As my work often deals with connecting with physical movement, the topic of my previous Illuminate blog discusses how my early experiences with dance naturally feed into the way I approach and think about music. For this second blog, I discuss visual art as an inspiration for my new Illuminate commission, which builds on an earlier piece for flute and harp entitled Shift.
Shift was written to accompany an installation of the same name by artist Anne Gibbs which was featured in National Museum Cardiff’s ‘Fragile?’ contemporary ceramics exhibition in 2015. Gibbs’ work incorporates intricate small-scale figures that explore themes of beauty and unrest, approached with sensitivity and precision. Each figure could be viewed as an independent piece, but what I find striking is Gibbs’ deliberate arrangement of these distinct figures to form the collection as a whole. Specifically, two aspects of Gibbs’ piece have inspired the processes encompassed in its musical companion: its title and combination of disparate materials.
The title of Gibbs’ piece was instantly intriguing to me in particular, and in a way, it served as an instruction for the composition of the piece. A five-note cell of pitches that is perpetually shifted rhythmically into reoccurring musical figures largely comprises the piece. This set of pitches was isolated from the painstakingly intuitively composed opening flute gesture.
The second principal source of inspiration taken from Gibbs’ ceramic piece, crafted out of bone china, silk thread, pins and wire, is combining disparate materials. There is a parallel between the visual installation composed of differing materials and the grouping of contrasting instruments in the musical work. Shift combines the agile chromaticism of the flute and the timbral possibilities made available by the differing lengths of the harp’s strings to correspond with the mixed materials in Gibb’s installation.
More info about Gibbs’ work can be found on her website: https://annegibbs.co.uk/
Undercurrent, my piece commissioned by Illuminate Season I 2019, develops ideas from Shift within a longer piece, both motivic and constructional, particularly the concept of the arrangement of disparate elements together. Throughout the piece, timbre functions alongside differing approaches to metre and pulse to coordinate or stratify the instrumental characters.
The largely atmospheric opening of Undercurrent comprises of dovetailed expressive lines in the violin and cello underpinned by muddled chords in the piano’s lower register. This section corresponds to the organic ceramic shapes in Gibbs’ installation, which I associate with breath and resonance. A strong pulse is evaded in this section with metre constantly changing to support the expressive lines.
In the faster central section of the piece, however, the dense piano chords evolve into secco rhythmic pulsations which provide a mechanical-like current in opposition to the expressive gestures characteristic of the violin and cello pair. Four primary cells are combined in different ways to construct the piano part in the central section. At times these cells are repeated in a familiar pattern, however, the pattern is quickly interrupted and never stated exactly.
The final section of Undercurrent is a return to the atmospheric opening as the original piano chords return, this time in all of the instruments. Repeating at a differing rate, the rhythmic pattern is slowly augmented in each instrument until the individual streams converge to close the piece.
You can hear Undercurrent performed throughout 2019 by Boston-based piano trio Prism, alongside new works by Kerensa Briggs, Laura Shipsey, Angela Elizabeth Slater, and Sarah Westwood, as well as historical works by Morfydd Owen, Grazyna Bacewicz and Lili Boulanger.
I use memories as the catalyst for my work, primarily memories of dance projects that I have previously composed which I intersect and layer with other processes of hidden ideas and personal meaning. Elements associated with dance such as gesture, specialisation and embodiment play into my concert works, but I am especially interested in exploring Somatics in composition and the memory: the body as perceived from within, and the somatic principles of mind-body connection. Somatic movement is used in dance, and through my practice-based research I am endeavouring to link this ‘dance’ concept as a holistic approach to writing music, linking embodiment and intuition, and gesture and memory together.
Etching Circles, my piece commissioned by Illuminate Season I 2019, was composed after I created electronic music for dance piece Circle of Perpetual Choirs. For this dance, the audience was in the round, and dancers moved outside the audience. Speakers were placed around the audience and under the seats, and I mapped a live, aural landscape around and close by the audience and dancers. Afterward, I was interested in the spatialization and in the different energy of the dancers, and wanted to focus on these thoughts for Etching Circles.
Originally, Etching Circles started out as four small movements. My mind turned to the earlier dance music, the idea of the Baroque Dance Suite, alongside the fact that four dancers within CoPC each had their own energy, and I decided to pair the memory of each dancer with a particular Baroque movement I felt had a similar quality in their expression; the Allemande, the Courante, the Sarabande and the Gigue. I started sketching and layering ideas from this which germinated gestures and sound worlds for each particular movement.
However, I didn’t want the piece to be structured with four separate movements, and as in the original dance, which interwove the choreography around the audience, I thought to weave and circle the movements together. From this idea, and the fact that somatic movement has a level of indeterminacy, I’ve composed the movements as a mobile and invite the performers to play in their preferred order. Furthermore, each performer may play one stanza from a particular movement whilst another is playing from another movement. Repetition is encouraged. I imagined the sense that Etchings Circles becomes a sonic etch of the dancers. I like the image of etching as it a corrosion of the original project and something which can be etched in my memory. A final image that helped shape this piece is a photo of dance with long exposure. By now, my ideas for different movements could be placed within the same time and place in co- existence.
Finally, I’m sharing a recording of a piece I wrote which also uses memory as impetus. You are Your Memory was written for Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble, and came from working dancers at Centre National de la Danse Paris (during workshops for In Vivo Danse). We talked about an idea that we face our past with our backs turned to the future. I meditated on this idea and later composed this:
You can hear Etching Circles performed throughout 2019 by Boston-based piano trio Prism, alongside new works by Kerensa Briggs, Laura Shipsey, Angela Elizabeth Slater, Blair Boyd, and historical works by Morfydd Owen, Grazyna Bacewicz and and Lili Boulanger.
Circle of Perpetual Choirs: initiated by dancer Tara Silverthorn and developed with the kind support of Arnolfini Bristol, Ballet National de Marseille France, Siobhan Davies Dance London and Dream Time residency - a creative initiative between Dance Base, Studio On The Green and LIVE Borders. Funded by Arts Council England and Creative Scotland.
Dr Helen Thomas