possible triggers - the chaos narrative looks at illness and trauma
As part of a reading group*, I had been researching on the chaos narrative; where real-life stories, often based on illness or trauma, do not necessarily follow a linear trajectory, where the world is un-made. These stories trace the edges of a wound, and each narrative is unique to the individual. Most story tellers are not able to pinpoint where the illness started, or indeed where it will end.
What interested me about this, and what I thought about basing a piece from, were three things:
- The treatment of time - in particular time without sequence;
- The often repetitive nature of a chaos narrative, as the story teller has an inability to gather an understanding of the events occurring; and
- The idea of sharing a personal story which is not healed, which is opposite to the popular restitution(resolved) narrative - where the story has resolved, or the narrator has had time to reflect after the event.
How though, could I express heartache of a chaos narrative through composing; an act by the very nature of creating, writing, and editing, has the ability to reflect and shape a narrative. Arthur Frank (1995) writes that “ill people are wounded not just in body but in voice”. The challenge of listening is to refrain moving the narrator away from the difficulty of telling the story. The challenge is to hear. This made me think it could be possible to use concepts of the chaos narrative for a cello piece. I am conscious of this contrast, so wanted to use the idea of controlled or uncontrolled parameters within the piece.
Afterwards, I reflected on these ideas, and decided to workout a concept for the cello piece. Usually, when I’m at this stage of composing, I hear sounds forming, and ideas which I hope the piece will achieve (although, this may change when writing). It helps me work out where the piece is going.
For this particular piece, I thought about events that shouldn’t quite heal (or phrases left unfinished), as if the cello is attempting to express the chaos narrative. The imagine that came to mind for the piece was a wound that had not quite healed, which led me to term Suture, meaning to stitch together, in particular to hold together the edges of a wound.
Musically speaking, I wanted to look at using parameters of tracing a wound, and imagined playing the highest and lowest strings only, omitting the middle range of the instrument (quite simply, the upper and lower strings were the edges). I also imagined double stopping throughout most of the piece.
For the cellist to play only A + C string together, they would have to place the bow in the gap between the string and body. This technique meant that Ivana Peranic (cellist) would be able to double stop the highest and lowest strings. I was aware that the material she could play would be fairly limiting, as
1) the bow technique is not idiosyncratic to a cellist, 2) large leaps would prove impossible 3) and due to the electronics I later use, she would not be able to play very loud, so dynamics were limiting - unless feedback was a desired result (which isn’t in this piece).
Although the chaos narrative may perhaps lend itself to being ‘chaotic’, there are several limitations in the stories at play too. Below, I’ll try to address how I worked on limitations (control) and chaos (uncontrol).
When first rehearsing over Zoom with Ivana, the techniques I had thought about were very unnatural to a cellist: she is physically pushing the bow away from her instrument, instead of toward it. The space between the strings and body was limiting; producing a smooth bow change was practically impossible. I still wanted to work on this idea, and I knew it would take some time to figure out. For one, the idea of playing at the edges of the instrument appealed, and also the unnatural technique meant that at times Ivana may not be in control of this technique. Fortunately, Ivana was on board and had some wonderful suggestions. During the Zoom call, we had a chat about how the difference of pushing away sounded, and how it affected phrasing and timbre. We looked at really slowing the down the bow, which helped a lot (and created a very fragile sound world that was close to my original ideas). Later, within the electronics, I decided to add a small amount of sustain and reverb to support the unusual bow technique. This not only supported the bow technique, but also blended well with the rest of the electronics.
During our second in-person rehearsal, the end of the bow would occasionally ‘knock’ under the bridge, or even catch the edge of the cello. Ivana asked if this was okay, as if not she would have to figure out how to stop the sporadic ‘battuto’ from happening, but this gave an uncontrolled element to the bowing which is what I was after. What at first sounded like a fairly limited technique, produced an array of textures, timbres, etc., as bow placement, pressure, speed, and motion, were all still possible between the body of the cello and strings.
The material is mapped out in to several sections, and Ivana is welcome to start at which ever section she chooses. Each section is different from the other, however, they some share similar motifs, and (due to the double stopping and other factors), they do sound like they’re cut from the same cloth - nothing drastically changes. I wanted to explore the idea of time, and repetition. Except for a long glissando in one section, there are no large leaps. This is due to the fact that it would be very hard to play smoothly, and also because it feeds into the repetitive nature and suspended sense of time concepts.
During the in-person rehearsal, Ivana commented that she could easily play this for a very long time, however, as this commission is time limited, for the Illuminate concerts, there needed to be some constraints on duration. She could have a timer for herself, but then she would be conscious of the seconds ticking by. We decided for SUTUREthat it would best to avoid this. As I will be performing with Ivana, on electronics, we agreed I would indicate every 1 or 1.5 minutes as a guide. It would still be her decision to play one section for 3 minutes, another for 30 seconds, or all equal measured etc.
The electronics are a series of sine waves which react to whatever Ivana is playing. During the performances, I will decide whether sine waves are played at once (chords) or not (single), if at all, how random or ‘matched’they are to her pitch, and intensity. There are a few other parameters, but these are the main ones. As she will be starting at any part on the score, I will adapt the electronics to that. I do have a rough idea of what I will do with electronics whilst Ivana is playing, however, I wanted to keep an improvised nature about this: I’m not too sure how long each section will be, or if other factors such as the unpredictable bow technique, will change what I play.
After rehearsals to the finished score, what came about was a work that I hope addressed the chaos narrative sensitively.
When we rehearsed SUTURE in Sussex, Ivana was really listening to the electronic sounds being produced (I place the speakers close to her, so the sound of the amplified cello and electronics are as close to the instrument as possible - even for the concerts), and I could hear she was adapting the material I gave her to blend with the electronics. I was also listening to her and adapting the electronics. This communication / listening will happen during the concerts too.
SUTUREalso uses ideas from the meridian lines of a person, in particular the heart protector (Pericardium). As my research, beyond this project investigates somatic practices in composition, I wanted to tie Frank’s (1995) notation of the voiceand bodybeing wounded together in this piece. I’m afraid I may run out of room discussing these ideas further on this blog, however, if you come to a concert this autumn, you're welcome to ask me more about it!
Whilst the score is finished, and I was very pleased with the rehearsal, I am currently viewing the performances as ‘work-in-progress’and the concert as a space in which to share the ideas I presented above. In keeping with the concept that the chaos narrative is an anti-narrative of time without sequence, I’m not sure I would view the work as being ever ‘complete’: or perhaps it is complete in its incompleteness.
I do not have a recording of SUTURE, however you can read about and listen to my piece
Etching Circles (2019), for piano, violin, and cello here
SUTUREwill be performed by Ivana Peranic as part of Illuminate Season II concerts in autumn 2021.
*I would like to mention and thank Simon Fox, a member of the reading group, who introduced me to research on the Chaos Narrative.
Frank, A (1995). The Wounded Storyteller.Chicago. The University of Chicago Press
Vickers, M (2003) Chaos Narratives to Reinstate the Voice of a Survivor of Mental Illness: A (Partial) Life Story. UK.Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Welbanks, V (2016) Foundations of Modern Cello Technique: Creating the Basis for a Pedagogical Method. PhD Thesis, Goldsmiths College, University of London
Woolf, V. (1930) On Being Ill. Reprint. Connecticut. The Paris Press (Wesleyan University Press), 2002.