As an artist, I have been fortunate enough to explore and create alongside many amazing musicians, all of whom have had an influence on my practice. For me, it is important that my music reflects both my most recent love of contemporary music and electronic music, as well as the film scores and rock bands which first influenced me as a teenager in a small town in the North of England.
While I was studying my undergraduate degree in Music and Popular Music at the University of Liverpool, I dabbled in writing pieces for chamber ensembles, for audio visual media including video games, and I began exploring the creation of pieces using Max MSP for solo instruments and live electronics, such as this piece ‘Summer Storms’ (
I have also worked on more collaborative residencies, the most recent one which was organised by Brighter Sound and Delia Derbyshire Day included 14 young womxn sonic and visual artists coming together to create works inspired by the work of the electronic music pioneer best known as the artist behind the sounds of Dr. Who, Delia Derbyshire.
During my master’s degree at Goldsmiths, I had the opportunity to move away from using traditional Western notation and explore more open scoring methods instead. Through exploration within different workshops, my most recent works have become centred around the concept of touch and how it can be used as a tool to address the problems of authorship, collaboration and hierarchy within music making. By focusing on touch, traditional concepts of virtuosity, hierarchy of performers and composers, gender stereotypes and instruments are challenged. Instead the relationships between ourselves and our instrument become prominent. Below are the three different methods of scoring that I explored; a text based score focused on touch, the body and an instrument, a device designed to send a touch based score to performers and graphic scores created by people with varying levels of musical knowledge using the record player as a compositional tool.
When I was approached by Angela to write a piece for Illuminate Women’s music, I was originally going to create a piece which was in response to feelings I had after a very difficult year for me health wise both physically and mentally. I wanted to create a dark, complex piece with fixed notation for the saxophone piano, something which could be as ugly as how I was feeling, something less academic and more selfish. However, the more I worked on it, the more I realised that for me personally I wasn’t creating a piece I enjoyed or could appreciate and it wasn’t providing any relief or therapy either. I stopped and reflected on why I wanted to create this piece and what I really wanted to explore or question.
I realised one of the most frustrating parts of this difficult time was the unpredictability of it, how I sometimes felt powerless and confused. Upon reflection, although there were some things I could not change, I could shape and change other parts of my life, especially with the help of other people who were close to me. It was this unpredictability that I decided to play with and after making a couple of pieces featuring non-standard notation, this piece became a great opportunity to further explore the ideas that more open scoring methods allow within composition. I wanted to make this unpredictability key to the piece and twist it into a good thing, something the piece needed to have in order to work and how there is beauty in the fact that every performance will be different and reflect different ideas. It was moments of exploring and connection that helped me through uncertainty and I wanted to give this more attention and use this as a focal point rather than trying to create a piece which purely vented my frustrations. By doing this, the piece became more honest and therapeutic, something which I hope is heard during the performance.
The title of my piece, Raidho (also spelt as Rad, or Raido) is the elder futhark runeᚱ, which means to ride, travel and in some pagan circles reflects the idea of journey and change. I liked the idea of this being a symbol which represents both life and the compositional process. When I am working on a piece, the composition is not simply the resulting piece, the dots on the page or the final recording, instead it is a process and journey. Some elements are fixed and clear from the beginning, such as sound worlds or melodies which a composer really wants to use, but other elements take time to carve out and realise and sometimes they turn out to be completely different to what you anticipated. This to me is analogous to life and particularly the last few months, where I have had he change to grow and recover and I have been on a crazy, amazing and difficult journey.
One of the first ideas that I ended up using in Raidho occurred when I was exploring different prepared piano techniques after sneaking back into the Liverpool University music department. I used a glass tumbler as a slide on the strings. The sound itself is unstable, a key element of this piece. As you drag the glass across the strings higher drone like notes ring out as well as the glissando up or down on the strings, creating a delicate and unstable texture when combined with the more unstable multiphonics and other techniques on the saxophone during the opening section. (listen below).
The piece features both elements of more ‘fixed notation’ as well as graphic elements, text instructions and descriptive words to help shape elements of the improvisation in order to create different moments of chaos or beauty or uncertainty. For example, the opening features more fixed gestures for both players, which can be played more freely and openly. The middle section is a graphic score, featuring shapes and a description of the overall mood and texture of the section, with small notated ‘markers’ to help push the piece forwards to the final section, which is two sets of pitches which the performers must improvise around to create a naïve, delicate and childlike sound world. Raidho also features a timeline to help keep the improvisations on track and push the piece forward without rushing sections too much, something which Yshani and Naomi thought could be useful while using a timer in the piece.
I wanted the performers, Yshani and Naomi, to shape the overall piece through their improvisations just as much as the score guides their actions in each time frame. This is something that I enjoy about working with performers; it is not their ability to accurately portray specific ideas that are on paper but what they can personally add to the piece to make it theirs as well as mine. They also have to switch places on stage, with Yshani inside the piano, on the opposite side to the keys, and Naomi sat on the piano stool holding down the sustain pedal with her foot (see pic below)This was decided in order to create a new dynamic between the two performers which is more physically connected and intimate. Raidho relies on improvisation, communication and focuses on the relationship between the players and the composer in a different way to that used in a fixed notated score. We must relent our power and control and hope that it will pay off, which will happen when working with players who are open minded and enjoy this kind of process.
I’m looking forward to seeing and listening to Yshani and Naomi’s interpretation of the different elements of the score and the similarities and differences in the improvised elements during each performance, giving each concert a different angle and spin of the ideas within the piece.
I hope to see you at one of the concerts, check out the other blogs already up by Lara Poe and Nina Danon and keep an eye out for other contributions by Angela, Blair and the team at Illuminate Women’s Music!
On Sperm Whales, Motherhood and Music
My name is Nina, I am a French and Italian composer, pianist and audio-visual artist based in London. I believe that music can be experienced through all our senses, and have been exploring this over the years, collaborating with visual artists, film and theatre directors, perfume makers, wine makers and writers amongst others. Recently, I have been focusing on our tactile perception of music, and The Caress of the Sea, the new composition I am writing for Illuminate 2020 Season I, is my first piece exploring this concept. This blog post is a brief overview of the inspiration and the creative process behind this piece.
I have always been fascinated by whales. They are, in many ways, alien civilisations, species that have evolved in an environment so different from ours and have adapted every aspect of their physiology, their cultures and their lives to it. Their way of thinking is so advanced and foreign to us humans that it is hard for us to grasp. Yet some aspects of these beings are surprisingly similar to us. What if we could use those to create a bridge between our species and theirs? What if we could use music to learn to emotionally connect with these quasi mythical creatures?
In 2017, I read an article describing the way whales ‘use sound to touch each other, emitting very strong sounds which vibrate inside the others like a deep caress’(Hervé Glotin, as quoted in David Cox, ‘The People Who Dive With Whales That Could Eat Them Alive, BBC). This article particularly resonated with me as I was pregnant at the time and constantly singing to my unborn child, the vibrations of my voice embracing him via the amniotic fluid, sound becoming our first way of bonding. Over two years later, I still use songs to soothe and caress him, the way mothers have used the power of their voices to bond with their babies for generations.
To deepen my understanding of this topic, I have been investigating ways we can perceive sound with our entire body, learning sound healing techniques, researching lullabies and cetaceans communication. When Angela asked me to write a piece for saxophone and piano for Illuminate 2020 Season I, I realised it would be the perfect canvas to explore these ideas. The saxophone is at the same time extremely versatile and lyrical, lending itself perfectly to represent both a majestic whale and a singing voice. The piano is, well, everything else, and as a pianist myself, I particularly love writing for this instrument to create intricate soundscapes.
In the first workshop with saxophonist Naomi Sullivan, when discussing my inspiration for this piece she introduced me to a technique that reminded her of that quote : playing the saxophone inside the piano, while the pianist holds down the sustain pedal. The strings of the piano will then vibrate in sympathy with the saxophone - it was hard not to see a connection with my idea of sounds 'vibrating inside each other like a deep caress'!
The rest of the piece was built around this, I wanted this technique to be at its heart: a scene between a mother sperm whale and her calf, between any mother and her child, the saxophone caressing the piano strings through sound and bringing its harmonies to life.
I structured the piece as a story: at first, the deep ocean, rocking back and forth, slow and ineluctable, a hypnotic lullaby. The piano plays an elastic and deep pattern, a call to activate the audience's imagination, inspired by the evocative sound of a monolina.
More movement gradually starts stirring the water, as something approaches, until finally, we see her: the majestic Sperm Whale. I wanted to capture the feeling of seeing one of those animals for the first time, on a whale watching trip by the Azorean island of Faial back in 2017. The stormy sea, the long wait (sperm whales often stay underwater for 45 minutes, if not longer, before shortly resurfacing between dives), the excitement of a sighting, and then that feeling of being in the presence of an old, wise creature from another world, a glimpse of a gigantic being, true beauty.
The saxophone player moves closer to the piano, blowing the start of a melody towards the piano strings. The piano begins responding to it, shily at first, then more clearly, and from this vibrating hum the last, joyful section of the piece comes to life, a playful and cheeky game between the mother whale and her calf.
Finding my own way to evoke the sounds of the ocean through music was an interesting creative challenge. As with many projects, I began by sitting at my piano and writing short sketches: melodic motifs, rhythmic patterns, sonic ideas, most of them no longer than a bar or two. Some were just notes on techniques I wanted to use, chosen to emulate particular sounds, such as slap-tongue to recall the cliks emitted by the sperm whales, or slightly arpeggiated piano chords for a bubbly texture. Others were inspired by recordings of various marine mammals, singing games with my toddler (who loves to ‘sing like a humpback whale, orca or dolphin’), harmonies and timbres picked for a specific salty water or sandy quality. Once I had assembled enough pieces of the puzzle, I began weaving them together to create the various sections of the story, sometimes improvising in my DAW (I use Logic) to get a more spontaneous result, other times composing directly in my notation software, Dorico.
I hope you will enjoy this journey into the deep blue sea once it will be brought to life by the incredible talent of Naomi Sullivan and Yshani Perinpanayagam!
My thanks for the writing of this article and of The Caress of the Sea go to my son, Maël, for always inspiring me, my parents for their support and emergency babysitting services, my husband for indulging my whale-obsession and spending a third of our honeymoon on whale watching trips, and Pedro from Azores Experiences who infected me with his love for sperm whales.
Below is an example of some my music -
Although it is very different in style, it does explore some similar concepts, such as our perception of sounds as textures, and finds a lot of its inspiration in nature, from Icelandic volcanoes to NASA's Voyager Space Sounds and the song of humpback whales. It was written for an exhibition at the Museum of Oriental Art of Turin presenting silk and metal carpets from the Qing dynasty made to decorate the palaces of the Forbidden City. This composition, a video installation in five sections by Andreas Nold and myself, and a fragrance created by Diletta Tonatto accompanied and surrounded the audience. Textures, rhythms and movements inspired by the complex symbolism and the history of the exhibited work were used to create correspondences between the various art forms, shaping sonic landscapes and visual harmonies and creating an immersive multi-sensory experience.
My initial background is as a pianist, although composition entered into the picture quite early. Shortly after I started piano lessons, I began to invent little tunes, and at some point I began to write out these little tunes. My piano teacher suggested I take composition lessons, so I did. At this point, I had move over to the junior department at New England Conservatory – as a result, I got to know quite a few musicians my own age, some of whom were also interested in composition. We wrote pieces for each other to perform and played quite a lot of chamber music. This collaborative approach is still a fundamental part of how I work today.
When I started at Boston University, I was in for a bit of a shock: at NEC’s junior department (which they call the preparatory division), I was surrounded by other school-aged composers and performers, and had started to feel quite comfortable as one of the older students in the group. In college, all of the other composers were at least two years older than me, and most of the department was made of graduate students. I did gradually find my own space within this network, and came into contact with a lot of repertoire that has remained essential to my own aesthetic to this day. In London, I have once again found ways to interact with my musical environment. There is a particular kind of attention to detail that many composers here exhibit, which I find quite attractive, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have found a group of very supportive colleagues and mentors.
Overall, my musical landscape is quite broad from many perspectives – my approach to harmony, for instance, initially stems from a solid understanding of common practice voice leading, but I draw from a wide variety of post-tonal approaches, including planing, focusing on particular intervals and pitch-class sets, juxtaposing distorted diatonic structures with other pitch collections such as octatonic, and whole-tone scales. In particular, I use a variety of spectral treatments in my approach to harmony and combine this particular approach with quarter tone voice leading in many instances. I find the interaction of musical elements that are often kept separate to be highly interesting and rewarding.
Apart from my harmonic landscape, my timbral palette is quite broad as well and I have explored different approaches to timbre over the last few years. This is admittedly something I am still exploring and will probably always continue to explore! As I mentioned earlier, I came into contact with lots of very important repertoire in my undergraduate years: composers such as Scelsi, Saariaho, Grisey, Haas, Benjamin, Knussen, and many others. One very clear memory from this time is listening to Haas’ 30-minute long piece for large chamber ensemble and six pianos tuned a 12thtone apart called Limited Approximations: I remember being absolutely mind-blown and feeling quite disoriented, but fascinated.
From this repertoire, I gained insight into how other composers use colour, and would make note when I found particularly pleasing combinations. I tend to listen in a highly analytical way, and tend to be quite good at deconstructing various timbral combinations or figuring out recombinations that sound similar. This deconstructive approach is quite central in my work in general, and certainly is important to how I work with timbre. Something I particularly enjoy is carefully constructing timbral combinations from unexpected doublings, particularly using instruments in slightly odd ranges or subtle use of certain extended techniques.
These harmonic and timbral approaches do make themselves known within the piece I have written for the Illuminate concert series, and I found the instrumental combination an interesting one to work with. I am a pianist, and have written several solo piano pieces and chamber pieces that involve piano in one capacity or another. In one way, I find I am quite good at imagining whether or not things are possible and idiomatic on the instrument, and I can always try things out on my own. On the other hand, I have to always be mindful about falling into habits (and this is something that one must do for composition in general!) as I do have certain predispositions towards particular pianistic motives and patterns that tend to appear in the repertoire.
In contrast to my work with the piano, my experience with the saxophone is far more limited. My initial dealings with saxophone were in the first year of my master’s degree at RCM, when I was asked to write a piece for clarinet, saxophone, trombone, violin, viola, and cello. The result was a piece called Night Train to I don’t know, where I combine swelling chords with a distorted jazz-inspired section and loud rhythmic material.
However, the following year I had the opportunity to work with Jonathan Radford, who is a phenomenal player. He showed me how the instrument works within different registers in great detail, and demonstrated many effects like multiphonics, slap tongue, subtone, growling, and so forth. At one point we went into a practice room and tried every single alto saxophone multiphonic in the Barenreiter saxophone book – I think there’s around 120 of them – and I recorded them all. Then I went home and produced spectrogram analyses for most of them on Audiosculpt, making note of where the overtones would lie.
The harmonic content of the resulting piece, Mirage (flute, saxophone, piano), is largely based on this analysis: there are many sections in the piece where the saxophone holds multiphonics while the flute and piano parts seem to fuse with the multiphonics because of how the overtones of the various instrumental parts interact. Following Mirage, I have also written a short, blistering altissimo piece for soprano saxophone, also for Jonathan Radford called Isthiophorus. Unfortunately I don’t have a recording of Isthiophorus, but here is the concert recording of Mirage:
When I was asked to write a piece for saxophone and piano for the Illuminate concert series, I was excited at the prospect of working with saxophone again. However, I decided to take a more rhythmic approach to the piece than I had in Mirage.
The piece initially grew out of two contrasting fragments, one of which was a rhythmic slap-tongue line:
The other fragment is far more lyrical and flowing:
Note that these fragments are at C (in sounding pitch).
At this point, I started to try and make some sense of these fragments: I thought about how they could relate to each other, and see if either of them suggested any related material. Through these explorations I began to gradually see a shape for the piece, and came up with additional related material. The opening of the piece relates strongly to the first fragment with its rhythmic intensity that mirrors the ending of this fragment.
As I started to notate the piece, it became clear that there needed to be a driving rhythmic force underpinning the entire structure, even through the lyrical sections (albeit in a more subtle way). The piece has a mechanical aspect to it, and it feels to me as though the energy has been tightly wound up somehow, as if it waiting to break loose. From this aspect I came up with the title, Mainspring: a mainspring is a wound up coil that propels a mechanical toy or clock.
Most of the writing process was fairly smooth, and I was able to work things out as I had originally imagined them. However, when I got to the last section, I reached a climactic point where I felt as if I had broken or fractured the energy, and continuing with a continuous rhythmic pulse did not feel convincing to me at all. I felt I needed to come up with a different solution altogether, and ended up with the fractured, disjointed coda that now ends the piece.
This is a really exciting project to be a part of, and it’s amazing to have so many performances of Mainspring lined up. It will be really interesting to hear how Naomi and Yshani’s interpretation evolves over the course of the series, and this is something I’m really looking forward to seeing. Meanwhile, I have several other projects lined up: I am currently working on a large orchestral piece for the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and will have a string quartet premiering in the Santa Fe Chamber Music festival this summer.
For more info, concerts, and work, here is a link to my website: www.larapoe.com
Looking forward to seeing you all at various concerts!