A visit to Whitby for a good friend's birthday presented the opportunity to capture some coastal recordings for my sound library. Unfortunately, I came down with an awful virus that very weekend and had to spend most of our short break recovering in bed - how disappointing!
Although being very poorly, I was able to grab some quick and very rough recordings - nothing of much use but I've certainly learned a lot about recording on wet sand! The great news is my windshield worked brilliantly and even this simple microphone was able to pick up some decent coastal ambience, thanks in large to the quiet pre-amps on my recorder.
Now the weather is improving there will no doubt be more opportunity to get out and capture more sounds in the field without threat of rain ruining my gear or excessive winter wind ruining my recordings!
I am currently working on a composition which makes use of the various sounds generated by 'playing' a variety of coins currently in circulation in the UK. I wanted to use the sounds created when handling coins ( which are a physical manifestation of a national/global system: the 'idea' of the coin is worth more than the actual metal it's made from) for their symbolic nature and how we attempt overcome certain obstacles that arise throughout the course of our lives.
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.
Several months ago, an open call was made for silent films and videos for an event called Soundstripes: a unique event at which short silent films are shown and scored by a set of improvising musicians. I applied with two videos, of which Apprentice was chosen to be shown and performed.
I attended the second iteration of Soundstripes, held at Northern Quarter in Huddersfield, on Tuesday evening. The venue was a perfect size to fit a good number of musicians and a good number in the audience.
The quality of the films were excellent in both fidelity, composition and editing techniques. Some films had clear narrative and intention to communicate, which the musicians easily and readily picked up on. A common theme among some of them seemed to be the materialistic nature of society and waste. What I found particularly interesting about the musician's response to the animated images was the use of gesture: there was a good amount of gestural imitation taken from the screen and into the music. This bounced around the room between various instruments, transforming and creating textures which were thankfully not quickly abandoned. I did feel that some of the visual cues in many films were so strong the musicians would be unable to ignore them, which was the case. This is why I was pleased with the band's approach to Apprentice.
I attended the event with some small degree of trepidation, as Apprentice was never composed to be used as a score, but I had always thought that the piece could be interpreted for live sound. As the screen filled with flashing images of hands, both audience and musicians seemed a little unsure and there was little sound from either. Gradually, the musicians found something to latch on to and began making sound.
As a piece, Apprentice contains a good amount of energy from the outset and only continues to become more energetic. At roughly the halfway mark, I noticed several musicians had latched onto the repeating hand shapes while others attempted to keep up with the rhythmic aspects. This was very brave as some parts of the rhythm is particularly fast-paced!
Somewhat after what I know to be the halfway point, I noticed how intense the soundscape had become and realised the musicians would have to either dig deep to find more from their technique and instruments if they were to stay true to the piece, or somehow find a way out, or maybe even give up altogether - what an opportunity for a lover of improvisation! I am pleased to say, to their testament, the band continued with their frenetic realisation, clearly feeling the physical strain in fingers, lungs and embouchure alike.
At the climax and eventual blackness at the end of Apprentice there was a great breath (of relief?!) from both band and audience. I'm unsure whether this was as a response to the experience in general, or if it was sympathy in response to the intensity of the band's highly physical performance.
The mood of the music was intense, dark, dramatic and climactic - what a sound! Thank you to all who were involved in production of Soundstripes 2, to the faithful and highly-skilled musicians and to the other film and video artists for a wonderful evening of sound and light.
I was approached to create a short piece based on a cutting taken from a large artwork donated by Ken Horne, member and manager at ROAR. I was also asked to provide a brief explanation of my approach.
My first reaction to the cutting was how familiar the image looked to the style of various graphic scores I've seen, played from and composed. My first step was to tag the work with sticky notes on which I wrote my immediate reactions so I could then spend more time thinking about the soundscape I might create...I was given just two weeks!
Noticing the controlled ranges of colours and shapes and how they seemed to move across the page filled my imagination with ideas of an open wind-swept landscape and the sounds of small unseen creates moving in their own unique way. This prompted me to use a mixture of found objects which included a metal filing cabinet, screws and pieces of wood as well as traditional instruments; I knew I would need to spend time sitting and playing with the unfamiliar sounding objects to find out what they are capable of. I recorded the instruments and sounding objects using a combination of contact and ambient microphones to try and create texture in the sounds themselves. In the end, I edited in some changes of volume and panning, as well as cleaning up some of the chops and gaps using Logic Pro X for the Mac.
This experience has reminded me how much I enjoy improvisation working from a score and also brought back some buried thoughts on improvisation and composition.
Listen to the Unnamed Soundscape
Last weekend I had the pleasure of working from Wentworth Woodhouse as part of ROAR's fifth gathering of local artists and arts organisations. The day began by meeting fellow artists which I find quite relaxing as I enjoy the social aspects of the arts, especially talking about art, music and the way other people work. Artists came from around South Yorkshire for a day of art and conversation in the Grade 1 listed building.
We were given a tour of the house and grounds, including the space we would later choose to work in for the day. Two rooms struck me immediately: the first was the Marble Hall, designed c.1725 by John Carr of York. This 60ft square hall, finished with Italian marble, is an astounding space. The reflection of both light and sound is impressive and has given me plenty to think about since my visit! I would love to compose a piece of music especially for this room - one which makes full use of the amplification and reverberation of this amazing space: all sounds seem impossibly loud, yet truly loud sounds fly from corner to corner! I felt as though I could listen to this space for a good while.
The second room was the Painted Drawing Room which was used in several scenes for the TV show Wives and Daughters in the late 1990s. The room is decorated with images depicting the human senses, painted directly onto the walls! This seemed the perfect room for me and I positioned myself in the corner which depicted sound and music.
The light was pale and the room cold but it was serenely quiet. This was perfect for finishing the second movement of a piece I am writing for the Great Places Scheme, which saw a research excavation take place on a site near the Elsecar Heritage Centre, which is directly connected to the history of Wentworth Woodhouse.
If you've not visited Wentworth Wood house, I urge you to do so - the rooms and gardens are spectacular! The roof is currently being replaced with new tiles. For a small fee you can have your own tile inscribed with whatever you wish, to become part of the house's history.
Throughout April, ROAR are hosting their third iteration of the Hung exhibition, where artists are invited to create and contribute pieces by hanging their work in the provided spaces around the gallery.
I saw this as a perfect chance to come up with a piece for the gallery which hosts my teaching studio as I had not yet composed anything specifically for them! I wanted to provoke the viewer into considering what a musical notation actually is, or what it could be. I created a score which provides the performer with some rather tricky decisions. Some musicians would consider this to not be a completed score, others would enjoy the freedom the score provides.
The score provides some indication of pitch, rhythm and dynamic but meter, bar line clef and instrument(s) are absent. As the score is somewhat indeterminate I have no idea what sound it would produce if played.
I have composed several indeterminate pieces in my short years as a composer, but I have not done so for some time and really enjoyed working on this short notation.
I have no idea how fast, slow or long the piece is (any time), exactly what instruments may be used, nor exactly what pitches would be revealed through performance (any place).
Any time, any place (2018) is available for download from my Compositions page.
I always welcome your input, so any questions or comments on this or anything else on the website can be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org
I've added a Compositions section to the website!
A selection of pieces have been added along with sound and/or video files and performance notes.
The launch of my exhibition at Access Space in Sheffield was a success! Thank you to all who came down to see and discuss the work in person - I very much enjoyed the chance to get feedback and discuss various ideas with the group.
The two pieces from my MA portfolio, Syncretism and Apprentice, are still being exhibited at Access Space until the 15th June, 2017.
Please check out information about Access Space and the exhibition.
I am pleased to announce the first exhibition of two pieces from my MA portfolio: Syncretism and Apprentice.
Access Space in Sheffield has agreed to show these two works along with a brief discussion from myself on the opening night. The event opens on July 1st at 5:30pm and will be shown for two weeks.
Further information about Access Space and the exhibition can be found here.
Many thanks must go out to the Fields Journal team at the University of Huddersfield! After a lot of hard work on both sides, James’s paper has been published!
I am keen for this work to reach as many people as possible. It, along with any of the other journal entries, can be downloaded for free from the University’s digital repository.
If you have any questions, comments, queries, or would like to know more about the work, please do get in touch via email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org