Socially Curious Composition Exploring Performer-Environment Relationships Towards Noise


Harry Matthews

Example 1. Filtered Reality (location and date) opening section of the score

Filtered Reality (location and date) (2020) investigates a solo performer’s local audible environment through the making of, and engaging with, field recordings made by the performer. My role as the composer, in this instance, is to recontextualize this engagement by making a score that asks the performer, playing the double bass, to make creative decisions by retrospectively interpreting parts of the recordings they have made. This departs from many typical approaches to composition where all material is provided by the composer with little upfront engagement from the performer. More generally, my project seeks to combine soundscape composition (the recording of natural environments), open scores (works that invite participation and decision making from the performer), and the live processing of field recordings to position the performer as the central inquisitor of their audible environment. This work, in particular, places the performer as the mediator of their experiences, thereby avoiding situations where I direct my immediate judgement onto their environment. As a result, the power dynamics between the performer and the composer are put into question. Who is making the work? Who benefits from the results of the work? What are the creative roles? and who takes authorship? These are some questions that I think are important to consider when asking a performer to commit to a project that asks for their creative and personal input. 


Filtered Reality is an experimental listening exercise that prompts engagement with local audible environments. I am interested, through multiple solo listening pieces for various musicians, in generating a creative space for both the performer and composer to interact with ideas surrounding noise, environmental concerns, and autodidactic learning. This means that both mediators share a space for creative responses, and as a result produce a constant power exchange regarding the decision making and sounding results of the artwork. These works depart from traditional roles, preferring knowledge exchange and co-creation over typical instances where the performer simply delivers a composer's score. Filtered Reality aligns with my wider research investigations on how framing the listening of local environments in a musical context might facilitate performers and audiences to assess their behaviours and attitudes, and ultimately increase their understanding of noise.


My use of noise, in this context, departs from its most common interpretation: of being unwanted sound. I instead consider Jacques Attali’s definition, which states that ‘a noise is a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission’ (1985: 26). Positioning this idea in a musical composition, where all intended sounds produced during a performance are, ultimately, wanted, I interpret Attali’s quote as a situation where sounds may indeed interfere with a performer’s decision-making process and, furthermore will directly affect their cognitive abilities (an important component of open scores). This understanding of noise is vital to my work, as it probes the function of sounds within a musical context, furthermore questioning the function of sounds more globally. In considering noise as something that directly impacts how we generate meaning through listening, we can begin to categorize more easily sounds as noise and as unwanted (or disliked) sound. This, in particular, foregrounds internal biases towards certain sonic outlets and altogether questions our subjective understanding of how sound affects us.

Performed by Daniel Molloy (2020)

Filtered Reality, over the course of seven minutes, investigates the available frequencies (pitches, or, notes) in a given environment. Electronic recording software takes the performer's recording and, at specific moments during a live performance, filters the captured sound to highlight a single frequency. During a performance, a stopwatch is used by the performer to follow time-space notation (an alternative way of notating scores in a way that maps seconds instead of, more traditionally, tempo) so that they can accurately follow the field recording. The open score, shown in example 1, offers three directions for the double bass player to follow, as indicated by the dashed lines moving between each system. The performer is asked to consider the relationship between their instrument’s pitch and the filtered frequency of the field recording and, within seven seconds, decide which system they wish to continue playing. The player's decision is made based on the audibility of the two pitches (one pitch from the double bass, and one pitch filtered from the live recording). During performances of the work, the performer navigated different routes through the piece, responding to the changes in audibility from the locally captured sounds. Choosing multiple routes offered the performer an opportunity to take on a compositional role, and furthermore develop new relationships between their playing and the local sounds with each performance. The relatively simple task of taking a field recording, removing it from the original source material, and giving it back to the performer embedded within a musical composition allows me to redirect their attention towards other sonic qualities that may be glossed over during everyday listening. This technique personifies the type of listening that is important when challenging the functions and compatibilities of separate sound sources, as it offers us an opportunity to listen to real-world sounds artistically rather than instinctively. In other words, the very important responsibility our brain has of locating the sound of a car so that we do not collide with it changes in a performance space: there is the freedom to focus on its sonic properties whilst also developing an understanding for how these instincts might be affecting our cognitive abilities. In summary, this work looks to disrupt the social relationship and power dynamics between a performer, the musical material, the score, and myself in the creation of the score. It is principally concerned with how one might redefine the functions of sounds that are experienced passively, alongside sounds that are produced actively.