Throughout history storytelling and narratives through music have both entertained and educated audiences. From Bach’s Messiah to John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls these works have brought worlds to life and engaged audiences on a range of issues. Having originally trained as a dancer, being able to capture an audience’s attention whilst telling a story has always been important to me, something that has also followed me into my work as a composer.
Composers have had many different approaches to narrative over the years. One technique that has been under-utilised over the years has been transcriptions, with particular regard to transcriptions of found sound (sounds from the natural environment). I first came across the idea of using transcriptions after watching Honor Harger’s TED Talk by Honor Harger ‘A history of the universe in sound’. Having a brother from a scientific background, currently studying for a PhD in epigenetics, I have always been curious about the world around us and the different ways this could be explored. Listening to Harger’s talk, I became transfixed by the unusual yet strangely relatable sounds and the idea of exploring a world previously unheard.
I began aurally transcribing these sounds onto piano and then incorporating them into my work as either motifs, pitch or rhythmic material. I decided not to incorporate the found sounds as electronic recordings as I personally found there was greater flexibility for both performers and myself by using them as acoustic transcriptions, although I do appreciate that many composers find this the most effective way of working. By using aural transcriptions of found sound, I discovered it created a strong connection and a basis of reality to the source material that was both accurate and musically engaging.
Over the years I have explored this technique with various works. Here are three examples of work that include this approach to narrative, including A Note from the Blue, a new work for Illuminate.
Songs from the Stars Movement I
Having listened and transcribed the sounds from Hargers’ talk as well as from other sources I desperately wanted to put these sounds into action. At the same time two events were happening: The first being the comet lander from the Rossetta project Philae had woken up after seven months, having been shrouded in darkest and unable to operate its solar panels. The second event was that I discovered the Disney film WALL-E (2008) and had become transfixed by the idea of a robot with feelings alone in space. Combining the narrative of WALL-E, the true events of the Philae lander and the transcriptions from various sounds in space I began to construct Songs from the Stars.
The first movement, played here by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales as part of their Composition: Wales Project 2016, introduces the audience to space. Using the sound of a radio storm between Jupiter and Io, stardust from the NASA soundcloud database as well as the drone of the sun the movement works similar to that of a panoramic photo in guiding the listener through the various parts of space. As each motif is introduced the texture builds to cacophony of sound, illustrating both the vastness and mind crushing beauty of space, before dying away and returning back to the original motif, the sun.
Bulawayo Railway was a very personal piece for both myself and my family. Over twenty five years ago my parents and paternal family left Zimbabwe for the UK. During their time there my grandfather worked for the then Rhodesia Railways and later National Railways of Zimbabwe, finishing his career as Station Master of Bulawayo Railway Station. I have always been fascinated with the country and the role it played in shaping my family history. In addition I have always been fascinated by Steve Reich’s Different Trains and the way it explores the different cities and the struggles the people experienced, including the Holocaust. This ability to discuss difficult subjects in a smart and engaging way challenged me to discuss the issue of Zimbabwe in my family history.
After many conversations including stories of lonesome visits to outposts, sabotage of train tracks and the increasingly hostile political landscape, Bulawayo Railway, explores some of these events. I then listened to and transcribed various videos of Garratt steam trains (use during the time my grandfather worked) and used a combination of these transcriptions as motifs to trace the journey of he Garratt steam trains through the beautiful setting of Zimbabwe, illustrating the constant shifting motions of the time - both mechanically and socio-politically.
A Note from the blue Written for Illuminate
(picture National Geographic)
Having spent the majority of the last few years writing about space I very much wanted to come back down to earth. After some research I discovered the database of Discovery of Sound in the Sea, a vast collection of sounds of both marine life and the impact humans were having upon it. I particularly became interested in the Humpback whale and was fascinated to discover that Humpbacks actually sing and compose their own songs.
Through research from scientists such as Roger Payne and Scott McVay, scientists have discovered that whales, much like minimalist composers, begin with a unit, grow this into a phrase and then develop this into a theme. Whilst the purpose of these songs is still undetermined, though most likely for mating and territory, I wanted to explore how these songs could be developed.
Using research from the Whale Trust in Maui, Hawaii I transcribed these themes. However unlike other compositions, here I used only the first part of each theme and then developed the material, similar to that of a Humpback. In addition I tried to emulate the harmonic language Humpbacks use, using only notes from each theme for that section of the work. This lead to the work beginning with a rich harmonic language, similar to that most audiences would expect, and gradually becoming more sparse, as if the Humpback was unable to find anyone.
Dr Helen Thomas