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Raise Your Voice Line-Up Announced

Raise Your Voice Collective, which I help run, have just announced the line-up for their second outing of contemporary classical, experimental electronics and chilled-out beats at Centro Bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. It’s an exciting mix, stretching from Martin Suckling’s Passacaglie for cello and electronics originally written to make use of the Hyperbow developed at MIT, via the sordidly urban angular lines and irregular rhythms of Tom Coult’s Avian Riots, to Steve Pycroft’s Richter VS Dragon, which applies re-mixing and mash-up techniques to instrumental music, and ending with a live DJ set from Al Sonar of Hit&Run. Also among the pieces being played will be my piece The Golden Lion Hotel for percussion and electronics.

The night is Friday 14 May and takes place as part of the FutureEverything Festival Showcase. Check out the Raise Your Voice website for more details.

A stillness on the ear

At 17:00 on April 30th contemporary music group Psappha will perform a new work of mine, Wege & Waldstille, for clarinet, handheld percussion, piano, cello and electronics (see event listing). In writing it I thought a fair amount further about silence and near-silence in my music, how it can behave and how it can become a construction material in its own right. Here are a few more thoughts on that subject.

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland observes that, ‘Silence has no narrative. Silence intensifies sensation, but blurs the sense of time.’ Silence was one of the first things I came to explore when I started having music performed. Before I had experienced the gripping vacuum at the heart of Helmut Lachenmann’s Gran Torso, before I had heard Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille sparkle on the horizon, before I knew how Salvatore Sciarrino’s music can totter and weave on the brink of audibility, even before I had read John Cage’s Silence or understood 4’33” in any real way, silence was something I discovered, uncovered and loved.

Why this isn’t a paradoxical attraction for a composer to have is simple: as Cage realised, there is no such thing as silence, at least not in that pure sense of a complete absence of any aural stimulation. Instead there is this immensely seductive stillness that ‘intensifies sensation’, which, if employed well, draws a listener in, heightens their concentration and brings to the fore subtleties, structural possibilities and novel experiences. So, the German ‘Stille’ and ‘Ruhe’ are perhaps more precise here with their multiple connotations covering not only absolute silence, but also its less extreme manifestations: peace, quiet and stillness. In the first piece I had performed in the UK, Sketches in Silence, I found through thought experiment that given the powerfully expectation-thwarting quality of silence in a concert hall context it was possible to sustain a minimum of material for quite extended periods. This achieved, I think, an interesting duality of experience as the audience found themselves reaching a sort of meditative stasis but also entering a zone of heightened awareness allowing them to discern more oblique structural processes. The latter is I suppose akin to the adjustment of our eyes as we hunt for outlines in the gloom, but aurally that which we hear at the extremities seems to bear a crispness and a presence that does not equate to the impaired blur of darkened sight.

At the outset this interest drew on a couple of inspirations. The idea of subverting expectations came from my first thorough education in Classical tonality. I reasoned that the repetitive and relatively static material found in minimalist music (specifically that of Steve Reich, whose music I still find frequently excellent) shifted the expectations of the audience and allowed for the use of tension and release that mirrored in some sense that of Classical tonality, but functioned in terms of repetition and change rather than harmonic progression (which is arguably a learnt set of signs requiring education to perceive). Of course, this is somewhat simplistic as Reich’s music can also have a strongly harmonic drive, but I felt that my experience of it was grounded in the repetition building expectation of change (tension) which can then be released in various ways providing a compelling musical discourse. Having at the time recently read Jerzy Pietrkiewicz’s Other Side of Silence: the poet at the limits of language (OUP, 1970), I was influenced by his suggestion in relation to poetry that

Silence resembles a listening companion rather than a place emptied of all sounds. It has the attentive quality of a person. What is unspoken may be intended and therefore imply meaning.

So, the idea of Sketches in Silence, which was definitely largely an experiment, was to explore the potential of silence to act similarly to the repeated material of Reich: the listener goes to a concert, expects sound, seeks and constructs meaning from sound, in the absence of ‘performed’ sounds  (they are few and far between in this piece) the listener will continue this process indeed perhaps imagining some sounds which aren’t there. To push the possibility of listener-constructed narratives, I also included some genuinely silent gestures for the performers to see whether those might become triggers for either imagined sounds or for sound to become differently source-bonded.

After Sketches in Silence, silence became less of an explicit focus for me and more an area I felt an affinity to, something I felt needed exploring, but not in solitary confinement, instead alongside other kinds of music, within less extreme situations, giving it weight not as ‘an experiment’ but as an integral part of a wider language. How does one achieve stillness, spaces for reflection without losing tension? How do you reach silence without it retaining its traditional meanings of closure (be it final or inter-movement)? Can you give silence a narrative or a linearity? All these questions have been part of my recent work to various extents and this continues in Wege & Waldstille, but I feel as if I am at something of a turning point. I am excited about the start of rehearsals to hear how what is on paper comes across and to work with the fantastic players from Psappha. It’s always fascinating to see what you’ve done wrong.

Wege & Waldstille will be performed by Psappha at 17:00 on 30th April 2010 at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama in Manchester.


You can now hear some of my music online at my Bandcamp page and I’ll be adding some more recordings in a few weeks. Bandcamp lets you upload high-quality audio and offer it for both streaming and download in a wide range of formats, so if you like what you hear, help yourself to a free download in whichever shape or size suits you.

The contemporary music collective Raise Your Voice, which I run with Rob Guy and Steve Pycroft, is also using Bandcamp. Check out the recording of the Raise Your Voice launch night here.

New Site Design

NB: This post refers to a previous site re-design.

Welcome to a new look website. Please glance around and get in touch or leave a comment if you see anything that looks broken. I am still tinkering with things, so things might change, and there should be sections with audio and video up at some point in the future. Any other feedback is also welcome.

If you are so inclined, take a look at the colophon for details of what makes this site tick.

If you can’t find something that used to be here, have a root around in the archived version of the old site. I think that’s all working as it used to. If you have an old link you want to keep using, just put v1 where you might expect www to be and you should end up in the right place.

“The point is to change it”

“If we remain grotesquely unequal, we shall lose all sense of fraternity: and fraternity, for all its fatuity as a political objective, turns out to be the necessary condition of politics itself.”

I’ve just got round to finishing Tony Judt’s excellent essay on the importance of the state printed in the Guardian Review the weekend before last. Read the whole thing. Judt suffers from a motor neurone disorder, which was the subject of an interview and an essay also published in the Guardian earlier this year.

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