Piece for grand piano, autumn 2018
7. December 2018 | Gunhild Seim
During the academic year 2018-19, I am writing several pieces inspired from marches. I began composing etudes for the grand piano, which I plan to make another version of later, for military band. In this essay I describe my work process. I also dicuss why I choose to write these pieces and how these will be realized. How will I do it. I will show how this work developed over time and also reflect about the chosen methodology.
1 Presentation of the idea
This idea about writing pieces from march material is one part of a bigger project as part of my masters degree in composition, which I set to do with the intention to develop as a composer and being able to work on interesting composition projects in the future. I have worked as a composer in the jazz/improv genre for about 20 years, but now I wanted to learn more. My work has changed in the last years, to the degree that I don’t know how to label it anymore. In the next chapter I will elaborate on that. This is my point of departure for the masters degree program, and is also an investigation into the concept of meaning.
There are quite strong connection between my goal for the masters degree program, and the pieces I am writing. These first pieces are not necessarily what I want to write but what I need to write to learn. My pieces will be inspired from marches like “Colonel Bogey” by Kenneth D. Alford or “Arnhem” by Albert E. Kelly, which might be perceived as odd chsoices. But there are several reasons for these choices:
- When I grew up I played in brass bands, a tradition inspired by military bands. We were marching in parades all the time, and I enjoyed that part of it, and I listened to marches in my spare time. Also, as a young person I identified as a pacifist. This contradiction interests me.
- This summer I visited the D-day beaches of Normandy, and it made a heavy impression on me. I know that for instance Albert E. Kelly (1914-1994) was one of the soldiers who took part in the 1944 invasion of Normandy. He was injured on one of the beaches I visited. Later in life he wrote several marches with names from famous battlegrounds from WW2, including “Arnhem”, and these marches are played in parades still today, in peacetime.
- I am working on translating in the context of music composition, and I look for something to translate, such as an excisting musical work. In my earlier work with jazz, I have done quite a lot of reworking/arranging or quoting of other composer’s works. But what I am working on now – translation – I would argue that this is quite different from arranging or quoting, and the reasons for doing it are also different.
During the degree program, I will write about what technique- and style-considerations I will need to do to in order to write this. I am in the course of investigating other composers’ works that are translation-based. In addition, I am learning how to generate material from something non-musical, or from sound-material that one is inspired by.
In addition to translating from existing pieces I will also work on translating works between different mediums, and make several versions from the same material. I will start by working out and orchestrating my idea for the piano. After that I will take a new look at the material. I will look at what I think will work for the next piece and decide what I will bring with me from the piano etudes to the piece for military band. The material will have to be rewritten and reorchestrated and assembled in a new way. After that I might go through the same process again, to translate the military band piece to a sound installation. This is an idea that my supervisor Dániel Péter Biró suggested in the first lesson. I had told him about my work with installations (such as VELKOMMEN:HJEM, mentioned below), and how I felt I couldn’t express my ideas through live musicians anymore, which is something I was a bit frustrated about. Writing several different versions from the same material, both installations and different instrumental works, I could analyze how the different versions work differently for the involved parties, and how other composers write different versions of the same material.
2 My Background
In this section I will give a short description of my musical background, mention some of the works I have composed lately, how they relate both to my background and to my master’s degree project. I’m educated mostly as a musician/teacher, and have worked with performing and teaching longer than I’ve been calling myself a composer. This also informs my work. As I have identifyed as a jazz/improv composer my experience with the “classical side” of contemporary art music has been more limited than I would like. The genres overlap, so I have in-depth experience with some parts of contemporary art music while others are more unknown. When starting out as a composer for my own bands, people from the art side of jazz/rock were important to me ( like Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa, Maria Schneider, and the ECM-school) in addition to classical music I’d learnt about in the conservatory (Hindemith, Cage, Stravinsky and Debussy) but this was a school where teachers would accuse Schoenberg and Stockhausen of the crime of taking beauty out of music, an attitude I think was planted in me at the age of around 20, which led to me never really making the effort of trying to check out the Darmstadt School. This was because I was always sceptical of the idea of dismissing the beautiful, like melody, and consonance. To me, the consonnant lived side by side with the dissonant. I needed both. When I became more established, it was as part of the large improvising/contemporary music ensemble Kitchen Orchestra that I have had my main experience with contemporary art music, and that is mainly as a performer, but of course it would affect my composing too. We were identifying with and building on the large ensemble improvising tradition starting in the 60-ies with for instance Sun Ra, Spontaneous music ensemble, AACM and Ornette Coleman’s large ensembles, but have been also commissioning new works by composers, for instance several works by Anthony Pateras where he uses different types of electronics. Through working with electronics I also touched base with musique concrete, but starting from the improv side.
The music I have worked on the last years are installations, technology-based, processoriented works, improvisation with electronics, reflections, concept art, social activism. My work has changed and I don’t know how to label it anymore. I’ve stopped writing for my bands. I am not writing concert music these days. My questions today are: What is it really that I have made? Does it make sense? How can I make it better (and what did I intend compared to what the audience or the performers got out of it?)
2.1 Story Water (2012), feeling-based or self-centered?
I mention this old project, Story water since it was my latest release with music that was for the concert format and composed for live musicians. It is a song cycle with lyrics (not my own lyrics but some Rumi and some other poets). Making concert music is in a way, something I miss, and I still feel that Story water represents an approach to writing that I can stand for, although it is what I would call “feeling-based”. When listening to the Kaija Saariaho opera “L’Amour de Loin” , which I liked a lot, it became clear to me that in serious contemporary classical music today it is considered ok to do the “feeling-based” thing, This is an opera with very little action and a lot of inner drama. To me that was a liberating discovery.
Story Water in Concert at Maijazz, Stavanger, May 2013. Photo by
I was making guesses about how Saariaho planned the work and came to think that it is not unthinkable that it could have been similar to my process with Story Water. In this work I wanted a certain pool of elements, to make some kind of rhetorical effect within the musical form. So I made up each element from different feelings and thoughts, some muddy, some dark and punchy, some cracks where the light comes in, some sparkly, fluttering, pulsating parts, some narrative parts with riffs, some development parts, then I put it together like I would have done with a speech – rhetorical. And while composing the piece, it became clear to me that the work was a way of processing an experience where my child had been seriously ill. I did not want to go into any kind of autobiographical, romantic artist tradition. While still I felt the need to use my own experiences in the work in some way. After it was done, the work was promoted in a partly autobiographical way. And that made me stop and think. Of course when you compose, you can use your own feelings and experiences, but there is a fine line, and if you cross it it can lead to a one-dimensional way of thinking and composing that I am sceptical of. Many composers want to make accessible, beautiful music with a similar type of self-centeredness, where it is easy for the listener to crack through the shell to find some nice little message wrapped up in a nice red bow, ready to reveal itself. I don’t want that. I want to create a sense of ambiguity.
2.2 The Duos Project (2016-) Improvisation and beyond
The Duos Project is, to quote myself “me having duo sessions with a series of artists, playing electro-duo with one person after another, on the locations and in the community where I happen to be right now. The duos are not just with musicians but also sound artists, dancers, visual artists, directors, anyone who improvises within their artform, who like to experiment. Whatever style, the mindset is most important.”
I recorded the sessions and made a blog to post recordings and reflections around them. So this is not a pure composition project, it is in-between composition and improvisation.
Duo concert with myself and David Rothenberg at Bergen Kjøtt Photo by Stig Anderson
The project was loosely based on a Manifesto I wrote around 2015. Its goal was to expand my own repertoire as a performer-composer by exploring the possibilities of using electronics. But that came with some side-effects “It is also about people, exchanging, learning from each other, getting to know each other, to use music to do something good” One could also say that it is a project that promotes non-commercial and non-competetive music by making the artist accessible as a possible chatting buddy. This way, The Duos Procect was a way to navigate in the borderland that I mentioned above, between the composer as a private person and the big world/big drama. It was no doubt a reaction to the world events of 2016. I was looking for ways of engaging and looking for new and stronger means, sound-wise. I ran this project actively about once a month for about a year (I want to continue, but my grant ran out and I haven’t had the time). Most of all it generated a lot of new friendships, new projects and new thoughts for me personally. One question that arose from one of the sessions, I’ve brought with me into later works such as “Velkommen Hjem” and again into the masters degree studies, the limits of improvisation. The intuitive versus the preplanned are still part of my working process. In particular a duo with my friend and colleague from the Kitchen Orchestra, composer/electronics player Dag Egil Njaa (our duo installation project “Transit” premiered in April 2017) he instructed me how to carry out his pre-made plan. He emailed me beforehand and asked for suggestions, but I did not take the hint or prepare much. I showed up to the session and ended up a little annoyed because he told me what to do. At first I thought he did not care that my “hippie community project” was about improvisation. But then when I reflected a bit more about it I decided to go with what he said because I could not put my thoughts into words. It is interesting how some things can just shut you up. The goal of the Duos Project was for me to develop as a composer, but this experience and other similar in the same period made it clear that “I don’t really know how to make this music without improvising”. Improvisation can only get me this far, so how to proceed from here? We did end up using some improvisation in the project. And Dag and I are still good friends, I brought both him and the question with me into my next project, VELKOMMEN:HJEM.
2.3 Velkommen Hjem (2018), How to express the extramusical
VELKOMMEN:HJEM is an installation by myself, Terese Arildsdatter Riis (visual art/scenography), and Dag Egil Njaa (programming) for audience 10 years and up. It has the form of a tent village, in which the audience can explore and reflect. It has 18-channel sound in the form of sounding sensor-objects/games and small speakers. Through sound, music, tactility, feelings, visual and sensory impressions, we wanted to tell something about what it is to have a home and how one is affected by not having a home (anymore). The theme of being a refugee was the starting point for the project. I visited a refugee camp in Greece and collected stories via sound recordings, which are used in the installation in different ways. We also interviewed Norwegian children about what home means to them, and had a children’s choir recording the wordless musical material in addition to the speech recordings.
Souda Refugee Camp, Chios, Greece, February 2016. Photo by Loic Hess
The piece does not have a score in the normal music notation sense, the closest to that was a spreadsheet, in addition to some fragments for the choir in music notation. There is also a documentation video, although the form made it hard to document. In this work I really felt the lack of methods on how to deal with reality and meaning and translating it to music. I wished I had a bigger repertoire of methods. And the feeling probably also came from not being able to use improvisation as a tool. When the importance of the story you are telling are so big, you want to make sure that the music you are making are not taking the attention away from what you are trying to convey. (Although we tried to be careful not to convey a particular message, we wanted the work to be full of contradictions). I ended up stripping down and taking away the musical material, following the “less is more” path of music composition.
3 Working methods
In the masters degree program, I would like to analyse my own work (What is it that I am making) and compare it to other composers’ works, which means analysing other composers as a method to develop my writing. Due to my limited knowledge of composers who work with related methods as myself, or methods that I’d like to learn, I need to update myself on sides of contemporary music that I don’t know so much about. One of my goals is – as I will do in this piano piece – to compose for classical performers who don’t improvise, and to write for occasions where I am not performing myself. This will change some aspects of the composing process, since I am not used to this. For instance I need to be more specific, I have to write everything down, that I want the performer to do.
If generalizing, one could say that I have been an improviser also when composing, relying mostly on intuitive processes. There are some important questions that improvisation can not answer, some of which represented by the works I mentioned. Often I have a feeling of starting with one step and feeling my way to what the next step should be, like in improvisation. And normally in improvisation, a set of rules that could guide the way. I would use sets of rules in a similar way for a composition. And it is important to sometimes invent new rules, or to not do the obvious with the old rules every time. When I’ve sometimes composed in a more serial way for my bands, my catalogues would contain only pitch/melody/rhythm. I would like to be able to use serial techniques on more parameters than these. For instance extended techniques. Getting away from the limitations of melodic and improvisation-based composition, I wanted to investigate if there is any sensible, immanent reason to do one thing or another with the material. I like the idea that the physical laws could guide the way, like in spectral music. This is a path I only tried with improvisation.
When you let intuition guide the way, taste becomes a factor that shouldn’t be underestimated as something that can be either good or bad. In improvisational music, the performer’s own taste is considered important. But, taste can limit you to make the same choices again and again. When composing, it could be wise to change the expression “I like” to “I am interested in”.
A little bit about my taste: I remember a few years ago hearing Maja Ratkje’s piece “Paragraf 112” for symphony orchestra live in concert. As mentioned above there were sides of contemporary music I had never checked out. “Paragraf 112” fascinated me. I had not heard anything like this on a orchestra concert before. The sounds morphed through the orchestra in one continous line, the instruments imitated each others sounds to the degree that it was hard to tell where one instrument group stopped playing and the next took over. This ambiguity was fascinating. I wanted to learn more about this type of orchestra writing. Later I learnt about spectral music, and understood that Maja Ratkje is inspired by this tradition. Another thing about this piece that fascinated me were the fact that it had an extramusical theme – protecting nature. And it seemed also like she was hiding some familiar anthem in there.
Around the same time I started to see more qualities in other types of contemporary art music that I did not see before, that interested me:
-Participant based processes
-philosophical and/or extramusical background for works
-extroverted, socially conscious processes
-works that engage both performers and audience
My first assignment this academic year was to analyse “Grabstein fur Stephan” by György Kurtág, which is another orchestra piece that deals with the extramusical and translation. Not in an obvious way, but it is clear both from the title and the music that it deals with death. This was also a piece that made a big impression.
4 The Piano Piece
When Dániel suggested I should write for piano, I thought about the piano as instrument, how I used to perceive it very “clean” and homogenic, so I felt the need to use some extended techniques. Dániel got me started by giving me some piano music by other composers to study. Among these were Helmut Lachenmann’s “Serynade” which he later told me to do an in-depth analyse of. It is a piece whose main concept is a zooming in on and orchestrating the main concept of the grand piano, it’s attack and reverberation. It uses a lot of sostenuto pedal and silently depressed keys that creates different resonances. In addition to the march “Colonel Bogey”, “Serynade” has been an important inspiration for my piece.
The process of writing the piano piece can be divided into 2 parts:
4.1 Collecting, where I descibe the process of collecting of the material.
4.2 Assembling, where I describe how I constructed the piece from the material.
One of my first discoveries was for instance that I needed to move away from the computer, notation software, and grid-based writing, and on to literally the drawing board. Although I have composed mainly with notation software for over 20 years, I have of course had periods where I felt the need to make sketches by hand. But I have never felt the need so strong before. In the beginning of the process it actually felt impossible to use computer notation. So I started by clearing my desk, buying score paper and pens, and digging up my ruler, pencils and rubbers.
Eve Risser’s piano preparings, Stavanger, September 2018. Photo by Gunhild Seim
Dániel suggested I start by making catalogues. So I made several catalogues of different parameters:
1. Based on the piano, investigating and cataloguing the different sounds that it can produce.
2. Based on the march. Based on pitch, rhythm and sound material from the march
3. based on the wider concept
I also did some brainstorming the way I use to do. I was thinking more conceptually, like using march tempos, heart rate tempos. Or war sounds that could be realistic or computer-game sounds. I also thought of stretching the original march. Some of these ideas made it into the piece, for instance I made “time-waves” of the voices from the march, meaning the music were stretched and compressed in waves. I used an extended technique I discovered that resembled the snare drum. And I superimposed different tempos on top of each other. Also I contemplated the concept “uniform”.
I decided to take some pitches from the march for one of the catalogues, and Dániel instructed me how to give each pitch a number and then make different number patterns, to change the order of pitches in every possible way. This strikes me as a form of coding, but is also a form of translation. Below a picture of Dániels instructions.
Later he told me to make similar catalogues for every possible parameter. And told me to just generate a lot of sketches from these.
While working with the analysis of “Serynade, he told me to make a sound catalogue from it to get some experience with the extended techniques. Also he recommended finding a grand piano and test out the techniques myself. Which I did. After that I was ready to work on making my own sound catalogue of extended techniques for the piano. I collected different preparation materials and tried them out. Below is a picture of part of my catalogue.
I also was lucky to work with two great contemporary improvising pianists this autumn – Eve Risser and Marilyn Crispell. Marilyn Crispell, who I also have worked a lot with over the years, improvises in a style that sometimes are reminiscent of the “Serynade”. And Eve Risser works a lot with prepared piano, so from her I got a lot of inspiration for that part of it. In addition to that I got a third chance to connect my improvisation-background to the new things I learnt, when I got a chance to join Alwynne Pritchard’s piano project at UiB, which was based around her own piano piece “Invisible Cities”. This is a piece which is more improvisation- and game-based. So I got to test out how to formulate in a text one of the things Lachenmann does in “Serynade”, in the intent to have people improvise over it. Here is a picture of one of my instructions:
Dániel introduced me to this expression, making “ruins” of the march. This is what he called the sketches I generated from the catalogues -“ruins”. Dániel himself has composed several pieces translating Schubert in the way that he fades Schubert pieces in and out of other structures. For instance in the string quartet “Lizkor Veliscoach”. The structures he uses are “ruins”, deconstructions of the original Schubert piece (but not necessarily recognisable). He also started to teach me the technique of fading ruins in and out. Here is one of my “ruins” in the making:
When assembling the material, I started by putting together the bits that I wanted to use, and see how it fit together. At this point I did not have a structure in mind. But I was a bit inspired by the idea of making several very short piano pieces, as for instance Boulez’ did with “Douze Notations” and Lachenmann with “Ein Kinderspiel”. The reason I wanted to do that was that the new techniques I had learnt still felt so fresh to me, that it was helpful to dedicate one etude to fades, one to string harmonics, etc. The next time I write a piece from the same material I can probably mix everything in one piece, but this time I had a certain degree of separation between them. I made some sketches of etudes based on my “ruins”, sometimes fading ideas in and out, for instance crossfading the different ruins of the march with pieces from the real march
In transferring the material to playable pieces, I had to make alterations, for instance in timings or registers to make it logic and possible to play. I had to learn how to notate the techniques properly. I made some scales and chords by superimposing minor sixths over and below the pitches from the march. I mixed the “ruins” generated from the catalogues with more “feeling-based” passages based on the conceptual idea of the march or the sound of the march.
The piece ended up as “5 short studies for grand piano” (see score below)
In the start, the grand piano has one prepared string and two loose objects at particular strings: one light-metal lid (square 12 x 12 cm), and a plastic necklace.
1. Harmonics, a slow mood based on on-string harmonics in the low register, with vibrations from objects inside the piano.
2. Fades, where I use one of the “ruins”. First, I fade in the ruin. Then, I fade the march into the ruin.
3. Waves – here I have the “time-waves” sketch as base, and I used the scales I constructed to make some “pianistics” – flourishes. (After this movement, I added some more preparation)
4. Resonances, based on a “ruin” for prepared piano, with some added pitches, march rhythms and fermatas
5. Pulses, which are based on superimposion of the tempos I wanted to use for the march project.
Below are the second-to-last version of the piece. After making this version, I have revised some more things that were inpossible to play. There might be many more revisions. In my experience there is no such thing as a finished piece. It can always get better. See also below the score for the last chapter.
5 Translation and meaning
The reasons for choosing the translation path could be many. What is translation compared to arranging, quoting or “playing over the changes” or “improvising over a theme” like I am used to from jazz? The borders between these methods are blurred.
- Arranging means keeping the original officially in the work.
- Quotation, according to the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, means “evoking the familiar fascination of something that everybody already knows” (1) “Sound structures, Transformations, and Broken magic: An interview with Helmut Lachenmann.” Abigail Heathcote.. My own piece “…Jul in Memoriam” probably falls under this category, since it does not try to hide the fact that it is quoting both “Silent Night” and Mozarts “Requiem”. When I wrote it I was planning it to be an arrangement of “Silent Night”, but it grew out of that and became an independant piece.
- Translation, according to Helmut Lachenmann, is about hiding something somewhere in the structure. For instance another piece of music. In his “Tanzsuite” Lachenmann uses the German national anthem as a “skeleton that now serves to help me articulate a characteristic time grid” (2) “Sound structures, Transformations, and Broken magic: An interview with Helmut Lachenmann.” Abigail Heathcote.. I recognize doing stuff like this, for instance hiding one of my older pieces in a new one. I have also for instance used a part of Debussy’s string quartet as a time grid for a jazz piece. Or I extracted a melody from a speech recording for “Velkommen Hjem”.
My supervisor Dániel Biró is writing about “the beautiful” in relation to the techniques he used for instance with the Schubert pieces: “I do not consciously set out to create something beautiful. Nonetheless, I remain conscious of the various concepts of the beautiful, and how these functions as historical ideas, ideals, and ideologies, connecting to distinct traditions, histories, places and to memories thereof” (3) “Emanations: Reflections of a composer” Dániel Péter Biró.
I am still not sure how my thoughts relate to other thoughts of musical semiotics, meaning and ambiguity (as ongoingly dicussed by composers and music philosophers). In texts by people like Adorno, Cage, Feldman, Lachenmann, Biró, and more, I have found this subject discussed and it is something I think about. Does sound express only itself or does it contain more meaning? And is the composers intention important? When analysing “Serynade” by Lachenmann, I was introduced to Lachenmann’s thoughts about how sound awakes associations that lie outside the composition. And when reading Biró’s thoughts about “the beautiful” it starts some reflections about how “meaning” relates to “the beautiful”. I am inspired by Aristotle’s thoughts about catharsis (from Poetics) and catharsis experiences are something I would like my listeners to go through when listening to my music. But I am less concerned with what the listeners perceive than if they perceive anything at all. I think the work should be open enough to serve as a vessel for whatever the listener can associate with it. But to do that I think I need some kind of functioning syntax that makes the listener able to lose him/herself in the work.
The conclusion so far for the piano piece is that the piece is of the more experimental pieces I’ve written, and I don’t think this version will be the final one. It still needs to go through a process of adaptation both to the performer and the audience (and maybe that adaptation can also be called “meaning”). I am used to this type of adaptation process from my work in the jazz/improv field, and the fact that this piece is written for non-improvisers does not mean that the adaption part of the process is less important.
When starting to translate the piano piece to a military band piece, I will go through the material again, and see what I think can work in the new context. I will take a new look at material I that did not make it into the piano piece, for possible use. And I will generate more new material. I will go through the same processes with getting to know the instruments that I did with the piano, getting an overview of extended techniques, and learn how they are notated. One additional method I’d like to learn is to use computer software (Spear, OpenMusic or MaxMSP) to analyse the sound of the march and to transform material. This is a method for transformation that will limit the use of habits or intuition. If analysing the sound of the march, there could be several possibilities, for instance using a recording of the march, or sounds of some of the instruments, or the sound of whistling that are so characteristic of Colonel Bogey.
Reference 1: “Sound structures, Transformations, and Broken magic: An interview with Helmut Lachenmann.” Abigail Heathcote.
Reference 2: “Emanations: Reflections of a composer” Dániel Péter Biró