The following is a short description of my work with CeReNeM’s visiting artists-in-residence. In 2021-22 this was a virtual residency with ELISION (AU).
The 2021-22 academic year was split between two major milestones: one, my relocation from Melbourne (AU) to Huddersfield (UK); and two, the writing of an eighteen-minute work for the ELISION ensemble, beginning at the end with a double recorder cadenza (the video of which is available at the end of this post). Consisting seven sections, the seventh being further split into two, and confusingly the fourth and fifth sharing the same name, Tor is a work chopped, blocked, divided, with extractable sections that explore an unseen, perhaps offstage, ceremony. The title, Tor, refers to the geological formation of exposed rock often crowning peaks and hills1, most strikingly seen in moorlands and highlands. For myself, it was the otherworldly and ancient landscape atop Mount Buffalo2 that conjured such sound images and ideas about what this work could become (see image below).
Included within the score is the following short note:
Rising abruptly from the landscape, sheer, imposing, and breathtaking. These exposures of bedrock, weathered, crowning mountain tops, reveal a primordial earth; cultures, societies, and civilizations that revel in the Tor’s shadow are but a moment in their ever-watching eyes.
The ensemble enacts a ceremony.
Composed for the formidable members of ELISION, the Tor includes Ryan Williams on recorders (alto, tenor, basset), Paula Rae and Eliza Shephard on flutes (piccolo, C, alto, bass), Aditya Ryan Bhat on percussion (gongs, china cymbals, tenor and bass drums), Freya Schack-Arnott on cello, and Peter Neville conducting. All performers also play den-den daiko drums or ratchets. Premiered in May (2022) the work currently remains in a state of revision3, as such, I’ll focus on the last three minutes of the work, an extractable but also penultimate solo for two recorders titled Cadenza (a sub section of the seventh section Granite). For greater context, the sections of Tor are as follows:
I – Overture
II – Convergence (can be extracted as a stand-alone work)
III – Magma
IV – Weathered (a)
V – Weathered (b)
VI – Plateau
VII – Granite (can be extracted as a stand-alone work with the cadenza)
…Cadenza (can be extracted as a stand-alone work)
Although my intentions were to create a large, multi-sectional work, a sort of battle of dominance between the two flutes and recorder as ritualistic blocks and solos, savage percussion interruptions, and extreme contrasts in mood comprise the work, the final Cadenza functions as a stand-alone miniature, complimenting my previous short work Passacaglia.
A highly personalised work, the Cadenza, is dedicated and written specifically for my friend, performer, composer, improvisor, researcher, recorder virtuoso Ryan Williams. Very early on in our conversation over the work was a discussion on the use of two simultaneous recorders. This began with an exploration of Ryan’s extensive collection of instruments from the tiny sopranino to the giant Paetzold contrabass, from modern to renaissance style instruments, and various available tunings in A440, A415, and A392. Largely informed by the register of the opening dyad, I selected the Alto and Tenor recorders to ensure good projection of volume (with control of dynamics rather limited upon recorders, almost entirely determined by the register of the given note) and the Ganassi model which in addition to having a stunningly unique tone quality has a degree of greater flexibility of pitch due to the large holes on these instruments4. Despite having worked quite extensively with Ryan before5 the negotiation of simultaneous recorders required a multitude of new considerations including the reach of the fingers (with only one hand available on each instrument), the limited pitch options available, the practicalities of splitting air (and therefore some projection) between two instruments within the mouth, moving between instruments, and eventually novel solutions including stopping an instrument on the knee. Each of these required numerous demonstrations, one where energy and dedication is required from both to create a work that is (hopefully) mutually fulfilling; a showcase for both the performer and composer alike.
Aside from frequent video sessions (Ryan being in Australia, myself in the UK) and the back and forth of short question and answer audio messages, the act of writing materials was always in close reference to the fingering chart Ryan provided with all the possible pitches available with one hand (see Figure 1). This ensured that I could ‘play’ through my own materials (utilising two timber rulers to substitute the recorders) checking the ofttimes awkward finger combinations, especially when half-holes are required. This chart naturally informed my pitch selections with a number of pitches completely unavailable, most notably in the lower half of the second register.
Listening to some of the existing repertoire for double recorders such as Louis Andriessen’s Ende, Maki Ishii’s Black Intention, and Moritz Eggert’s Außer Atem, it began clear that the sound world I envisioned was markedly different to the more repetitive, somewhat locked-similar motion, hocket-like patterns that these works explored. Like the combat between the flutes and recorder in the earlier ensemble sections of this work, I wanted the recorder cadenza to overtly asserts itself; the cadenza functioning as the penultimate moment where the recorders mimic and claim dominance over the double flutes. As a result, two primary behaviours emerge within the three-minute composition: 1) assertive and locked-together, dyadic behaviours, and 2) fluid, morphing, irregular materials. In the first, it’s clear that both recorders are equals, regardless of whether they are uniting together or fighting each other for dominance, both remain locked together. This is evident with the repeated fourths (of varying microtonal deviation), unison sections and similar motions moments (see Figure 2). The second behaviour, rarer, is exemplified where only one recorder is used, in addition to the use of messy, heterophonic materials and where one recorder deviates from the other (see Figure 3). A potential third and more ambiguous material is the use of the voice. Is the voice a third recorder? Is the voice the distant echo of the flutes from the previous ensemble section? Is the voice an amplification of the dominant recorder at each given moment? I am still unsure and depending on if you ask me today or tomorrow my answer will be different. I believe the voice functions as all three depending on how one receives the work, how the performer executes the work, and how one interprets the sheer, almost helpless cry, of these intense assertive moments of instrument and voice.
Formally, the progression of material largely follows an organic process of extrapolation, where a dyad of growing instability is repeated, varied, begins to melt away or even collapse, before a messy assemblage attempts to reassert a new dominance. This occurs six times, with each reiteration a different duration and each returning assemblage becoming less stable. This number, in addition to the length of each process, is a product of audiation; ultimately an internal and imaginative listening and performing of the materials until the result is satisfactory to my own taste6. The use of controlled leakage of air, overblowing, vibrato, flutter tongue, and the voice all add certain amounts of distortion to this progression in addition to contributing to the ornamental, densely layered, and chaotic moments as collapse and rebuilding occurs.
In scoring, this work has followed a number of recent experiments into how I communicate sonic ideas, structures, character and mood, and the dialogue between score and interpreter (read composer and performer). For much of Tor, I used a blank page granting me the freedom to use the five-line stave as irregularly as I like, removing it entirely wherever appropriate. This also allowed for more novel experiments in notation such as a re-prioritisation of parameters, a re-organisation of layers, and allowing for moments where gesture and shape become the focus. As an avid drawer (mostly using pencil and charcoal), I have attempted to marry my sketching and compositional practices a little more, adopting visual and hand drawn representations of materials which are further enhanced by the filtering out of the five-line stave, communicating a much more creative freedom for Ryan and any other performer (see Figure 4). Enhancing this further is the use of rhythm and meter. There is a dialogue between open duration moments and those locked into strict tempo and rhythm. Perhaps in reverse to the listeners expectations, the assertive dyadic materials are mostly open in duration with the drawing of line, from minor bump to erratic zigzags, illustrating length and potential envelope7, whereas fluid and irregular materials are meticulously notated. This accentuates the distinction between the two behaviours I discussed earlier and allows for both conventional8 notation to inform the abstract notation, and abstract notation to inform the conventional notation.
Lastly, I want to briefly address a term I used earlier – that of a personalised work. As Bellamy points out in her article Developing instrumental sound resources through collaborative compositional practice (2013)9 “collaborations between composers and performers are by nature a highly personalised experience”, ideally one where an “open exchange” can occur between all participants. My own experience in collaboration very much echoes this however I’d like to take it to another level. Where a deep friendship develops between collaborators there can arise a deeper personal layer to a work. This can take many forms including the referencing or quotation of in-jokes, creating materials that directly respond to a shared personal experience, a greater level of trust and honestly when working through difficult materials, an awareness of previous artistic work (this could include avoiding pitfalls from previously failed collaborations or building upon successful ones), an awareness of non-musical and personal interests, and even the potential creation of a sort of ‘metamusic’ where one references or takes inspiration from the others work, which was itself derived from the original persons previous work. It is elements such as these that make the collaboration between myself and Ryan personalised. The result is a work that saw so much of the musical materials shaped, altered, fixed, and enhanced by a close working relationship and trust where musical ideas are not just allowed to walk, but to run.
A huge thank you to CeReNeM and the University of Huddersfield, ELISION ensemble, Ryan Williams, Alistair McLean (sound), Agatha Yim (video), and Kris Chainey (lighting).
Image credit: Olah, Z. (2010). Mt buffalo plateau [Image]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mt_buffalo_plateau.jpg
1 Britannica, Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2021). Tor. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/tor-geology
2 There is still much ongoing research as to the indigenous custodians of the Mount Buffalo area. Currently the Taungurung are the registered aboriginal party of this area, with the Buffalo river valley considered part of the Mogullumbidj nation during early colonisation. See Durrant, J. (2019). Mysterious Mogullumbidj: First People of Mount Buffalo. Life on Spring Creek. https://lifeonspringcreek.com/2019/12/15/mogullumbidj-first-people-of-mount-buffalo/. Unfortunately, I cannot find any reliable source of the indigenous name(s) of the mountain at this stage.
3 Unfortunately, an all too familiar combination of anxiety, perfectionism, doubt, and hope form a post-premiere crucible, independent of ELISION’s masterful performance.
4 Larger holes allow for easier and greater control of microtones which require quarter, half, or three-quarter leaking. For more information on the Ganassi recorder see Brown, A. (2006). The Ganassi recorder: separating fact from fiction in American Recorder, November 2006, 11-18. Brown has a link to his article available on his website here: https://adrianbrown.org/ganassi-recorders/
5 See my work for the Horsley & Williams Duo Between Giants (2018).
6 Audiation, at least for myself, can be a tiresome and lengthy process of filtering musical material and determining much of my pitch and rhythmic content. For further reading on audiation see the journal Principle of music composition XVIII, in particular: Herck, B.V. (2018). Audiation: What to Listen for? in Principles of music composing XVIII, 2018(18), 9-17. http://xn--urnalai-cxb.lmta.lt/en/issue/muzikos-komponavimo-principai-xviii-nuo-audijavimo-link-komponavimo/
7 I use the word potential to indicate an openness as to how the visual score element can be interpreted. It can be a rather direct mapping of the visual to a sonic. Alternatively, it could be an indication of intention or state of mind.
8 I use the term conventional notation to describe the score elements of beamed rhythms, time signatures, western pitch notation, articulation markings etc. A want to avoid the term detailed as I consider the more visual and abstract notation elements to be just as detailed and informative.
9 Bellamy, M. (2013). Developing instrumental sound resources through collaborative compositional practice in Journal for New Music and Culture, 2013(10). http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/id/eprint/18915/