Petting Zoo

I like touching people’s hands while they play music. For me it’s about making a connection. I wanted to invite an audience to approach musicians and interact with their hands, caressing, stroking, tickling, touching, exploring and manipulating them for themselves. Apartment House seemed like they might just be up for this kind of thing – and to my surprise and delight, they were (although they were keen to emphasise that the piece should not damage the instruments and should encourage gentle touching!).

I could have written some music myself, but my music’s already quite fragmented, so would anyone notice if it got a bit more cut up? I could have used a classical piece, but didn’t want this performance to be about the canon of Western music. Then I made another connection. I had been petting a small French Bulldog (thinking it was a pug) for months in the communal grass outside my building, not knowing that the dog’s owner was a composer I followed on Twitter: R. A. Moulds AKA Cork Composer (his Twitter handle at the time). Moulds’ music is completely different to mine, and quite unlike anything Apartment House would usually play – so I connected with him IRL and commissioned him to write the music for me. On 1/8/19 I wrote in my sketchbook: “Ask @corkcomposer for a piece, and use that as a basis of a piece to be manipulated, like John Baldessari’s Commissioned Paintings (1969). Tell it as a story, like: I live next door to a composer but we don’t speak. This piece is to bridge the divide. Can you also bridge a divide by touching hands?”

Moulds wrote a piece called Up the Lee Road, which I then divided up into short loops. I wrote the story of how Moulds and I met as a way of inviting people to participate in touching the hands of the musicians. It’s a shaggy dog story about music, that also involves a dog. I made video scores for the four players, and the invited audience would read the story over the shoulders of the players (written in black above the music), with instructions to manipulate the hands of the players (written beneath in red). But the film shoot didn’t work out how I imagined. Participants struggled to read both story and instructions, and the players were very tense trying to staying together. The manipulations from the participants ended up being quite aggressive in order to be perceptible, which made it quite a confrontational—almost aggressive—experience: not what I intended. At times it resembled wrestling, whereas I wanted it to be more intimate, like Verity Standen’s Hug. Reflecting on the footage after the workshop, I discovered that the ending of each performance was where the music actually worked, and I decided to use that. I extracted and transcribed my favourite bit from these recordings, then turned it into a looped open score somewhat resembling Music for Piano 1 (1952) by John Cage. This gave 10 minutes of music, with me telling the story live onstage as a way to invite members of the audience up on stage. A bit like a lecture performance, but perhaps more like performing programme notes, or performing a text score. It also meant I could keep an eye on the audience members, making sure they weren’t too rough with Apartment House, which was also reassuring for the players.

R. A. Moulds wasn’t able to attend the premiere to hear his music get manipulated, so I showed him the video afterwards. What was it like to write a piece knowing that it would be used in a different way than he intended?:

“I don’t think I’ve ever been possessive about anything I’ve written. I had a pretty clear idea of what was intended, and even though I did not write the piece with the idea of making it particularly poised for the sort of changes that were envisioned, I thought it best to refrain from making it as dense or as complicated as some of my pieces can be, considering the planned interaction between the audience and the performers. In fact, I was less worried about what I would do than curious about how the performers would react to being ‘interfered with,’ which seemed to me of more concern about what happened to the music. But then I am mostly used to traditional roles in performances, and perhaps Apartment House are more comfortable with such activities.”

By the time this video would be presented, touching other people’s hands while they play has gone from a little weird to downright taboo. No one could have predicted that – and maybe this piece will never be performed again, maybe we will only ever be able to hear a sanitised version of it. But in the process of composing this piece, the connections I’ve made may last a lifetime.

A more detailed version of this article can be found here:

This piece was supported by Sound and Music New VoicesSOUND_AND_MUSIC_RGB_POS

5 November 2019, Cafe OTO, London

20 February 2020, The White Hotel, Manchester