5 September 2013
Insight: Jerusalem - The Year That Was
Adam Starr talks us through his Jerusalem: The Year That Was - a 50-minute suite incorporating a string quartet, spoken word, recorded sounds from Jerusalem, percussion solos and singing by Sebastian and Anouchka Starr, among others. The suite can be listened to and downloaded as a digital album from Starr's bandcamp page.
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Jerusalem: The Year That Was is a 50-minute suite for live performer (guitar, percussion and voice), pre-recorded string quartet and samples. It is also the last piece of music written for my PhD folio, and my personal response to a year spent living in Jerusalem (2009/10). The suite was performed in its entirety for the first time at the Limmud Conference in London, December 2012.
The genesis of this composition began during a research fellowship at the State Library of Victoria in February of 2009. Different song cycles were researched with the intention of writing a large work that would be the most substantial piece in my PhD folio of compositions.
During my year in Jerusalem, I documented many of the places and people I encountered by recording them on my iphone, then creating samples which culminated in a sonic diary that chronicled my experiences.
The suite starts with 'Boker Or', featuring solo string quartet. 'Boker Or' ('morning sun') is the traditional response to 'good morning' in Hebrew, an appropriate way to start the suite. 'Boker Or' is a study in the time signature of 13/8, based on a Moroccan rhythm as taught to me by Ami Balilty, a Moroccan percussionist based in Jerusalem. This piece was recorded by Orchestra of Our Time in 2011.
Next, 'The Messiah Complex' introduces the spoken word and outlines some of my responses to being a stranger in Paris, so to speak. This is the first time I have set my own (recorded) spoken prose to music. The accompaniment is string quartet, playing a range of roles and timbres, working both with and against the spoken part.
'Kaytana' (meaning 'camp') features Dejen, a master of the masenqo (the Ethiopian fiddle). I met Dejen and played music with him at a summer camp for Ethiopian kids in Kiryat Menachem, a neighbourhood in South-West Jerusalem. 'Kaytana' calls for string trio (only one violin), guitar, beats and electronica.
The Jewish market is the subject for the fourth piece in the suite, entitled 'The Shuk'. The recordings that feature in it are of a Moroccan percussionist, an Ethiopian masenqo player, traditional singing of piyutim in Hebrew and the ambient sounds recorded on a Thursday night in June 2010 at the market. 'The Shuk' is intended to capture and recreate some of the idiosyncratic noises, such as the sound of a mass of people in an indoor market and the sounds of commerce.
Thursday night is one of the busiest times because everyone is shopping in preparation for the Sabbath. As I walked through the fresh produce market, I recorded the ambient noise, capturing some of the sonic flavours of this bustling place. The samples were transcribed and integrated into the composition: in some cases, loops were made out of composite performances around which melodies were composed. Additionally, the sampled performances were sometimes the subject of digital manipulation, which resulted in modified primary or secondary materials.
The poem 'Flightless Bird' by Mahmoud Darwish was the inspiration behind the fifth piece (which shares the same title) and is discussed by Lubna Taha, a woman I met in Bethlehem. The string quartet accompanies her speech (in English) and singing (in Arabic). Silence and noise are treated as equal alternatives to instrumental sounds in this piece: they are ascribed rhythmic values in the same fashion, and assumed equality in the palette of sounds from which I chose.
In addition to my work as a composer and performer, I also spent large amounts of time carrying my children around. This was an important part of the year for me, so they each have a song written for them. Sebastian is a percussionist and dancer, so I wanted his song to be groovy. On the way to gan ('kindy'), Sebastian would sit on my shoulders and frequently ask to tell me a secret, invariably delivered in a stage whisper. The darbuka and drum kit heard towards the end of this song were played by Sebastian (aged five). 'I Want To Tell You a Secret' is the sixth song in the suite. Aside from the London performance, it has been performed by the Silo String Quartet and the composer in October of 2010 at Trinity Uniting Church, Brighton, as part of a Melbourne Composers League concert. This performance can be viewed on Youtube:
The seventh piece was the last to be written during the PhD, entitled 'Cactus. Ow'. Composed for my daughter Anouchka, it was consciously written in the style of songs from nursery rhymes and the scores from films such as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Anouchka would sing these songs in a very contemporary mash-up style, crossing songs, genres and tempi mid-line. My earliest performances were in a pop band (Burst) and I still perform jazz (standards as well as originals) and love song-writing; this song is the only example of its kind in my PhD folio. It features Anouchka singing (she was three at the time) and uses motives from a variety of public domain nursery rhymes throughout the contrapuntal accompaniment.
The eighth (and last) piece, 'Jerusalem Mashup', was completed in November 2012. It consists of solo guitar and audio recycled from the string quartet recording sessions. When we were in the studio, I intentionally left the red button on to capture noises, grunts, murmurs, mistakes, conversation - all of which were possible ingredients for this piece.
The first stage of the compositional process for 'Jerusalem Mashup' involved chopping up and editing the raw audio, then creating loops and other materials that might form the basis for, or be suggestive of, other (new) material. I found this process interesting because the performances were all of fully notated music that I had composed; this music already had some kind of a life in my mind, so as I began to fossick through and mutate the material, a new work began to emerge that was different, yet related. During this period of mining and sifting, the examination of melodic audio fragments resulted in the surgical removal or addition of a quaver, or two, or three from other audio regions. Part of the examination involved other procedures such as reharmonisation, shifting the perceived first beat of the bar and an inspection and evaluation of the materials from a variety of perspectives and lighting conditions.
In practical terms, all the audio files from a full day's recording were auditioned. A virtual pile of possibly usable audio was assembled. These audio items were imported into a Logic project, then reduced and clarified until I felt their potential had been fulfilled. There were 33 'parent' files, some of which contained multiple (simultaneous) tracks, most of which contained numerous audio regions. The files were then all labelled, categorised and copied into a spreadsheet. I like changing modality of workflow: anything that interrupts the way I look at, or think about, a musical problem seems to help. The spreadsheet was scrutinised during lunch at the Lucky Coq (an awesome and reasonable pizza place in Prahran, Melbourne). By the end of lunch, the spreadsheet was a mess of connected lines, scribbles and scrawls, and a kind of structure had emerged.
This is the Arrange window of the Logic project after I colour-coded regions and put them in order:
These regions were categorised as either Spoken, Played or Other, then colour-coded according to the piece during which they were recorded. The black regions were regions that showed some promise for possible inclusion at a later stage.
The diagram is representative of putting all the fresh and potential ingredients on the kitchen bench before cooking. Ultimately, situations, settings and spaces were created, allowing progression to the melody-writing stage, introducing pen and paper for the first time. Those ideas were then entered into Sibelius software and edited simultaneously using both Sibelius and Logic.
'Jerusalem Mashup' was the only piece in the suite I did not mix. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with Simon Pool, who helped me tell the story of the composition with greater clarity than I was able to do by myself. I performed 'Jerusalem Mashup' at a Melbourne Composers League Elbow Room concert on 21 July of this year.
While I explore the possibility of a performance of Jerusalem: The Year That Was with a live string quartet, my current writing project is for the first concert for the Adam Starr Quartet, featuring guitar, saxophone, bass and drums. At this point, electronica plays no overt part in the sound world of the quartet, although I can see that some of the newer compositions are strongly influenced by looping in terms of the parts that have been devised and the way they interlock.
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