Bowie was is my icon. He represents the possibilities of creation and curiosity. Growing up and feeling like a very awkward person on this planet, it was Bowie that showed me that normal was boring and actually I could be anything I wanted, anything I could imagine. A shy Australian girl raised in a religious community, I imagined myself a life making music in Europe - he was my beacon for that journey. He continues to be that beacon of inspiration, a role model for the kind of musician and person I aspire to be: not a chameleon, the world reconfigured around him; post-modern without contempt or cynicsm for his sources; enthusiastic, curious and gleeful in his creativities, no matter what they were; dancing over genre boundaries like they don’t exist (which of course they don’t). The man had class. Even his death was a masterpiece. I will miss having him there on the planet with me.
Placing personal tributes at the mural in Brixton with my great friends Liz and Jake
Bluebird/Marlene themed hair by Sarah Dunn for the Bowie tribute concert at Surya in London
A few weeks later and I was in NYC, enjoying a week mooching around the NYU music department. I even got some time to work on some cues for the upcoming film Notes on Blindness, which will be playing at Sundance later this month.
Just got back from a trip to Australia where I got to see my much-missed family in QLD, complete my PhD thesis review milestone at UQ, enjoy the warmth of the sun, see some friends and celebrate my 34th birthday in Sydney. While in Sydney I got to meet up with Peter Hollo (online friend, fellow musician and radio presenter) to chat about music, ideas and things for his programme 'Utility Fog' for Sydney FBi 94.5FM. You can listen to a replay/podcast that conversation, and the whole show online here.
Bigo & Twigetti has been asking artists on the label to remix each other's tracks, with a compilation of the results being released later in the year. My remix effort was a chopped up version of 'Fighters' by Alice & Michi, a small clip of which you can listen to here on Bigo & Twigetti's soundcloud.
Meanwhile excitement builds (in my mind most of all) for the concert featuring the world premiere of 'Kick', performed by the all-Australian London-based chamber orchestra Ruthless Jabiru, hosted by the Government of Western Australia. The concert will be held at Australia House in London on the 9th of May - information about tickets/RSVP and the rest of the programme can be found here. The concert has been written about in the Australian Times, too.
Just found this under a pile of old scores in my writing room. This mind map is from before the start of Machines, and it's interesting (for me, at least) to see this now after the thing is finished and out, comparing the intentions against the reality. Also shows my penchant for brightly coloured felt tip pens.
If you're interested in that sort of thing, CLICK HERE to see the lyric sheets in full, as sung on the album "Machines", with the original spam messages alongside.
It's not that I want people to tell me I'm great all the time, don't get me wrong. It's just that working in a vacuum can breed some serious insecurity. I was speaking to a colleague about this earlier today and he told me the story of his friend who was such a perfectionist that he would never show his creative work to anyone - so wary of people's judgements made on his unfinished work - and he never finished anything. I can relate to that logic a little bit, but in my context those ideas throw a slightly more existential curve: just like the tree falling in the forest when no-one's around, am I still a composer if no-one ever hears the stuff I write?
It's all a bit sad to admit, really. The romantic ideal composer version of me would not be bothered so much. She would be sure of the quality of her own ideas and sod the rest. Everything she wrote would be formed with a clarity of purpose; it would say exactly what she intended it to say and it wouldn't matter so much what people think because she would have prioritised her own artistic satisfaction above all else. If only I was that confident; if only I was so convinced what I was doing wasn't rubbish... but the subjectivity of my experience leads me to question myself all too often. A few times I have been caught up in a project that at the time I thought had potential to be great, but with a bit of hindsight could clearly see was flawed and weak. A horrible feeling.
But despite appearances, I am not writing this to moan or complain. I'm writing this to help myself get a grip and stop being such a wuss. Dealing with feedback and handling criticism is obviously a big part of the job description and I should use this opportunity to get my priorities straight. Am I writing music to make people like me? Is it just about the money and commercial projects? Am I doing it solely to please and impress a client or commissioner?... or do I actually want to say something that reflects my own feelings and perspectives on shit? Honestly, I want it to be the latter more than anything else.
It may not look like it, judging by the action on this blog/site, but for the last 4 to 5 months I have been working my little bum off: a feature length film score that, when delivered, felt like 40 lbs of my own flesh (I enjoyed it immensely don't get me wrong, but maaan that was a lot of music). In addition, and after almost a year of faffing about, I finished and delivered demos and scores of the string quartet to the players. I also drafted a suite of 3 lyric pieces for saxophone trio, scored and sent. So far I've not heard anything from anyone about any of it - for various understandable and good reasons (people moving house, people becoming seriously ill, assorted technical dramas, etc), but still... nothing.
And I'm doing ok, I think. Im learning to trust my own good taste. It's a work in progress.
Sometimes, when someone tells me they make art, I might expect the stuff they make will be "Ok...". Maybe it's just me and my pessimistic outlook on life, but I often have low expectations when it comes to these things (it's a good way to be, since most of the time I'm pleasantly surprised, which is a nice reaction, right?). These arty people show you their latest thing and you're all "Oh wow, that's great!" but in your head you're not really thinking it's truly great art, only that its great that they are pursuing creative endeavours in general. I've been in bands and struggling to have my music heard for years - some of it not very good at all - so I know what it feels like to be humoured by your mates. And of course you're grateful for it, that's what your mates are there for. We all need encouragement.
But then there are people that come into your life who are so good that they knock you on your arse, and you can't believe they are working day-jobs in Bedford and not being shown at the Tate. A person who forces you to recalibrate your scale of superlatives (that handmade coffee cup you liked on Facebook is suddenly not so literally "awesome", for example). Kristian Purcell is such a person. A proper artist. I also have the honour of calling him my friend.
I met Kristian rather unglamourously, as a result of trolling Myspace for potential musical collaborators. This was back in 2007 when Myspace was still sort of happening, but also sort of starting to shrivel and die. He lived in Bedford, he liked Bowie, he could sing and play guitar. That was enough for us (well, enough for me - I'm sure Matt would prefer the Bowie connection didn't exist, since he has had to endure both of us drunkenly screeching our way through "Teenage Wildlife" at least a dozen times to date. I don't think he finds it amusing, which is a shame since I'll probably be inclined to do this as often as I'm drunk on red wine for the rest of my life). He joined the band, we gigged a little bit, wrote some music together and made a record in the spare room of my house. He worked various day jobs, teaching contracts and working at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum; he wasn't famous or critically lauded or making any money from his wonderful art and it didn't seem right.
I remember when he transformed the Wellington Street house he was living in at the time into a makeshift gallery and invited the town to see (and possibly buy) his work. It was a genius bit of initiative, and Matt and I both felt like arseholes for trying to haggle down the prices of the two small pieces we ended up buying that night. Mates rates? C'mon we're all struggling artists here... I also remember sitting with Kristian in the Gordon Arms a few days after Xmas 2008, having a deep discussion about music and art and what the hell we were doing with our lives. We're both the same age, and we share the same frustrations that stem from being unknown, from dealing with universal apathy on a daily basis, the fears that we might have missed our opportunity to be successful. During the course of that conversation we discussed studying our disciplines again and maybe I should take the plunge with the PhD. Within months that wishful drunken chatter had become a reality for me, a decision that (I feel) has put me on the right track with my career.
Kristian deserves success because his art is great. And it's getting better. If you're reading this and you're not familiar with his work, you need to check it out immediately. If you have the means to, invest in one of his pieces now - they're bound to be worth stupid amounts of money one day (chat to him, he might be able to do "mate's rates"). Comment on his blog, because god knows we all need a bit of encouragement.
And the musical collaboration continues, sort of. There are wishy-washy plans to record new material with the band in the new year, but a far more concrete prospect is a gig we'll be playing together at Bedford Esquires on the 20th of November (this Saturday night). It's more a Kristian Purcell solo gig with me accompanying on piano. I think we're even doing a couple of Helzuki songs from that record we made in my spare room in 2008. Should be fun to bust out the furry red stage piano once again, it's been too long.
UPDATE: GIg has been and gone, and here's a review
"My first recycling experiment" or "how I hacked up Rob Davidson's String Quartet beyond recognition"
(What I'm talking about is the subject of that last blog of mine - this whole idea of a composition evolving, the recorded artefact becoming the starting point for a new creation.)
So I decided to experiment, to find out how easy it is to chop and manipulate an existing recording in order to create something completely different. My string quartet is not finished, so I stole Rob Davidson's String Quartet - a live recording that had some really interesting room ambience in the mix, and some fun audience sounds (coughing, sneezing, etc).
Here's an excerpt from Rob's recording (the opening):
String Quartet - Rob Davdison (Opening/Example) by LeahExperiments
The following experiments/hack jobs were made purely by recycling bits of the above recording, with bits mostly taken from the first movement. In Logic, I used EQ, scissor, time-stretch, reverse, reverb & flex tools to completely mess it up.
Experiment 1 (recycling String Quartet by Rob Davidson) by LeahExperiments
Experiment 2 (recycling String Quartet by Rob Davidson) by LeahExperiments
I'm not sure if the results are good enough to play at the seminar, but I think they are interesting all the same. There are some peculiar dissonances that I wasn't expecting, which resulted from combining notes and chords taken from different places where tunings had slightly shifted in the performance. In some places this is pleasing, in others it definitely grates! When I took a short sample and stretched it a long way it produced a rustling guitar-like effect, which I thought was a happy accident. The limitations in my examples are clear with regard to melody/harmony/tonality - this was partly due to the fact that I chose to focus on a short section of the recording to plunder for samples, but mostly due to me being lazy and opting for drone-based harmony layers and glitchy rhythms.
I’ve been working on this thing on and off for many months now - and I take heart in knowing that Maurice Ravel, whose Quartet in F major is an aspirational model for me with this project, himself took a long time too. Ariella commissioned it back in January 2009, I suspect they think I’ve forgotten about it completely.
The music is pretty much there, the hold up has been in the details - the attention to voice leading, the dynamics, the interior lines. After a spell of being all “Rah, time to get this bitch DONE and DUSTED”, throwing all my notes at the score with a 'that’ll do’ attitude, I’m now actually really enjoying giving it some careful attention. I think it deserves some, and I’m learning so much from the process. An hour spent inside the first movement getting a couple of cadences right, its fun .... not unlike sudoku.
Another aspect that I have been in two minds about has been the final format of the piece. Not wanting to shoehorn technology into it in a desperate bid to make the piece ‘modern’ or to fit in with my PhD research, but at the same time wanting to use the material for experimentation in some way without diminishing the musicality and appeal of the finished work. Then I hit on the solution - recycling! The score that becomes a performance that becomes a recording, and then a recording that becomes fodder for manipulation and restructuring (chopping, splicing, juxtaposing, sampling) that then becomes something completely new.
Then there’s my beloved Aphex Twin and his 26 remixes for cash in which, along with many weird and wonderful things, he gives us a re-imagining of Gavin Bryars’ ‘Sinking of the Titanic’ (he calls it “Raising the Titanic” ) and an eerie mash-up of Philip Glass’ Heroes symphony with the original David Bowie acapella vocal take from 1977. I have always regarded this guy to be a serious composer of new music - I defy anyone who’s actually listened to “drukQs” and his “Selected Ambient Works” to tell me I’m wrong.
I was talking to Rob (my PhD supervisor) recently about the chamber ensemble “Alarm Will Sound’, a group that somehow has the audacious bollocks to attempt to play Aphex Twin’s music live with real instruments. Something people thought was impossible, but they did it! With kettle drums and bassoons! What strikes you when you hear their renditions is how rare the music sounds - no-one would ever compose this stuff from a score, putting notes on a page. It’s a completely different way of composition - made possible by technology - where timbre and texture are king.
In Daniel Levetin’s awesome book “Your Brain on Music”, he reminds us that distinguishing timbre is one of the most sophisticated and important parts of our hearing:
... it is the most important and ecologically relevant feature of auditory events. The timbre of a sound is the principal feature that distinguishes the growl of a lion from the purr of a cat, the crack of thunder from the crash of ocean waves, the voice of a friend from that of a bill collector one is trying to dodge. Timbral discrimination is so acute in humans that most of us can recognize hundreds of different voices. We can even tell whether someone close to us - our mother, our spouse - is happy or sad, healthy or coming down with a cold. ... I believe timbre is at the centre of our appreciation of music”
Traditionally, this aspect was a bit of an unknown to composers who wrote scores. Even though most of us expect violins to have certain timbral qualities, the small differences in sound brought about by various instrument builds, performance idiosyncrasies, effects of spaces on ambience & standing waves, tunings etc are impossible to know. When material is recorded however, then these aspects are known from the outset and very much in the composers control.
I think people are really tuned in to the qualities of sound these days - there’s much talk about the timbral qualities of valve/analogue equipment, the superior listening experience provided by phonograph records or digital audio (depending which side of the fence you sit on) or whatever bit compression your mp3 happens to be to what dithering algorithm you bounce your masters with. Even people who aren’t musicians will comment on a “fat” bass line, a ‘dirty’ synth, a ‘heavy’ guitar part. Beethoven sounds better when played on a Bösendorfer than through a General MIDI module. I’m told that Haydn sounds perfect in the Esterhazy hall.
But back to the quartet... this is where I’m at with it right now - finishing the score, giving my attention to perfecting form, harmony, melodic themes, and all the other details. Once that is done, I eagerly anticipate hearing how Ariella play it, and recording the performance. Then to take that recorded performance apart and build something new with it.
Is it wrong that Sibleius' 'REPRISE' music font on my music gives me the horn? (click --->1 score (08-05-10))
I’m so pleased to finally have them for real in my sticky little mitts and not just via an online applet, I’ve been thumbing through each card in turn, grinning to myself and imagining the crazy situations I could apply the directions to. Let’s draw one right now... it simply says “water”. Yes.
I attended the LCO New “Inspired by Architecture” study day on Monday in London. We assembled on the 9th floor of City Hall, listening to talks from the likes of Diana Burrel, Simon Bainbridge, Richard Scott, Cany Ash, David Gordon, framed by a spectacular view of Tower Bridge, Thames and the City beyond. Then we hopped on a bus and had a look at some modern functional architecture in the East End/Hackney. The idea is to compose a piece for orchestral ensemble inspired by the buildings we saw, the best few to be performed, recorded and published by the LCO early next year.
I love these sorts of things - the light a fire under you to get writing, but without the stress that comes with a real commission. And you get to meet other young composers, get a feel for what they’re trying to say. The issue I have with this work is one of ‘obviousness’... i.e., architecture and music share many concepts and vocabulary (line, form, structure, texture, repetition/pattern, juxtaposition, brightness/darkness/lightness, space/ambience, perspective/depth... the list goes on! The challenge will be to have the music refer to the buildings in an unobvious way, to avoid the whole “that line is this line, that colour is this colour” correlation that always turns out so trite and contrived. The music should maybe latch on to one detail and lose sight of the whole, or tap into the sense of movement and atmosphere, or the air that is divided and trapped within a structure. Or not... we’ll see how it turns out.
I have had some great responses to my wanted ad, and as a result some exciting commissions and collaborations in the pipeline! It’s been a while since I’ve written new music for individual players to perform, and feels strange after doing so much media stuff - the creative freedom is such a welcome change and takes a little getting used to. All this thinking of new work has given me the mojo to finish up my String Quartet for Ariella (finally). Progress!
2009 is rolling along inevitably towards a bleak winter and new year; mid-November already and I can barely remember October at all beyond a general dark cloud of bullshit college stress, being tired and fighting off a cold. Oh, I did go and see "This is it" with Matt on Halloween night - a great film no doubt, so tragic and bittersweet. Left me feeling slightly raw, though. I guess this is our generation's Lennon or Elvis "is gone" moment. Surreal.
|Dudley gets bigger by the day, and he's totally integrated into our lives now, it's hard to imagine what we did without him. Such a sweet pup, Matt and I had a minor scare when he ate a pig's ear a few days ago.... one minute he was happily chewing on it, next thing we knew he had gulped it down and let out a big burp. We freaked out for a bit, not knowing what to do. We looked online - which is probably the one thing a slightly paranoid puppy owner should NEVER do - and scared ourselves silly reading stories of dogs that died because of intestinal blockages, etc. We made such a fuss, but he wasn't bothered. He's a little toughian. Who will never get to nom on a pig's ear again.|
|Finally, I recently dug out some old Rostropovich recordings to compile into a mix tape for a friend - Lady MacBeth of Mtesnk District, the Shosta Cello Concerto and his wonderful recording of Britten's Cello Suites. Too good for words, honestly... I can't even begin to blog about how special these recordings are. I encourage anyone who likes their soviet era music to be bleak, tragicomic, intelligent, powerful and bleeding with raw downcast emotion to seek them out. Particularly the Lady Macbeth double disc from 1979. Perfection.|
... I’ve decided to take myself through a series of lessons in the larger forms in music. I have this fantastic old book by Percy Goetschius (written 1915) that full of lovely composition exercises and I figured while I’m at it I might sharpen up my orchestration (and finally learn how to drive that VSL library properly). I’ve even busted out my old score-pads, something I haven’t used since I was at uni... and found some disturbingly rubbish music scrawled on a few of the pages (I recognized the desperation in the pencil markings, I must have had a portfolio due).
What brings this on? I’ve been writing a lot of miniatures of late - and by that I mean small instrumental works of about 3 - 5 mins in length (think little atmospheric pseudo-classical pop songs in binary form). I think I’ve been slightly frightened to write anything on a larger scale, some formal structures are a bit intimidating when you’re rusty on the rules... but by avoiding them I have been creating music that generally runs out of steam after themes A and B have run their course. In many ways it’s easier when you write for a film or other context, the music there supports a larger narrative or purpose and the composer is almost let off the hook. You just write some themes, agree on the instrumentation and then the rest kinda drives itself.
In the introduction there’s this fab quote from the book:
“The classic designs are not lightly to be overthrown, for they are the cumulative product of a gradually dawning recognition of nature’s musical laws, steadily progressing and crystallizing through the gathering and eliminating experiences of master-minds during many past centuries. It seems reasonable, therefore, to assume that true structural progress cannot be achieved by abandoning these, but rather by building upon them”.
Right on, Percy.
Otherwise I’ve been keeping busy lately working on an arrangement of “forty six & two” (by Tool) for piano solo and string quartet, and working on the soundtrack for a new horror short for David Keith. I’ve also been composing a new batch of examples for my showreel and others that I hope to sell on to music libraries (remember those miniatures I was talking about earlier?). I love Summer holidays, you can get so much done when you don’t have to drag your arse to pesky ‘work’ all the time!
Yes - another boring garden blog, which is really just pics of my early June garden, the strange local cat that has moved in with us and a family of hedgehogs that have built a home under the forsythia.
Fat bums hanging out of feeding bowls.
They all look the same, but there’s definitely at least 2 of them. We call them all “Bunk”.
This is the back door to Bunk’s house. You can kinda see them sleeping inside (well I could at the time, didn’t come out too good in the photo)
Marigolds are out :)
This is our part-time cat, we call him/her “McNulty”
Pansy-town is looking better populated these days.
Pumpkin update: I now realise that I totally planted these guys too close to each-other. oops.
Front door to Bunk’s house. He’s the one who messes up my mulch every night, as you can see here...
Pansy-town and pumpkin village.
View from the house.
This is the wicked BBQ Matt got for free from Gumtree. FREE!! :-o Apparently someone didn’t want to bother restoring it. It’s HUGE! 4 gas burners. Took us one day to sort it out - some people are too damn lazy.
This is the title of my research proposal for admission on the PhD programme at the University of Queensland.
I am ever so excited to be finally starting this thing up! To finally begin seriously discussing and actively creating the music I’d love to hear. Music I’d love to produce. And I’m glad I’ve waited this long, everything about this feels just right - from the possibility of working with Dr Robert Davidson (who starts at UQ in July) to the fact that the college have let me scale back my hours a bit and that I’m finally set up with a great studio to work in after years of moving around and not being settled anywhere. It’s as if the stars have aligned and the universe is letting me know that it’s a good time for me to become a student once again.
“Composers working as freelancers in the world today are increasingly being called upon to understand current technology, to then realise, record and produce their own works in a studio environment. This extra work could be viewed as a chore or ‘necessary evil’, but I prefer to think of it as a wonderful creative opportunity to explore.
New distribution methods continue to proliferate and it is through recordings, rather than concert performances, that composers have a presence in these channels.
The rise and evolution of music technology over the last 50 years has dramatically changed the way music sounds and is experienced by its audience. Recording techniques and the synthesized, sampled, affected, manipulated sounds made possible by new and diverse means have altered the sonic palette - radio, film/TV, music download sites and interactive games have created new contexts for music to be experienced and consumed.
The vast arsenal of music technology tools available today allows experimentation and the exploitation of new sounds, textures and colours. These advancements facilitate the realisation and recording of original music with more ease and less expense, allowing the composer to manipulate recorded performances further by means of digital effects, spatial mixing, looping and sampling.
Hardware such as effects pedals, digital effect sends and MIDI triggers can be implemented into live performances through the close placement of microphones, live mixing and speaker positioning. Sophisticated sample libraries can now effectively imitate the sounds, textures and articulations of a symphony orchestra. New software applications are becoming increasingly abundant, allowing the composer-producer to manipulate sounds in ways previously thought impossible.
As well as being a composer, I am also a music technologist and have access to a project studio containing a collection of useful hardware and industry-standard software applications. I intend to explore the creative possibilities of Logic Pro 8 (sequencing software) for sound creation and 5.1 mixing, the KAOSS pad for live filter effects in recording and performance, Melodyne (pitch and rhythm manipulation) and Pro-Tools (digital audio workstation) for beat-detection, mixing and mastering.
An important question in my research is “what production strategies are effective in communicating new musical ideas to a wide audience”. In addition to compositional work, I will address this question through several modes of engagement with current knowledge in studio production. Firstly I will conduct a literature review of trade and scholarly journals dealing with compositional approaches to studio production. Secondly, I will conduct qualitative research in the form of interviews with practitioners including engineers, composer-producers, electro-acoustic performers and producers.
The expected outcomes of this work will be a folio of compositions comprising:
· String Quartet
· Collection of Experimental Etudes
· An instrumental “concept album” that can be scored for ensemble performance
· Feature length film score
· Symphonic work
In addition to the folio, I will complete an investigation into the challenges and unique opportunities for creativity that affect composers in the 21st century.”
I hope they like my ideas... I will keep you all posted on how I go.
Going through some old photos I found these little mysteries from 2007. This is me sealing some kind of deal with the legendary producer Tony Visconti (Bowie/Bolan), the particulars of which I can’t exactly recall since I was massively inebriated at the time. I think it was something to do with him coming to do a talk at my uni campus next time he was in the UK, though I’m sure he just thinks I’m some crazy drunk chick harassing him and didn’t take it seriously.
As I don’t happen to recall (but am told), the night concluded with me being kicked out of this establishment.
You see... in America everything is big, you order a shot of neat whiskey is receive a half-pint, more if you tip them nicely. This is the reason why I can never live in America.
What does the modern ear wish to listen to? Should that even matter or influence anything? Does the music have to be “smart” and “new” and “codified” to be worth anyone’s time? It’s kinda funny that I’m reading this collection of essays now, when next on my pile of books to read is Schoenberg’s own “Style & Idea” collection. For now I will remain as confused as ever over postmodernism, and what the hell that word actually means.
In the meantime, I love this quote by Roger Scruton:
“ ...the elements of musical order still retain their appeal. Even in the accelerated conditions of modern life-- and especially in those conditions-- people understand repetition, they understand the rhythmical figure; they respond to the pure intervals of fifth and fourth; their attention can be captured by strophic melodies and dance rhythms. To use these as your raw materials is not to cheapen music, but to begin from the point where music makes contact with life.”
Happy and busy with a handful of quite enjoyable projects right now. It is strange to be working on so many different things at once, and it’s weird how the same melodies and textures are coming out in all of these various projects, as if I’m really only writing one piece in many forms. As a break from the relentless music making, I’ve been busy sewing up some snarky crosstitch samplers to hang around my home (just finished the ‘irony’ one).
Here are a few that I still have lying around (I tend to give the best ones away to my friends)...
In other news, here’s a random list of things that are currently knocking about in my brain: excitement over the upcoming Morrissey tour; wishing the warmer weather would stay; wondering if I should finally go part-time at work; wanting a puppy for my 30th birthday; wondering if it is the right time to plant my vegetable patch; should I dye my hair red; should I continue resisting twitter; wouldn’t a nice hot bath right about now be so lovely. I wish the answer to all of these things is yes.