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16 August 2011

A patchwork of experiments (First Stones)

Owen Salome Image: Owen Salome  

In July, Halcyon and Elliott Gyger brought together a group of young composers, along with the drafts of new vocal works, for an intensive four days of rehearsal and discussion. Owen Salome writes about his involvement - for more First Stones blog articles, please see the Resonate blog. The First Stones workshops are organised with the AMC as a supporting partner. (See also: First Stones concert 19 November.)

For the First Stones project, I am writing a work for an ensemble of cello, bass clarinet and mezzo-soprano. This ensemble appealed to me as all three instruments have a particular yearning quality in the upper-middle part of their range. The piece that I took into the second round of workshops was essentially a patchwork of little experiments in texture and sound that I wanted to have realised in order to decide which things worked and which things did not.

One of the first things to arise as an issue was the way that I had notated the rhythms. The rhythms were in themselves not terribly complex, but each musician's individual part was rhythmically independent and tended to completely avoid down-beats. This, combined with the frenetic nature of the piece, meant that co-ordination was extremely difficult, especially in a scenario where the performers had had very little time to prepare the piece.

What I was seeking was a very fast and frenetic texture, with points of co-ordination between parts as well as points of complete independence. It was, I realised, not very important to me that each musician's part between the points of co-ordination related to each other. I was hesitant about using any sort of time-space notation as freer notation systems can sometimes lead to stagnation in the piece, and this was counter to my aesthetic for the piece.

We came up with two separate solutions to this notational issue, both of which I am using in the final version. The first is to have the points of co-ordination marked, with the time intervals between each point also given, and the gestures between each point of co-ordination are notated in a time-space fashion. The second solution is to have one part that is notated metrically, and to have the other parts notated freely - this acts against any decrease in the momentum of the piece.

The second big challenge for me was finding the exact sonorities that I wanted. I had quite a good idea of the quality of sounds that I wanted to make use of, but I was not entirely sure how to achieve those sounds. An example of this was the un-pitched notes in the cello. I had initially written, in the cello part, a lot of behind-the-bridge pizzicato and arco notes. These were unsatisfyingly pitched and began to feel like structurally central pitches in a piece where I was avoiding using a pitch syntax.

We tried a number of other different techniques to achieve the effect I desired, and eventually came up with the solution by winding a credit-card between the strings of the instrument, near the top of the fingerboard. It is fantastic to be able to spend time doing this sort of experimentation - the piece would have been an entirely different entity if I hadn't been able to properly explore my ideas with willing musicians.

Further links

'First Stones - compositions taking shape' (blog article on Resonate by Alison Morgan)
Halcyon - First Stones 2011 (http://www.halcyon.org.au/page/first_stones_2011.html)

Owen Salome is  currently completing his final semester of a Bachelor of Music (honours) with a major in composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. As well as composing he plays flute and guitar in a number of musical projects, including a tango quintet, a 'gypsy' band, a band playing neapolitan music, and a swing trio.


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