D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y was premiered on 31 October 2015. An excerpt from the live performance can be heard here:
D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y (15′) for mezzo soprano, piano and percussion was commissioned by Emilia Sitarz in Warsaw. She asked me to compose a work for performance at Królikarnia Museum in Warsaw as part of a two-day festival she was curating. Part of the brief was to exploit the full potential of the museum’s layout, requiring the performers to move from room to room independently of one another.
Image: layout of ground floor of museum
During the early stages of devising the piece I wrote a short article about the project for Music’s research blog at the University of Glasgow. This can be found here.
The commission presented numerous opportunities as well as challenges. The possibility of layering contrasting resonant spaces (resulting from musicians playing in different rooms) was appealing to me, as was the potential to involve elements of aleatory. But along with these opportunities came a range of practical problems which required careful thought and planning to overcome.
The piece’s instrumentation alone posed certain challenges. Perhaps the most obvious hurdle was the inherent immobility of a grand piano and it took some time for me to devise a scheme around this. I was more easily able to come to terms with the constraints on movment posed by larger percussion (eg. marimba), given the potential to construct different setups in each room as well as performing on small portable instruments (such as bells and claves) when moving between stations.
How “prescribed” should material be? To what extent should details be fixed in notation, and what method(s) should I employ? Should there be a score at all, or rather, independently-conceived parts that coincide in spontaneous and unpredictable ways? And as a corollary of this, what impact might such freedom between the lines present to performers, in particular the singer, given that she could not rely on fixed harmonic reference points? Where should the audience be located? Should they be encouraged to move about the space as well? These are all questions that were swimming around in my mind from the very start of the project.
The text comprises three poems by E. E. Cumings: D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y, enter no(silence is the blood whose flesh, and timeless from COMPLETE POEMS: 1904-1962 (edited by George J. Firmage). My primary criterion during the process of selecting a text for this piece was to find something highly abstract and anti-narrative, a text that would invite focus on the sonic qualities of verbal language. I had settled on these three poems very early in the creative process to allow time for permission to be granted from the publishers of Cummings’s work.
To some extent this piece can be discussed within the context of the substantial body of research carried out already by practitioners in the sonic arts. More recent examples of multichannel spatialised pieces (since the pioneering work by Xenakis and Varèse for the Philips Pavillion in Brussels in 1958) include work by Ewan Stefani and Hans Tutschku. Where my work distinguishes itself from this field, though, is of course through the method of employing live instrumental performance as opposed to multichannel diffusion. An example of another composer who has embraced spatialised instrumental performance is Javier Alvarez who in 2002 composed a piece for performance by the Scottish Flute Trio in the Lighthouse in Glasgow taking advantage of its many levels and atrium criss-crossed by escalators.
These take the form of individual parts and upon the request of the performers I also produced a score. From early in the composing process I had envisioned employing considerable freedom in terms of notation. I had at one point considered using “mobiles” and indeterminate ordering of materials, perhaps associating different materials with particular rooms. I retreated from this idea largely for pragmatic reasons (relatively limited rehearsal time), but it is something I am considering returning to in the next piece in this series (planned for 2018). Whilst the ordering of events is therefore fixed in this piece, I opted to devise parts that are intended to mingle together freely and loosely in temporal relation to each other through use of independent tempi and passages of indeterminate duration (eg. vibraphone during the second “song”). There are a number of landmark events where the three performers should aim to align, for example, at the beginnings of each of the three poems. I was interested to explore the role of cue events, to require players to listen for key points in each others’ parts, aware that at times it might be a strain for them to hear each other when situated in different rooms. I considered their physical separation as a parameter to be embraced and exploited, and so it felt appropriate to pursue a degree of indeterminacy in terms of vertical relationship between players’ parts.
The score is intended only as an approximation of how the parts might align in performance (similar to the construction of Lutosławski’s String Quartet.
Perhaps the greatest challenge during rehearsals concerned the internal pacing of each part to achieve alignment at negotiated coordination points. Also, the absence of fixed vertical relationships between the parts posed a challenge in particular to the singer in terms of locating her line reliably within the harmonic context of the other two players’ parts. Barbara’s solution to this was to carry a small tone generator with discreet earpiece to trigger cue notes where required.
Reflections on the performance
My piece was the last piece on the programme which consisted of:
Wojtek Blecharz – Blacksnowfalls
Peter Ablinger Instrument & Voice
Tansy Davies from the Troubairitz cycle: What I write now, Since I refused
Wojtek Ziemowit Zych – Zmienna ulotna [Fickle and Fleeting] – premiere
John Cage The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
Vladimir Rannev An eine, die vorüberging
Jane Stanley D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y – premiere
There were approximately 50 people who attended the performance. It was left to the audience to situate themselves in the space. There was a small number of chairs set up in one of the spaces, but (quite deliberately) not a sufficient number to accommodate everyone, so as to subtly encourage listeners to drift about the space during the concert. Both my piece and that by Wojtek Ziemowit Zych were composed specifically for the Królikarnia interior and in both these pieces the performers circulated from room to room, presenting listeners with the dilemma of whether to follow behind any of the musicians as they moved or to remain in a fixed position. The remaining pieces did not involve motion, each piece instead taking place in a different room (eg. Tansy Davies’s piece was performed in the rotunda, and Vladimir Rannev’s piece took place in the larger rectangular room to the rear of the rotunda).
What I found simultaneously interesting but also quite confronting was the aforementioned “dilemma” of whether to move or not move as an audience member during my own piece (and that by Wojtek Ziemowit Zych). Leading up to the concert it had been my intention to ambulate during the performance of my piece with a handheld (Zoom) recorder to make a documentary recording for my own research purposes. When it came to doing this I confess I felt as though I was intruding on the listening environment of the rest of the audience, especially because my work projects a delicate, generally soft and subtle soundworld. As an audience we were welcome to move about (although I wonder in retrospect if this could have been made clearer to everyone). I was keenly aware of the sound of my own (and others’) footsteps, and I think my sensitivity to this was heightened given that it was my own work we were listening to. The convention of remaining respectfully still (either sitting or standing) during a performance is so ingrained into us that very few seemed to strike out and move around, and a fellow audience member expressed a similar feeling to me following the concert.
The reward for putting myself through the experience of mobilising myself during the listening experience however, was to discover a number of striking effects relating to texture (eg. a polyphony of resonance) and sound image which to a great extent I was unable to predict during the creation of the work. In the excerpt above it is possible to hear one such effect, of the voice becoming subtly “masked”, seeping gently from a relatively “dry” acoustic into a more resonant space in the distance (c. 1:07). During this part of the performance I positioned myself in one of the smaller wood-floored rooms and remained stationary whilst the singer drifted slowly from this room to the rotunda.
D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y is the first in what I anticipate will be a series of works investigating spatialised performance. Another piece developing these lines of exploration is planned for performance and recording in 2018. In addition to investigating issues of space in D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y, another potentially very interesting aspect emerged which I anticipate will play a significant part in my working method in future pieces concerning the manner in which I select and arrange my materials. A journal article discussing this process is currently in development.
From left: Magdalena Kordylasińska (percussion), Emilia Sitarz (piano), Barbara Kinga Majewska (mezzo soprano), and Robert Migas (sound design)
Promotional video about the festival (shows the three performers knocking down one the temporary wall in the museum that covered the door leading between the rotunda and rear rectangular room)