Reflections

Collaboration

Whilst at university I have been regularly encouraged to develop skills in working independently. Even when work is collaborative it still ends up being relatively independent (this module still has individual submissions). Due to its highly personal nature, independent thinking and working lends itself very well to the process of composition. However, the process of working in a collaborative setting is highly enriching and surprisingly lends itself very well to the process of composition. Here I will lay out what I found to be some of the pros and cons of working in collaboration for this project.

Pros:

  • Expanded knowledge base. – Perhaps the most obvious positive to collaborative work but definitely the most important. Working with the architects has been a fantastic experience, their approach to space has been truly enlightening to my compositional process. It is highly doubtful that I would/could have written something like the Untitled Suite without listening to and sharing ideas with the architects.
  • Having my ideas and concepts deeply questioned on a daily basis. – Whilst composing it is very easy to make quick throwaway decisions that ultimately impact the piece in a massive way. When working with the group small details and decisions I had never considered as important were questioned and discussed, ultimately resulting in a significantly matured piece of work. This was particularly true of the architects who have a fantastic ability to focus on tiny details.
  • Being able to focus on one aspect of the project. – As I mentioned in a previous post, I found it incredibly refreshing to be left alone to focus on designing the installation and having other people deal with other aspects of the project. Too often I will be working on a piece and find myself bogged down planning logistics, sourcing musicians or venues etc when I should be writing music.
  • Company. – It may seem a little mawkish but composing is generally pretty lonely. Being able to work with people who are engaged and excited about the project really encourages me to put my best work into what I am writing.

Cons:

  • Giving up creative control. – Although I held a lot of the creative control over this project at times I had to step aside and let someone who knew better than me take the proverbial reins. Whilst I knew a fair bit and was able to help with filming, I know very little about editing. Giving someone else control, in particular over the final output, was incredibly difficult for me. But, the end result is significantly better than if I had attempted to edit it myself.
  • Group politics. – People don’t always agree and for this reason it’s often easier to work alone. I was very fortunate and my small group were generally all on the same page from day one. However, there were times when we would have slightly differing opinions on where the project should go. I find it very difficult having to consider how someone else feels about something when I am so invested in the project. But, taking the time to listen and think about what the other person has to say does usually positively influence the piece in the end, even if its annoying.
  • Focusing on one aspect of the project. – This is as much of a negative as it is a positive. As brilliant as it is not to have to concern yourself with the logistics of the project, you can’t help become frustrated with your lack of control when things don’t go to plan (like when someone leaves the piano you’re supposed to be using in an abandoned Co-op).

Despite the cons listed above I have found the experience of working on this project to be overwhelming positive. I have learnt a lot about working on large projects and architecture in general and am extremely keen to collaborate with some of the architects again in the future.

 

Music and Architecture

The interaction between music and architecture was an interesting starting point for this project. Initially there seemed to be little connection between music and architecture beyond acoustics. However, after discussing ideas and concepts with the architects it became clear that there were actually numerous parallels. Many of these linked to the physical attributes of architecture. An obvious example of this is the music of Xenakis; the structure of many of his works is based on or influenced by architectural structural drawings and concepts. However it quickly became apparent to me when working on this project that I was more interested in the metaphysical similarities between the two. Investigating how we experience spaces and creating music that interacts with this in some way is a very interesting approach to composition. I intend to continue working on this area of research and developing new pieces of music that explore the metaphysical properties of other spaces. A special thanks must be said again to Hugh, Alex and Chencheng; without their ideas and hard work this piece would not have happened.

 

Untitled Suite

Movement One:

Movement Two:

 

Movement Two

Movement two of the Untitled Suite is derived from recordings made for and during the first movement. The work is in two main sections with a short transitional section, section one begins at 0:00, the transitional section at ~1:16 and finally section two begins ~2:07. Small elements of the second section are alluded to in the first and materials from both sections are utilised in the transition. This is used to foreshadow what is about to happen and prepare the listener for a change in sound world. This movement treats the piano sounds as a metaphor for Hallam Tower, as the piano begins to break down so does the building.

Section one:

Derived from the piano recordings that were played back as part of movement one, the first section of movement two alludes to what the piano and building were and could be. This section is composed from two main sound sources, samples 1 and 2.

Sample 1:

This sample is the main sound source used in section one, the piano resonance on this recording forms most of the drone content of this section. Starting with an unedited version of the note the resonance is extended through looping and as the section progresses pitch shifted versions of the resonance are layered to increase the complexity of the drone.

Sample 2:

This note is used to contrast the harshness of the fortissimo note in sample 1 and an extended version of this note is used to signal the start of the transitional section.

 

Transitional Section:

Neither the piano or the building suddenly reached a state of decay over night. This is a process that took many years. The transitional section of this piece begins to introduce and merge sounds recorded at the installation of movement one with the natural piano sounds. The transitional section ends with sounds derived from the motors used in movement one of the work (sample 4) used to symbolise the state of the building today.

Sample 3:

In this recording a broken key can be heard making a knocking sound. This sample was chosen to suggest the breaking down of the piano as sounds recorded at movement one gradually take over.

Sample 4:

This sample recorded at the installation of movement one is used extensively in the transitional section. It is mostly pitch shifted down and used to create rhythmic contrast to the drones that underpin the whole piece.

 

Section two:

Section two presents a gradual breakdown of the sounds of the first movement into complete noise. Finishing with a recording of general ambience from the site of Hallam Tower that features prominently in movement one. This sections aims to represent the eventual collapse of the tower leaving only the ambience of the surrounding area.

Sample 5:

The majority of section two is derived from this recording. Captured at the recording of movement one this piece of audio was unusable in the first movement due to the heavy wind noise. I chose to use this in the second movement as the broken recording caused by the damage to the building worked fantastically as a representation of the building gradually breaking down.

Sample 6:

This is the final sound heard in the piece, it features prominently in both movements of the work. This ambient recording represents the space that the building occupies that will continue to exist long after the build and piano are both gone.

 

 

A Day In Hallam Tower

The piano arrived at Hallam Tower before me this morning. It was really exciting to walk in and see everything that I had been working on for the past month in place. It was incredibly refreshing to not need to worry about the logistics of the project and instead focus on the creative output.

Switching all the circuits inside the piano on I was delighted to find that nothing had been damaged in transit/by the rain and it all worked first try. I got to work right away with recording audio of the piano in the space. Location recording is always problematic and unfortunately the weather made it very difficult to get a clear recording. The wall-less building acted as a wind tunnel and regular gusts of wind ruined several recordings, even though I was using a wind shield. Eventually we came up with a recording setup that managed to get rid of most of the wind noise. By fitting the recorder to a tripod we could hold coats in a U shape surrounding it, this managed to stop all but the strongest gusts of wind. Although the wind and rain made it very difficult to record, it did create a fantastic wash of sound that mingled fantastically with the sounds of the piano. Both the building and the piano were performing together. I recorded the piano from a number of different angles and distances. Over the next few days I will edit these recordings together, creating a piece that moves through the space demonstrating how the building and the piano interacted. After the audio was recorded we moved onto filming.

Filming the building was a delight. Despite its dilapidation the grandeur of the building is still very much apparent and the drab weather created an excellent backdrop to the crumbling concrete. We focused mostly on slow panning shots, aiming to create footage that slowly revealed details of the building. These shots will mirror the audio of the video which will gradually reveal what the piano is playing. Whilst filming we were extremely conscious of the buildings impending demolition and wanted to ensure that every aspect of this fantastic building was captured. Chencheng is going to have an extremely difficult job editing this into a five minute film, we have several hours of footage.

Working in hard hats and high vis jackets was an interesting experience. They were surprisingly restrictive and filming shots – particularly at difficult angles – took some practice to get right. We were all extremely grateful for the PPE by the end of the day however, as the wind and rain made it a very cold place to work and on occasion dislodged pieces of concrete from the ceiling.

Here is a small selection of photos I captured at Hallam Tower.
Gallery

Building the Suite

The last few days have been a little hectic. An organisational oversight meant the piano I was supposed to be modifying was not in the workshop but, instead locked in castle house. A fair bit of administrative tooing and froing had to be done to make sure that, not only I had a piano but, that I wasn’t going to be permanently modifying a piano someone else had to use. All credit has to go to my team of architects who managed to sort all of that out. Unfortunately whilst they did manage to sort out a piano for me to use, there was only one day and a morning when I could get access to it, to modify it prior to our installation.

I have spent most of today and yesterday days tangled in wires getting grumpy at the piano (much to the amusement of various architects working in the workshop). I started by fitting the wooden beam that the motors would be attached to inside the piano, once this was done I moved onto the more daunting task of building all the electronics. After beginning by soldering the circuits it quickly became apparent that I could not solder fast enough to build five separate circuits in time. With some careful planning I managed to come up with a layout that meant five circuits could fit on one breadboard, saving me the wasted time of yet another trip to Maplins. Once I had built all the circuits I was delighted that they all ran perfectly on my first try. It is a good job I wrote the code for the Arduino beforehand as I wouldn’t have had time to do it yesterday. After attaching the motors to the wooden beam I ran the wiring down from the top of the piano into the base where the Arduino and circuits were. Stupidly I didn’t think to label any of the ten identical red wires. So, when one motor stopped spinning I had to use trial and error to identify which wire had come loose. Once it was all wired in it was time for a test run, here is a video of the motors in action in the Arts Tower workshop:

Tomorrow is the day of the installation and I cannot wait to see how the piano looks in the space. The team I have been working with have done an excellent job of getting everything organised from tomorrow including arranging transportation for the piano and sourcing PPE for us all to wear on the site. Hopefully the rain will hold off as the hotel is not significantly shielded from the elements. Most of the ground floor has no walls.

Untitled Suite – A Concept

Having not heard anything back from Blenheim Estates (the company that owns Hallam Towers) my small team had begun work on sourcing a new venue to put on our piece. However it would appear that we were a little too impatient as today Blenheim Estates contacted us to give us permission to use Hallam Towers. This could not have come at a better time as today I have been finishing the final aspects of the concept for my piece ready to start turning it into a reality.

Untitled Suite

When composing I often like to start with a title. I find that if I can compact my concepts down into a title for a piece then I am just about ready to start writing music. Having discussed the themes that I wanted to explore in depth with my team, we then set to work with coming up with a title. At first we spent some time playing around with words like ‘abandoned’ or ‘derelict’ but none of these seemed to capture the concept of nothingness being pervasive throughout all aspects of the piece. I realised that the reason we were struggling to name the piece was because if the main theme of the work was nothingness that really the work should have no title, for this reason we decided to name the piece ‘Untitled Suite’. The concept of creating a suite came when someone suggested naming the piece ‘Nothing Symphony’, I was reluctant to call it a symphony as it wasn’t going to be a multi movement work for orchestra but I did like the idea of the work having a number of movements. We came up with the idea to create a suite of two movements, the first would take the form of an installation at Hallam Towers that would be filmed and produced into an audiovisual work, the second would be a recomposition of sounds from the first movement.

Movement One

sketch

Rough sketch of piano modifications

Concept:

Movement one of the suite aims to react to the space in its current state. The piano will be placed into the centre of the ground floor of Hallam Towers and left to play itself.  Combining with the ambience of the building a series of motors interacting with the strings of the piano will create a wash of sound, punctuated by fragments of melodies emanating from the speaker inside the piano. These fragments are no longer playable on the piano as the keys for these are strewn amongst the rubble of the building, echoes of a time when both had purpose. The performance is not open to the public and will only be viewable on film, a document of what once was.

In a building with no purpose, a piano with no performer plays to no one.

Method:

After stripping out the insides of the piano to provide easy access to the strings and disabling the sustain pedal, a wooden beam will be fitted across the width of the piano. To this I will attach five motors positioned evenly across the frequency range of the piano. On four of the motors small pieces of electrical tape will spin to pluck the strings that they are in front of. The fifth motor will be placed touching the lowest string on the piano. A metal cog attached to the motor will scrape along the round wound string, creating a harsh piercing sound with a long low sustain. These will be driven by a battery powered arduino uno board which, is programmed to spin the motors at random for random amounts of time (within specified ranges). The code and circuitry for this is relatively simple as can be seen here:

Typical_toy_motor_circuit

Motor Circuit

int ranNum;
int ranDel;
int ranDel2;
void setup() {
// Seed RNG from analog port.
randomSeed(analogRead(0));
// Setup 5 output ports for motors
pinMode(3, OUTPUT);
pinMode(4, OUTPUT);
pinMode(5, OUTPUT);
pinMode(6, OUTPUT);
pinMode(7, OUTPUT);
}
void loop() {
//Generate random number between 3 and 7
ranNum=random(3,8);
// Generate random delay times
ranDel=random(300,3000);
ranDel2=random(1, 3000);
//Turn on the motor
digitalWrite(ranNum, HIGH);
delay(ranDel);
//Turn off the motor
digitalWrite(ranNum, LOW);
delay(ranDel2);
}

 

Additionally the piano will be missing a number of keys. I have pre recorded a number of melodic fragments using these notes and have edited them together to form a 30 minute sound file which can be played on loop. I wanted the audio to sound like it was being played by the piano even though it clearly wasn’t. For this reason when recoding the piano I placed the microphone where the speaker(s) will be inside the piano. I was unsure at the time if I would be using mono or stereo playback when I recorded the piano so I used a mid-side micing technique so that the audio would work well for either. Once I had decided on the speaker setup I mixed the recoding on the speaker that I was going to be using to ensure that would sound as close to a real piano as possible (see extract below).

 

Although the reason we are unable to have an audience for this piece is due to it taking place on an active building site, this has actually played well into our concept for the piece. What is the point of a piece of music that has no audience? Philip Auslander’s article The Performativity of Performance Documentation argues that documentation of performance art is as performative as the performance itself. Whilst the original performance and the documentation may be presented in completely different mediums, by capturing and redisplaying the original a new performance is created. This works well with Kendall Walton’s theory on transparency in photorealism, he states that “photographs are transparent; in looking at a photograph of something one sees the thing itself”. So if we look at the documentation of a performance it can be suggested that we are literally seeing the performance itself.  For this reason I will consider the video of the installation to be a valid performance of movement one. Whilst the first performance will not be to an audience, subsequent performances can be displayed to the public. However, they will be performed with the notion of being audience-less, as this can be seen in the original and will therefore be part of any subsequent performance.

Movement Two

Movement two will aim to explore the potential of the space and piano to become something new. It will be a recomposition of the first movement using sound and potentially video recorded at the installation of movement one. Although it is a little early to talk on the form of the movement I intend for it to be formed of two distinct sections. The first will allude to the potential for the building to be restored to its former glory and the second will be based around the unfortunate reality of the buildings impending demise. As this will be a recomposition of movement one and I have yet to produce that I can’t say much else about this movement at this time. I will talk more about my concepts and processes for this movement in future blog posts once I have recorded sounds and begun work on its composition.

References:

Auslander, P. (2006). The Performativity of Performance Documentation. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 28(3), pp.1-10.

Walton, K. (1984). Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism. Noûs, 18(1), pp.67-72

Dust and Dissection

Now that myself and the other composers are beginning to develop concepts for our pieces the architects thought it was wise to stop working as one large group and subdivide ourselves. Each composer has been assigned a couple of architects to work with to help them realise their ideas, I will be working with Hugh Armstrong, Alex Farr and Chencheng Xie. This seems to be a very effective way of progressing with this project as it will allow us to focus our attention on specific tasks rather than concerning ourselves with what the rest of the group is doing. Having proposed my conceptual ideas for the project to my group  (see Modernism, Pianos and Nothingness) they have also expressed an interest in utilising abandoned spaces. Several potential venues have been discussed, our favourite being Halam Towers (see image below) however we are unsure as to whether we will be able to gain access to the building as our initial research suggests that it is due to be demolished soon. If we are unable to get access to Hallam Towers then we will look to use a space within the Park Hill Estate which we should be able to get access to.

Hallam Towers

Hallam Towers – © Terry Robinson, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

This week we got our hands on some pianos for the first time. At first we were all being very careful with the pianos as it felt almost sacrilegious to damage them in any way. But, soon we were ripping parts out left, right and centre in search of any new and interesting sounds that these pianos could make. We have been experimenting extensively with different methods of playing the pianos, a particular highlight has been whipping the strings with wire to create thunder like clashes. I was immediately drawn to the older of the two pianos, this piano sounds fantastic, years of dust and grime stuck to the strings have shaped the timbre of the piano giving it an otherworldly sound. After some (not so) careful tugging at the insides – which are swelled with damp after years of neglect – it became apparent that the whole hammer mechanism could be easily removed, providing access to the strings. Removing the hammers also removed the dampeners from the piano thus allowing the piano to sustain without the need to hold down the pedal.

Although I am not entirely sure how I intend to utilise the piano in this piece yet, working with the piano has generated some interesting ideas. I am currently researching into utilising motors to allow the piano ‘play’ itself, the easy access to the strings would mean that the motors could interact with the strings directly rather than having to press down keys. Unfortunately this piano is the heaviest of the two and this may cause some issues in the future if we are trying to navigate it across difficult terrain (such as the building site surrounding Hallam Towers). But, now that I have an understanding of what I can do with the piano it is time for me to return to my original conceptual ideas and begin working these into a coherent piece of music. Whilst I work on this the architects are going to attempt to get us access to Hallam Towers, they have already found out who owns the site and should be making contact with the company in the next few days. Hopefully we hear back from them soon.

 

 

What’s wrong with clipping?

Whilst composing I often find new ideas are born out of what I like to refer to as happy accidents. Something somewhere goes wrong and all of a sudden a new sound I wouldn’t have found otherwise pops up. Often times the sounds are unusable but occasionally something with fantastic potential will present itself. I am a big fan of happy accidents as these failures often challenge me to take works in new directions. Usually I will try to work out why something went wrong so I can exploit the process with new sounds to generate more material. It can often feel like I am collaborating with the computer rather than telling it what to do.

When capturing sounds for composition I always work very hard to minimise the possibility of mistakes. When things do go wrong I usually delete the file without listening back to it, fix the problem and start again to try and capture the sound perfectly. Despite the fact that I am happy to embrace flaws when editing audio I don’t do the same whilst recording and I’m honestly not sure why. Usually I justify this to myself by saying “if I capture the sound perfectly now I can always do x, y or z to it later” but this doesn’t explain why I completely disregard anything that has gone wrong without considering its creative potential. Perhaps it is simply a hang-up from recording bands – where audio is generally required to be as flawless as possible – but I think potentially it may go somewhat deeper.

I don’t think that this is a problem that only I suffer from. Most books and courses I’ve read/taken on creative recording have offered the following method:

  1. Find an interesting sound
  2. Record it in high quality
  3. Manipulate it in a creative way

Although this method works and has produced many excellent results it can’t be the only method. Music concrète was born out of studio experimentation pushing the limitations of what can be done to recorded sound. For many years composers have continued doing this. But very few composers have examined how they record sound and looked to push these limitations.

Whilst in the studio or out field recording I often give little regard to how I am recording. Generally I don’t treat recording and capturing sounds as a particularly creative process. Instead I focus on quickly capturing lots of sounds in high quality so that I can get to work manipulating them. But why can’t this process be creative? Yes if I record something that has imperfections those imperfections are (generally) permanent and that might be limiting, but limits often promote creativity. I am not trying to denounce recording sounds in high quality and suggest that we all try to record sounds with as many mistakes as possible. I’m simply suggesting that maybe it is about time we started letting happy accidents happen in the studio, treating these as part of the creative process instead of something to avoid.

Once we come across failures in the recording process we should be looking at how these can be recreated and utilised creatively. Once we are done recording in high quality maybe we should see what happens if we record the same sound but run the preamp a little hot. Or experiment with broken cables so that the sound intermittently cuts outs to generate rhythmic patterns. How can phase issues be intentionally exploited to create interesting effects? Do we always have to point the microphones directly at what we are recording, what happens if we point them at the wall instead? Is there a way to control the write speed of a hard drive so that writing audio in real time creates glitches? Strange reverberations, electronic interference, capsule distortion, crackling pots and all other issues we try to eliminate offer untapped creative potential. There is no reason not to experiment when recording.

It would be drastically incorrect of me to assume that I was the first person to come up with this idea. I am sure that there are plenty of composers who are treating the recording process as an entirely creative one. However I don’t think enough composers are doing this (I know I’m not) and really there is no excuse for this. Clipping can’t always be a bad thing, but if we keep all levels below -4db we will never know if it’s worth using.

 

Modernism, Pianos and Nothingness

Sheffield is fortunate to be dotted with a multitude of modernist buildings. Their uncompromising designs adorn the city, punctuating the skyline. Arguably one of the most iconic buildings in Sheffield is The Arts Tower. A brutal slab of aluminium and glass that is as beautiful as it is foreboding; it truly is a masterpiece of modernist architecture. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of The Arts Tower, to celebrate this myself and several other composers will be working with the School of Architecture and the Modernist Society to produce a series of events in some of Sheffield’s best landmarks. Utilising several upright pianos that have reached the end of their usable life we hope to create a variety of site based compositions/installations which interact with the vibrant modernist spaces Sheffield has to offer.

What do pianos and modernist architecture have in common?

My introduction to this project began with a tour of the (in)famous Park Hill Flats. This sprawling brutalist structure is gradually being renovated however the majority of the building currently sits derelict and abandoned. Unfortunately many of Sheffield’s modernist landmarks are similarly empty or worse in the case of Castle Market, nothing more than a pile of rubble. The pianos we will be using for this project are instruments that have decayed over time and have now been abandoned by their owners. These dead pianos and the derelict modernist buildings of Sheffield have a number of interesting metaphysical similarities which I hope to explore throughout the duration of this project. Although I currently have no clear idea of how this relationship will play out into a composition/installation, it does form an interesting starting point for experimentation.

Nothingness

John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing states that nothing “is like an empty glass into which at any moment anything may be poured”. Empty buildings are interesting as they ultimately serve no purpose, they may have had a purpose and they may do in the future but at this time they are a void. As metaphysics is the study of what exists it is strange to try and apply this to an empty space. How do you deduce what is there and what it is like if there is nothing there. However, a buildings nothingness provides it with something, the potential for anything to fill that space at any moment. Similarly a piano without a player no longer serves its purpose and yet even a dead piano still has the potential to do something. Both a dead piano and an empty building still exist even if they do nothing, how can their nothingness interact to provide each with a purpose?

References

Cage, J. (1968). Silence. London: Calder and Boyars. pp. 109-127