After such a long hiatus it feels astonishing to be finally returning to live Illuminate Women’s Music concerts and, with the return of the season, to be writing a new blog about my compositional work generally and the commissioned work I have written for the Illuminate series of concerts.
Punch echo for saxophone and piano
(Illuminate Women’s Music commission)
This autumn my piece Punch, echofor saxophone and piano that will be premiered and given repeat performances by Naomi Sullivan and Kumi Matsuo across the Illuminate series of concerts across the UK. This work is actually the last piece I finished before the pandemic hit and our lives as we knew it stopped in it tracks. I decided not to edit the piece any further after this – this decision was not really a conscious one – but I think it is good that the piece remains a snapshot of an energetic optimism I had for the year ahead. I feel the piece perhaps has an innocence about it as I was completely unaware of what path lay ahead for us all in reality.
I have always been fascinated in the dialogues between science, visual arts, dance and politics in my music. I have endless curiosity for gestures, shapes, sounds and their relation to the world, and how these relate to other artforms. My works are often inspired by the natural world, visual arts – particularly colour theory – and dance where I have engaged with Laban’s Eight efforts dance theory. Punch echo is an example of a piece that engages with these movement concepts.
Punch: to strike with the fist. Echo: a sound or sounds caused by the reflection of sound waves from a surface back to the listener.
This work draws on the meaning of the words ‘punch’ and ‘echo’, representing these through the lens of Laban’s Eight Efforts. Laban Movement Analysis is a method and nomenclature for describing, interpreting and documenting human movement. I feel a deep connection between the gestural language of movement and music. Laban categorises movement into eight efforts, descriptively named Float, Punch (Thrust), Glide, Slash, Dab, Wring, Flick, and Press. In this work I explore the effort of ‘punch’ on both macro and micro levels, exploring the musical impact of a ‘punch’ and its subsequent aftermath, the echo effect.
Though I haven’t edited this work since the start of the pandemic, for one of Illuminate’s digital concerts last year I created a postcard version of this piece, switching the words around to become Echo (punch) [a piece for unusual times]. This work essentially reimagined the material from my original piece by flipping the effort punch in reverse. The original Punch echo explores how music can convey the effort of ‘punch’ and its aftershock, which is essentially the echo. However, the echo here comes first followed by the action that caused it. In turning the idea on its head – taking material from my original composition – I was able to reimagine and explore the musical echoes in detail. These musical moments are the equivalent of zooming in and experiencing the aftershock of something in numbing slow motion with sudden bursts of movement that surges forward.
Spinning Colours | Faded Time for piano quartet
(written for Trio Northumbria and Alison Gill)
Another of my recent works that explores Laban’s eight efforts is a piano quartet called Spinning Colours | Faded Time.
Spinning Colours | Faded Timewas written for the Trio Northumbria for the 2021 Royal Musical Association Conference held at Newcastle University. The piece explores the ways that musical expressions of colour interact with musical renderings of Laban's eight efforts. Each gesture and colour has an associated weight, energy, and speed, creating interesting relationships between the instruments and their respective sonorities. The first half of the piece explores the slow Laban efforts: float, glide, wring, and press. The second half engages with the gestural efforts: flick, slash, dab, and punch, before the material disintegrates into pure harmonics, seemingly ever longer each time.
Woven half dreams for solo cello
(written as part of Connected skies project and programmed in Illuminate Autumn concerts)
In this autumn’s concerts, which feature our Illuminate performers in residence Ivana Peranic (cello) and Rachel Fryer (piano), my solo cello piece called Woven half dreams is being performed across some of the concerts.
This work, composed during the first series of lockdowns, is an emotional reaction to the pandemic. The work was written for Sarah Gait as part of the Arts Council England funded projected Connected skies: solo series challenge. In this project, I set out to write six new works for double bass, cello, flute, accordion, percussion and mezzo soprano between October 2020-May 2021. Each of these works received a digital premiere with monthly digital events from January 2021-June 2021. These events can still be watched on my YouTube channel.
Woven half dreams was the second piece in the Connected skies collection of solo pieces. All the pieces draw upon a poem I wrote, connecting the individual compositions into a song cycle of sorts. Woven half dreams explores unfurling threads and lines that are interrupted by burst of aggressive energetic passages. These aggressive bursts become ever more prominent throughout the piece, until they push the weaving lines completely away through the centre of the piece. The piece then returns to the weaving lines through delicate harmonic threads to the end of the piece.
When the sky enclosed around me
Shrinking ever smaller
I found woven half dreams
fractured in spaces inbetween
which ache and scream
I tried to shut the noise out
but it echoed right back at me
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Music has a role in ‘cultural and subcultural identity,’ (Cook, 1998: 5) a big part of which is communicating things that are important to an audience. I often think carefully about my work before I start writing and ask myself ‘what am I trying to communicate to an audience?’ and ‘how might this message reveal itself through the music that I write?’. Furthermore, I am drawn to extra-musical starting points, often ones that provide a duality of perspective such as a historical primary source which also comments upon something in the present, or something mundane from the everyday which can be elevated through the lens of performance and is perhaps widely experienced by listeners and performers alike.
Gwyneth (2015) was a work where I felt this idea of capturing real life- past and present- really started to take shape in my practice. The piece attempted to tell the true story of a child refugee (my Great Aunt) being sent to Australia during WW2 being retold at a time when many refugees were seeking safety from war-torn Syria. The importance of this comparison was to draw an analogy between the past the present, and to trigger empathy and understanding against the fear and frustration which was being whipped up in the media; the difference in circumstance was that during WW2 it was British children looking for refuge. In particular, it referenced elements of music which was symbolically poignant to the narrative in the form of Elgarian references in the lyrical writing for violin and cello. This enhances the music’s ability to draw upon the emotional conflicts that the situation presented and worked to ‘overcome some of the inertia’ (Becker 2014: 133) around this contemporary issue in an indirect way. In essence, the music became a programmatic representation of the event(s) it aimed to represent, and which acted as an ‘aesthetic artefact’ (Patti, 2009: 57) or a repository of historical and contemporary lived experience though music and narration. Patti (2009) discusses how ‘autoethnography is an art that “responds to life itself” and struggles meaningfully against the limitation of representing and translating lived experience’ however I feel that this meaningful struggle is essential as it adds a richness to the artefact produced. Music cannot be an exact representation of the identity, moment, or experience, but instead the artist/composer/interpreter/performer has a unique agency in accentuating key aspects in a form of augmented and artistic reality.
This idea of ‘humanness’ and fragility is something I have wanted to explore further in my work. This can be seen most readily in Fragments (2017) for soprano and piano whereby the text is five short poems by American poet Christopher Poindexter who “considers himself more of an observer, trying to make sense of the human condition in all of its grit and glory. Being inspired by both the darkness and the light, he aims to share an ultimate truth in all of his writing” (Poindexter, 2018) The poems are from his first body of work: Naked Human (2015) which, “is an exploration of humanity at its finest and at its worst,” and is a theme which perpetuates through a lot of music, specifically opera.. Poindexter’s short but blunt ‘fragments’ of lived moments, capture quotidian fleeting moments that many of us experience or have heard in our own internal monologues, which elevates the minutiae of the everyday into something more remarkable through performance.
Musically, the vocals switch between freely spoken (unscored) and singing in the mid to upper register of the range. The juxtaposition throws the audience between two listening modes and makes the starkness of the words even more pronounced. In addition, ‘breath’ is scored, making the audience feel uncomfortably close to the performer/persona’s thoughts. Immersing the audience through a textual or multi-sensory listening experience brings the audience closer to the story being told, the persona being represented and hopefully allowing them to ‘make use of it’ (Bourdieu, 1991: 43) emotively.
The questions I ask myself before I start writing became more poignant in March 2020 when communication and connecting with others took on a new meaning. This provided problems for those of us working in the arts and also required creative and innovative solutions to carry on working. One such example of this innovation was a series of live streamed daily concerts by pianist Duncan Honeybourne to raise funds for Help Musicians UK (Honeybourne, 2020). I was fortunate enough to be asked by Duncan to write a short piece for this project that was inspired by Lockdown. My inspiration came from watching BBC Breakfast one morning whereby the news reporter remarked hearing birdsong for the first time on her commute to work due to the reduction in noise pollution from commuters and industry. I went straight out to the garden and decided to record my resident blackbird, who’s song I am particularly fond of as it resembles the melody form ‘I’m a Barbie Girl’. I wanted to capture the contrast between everyday life before and after March 22nd 2020, specifically people’s renewed acknowledgement of their local area, the natural world and the importance of wellbeing. This resulted in a duet for piano and blackbird.; the first movement the blackbird cannot be heard over the cacophony of man-made noise which is juxtaposed by the tranquillity of the second movement.
It was important the blackbird and piano shared a language, so there are certain motifs that have been transcribed from the recording for the piano. The piano has two roles in this, firstly having a conversation with the blackbird in which they take turns most of the time so the bird song can be heard clearly. The piano melody is decidedly bird-like with trills and appoggiatura to ornament the melody, but also adding a more coherent lyrical flavour which is more ‘human’. Secondly, the piano adds emotion, harmony, texture, movement, and structure. Without the harmonic movement at bar 43 (see fig.1) and again at 64 the piece would lack pace and a richer texture. Like the first movement, this tries to use a lot of the piano’s range to give it depth and distinguish between the ‘conversation’ and the background noises of the environment.
I think the validity of taking a much-used practice of ornithology inspiring music is certainly the elevation of the quotidian through my music. It is just unusual that during lockdown the ‘every day’ is in fact rather extraordinary and therefore my piece is much more than just being about the blackbird’s song.
My work for Illuminate Women’s Music continues this investigation of elevating the ‘every day’. Partition (2021) was initially inspired by my reading about the fall of the Persian Empire during lockdown and how Persian rulers allowed the people they conquered to continue their lives and keep their cultures, customs religions, and traditions if they paid their taxes. I found this interesting, as too often these things are lost because of conflict and change of rule; you only have to look at the news and the current changes taking place in Kabul following the cities takeover by the Taliban to see the impact change of rule can have upon a nation. Furthermore, I realised the same could be said about the COVID-19 pandemic and lives being plunged into isolation because of an unseen threat; this, and the subsequent endeavours to keep culture and entertainment alive. Culture, community, family, friends, social activities are so important to our wellbeing and what makes us ‘human’ (Williamson, 2014) that we strove to find ways to keep it going online and stay connected.
Throughout history the world has been full of divisions.
These divisions are often man-made.
Conflict, violence, religion, gender, nature vs. nurture.
Land partitioned like a commodity. Lives destroyed over its
ownership. Cultures lost.
Even in the current times in which we live, we have been
segregated due to disease and disagreements over race and
Rainforests and the natural world plundered. The atmosphere
slowly being destroyed. Ice-caps melt.
Will there ever be harmony; will we always be partitioned?
Partition (Jenkins, 2020)
Therefore, Partition (2021) is an extraction of some snippets of conversations I had with family and friends during Lockdown, either on the phone or Zoom. The content of these conversations is not necessarily important other than the fact there were strong recurring themes (such as the virus, lockdown, the weather etc) and a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration at various things in our ‘new normal’. Conversations follow lots of different patterns, rhythms and structures depending upon their subject and how this unravels. Conversation is ultimately an improvisatory process in which an exchange of opinion, ideas and emotions are expressed- much like an exchange of musical ideas. I found that during lockdown these patterns and sentiments were improvisationary but also had strong themes and sometimes a feeling of familiarity as we responded to the news and progression of the global pandemic. The piece has a modal feel but isn’t attributed to a particular mode or mahab as it is a non-conventional nine-note pattern which is particularly chromatic in the middle as this gives a distantly familiar yet unsettled feel. Similarly, to Fragments (2017), this piece is concerned with small units of motif that occur, recur, and are respelled in different ways amongst other changing elements such as timbre, tempo, and form. This all works to give a sense of shifting perspective and uncertainty but also a strong sense of belonging.
In her chapter The Influence of the Extra-Musical Katz (2012) investigates how the extra-musical is mapped over onto musical structures and how different theories might shed some light onto these practices. I certainly believe that my work, to an extent, follows the idea that metaphor is a synthesis agent between two disparate domains (Ortony, 1979) – in this case it is language and music. De Bono (1970) calls this ‘lateral thinking’ or in other words, problem solving with information that is not overtly related to the initial problem or solution. (Katz, 2012: 175) In the main part, my central aim for the piece was to enable the cello and piano to be equal agents in this piece – I was determined to avoid the piano becoming an accompaniment and wanted an equal demonstration of virtuosity for both players. Secondly, I wanted the piece to communicate something quotidian, present and avoid the quixotic. Therefore, as Katz (2012) identifies, I have started a modulatory process as each extra-musical element has a unique character which starts to determine creative choices.
Firstly each ‘conversation’ or musical exchange is categorised by a synonym of the word partition and as such they each take on their own character, some of the musical ‘relationships’ more disparate than others. In a way these try and capture the different perspectives of life during lockdown – some going to work, some furloughed, some in forced isolation, some choosing isolation due to fear or the protection of loved ones – either way these unnatural divisions characterised our lives and therefore our conversations. Work to represent this has been particularly focussed upon the ‘light and shade’ of dynamics and the range of timbres afforded by utilising different techniques such as shimmering harmonics, tremolando and double stopping.
There are times where the cello is clearly being harmonic support for the piano and visa versa other times both parts seem to be working against each other or interjecting each other’s melody (see fig.2). Some conversations are short, others longer or some moving though different moods. These are all examples of how this mon-musical model has dictated form at both a macro (such as structure) and micro level (harmony, timbre, and texture) (Katz, 2012: 177).
I think it is important to note that although the ‘system’ is governed by the extra-musical, it isn’t the sole decider in the creative process. Allowances have to be made for musical logic. For example, the musical equivalent of a conversation if taken literally would mean that the speakers take it in turns but this wouldn’t necessarily make for a successful piece of music and therefore it is essential to take this framework as a starting point or for ‘inspiration’ rather than rigid rules. Therefore, there are many times where both instruments are playing together but it is very clear who is ‘dominating’ the conversation and where there are moments of agreement (see fig.3) which might be cello and piano playing in unison or one leading with a clear melody whilst the other is providing harmonic support. This is essential so the piece feels coherent and complete.
As mentioned, my music cannot be an exact representation of the identity, emotion, or experience of an event, but I do hope it has agency in accentuating key aspects of the ‘everyday’ in a form of augmented and artistic reality.
BBC (2020) The Art of Persia. BBC4, Wednesday 17th June 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000k48g
Becker, H., S (2014) What about Mozart? What about Murder? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bourdieu, P (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity.
Cook, N (1998) Music: A short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
De Bono, E (1970) Lateral Thinking. New York, Harper and Row.
Honeybourne, D (2020) Contemporary Piano Soundbites. Prima Facie.
Jenkins, H (2017) Fragments [WP]. Payee Chen (soprano) Kate Ledger (piano), 04 August 2017. York, Late Music. Available at: https://soundcloud.com/jenkinsonare/fragments
Jenkins, H (2015) Gwyneth [WP]. The Albany Trio, 06 June 2015. York, Late Music. Available at: https://soundcloud.com/jenkinsonare/gwyneth
Jenkins, H (2021) Partition [WP]. Ivana Peranic (cello) & Rachel Fryer (piano), 01 October 2021.Brighton, Illuminate Women’s Music, Series II.
Katz, S. L. (2012) The Influence of the Extra-Musical. In Eds, Collins, D (2012) The Act of Musical Composition. Surrey, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Kramer, L (2011) Interpreting Music. London: University of California Press.
MacDonald, R., et al (2005) Musical Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacDonald, R., Hargreaves, D., & Miell, D (2017) Handbook of Musical Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ortony, A (1979) Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Patti, C., J (2009) Musical Artefacts of My Father’s Death: Autoethnography, Music and Aesthetic Representation (pg 57-72) in Eds: Bartleet, B., & Ellis, C., (2009) Music Autoethnographies: Making Autoethnography Sing/Making Music Personal. Sydney: Australian Academic Press.
Poindexter, C (2015) Naked Human. Monarch Publishing.
TED (2013) Bernie Krause: The voice of the natural world. [online] Available at: https://youtu.be/uTbA-mxo858
United Visual Artists (2019) The Great Animal Orchestra. [online] Available at: https://vimeo.com/364836175
Williamson, V (2014) You Are the Music: How music reveals what it means to be human. London, Icon Books Ltd.
Please consider supporting Illuminate Women's Music future projects in both live and digital concerts: