Sunday, May 27, 2012

Recent Compositional Work

photos from a sound walk

This article covers some recent recording and composition activities, with a diversion into working practice.

I have recently completed five new minute-long compositions, since by some coincidence two separate calls were asking for such. The most popular of these is the world-wide 60x60 project. I had a piece accepted in a previous year, and this time sent in compositions in two categories.

The second project I can't say anything about at the moment, but must wait until the pieces are accepted (or rejected). In any case, I love how all five short compositions work as a unit, a result that is not entirely coincidental as I was careful to keep certain production techniques consistent. I hope to create more like these in the future, so they might be recontextualised as a collection. The result would be not dissimilar to "Wheatfield", a project I wrote in Max/MSP which automatically remixed nine extant works, so that little glimmers of each may be perceived in succession.

I have also completed a longer piece, "Caged Birds (Augmentation)", for the 100 x John project of Ear To The Earth, so expect it to show up on their site soon. I committed to this some time ago, as I have been involved with several celebrations of John Cage but none (until now) involving my own composition. I thought it most appropriate to base the piece entirely on a single field recording, but the first couple of attempts did not delight me. The best thing to do in these situations is simply leave it alone. Having the luxury of time, I did just that.

photos from a sound walk

Whenever I teach, I attempt the impossible and try to convey to my students how important it is to start a project, assignment, or whatever immediately after receiving the brief. This "start" might simply be to write down the assignment goals in their own words, making some blue-sky sketches and notes. It might involve listing resources that will be required, or itemising the constraints. But in all cases, starting immediately gains several advantages.

First, the horrible sense of confronting the abyss of the page is avoided; procrastination cannot gain the same foothold on the psyche if you don't let it in the door at the outset. Second, it allows time for you to take breaks where needed, slot in other work, do the laundry, and so on, without the overwhelming feeling of deadline panic taking over. So, if the initial attempts at a compositional opening fail, as they did with me in the current example, I know I can put the project aside for a week and not worry about it. If you start work at the last minute, such an option is not available.

Finally, I fervently believe that much work is done in the parts of the mind that are not easily accessed by the intellect. Connections are made between disparate memories, readings forgotten by the conscious mind are re-appraised, and so on. This is why people get some of their best ideas while in the shower; their racing everyday thoughts are dampened by the streams of hot water. Thoughts drift; the mind wanders. It's also why you can "sleep on a problem" and wake with the basis of a solution.

I have no idea why this fact is not impressed on students from an early age. And not as some mystical conjecture, but as a practical tool they can use.

The better you are at research, reading comprehension, writing, argumentation, structural work, analysis, and other intellectual pursuits, the more important this becomes. For me, it often makes the difference between failure and success.

photos from a sound walk

"Caged Birds (Augmentation)" is a case in point. It was only after I'd made some abortive initial attempts that I could come back to it, refreshed. In fact these attempts likely laid the groundwork for my expedition on the 20th of this month, Ireland's National Dawn Chorus Day. Leaving the house at 4am I placed recording devices in two locations, one of which proved both of high technical quality and significant aesthetic interest. If I hadn't already been thinking along certain lines I might not have made some of the recording choices I did. Or I might not have been able to recognise in the results sonic qualities that I wished to work with.

For the resulting piece I left the source recording largely untouched... or so it might seem at first. But in fact I played around with the bird song in subtle ways, creating a strange hybrid of nature and artifice as the result. This is a continuing theme in my work. I am not interested in "nature recording" per se, but only in how this intersects our cultural milieu.

But more on that another time. In fact, I prepared the outlines for a full article on the subject, while sitting outside between 4:30 and 6:00 am, listening to the sounds of early morning traffic, passing aircraft, accumulations of avians, and other typical sounds. But it's amazing what you can find in "typical sounds", if you simply give yourself the time to pay attention. I suppose that's what phonography is all about, and why an increasing number of people enjoy sound walks and the like.

P.S. Sorry there are no audio links in this article. You may instead wish to visit Remanence for my current and past sonic activities, complete with a good deal of listening.

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