude

This piece formed itself during a four-day recording session in March 2011 with the Belgian group, Trio Grande and, whilst sitting at the piano alone after a particularly difficult day’s recording, my hands simply ‘fell onto’ these sonorities:

After many attempts to try and develop something more substantial, I found myself returning to simply meditating on only these two chords and realised that the development was occurring already; within the chords themselves.

This piece has become something of a practice exercise, emphasising individual notes within each chord structure to create an internal melody that is different with each rendition, leaving the phrasing/timing/pacing at the mercy of the push and pull of my own physiological and psychological tension and release. In a much broader sense, Infinitude marks the beginning of a new compositional phase, where the tacit pressure to create complex pieces has given way to simply sitting and listening.

 V. Étude Pychotique (for John Zorn)

This perpetuum mobileis inspired by many hours of fruitless practice, failing miserably at producing note-perfect readings of the pinpoint freneticism of works by John Zorn (Zorn, John: Le Momo (1999)/Aporias (1994), Carl Fisher) and Salvatore Sciarrino (Sciarrino, Salvatore: Cinque Sonate per Pianoforte (1976-1994), Riccordi). I did however persist and was gradually able to transmute the same physicality required of these techniques and replace the scored notes with those of my own. As one can hear, the aim is to create an unbroken stream of notes at random and, like Infinitude, has become an exercise that I often tinker with during my practice sessions.

VI. Within

Percussive playing of the interior of the piano’s frame and strings with the hands. At this recording session, the instrument was a Bösendorfer Imperial (pictured below), exhibiting extra harmonic resonance in the bass register.

 VII. One for You, Keith

Dedicated to [British] pianist and composer, Keith Tippett (whom also recorded a legendary album at Dartington’s Great Hall), this piece uses a variety of medium-to-large-sized pebbles that were found lying around in St. Margaret’s Rectory, Manchester, where the second recording session for these variations took place. The pebbles were placed on the strings of the piano and sound by either gently touching each one just enough for it to rock on the curvature of its axis, or by rocking the whole piano back and forth. The latter action educes many cracks and pops from the piano’s woodwork (particularly the legs at 0:15 and 01:15). In the picture below, the pebbles can be clearly seen to the table on the left, whilst an assortment of hymn books occupy the piano’s interior.

[Many similar textures were recorded in this fashion and were eventually used as the raw materials for the reinterpretation of two tracks by Amon Tobin from his album, ISAM - both of which featured on his eponymously-titled boxed set. You can read more about this process in the earlier blog, Working with Sam Hobbs: reinterpreting Amon Tobin…]

VIII. Juliet

Below is a scored fragment of the ostinato/main harmonic progression for Juliet.

Juliet originally began life as a piano piece from the sessions that didn’t really work… A cut was made at 02:10 and pizzicato/arco cello parts were added, one by one, trying to figure out exactly what I wanted whilst doing it.

 

IX. Senectitude

 An unused miniature I remembered from one of my sketchbooks.

X. The Greenkeeper (for Neil Dyer)

It is the drone of Neil Dyer’s lawnmower somewhere in the grounds at Dartington that penetrated into The Great Hall (one of several daytime disturbances) for the opening and closing of this piece. On realising that the drone was in fact the note ‘D’, I made this my starting point and the piece came to life instantly. The drone appeared so audible that, whilst recording, I felt distracted – producing forte sonorities with attack, not really allowing for too much decay, feeling that whatever was captured might be unusable and therefore didn’t really engage with the situation. It is amusing to think that such adverse details were responsible for unintentionally ‘setting the stage’ for this particular piece.

XI. Abrade

The sonic effects here are produced by pressing one’s fingers firmly upon the piano’s strings and pulling back very slowly (pictured overleaf). This technique is wholly dependent on the quantity of rust that has gathered on the surface of the strings (the more rust the better) and, aside from producing an abrasive sound, produces beautiful incidental harmonics.

 

XII. Here/XIII. Gone/IV. Knell (in Memory of Philip Butler-Francis)

 Here, is a cello reading of the harmonic structure of Gone, which was improvised;

 

as was Knell (in Eb Minor). Together they form a kind of triptych for an old departed school-friend [Philip Butler-Francis].

 XV. Cuppa Tea (for Paul Bolderson)

I feel that this is an apposite moment to discuss further the practicalities mentioned earlier, as much of the tranquility and space present within many of the variations can be attributed not to the mechanisms of intention, but to aspects of a much less elegant reality: hesitation, accident, anticipation, personal doubt, lack of musical knowledge etc.; these are all aspects of an internal monologue that regulate the speed and flow of ideas as they arise. As stated earlier, my own physiological/psychological tension and release become the ritardando, fermata and tenuto markings in an invisible score. Cuppa Tea is a prime example of this, where hesitations and uncertainty account for nearly all of the decisions made. In fact, on one or two occasions I am completely on the razor’s edge (most notably between 04:41 – 04:45 where, after the last ascending passage, one can hear a sharp intake of breath…).

 

XVI. Unsung

It was my intention to close the variations with three, pianissimo forearm clusters, acting as an aural ‘palate cleanser’ before closing with Charles Chaplin’s composition, Smile (please see Appendix II), composed for his 1936 film, Modern Times.

 

Epilogue

Just as more traditional methods of scoring has allowed for the articulation and communication of musical ideas to others (not least to musicians), so therefore has the medium of recorded sound. As there is little in the way of visual signposts for Montauk Variations, I would contend that, just as a composer may take hours/days/weeks/months/years to write a work in the form of a score, improvisation is just another way of articulating those ideas that have, through years of thinking, practicing and honing intuitive methods, become embedded into one’s psyche – finding expression through a performance-based practice.

Environment and situation edit and shape the contours of these ideas and it is in the context of this arena in which they are also articulated. Of course, this is a more ‘instant’ (and arguably more impulsive) way of expressing the music, forfeiting the more established materials of sharpened pencil, paper, ruler and eraser for spontaneity, risk and the possibility of failure; but should by no means be less valid because of it. I would like to leave this commentary in the hope that, in this case, an absence of extensive notation has allowed one to focus on the sound of the music itself.

Matthew Bourne, July 4th, 2012, Bramhope.

 

Appendix I

Order/Structure Notes

Once the variations had been recorded/chosen, they were then ordered according to their respective start/end pitches or key signatures:

I. Air – C Minor

II. The Mystic - Atonal/end key signature, Db Major

III. Phantasie – Start note(s) Db-C. End key signature, F# Major

IV. Infinitude – F Minor/Gb Major

V. Étude Psychotique - Atonal/frenetic

VI. Within – Interior, percussive/rhythmic

VII. One for You, Keith – Stones, percussive. Plucked end note, F

VIII. Juliet – Ostinato, F & Bb. End note, F#

IX. Senectitude – First note, F#. Last note, F# (the last note to fade)

X. The Greenkeeper – First note, F#. Key signature, ‘lawnmower’ D Major

XI. Abrade – Interior, harmonics, atonal

XII. Here – C minor/Eb Major 

XIII. Gone – C minor/Eb Major

XIV. Knell – Eb Minor

XV. Cuppa Tea – E Major

XVI. Unsung – Clusters, atonal

 

Smile – F Major

 

Appendix II

(This unused arrangement of Smile was originally written for a collaborative recording project with American composer and vocalist, Annette Peacock)

Montauk Variations is available for purchase direct from the Acquire page on the website or from The Leaf Label.

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COLLIDER

 

The idea for COLLIDER came to Chris Sharkey in a dream he had – and wrote to all of us, explaining what he’d heard in the dream and that we (myself, Chris, Dave Kane and Chris Bussey) should all meet up and record/play regularly. So, we did – and still do. Yesterday, COLLIDER released an ep, Nantbach & Sandwich - which is available as a FREE download. These recordings are the culmination of the first of those sessions (and there are more awaiting release). Please, help yourself and share with your friends, too!!

Also, last night (September 3rd), an exclusive COLLIDER session for Jazz on 3 was broadcast. If you missed it you still have seven days to listen to it as much as you like. As Phoenix studios are based within the Pinewood Film Studios complex, some of us were lucky enough to meet Russel Crowe, who was filming for Les Miserables, next door. Whilst outside, doing his vocal warm-ups, I invited him to join us in the studio if he got finished early. I guess he didn’t get finished early. In any case, we were told not to encourage him to sing…

Anyway, The idea of this band was to act as a kind of foil to much of the musical activities we’d all found ourselves getting into over the last few years – namely, less and less improvisation and/or, playing in more structured/organised/composed musical settings. Great, but COLLIDER represents a collective acceptance that all we really want to do is just to turn up, chat, and play music without having to think too hard about what we’re going to do – for me this is the exact opposite to many working situations I have found myself in over the last few years! Inevitably, much of what we do end up doing is a LOT of fun – and I think that’s the point, right? If one loses sight of that, or loses sight of why they’ve ventured into music in the first place, it can be a desolate place…

SO, please go to the COLLIDER website and download your free ep. I am grateful to Chris for his dream and then pulling myself, Dave and Chris together – it is a band that exists out of a shared need to just turn up and play – and because we LOVE it. X

All photography: RAY KANE

 

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