D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y (2015/2018) is a composition for mezzo soprano, piano and percussion setting three poems by E.E.Cummings. This work is the product of my interests both in spatialised performance and socially-mediated composition process. The following discussion aims to show how my piece originated as an exploration of composition for spatialised performance, but then turned towards the idea of socially-mediated composition process as a focus for investigation. This shift in focus emerged through the process of revising material three years following its premiere in Warsaw (Królikarnia Museum) to a different performance venue in 2018 (the Memorial Chapel at the University of Glasgow). The winding journey in the evolution of this piece has given rise to numerous discoveries and realisations concerning my technique, process and approaches to collaboration with performers which continue to shape my work.
Context of the original 2015 commission and its execution
The context of the 2015 commission led to me focussing on space as a primary concern. I was asked by pianist Emilia Sitarz to compose a work of c.13 mins duration for herself with mezzo soprano (Barbara Kinga Majewska) and percussion (Magdalena Kordylasińska). Part of the brief for this commission was to compose a piece that enabled the performers to move to different locations in the performance space. Emilia sets out the key elements of this commission in an email from 24 November 2014:
Initial research questions:
A question that occurred to me during the very early stages of thinking about this piece was
- How does the prospect of writing for performers who are mobile in the performance space affect the approach to composition?
At the same time, I also identified a number of opportunities afforded by this situation. The possibility of layering contrasting resonant spaces (resulting from musicians playing in different rooms) was appealing to me, as was the general principle of creating textures through a layering process. Expressed as research questions then:
- What sorts of sonic results can be generated by harnessing the potential to explore layered acoustics (where performers are situation in different rooms) and what is the most effective way to do this (how prescribed should the performers’ movements be?
- What sorts of textural results can be produced through layering parts that have discrete and independent tempi, and/or involve indeterminate form?
Along with these opportunities, however, 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 movement 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.
Other practical considerations that occurred to me included:
- How “prescribed” should material be?
- To what extent should details be fixed in notation, and what method(s) should be employed?
- Can/should there be a score? Would it be more appropriate to present the piece as independent 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? For example, harmonic reference points will be less predictable for the singer, in an indeterminate context.
- Where should the audience be located? Should they be encouraged to move throughout the space as well?
Planning and scoping: April 2015
An initial stage of creative exchange and scoping took place in 18-24 April 2015.
I visited Warsaw to meet with the Emilia, Magda, Barbara, along with Robert Migas (sound engineer) to discuss plans for the piece, to workshop some material (see example below), and to explore the interior of Królikarnia museum both in terms of its layout and acoustic properties. I was eager to experiment with some different configurations (both in terms of performer location and audience position), as well as to develop an understanding of how sounds in this particular space might blend and balance in different locations.
The museum director Agnieszka Tarasiuk kindly allowed us to visit the museum on Monday when it is normally closed to the public. I had familiarised myself already with a number of floor plans of the museum. The ground floor comprises a marble-floored rotunda with a high vaulted ceiling, leading to a number of smaller wooden-floored rooms.
Working with a mixture of ideas I had sketched for voice, claves and small bells as well as their own free improvisation, we made some initial experiments in playing while moving throughout the space, in and out of rooms independently. I made a documentary recording on my Zoom H4n of myself walking around while they played/walked.
While they played and moved, Robert (sound engineer) and I tested various configurations in terms of positioning the audience in relation to the performers. We tested three different scenarios:
1) the performers positioned in three of the rooms surrounding the central round room (rotunda) with listeners located in the rotunda,
2) listeners positioned in two different surrounding rooms, the performers processing slowly clockwise throughout the rooms, and
3) listeners situated in the rotunda, the performers moving independently throughout all rooms surrounding the rotunda, but waiting until the end to enter the rotunda.
Of these options there was a clear consensus that the third option was most pleasing from a listener’s point of view. Based in the rotunda, an audience will hear the three different parts drifting mysteriously into this central space, mediated by its resonant acoustic. The second option seemed to be the least satisfying as a listener, due to partly to the drier acoustic but also for the reason that we were able to see each performer as she processed through our room in turn.
The words “call, listen and communication” in Emilia’s brief (see email above) served as an impetus to incorporate elements of indeterminacy, in particular, to base the form of the piece around cues that trigger successive musical events. A very early vision for the piece involved a sort of ‘pick-a-path’ form (an indeterminate form comprising a set of a set of unordered events). The form would therefore be different each time the piece was performed and would be the result of spontaneous decisions made by the three performers. This sort of approach is reminiscent of that adopted by David Lumsdaine in his piece for piano and percussion Kangaroo Hunt (1971), or indeed, the open-form pieces by Earle Brown such as Modules I and II.
For reasons that I can only partly explain however, I opted not to pursue an indeterminate form. I think the fact that I had little previous experience with writing ‘open form’ music had something to do with this, as well as a self-imposed pressure to deliver a conventional linear score. Also in the background was a nervousness about writing music for voice, and a sensitive awareness of challenges faced by singers. I was acutely aware of (but at the same time) puzzled by how the mezzo soprano would successfully ‘find her notes’ in an open form piece, where the harmonic context around her lines would be different each time the piece was played. As an early test of a notational approach, I presented the following passage (to the percussionist and pianist) during my April trip:
Notation for 2015 version
Regarding my approach to notating material for passages where the players are moving (and holding/playing portable instruments), I had not yet gone as far as assigning very open material (in the 2018 version I provide very short fragments that serve as a foundation for improvisation). Rather, I presented the pianist with the following part (for the passage where she plays finger cymbals):
In the 2015 performance the pianist understandably treated the passage for finger cymbals as indicative/suggestive, and delivered a highly sensitive but improvised interpretation (See score example 3).
I had also gone to the lengths of assembling a score. Given the highly independent properties of individual parts, not least the presence of individual tempo markings, it was not possible to produce a score in my usual type-setting programme (Sibelius). It was necessary, instead, to use an image editing programme (GIMP). This involved a very painstaking and time-consuming process of digitally cutting up the parts into fragments and then attempting to position material for the three players on pages where I anticipated they would coincide (taking into account tempi and meters). This representation was always going to be approximate at best, not least because the spacing of durations in the initial type-setting did not reflect actual clock-time.
Below are some sample pages from the attempted 2015 score:
Initially, the three parts were conceived around in the same tempo, so alignment was unproblematic and was produced using Sibelius:
But from the point at which the players start to engage with independent tempi, the visual organisation of the parts into score format begins to become problematic:
And by page 16, visual representation of anticipated alignment had become very inaccurate. I suspected as much at the point of producing the score, but I think what drove me to expend this effort was a misplaced value on volume (of score pages), and also a reluctance to relinquish control.
Rehearsing in Warsaw 2015
Unsurprisingly, at the first rehearsal in Warsaw it became immediately apparent that any attempt by the performers to play from the score that I had assembled was entirely futile.
The visual alignment of parts turned out to be even more misleading than I had feared, and so the decision was made to perform from individual parts. They referred back the score only occasionally to extrapolate any useful suggestions for synchronisation.
Leading up to October 2015 we had left open the question of whether amplification would be used (or not) in my piece. A sound engineer and equipment were already going to be deployed in other pieces on the programme, but Emilia in particular was keen to perform my piece using natural acoustics, without resorting to amplification. It became clear during rehearsals though, that at some points in the piece it really was impossible for players to hear each other, particularly when positioned in extreme opposite rooms of the building (see aerial representation below), and so a subtle level of amplification was applied.
A crucial parameter influencing the performed outcome of this piece was the performers’ movement within the space. I did attend rehearsals with a proposal for how and where performers should go (for the singer this applied throughout the piece, and for the percussionist and pianist this applied to passages where they were not positioned at fixed stations). However, given that our attention in rehearsals required intensive focus on issues relating to synchronisation, I accepted that it was beyond the scope of what could be reasonably achieved in the time we had here to test specific plans for choreographed movement. This was entrusted to the discretion and freedom of the performers. As a general principle though, they sought to explore a variety of configurations (ie exploring the effects of situating players in different combinations of rooms). As will be noted below in my reflections on the 2015 performance, I suspect that some of the results that pleased me most in terms of layered acoustics would perhaps not have resulted had I imposed a more prescriptive plan.
The premiere performance took place on 31 October 2015. Below is a poster and promotional YouTube to evidence this, along with a documentary recording and photos:
Click below to listen to the documentary audio captured by me using a handheld Zoom H4n recorder. This of course captures just one of many listening perspectives, given that I was moving around the space at the same time as the performers.
Reflection on the 2015 version and aims for 2018 version
For me, the most successful aspects of the 2015 realisation of this piece were the blended, composite sounds created by hearing combinations of sounds emanating from different rooms. The documentary Zoom H4n recording captures clearly the continual shifts in relative prominence and levels of reverberation between the three performers (which change dramatically depending on which room the performer is positioned in). The best example of this is from 8’45” where the mezzo soprano sings “makes a crash” (prominently in the sonic image) and then at 9’07” sings “far away(as far alive)” (having retreated into the distance):
An objective of the 2018 recording of the piece was to capture effects similar to these in the context of an expanded version, using high-quality recording equipment.
The difficult learning curve for me was that, rather ironically, having attempted to produce a score to prescribe the alignment of players’ parts, I found myself actually less in control of the overall synchronisation of material than if I had engaged more extensively with indeterminacy. For example, there is a point in the 2015 performance (from 4’30-4’38”) where all three performers fall silent at once, and this is an outcome that I had sought to avoid. I had wanted there to be at least one player generating sound at any one time, so as to maintain a sense of sonic continuity. For me, this was one of the criteria that I applied to evaluate the success of the piece. A primary aim in revising this piece was to strike a much more satisfying and productive balance between prescription and openness. I knew that the key to this would be to return to the very initial idea of basing the logic of the performance around listening and cues. This involves handing a much greater degree of control over to the performers, but supported by carefully planned and mutually-agreed cues or synchronisation points.
Thus the three main goals motivating the 2018 version of D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y were:
- To capture spatial effects similar to those produced in the premiere performance, using high-quality recording equipment.
- To develop a more efficient and productive method of notation, embracing a greater degree of indeterminacy.
- To expand the proportions of the piece, aiming for an overall duration of c.20+ mins.
The exploration of spatialised performance was therefore still very much a driving aesthetic goal going into the period of workshopping and recording with Emilia, Magda and Barbara in Glasgow in 2018. But, as will be explained and illustrated below, a new and unexpected avenue of investigation emerged, specifically a more conscious and concerted pursuit of distributed creativity. At the same time, what I had expected and hoped to be interesting and effective in terms of spatialised performance (even with the change in performance venue) turned out to be significantly less compelling.
An additional new research question therefore emerged during the 2018 workshops and recording in Glasgow, namely:
- What is the impact of relocating a piece that was spatially conceived for a specific venue, to a new venue?
Workshopping and recording in Glasgow, 2018
I had selected the Memorial Chapel at the University of Glasgow for its resonant acoustic. The recording was made using a Soundfield ST450 Surround Microphone. An obvious difference between its layout and that of Królikarnia Museum was its open plan. I nevertheless hoped that, given the size of the Chapel’s main internal space that there would be opportunities to explore different mixtures of presence and absence in the sonic image. There was also the potential to experiment with off-stage effects, by positioning players in the foyers of either side of the main room.
One way that I responded to the aim of incorporating a greater degree of indeterminacy was by assigning less prescriptive material to the players for the sections where the pianist and percussionist are mobile. Here the percussionist, playing claves, is provided with a set of indicative cells, to be used as a springboard for improvisation. And at the bottom right corner of this part you can see an example of a very simple cue that the percussionist listens for to trigger the move to her next page.
I had pre-planned the cues that link each of the seven “tableaux” (ie connected movements). One of the more problematic sections in the piece from the point of view of notation had been Tableau 5: enter no silence. This is where my attempt to create a representation of the three parts in alignment had been least accurate. My solution this time was to enhance the parts they had played from in 2015 with cues at various places within the tableau, working in collaboration with the players to decide these. The process that ensued over the first two days was to spend time playing and listening to different possible approaches to aligning and pacing the parts.
Towards a socially-mediated composition process
For the purposes of explaining my concept of socially-mediated composition process, I will focus on tableau 5 (“enter no silence”). In the recording of this piece, this section commences at 12’51”. In contrast to the first and last tableaux where only a minimal amount of notated material is presented, here in V: “enter no silence”, everything is fully written out, but decisions about precise alignment between the three players’ parts was left open until we met to workshop material.
Over the course of three days of playing through and discussing ideas, the performers (Emilia, Magda and Barbara) and I identified specific points in each player’s part which we agreed to designate as cues. As a result of working collectively to “lock in” these cues, the players exerted considerable agency in sculpting the overall sonic structure . Here it is crucial to underline that I (as composer) was active in this negotiation. This is in contrast to the degree of freedom available to performers of other types of indeterminate repertoire, such as Earle Brown’s open form pieces (eg. Twenty-Five Pages or Modules I and II) where performers make decisions concerning the order of events in the moment of performance. One of the most vivid of these is on page 8 of the piano’s part (page 5 of the percussionist’s part), where a boxed phrase in the piano’s part cues the entry of vibraphone to form a dialogue. This specific coordination point emerged during our workshop at the suggestion of the pianist (Emilia Sitarz). She was particularly drawn to the triplet quavers in both the piano and vibraphone parts and wanted to “lock” these two points in the vibraphone and piano together. Following discussion with the players as well as my own reflection, I inserted this cue into both parts, so that this would be a feature in future performances.
Note that boxed full-size staves contain material to be performed by the person in whose part it appears. The function of this is to convey to the player that they are responsible for leading another (or both) players. Cue-sized boxed fragments on the other hand, are included in players’ parts to signal to them that they should listen out for and react as directed to the fragment performed by one of the other players.
Synchronisation between the piano and vibraphone throughout this passage can realistically only ever be loose. The duration of this passage is relatively brief, and there are regular disruptions to the continuous flow of triplet quavers. Disruptions to a triplet flow come in the form of rests as well as contrasting divisions of the crotchet pulse (eg. semiquavers and quintuplet semiquavers). The aim here was not for the two players to fall into a very tight synchronisation, but rather for their individual players to coexist flexibly (within a few beats of each other). Nevertheless, the attention that Emilia drew to this passage, and her suggested execution of it, suggests to me the potential to explore in future pieces more concerted exploration of inter-individual entrainment. For instance, I could present both players with longer passages containing a more uniform flow of triplet divisions and then request that players synchronise with each other. Doing this would set up the potential for players with more substantial opportunities fall into periods of tight synchronisation with each other. This could in turn offer an additional means to create defining moments in a piece’s form.
Another example of the significant agency exerted by the performers in terms of shaping form is the passage that emerges at the start of tableau 5. Below is the relevant page from the mezzo soprano’s part. Here we had agreed in rehearsal to wait for the piano’s cue before entering with her sustained F natural (“ter”). In the recording you can hear that the mezzo soprano actually anticipated her cue. I was happy to keep this in the final recording though, given that her entry was within the vicinity of the notated cue. In other words, there is a certain amount of flexibility and pragmatism built into this system. Its principal purpose is to mitigate the risk of interruption to the flow of activity.
On reflection, I could make this cue clearer by moving the piano’s cue further to the left. Looking at the same point in the piano’s part, the intention for the mezzo soprano to wait for the piano’s cue statement is unambiguous:
There is a significant degree of flexibility built into the material, as notated, in this tableau. but it is through a careful process of preparing these materials (through rehearsal and group decision-making) that the finished form is created. Indeed, the analogy with shrink wrap (the heat-responsive type that is used to package pizzas in supermarkets) is helpful to me. The process of negotiating the synchronisation between parts is form-creating. The players’ lines meld, respond and yield to each other .
Close ensemble listening plays a critical role in performance of music in the conditions and context described above. This was evidenced by thoughts and reflections communicated to me by the performers immediately following the time of recording D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y. Emilia Sitarz (pianist) commented that for a conventionally-scored piece (eg. Schubert), “the way of listening is different….you follow your partner, you watch the score and it’s a more natural process for musicians”. At any point of performing a piece, it is possible to track and check the progress of all players through reference to a coordinating score (my paraphrase).
Indeed, perhaps the most pertinent and thought-provoking question posed during their visit was when Emilia asked whether the players in this piece should take the approach of listening closely and reacting to each other, or whether they should perform their individual parts without regard to what was happening in the other two parts.
Emilia also observed that she noticed herself needing to be prepared to react to “accidental situations”. For instance, this might be missing a critical “landmark” musical event, such as a cue triggering a move to the next page (eg. a high C sung by the mezzo soprano). For instance, under particular performance conditions the note might be masked by something happening in the percussion part. Emilia commented that performing my piece demanded she be “in the piece with the other performers” in a way that is different from other contexts, such as playing a classical chamber piece. There is a requirement for players to be intimately familiar with each others’ parts,. Each time D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y is performed, there will always be a certain amount of variation in the vertical alignment between players’ parts. Emilia explained that expectation of inevitable slippage and variation gives rise to a feeling of heightened awareness, a different sort of “sensory experience”, compared with experiences she has had of performing conventionally-scored classical chamber music. Players are required to listen intently to each other, possibly more so here than in other contexts. Emilia felt a need to develop coping strategies to enable her to embrace the inherent flexibility of my music, to be able to react “on the fly” in the moment of performance.
There is a flipside to the heightened sense of awareness though. The fact that there will nevertheless be a certain amount of indeterminacy inherent in my piece creates challenges in terms of a player’s sense of orientation, particularly in passages between cue points where there will inevitably be some drift and variation in vertical coordination of parts. This challenge was highlighted by the mezzo soprano in our discussions following the days of recording D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y. She commented that unlike more conventional fixed scores, pitch/harmonic reference points cannot be relied upon, due to inevitable movement of musical events in passages between cue points. For singers this is a particular challenge, and so Barbara’s solution was to carry an electronic tone generator to generate her own reference pitches. But in doing so, this introduced an additional layer of distraction to her attempts to be absorbed in the other players’ material, and occasionally she found herself singing in the wrong octave (my paraphrase).
But there was a psychological challenge too, according to Barbara, namely that she felt if difficult not to ‘let go’. This was especially the case in tableaux where she and the other players were free to randomise and recycle the a prescribed set of cells (for example, on page 2 of 2:gOLd):
In the passage Barbara felt very aware of not feeling in control of her surrounding context. Here she was free to choose a phrase to sing, (eg. in 3), but she had no way of controlling what was going on in the other parts. She judged when it felt like the right time to enter, but without being able to predict what would happen immediately after her point of entry. She commented that it was necessary to accept and to embrace that she could only make decisions about her own part.
The trade-off for feelings of uncertainty though, as noted by Barbara, were the unpredictable composite textures and gestures that resulted, such as a coincidental alignment between her text “t” and the piano tapping inside the piano.
Implications of this work for further research
The experience of sharing this piece and my thoughts on it with fellow researchers has thrown light on possible future avenues for practice research that capitalise on discoveries made through the process of composing and realising D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y. In hindsight, I now see that much of what I/we were doing can be contextualised within theories of musical embodiment, and more specifically, ideas relating to entrainment. The inherent independence between each of the three parts creates an atmosphere that is resistant to rhythmic synchronisation. Tension created by this in-built resistance to affordances for entrainment between players is something that will be felt not only by the performers themselves, but by listeners too. So a research question emerging from this might be: “What sorts of strategies might one adopt in the course of listening to a piece like D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y?” And from a composer’s perspective, I can see significant scope to explore entrainment as a parameter in future pieces, where material could be designed in ways that exploit variations in affordances for synchronisation.
Photos from the 2018 workshop and recording
 Welsh, John P. “Open Form and Earle Brown’s Modules I and II (1967).” Perspectives of New Music, vol. 32, no. 1, 1994, pp. 254–290. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/833173. Accessed 4 Jan. 2021.
 Clayton, Martin (2012) ‘What is entrainment? Definition and applications in musical research.’, Empirical musicology review., 7 (1-2). pp. 49-56.