Composing music for 11 minutes dressed in 18th century costume

This piece is about how the process of writing music can also be considered musical in itself. I did this by filming myself typing directly into music-processing software and transcribing the result so that it could be played as a live soundtrack to the video.

The idea for the piece came from my job as a music copyist. I type up the written music for composers who are unable to use music-processing software. The software has a function where a note that you type automatically sounds when you type it, something that composers using this software become very accustomed to. Dutch ensemble Orkest de Ereprijs are famous for being able to play rhythmically complex work and the sound of someone typing music into a computer programme somewhat resembles (in a rather clichéd way) the music that they perform. When they asked for a piece of music, I saw a good opportunity to test this idea.

The music in the original video was composed empirically in real time. I am composing in the video. No plan was made as to the music I would type into the Sibelius music software programme. The video was thus a performance in itself. It was a video of empirical composition in action. I transcribed the music from this video, writing it out so that it could be replicated by a human reading it and playing it on an instrument (such as the piano). I then orchestrated this for Orkest de Ereprijs to play along with a click track, so that they could play precisely in time with the original video.

In this way the piece concerns the relationship between contemporary computer technology and traditional Western Classical music. I communicate this to the audience through the stereotypical image of a classical composer in popular imagination, such as the caricatures of Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus (1984), composing using contemporary technology. It could be described as a “technomorphic” work. (Girard, 2012, p. 103) “Technomorphic” writing is defined as “transposing electronic models to the field of instrumental music” (Wilson, 1989, p. 68 quoted in Girard, 2012, p. 103). This matters because it displays the inner workings of written music to the audience, both watching live and viewers of the video, thus demystifying the process of composition.

When viewing the video documentation, the occasional inaccuracies in the playing and the coughs from the audience signal to the (insider) listener that this is a recording of a real ensemble rather than just high quality computer-generated sound (MIDI). The non-precise castanets also do this to some degree, but on reflection television-style foley effects such as the percussionist typing on an amplified computer keyboard would have been more effective at producing an illusion. It would also have required the percussionist to read the video as a score.

Like Minimalist composer Steve Reich’s early tape works such as It’s Gonna Rain (1965/1992), the procedural aspect of the performance is audible to the listeners. Composing music for 11 minutes dressed in 18th Century costume could be seen as a step-by-step method to make “classical” music. The process of creation is made audible, so that it is the content of the piece, rather than something unseen that leads to the outcome. Although the process of transcription now remains unseen.

It is also about what I consider the public perception of a composer to be: someone dressed in old- fashioned clothes working away on their own writing classical-sounding music by candlelight. I achieved this by dressing up and writing pastiche music. Visually this piece evokes the stereotyped image of a classical composer on British television discussed in Adam Harper’s blogpost ‘What is a [classical] composer?’:

“To a certain extent, these two [television] programmes demonstrated that even though the words ‘composer’ and ‘composition’ are actually very broad, basic and flexible terms, they do nonetheless conjure up very narrowly specific sorts of musical practice in the popular imagination – typically involving stories of long dead white male geniuses in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century getup scratching away with quills, up to their powdered wigs in the complex deliberation apparently involved in designing a masterpiece. The musical style such words evoke is just as limited – the word ‘composer’, though it could and perhaps should refer to anyone who creates music of any sort, invariably implies the restricting prefix ‘classical’ and all the cultural baggage that goes with it.” (Harper, 2009)

As a practitioner who works outside the mainstream of classical music this piece was a vehicle for me to indulge a fantasy of creativity: becoming a “real” composer by wearing a costume. It explores cultural stereotypes of composers, suggesting that their image, rather than one of genius, is just another image that can be played with.

A second version, for piano, was performed at Uferhallen, Berlin on 22/7/16. Featuring Bastard Assignments and Neo Hülcker.


Performances
18 April 2015, Orgelpark, Amsterdam
11 November 2015, Musis Arnhem
19 November 2015, Deventer Schouwberg
22 July 2016, Uferhallen, Berlin


Score (click on image to download pdf of full score)cover2