Excerpt from the composition process of ‘Ungelīc is Ūs’, for electroacoustic fixed media. At this point in the piece, samples of the man's name, Ēadwacer, sung by a mezzo-soprano, have been transposed to a lower pitch. The Ēadwacer material has been variously fragmented, stretched, speeded up, layered and recombined, such that the name becomes subsumed within a larger cloud of low-pitch phonemes. By doing this, the material alludes to the man's identity; the transformed text allows Ēadwacer's voice to be heard. Other sounds in this example include material derived from the word 'giedd' (song) from the last line of the text, and some high upper partials, derived from a spectral analysis of the Ēadwacer material.
Preparation for a concert of electroacoustic music performed by members of Integra Lab, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham City University, in June 2019.
2. Developing Methodological Approaches
As a composer who frequently draws on untranslated, early medieval poetry, the interplay of text, language, voice, and electroacoustic technology has formed a continuous thread through more than a decade of my work. To explore the questions that are raised by my use of these elements, this exposition focuses on two works: We Are Apart; Our Song Together for mezzo-soprano and electroacoustic fixed media, and Ungelīc is Ūs for electroacoustic fixed media alone. Over time, the reflective, reflexive nature of my work has resulted in continually evolving methodologies, developed as a result of the research questions that arose with each new project.
As my practice developed, I became increasingly aware of the ways in which the complexities surrounding the terminology of research and creation in musical composition might influence my emergent methodology. On one hand, terms such as ‘practice as research’ have sometimes been used to emphasise the extent to which artistic creation might be seen as research in itself.1 Conversely, others have emphasised the importance of the distinction between practice and research, stressing the need for a causal relationship between the two, in the form of ‘research-creation’.2 When developing my own approach, Anthony Gritten’s discussion of the boundary between practice and research suggested a useful meeting point between the two poles outlined above.3 The idea that the practitioner might allow the relationship between practice and research to develop freely, without too many predetermined conditions, helped me to envisage a more malleable and flexible methodology. Similarly, Hazel Smith and Roger Dean’s deployment of the term ‘practice-led research’, whereby the work of art is treated both as a form of research and as a potential source of subsequent insights, helped me to formalise some of these ideas in my work.4
In my creative practice, the idea of commentary has been invaluable in allowing me to construct research frameworks to develop my musical ideas. As a descriptive term, commentary carries an implicit reference both to vocal utterance and to text, suggesting fruitful parallels with the materials and processes that underpin the musical works of this exposition. To comment on a text implies aspects of parsing, paraphrasing, and interpretation, directing the attention of the reader or listener. In this exposition, commentary also refers to the ways in which the composer's treatment of sound might lead to connections or images in the mind of the listener. Such processes suggest a degree of subjectivity, mirroring the way in which the composer’s personal preferences for sounds and timbres determine both the choice and organisation of musical material. In this exposition, the vocal analogy is further extended by the way in which all sonic material is ultimately derived from recorded samples of a single Old English poem. Nonetheless, the idea of musical commentary is itself loaded with potential ambiguity and subjectivity. As a musical trope, it reflects a perennial concern among composers who have worked with text. Writing in 1976, Luigi Nono alluded to a centuries-old debate in Western music when he stated that he intended ‘to make the text become music and communicate as music. To be composed, and not simply to be applied’.5 On reading Nono's words, I was struck by the similarity, more than forty years later, with my decision to focus on the phonetic sounds of Old English when considering my approach to commentary in music.
Why, then, would a twenty-first-century composer choose to develop a research methodology via such a well-trodden path? What new insights could such an approach reveal? I acknowledge that the idea of composition as commentary is only one of countless possible approaches to my research questions. However, it is evident that methodology is not an end in itself; in practice-based research, a methodology provides a framework to facilitate the transformation of source materials into artistic production. By focusing on the development of my research methods, I have hoped to establish the ideal conditions in which new insights might arise, even when aspects of my methodology appear familiar and well used. My intention has been to create works that could stand on their own, free of the methodological scaffolding that enabled their production, while at the same time pointing towards future possible investigations. This is not to say that the means of production are purposely hidden from the listener or performer in my work. However, if I choose a particular sound based on my perception of its timbral, emotional, or dramatic qualities, my aesthetic judgement adds a layer of subjectivity on top of my methodological framework. It is this subjectivity that differentiates the outcome of my process (as practice-based research in musical composition) from a purely literary or linguistic project. The result becomes an artistic production, rather than simply a catalogue of sounds. As a composer, my creative voice becomes an integral element of the listener's experience.
At this juncture, it would be useful to clarify how and why this exposition uses practice-based research rather than terms such as artistic or creative development to describe the work that is presented here.6 If research is defined as ‘a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared’, then a key element of this project’s contribution to knowledge rests on its cross-disciplinary nature.7 Its processes and outcomes both depend upon, and contribute to, scholarly research within the fields of music, literature, and linguistics.8 More broadly, the project demonstrates aesthetic and creative aims in which the research content is emergent, rather than definitive. In this context, the open-endedness of artistic research allows the possibility for the ongoing development of new insights among the wider community of creative practitioners.
To explore the commonality between the fields of language, literature, and music, I began by directing my practice towards the sonic properties of spoken and sung text. Unsurprisingly, voice became the unifying factor at the centre of my methodology. However, I was soon confronted with inevitable questions of identity, emotion, utterance, and discourse when using sounds of vocal origin. Even the smallest audible vestige of a human voice is rich in meaning and symbolism. As the composer Trevor Wishart has noted, the human voice often remains recognisable even when its spectral characteristics have been altered.9 For listeners, the voice carries traces of the body that produced it; as Miriama Young noted, ‘we can hear the body in the voice that sings’.10 Consequently, the idea of a Schaefferian mode of reduced listening, summarised by Michel Chion as ‘the listening mode that focuses on the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning’, seemed increasingly at odds with my sonic materials.11 Joanna Demers’ outline of post-Schaefferian theories of listening, in which the importance of a sound’s perceived origin is acknowledged, drew my attention to the creative possibilities of such a philosophy when applied to my own work.12 Similarly, Simon Emmerson’s discussion of how the link between a sound and its source might be developed into narrative ideas, exemplified by numerous electroacoustic works composed since the 1960s, helped to shore up the methodological foundations of my project.13 Central to much of this discussion is the premise that voice is experienced differently when diffused through loudspeakers. As Michel Chion has noted, when the voice is separated from the physical body that produced it, it can assume an omniscient quality, becoming an acousmêtre, akin to ‘a talking and acting shadow’.14 In my work, the multilayered ambiguity of the acousmêtre further highlights the ways in which my process mirrors the stratified nature of the text. Drawing on the Old English poem, the artistic choices that comprise my compositional ‘voice’ are conveyed through the singer, whose voice is further mediated by electronic transformation and diffusion.
Throughout this exposition, the terms ‘electroacoustic voice’ and ‘electroacoustic vocality’ do not simply refer to the transformation of vocal sounds. Instead, these descriptors refer to the various ways in which sound technology can mediate the listener’s experience of a voice. Alexa Wolosyhn’s discussion of the electroacoustic voice highlighted its propensity to blur conventional, binary distinctions such as those that exist between voice and environment or speech and song.15 In the context of my exploration of an ambiguous, multivalent Old English text, Wolyshyn’s work suggested that electroacoustic vocality could afford a creative open-endedness. The disrupted, unsettled ‘third space’ between the bodies of voice and listener was not a barrier to be overcome by the composer, but rather a sonic environment, rich in potential, in which the ambiguity of voice and text could flourish.16 The idea of commentary as a means to explore a multitude of possibilities without providing definitive answers seemed especially pertinent.
As my methodology developed in light of these ideas, I came to regard the process of analysing and transforming my electroacoustic source material as one of transcription: an intermediate stage in the process of developing a commentary on the Old English poem. Here again I was drawn into long-running debates regarding music and text. In an interview published in the 1980s, Luciano Berio stated that ‘music is a further machine that amplifies and transcribes that meaning [of language] onto a different level of perception and intelligence — provided that it respects all the aspects of language, including the acoustic one’.17 In the context of my emergent musical material, Berio’s approach to music and text was a timely reminder of the centrality of these ideas to much twentieth-century (and earlier) musical thought.
The idea of transcription in relation to the musical treatment of an early medieval text points to an issue at the heart of the two works presented in this exposition: namely, an untranslated text was used to express something which, as a complex of phonemes, emotions, metaphors, and ideas, is fundamentally untranslatable. It was precisely this mercurial, untranslatable essence that stimulated my imagination as I developed a methodology that would allow me to explore possible approaches to these ideas. As I will discuss in the course of this exposition, aural qualities of alliteration and syllabic stress informed my process as much as the text’s meaning and interpretation. It is precisely the sonic properties of a text (such as rhyme schemes or syllabic patterns) that are altered or lost when a poem is translated. Indeed, Dr Johnson’s frequently cited assertion that ‘the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written’ seemed to provide an eighteenth-century vindication of my decision to prioritise the text's phonetic sounds.18 Theodor Adorno’s statement that ‘[music] constantly poses a riddle, and yet, as nonsignifying language, never answers it’ lends a poetic beauty to the idea that that electroacoustic music might simultaneously explore multiple layers of meaning and ambiguity within an enigmatic ancient text.19
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