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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Turning Point Ensemble workshop and the concept of community

Just back from Turning Point Ensemble workshop where they read what I've written so far for the Olympic commission. What a great team! A number of issues emerged to do with notation of microtones in purely-tuned music and controlled improvisation. Warning: this discussion is highly musically technical until the last two paragraphs title GRATITUDE, CONTINUITY AND MENTORSHIP.

I had written several passages using low tonic notes over which the natural harmonics are played, sometimes melodically, and at other times in closed-spaced diatonic clusters. The notion is that one can play just intonation music by ear naturally, by simply playing intervals without beating, that is to say the natural sounds of open vibrating strings and pipes. In fact, most musicians do this naturally when they are playing renaissance music or other modal music. I had oversignified the pure intervals by adding two notations to "altered" notes: an encircled number for the number of the natural interval, as well as an altered accidental (altered sharp and flat signs).

It was recommended that only one sign be used and that the numbers are preferable to the altered accidentals. I did raise the point that musicians are used to seeing accidentals in front of notes and so a circled number placed above the stem of a note might be missed, whereas the altered accidental goes right in front of the note. Still the consensus was to go for the encircled numbers.

After some discussion several things became clear: 

1] that musicians can play these well-tuned intervals without extra notation in front of the notes when the harmony is clear and there is no question in the mind of the musicians playing, that they must play the major third and just minor seventh, for example;
2] in music with close harmony composed of neighbouring harmonics, e.g. the 8th through 12th harmonics, and where there is chromatic movement between one chord and the next with shifting root resonance (tonic), indications of exactly which tuning is required, in relation to equal temperement, is desireable. This becomes ever more pertinent when the root note is altered by a quarter-tone;
3] that the ear is the best guide as a general rule;
4] that making intervals sound pure takes only a very minor adjustment in relation to equal temperment, and that sometimes the musician may find that they have already made the adjustment naturally in the musical context.

An absence or paucity of information will raise too many questions among musicians. So I tend to provide as much information as possible.  In this case, I learned that once the concept is understood, and the intention of the music is clear, that efficient communication is the most important consideration in the writing of the score, the actual notation used to communicate to the performer.


Professional workshops of this kind are invaluable to the creative process. I was able to work with the musicians on a certain section of the piece that I had simply stopped writing. I had arrived at a point in the music where I wanted a dense undulating mass of low growling sound over which the high winds play very rapid passages that whip around in circular patterns. I composed controlled chaos and then asked the conductor to stop conducting the beat, but asked the musicians to continue playing. The written music is what I call my textural canonic technique, whereby large lava-like sound masses behave in a way that is superficially chaotic, but with an underlying self-similarity of material that allows movement between complete compositional control and improvisation. The objective of this kind of music is to get the listener to listen into the details of the sound composition: the interaction of small changes in sound qualities among the instruments, and new gestural relationships between instrument groups (e.g. snap pizz on strings and random strokes on the drum); and at another perceptual level, a kind of "everybody-talking-at-once-saying-the-same-thing phenomenon.
This kind of music comes out of my experience working directly with sounds in my electroacoustic music studio, where the behaviour of sound, as observed in different types of recorded sounds, is the source for inspiration (i.e. the energy and colour of sound itself). In this way, when the right sonic "situation" is set up in the composed music, it is possible to leave the written music as is and simply ask the musicians to change their way of playing from time to time, e.g. now play the same passage but sometimes attack the first note in an exaggerated way, say, with snap pizz, sul ponticello, loud staccato, etc.

One last thing about continuity in the arts: this group of musicians has played together now for many years for the love of the music and exploration of The New. The working situation that I enjoyed today is the result of community building in the arts. This sense of community and a desire to communicate with an audience is what culture is all about. The human spirit shines through these experiences because the situation is made right. My gratitude goes to all of the musicians and to conductor Owen Underhill, who all worked hard, asked tough questions, and helped us all to understand how to put this music together. This has helped me to see how I might continue to write the rest of the piece. And my heartfelt thanks to Rob McLeod and the students of Seycove Community School in North Vancouver for hosting the event, to Jeremy Berkman for his inspired administration of the event, and to composer Linda Catlin Smith – whose beautiful work for voice and orchestra Cut Flowers was workshopped before mine – for staying to listen to my music and for being a second set of ears to hear, to comment, and especially to discuss the effectiveness of the writing (not to forget the reminders at the end of the improvisation/composition section of my "lava music")!

All of this is only possible because of an artistic continuity and comradery that occurs through mentorship. Mentorship ensures continuity and community. Once this concept is embraced, mentorship works in all directions: young artists admire more senior or seasoned artists and learn from them. And they, in turn inspire not only the next generation, but then they become mentors to their own mentors, who see in the younger generation experiences that they themselves now want to embrace. In this way a whole culture is built up and a great flowering takes place. This celebration of the human spirit is what is torn down by suited men who ask to see your bottom line, rather than attend your concert series.