A song

This piece is about repetitive music and how it can make an audience feel trapped. I achieve this by taking a well-known children’s song and doing exactly what the lyrics call for:

I know a song that’ll get on your nerves,
Get on your nerves, get on your nerves,
I know a song that’ll get on your nerves,
And this is how it goes.

These lyrics acknowledge that repetitive music can be irritating to listen to, especially in a concert situation where the audience is likely to be sitting, quiet and sober, without dancing. In this performance the loud and abrasive unison opening initially creates this irritation, which persists for several minutes with no sign of change. The singers then gradually desynchronise, opening up the possibility for listeners to be ‘rewarded’ for their perseverance by an indeterminate counterpoint emerging that is reminiscent of Renaissance choral music.

The choir uses physical means to achieve a ‘phase shifting’ effect that would usually be done with computers or magnetic tape. This technique of a repetitive sample going out of sync with itself arose from experimental music practices in the 1960s. An early example of this is Minimalist composer Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain (1965/1992). In such works the procedural aspect of the performance is audible to the listeners. A Song privileges physicality and the body over computers, with the singers employing the simple gestures of putting their fingers in their ears and moving out of view of each other in order to desynchronise. This is a feature of classical music today: doing things by physical means even though they could be done with computers, something that A Song brings to the fore.

The use of a single fragment of material to create a longer form has a precedent in fugal countrapuntal music exemplified by Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. My score shows the musical fragment above the 15-minute structure that needs to be memorised and followed.

A Song is performed in front of a ‘knowing’ audience of music students, who are most likely familiar with the tropes of Minimalism and would recognise them. Allusions to other ‘learned’ styles of music (Renaissance choral music and fugue) would also be appreciated by such a knowing audience. The simplicity of the process implies that they could perhaps repeat the performance themselves or join in with the singing. The performance thus affirms a connection to the history of European music, but stating that this music is not as difficult or as serious as some people might have you believe.

28 April 2017, Centrala, Birmingham

ScoreA song (score)