Saturday, 5 November 2016

Closing Workshops

This month we held two performance workshops as the closing events of this funded phase of the project. Shelley came up to Yorkshire on October 26–27 for a public concert and workshop with improvisers at the Hyde Park Book Club in Leeds, and a closed workshop with singers from HOOT in Huddersfield; a charity working with music and wellbeing for adults with mental health issues. Both of these sessions allowed us to develop performance ideas that we had explored a little with Ben and Harley in the studio in Leeds in September, and led to much new insight and understanding about how these scores could work for performers. In both cases also we found ourselves wanting more time to properly nuance the installation and interpretations, but each certainly provided a good platform for further research.

Hyde Park Book Club, Leeds, 26th October evening gig.

This was arranged through LIME (Leeds Improvised Music and Experimentation) by Harley Johnson as support for free-improvisation trio The Custodians of the Realm. The plan was to have an hour-long workshop at the start with local improvisers to develop possible readings of the score, then to have some performances that would explore these. Unfortunately we ended-up being quite pressed for time as we only had an hour to prepare the space and set up the glass and light. This meant that we didn’t really have time to get the optimum projection for the light to find the best score images; it could have been better. That said, I have to credit the players for stepping up fearlessly and getting into the challenge.
Photo Michael Coldwell
We were joined by four improvisers, most of whom hadn’t played together before; clarinet, guitar, two double-bass, and myself [Scott] on cello. I tried to apply the workshop structure from our previous studio session here — to initially constrain the musicians’ ways of improvising by limiting them to playing timbral/dynamic variations on a single pitch, or limiting pitch choice to just three pitches — but it didn’t work as well in this situation so we soon moved on to more free responses. I think this is because there was an audience present. The subsequent improvised responses worked well, and the players were happy to discuss after how they were reading the scores. Time constraints meant that the workshop turned into a performance, but because we were discussing between performances it wasn’t really a gig and wasn’t quite a workshop, which was not ideal; or at least it felt like it may have been confusing for an audience. I was also unhappy with trying to direct the workshop aspects, and play at the same time, I need to work on that.

That said, the audience seemed to really enjoy it. We had many positive comments after about the music itself, and about how rare it is to have a chance to see the process being discussed live. The music was – as many improvisation sessions are – a mix of self-conscious exploration and moments of real beauty when players came together and were fluidly interacting between themselves and the score.
Photo Michael Coldwell
As a player myself in this instance I found that playing the whole expanse of the light score is quite challenging (this might be just me though…) There were moments when I could really lock into graphic processes with something that worked musically, but often it was difficult to find the balance between a response that isn’t too literal (e.g. mimicking a moving light with a gliss) and not abstract to the point where the score becomes an afterthought: of course perhaps I also just need to play more and theorise less. This experience feeds into my general thought that we should do more in performing this project with using small additional score-surfaces that can be used to isolate a small section of the overall image, and reduce the amount of complex visual information. So far we have used small plates of frosted glass for this, we will look into using other diaphanous materials such as gauze to isolate sections. This should also allow for the possibility of using the full image, and not obscure the full image from audience.

As a first attempt for the project of working with a group of players, and in workshopping the scores in a live environment, this was a somewhat trial-by-fire affair, but we learned a lot from it. Here's a brief excerpt: most of the musicians are out of shot.

HOOT - Huddersfield: 27th October daytime workshop

The following day we had a morning workshop with HOOT, a creative arts organisation in Huddersfield who work with adults with mental health issues. We had about 17 people in the workshop, which was maybe slightly too big but it worked well, and the HOOT people were very comfortable working together so it made the workshop run smoother. We were hampered a little again by limited setup time, but this was not as problematic as the night before, and in the end it made sense for us to work with just one glass piece so the limited time had less of an impact.

Part of the impetus for this workshop was that HOOT’s cross-arts practice made them open to trying new things, and they’re all very used to group singing, which made that the natural approach for the day. Ultimately, one of the big discoveries of the day was that the voice is an especially good medium for this project, due to the flexibility of timbres it can produce (more on this later), and to its being in some ways more intuitive and democratic/open.

The HOOT group were made up of specialists from many different art-forms, including music, dance, and visual-arts. Their visual-art lead had brought some drawing materials should the possibility for sketching arise, and we agreed that this would be an excellent way to start the session. After some much needed vocal warmup exercises (which also helped to stretch the possibilities of vocal timbre) we decided the best way ‘into’ the light-scores would be ask everyone to draw parts of the score: we also stopped the turntable so that the score was static, easier to draw. This was a very interesting exercise because it loosened people up, and got them thinking visually to engage with the projected image before trying to map the forms sonically.

Photo Sila Korukoglu

We then tried another exercise in mapping the image to voice sounds. We opened this exercise by considering what ‘light’ and ‘dark’ might sound like in the voice, and looked for ways to stretch the vocal timbre and explore many possible sounds. We then moved on to vocalising some of the drawings. To make it easier for the group we did this by ‘conducting’ a path across the drawing using a laser pointer. This exercise worked very well in creating a group-response to the piece that clearly articulated light, dark, and many points between. The crossings from light to dark were variously sudden or gradual, and covered many textures, all of which were appropriately vocalised. An interesting outcome of this was that the group had a ‘sound’ — or a response — for ‘white’, or the paper background. We considered how this might map to the actual light scores where the gradation between light and dark was not as simple, and where non-light might mean silence.

After a tea and biscuit break we moved on to working with the light score itself. We found the earlier strategy of following a point had worked well so we continued with this. To make it work with the revolving light score we instead put some points (blu-tak…) on the projection wall and the groups responded to the forms that crossed or interacted with those points. We also split the singers up into three groups, each with their own point on the wall. All of this worked very well, and as the workshop progressed the singers found some more nuanced ways of responding to the scores, but also suffered a little from the fatigue of singing lots of long sounds: I think this the nuanced interpretation really requires more time, perhaps a full-day workshop. I [Scott] was particularly happy with an analogy between focused light caustics and highly filtered vocal sound; using the tongue or mouth-shape to filter the sound energy and focus it in one specific spectral area, making it strongly ‘nasal’ or similar. Several people were making this work well, it might be something I explore more fully in the future, possibly with specialist singers.

Overall, this was a very exciting session with excellent learning outcomes. The structure was good, the second-half was rushed a little because we spent a lot of time initially working with voice (which was valuable in itself), but I’d like to spend more time on consideration of mapping the drawn forms and vocal forms. The drawing session was certainly productive here, we’ll do this again and look to expand the range of ‘mark-making’ on paper as an analogy to extending the voice.

It was hard to get to a nuanced interpretation of the glass score, but this just needed more time. Following fixed point (or moving pointer on still image – initial experiment) worked very well, is this analogous to using small projection space (sandblasted glass etc). Splitting into groups worked well, allows them to find their own space in the work, but still making it a ‘group’ performance where they support each other and reach consensus about how to proceed as a group.

The knowledge exchange in the HOOT session especially was useful. We learned a lot from their multi-disciplinary approach, and they found our project interesting because it allowed them to take overlapping approaches with different disciplines and expertises.
Photo Michael Coldwell

Conclusions and Next Steps: 

Two very productive sessions, as much for the weak-points they exposed as for the successes they generated. As mentioned at the start of this post, both of these sessions had timing issues, both in terms of setup time (we need more…) and development/rehearsal time (we need more…). We resolve to plan better for installation: planning more time to setup and allow our work time to settle into the space. In both of these cases we rushed setting up and didn’t manage to find the optimal projection, and didn’t have time to setup several glass objects; we got one that worked and had to stick with that. As mentioned in previous blogs, this never changes, we always need at least 90mins to set up the light.

This funded phase of the project is now over, so we take a moment to thank TCCE for their support in creating this opportunity, it has really helped us to move the project forward, and has impacts on  that spill into our respective solo practices. Of course we will continue the project because we love it and because we keep learning new things and finding new approaches. Our next steps are some concerts in December (see below) where we work with more experienced players, and using that experience then to formulate the next phase of the project towards appropriate funding streams. We will be looking for longer periods of work within a space (possibly some residency work?) so that we can fully embed in a space and optimise how the light will work with the space and the objects, and we will look for longer rehearsal periods with the musicians so that they too can become embedded in the work, and find their own responses that are nuanced and fluid.


Sunday Dec. 4th 4:00–6:00 (doors 3.30) at the Hundred Years Gallery in London, with Mira Benjamin (violin), Dominic Lash (bass), and Scott (feedback guitar & cello). I’ve worked a lot with both Mira and Dom before, and Dom has played solo versions of the glass scores on two previous occasions (HCMF and Circus Gallery). This should allow us to develop several nuanced readings reasonably quickly.

Dec 7th 5.15–6.15 at the PATS Building, University of Surrey (Guildford), performers TBC. Presented as part of the Sounds Between festival, ‘A one-day festival exploring interdisciplinary encounters in music composition’. This performance came out of our presentation in the AHRC Network Music Composition as Interdisciplinary Practice. Free entry but booking advised (see link above).

sounds between festival poster

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