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Approach to Composition 


I compose performances as opposed to works that will be performed, although composed pieces often become material components of the performance. By considering this model of composition, composing becomes not only about organising and structuring sound, but rather takes an expanded view of composition that considers visual and performative elements. Such music, to quote Håkon Thelin, where the focus is on ‘the visual and theatrical energy that lies implicitly in the performance itself’ has its roots in ‘radical experimental and avant-garde practices drawn from the visual and performing arts in the latter half of the 20th century. It has been historically described with terms such as Musiktheater, Instrumental Theatre, Fluxus, Performance Art or Intermedia.’ Such work, by both historically significant composers (such as Mauricio Kagel, John Cage, and Karlheinz Stockhausen) and more recent figures (such as Jennifer Walshe, Genevieve Murphy, and Johannes Kreidler) represent a significant portion of the new or contemporary music genre. This music is unique in the way the visual and performative elements are actively considered in the composition process. All music can be considered to have intrinsic non-sonic elements, but within the contemporary classical or art-driven music traditions these elements are usually considered less important in composition and thus ignored.  


Experimental musician Andy Ingamells further expands this definition in his PhD thesis Grandchildren of Experimental Music: Performing the compositional act by creating intriguing situations in which musical sound may occur. Ingamells outlines four core aspects to experimental music, based on Cecilia Suns writing in Grove Music Online:


  • Chance procedures instead of total control
  • Graphic scores and written instructions instead of conventional musical notation 
  • Radical simplicity instead of complexity
  • Unorthodox performance requirements instead of traditional notions of virtuosity


Although partial as a definition, these core considerations shed light on the nature of the field in which my work and research is operating.  


My composition process can be defined as: idea, concept, content, score, and performance. The initial idea informs the creation of a concept, which in turn defines the structural framework and methodology needed to create the work. The idea also informs the search for the content of the work (sound, text, physical materials, movement, etc.). The development of these concerns happens simultaneously, meaning specific elements of the content become integral to the concept. The score is the realised version of the concept, in which the structure and methodology is applied to the content. Score, in this sense, can be anything from a conventional musical score to a collection of text instructions to an overview of the specific performance parameters and structure. The performance is then realised by following the score, and any additional decisions that are required will still be referenced against the concept. By performing the score, the concept is embodied and can thus be communicated to the audience.


In my work, I consider the whole process as part of the artwork. Therefore, it is essential that the concept is communicated to the audience, as this gives them access to the complete work and not just to its outcome. Because the notion of communicating the concept is a fundamental consideration of my work, it must be viewed in order to be complete.


I often take this one step further, inviting the audience to become an integral part of the performance and composition process by encouraging them to make their own compositional and performative decisions. The frameworks I compose allow the audience’s decision-making to remain within the concept of the work, thus they can directly experience my composition practice and further embody it.


This reinforces the importance of concepts as an essential part of the composition process. Concepts allow me to maintain a direct relationship between the idea and its realisation, by acting as an intelligible filter from one to the other. My work considers and exposes the non-sonic elements of musical performance and seeks to embody the idea, concept, and composition process within the performance. Ultimately, this means that the various decisions towards making the realisation can be retraced, leading me to suggest that to compose in this way is what I will call an ‘unprotected practice’.


Unprotected, in this sense, means to make no attempt to hide those compositional elements that are usually hidden, and to instead actively share this information in a performance. Unprotected also refers to a relation: of not being protective over the assumed relationship between composer and sound. An unprotected practice is the pursuit of making the process and the concept as open and tangible as possible; it exposes the composition process and uses it as material, making it possible to communicate an idea to an audience by embodying the concept in every part of the composition process and performance.

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M O R E  


r e a d i n g   a s   p e r f o r m a n c e /

r e a d i n g   a s   c o m p o s i t i o n 

A p p r o a c h

  t o  

C o m p o s i t i o n

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This text is designed to be read aloud.

If this is not possible, try to hear it in your head, in your own voice, as you read it.



or CLICK for Essential Information 




What is it, this that I am doing?


A little context

Sol LeWitt is an artist best known for his wall drawings. When commissioned for a new work, rather than presenting the gallery with a finished painting, he would present instructions on how to create his painting. Between 1967 and 1969, he wrote two small textsParagraphs on Conceptual Art and Sentences on Conceptual Art. These texts have become some of the most important manifestos for conceptual art and are today an essential reference point for those working with concepts in the field of music. 


At the end of Sentences on Conceptual Art (which comprises 35 sentences on LeWitt’s own practice as an artist), he states: ‘These sentences comment on art but are not art.’ In the same work he also remarks, ‘If words are used and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature, numbers are not mathematics,’ thus creating a new paradigm. Is writing or talking about artistic ideas art or not?


… Let’s say for now that it could be.


 ‘Composition is an approach to art-making grounded in organisational concerns.’


John Cage famously defined music as the ‘organisation of sound’. Perhaps, though, reflecting on the Latin origin of composition — componere, meaning to put together, or the organisation of things — may provide a more suitable definition. Not only sound, but all elements of a performance could, or perhaps should, be organised, put together, or composed.


My work Paganini Caprice (re-construction) is, I feel, a good example of a composition concerned predominantly with the organisation of things. I took the score of a piece of music that already exists, Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice Number 24 for solo violin. To my mind, this is the most famous solo violin piece, but I realise that this is probably not true; it may be that it is simply the one I heard first. I printed out the score for Paganini’s Caprice and taped it together to make a single large sheet. I then followed, to the best of my ability, the steps described on a website for how to construct a violin, only adapting the instructions so I could use the taped-together score instead of wood. By taking the score and re-constructing it into a paper violin I was able to organise it in a new way. The next step was to consider how this new paper violin would best function as both score and object. Collaborating with violinist Simon Goff, we developed the idea that every remaining scrap of music left on the violin would be played somehow. This was then recorded and, in the performance, was played back though a small speaker placed inside the paper violin. 


Next was to decide how this new self-playing instrument would be presented to an audience. In other words, I had to organise the space. I hung the instrument in a concert hall, at just the right height and position so that Simon could stand underneath it to comfortably play. I then lit the concert hall just as it would be for a traditional solo performance. Then, using velvet ropes and poles, I secured off the area around the violin and the seating. I placed signs on the ropes that said ‘please do not touch the violin’ and ‘please do not sit on the chairs’. My intention was to highlight the space and the concert as a spectacle, a historic museum piece to be looked at. The audience were then invited in and, due to the nature of the hall and my positioning of the ropes and poles, I was able to choose, to an extent, which elements the audience would see first, meaning I could also organise what information they were given and when. 


The whole event was organised with compositional intention, or to put it more simply: the whole event was composed. Each decision, and each instance of the organisation of things, was part of the work’s composition. However, in this type of event where more than just the sound is organised, the audience are directly and joyfully caught up in being organised themselves. Unlike the paper violin, furniture, lighting, sound and even the sonic performance and recording, the audience can never be neatly organised: they have choice. When an audience sees a concert of traditional music, in a concert hall, there is a set of understood parameters that are rarely challenged. Although, in theory, there is actually nothing to stop someone bending or breaking those unspoken rules. When, as in one of my works, the audience is organised differently and according to compositional means, the rules are blurred. The audience’s choices become very present. 


In Paganini Caprice (re-construction), the audience members are free to come when they like, stay as long as they like, look at the things in any order, look at the other people, talk or listen, and do essentially whatever they see fit. The choice of actions is, however, limited by the compositional framework, but it is also limited by the laws of the land and the social conduct of what might be seen as appropriate behaviour. People don't usually walk down the street naked, but, aware of the consequences, they could do if they wanted. So with this presence of choice from the audience, we are led to a situation where each audience member is organising themselves within the performance. To me, this organising is in every way compositional. To one degree or another, the decisions made will have an effect on what is communicated during the performance. The audience thus become a necessary, intriguing, and unpredictable part of the composition in performance.


I am very much aware that I seem to have drifted quite far from Sol LeWitt’s question: is writing or talking about artistic ideas art or not? However, thinking of composition as 'an approach to art-making grounded in organisational concerns,' I ask you to consider for a moment a different situation, in which an audience member's decisions matter. Specifically I would like you to think about an audience of readers, reading a text that has been written about art. Think about a moment in this situation in which your organisational decisions matter. Maybe it’s as simple as deciding whether to read the text or look at the given example first. These decisions matter, they affect what is communicated and when, what knowledge or assumptions are carried, and for how long. These decisions are thus meaningful and compositional in nature. This establishes a new question over and above ‘Is writing about artistic ideas art or not?’ Is all reading compositional? 


… Let’s say for now that it could be.


Before you internally answer that question on one side or the other, I’ll ask you to remain with me in the position of ‘maybe’, agreeing that ‘it could be’ for a few moments longer. In support of that position, I would like to give another example:


On the subject of distraction

Distraction is for me a persistent and crucial element of live performance that cannot be ignored. For example the age-old problem of coughing in the concert hall, as written about in countless newspaper articles (such as the particularly scathing ‘Critic's Notebook; On Coughs, Beeps and Wrappers, The Bane of a Performer's Life’ by New York Times critic James R. Oestreich). A more complicated negotiation with distraction is afforded by having the audience share the stage with performers or participating. When we consider this undeniable potential for distraction as part of the composer's toolbox, everyday experiences  can feed into compositional and conceptual elements. 


This element of distraction is, for me, also very present when reading, particularly when I’m confronted with footnotes, whether they are traditionally presented or, as in this exposition, exposed by clicking to reveal a pop-up. Footnotes offer potential for play and highlight the performative nature of reading. There is something ‘other’ about them in a text. It’s not quite certain, to me at least, when they should be read, if at all, and their importance is often unclear. However, as a reader we must decide when or how to engage with them, whether that is in the moment or based on a previous all-encompassing decision. When I read, I embrace the fact that, in a moment of confrontation with a footnote, it is easy for me to lose my train of thought, and by following the footnote it is equally easy to lose my place in the text. To me, this sensation feels extremely similar to my reflections of being an audience member in Paganini Caprice (re-construction). As a slight aside, I would also like to note this same principle applies to the notes of a printed programme at a concert: when should they be read, if at all? Are they really important? Yet another potential cause of distraction.


Until now, although without saying it, I’ve been referring to the academic tradition of footnotes in non-fiction writing, some of my favourite examples are found in the novels of Terry Pratchett. Taking a playful approach in his book Guards! Guards!, we find footnotes within the footnotes.


Essential Information 

This Research Catalogue exposition, in the context of ‘reading as a compositional act’, is composed. The various texts and images are placed within a conceptual framework and they require interaction (clicking) in order to extract more information. The framework offers some suggestions of order by nature of its design. Things tend to proceed from the top left and elements are positioned uniformly across the wide range of visual media of different styles. I have integrated further graphic connections that suggest a weaving engagement with the exposition and reflect my personal view on the connections that exist across and between works. However, the purpose of the framework is not to dictate, quite the opposite; the parameters of the exposition are kept simple to provide a launching point for a personal and distinct engagement from the reader. Exploration, testing the limits, getting lost, or even slightly confused are crucial and desirable elements of this exposition and of my compositional practice in general, especially when dealing, as this exposition does, with an actively participating audience. This exposes the essentially interpretive nature of performance, underlining that even the strictest rules can loosen when communicated via performance.


A few suggested parameters

This exposition is about choice and interaction. Spend about an hour looking around. This should be plenty of time; it is also, coincidentally, a very common length for a performance where audience participation is required. Don't be frightened to follow your nose and find your own logic about when to read or watch, when to move on, and what to leave unfinished. As you navigate this exposition you are making decisions, you are organising the material as you see fit and thus you are implicit in the composition of this material as a performance. Your decisions within the framework I have provided are meaningful and compositional and it is my intention that they will have an effect on what is communicated and when.


I am fully aware that I haven't made any conclusions about the compositional nature of reading. Perhaps the things I’m talking about are too simple. They follow along the lines of statements such as ‘anything can be art’ and questions like ‘what is art?’ These are notions so broad that they are practically useless. More useful to my practice are broad statements such as: 'if words are used and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art.' So too are equally broad questions: is writing about art art or not? Is all reading compositional? And to introduce one more: is all written text music? These words are just so full of tantalising and joyful potential that they are worth everything to me. At times, it is precisely in reflection of these words that I can know that what I do and what I am doing is composing.  


A sort of conclusion

It is important to note that with this text I’m really not trying to make any grand statements. It is a collection of words and decisions that function more as a demonstration of how I think about composition. In one of my biographies, the one I use for funding applications, I refer to composition as ‘my way of trying to understand little bits of the world’. Previously I have written about the self-improvement games that I play, where I try to adjust my behaviour according to tasks. The one I have written about most recently has a simple rule: to never pretend to have heard of an artist or composer or researcher. This also excludes saying, ‘Oh, it rings a bell’ or other such easy lies. 


Working with tasks, instructions, and game structures in this way is very much my strategy for composing. I’m realising that composing is deeply personal. It is part of my personality, manifest for others to witness, but all in a non-emotional way. My work gives the audience a glimpse into how I try to operate as a human being in the world: someone who is striving to be better and to leave a positive influence.  


In stating that the act of reading could be compositional, it is my wish to leave open the potential that this is true. That by accepting this we can start to be a little more playful with our decision-making, letting fun, curiosity, and criticality guide us, resisting tradition for its own sake. 


This is why, in 2017, I submitted my PhD thesis as 14 separately bound scores. This is why platforms such as the Research Catalogue, where I have a canvas rather than a page to communicate my research, excite me more than the format of traditional journal articles. I want space to compose the conceptual framework of everything I do, I want to support audience members in their decision-making, handing certain compositional decisions over to them. I want these things to become visible through performance and I want everyone I meet to make active and considered choices. 


Perhaps, then, this is the point and the conclusion to all this writing. Can my fundamental and over-simple definition of the compositional act aid and progress my artistic research activity? Can it encourage me to keep being critical and investigative through my practice and to bring about subtle shifts in the territory and little victories and celebrations along the way? If so, then I feel it is perhaps through simplification that we can reveal an extraordinary and complex web of thoughts that can support long-lasting intrigue into the very essence of what it means to exist in the world as an artist and a researcher. 


So I ask one final thing of you, and that is to embrace the not-knowing, remaining undecided about the broad questions I've proposed. Instead, perhaps carry a little of the piece Cheap Lecture by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion with you, as we say aloud together: 


‘We don't know what we are doing and we are doing it.’

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W h a t   i s   i t,   t h i s   t h a t   I   a m   d o i n g ?

P a g a n i n i 

C a p r i c e

( r e - c o n s t r u c t i o n )

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The idea for Grieg came about when I discovered that my Apple computer could convert text into a spoken track. This is an option that appears in a drop-down menu when you right-click on any selected text, and is featured on all current Apple computers. When I was exploring this tool, I discovered that one of the different voices, ‘cellos’, will sing any text to the tune of In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg. This discovery made me laugh because the context in which it was used was so unexpected and absurd. Suddenly I was listening to a seminal work from the classical music canon with lyrics; it even restructures the tune in order to serve the phrasing of the words. At this point all context of the original piece by Grieg had disappeared, apart from the most familiar excerpt of the melody. 


In the Hall of the Mountain King is one of the many iconic pieces of classical music that have been absorbed into popular culture through their use in advertising, mobile phone ringtones, etc. This piece has been reduced to a short familiar tune and it no longer matters whether it is played by an orchestra, Midi, a single voice, or any other means. The reason it is featured on Apple computers is not out of respect for Grieg or his composition: it is there because of its familiarity in popular culture. Grieg and the original considerations of the work are removed altogether. I wanted to highlight this by juxtaposing some of the missing context with the tune.


This work required a text to produce the music. By getting the computer to sing a text about Grieg, I was able to reconnect his identity with the tune. Since the tune is part of popular culture and is uncritically removed from its original context, the equally uncritical use of Google and Wikipedia seemed the most appropriate way to find a text. The combination of Google and Wikipedia is by far the most common way of gaining information. This is proven by the high ranking of Wikipedia on the Google search engine for almost any keyword and, when searching for Grieg, the first link is to the Grieg Wikipedia page. Wikipedia’s insufficiently referenced information is aesthetically similar to the unreferenced use of famous classical pieces in pop culture. It doesn't really matter where the information came from or even if it is entirely accurate; what is more important is it being readily available, easily accessible, and presented in a familiar way. 


In my piece, it was vital to present the process of creating the song, because that allowed me to make the tools that are used (Google, Wikipedia, and the Apple computer feature) visible. When searching for how to do something, particularly when that tasks relates to a computer, it is YouTube that ranks highest on Google. Again, it’s not important to me why the content is there or how it was discovered, nor is it important to watch whole videos: instead I extract the information I need. In my experience, people are often uncritical of information available on the internet, as it is often impossible to know if the information is verified or not. In much the same way, they are uncritical of where these appropriated classical tunes come from: their original context, intention, and presentation. Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King is also known as the jingle used in the Alton Towers Theme Park television advert, much like Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 is also known as the music from the Hovis bread advert. I use information in the same way in my work, using what is prevalent over what is factually verifiable.


By choosing the YouTube tutorial as the format for presenting this process, further emphasis is placed on the tools of popular culture, as the format reflects the content. The process of producing the song and the format of the presentation all become compositional material in Grieg. The compositional material creates a work that appropriates structures of popular culture. The work is performed within an artistic context in concert halls, gallery spaces, on my artist website, or within the context of this exposition. When placed in this way, we are able to look at the tools themselves and not only at the material they communicate. The tools and the composition process are utilised as artistic material for the work, allowing the work to reflect on their use in wider culture. In this context, Grieg highlights popular culture’s emancipation of Grieg’s identity from his most famous piece by using related tools to reintroduce him.

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G r i e g

A B H   i s t  

Ka p u t t:  

B y   B r a s s 

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ABH ist Kaputt: By Brass

This work emerged out of an announcement to the students of Birmingham Conservatoire that the Adrian Boult Hall (ABH), the largest concert hall in the conservatoire, would be demolished during the current term. ‘Frontiers’, the conservatoire’s contemporary music festival, was approaching, making it the last edition while the ABH was still standing. I therefore wanted to create a work that would celebrate the hall. I also wanted to find a way to give some semblance of control back to the students of the conservatoire, who had no say in the timing and nature of the ABH’s demolition.


Forming the idea

I decided to attempt to knock down the ABH ahead of schedule. It is a well-known phenomenon that it is possible to demolish objects with sound: think of a singer smashing a wine glass with their voice. This phenomenon happens when the sound that is produced is loud enough and matches the resonant frequency of the object. In the case of the wine glass, this is the pitch that one hears when the wine glass is tapped. I theorised that if I could find the resonant frequency of the ABH then I would be able to demolish it by reproducing that pitch very loudly. The attempt to knock down the hall was purely theoretical: I knew that success was extremely unlikely, but the focus of the work was not success but rather preparing and making the attempt.


Finding the resonant frequency

All structures have resonant frequencies, but rooms, and particularly concert halls, have many different resonant frequencies. So I decided that in order to knock down a hall, all these resonant frequencies would have to be played at the same time.


To find the resonant frequencies of the ABH, I used a tool on the internet that will calculate the resonant frequencies of any room based on its dimensions. Using the resonant frequencies was essential, not only alluding to the real chance to knock down the hall but also to hear the hall’s inherent sound, just as we hear the sound of the glass if we tap it. Playing the resonant frequencies of the ABH produces its sonic image, celebrating the hall itself as a musical object.


I needed to work with multiple loud instruments to reproduce all the resonant frequencies. I chose to work with brass instruments as they are the loudest instruments that can be found in abundance within the conservatoire. Choosing brass was additionally suitable, as it let me work with the conservatoire’s brass choirs. These brass choirs are rather unique to the conservatoire, since other institutions rarely have enough brass players. It was conceptually important to use students of the conservatoire as performers, and using an ensemble structure that is inherent to the conservatoire emphasised the context of the work further.


Positioning the performers 

I also used the concept to position the performers in the hall. The website I used to get the frequencies also provides a visualisation of the node point (the point at which a sound wave’s amplitude is zero) of each frequency. I used this information to decide that each performer should stand on a node point and direct the bell of their instrument in the direction of the sound wave. Practically speaking, this resulted in the performers being spread out across the whole of the ABH.


Structuring the performance 

In order to structure the work, I researched the demolition of buildings by several means. Demolition by explosion seemed aesthetically the most similar to my planned attempt with sound. When watching a demolition by explosion, the majority of time is spent waiting. After a short address from the site manager, all you can see are people checking things and talking seriously to each other in ways you can't understand, as they prepare the demolition leading to the actual demolition itself. My work adopted this structure. The longest part of the performance was spent preparing the demolition by distributing precise pitches to the performers, informing the performers where to stand and which way to face. This process could not be fully understood by the audience as it was too far away from them and required specific knowledge.


Addressing the audience

Following the structure described above, I also addressed the audience directly with a short introduction and, after the attempt, I addressed the audience again to explain that we had failed. These introduction and closing statements were essential in framing the preparation and attempt to demolish the ABH as part of the performance. Without the introduction, the process that led to the attempt could have been seen as a purely technical element to the work. The introduction also allowed me to share some of the concept behind the work, explaining what would happen and pointing out the potential health and safety risks. The content of this introduction and the following section of preparing the attempt created a visceral suspense; I even found myself almost believing that we could succeed and the sense of disappointment when we failed was surprisingly real.


Positioning the audience

The audience was restricted from entering the hall by a barrier. The barrier was made of poles that are usually connected by velvet ropes, like those used in museums to prevent visitors touching the artworks. However, I replaced the ropes with hazard tape, which has the opposite connotation: it protectis the public from a dangerous site. By combining these two ideas of a barrier, I achieved an ambiguity between exhibiting an artwork and protecting the audience, suggesting that the event was both a legitimate attempt to knock the hall down and a performance. This also emphasised the real chance of succeeding and the bizarre notion that somehow the performers were ‘protected’ by their high-vis jackets and ear defenders.

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‘Television’: Definition Songs


‘Television’ is one example of my Definition Songs, a collection of songs which use the Google definition of particular words as lyrics. The performer may choose any simple melody and accompaniment. I have performed the majority of the songs myself in various combinations of my own voice and guitar, but I’ve also included other voices, recorders, and a synthesiser. Following the first song ‘Curious’ in 2014, which was a stand-alone work, the remaining songs have been used to support the wider artistic concept within another larger work or in a concert, where a specific definition supported the communication of the concept, context, or a specific element of the composition process. Regardless of the context in which the song is used, the whole definition text is sung completely, including all uses of the word.


I began making Definition Songs after Googling the definition of ‘curious’ to check the spelling. I was immediately amused by the bizarre example sentences for the use of the word ‘curious’, for example: ‘I began to be curious about the whereabouts of the bride and groom.’ I realised that these definitions had creative potential. The way the definitions are written on the page look very similar to song structures with numbered sections and a clear verse — chorus structure. It is also delightfully often that these examples coincidentally reference the specific situation that the definition is used in. For example, in ‘Lecture’ we find the line ‘He was lecturing at the University of Birmingham’, or in ‘Water’, which was part of a concert that included works by Hillary Springfield, it reads ‘The smell of frying bacon made Hillary’s mouth water.’ These surprising moments are precisely what maintained my interest in this process for over three years. They are also testament to the potential for surprise in the composition process that comes out of a conceptual engagement with found text. Certain elements of the definition fit the specific situation so precisely, but in a way I would never design or choose by taste.


The use of Definition Songs has become a useful supporting element for certain works in my portfolio. The definitions produce a reliable structure from which to create sonic musical material, where the content of the definition can give a surprisingly rich context. What has become interesting about the Definition Songs is the way that the composition process has become a technique. When required, definitions can quickly be turned into new compositions and imported into larger artistic contexts.

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T e l e v i s i o n

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maneuvers / groove space

maneuvers / groove space is a dance performance that was created and premiered in Zurich, Switzerland, in collaboration with choreographer Sebastian Matthias and performance artist Nino Baumgartner.


This work applies the compositional approach outlined in Grieg and ABH ist Kaputt: By Brass to a collaboration with artists from other genres who have different approaches to creating work.


Sebastian Matthias and the groove space series

This is the second of five works in Matthias’s performance series groove space. It researches the choreographic ‘groove’ of different cities with new artistic collaborators in each city. Matthias’s choreographic works deal with audiences that are free to move about the performance space and the dance is designed to be experienced somatically. In his PhD thesis, Matthias defines ‘somatic’ as follows:


While the Duden [a German dictionary] defines ‘somatic’ based on [the] Greek ‘soma’ (σῶμα) for body as ‘relating to the body’ and separates ‘somatic’ from spirit, soul, mood, in the discourse of somatic dance practices, the term ‘somatics’ is understood as the entirety of the living body: body, spirit, soul and its environment. Thomas Hanna established an understanding of ‘somatics’ as the inner individual experience: the body as perceived from within by first person perception. 


Within this open performance setting, dancers and audiences can get very close to each other, enabling the audience to perceive the dance not only visually, but also somatically, stimulating their own movement and thus sharing a physical sensation with the dancers. To create material for the work, Matthias and his dancers observe situations in everyday life, such as people moving or waiting in a subway station, and then research choreographic recreations of that somatic sensation within the theatre space.


Forming the idea

My brief was to compose music that I could perform myself using live electronics and an electric guitar. Matthias had originally planned the work without music, but then worried that if the performance was too quiet it would make the audience feel uncomfortable. Therefore, I chose to focus the composition on comfort. With the music as a late addition, it was clear that it would be somewhat outside Matthias’s main artistic considerations, meaning I could consider my role as one in the background. I made this thought productive by also considering background music as an idea to support the creation of the musical material. Before exposing my approach to the collaborative process, every compositional decision I made was based on the ideas of comfort and background music.


Initial composition process

My initial steps were to create a live electronics system and music to perform live on the electric guitar.


Live electronics

To follow the idea of comfort, I chose not to consider my own feelings of what is comfortable, as this would make the composition reflect my own opinions rather than the notion of comfort itself. Consequently, and following the example of Grieg, I chose to look for common occurrences of comfort that I could find through a Google search, settling on the three occurrences of comfort I felt had the most artistic potential:


The Comfort Noise Generator

On modern communication systems (such as Skype), when one party is speaking, the other party’s computer transmits no sound in order to save bandwidth. The unwanted result of this mechanism is that the speaker may believe that the transmission has been lost, and therefore hang up prematurely. To avoid this issue, the speaker’s computer generates a synthetic sound called a ‘comfort noise’ that reassures the speaker that the connection has not been lost.


Comfortable Sound Level

CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research near Geneva, Switzerland) has defined sound levels as part of its safety guide for experiments. In order to describe these levels, measured in decibels, they provide a list of reference values, which includes a comfortable sound level (40-60dB).

This is the website of composer John Barnard, providing free music designed to be comforting for people with anxiety and stress. The music I chose for this work was used on the relaxation audio channel for long-haul British Airways flights between 2005–06.


Based on those three occurrences I created my own version of a comfort noise generator (CNG). This would reassure the audience by playing music in the performance space only when it was quiet. A microphone was used to measure how loud the performance space was; when it was sufficiently quiet, my CNG played the music found on, never louder than the comfortable sound level defined by CERN. The result is that no accidental silence could happen during the performance.


Guitar music

To create the material that I would perform live on the electric guitar, I first looked at the idea of background music. 


I began by thinking about background jazz musicians and the material they use. Most players will use a Real Book, which is a collection of jazz standards (popular jazz songs) available in various transpositions and to suit different voices. Pieces from the book are chosen at the whim of the players and most often performed from sight. Songs are then repeated multiple times with the players choosing when to stop. In line with this, I decided to make my own version of a Real Book, called Comfortable Music.  


To create the Comfortable Music book, I worked with a list of the ten most frequently used chords in popular music (G, F, C, a, d, e, E, D, B, A), which I coincidentally found online whilst searching for comfort and music together. To produce a reasonable amount of varied songs, I used a website where you can insert a list of letters and it will tell you all the words that can be created from them. This produced a total of 80 words (for example BAG), which became 80 songs by playing each letter as a chord.


To introduce one of my chosen occurrences of comfort into the guitar music, I decided to again work with the comfortable sound level. Each chord was assigned two values: an amplification value (from 1–10), which dictated where the volume knob of the guitar should be positioned, and a dynamic value (from ffff to pppp), which dictated how hard the guitar should be strummed. These two values were inversely proportional, so that the higher the amplification level, the softer the dynamic level. The aim when playing the chords was then to keep the resulting volume at a comfortable sound level. 


Further links to comfort are also present in the creation of the book. The function of background music is mostly to provide comfort, which also supported my initial decision to work with the idea of background music. By choosing chords that are very familiar, the harmonic material is never surprising. Due to the prevalence of the guitar in pop music, it is also the case that these chords are very easy and comfortable to play on the guitar.


Performing with the live electronics and the guitar

Deciding how to perform the composed material is an essential part of my composition process.


Following the idea of background music, at the beginning of the performance I positioned myself against the wall and away from the main performance area in the centre of the space. The electric guitar set-up was very simple and the link between the guitar and the amplifier was made as clear as possible by using a thick cable. The microphone that controlled the CNG was also placed next to the amplifier. 


I used Comfortable Music much as one would use a Real Book: flicking through, choosing a song, and repeating it until I felt I had played it enough, before moving on to the next song which was chosen and performed in the same way.


Placing the microphone that controlled the CNG next to the amplifier visually linked the two elements together. However, the nature of the CNG is that the music it produces can never be heard at the same time as the guitar. The way the CNG interacts with the guitar music brings attention to the music it produces, as it is constantly muted and un-muted when the guitar plays and stops. 


Several times during the performance I also repositioned myself, unplugging the amplifier before moving to a new position on the outside of the performance space. These moments brought further attention to the music produced by the CNG, as it was given more time to be heard.


Access to the concept

It was with this work that I understood that in order to communicate a concept most effectively in a performance you must ensure that all decisions relate directly to it. It is not necessary, although it can be musically interesting, to address the audience directly and tell them what the concept is or, as in this work, to add extra material pointing towards it—for example ‘Definition Song: Comfort’, which ends the performance. Rather, the concept can be embodied in the performance by directly relating all compositional and collaborative decisions to it.

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m a n e u v e r s  /  

g r o o v e  s p a c e  

S w i n g   M u s i c

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Swing Music

Swing Music is a short text score printed onto a badge. The first time I distributed Swing Music, the badges were handed out to participants of the Research Matter(s): Conversations About Research in Arts, Design and Media conference at Birmingham City University. While I personally handed the badges out, a film that showed the preparation of the badges and the sound that this made was screened behind me. The badges themselves were contained in an envelope, which included a suggestion of how to wear the badge and hinted at the blurring of  roles that the work aimed to highlight by addressing the reader as audience/ performer/ conductor. The idea for Swing Music began with the observation that as people walk, they swing their arms to quite different degrees, depending on factors such as speed of walking, posture, or the size and shape of things being carried. I noticed the inherent rhythm and musicality of this situation-specific performance that people are unknowingly giving every day. It was exactly this realisation that inspired me to create the work. The aim of Swing Music was to provide a compositional frame, in which an everyday action can be viewed as a performance and to communicate it so it could be seen as such by everybody. 


Presenting the score as a badge meant that those who chose to participate would wear the score. By wearing the badge, the score can become part of the wearer’s everyday life and travel out into the world for much longer than would be possible with a traditionally printed score. The badge being worn also connects the score directly to a person and the wearing of the badge itself becomes inherently performative. Through the combination of the score itself and the performative action of wearing it, several questions come to the fore: what is performance in this case? Who initiates the performance? Who is the performer? Who is the audience? I realised that in order for there to be an audience of this work, the score must be read, but by reading the score, each audience member also becomes a performer. So what is the role of the person wearing the badge? In one sense, wearing the badge is another version of a performance, albeit with a difference: rather than performing the action, it is about performing the delivery of the text. Communicating the text to others in order to allow them to perform the action also places the wearer close to the role of a composer, since they initiate a performance. The work gains an inherent multiplicity as the various inherited roles become changeable, transitory, and reliant on the perception of each individual.


The audience’s decisions are part of the composition. When the badge is handed over, the audience members need to decide how and if they will perform the work. This process is fundamentally organisational and, referring again to my continuation of Cage’s thinking of music as the ‘organisation of things’, their decisions become inherently compositional.

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P o i n t i n g 

a t   T h i n g s

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Pointing at Things: it started when you read this


This is a live performance where the audience and the composer create the work together through the use of instruction scores.


In this work, the concept is embodied in the performance by following it closely to create the material. The audience members are able to discover the concept by interacting with text scores and further to communicate the concept by interacting with each other during the performance. 


Pointing at Things

The concept of this work is ‘pointing at things’, i.e. bringing a person’s attention to something that happens in everyday life and claiming it as a performance. This concept closely relates to both John Cage’s ‘4:33’ and Peter Ablinger’s ‘Weiss/Weisslich 29’. In these works, the everyday sounds that are heard in the chosen performance space (whether this is in a concert hall, as in ‘4:33’, or an outside space, as in ‘Weiss/Weisslich 29’) are the material of the composition. In my use of this concept, it is not only about bringing attention to sounds but rather to any sound, action, movement, event, object, or structure as the material of the composition.


The concept

The concept in this work functions slightly differently to concepts in many of my other works, where it is possible for me to trace the initial idea for the work to the forming of the concept. Here the concept of ‘pointing at things’ was the initial thought that triggered the composition process; there was no idea from which the concept developed. 


The concept, as defined above, is both specific and extremely open with regard to what is pointed at and what does the pointing. Every decision that is based on this concept is both pointed at and is pointing at something else, and each decision is performing the concept and simultaneously reiterating it. Thus, the concept becomes inseparable from any decisions based on it. The title of the work (and its subtitle, it started when you read this) is literal. It does not only refer to the audience but also to myself as I understood the concept enough to write it down: by reading my own writing the artistic work had already begun.


By acknowledging this, my usual understanding of structure and content becomes blurred. More than simply tools that allow the concept to be performed, both structure and content become primarily performances and expressions of the concept. This means that all elements of the composition become inseparable from each other and the concept, as the initially precise and definable concept becomes larger and more complex. This complexity, however, does not come from developing the concept; on the contrary, it stays the same but is reiterated by every element.


Taking this into consideration, the concept — more than in any other work in the exposition — is truly embodied in every element of the composition process and performance, even extending into all decisions and actions made by the audience.


Reflecting on the performance 

Pointing at Things: It started when you read this began when I was offered a residency at Frankfurt LAB, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. I decided to use the concept of ‘pointing’ to point to the city of Frankfurt. The work operates in a physical space and a virtual space. The audience members are physically situated in the theatre space (Frankfurt LAB) and move around a scaled down map of Frankfurt am Main that shows only the outline of the city, the river Main, and the location of Frankfurt LAB. 


Pointing is achieved by distributing instruction scores that ask the audience to move to locations on the map, to mark additional landmarks, and eventually to begin to change the map altogether. As the audience members follow the scores, they are encouraged to not only consider the physical actions that they are making in the theatre (from here on described as the physical space), but also to consider an imagined version of the ‘real’ city of Frankfurt (from here on described as the virtual space). It is this process of imagining the virtual space in connection to the physical space that creates the many different layers of this work. The instructions are very simple but complexity is created by transplanting one’s own actions, and the actions of others that one observes in the physical space, into the virtual space. The potential that everyone is occupying both spaces at the same time leads to a productive confusion. In addition to imagining actions that would be physically possible in the virtual space, so too do all kinds of actions that would be physically impossible in everyday life become entirely possible in the virtual space, for example sitting in the middle of the river Main. 


Conversely, by simultaneously occupying both spaces, interaction in the physical space is changed. In the performance, an audience member’s preoccupation when considering the virtual space makes it possible to get very close to other audience members in the physical space. For example, when following the score ‘Go to a park and lie down’, many audience members clustered very closely together and lay on the floor.  


Additionally, things that happened before the audience enters the theatre, for example the journey taken to get there, can be brought into the present by imagining them in the virtual space. In this way, it is not only possible to witness physically impossible actions in the virtual space, but also temporally impossible actions: actions that literally occur chronologically or sequentially need not have this same relation within the virtual space.


Delivering scores

Composing a system to distribute the scores in the performance space was another essential component of the performance. Rather than take direct responsibility for score distribution as a performer, I wanted the audience to be responsible for creating all elements of the performance themselves. One score in the performance that is repeated multiple times instructs the audience to take another score and deliver it to a person of their choosing. This has several effects on the performance: it creates initial movement in the physical space and it creates a transparent structure that requires the audience to engage with this score in order for the performance to move forward. The audience taking part in the creation of the performance thus becomes a fundamental element of the work. 


The notion of the audience creating the work together promotes the establishing of a social space, where audience members no longer act according to the internalised notions of how one should behave at a performance. Instead they turn to modes of interaction taken from everyday life. This creates a consistency between interactions in both the theatre and the city, further connecting the physical and the virtual space. Connecting the spaces in this way, however, shifts the attitude of the audience, and the resulting interaction in the physical space becomes unique to the performance. The creation of the social space also encourages active decision-making by the audience: an audience member may choose if, how, and when to follow any score (and reacting to others’ decisions becomes part of the choice). It also reduces the fear that one’s choices will expose or single out an audience member in the performance.


Communicating the concept

In this work, the audience is not explicitly told the concept of the work. All decisions towards the creation of the scores, the preparation of the performance space, the creation of background music, and every other element I composed were informed by the concept. By interacting with these elements and with each other, the audience are performing the concept and, by doing so, embody it themselves.

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Some Conclusions 

I can draw some conclusions about the nature of my compositional approach and how my work embodies its concept through performance. The works presented here offer a deeper understanding of how the decisions made in the composition process inform what is communicated. 


By researching through practice and using each new composition process to reflect on previous works, I have come to the realisation that a concept is most effectively communicated when it is embodied in the performance by basing all compositional decisions on it. By sharing this process and providing structures for audience members to also acknowledge their own decision-making as compositional, my composition process can be further shared, deepening its connection to the works and further embodying the concept. 


Analysing the decision process in each work, I was able to locate the elements that obfuscated the concept, making it more difficult to communicate. In my initial composition processes, some decisions were made that were not directly informed by the concept, but instead based on outside influences (requests from collaborators, personal taste). I realised that they do not communicate the concept but rather secondary or subsequent considerations. 


The same is true for decisions based on previous decisions: creating a chain of decisions with each new decision based on the last is a strategy that seems, on the surface, to follow the concept closely. However, only the composer who made the decisions can easily trace that chain back to the underlying concept. To the audience, access to the concept becomes increasingly difficult when using this process, since many elements of the composition are presented at once in a performance. The linearity of the composition process is not reflected and too many things are communicated at once. This can be compared to a conversation between two people: if one tries to communicate too many things in one sentence, it is likely that nothing is understood. 


External parameters often have an impact on the presentation of the work. Whether this is based on traditional settings, collaboration, commissions, or personal taste, they do not serve to communicate the concept unless they are included in the creation of the concept (see image below). 

Within my approach to composition, all decisions matter, not only those that lead to the creation of material. The presentation and structure of the material can also communicate the concept. If all elements of the performance, including the material, the structure, the staging, and the way of performing are composed, they can all embody the concept and make it clear and accessible to the audience. 


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