I type this having completed three sections of Change Ringing, the musical component to the large-scale collaborative artwork created by artist Peter Shenai and I for our residency with LSO Soundhub this year. The piece is scored for nine solo strings (3,3,2,1) and percussion, and incorporates a set of six bronze bells designed and cast by Peter. Their shapes mathematically correspond to “bell-curve” representations of summer temperatures at seventeen-year intervals over the course of the twentieth century. Arranged according to the chronology of their corresponding data sets and struck in order, the bells voice a series of inharmonic spectra that communicate sonically the story of climate change during the twentieth century.
Why climate change? We are drawn to data that deals with environmental issues because the interrogation of such data is by extension a study of the complex relationship between us and the world that surrounds us. Climate change cannot help but bring into focus the dubiety of the first-person perspective through which we see our place in the world – the first-person perspective that, over the last couple of million years, has fueled our meteoric rise to become the dominant global species. Perhaps it is this unwelcome strand of existential inquisition that has made climate change such an underreported phenomenon.
Of course, the existential questions that the study of climate change sheds light on are exactly the questions that the arts have examined and re-examined for millennia. These questions of why, what, and how have been explicitly dealt with in too many works of art to count – Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen are three European examples that have come into my head in the time it has taken to type this sentence. In fact, Peter and I would venture so far as to claim that all art, whether directly or indirectly, engages on some level with the subject of what it is to be a human being living in the world. This kinship between the study of climate change and art has been a formative influence on Change Ringing.
In Change Ringing we want to use the medium of musically organized sound, so often dismissed as “abstract” and non-referential, as a means of encouraging the engagement with ideas that are highly relevant to today’s audiences, regardless of whether they are specific to the data itself, or part of a more general interrogation of what it is to exist in the 21st Century. In our opinion, this is something that has somewhat fallen by the wayside in mainstream British contemporary music and art in recent years.
We are also interested in the historical role of the bell as a means of bringing communities together in the act of contemplating and/or celebrating issues relating to their existence within the world (see, for example, religious and non-religious ritual, political processions, and the use of bells to mark time). At the same time, in a world filled with a clamor of disposable and meaningless stimuli, bells retain an almost spiritual power to make us stop and listen, encouraging us to connect with the world on the most basic level.
We have felt incredibly privileged to discuss and work into these issues with John Ashton CBE, who was Special Representative for Climate Change at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office between 2006 and 2012. John has been a truly brilliant mind to work with, and his encouragement and support have been invaluable to the development of our project.
Change Ringing is based on the inharmonic spectra of six bells. These dictate the large-scale structure of Change Ringing: the piece is divided into six sections, the harmonic material of each deriving from the spectrum of one of the bells. The order of the bells is chronological, except the section that corresponds to the first bell in the series appears at the very end. The harmonic structure is therefore as follows: Bell 2, Bell 3, Bell 4, Bell 5, Bell 6, Bell 1. Peter and I made a mutual decision to position the spectrum for the first bell (which is modeled on the oldest of our temperature-distributions) at the end of the piece, because we both saw something highly dramatic in a return to the beginning of the narrative at the end of the piece. We also liked the fact that the historical return suggested by the use of Bell 1 at the end of the piece can be seen either as a nostalgic gesture or the proposal of an alternative.
I feel fortunate to be working with a particularly brilliant ensemble, comprising a mixture of LSO and freelance players, who will be premièring the piece on June 28th 2014. For this reason, I decided early on in the compositional process that every performer would be foregrounded at some point during the piece. This decision instigated the development of a corresponding structure, whose divisions would overlap with the harmonic structure described above. The interlocking of these two structures can be seen below:
Change Ringing began in late December when Peter gave me the first three bells. Over the course of two afternoons, I conjured up sounds from the bells in every single way I could think of: I stroked them with toothbrushes and hairbrushes; I filled up my bathtub and played them underwater; I set off vibrations on their surfaces with a milk-frother that I had received for Christmas, and that I consequently broke beyond repair.
I took the bells to show Neil Percy, Principal Percussionist of the LSO, armed to the teeth with an array of unusual playing techniques. I was surprised, however, when the first question he asked me was why I didn’t “just hit them”. At that point I realized that I had completely forgotten about the natural function of the bell. Bells want to be struck and to resonate, and with hindsight it seemed a bit mad that I had done everything I could to avoid using them in the most effective way. The beautiful instruments that Peter had created needed to sing, rather than be stifled by unnecessary playing techniques. However casual the intention behind Neil’s question was, it completely changed the role that I had in mind for the bells. I decided that I would use them sparingly, that they would always be struck and allowed to ring, so as to communicate their shape, size and curvature, the intricacy of their design, and, however indirectly, the data that had determined their form.
To be sure, extended instrumental techniques and treatments have been very important to the development of Western Art Music over the last century or so. They have actively contributed not only to the vocabulary of sounds at our disposal, but to the ways in which we think about music and music-making. All too often, however, young composers use these techniques as special effects in order to avoid in-depth consideration of the substance of the music they are writing. This is certainly something that I have been guilty of in the past, and something that I am constantly having to remind myself not to do.
The harmony of Change Ringing derives from analyses of the inharmonic spectra of the six bells that Peter has cast. In order to do this, I downloaded Spear, a free spectral analysis software, and input slowed-down recordings of each bell being struck. When a sound is played into Spear, the software represents it visually as a graph (or spectrogram), with duration (in seconds) on the y axis and frequency (in Hz) on the x axis. The comparative loudness of each frequency is reflected in the darkness of its corresponding line on the graph. The benefit of a spectrogram is not only that one can see the entire range of frequencies given off by a sonic event, but also that one can see how these frequencies transform over time. The spectrograms for the first three bells can be seen below, with duration on the x axis and frequency on the y axis.
The spectrum of each of Peter’s bells contains between three and five strong frequencies which, when converted into pitches, form the opening chord of each section. The harmonic language of each section of Change Ringing is entirely drawn from the addition and subtraction of these frequencies, and the combination and difference tones that result when these are converted into pitches. Around this harmonic backbone, I weave elements of free composition: microtonal deviations and glissandi around the pitches obtained from spectra, melodies that incorporate these pitches among freely generated pitches, and so on. I am aware that more puritanical composers might see a certain naïvety in my methods. While I rely heavily on spectral analysis to generate the harmonic material of Change Ringing, I am not a spectral composer. There is a very strong intuitive component to my work, which I am always keen to integrate alongside whichever compositional techniques that I choose to use. For practical reasons, all frequencies are approximated to the nearest quarter-tone, apart from those which are directly drawn from the spectra of the bells, for which the players are explicitly asked to tune to the bell in question.
So far, I have completed three parts of the piece, the opening, which is based on the spectrum of Bell 2, the following section, which is based on the spectrum of Bell 3 and contains two passages for Violin 1, Viola 1, and Double Bass, and the final section, which is based on the spectrum of Bell 1 and contains a lengthy duo for Violin 1 and Viola 1.
Peter and I have already workshopped two extracts from these sections with players from the LSO: David Worswick (Violin 1), German Clavijo (Viola 1), Jani Pensola (Double Bass), and Neil Percy (Percussion). I cannot emphasize enough how brilliant these musicians were to work with, and how beneficial their advice and expertise has been to the composition of Change Ringing so far. While I’m not sure whether this is down to the structure of LSO Soundhub, which places an refreshing amount of onus on the composer for things to happen, or down to the individual personalities of the musicians (though I suspect it’s down to both), there was an unusually productive composer-performer dynamic in both of the workshop sessions. It was great to work with players who communicated a genuine desire to realize what I had written in the most effective way possible, as well as offering exceptionally rigorous practical guidance.
I now await the 4th, 5th and 6th bells, which will be appearing over the next fortnight or so. I can’t wait to hear them.
Our project forms around a sculpture, designed and created by Peter, which doubles as a percussion instrument. The instrument will incorporate a set of six bronze bells, each of whose shape mathematically corresponds to statistical sets of data known as ‘bell-curves’. We take our data from bell-curve sets representing the increase in Summer temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere during the twentieth century. Arranged in a line and struck in order, the bells will voice incremental changes in pitch and timbre. The entire row of bells, therefore, will constitute a ‘tone row’ that narrates the story of climate change through sound. The tone row provides the basis for a composition, written by Laurence, for ten players: nine solo string instruments and a percussionist playing the bells themselves. This composition, entitled ‘Change Ringing’, will be performed at the LSO Soundhub Showcase on June 28th.
Below, Peter guides us through the process of designing and casting the first three bells:
“Over the winter months, I have been designing and casting bells whose shapes and sounds derive from graphs. Each graph is a statistical representation of the shifting global temperatures over the last century, across six 17-year periods. When the bells are arranged in a line and struck in order, their tones incrementally shift and morph, just as the graphs do. In combination, these bells produce a tone row that sonically narrates the story of climate change since the industrial revolution.
“I first had the idea to make ‘data-bells’ while studying at The Royal College of Art. At this time, I was unsure as to whether the project of marrying the materiality of metal bells to the abstract representation of information was possible at all, so I began by making two small prototype bells, which would eventuallybe exhibited at the V&A in London.
“These bells, measuring 10cm and 12cm in height, werebased on data corresponding to the rising and falling patterns of footfall on the London Underground over the course of a working day. I discovered that, due to subtle turning points in their profiles, these bells behaved much like ancient Chinese bells: they can be struck in different places to isolate specific pitches, or hit hard to sound a spectrum of pitches. It was at this point that I began to discuss the musical potential of these designs with Laurence, and consequently, at which the initial ideas for ‘Change Ringing’ began to take shape.
“Before designing and casting the six bells for ‘Change Ringing’, I decided to research the breadth of data on climate change that currently exists. At the advice of Dr Arnaud Czaja, a climate physicist at Imperial College London, I concentrated on larger data sets that have recorded climate variables for centuries, some of which stretch back as far as the 17th century. In the end, however, I chose to use a smaller portion (from 1912 – 2013) of a dataset representing global mean temperatures, which is itself calculated from various datasets as part of a meta-study conducted by NASA. As is shown in the graph, temperatures have been rising since industrialisation. These ascending temperatures will eventually be audible as the descending pitches of the ‘Change Ringing’ bells.
“I took 17 year periods from the data above and plotted the recorded temperatures as cumulative-frequency distributions, with temperatures on the x axis and frequency on the y axis. I then imported these curves into a three-dimensional modelling software. The resultant profiles were then revolved through 360 degrees, relative to the asymmetric curvature of the graphs, in order to generate the (digital) surfaces of the bells. The bells are designed so that their topology remains faithful to the distributions of the data and their volumes exactly match the average temperature. In practice, this means that the pitch of the bell will indicate the average temperature of the period and the timbre of the bell will reflect the volatility of the temperatures for the same period.
“Having finalised my digitised bells, I took the computer files to a rapid prototyping department (more commonly known as ‘3D printing’). The rapid prototyping department machines read computer files before converting them into three-dimensional objects in front of your very eyes. The object is ‘printed’ in layers of malleable plaster, each of which is only a few microns thick. Our bells, each measuring less than a foot in height, are therefore comprised of thousands of microscopic layers of plaster that combine to give a three-dimensional structure. Each bell took around a day to print.
“I then took these 3-D prints into the foundry and made a plaster mould of each, priming them with varnish in order to make the moulds easier to extract. I then placed the 3-D moulds onto wax bases, which I fashioned into circular disks using my thumbs and forefingers. Once these bases had dried, plaster was applied to the outside and left to set. The solid plaster was then “cracked off” with a chisel. The chisel must be applied around the ridge created by the rim of the bell, so that it comes apart in two parts, top and bottom.
“Then I removed the 3D print from the mould. At this point in the process, the 3D print often breaks. Sad as this is, it is only the plaster mould that matters from now on. Following this, I neatened up the mould. This involved sculpting fine details where the surface of the plaster remained uneven, tarnished or cracked. At this stage, one starts to behave less like a designer and more like a craftsman again, making attempts to preserve the curvature using the judgement of hand and eye rather than relying on mechanical reproduction of a design modelled on an algorithm as before. Having refined the mould with reparatory plaster, I rinsed it before inspecting it one last time. The two halves of the plaster mould now fit snugly together as one object whose hollow internal space was a precise match with the shape of the original three-dimensional bell print.
“The next stage involved pouring molten wax into the mould to create a cast of the bell. Before doing this, however, I bored holes in the base of the two-part mould, through which the wax was to enter its internal space. Having made the holes, I submerged the mould in water in order to keep the surfaces air-tight before pouring molten wax into the plaster, allowing it to fill the cavity fully inside the
mould. Once the wax had cooled, I prised the mould apart and extracted what was now a solid wax cast of the bell. Onto the surface of the wax mould I fused some thick rods and pipe-like wax structures, known as ‘runners’ and ‘vents’. These additions are essential to the casting process because they create spaces through which the molten bell-metal can run and through which air can escape.
“I then took the wax cast into the ‘shell room’. Over the next couple of weeks I applied thin layers of both liquid slurry and powder stucco to the wax cast, in order to build up a thick hard shell around the wax cast. To build each layer of shell, first I dipped the wax cast into the viscous slurry mixture, making sure to get an even coverage before scattering the highly toxic stucco powder over the surface of the bell making sure to get an even covering. Over the course of the next day or so, the slurry and stucco powder would react to form a crust around the wax-bell. It takes seven or eight layers of these crusts to form the shell.
“Once the shells had formed, the bottoms were taken off. The casts, complete with shells, were then heated in a furnace. They were heated to temperatures of a few hundred degrees celsius, allowing the wax melt out through the ‘runners’, while the shells, which melt at temperatures far exceeding even the melting points of most metals, remained intact. The shells were filled to the brim with water and checked for leaks. Any leaking indicates cracks in the shell, caused by the wax expanding as it melts. These cracks are patched up with fire cement.
“Finally, it was time to cast the bells. The furnace was heated to around 1100 degrees celsius using a concentrated jet of fire from a small flamethrower. In the furnace, was an iron pot filled with bell bronze collected from the Whitechapel bell foundry – this is therefore the very same bell metal that cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell!
Bell bronze contains more tin than ordinary bronze. This additional tin, which comprises about 20% of the alloy, enhances the resonance of the bell once cast. Despite being essential to the casting process, the additional tin content poses many challenges: it makes the molten metal more viscous, and thus more difficult to pour, and once cast it makes the solid metal more brittle, meaning more attention must be paid to how the metal solidifies in order to prevent the metal cracking as it expands. While the bell metal was being heated, I heated the shells to a few hundred degrees in a separate furnace. Once both had reached temperature, I donned a fire-proof outfit and visor and, along with the other three members of the casting team, prepared for the metal pour.
We removed the shells from their furnace and swiftly placed them into a cylindrical drum full of sand. A pump at the bottom of the drum siphoned air from the sand, thus generating a kind of dry quicksand. This allowed the incredibly hot and fragile shells to be partly submerged in the sand with maximal ease. Once the shells are submerged almost to their brims, we turned the air pump off meaning that the sand immediately froze, holding them in place. We then brought the iron pot out of the furnace using a metal clamp, making sure to wear heat-reflective gloves. Having brought the iron pot over to the sand, we swiftly poured the molten metal onto the shells until the metal has reached their brims. The pour now over, we left the metal to cool and solidify for around 6 hours.
“Any surplus metal was poured into iron ingot-moulds and left to cool until solid for recycling at a later date. The majority of our bells will be poured using metal I recycle recursively from bell-bronze pours. This can be done because, just like any compound, the metal does not degrade even if it is melted and solidified many times over. This principle extends across the centuries of bell production: most bells, once they have become knackered through being struck and buffeted by mankind and the elements alike, are taken to a foundry and melted down, only to be re-poured and re-cast as the bells their own replacements. Though traditionally, civilizations have often celebrated the ‘new’ bells as they are paraded through town and triumphantly rung for the ‘first’ time, these bells are, in fact, usually created from very the same material that constituted their predecessors.
“Once the metal had cooled inside the shell, I removed the shell full of solidified metal from the sand and rinsed it in water to bring it to room temperature. Following this, I chipped off the shell using a chisel and hammer. Then the runners (which were also cast with the mould) were sliced off the bell using a hand-held grinder. Finally, the remaining specks of shell were removed using a sand-blaster. At this stage there were still four stumps protruding from the base of the bell where the runners were removed. These were sanded down using a variety of instruments until completely removed. To finish off the metal-working, I drilled into the top of the bell in order to make an entry hole for the chord from which the bell was to be suspended.
“Then I took the bell into the patination room. In the patination room, the bell was placed onto a rotating iron turntable and heated to a few hundred degrees centigrade using a flamethrower. While still hot, a dark primer was applied to the bell. Most of the primer evaporated, and the remainder seeped into the micro-gaps in the metallic surface. I then applied a very thin layer of wax is applied to the outside of the bell. Similarly, most of this evaporated, leaving a small quantity to react with the bell’s surface. Once polished this wax left a rich and subtle dark sheen, emphasizing the complex curvature of the bell.
“Finally, the bell was suspended on its string. It was struck for the first time, and responding with a clear and resounding tone, it began its life as an instrument.”
Up until this point my Soundhub project, while very well defined in my mind, has been essential just an abstract concept. However last week was the first production development meeting for the project with three of my collaborators, and finally this project has begun its long journey to being realised. To say I’m excited is a massive understatement!
To give you some back ground on the project, it is a multi-disciplinary, collaborative music theatre production, featuring my music performed by the Ossian Ensemble and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist Kitty Whately, poetry by Richard Scott, choreography by Tim Casson, curated by Harry Ross and Helen Scarlett O’Neill of immersive, site responsive theatre company Fruit For The Apocalypse.
This evening of work will be presented in two halves – a staged, operatic presentation of my song cycle, The Monologue of a Mother, commissioned by Kitty Whately as part of her BBC New Generation Artist residency. The work explores Kitty’s personal experiences as a single mother, with an emphasis on the anatomical experience of pregnancy and birth, set to new poetry by Richard Scott.
This is followed by a new dance work exploring themes of conception, sexuality and fertility, choreographed and performed by Tim Casson with dancers from his company. Both works will be presented as a promenade performance, with interactive elements directly engaging the audience. As the former Producer and Production Designer of the hugely popular Secret Cinema and the creatives being the London Contemporary Orchestra’s innovative Imagined Occasion’s series, Harry Ross and Helen Scarlet O’Neill will be devising some incredible, immersive elements to the production and curating the whole evening.
The nature of the performance, and the motivation for the development of this collaborative project is in recognition of the increasingly outdated conventional concert paradigm’s inability to effectively connect with contemporary audiences, who are becoming ever more insistent on a greater level of direct engagement from performance experiences. Where as contemporary theatre (both conventional and immersive), cinema and visual arts have been able to develop their audiences consistently, contemporary music, particularly of new, unestablished, non-canonical works, has perennially found it extremely difficult to cultivate new interest.
Of course, there are examples of successful presentations of contemporary music in the UK, such as the Barbican’s Total Immersion series, or the South Bank’s The Rest is Noise season, or the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (this is not an exhaustive list by any means), but in my experience these have tended to rely on programming the work of more established names alongside brand new work in order to generate an audience, instead of looking at how the nature of the performance might enrich an audiences experience of it, and therefore attract a broader range of people to an event.
By creating a dynamic environment in which to present new works, such as the site responsive, immersive staging we’ll be using for this project, the experience for the audience is raised beyond what would be achievable simply by passively presenting the music in a conventional concert, and in turn, I believe enhances the audiences appreciation, and understanding of the work.
There is still a very long way to go (we’re aiming to stage the event in July or August next year), but some of the ideas being thrown out in the first meeting have made me very excited! It’s a huge privilege to be working with all my amazing collaborators, and I cannot wait to see what we all come up with! The first challenge? Raising the funds for the project, and I’ll be posting more about funding and grant applications soon.
If you would like to know more about my collaborators, here are some links to their websites.
Kitty Whately: http://www.intermusica.co.uk/whately
Tim Casson: http://flavors.me/timcasson
Fruit For The Apocalypse: http://www.fruit-for-the-apocalypse.eu/
I am currently putting together a group of performers for a concert at LSO St. Luke’s next May/June. I’ll be creating a series of compositions which explore ideas of gameplay and rhythmic interaction through the use of various types of notation. This will begin with some exploratory sessions between October to December, for the group to get to know each other and to start developing some ideas for the performance.
I’m a composer and saxophonist and have recently finished a PhD in composition at Newcastle University. My recent work has often used the idea of continually transforming rhythms as a departure point for composition; evolving repetitions create a web of shifting textures and rhythmic relationships between performers, often in game-like scenarios.
One strand of this project at St. Luke’s will involve developing a graphic score for a group of 5-10 players. The score will be explored as a network of various cueing systems which set in motion hyperactive streams of mutating patterns.
I’ll also be working on some short pieces for 1-4 players using a mix of notational methods including stave notation, patterns of geometric shapes and loop-based graphic scores. These will be based around individuals and will focus on different types of rhythmic interplay and pattern-based music, within game-like frameworks. These sessions will take place around every 2-3 weeks, and are a chance to try out some material and different approaches. From January onwards these pieces will be developed towards performance.
Any instruments (acoustic/electronics/digital) welcome! If you’re interested, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please circulate to anyone who might be interested.
There’s more information about my composition work here:
We are thrilled that we can finally announce the six successful applicants for Soundhub membership beginning in September 2013. The selection day was spent in lively debate reading through a huge number of exciting proposals and narrowing the field down to just six composers was quite a challenge!
We are delighted that the following composers will join the Soundhub community as full members for the next two years:
LSO Soundhub members 2013
These six composers will have access to LSO players, rehearsal space at LSO St Luke’s and technical support to help them undertake the project that they proposed in their application, leading up to a showcase event on 28 June 2014. They join 2012 members Darren Bloom, Richard Bullen, Collectives & Curiosities, Gregory Emfietzis, Phil Venables, and Ayanna Witter-Johnson who are entering the second year of their membership.
We also welcome another 8 associate members to join the wider Soundhub community: Alexsandr Brusentsev; Michael Cryne; Jordan Hunt; Camilo Mendez; James Pickering; Marisa Sharon Hartanto; Neil Smith; James Welland.
Over the coming weeks we will be profiling each of the new members and inviting them to discuss what they hope to achieve over the course of their Soundhub membership – we look forward to getting to know them!
My portrait concert is now just around the corner, on June 30th, and things are really starting to come together. We have been wonderfully backed by the Arts Council, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, The Nicholas Boas Charitable Trust, and LSO Soundhub. It’s great to have such big names involved too: Leigh Melrose, who has just finished playing Wozzeck at ENO, Melinda Maxwell, Richard Baker, Ashot Sarkissjan of the Arditti Quartet… I’m really happy to have such fine players on board.
My concert is a collection of works from the last three years which explore spoken word, politics and violence in music. There will be a performance of my boxing opera, The Revenge of Miguel Cotto, a new piece for Sprechchor and violin, Socialist Fucking Realism, and lots of other nice (sometimes violent) things too which are listed on my website.
The concert is also going to be recorded as my debut commercial CD. Exciting times ahead! If you’d like to come then get in touch with my via my website and I’ll send you an invitation!
Last weekend was the debut outing of the newly founded London Sprechchor. For the last couple of months we’ve been workshopping extended vocal techniques for a new piece of mine, Socialist Fucking Realism, which also features the amazing Ashot Sarkissjan on violin. The concert was a little excerpt from this, and it went really well. The choir was great and Ashot was so loud! The Sprechchor is made up of volunteers from all kinds of backgrounds – musical and non-musical. It was great to see them all up on stage shouting! Our next performance will be at my portrait concert at LSO St Luke’s on the 30th June, where we’ll be performing the whole piece.
Here are a few photos from our rehearsals:
Also, have a look at our website to see what we’ve been doing at workshops, and some of our main influences for the project.
THE HOUSE OF ASTERIA (2013)
written and directed by Richard Bullen
The House of Asteria is a site-reactive theatre work written for mezzo soprano Lore Lixenberg, 8 clarinets, 8 strings, video, and the building of LSO St Luke’s. It was developed during the LSO Soundhub Scheme 2012–2013.
By ‘site-reactive’ I mean the music is designed to react to the differing sizes and acoustics of the space where it is performed, and could feasibly be transferred to other spaces. The spatial structure informs the dramatic structure of the music. For this premiere performance the action takes place in and around the entire building of LSO St Luke’s, while the audience remain seated in the hall. The piece attempts to explore, with the aid of the video, the dramatic tension between ‘on’ and ‘off stage’, and between exterior of space and interior of mind. I wanted to transform the building into a gigantic musical instrument. I also wanted to allow the building to become a unique character in the drama, in a similar way to the prominent role architecture plays in many Gothic novels.
My text has its roots in some of the most violent tales from Greek mythology: the Minotaur, Electra and Medea. However, they are just roots, and there is tremendous distance (reflected by the use of space) between the myth and my text. This distance is in some way mediated by Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The House of Asterion, which, told from the Minotaur’s perspective, sheds new light on the myth by introducing a meditative, vulnerable quality to his character. The themes of the infinite labyrinth, the double, and the contamination of reality by dream – which characterize much of Borges’ output and Fantastic literature – have been subsumed into the text. Asteria was apparently the name of one of the Minotaur’s victims, so there is ambiguity as to whether my character is a murderer or murdered, asesino o asesinado?
Euripides’ Medea and Sophocles’ Electra both begin with animal-like howling off-stage. Both women are described with animal imagery – Medea is likened to a ‘bull’ and a ‘lioness’. Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Elektra (after Sophocles) is described as a ‘wild cat’ whose howls for her father cause all the walls of the building to re-echo. Like Asterion, she is another brooding creature who spends her time languishing in her ‘lair’, endlessly waiting until a moment of off-stage violence ends her suffering.
The protagonist in my work is not any one of these mythical characters – she is a synthesis of abstract elements from all three. As with Schoenberg’s Erwartung, she is a nameless, lone wanderer. What links Medea, Electra and Asterion is a struggle between human and animal. I have used both Spanish and English text to attempt a separation between the singer’s human and animal qualities. A further nod to Borges, I also use Spanish for its particular earthy, yet resonant sound and because I am not trying to convey a literal narrative where the sung text must be understood – offstage this would be impossible even in English. This piece is concerned with revealing the interior mind of the singer through images and sounds. In fact I feel that the existence of a narrative in this case would actually detract from perceiving these sounds in space.
The video was filmed exclusively inside the building of LSO St Luke’s. I was particularly interested to explore the underground ‘Labyrinth’ areas – the corridors, lower stairwells and crypt. Influenced by Freud’s concept of the ‘Uncanny’ (Das Unheimliche) I wanted to explore that which is disturbingly familiar – the audience may have passed through some of these locations on their way to the hall. The singer’s ghostly video double is equally uncanny.
The section of video in colour – the video feedback or mise en abime – is designed to extend space forward for the first time in the piece, and create an illusory corridor in front of the audience – of Borgesian infinity. The live action and video are in a constant state of interaction. During the first section we hear very, very distant live sounds of utter anguish, but see a very close-up image of an eye or mouth. Perspective is frequently manipulated: At one point we are watching the film of the right hand balcony filming the film of the left hand side balcony filming the film basement corridors. Earlier we see the live singer to our left on the balcony looking across at the empty right hand balcony. But if we look at the video we see the shot as if from her perspective – staring at her double!
I am greatly indebted to James Sims-Williams for a huge amount of assistance with filming and editing.
The instrumentation of 8 clarinets and 8 strings arranged in 4 quartets continues the theme of the double explored throughout this piece. One could argue there are in fact only two instruments, one bowed, one blown, each doubled 7 times. Positioned in each corner of the Jerwood Hall, spread over two vertical levels, the four quartets represent the four pillars of the hall. Each vertical quartet functions at times as a separate organism from the rest, then merging with the others to form one single mass of sound – the loss of individual identity a subtle reference to the chorus in Greek Tragedy.
The dramatic trajectory of the music is threefold – the singer, whose material is ever diminishing in complexity and gesture (though increasing in volume due to proximity to hall); the strings, a traditional arch-form; and the clarinets, ever increasing (yet dying away in the distance in the crypt).
Particular consideration has been given to the vertical distribution of sound and harmonic spectra. This practice develops ideas from an earlier clarinet trio written during the Soundhub Pilot Scheme in 2012. As the singer enters the highly resonant stairwells, her notes start to become echoed by clarinets in the hall. The roles are reversed towards the end of the piece – violence both times is consigned to the off-stage, the other world.
The lower part of the castle was hollowed into several intricate cloisters; and it was not easy for one under so much anxiety to find the door that opened into the cavern. An awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions, except now and then some blasts of wind that shook the doors she had passed, and which, grating on the rusty hinges, were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness.
Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto
… for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me) – it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described. … Here again I paused abruptly, and now with a feeling of wild amazement – for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did
actually hear (although from what direction it proceeded I found it impossible to say) a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound – the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the dragon’s unnatural shriek as described by the romancer.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher
Not only have I imagined these games, I have also meditated on the house. All the parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards, pools are fourteen (infinite) in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather, it is the world. … Every nine years nine men enter the house so that I may deliver them from evil. I
hear their steps or their voices in the depths of the stone galleries and I run joyfully to find them. The ceremony lasts a few minutes. They fall one after another without my having to bloody my hands. They remain where they fell and their bodies help distinguish one gallery from another.
Jorge Luis Borges, The House of Asterion
The deeper I went, the more alien and the darker the scene became. In the cave, I discovered remains of a primitive man within myself – a world which can scarcely be reached or illuminated by consciousness. The primitive psyche of man borders on the life of the animal soul, just as the caves of prehistoric times were usually inhabited by animals before men laid claim to them.
Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections