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.