I’ve been very busy with a commission for Barnsley council under the Great Places Scheme, focussed on an exploration of the history within a local area known as Milton, nestled between Barnsley and the Elsecar Heritage Centre.
I was approached in June through ROAR to compose a piece of music as my reaction to an archaeological dig. The aim of the lottery-funded excavation was to locate and unearth evidence of the long lost Milton Ironworks which belonged to the Wentworth estate. You can read more about the project on the Great Places website but the short of it was to involve local communities and artists in locating and excavating the long-lost Milton Ironworks.
From soundscape to vocal music
With the intention of composing a soundscape, I spent two days on site recording various sounds of digging, scraping, rasping, spading and talking using a combination of ambient and contact microphones. After recording, cataloging and enhancing/editing the sampled sounds I began my usual process of arranging my materials - I like to sit at the computer and play with sounds as a way of ‘getting to know them’: moving them around, making them louder or quieter and combining them in various ways. The audio piece, Stratum under Milton: II, came together relatively quickly, drawing influence for rhythm and structure from hip-hop and turntablism, mostly the likes of Coldcut.
During composition of Stratum under Milton: II, I noticed I was once again thinking about how the sounds were created by the hand tools used during the excavation - sonic remnants of the human activity of digging. This led me to think about and research into the workers of the original Ironworks, whose traces of working lives were being uncovered - I wanted to write a piece with this in mind...it felt as though our excavation was releasing whispers of the past trapped in the ground...
Local folk songs and tradition
Writing for four-part choir made a lot of sense once I discovered several local folk songs from the period. I borrowed five pitches each from two folk songs to create two distinct scales. I alternate between these to create movement and familiarity in Stratum under Milton: I. I explain this in a brief discussion of my approach to the compositions which I prepared for the exhibition at Elsecar Heritage Centre. I spent several months composing Stratum under Milton: I and the composition coincided with an artist's visit to Wentworth Woodhouse, which you can read more about in this blog post.
My initial intention for the project was to compose three movements: the first and second were completed to specification. However, the deadline for exhibition was moved forward by several months and I was unfortunately not left with enough time to complete the third movement, which would have brought vocal and recorded audio together: live singers with a recorded audio track in a live performance setting. I was quite excited by this idea and it still needs making but that'll be for another project.
Through composing for vocals using traditional notation, I rekindled my desire and joy of writing using five-line staff and I have just started sketching out some ideas for my next piece.